Overheard Is The New Oracle
Oslo Davis is a professional eavesdropper. If you’re in Melbourne, be careful – he might be right behind you, sketching your likeness and writing down the stupid things you say. He will be easy to spot because he tends to hold his finger quizzically to his face like this.
Oslo’s line illustrations combine immediacy, dorkiness and a gently surreal sense of humour. His style reminds me of Quentin Blake and Brad Neely, and there’s something charmingly quotidian about his observations.
As well as regular gigs in book, magazine and newspaper illustration, he has just released a book of his own through Arcade Publications. Overheard collects the cartoons Oslo drew for his popular ‘Overheard’ column in The Sunday Age‘s ‘M’ magazine. It’s a series of vignettes overheard on the streets of Melbourne, but the book omits the notes on location that tied the original column specifically to the city.
Importantly, this gives the snippets of overheard conversation a profound, universal air, as if they were agony-aunt advice or oracular pronouncements. We asked Oslo whether we should live our lives using the guidance of Overheard. We also answered some actual everyday dilemmas by flipping open the book to a random page.
The Enthusiast: For you, what elevates something from an annoying encounter with the great unwashed to an Overheard?
Oslo Davis: It’s true: most of the time I experience annoying encounters. Hell is other people, especially when they are mindlessly gas-bagging into the mouthpiece of their mobile phone. But as we all know, people come out with some pretty amazing crap. What makes a good Overheard is something that is somehow complete in itself, is punchy, has a good meter and, I reckon, sometimes at least, sounds like a New Yorker cartoon quote. Thankfully people really are saying this sort of stuff all the time.
Have you ever learned valuable life lessons from eavesdropping on other people’s conversations? Have you grown as a person?
I haven’t grown, alas, and I have never heard anything useful. I do learn a little more than I would otherwise care to know about pop culture – music groups for kids, shit TV – and I have had to suffer hours of bogan-speak. I do enjoy the Overheards that tap into the prejudices and everyday angst in our world. There are no lessons, but I guess I feel less alone when I hear others’ problems.
What are the most common dilemmas and dramas you overhear?
Couples bickering. Parents with recalcitrant kids. Wide-eyed out-of-towners in from regional Victoria for a day of shopping. Shopping centres seem to conspire in the hilarious grinding down of relationships: the car park, food halls, never-ending malls, fluoro lights and all the chintzy shops. When that happens I want to be there, overhearing.
How does the quality of advice overheard from strangers differ from the advice offered by agony aunts and uncles, or other ‘experts’?
Well, I will say that if one wants to plug into the zeitgeist of a city, spend some hours in a cinema ticket queue, or between the aisles of a bookshop, or at a DFO, or at a suburban kids’ play centre, or a Bunnings or an IKEA.
Traditionally our culture turns for wisdom to elders and to kids (who say the darndest things) – but given what you’ve overheard, which other segments of society should we be starting to mine for their insight?
Mothers, often the playmaker of any family, are good. (And I’m thinking about shopping mall mothers, but it could be applied more widely.) They embody a fascinatingly intricate combination of out-of-date experience and half-hearted desires to keep ‘with it’. They have endless reserves of mandatory nagging and are the sun around which the family orbits. They are legally required to communicate to all family members in public, unlike dads who can float through life on a grunt. So listen to the mums: you’ll hear them awkwardly passing comment on Lady Gaga, offering advice on home renovations and giving anyone in earshot an update on their golden staph.
Which of your Overheards do you think can stand as testaments for the ages and be engraved onto monuments?
“You’re only as funny as your last tweet.”
“I love going out and catching up with everyone I hate.”
“My hoodie’s my burqa.”
Oscar Wilde was famous for his epigrams – are ordinary people just as funny and wise, but nobody was around to write their quips down?
I like to think that when I overheard something it’s the funniest thing that person has said. Of course some people consistently come out with hilarious stuff, but those people are rare. Also, Overheard is not about finding and publishing the best everyday epigrams (even though that happens). Overheard is more about the time, place and person that all add to a moment – that’s why I do a drawing. Some Overheards make no sense but survive, I think, because they capture two seconds of public life that are human, weird and real.
Thanks Oslo. And now, some everyday dilemmas answered – if in a nonsensical and enigmatic fashion – by Oslo Davis’s Overheard:
I’ve been with my boyfriend for years now and we are like a couple of odd socks in the laundry basket, scrunched up together without really being meant for each other. Should I break up with him?
Overheard says: “What do you mean you missed the dead lamb? Jesus, Fiona, the bus’ll be here in a minute!” (p60)
Our interpretation: The ‘dead lamb’ here symbolises the death of your relationship, which you have forgotten to notice. You should probably get on the bus and leave your boyfriend to ponder the lamb.
My mother wanted me to study law. I studied arts and now my mother is never happy with any of my achievements. How can I make her proud of me?
Overheard says: “But it wasn’t until we got there that we realised it was Ryan Adams, not Bryan Adams.” (p79)
Our interpretation: Tell your mother that sometimes we get the most enjoyment in life from the things we weren’t expecting.
When my housemate does the dishes, she does the greasiest ones first which means all the knives and forks end up with a film of grime on them. How can I tactfully bring up that the dishes aren’t actually clean?
Overheard says: “Well, we didn’t make the social pages again.” (p23)
Our interpretation: Tell your housemate that, just as D-listers have to put their best stiletto forward to make the social pages, so she will have to try harder if she wants the dishes to shine.
My friend has a stupid ugly hat which he loves. I am embarrassed to be seen with him in public when he’s wearing it. How can I resolve this situation?
Overheard says: “I’m really good with the customers though. I’m really apathetic towards them.” (p120)
Our interpretation: Your friend probably wears the hat to piss you off. Try to cultivate an air of apathy and he, too, will grow bored of the ugly hat and stop wearing it.
Why do I feel ashamed when my cat poos on the floor? If anything it’s the cat who should be ashamed.
Overheard says: “I was having fun until that Grant Denyer guy turned up.” (p30)
Our interpretation: Grant Denyer is something for everyone to be ashamed about.
If you’d like your dilemma solved in this enigmatic fashion, leave it in the comments and we’ll look up Overheard for you. Oslo Davis will be the Melbourne Writers’ Festival illustrator-in-residence this Saturday, 28 August. Come and let him overhear you in the Atrium at Federation Square, Melbourne.
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