DIGITAL’S NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP

HOW TO BE A BRAIN WHISPERER

JIA TOLENTINO VS HELEN GARNER AND IAN MACFARLANE

BALENCIAGA AND THE REAL RULES OF REVOLUTION

SHORT DIARY OF A LONG TRAIN TRIP

VIDEO: OH, WHAT’S CHRISTMAS WITHOUT BILL NIGHY?


DIGITAL TRICKERY

Robert Sweeney is an American software developer who used to work for Microsoft and Netflix and who then started his own company, Facet. In May this year, 2019, he posted a comment on LinkedIn that went viral. It was eventually viewed four million times! It got 40,000 likes, 1500 comments and was re-shared over 2000 times. Those figures are huge.

What he’d done was confess that when he was at Netflix, he had turned down a job applicant, Daniel Buchmueller, who had gone on to become a major success at Amazon where, according to Sweeney’s post, he had “co-founded Amazon Prime Air (their drone delivery service) and was #2 on Fast Company’s ‘Most Creative People’ List”.

Sweeney wrote ruefully in that post (included here in his later post): “At some stage, we programmers are going to have to admit that we really can’t judge another programmers [sic] technical abilities in a 60 min interview. We end up hiring programmers that are good at interviewing, but not necessarily good at doing the job.”

Viral doesn’t always mean action

His massive audience numbers were the reward for such honesty.

But there was more honesty. Sweeney – in the post he did a week later on his own company’s website that then appeared on LinkedIn – decided to share what a viral post experience is like. Get this.

In spite of those amazing figures, on even the best day, with profile views on LinkedIn reaching 40,000 plus, just 800 made their way to his company website. Sweeney wasn’t complaining; on the contrary, he wrote that he was “humbled by the response” from LinkedIn members and that “the kind words really mean a lot to me”. He also then went into detail about what he should have done to get more website traffic.

I was the one who was gobsmacked. I was the one who went: hello?

Haven’t we heard so much about stories “going viral”, about “getting eyeballs”, about things going at “warp speed” ever since the dawn of the digital age and yet, here we are, with yet another bucket of cold water dashed over our hopes and dreams.

The false lure of the millions and billions

Just as Rupert Murdoch once fixed his eyes on China, and all those billions of people, and became transfixed by winning the attention of those masses, so did the world lose its head over all those potential eyeballs on the web. That is, the idea that millions and millions of people going on-line might see this piece of writing, or that advertisement for that product, or that opinion piece or that video.

The stories were there to feed the fervour. One of the first was Jennifer Ringley who, in the earliest days, in 1996, simply set up a webcam in her dorm room and broadcast stills of herself on jennicam.org live to the world. Four million people a day watched her.

Who also doesn’t remember seven-year-old Ryan who made $US22 million out of online videos showing him playing with toys. In the 12 months to June 1, 2018, Forbes magazine estimated he was the year’s highest-paid YouTube star.

But what kinds of figures are we mostly talking about, especially as the internet is now so much older, with so much more competition?

Digital hoopla

When I worked at The Australian Financial Review, there was often much hoopla when an online story was clicked on a couple of thousand times. A few of us would be the spoilsports, muttering away out of the sides of our mouths: “but the print copy of the paper is selling well over 50,000”. (I can’t tell you what the print circulation is now.)

Of course, no-one ever knows how many readers actually read your precious feature or section or news exclusive when it’s in print and that is one reason why online took off. It was measurable, or at least supposedly, and that mattered in an age of data where if something can be measured, it is always judged to be far more important than something that can’t be.

I can’t help thinking Mr Sweeney’s post was just one more shoe dropping in the endless unravelling of the digital era which has landed us with so much speed and supposed ease and efficiency but also has seen the crippling of legacy industries like media, publishing, film and music, as well as massive shifts in wealth to a tiny privileged few and louder, the arrival of fake news and deep fakes as well as millions of other scams, consumer surveillance and louder calls in the United States for updated antitrust laws to take on digital monopolies that have become dictators in the market and which are also suffocating competition.

