Sunday, 20 October 2019

Flashback to the GFC: ABC news and ‘7.30 Report’

On 31 October 2007, the All Ordinaries, an Australian equities index, was at 6873 and by 6 March 2009 it had fallen to 3111, losing almost half its value. Now, 11 years later, it is sitting at around 6640.

How much has (slowly) changed. In the 10 photos below, which were taken on 8 May 2008 between 7.18pm and 7.31pm, you can see the US-dollar to Aussie-dollar exchange rate was, in May 2008, sitting at 94 US cents to the Aussie. The US stock market also lost about 50 percent of its value after the global financial crisis (GFC) began, or at least the S&P 500 index did. But as early as 28 March 2013 the S&P 500 surpassed the high it had hit in 2007, while the All Ordinaries is still, now, struggling to regain all the losses it suffered in the years since October 2007. The Aussie dollar is currently worth about 68 US cents.

These photos are just a few out of 122 taken between 7.04pm and 7.32pm while watching TV, starting with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) 30-minute news program and then its magazine current affairs program the ‘7.30 Report’ (the name has since been changed to just ‘7.30’). Kerry O’Brien was its host in those days and some people in the community miss him. Like the current host, Leigh Sales, O’Brien had a forthright interviewing style.

One of the images you can see below shows preparations for the hosting of the summer Olympics which, that year, were held in China. More significant however than Beijing’s optimistic PR stunt was what is shown in another photo that appears underneath the text you are reading. In this image, Australian artist Vincent Fantauzzo is standing in front of his portrait of Heath Ledger who had died, tragically for someone so young and with so much talent, in January of that year.

Ledger would have been a megastar if he had lived, a person with gravitas enough to rival any of the major male actors alive today. His death reminds me of how hard it must be to live with the kind of exposure that fame brings, and of the unique challenges that famous people face. It also reminds me of the need for men to be more open about their problems, and to talk through things rather than relying on themselves to pull through difficult times. We also need, I think, to treat substance abuse as a health problem, and to decriminalise illicit substances.

The actor had finished, not long before, the work needed for the movie ‘The Dark Knight’, which centres on the character of the Joker from the ‘Batman’ opus. The villain was played by Ledger. As usual, his performance was masterful. The movie was released in July 2008. In 2019, at the time this post was being written, the community was talking about another film in the same franchise, this time titled simply ‘Joker’. It had polarised people, many of whom thought it terrific and others who thought it terrible.

For his part, Fantauzzo is not earth-shatteringly original in his approach to painting but his work does, on the other hand, readily appeal to the broader public. His ideas seem, to me, to be strong and while his style is determinedly figurative (in other words, his works use realism to depict the things or ideas contained in them), his compositions are vigorous and suggestive.

When I was working on this blogpost I saw in my Twitter feed a quote from the artist Anselm Kiefer, in French, which went: « Je me méfie de la réalité, tout en sachant qu’à leur niveau les œuvres d’art sont également illusion. » This translates as: “I distrust reality, all the while knowing that at their level works of art are equally illusion.” It’s a very postmodern thing to say, and is typical of its time. But it illustrates the truth that, at the end of the day, even a figurative work is just a composition. It might give us an illusion of reality but its power lies in the disturbing effects produced by the artifice used to make it.

In recent years, figurative art has made a comeback but what is now produced in this mode is different from the types of figurative works that were made in the centuries before Modernism and Postmodernism emerged. Now, every mode that can be used for making art is acceptable, although prizes like the Archibald show us that figurative work never really ever went away.

‘Heath’ won the People’s Choice Award in 2008 and was subsequently acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which runs the Archibald Prize at around the same time every year. A decade later, in 2018, Fantauzzo, still entering paintings in the competition, won the same award, this time for a portrait of Julia Gillard, who had been the country’s prime minister.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Book review: Sorted, Jackson Bird (2019)

At the beginning of last year I read and reviewed a book about a trans woman titled ‘The Trauma Cleaner’. The author of that work of creative nonfiction, Sarah Krasnostein, is Australian. I felt her book to be masterful in its ability to capture the trauma and difficulties that beset the woman at the centre of the drama – whose name is Sandra Pankhurst – before she arrived at where she was at. By framing the narrative in overlapping sections – parts of the past and parts of the present – Krasnostein was able to build suspense as well as render in full the complexity of Pankhurst’s life.

In ‘Sorted’, Jackson Bird, who went the other way – from being a girl to being a man – the journey to sorting out his life was different because so many of the achievements of Pankhurst’s generation have made life much safer for trans people than they were in the past. Not that all the problems have been solved, it has to be admitted. Intolerance can still define the relations between some people who are comfortable with the gender they were born with, and others, who are not.

