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Waiting room blues


The first sentence of S.J. Perelman’s brilliant send-up of pulp fiction – ‘Somewhere a Roscoe’ – is ‘This is the story of a mind that found itself.’ Purporting to have been ‘moody, discontented, restless, almost a character in a Russian novel’, Perelman is shaken from his lethargy by a chance encounter with the magazine Spicy Detective in which he discovers with growing amazement the amorous and violent adventures of  Private Eye Dan Turner. It is the sort of thing that only happens to someone like Perelman, ever vigilant for the odd and the weird. And yet, and yet … 

During the past couple of months, I have spent many hours in assorted specialists’ waiting rooms. Knowing from experience that the medical and dental fraternity – and sorority, for that matter – have literary tastes in inverse proportion to the impressiveness of their qualifications, I made a point each time of taking a book with me. Thus I could while away the hiatus between a scheduled 2.30 pm appointment and its actual manifestation at four with something more interesting than the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Australian holiday – utterly different apparently from preceding Royal diversions except for the fact that, like all those earlier jaunts, we paid for it – or the romantic/financial/social/sexual/ misadventures and achievements of various nubiles and viriles jostling and harassing each other on the ‘A’ List.

One day, however, forced to park a postcode or two away from my medical destination, I left my book in the car. And that was why – slumped with several other supplicants and mendicants in the downlighted waiting room sullenly contemplating a dog-eared, serially thumbed and carelessly discarded spread of magazines – I was ‘moody, discontented, restless, almost a character in a Russian novel’. What snapped me out of my Slavic dejection was not alas the adventurous Dan Turner (‘Somewhere a roscoe went “Kachow” and a bullet creased my think tank’) but a magazine that seemed to be called Soa.   

This was because its luridly colourful cover was partly obscured by other mags. For a while I puzzled over this – it was something to do after all. Society of Actuaries? Service Oriented Architecture? Sons of Anarchy? Succumbing at last to extreme boredom I got up, slid SOA out from under its ragtag competitors and all was revealed: Soap World. Well, to steal another of Perelman’s lines, ‘Talk about your turning points.’ My Dan Turner moment had arrived.

The cover of Soap World announces in various strident fonts, ‘Fatal Car Crash’, a ‘House Fire Horror’, a couple of assaults and a planned murder. Pretty much the standard tabloid fare. But wait: though reported as if it were breaking news, all of this – and much more when you turned the pages – was happening in another, surreal world, the world of the ‘soap opera’. Though Soap World’s breathless prose reveals cryptically in brackets that its star-crossed, malevolent, lovelorn or conniving characters are actors playing roles, it’s very easy to overlook this because the tone, reporting style and layout all insist that it is in the ‘real world’ that Lady Mary is ‘drowning in her own grief’, that Emily has ‘Father Paul under her thumb’, that ‘a badly injured Joshua turns to drugs as his hopes of swimming stardom are cruelly dashed’ and that ‘the Renwood girls are living on precarious tenterhooks as they deal with the shocks of Zach’s violent mugging and Jenny and Callum’s cancelled wedding, as well as Sophie’s hidden pain from her Kenyan attack, Bec’s fear of moving on without Matt, and Sam’s lurking passion for Flynn’.

I’m as partial as the next casual viewer to a good soap – ‘The Paradise’, ‘The Time of Our Lives’, ‘Redfern Now’ – but what intrigued me about Soap World, and moved me to theft in the interests of research – was its apparent assumption, aided by torrents of bad prose, that Bec and the Renwoods and Father Paul and Liam and the rest are real people leading real, if impossibly crowded and sensational, lives. It’s as if a photo is double-exposed and we’re living in the bit that’s the just off-key replica of the original.

That at least was what I was thinking until I raised my head out of Soap World and looked around me. There I found that ‘No cuts to the ABC or SBS’ meant $43.5 million in cuts over four years; that ‘No cuts to education or health’ meant $80 billion to be cut in the next decade; that a promise of $2.5 billion in management funds to ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency) meant the agency would be abolished; that a promise of $500 million for solar roofs meant the solar roof policy would be abolished. And that when asked to explain these anomalies, the Prime Minister, like any accomplished pulp fictioneer, simply denied they existed.

For all the phoney intensity of their lives, not even Bec or Callum or Hope could cop that one. As for Dan Turner, it would just be a matter of raising the Roscoe and going ‘Kachow!’

Brian Matthews headshotBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Soap World, literature, publishing, magazines, health care, popular culture



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Existing comments

And, by the by, it makes me absolutely sick that our elected 'representatives' believe they have the right to manipulate public opinion by such underhanded means as that described in your second para. It's bad enough that the Press does it. What's become of democracy when our representatives manipulate us in this duplicitous way?

Joan Seymour | 22 May 2014  

What's wrong with the Soaps Brian? A lot of folk whose incomes have been slashed by the budget are going to be forced to withdraw that much more from society cos they have limited financial means What is better than sitting with lollies ,chips or a beer if it can be afforded and living another life as Lady Mary of Downtown Abbey or maybe even Jonah of Tonga. Much more exciting than trying to feed the kids and pay the bills AND the doctor.

Celia | 23 May 2014  

Brilliant. What a delight to read great prose. Thank you, sir.

Frank | 23 May 2014  

Professor Matthews, how dare you equate the important and honourable profession of politics with mere light entertainment. Our politicians spend many hours planning, calculating, taking expert advice - and that's just to claim their Parliamentary entitlements. And we know they are honourable men and women, because many of them have "Honourable" in front of their names. Whereas the Soapies only do what they say they will do, i.e. entertain.

Vincenzo Vittoria | 23 May 2014  

Great to revel in your stimulating prose style, Brian. Also, the concluding spotlight on the budget cuts was a refreshing truth. I hope the visits to the specialist are beneficial.

Maureen Keating | 23 May 2014  

Brian, I must dance attendance upon a better class of medico than you. My specialists not only offer reading rubbish, they also provide viewing and listening rubbish. I can’t say I remember seeing (or, more to the point, hearing) any soaps on these too loud, too big screens – mostly they seem to burble along with infomercials concerning patent medicines, insurance and, for light relief, dollops of “educative” medical news. I do notice there is sometimes a friendly competition among those patients with their own reading material to secure the seats furtherest from the chattering screens. I never thought I say it, but I’d almost welcome the return of waiting-room Muzak. I suspect, however, that whatever financial or other arrangements are in place to provide this irritating “service”, cuts to public health spending may see such intrusive practices intensify. If so, we could perhaps equip ourselves with ear plugs. Your friendly pharmacist can advise on the range available. Keep well, H.A. Willis

H.A. Willis | 24 May 2014  

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