Right now, in Canberra, the digital giants, according to The Australian, are lobbying politicians to try and force a more restrained response from the federal government to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission’s mid-2019 report from its inquiry into digital platforms. That report raised serious concerns, including about consumer privacy and the use of data, market dominance, revenues, and the way news is distributed.

Discord in the valley

Silicon Valley’s own people, from ethicist Tristan Harris to major investor Roger McNamee are now critics. In this New Yorker article, McNamee argues that the internet platforms “are sowing discord among Americans” and there’s a need for reform, a call echoed by many others in tech now.

There is even a new environmental crisis brewing courtesy of the digital revolution: online shopping has led to huge amounts of waste as a result of returns. In December alone, it’s expected that, according to the Los Angeles Times, “American consumers will return more than 1 million packages to e-commerce retailers every day … By one recent estimate, they accounted for 5 billion pounds of landfilled waste in the United States alone and an additional 15 million tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.”

Returns – above photo from Medium.com – are huge and growing. In the US, in 2018, it was up to ten per cent of online purchases. In Sweden, return rates can be up to 60 per cent.

Which digital evangelist saw that twerk coming?

“Mice in a laboratory”

And now there’s the looming threat of Artificial Intelligence.  Mining magnate Andrew Forrest said the other day of the advances in artificial intelligence and the rise of the big technology companies, that when it comes to the digital realm, people “are like mice in a laboratory where no one is in control”.

I particularly feel what I now call the Great Digital Con in the profession I love, journalism, and one of the pastimes I most treasure – reading.

As a baby-boomer, who was lucky enough to learn how to read with the phonics system, I have now been burying myself in reading for over half a century and, even now, I prefer print. Still, like everyone-else, I have adapted to digital: first, as a natural part of my working life when I worked for different newspapers and magazines and now, working for myself, I have my own website. I belong to LinkedIn and Facebook where I regularly post links to my latest work.

I am thrilled when a post gets several comments or a LinkedIn post gets – because I have carefully obeyed all the online mantras about how to not tick off LinkedIn’s algorithms – over a thousand views.

What a busy, busy working bee I am. Just like my freelance colleagues, and let alone my colleagues still on newspapers who can never write fast enough or often enough to keep the voracious online editors satisfied.

It’s also now true that I have an endless stream of emails to my phone and laptop, from newspapers and journals all over the world, bringing me stories galore, depending on which of these thousands of sources I’ve decided to register with, or support.

But … so what?

But, you know, I can’t help thinking, especially after a weekend of spotty reading, interrupted by yet more updates of “likes” of my work, or the arrival of yet more emails from various international news services, feeds or round-ups with titles like “The Spectator: Coffee House Top Ten”, so what?

So WHAT?

I try to scan as many of the incoming emails with their often excellent news and features stories but it’s like being the little boy with the finger in the dyke. Unsubscribing can take hours, and then – magically, infuriatingly – the feeds and emails pop up again. As for my LinkedIn views and Facebook likes, hard not to notice the conversion rates given the analytics on my website. I’d say about 20 per cent in the first day dropping to 10 per cent and then less even as the LinkedIn views apparently grow. And what is a LinkedIn view anyway? The organisation is opaque on that subject. I’d guess it simply means the post has appeared in someone’s feed.

All good for profile of course but if your main interest is in communicating ideas and facts rather than yourself – so what? My experience would be duplicated millions of times by other post-ers and writers.

This is all so much harder and takes so much more effort than the days when print outlets ran our stories and large numbers of people, often a sizeable chunk of an entire community in the case of city newspapers, read them.

Numbers in hiding

We have mistaken spread for impact; influencers for true influence; numbers for success. (A friend in publishing confides that he recently shocked his young team when, as they extolled an influencer with 16,000 followers, he explained to them that if they got an author onto the ABC’s 7.30 instead, they would be getting an audience of say, 525,000. They were stunned. They had swallowed all the digital spin about free to air TV being dead.)