But I would hazard the suggestion that such clashes are less common now than they were in the past. Certainly, reading Bird’s account, the number of people who were supportive of his desire to transition overwhelmingly outnumber those against the idea. No such tolerance was extended to Pankhurst. In fact, there is no such conversation mentioned in Krasnostein’s book, as far as I am able to recall this far away from the time I read it.

Bird’s writing style reminded me of a blog – complete with photos and notes and poems – but it seems, in parts, to have been written without an enormous quantity of revision. An occasional lapse into cliché, the odd unfortunate turn of phrase, nothing very serious. Offsetting such shortcomings his story is told in a way that makes it seem that he is talking directly to you. The tone is intimate and engaging.

Yet the narrative arc – from hardship and doubt to fulfillment and success – is a bit neat considering the kinds of things you must feel when you sense that you exist outside the mainstream. Although Bird goes into some detail about how he felt at various milestones in his transition from female to male, there appeared to me to be a certain lack of self-awareness at the core of his rendering of what it means to be one gender or another. Or of what it means to be human. It seemed like it was the outward signs of gender that were uppermost in his mind: the evidence that other people were able to appraise and judge. Such things seemed to be the most important things to him, rather than what he, himself, felt about himself. It is as though, in Bird’s mind, the interior life of the individual is entirely determined by what other people think and say. He seemed to lack some degree of agency when he was young but, then again, aren’t we all, when we are young, still trying to work out who we are?

In Krasnostein’s book, Pankhurst is given a greater degree of personal agency than Bird allows himself to possess. Against all the odds, with no online resources to turn to, no examples to use as a guide, and no-one to draw comfort from, Pankhurst made the transition. In her case, the man who becomes a woman (at a time when police routinely bashed cross-dressers just for the hell of it, and when homosexual men were ruthlessly slaughtered by gangs of city toughs) is an individual who struggles against terrible odds for the independence he craves and, ultimately, achieves. In Bird’s book, the barriers fall, it seems, as soon as they are approached, without even a need to touch them with an outstretched hand.

Having said these things, I feel that Bird’s book should be read by politicians who want to support with concrete action whatever claims they might have in terms of valuing diversity. If the West is to stand for anything, then diversity and tolerance has to be at the centre of that project. Nothing less than complete personal autonomy is acceptable, as long as it does not impinge on the freedom that others, likewise, deserve.

Just a final note, this time to the publishers: the break-out boxes were very hard to read on a Kindle and I wished, for this reason, that I had bought this book printed on paper. I missed out on quite a bit because of this technical problem with the digital file.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Marriage equality rally, Darling Harbour

On Saturday 1 August 2009 there were rallies in support of marriage equality around Australia and, with a friend, I was at the one held in Sydney. It started in the CBD at Town Hall but we joined it in Darling Harbour, where the Labor Party’s national conference was on. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story from Australian Associated Press which included this:
In Sydney's CBD Aretha Franklin's R.E.S.P.E.C.T. blared from the speakers and placards saying "Legalise gay marriage" were waved in the air, as protesters assembled outside Town Hall. The crowd of 1,500 then marched to Darling Harbour, where Labor's National Conference was being held. 
There they attended a wedding ceremony for 150 gay, lesbian and transgender couples. Nicholas Tyson, 32, and his partner Darryn Skelly, 35, were among the couples married at Darling Harbour by Pastor Karl Hand from the Metropolitan Community Church. 
"We're not asking for more than straight couples. We just want the same," Tyson said.
On that day I took the following 34 photos. Others were not included in this selection. The file definitions of these photos show that they were taken between 2.41pm and 2.54pm.

There were all sorts of people there and a couple of police. Some people had brought banners protesting against the Iranian government but most people, including the cops, looked relaxed and some attendees were dancing. One woman, wearing a white veil on her head, white gloves on her hands, and with heart-shaped earrings hanging from her earlobes, was laughing while looking at something on her mobile phone. Some people wore outlandish clothes in order to signal to others around them that the event was a bit of a joke. Two men in matching mid-blue suits, light-blue shirts, and yellow ties stood next to each other on the stage that had been set up in front of the shopping centre with its food court and shops selling tourist tat.

