My father walks out as I begin to haggle.
He's embarrassed for me, for us.
I'd like to say it's a generational thing but I have a friend up the road the same age as dad and he refuses to pay full price for anything. Oblivious to the daggers being buried in his back, he'll happily bring a supermarket full of incendiary toddler-wranglers to a halt, suggesting in all seriousness to the dumbfounded check-out operator he receive a discount on his Metamucil for "cash money".
As if we're in a Bizarro World version of Steptoe and Son, dad says "I'll wait outside" when I start the bidding at half of what the ticket says the item is worth.
I'm negotiating to secure a multimedia piece by a West Australian artist called Frances Woolley.
Born Frances Shirley Ferrier in Cottesloe in 1930, she seems to have gone by various monikers throughout her career; Francis Woolley, Frances S. Woolley, Fran Ferrier. She studied in Perth, Melbourne and London and, in 1953, won the National Gallery travelling scholarship. She married a WWII veteran, oboist and Jonathan Swift scholar called David Leon Talbot Woolley (AM) at Christ Church in South Yarra in 1952. She died aged 84 in 2014 at the Alfred Carson Nursing Home in Claremont and her ashes were interred at the Karrakatta Cemetery, nine years after her husband's.
Most importantly, though, her stuff is cheap, hence my brave foray into the art world. I know little about the style of the work I'm trying to buy beyond it has some pleasingly round shapes on it. When it's eventually hung in our lounge room, the kids (correctly) identify the circles as human heads. I pretend to have known that.
Unlike my father, the vendor doesn't take any offence to the robust transaction. He's used to the dance and we quickly and efficiently settle on a price somewhere in the middle before I carry the piece out onto the street.
"I can't do that," dad says, referring to haggling, not painting (he can't do that, either).
Fair enough, I get it, there's a vulgarity in trying to weasel your way out of a few bucks but an anachronistic, white, Anglo-Saxon aversion to engaging in a public argument about grubby money just doesn't fly in the digital age.
Armed with a mobile phone, you're a mug if you "won't haggle", as Eric Idle exclaimed.
Save for unrealistic and time-consuming missions to bricks and mortar libraries and galleries, had it not been for the internet, I'd never have known who Frances Woolley was and that parts of her catalogue, to a fledgling collector, are eminently affordable and most definitely haggleable.
MORE BY B. R. DOHERTY:
These days, consumerism is one long epistemic Mexican stand-off because everybody, buyers and sellers, knows the real-time market value of an item down to the last second and cent.
It's great for the buyers because we're no longer being fleeced (as often) and it's great for the sellers because they're not letting a treasure go for a song (not that they ever really did).
With nothing more than the touch of a screen, we're all experts now, and it's horrible.
My daughter (a lazy student) returned home the other day chuffed with the 'A' she'd received for a year 7 science test. I was even more chuffed than her because I'd helped secure that A.
It was a biology exam, specifically on the categorisation of creatures according to their phylum. Although itchy to consult my phone, I was somehow able to access a trove of rote-learned information residing in a corner of my brain as yet unplundered by alcohol and helped my daughter understand the general principle of the subject, even throwing in a few fun facts along the way (sea squirts belong to the same phylum as humans, explaining our primal lust for coastal real estate).
I remember such things because when I was exactly my daughter's age and sitting pretty much the same exam, I'd stolen a look at my much smarter mate's answer sheet and realised I was doing it all wrong. While he was listing Chordata, Arthropoda, Mollusca, Annelida etc, I was operating on, shall we say, a more basic level, endearingly writing down things like "snakes".
To this day, all my mate need do to pull me into line is hiss the word and I retreat in shame.
Yes, I'm an idiot (and a cheat) which makes me only prouder for having been able to help my daughter learn something without surrendering to the intellectual crutch of a search engine.
Certainly, having access to such a resource is wonderful, especially when shrouded in the fog of age. As Nick Cave (who, quite impossibly, turned 63 last month) wrote: Wikipedia is heaven ... When you don't want to remember no more.
And, double negative aside, therein lies the rub; we don't want to remember no more, let alone need to.
Retention is so last century.
Experts once earned our respect because they'd put in the hard yards to develop a thorough grasp of a topic. These days, so-called experts flirt with derision because we suspect they're full of it.
An office discussion, once an exchange of sturdily explored interests, is now a stilted affair, replete with telling pauses as key words are fed to an omniscient machine a la Deep Thought, and we wait, passively, as if sea squirts, for the tidal reply. There used to be just one or two David Brents lurking near the water cooler, now there's an entire workforce of them. Aroused by the opportunity for one-upmanship, they emerge like parasitic fungi (Microsporidia) at the hint of a moist, fertile semi-public discussion and proceed to Google their way through the polemic until their spores have nestled into every cavity of the ambushed conversation. Rather than being nourished, we're left bloated and empty at the same time.
Information has become so easily accessible, so addictive, it's now the conversational equivalent of junk food, undigested chymus cycling through a common digestive tract encircling the entire planet.
We gorge and we defecate.
A little bit of knowledge is, of course, a dangerous thing but what's the result when we begin to hold knowledge in such contempt it loses its primacy? How dangerous is that?
God bless the internet and those who sail in her but, before we contribute our two cents, it would be nice if we all declared our apparent deep intimacy with a subject is really nothing more than the result of a 45-second quicky at the keyboard.
Pseudo art experts included.
- B. R. Doherty is a regular columnist.