The Sweeney story clarified something to me. There are millions and millions of eyeballs out there, but are they as focussed as they once were? And what have we lost in our single-minded pursuit of those wandering, unfocussed eyeballs?

Does it matter, for instance, that community-wide reading is virtually a thing of the past?

Remember when …

In business and news terms, it certainly matters because it was that community-wide reading, that huge audience, which gave newspapers and magazines not just circulation revenue, but their power to attract advertisers, which then drew in even bigger revenues, which then allowed those newspapers and magazines to run well-staffed and well-resourced offices so they could produce the best journalism they could. Every day.

They had money to do in-depth investigate news issues again and again. They could take chances. And without the editors and staff leaving at the end of the day, looking as if they’d just done another 14 hour shift in a 19th century cotton mill.

This has been on my mind a lot lately, particularly since a former colleague came to me with a story he had written on spec. It wasn’t on the news, nor was it pushing a product or focussed on a celebrity so it didn’t fit into any of the three categories that might allow it to be easily published these days – but it was magical. It was one of those stories that seems to be arcane but which actually has a number of easy hooks for a reader – mystery, travel, a surprise subject, anecdotes and factoids – that just makes a reader feel smarter and more intelligent for having read it.

When magic struggles

Once upon a time, it would have been accepted in a heartbeat. Not now with print pages so limited, budgets impossibly tight, and my friend had received several knockbacks. A few of these kinds of stories are still being published. The Weekend Australian magazine recently ran this beautifully written and sensitive story about a BBC camera crew in the Antarctic who had to make a moral decision about whether to intercede to save the emperor penguins they were filming. Good Weekend freelancer Mick Barnes has just won a Walkley for his gently humorous but poignant story about life from his point of view as a resident in an aged care home.

But too often these stories, the very stories that provide so many surprises, so much richness and insight into our world while clearly being stories that none of us really need to read, now have the same struggles to survive as those emperor penguins.

Were we sold a pup?

So here we are  and I can’t help asking of this new world and what is has done for us – did we get a good bargain? Were we sold a pup? Or possibly just a pup that hadn’t been bred properly, nor trained to take its place in a civil and civilised, democratic society and which is capable of chewing up not just the sofa cushions but everything we prize.

Where was media’s Warren Buffett?

It’s hard not to think, in my own area of newspapers and magazines, that looking back, emotions like fear and ambition and even greed on the part of media bosses played far more of a part in the tragedy of what has happened to print in the digital era than prudence, wisdom and a love of journalism. Where was media’s Warren Buffett?

He’s a man who, according to this article on Medium, says no to all but a few investment deals a year, concentrates on the long-term and who has always kept things simple. His portfolio companies may have over 400,000 employees but his own head office employs just 24. (He has another important rule: only work with people that you can see yourself working with forever. On that rule, he has turned down many attractive financial propositions because he didn’t trust the CEOs involved.)

What any media boss had to do, in those early crucial years as the digital era flexed its muscle and blared its wares, was ignore the flim-flam and over-heated promises, and focus on the essential (for instance, journalism’s enormous authority when it is practised properly and in the areas for which the particular journal is known).

In 2016, Jack Shafer wrote a piece on Politico titled “What if the newspaper industry made a colossal mistake?” He asked: “What if, in the mad dash two decades ago to repurpose and extend editorial content onto the Web, editors and publishers made a colossal business blunder that wasted hundreds of millions of dollars?”

Shafer cited a University of Texas paper that claimed that, in the United States at least, “Digital first has been a losing proposition for most newspapers” with the exchange of “analogue dollars for digital dimes”.

Steak, not hamburger

What if, Shafer posed, newspapers had stuck to their strengths, their print editions? He also quotes the Texas lead researcher, H.Iris Chyi, writing up one memorable quote like this: “’Newspaper had been running the equivalent of a very nice high-end steakhouse,’ [Chyi] says. Then McDonald’s moved to town and started selling untold numbers of cheap hamburgers. Newspaper thought, ‘Let’s compete with that,’ and dropped the steak for hamburger, even though it had no real expertise in producing hamburgers. ‘What they should have done is improve the steak product.’”

