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Classic websites: Homage to the BOM

This is the 100th year of the Bureau of Meteorology.  I thought I should take the opportunity to pay tribute to the BOM – for a website that intrigues, comforts and forewarns. It has become as familiar as Mike Bailey. (And is far more intelligent than Tim Bailey).

Bom website

It has a simple, no-frills interface that belies a top 40 website that is seen on work desktops everywhere (god help the sys admin who tries to place it behind Web Marshal). And all it does it tell us about the weather, information we can get anywhere. For some reason though Australians can’t get enough of the BOM.

We have a fascination with the weather, with predicting it and talking about it after it has happened. That’s pretty obvious. We talk about lazy winds that go through us not around, we talk about scorchers that turn the state into a tinderbox, rain pissing down, hail as big as golfballs, the fact that it’s blowing a gale and that green clouds mean hail so you better get your car into the nearest shopping centre carpark quick smart. We sweat our dates off in 100 per cent humidity and freeze our tits off because some of us refuse to believe that it gets cold in Australia. For some people the weather is a conversation starter. Sometimes I think Australians see it as THE conversation. Even more than that, it’s a topic for serious study.

BOM Radar

So with our penchant for chatting, nay, obessing about it we obviously want to be as informed as possible and where better to go than the BOM itself. Some are obsessed by the mesmerising four frame radar loop and then there are the warnings that elicit a ripple of excitement around offices everywhere. Storms! Winds! Pack away the plastic garden furniture! Move away from windows and turn off your telly! Perhaps office workers need to get a life but when an announcement goes out over the loud-speaker or an all-users email is sent out about the weather I know that almost every person in the building will be typing be-oh-em-dot-gee-oh-vee-dot-ay-you into their standard operating system browser.

Some of us are observers, watching every movement in temperature or drop of rain in detail. I’m definitely an observer. I recently found myself emailing someone to tell them we had had 12mm in 26 minutes. (Ahem). Some are forecasters. Some can’t get dressed, let alone leave home, without knowing in detail what the BOM has in store for the day. Packing for trips away is governed by the oracle of the BOM. They never really remember if the BOM was wrong, but they keep looking at the site. It gives them a sense of control over their life and confidence in their choice of outfit. There’s nothing worse than being surprised and finding that you are wearing too many or too few clothes.

BOM observations

Observer or forecaster, we all read the same bible. bom.gov.au – thank you and keep up the good work. Oh yeah, and never change, we like you just the way you are: no-frills.

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I love you Tintin

I discovered Tintin in the tiny library of St Joseph’s primary school Alstonville. Considering the school consisted of around 120 pupils, you can imagine the library was not exactly well-serviced. Someone though had the foresight to stock quite a few Tintin books.

Perhaps they thought the kids who didn’t like reading, too old for picture books and reluctant or unable to tackle novels, might be drawn to them.

I wasn’t one of those kids. I have loved reading since I can remember. I can still hear my father telling me to put the book down or I will ruin my eyes. It wasn’t the book he was worried about but the fact that I would read in almost darkness, defying the dying of the day and too caught up to turn on a light. (He was right – I was diagnosed as being long-sighted when I was 19. Doomed to a life of looking over reading glasses).

The first Tintin I read was The Castafiore Emerald. I was hooked immediately. I read every one I could get my hands on, in between reading more ‘serious’ books. One of my generous librarian aunts got her hands on discarded copies from the local library so I could read them at my leisure. I had never read comics in the past and still do not consider myself remotely interested in them. (Although, I have read a lot of the Asterix series and they come a reasonable second to Tintin).

What the hell got me so interested? I still wonder. I still pick up a Tintin and will read it cover to cover in one sitting. I still discuss the relative merits of different stories to myself, when prompted by a poster or a recent release of the series (The Blue Lotus remains my favourite). I still maintain that Tintin is the only man for which I would turn.

I always suspected that Herge’s characteristation, his nods to history, current affairs and, among other things, art, were beyond the usual ken of the comic. And it seems I am not the only one. In a new book, Tom McCarthy argues that Tintin deserves to sit in the same bracket as ‘some of the greatest works of literature’.

And literature? Hergé grew up reading lowbrow books. Later in life he read Proust and Balzac. He even read Barthes. But he never aspired to be considered a “writer”. And here we loop back and rejoin the question: should we now claim, posthumously, on Hergé’s behalf, that in fact he was a writer, and a great one? My short answer to this question is: no. My longer answer is that the claim we should make for him is a more interesting one. And it revolves around two paradoxes. The first is that wrapped up in a simple medium for children is a mastery of plot and symbol, theme and sub-text far superior to that displayed by most “real” novelists. If you want to be a writer, study The Castafiore Emerald. It holds all literature’s formal keys, its trade secrets – and holds them at the vanishing point of plot, where nothing whatsoever happens.

There must have been a reason why I loved Tintin so avidly. How can you read Catcher in the Rye and Tintin at age 11, and enjoy both for very different, and also similar, reasons?

Of course, when it’s reasonable to study Buffy, Big Brother or other popular culture texts, the study of Tintin is far from unreasonable. The difference in some ways is that it was the popular culture text that preceded others. It is a remnant of a popular culture that has long gone (the first Tintin strip was published in 1929) but that continues to resonate. It can be studied historically but there is also a tendency to try to place Tintin in the here and now. As a character he is still relevant, despite the fact that Herge stopped drawing him long ago.

And perhaps this is how Herge created something more than a mere comic. He created a character that was not a superhero in the undies-on-the-outside mould. Tintin is an ordinary bloke (who happens to have never quite got through puberty), who takes a little white dog with him everywhere (is it a Westie or a Poodle?) and who is, of all things, a writer (well, he didn’t actually write a lot). He’s not the usual superhero of comics but he’s not quite like us either. He is true to his own values, he fights for good but is also not averse to a bit of opium, given the right circumstances, and he seems to have emotions, if not actual relationships. He is a shamelessly two-dimensional being that readers accept as three-dimensional.

If you’re looking for books to give your kids, give them all the great picture books (I recommend Pamela Allen for a start), give them all the good young adult novels (here I will point to John Marsden and Steven Herrick), but do not deny them the joy and, dare I say it, profundity, of the boy detective that is Tintin. It’s not literature, but it’s not merely a comic either.

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.