If gays and lesbians were allowed to marry, people seemed to be saying, there would be nothing – absolutely nothing – for anyone to worry about. For the people congregated next to the water on the western side of the CBD it was all a bit of a lark but some political parties were there too, capitalising on support for what turned out to be a broadly-backed social issue. There were signs bearing the Australian Greens’ logo. A Labor staffer attended to some sound gear. Most people were young but not all of them. At the end of the celebration, in the winter sunshine, people sauntered away on the plaza.

Labor was in power in 2009 but the law was changed eight years later after the (conservative) Coalition government conducted a postal plebiscite which allowed ordinary people to voice their opinions on the question. Over 62 percent of eligible people voted “Yes”. In the lead-up to the poll, on 10 September 2017 there was a rally at Town Hall.

This rally, which I happened to pass through while walking home from Kings Cross, was much larger than the one held in August 2009 and people were less ebullient. For a start there was hardly any room to breathe, let alone move, on George Street or Park Street in the CBD. But apart from that constraint by late 2017 things were different because the political situation was coming to a head. People were more serious as the finish line began to emerge after what had been, for many people, decades of gloom and doom.

In August 2009 I had already relocated to southeast Queensland and on my trip south was busy packing into boxes the belongings that filled my unit in southwest Sydney.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Book review: This Taste for Silence, Amanda O’Callaghan (2019)

I found three different kinds of short story in this wonderful collection. The first kind is almost like a prose-poem, barely two or three pages long and containing an embryo, or just the outlines, of a drama. There is a protagonist, as in ‘The Mohair Coat’, which is about a woman who travels back to England with a coat her dead mother had owned. Or, as in ‘The News’, a woman, who remains unnamed, who is at a party when something happens that is not described in any detail but that affects her deeply. The poetry is all in the language.

With the internet and social media, we have seen the emergence of short pieces of poetry or prose, sometimes in the form of a thread. On Twitter, a “thread” is a continuous narrative where a person responds to each tweet they post with a new one, making a kind of string where you can read each tweet in the sequence they were posted in. Threads can go for a long time or they can be short, but they are very common and can be used to deliver longer narratives to an audience.

And then there are even shorter “stories” in the form of memes, such as one that appeared in my feed on 29 September at 8am Sydney time when Lacey London, a British author with over 113,000 followers, tweeted, “In six words or fewer, write a story about this photo...” the tweet came with this image (see below). I responded, “Where’s the cradle …?” but the tweet had had over 1000 replies, so I was just one of many who thought the proposition fun.

While O’Callaghan’s very-short short stories are emblematic of a trend where people value brevity and concision, they are so good, and the language is so wonderful, that the example given above might appear a tad out-of-place. I’m not suggesting for a moment that O’Callaghan’s short stories are like cat memes. I include this example just to make a point about how, nowadays, we are trying out new types of writing as the new media percolate through society and help us to organise our lives.

The second kind of story in her collection is a longer piece that is a fully-fledged narrative containing a protagonist and secondary characters. There are a number of this type of story in the book. Once again, the language is deeply poetic and nuanced and lovely. 

One of the stories in this category is ‘New Skins’ about an elderly couple living in the suburbs of a city in Australia who are visited often by Vincent, the son, aged about 11 years, of the neighbours who live next door. Vincent likes to play with the couple’s dog, April. Des, the old man, is indulgent and his wife, Rosemary, has trouble sleeping. She is often up late at night and sometimes at such times notices the lights on in the house next door. She talks about it with Des but they do nothing, not wanting to intrude. Vincent’s father, Teddy, had been declared drowned after saving a girl who had gotten in trouble on a boat in a river. Then, one night when she is awake in her house, Rosemary realises something that would have eluded her during the day. 

As you read this type of story that O’Callaghan has devised, you are filled with pleasure, and it’s not only because of the language the narrative is cloaked in. As with the first type of story, it is also about the suspense. Always, you are trying to work out who is talking, the relationships between the characters, and the nature of the events that are taking place. Often crime is involved. There is hatred and fear, there is cowardice and evil. Within each story there are worlds and they ring true with a clarity that is rare.

The theme of cultural and political legacy and of ancient wrongs committed against indigenous people is touched on in two of the stories, in ‘A Widow’s Snow’ (the story that opens the collection), and in ‘The Memory Bones’. There is another theme, that of history itself, which emerges in the first of these stories (Roger, Maureen’s new beau, runs an antiques store) and in the third type of story in the collection. 

This third category of story in the collection has only one story in it. I have classified this story, titled ‘The Painting’, in this way because it is significantly longer than the stories I have talked about above. But it is also strongly self-referential or, to put it another way, it is metatextual. Coming at the end of the collection, it furthermore functions as a kind of punctuation mark for the whole, summing up the entirety of themes that the book retails in. 