Shafer also suggested that newspapers would have been better off inventing original websites like Business Insider rather than sticking their content up online.

Instead, with all that money diverted to online versions of newspapers, the print hosts have starved. The University of Canberra digital report for 2019 also contained gloomy statistics, especially because of fake news. One resulting story, in The Sydney Morning Herald, quoted ABC news boss Gaven Morris conceding there was a “lot of chaff out there” with media consumers confused by too many sources of information.

Right now, media bosses could take note of honest posts from  people like Robert Sweeney about what digital can really offer in the future and what are its real strengths. And weaknesses. And what all those numbers actually signify in terms of real income, real influence.

For if there’s one truism that has been proved right again and again in the digital era, it is this: if it looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true.

LET YOUR BRAIN DO THE TALKING

It has taken me a long time to appreciate that my brain, if left to its own devices, is much wiser than I am. I only started realising it a couple of decades ago which means it has taken me more than half my lifetime to work out something so obvious.

Most of us learn in our 20s and 30s that solutions to problems and good ideas can strike us when we’re under a shower. The scientific explanation for that is that hot water relaxes us and that lets us turn off the executive control part of our brain and go to the default bit instead, that part of the brain we use in day-dreaming or musing. The brain can then wander and free-associate with all the memories and knowledge and bits we have stored away, making connections that lead to a eureka! moment. As Mark Fenske, a neuroscience professor who co-wrote The Winner’s Brain, explained in an interview with The Boston Globe, showering doesn’t take much cognitive focus. “Other parts of the brain can contribute.”

What our unconscious gets

Drexel University’s John Kounios explained to the Wall Street Journal that that kind of thinking, “solving a problem with insight is fundamentally different from solving a problem analytically”.

Another study quoted in the same article showed that brain wave monitoring could indicate “a pattern of high frequency neural activity in the right frontal cortex that identified in advance who would solve a puzzle through insight and who would not. It appeared up to eight seconds before the answer to a problem dawned on the test subject, Dr [Joydeep] Bhattacharya reported in … the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

“’It’s unsettling,’ says Dr. Bhattacharya. ‘The brain knows but we don’t.’”

Not that eureka moments come without some hard work beforehand. It’s precisely because the analytical brain has done the prep that the unconscious, as we take time off or relax, can swing into action and deliver what we need.

The ping! moment

But I didn’t know any of the above research as I went on long walks through gardens and by Sydney Harbour. All I knew was that, as I walked, story openings and story structure for whatever I was then working on, would come to me. I had another ping! moment when I discovered if I was struggling with a writing problem, and if I read the tricky passages before I went swimming or to sleep, my brain would deliver me the solution as I concentrated on my laps or slept.

Things changed after that and the more I started paying attention to that quiet voice in my head, the more helpful my brain became. It was almost as if I had started listening to a very shy but clever person who then couldn’t help but try to be even more helpful.

The unconscious, if you trust it, is even bang-on when it comes to sniffing bullshit, for instance; that moment when someone lies or fudges to you and you can’t help feeling a little uneasy or sick even while your conscious brain is doing its best to believe what it is being told because that will be easier all around.

At times, I have been on the phone listening and talking politely while my unconscious, which has no manners at all, is yabbering: this is really bad … end this call right now!

Switching on creativity

I’ve also learned – in the drawing classes I’ve just started taking, see effort below – brain whispering there works better too than only using the focussed, analytical bit. It’s about switching on both as Professor Geoff Goodhill of the Queensland Brain Institute once told me in an interview for a Good Weekend story on powering up creativity.

In the shower, on a walk, swimming or whatever, it’s our default network in charge. When we’re thinking, working, making decisions or focussing on a problem, it’s the executive network or what I’ve been calling my conscious brain that’s in control. But in creative pursuits, the brain can pull off a trick – which I am learning to tune into when I draw – where both bits get to work together so that one bit, the default, is allowing for mind-wandering and ideas, while the executive is shaping and evaluating what’s being produced.

Why you should listen

It’s possible I took so long to tumble to brain whispering because it takes decades to train a brain to be able to make these kinds of judgement calls and then funnel them into our consciousness where, if we’re clever, we will pay heed. I just know that every time I now tune in to what the default part of my brain is whispering to me – even if it’s as minor as “go on, stop for a coffee at the swimming pool café after your laps” – something good will come out of it.

In that last, recent case, not only did I also decide to order some breakfast which meant I could start working as soon as I got home, I also helped the staff rescue a baby bird which had been bashing its wings against a full-length glass pane. The final cherry was the appearance of a kookaburra which enchanted all of us at our tables before the bird, clearly a teenager in kooka terms, swooped on someone’s breakfast. That thrilled all of us even more.

I don’t know how my brain deduced any of that might happen but I’m glad I again listened to it.

TALKING THROUGH GLASS

The book of the day is Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, a collection of essays from the American millennial viewpoint which cover a good range of subjects from the insidiousness of the internet to rape on campus.

Tolentino, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is a smart and perceptive writer who knows her generation has also been sold a pup.

In “The I in the Internet”, she writes “Now I’m thirty, and most of my life is inextricable from the internet, and its mazes of incessant forced connection – this feverish, electric, unlivable hell.”

In another, “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams”, she comments wryly of what millennials have faced in their lifetime – the GFC, the Fyre Festival con that cost dupes up to $US100,000 a ticket, rising student debt for starters – and why “It would be better, of course, to do things morally. But who these days has the ability or the time?”

Communication in aspic

I am enjoying reading the essays but each time I finish one, I find myself looking into space and wondering what it is exactly I have just read. What was Tolentino trying to say? To conclude? It was an odd sensation, like reading a book through a barrier of thick, bubbly Victorian glass. I went online to watch her being interviewed but the effect was the same. Like trying to hear someone from a distance.

Then I went to an event at the Centre for Independent Studies where the former Reserve Bank governor Ian Macfarlane was talking about his new book Ten Remarkable Australians. He told his audience that various publishers had been keen for him to do a book about economics but he had other plans.

“I had a more interesting book in mind and in fact, it was already half-written,” he writes in his introduction. His characters are mostly unknown to Australians now. All were born in the 19th century though lived into the 20th when they were famous for their adventuring, painting, writing, inventiveness, journalism, sporting prowess or scholarship, names like Harry George Hawker, aviator and aeroplane designer, and mountaineer and scientist George Finch. The best known today would be the artist John Peter Russell whose work won a major exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW in mid-2018.

What passion looks like

Macfarlane spoke about them all with the verve, clarity and passion with which he writes his book. He also confided how stunned he was to find himself being knocked back by publishers who apparently were keener to publish the umpteenth book on say, a famous cricketer, than feature these figures from another age. “You have to sell yourself,” he told his audience, adding in joking disbelief, “and I got rejected by three publishers. And I went to the top, I knew the boss!”

The warm directness with which he spoke was disarming and invigorating. And as I listened, I realised what had been missing with Tolentino was particularly piquant because I had been reading her essays again that same day. The difference between the two writers, a woman in her early 30s and a man in his early 70s, in how they expressed themselves was startling.

Tolentino is unable to write her pieces without eventually citing theory and contextualising her points within theory. It makes her writing, as smart as it is, feel thin.

Our education wars, our theory wars, our culture battles, have now delivered us at least two generations of people who don’t know how to talk and write like flesh and blood human-beings.

This is more serious than it might appear.

Porridge speak

I recently had an odd conversation with someone under 30 who had just let me down badly, and at the last minute. While I had been doing my end of the deal, and taking time and energy to do it, their end – remembering to make a crucial phonecall – didn’t happen.

A late text told me it had slipped their mind.