It is about a man named Eddie. His mother dies – and this part of the story is particularly fine in its execution, the moment when life departs – and, as a result, he inherits a house. But Eddie’s mother also gives him a painting before she passes away. He takes the painting to Frank, his local pawnbroker in Brooklyn, and gets a feeling during the ensuing conversation – more of O’Callaghan’s clever writing here – that the thing is worth more money than he thought it had been before the conversation took place. So then he takes it to an art gallery, a place where he had tried, on an earlier occasion, to offload some old WWI medals that had been given posthumously to his great-uncle Ivan. The gallery owner, Walter, had not been interested in the medals and now, seeing the old painting, also declines to deal. Then things become strange when Eddie, one day sitting at home, with the painting hanging on the wall, sees something he had not seen before. 

This story is complicated by the existence of a sub-narrative, printed in italics, about the man who painted the work of art. I won’t spoil the story by telling anything more about it but it deals in an inventive way with our current (seeming) obsession with the past and with the way that we use the past to define who we are. We are, I think the author is suggesting, shackled to the past and may therefore never be entirely free. Perhaps, therefore, our taste for silence. We love our chains too much to take them off.

However strong the themes employed in this book are – and they are very strong – and however entertaining the plot of each story, it is the writing that stood out for me for its ability to adequately render the most ephemeral as well as the most concrete thing. The writing is both flexible and robust, comfortable and stimulating, and it is given the task of conveying profound truths.

While silence is often used to hide the past, ‘The Painting’ suggests that we are, nowadays, almost overwhelmed by the vestiges of history in one form or another. How to achieve authenticity, to deal fairly with each other, and to live in peace and harmony: such questions lie hidden within the matrices of ideas that emerge in O’Callaghan’s marvellous book. We must always remember – for otherwise we can repeat the mistakes of the past – but it is also important to forgive and to live with an open heart. Salvation is reached by negotiating a paradox.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Book review: Permanent Record, Edward Snowden (2019)

Writing a memoir allows Snowden to demonstrate things about himself that go to the question of his character. This tactic makes it evident that what he did – reveal the US intelligence community’s unlawful, and frankly ludicrous, acquisition and use of the electronic data of everyone on the planet, what they called “bulk” collection – was something like an inevitability.

Courage is rare to come across but there’s no question that Snowden is a man of exceptional courage. He also has an unusual personality. This is a man who kept copies of the US Constitution on his desk at work so that he could give them away to other people in the office. He took his job seriously and expected others around him to do the same. Unfortunately, many of them let him down.

One thing that emerges from reading this book is the way that Snowden’s hacker roots helped him make the decisions he did. It wasn’t an accident that he decided to buck the system; the need to do so from his earliest years – in order to learn about computers and digital networks – instilled in him a healthy dose of libertarianism. In a sense Snowden is a kind of literalist. The copies of the Constitution on his desk were as much a part of his education as a citizen as were his years tinkering about with the computers his father – who worked for the US Coast Guard – brought home.

Snowden is also a good writer, although he did benefit from the help of at least two people (a circumstance he notes in the book). From time to time there is a folksy expression that proves that Snowden, rather than someone else, was driving the bus. There is something old-fashioned as well as familiar about this kind of writing, in the sense that it draws the reader close to the author, as though the two of you are sitting in front of a fireplace in the evening after dinner having a congenial chat. The chapters are short and the pacing is solid. There is enough colour to give the reader a rounded view of each person without overburdening the reader with information.

Overall, I found the story of Snowden’s life to be well-told as well as interesting. I have tried reading official histories of spy agencies but the two I started to read were impenetrably dull. They seemed to have been designed for academics, or other types of specialist, people with an inexhaustible capacity to struggle through acres of opaque prose. This is a shame. It’s not surprising however. Often when you phone a government agency – or even if you email their media department to ask for information – you will have to wait an age before you get to speak to a human, or else you will get an email in reply that hides more than it discloses. Large organisations almost universally lack the human touch.

Snowden does away with all the crap and gives you what you need to understand his story. And because of the time period covered in the book – it starts in the 90s – this memoir also has elements of history that can be very revealing about the times it talks about. The way that young people (like my own brother) became enamoured of everything digital is worth several histories, at least.

The book is also full of the author’s native intelligence. Snowden appeared to me, as I was reading, to be very sensible (as we all are in our own ways) to the nuances and subtleties of existence. Here is someone, I thought to myself, who is conscious of the impact that his own actions have on others. I wish him all the best for the future. Whatever that holds for him.

We already know the story, of course, or we do if we watch at least some of the news. The story so far, in any case. But even when you know how things turn out, the journey to reach the ending of this book is still thrilling. Congratulations to Edward and to all of the people who helped him, including Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald.

There are others in this class of people who gave Snowden assistance in his hour of need, but you can buy the book if you want to find out more. I will say however that Snowden does leave out some details from the account he makes in order not to unnecessarily compromise the security of the organisation – the National Security Agency (NSA) – he was working for when the time came to carry out the acts that enabled him, carefully and deliberately, to remove documents from his workplace. Part of the curtain remains in place, preventing the reader – whoever he or she is – from seeing everything. But at the level of sophistication I am talking about, only specialists would be able to understand what any disclosure would mean. The substantive outlines of the crime Snowden committed are adequately rendered.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Visual disturbances: Two

The following photos are 16 photos taken on Sunday 29 June 2008. What follows constitutes a kind of collage, or a compendium of ephemeral moments, that happen to be made up of images rather than words.

The images below depict cars and buses on Elizabeth Street at the point where, on its western side, Market Street abuts it. Buses use Elizabeth Street heavily and so it is very busy, especially at this corner. Many cars turn here heading west onto Market street in order to get to the Western Distributor and, from there, onto the Anzac Bridge.

The corner is also used heavily by pedestrians. An entrance to St James Station (opened in 1926), on the City Circle Line, is right there as is Hyde Park, which people use not only for recreation but also to cross to make their way to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW; opened in 1882), which stands on the other side of College Street, to the east. Another feature of this corner is an outlet belonging to the David Jones department store (founded in 1838). This store was, in 2008, heavily used by shoppers but retailers nowadays are struggling because of the rise in popularity of online shopping. At the time I write this post some floors of the DJs on the northeast corner of the intersection are being renovated.

So, the following photos were taken in what is, by world standards, a relatively new city. Sydney is a mere stripling compared to London or Nanjing or Kyoto or Amman. But it is a beautiful city and Hyde Park is popular with tourists, many of whom pose for photos next to the Archibald Fountain (unveiled in 1932) with its figures inspired by classical mythology and its sparkling jets of water. Standing in front of the fountain newly-weds, dressed in their finery, are often seen having commemorative snaps taken by professional photographers.

Just for the sake of completeness, it’s worth noting that Elizabeth Street was not named after the current monarch but, rather, after the second wife of the (in)famous governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie. Her name was Elizabeth Henrietta Campbell. Before 1810 the street was known as Mulgrave Street.

Perversely, my artistic attempt at making a true chronicle of the times leaves out the picturesque fountain, the venerable buildings made out of Pyrmont sandstone, and the lofty modern skyscrapers.

To take the photos you can see below I stood, facing southwest and west, on the footpath on the eastern side of Elizabeth Street. Between 2.12pm and 2.15pm, as people of all ages walked past me on the pavement, calmly going about their business, I took photos of vehicles in the carriageway, both vehicles at rest and some that were moving. I tried to time the shutter action for each photo to catch vehicles rolling in the carriageway. In one photo there is no vehicle at all, just bare macadam.

At the time the photos were taken I had just been to the AGNSW. Over the entire day I took a total of 669 images and I wrote about the ones I took on the train that took me to the city in an earlier post.  Other photos of a similar nature that were taken on that day will appear in another blogpost.

The folder on my PC that contains all these images was labelled with the creation date of the photos it contains as well as the letters “bos” but now I do not remember what those letters stood for. It can’t possibly be a word but at the time it would have meant something to me. The art exhibition I had seen on that day was titled ‘Taisho Chic’ so what did “bos” mean to me? Being outside? Best one since? Began overseas? Beginning of struggle? Brought out strife? Bare our soul? Bands of steel? Broken on stone?

Bereft of sense? Much can be known but mysteries can endure. We can’t even know many things about our own past. We can know where the Archibald Fountain was made (in France) and when it was constructed, but how did those Aborigines feel when Governor Macquarie ordered them to be slaughtered in the colonial frontier wars? What did the families of those people think when they saw the bodies of the slain hanging from trees, put there to instil fear in the hearts of the survivors of terrible violence Macquarie unleashed upon their communities?

Taking the photos from which the ones shown here were selected – all 62 of them – took me three minutes. How much time did it take the band of convicts and free settlers at Myall Creek in New England, on 10 June 1838, to hack to death 38 men, women and children? How much time does it take to kill, how much time to fall in love? Moments are fleeting but it only takes a few of them to change a life forever.