The consequences for me were going to be not just annoying, time-consuming, and worrying but would involve extra expense. When I rang the person concerned, it was as if I had activated an automaton. “I can empathise with how upset you are,” they said. What??? Or rather, WOT?

“Can’t you talk like a human being!” I yelped.

And indeed if that person had been able to, I probably could have resolved the matter to the satisfaction of both of us because it would have signified some understanding on their part as to what their carelessness had meant and that yes, they would be more alert in future. But that seemed beyond their ability. Perhaps I’m being ungenerous but the responses sounded as if they were being read off a politically correct cue card titled “What to say to angry people when you let them down but it’s so not your fault”.

How porridge spreads

When I mentioned the troubling incident to a friend who has a five year old daughter, he said, “yes, that’s how they talk now. If I tell my daughter she can’t have more dessert, she tells me I’m being disrespectful”. Another friend, an advertising copywriter who, like me, has seen his own industry change from one of excitement and vibrancy to the kind of assembly line, plodding process with which cars used to be put together, explained: “It’s just about putting up barriers.”

Office jargon, managerial speak and corporate bullshit have been a running public joke for decades – which doesn’t mean they don’t still continue to prosper as the desired languages in the workplace. And of all this has percolated down into classrooms, kindergarten play areas, university sessions.

This is not just how people speak these days. Far more alarmingly, this is how they seem to think.

The sound of Helen Garner

For a reminder again of what it is like to hear a real human speak, one recent Sunday, I was lucky enough to hear the now 77-year-old Helen Garner in a question and answer session at the City Recital Hall in Sydney, on her latest book, Yellow Notebook, Diaries Volume 1 1978-1987.

The hall was almost packed but Garner remained understated, relaxed and engaged as she talked, with Michael Williams of the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, about a period of her life that started just after her first novel Monkey Grip was published and included a lonely stint in Paris.

She talked of how “a thread of muscle runs through all good writing”, of how she has to tell herself sometimes to “just shut-up”, how a scene (from her book on the trial of Robert Farquharson for the murder of his three little sons, The House of Grief) was already “unbearable enough without me fogging things up”. Of how an ex had once accused her of being “greedy and selfish”, and, Garner declared to us all, “he was right!”

She talked about love and its blinding power and of how, looking back at her diaries, she had to ask herself what was she thinking? Because “you’ve written it there! There’s the reason why this is going to be a disaster”.

Another sacrifice in store?

And there it was again, just as it had been with Macfarlane, but not with Tolentino however clever her prose. Directness. Passion. Humility. Knowledge. Understanding. Humour.

 That’s a lot for the human race to decide to give up.

HOW TO REALLY THROW A REVOLUTION

In May 1968, the same month as the student riots broke out in Paris and with the Swinging Sixties reaching a crescendo, the Spanish couturier Christóbal Balenciaga, “the greatest dressmaker who ever lived” according to fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland, closed his house. “Oh, those collections!” Vreeland lamented in her memoirs. “They were the most thrilling things!”

Even Chanel bowed to Balenciaga. Cecil Beaton called him “fashion’s Picasso”. And Christian Dior, the man whose 1947 New Look is still remembered today for its reckless flaunting of wartime austerity, given its huge skirts and lavish use of material, generously agreed that Balenciaga was “the master of us all”.

He could sew!

Here’s the thing: Balenciaga could do what Chanel and Dior couldn’t and they humbly acknowledged it. He could, Chanel said, cut material, assemble a creation, sew it by hand. Dior’s dresses worked because they relied on bustiers, padded hips, built-in corsetry. Balenciaga instead followed the woman’s body. President Kennedy, mindful of American voter opinion, argued with his wife, Jackie, because she insisted on buying Balenciaga.

The Bendigo Art Gallery has just finished showing Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, an exhibition brought over from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The photographs in it are beautiful, the clothes masterpieces and the show also included sketches, fabric samples and other memorabilia.

But what was most inspiring for me was seeing the couture names who had all cut their teeth, working for Balenciaga. These were names who went on to shape fashion, and who learned from Balenciaga by either working for him or being mentored or influenced by him. They included Oscar de la Renta, André Courrèges, Emanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy and Paco Rabanne.

Ungaro, a former apprentice, credits him with teaching him “rigour and perfectionism”. An X-ray photograph by Nick Veasey of one ballgown shows the detail hidden underneath the taffeta.

No King Canute

These talented designers worked for him because he knew what he was doing. His clothes could be radical, like the sack dress, the cocoon and the balloon dress, but this was a man who knew fabric and a woman’s body like no other. His extraordinary 1967 creation, “Le Chou (cabbage)”, was made of black silk taffeta and this photo, with Veruschka modelling it, was taken by Irving Penn.

What interests me most though is that Balenciaga gave up. He realised that against the tide of denim jeans and cheesecloth and flower-power, there could be no resistance. He could hardly be King Canute. Paul Johnson writes in Creators: From Chaucer to Walt Disney that “when the cultural revolution of the 1960s, that disastrous decade, made it impossible (as he saw it) to produce work of the highest quality, he retired and quickly died of a broken heart”.

And yet, here Balenciaga is, all these years later, revered. Recognised again for his skills and knowledge just as his disciples knew it so surely back then. And his fashion house, resuscitated in 1986 – Balenciaga had died in 1972 – has a creative director who clearly sees the genius of the founder.

This photo from the Bendigo exhibit, with an original Balenciaga suit on the left, a 2016 suit inspired by it, by the reborn House of Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia, and with a Richard Avedon photo from 1948 behind it, shows how lasting his vision has been, and is.

Balenciaga represented the very best of creation: he was hugely imaginative but knew every bit of his trade; he was a revolutionary who still knew how to sew a fine seam. That combination – sweeping imagination plus true know-how – is all too rare these days in so very many fields.

I wonder how many trashed items of today will end up like Balenciaga. Revered, aspired to – but now condemned to a museum because of the fads of their own day.

MAGIC CARPET RIDE

Warning, this may read like an advertorial but I swear I paid for my trip and there is no reward coming my way. But, ever since I went to Bendigo to see the Balenciaga exhibition, I’ve been telling everyone about how I first got to and from Melbourne.

By train! It was fantastic.

Angst-free

No tension about getting to or from an airport kilometres out of town. No security machines. No forcing everything into a tiny cabin bag to avoid the drop-off queues and luggage collection at the other end. No delayed flights. No cancelled flights. No squashing into seats. No bad temper, because best of all, none of those clouds of hormones that flood over and around us, signalling invisibly that we are part of a large group of humans suffering stress, tension and existential despair.

Instead, I arrived at Sydney’s Central Station, rolled my suitcase straight onto the concourse, then onto Platform 2, and down to my carriage, all in about four minutes, where I put the case in a luggage rack at the front and found my seat – my really, really large and comfortable seat with a ton of leg room – and settled in with books and newspapers for the 11 hour day trip.

There’s no wifi, a relief, and you need to charge up your phone and other devices first, but all you have to do all day is watch Australia’s sweeping countryside, so rarely seen by us city folk, read, muse, some work, day dream, with an occasional trip to the buffet car to stock up on supplies. They even offer a hot meal at lunchtime with staff going through the carriages to collect orders.

Dawn over the bush

I came back by sleeper and was lucky enough not to have to share it, or my tiny but miraculously efficient bathroom. It’s true the station stops mean you wake up a lot but the sleep you do get is deep and restful because of the lulling rocking movement.

When I finally woke at 5am, I dressed and watched the sun slowly pour its gold over the dark bush. Cornflakes, tea and toast were delivered to my sleeper a bit later and we pulled into Central at 7am. A cinch.

I’m recommending it to everyone.

VIDEO: MUCH, MUCH BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

If you really love Christmas, how can you not love the opening sequence of Love, Actually with Bill Nighy – even after all these years – and a song that’s so incredibly hard to get out of your head. As is Bill Nighy.