Saturday, 14 December 2019

Sydney fireworks, New Year’s Eve

The first five photos in the 42 images that follow were taken at the end of 2008 from the north side of Sydney Harbour from a vantage point near Luna Park. These images, taken while I was facing southeast, shows the final, stunning, release of explosives into the air above the bridge. This is the usual kind of photo that you see when people shoot fireworks. There is nothing remarkable about these images or what they contain.

The second lot of five photos were taken a year earlier, during the kids’ fireworks display on the final day of 2007. This display starts at 9pm. The remaining 32 photos were made during the fireworks that erupted at around midnight on New Year’s Eve, 2007. These 37 photos are the images that interest me because of what they say – when compared to the more conventional photos I would take a year later – about my state of mind at the time.

2008 was a difficult year, one that included a period of several months of extreme suffering followed by recovery to equilibrium. That year at work I had a new manager, Anita Hoving who, it seemed to me, had, at some point in my career in the organisation, taken a dislike to me. I had a mental breakdown though somehow kept my job.

The three months leading up to October were cataclysmic, as the nature of the later photos shown in this post demonstrates. It is symptomatic of how I was, in myself, before and after this crisis that the 2007 photos are more experimental. I was deliberately trying to achieve unusual effects whereas a year later I was happy to go with the flow. I had been schooled by experience. Suffering dulls creativity.


The thing about fireworks is the way they provide the illusion of destruction and the final photos shown below convey some of the feelings that you might have if you were watching something being destroyed. There is a feeling of awe rather than, in the case of the first five photos, less complex feelings such as can be inspired if we see something that is merely beautiful. The armaments mounted by professionals on the bridge can create, if seen in a certain way, a form of spectacle informed by horror. Hence our delight; Edmund Burke reflected on this in an essay he wrote in the mid-18th century that was published in 1757, two years before the British would take Montreal and less than a generation before the American Revolution happened (the two events are decisively linked).

People can be inspired by a suggestion of ruin that accompanies the end of the calendar year, and by its corollary: rebirth. Death as the origin of life is an old trope and it reminds us of one of the critical aspects of reproduction. Physical release can be transcendent not just once but twice, the second time in the fact of children, who can bring you – once the difficulties of youth are overcome – a great deal of enjoyment. They can also provide a source of comfort in old age and, of course, they live on after you are dead (everything else being equal). Immortality is a kind of transcendence that, in this proxy form, can be achieved by most people.

For the 9pm shots I was down under the Harbour Bridge in the Rocks (at Dawes Point, to be precise) looking up through the supporting beams of that august structure. Then with a friend I moved up the hill to Observatory Hill next to the motorway that feeds the bridge’s span. On the grass hundreds of people, some with video cameras, were watching the display. Others wore lights they had bought from street touts who flog this kind of stuff at such events. The photos taken from this vantage point were taken facing north, with one taken by turning around and looking at the city’s skyscrapers.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Only after retirement do public figures say what they really think

This survey ran for almost four months: from 14 August to 5 November. Times used are Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) except after 6 October, when they are in Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT).

I started the survey because it really gets my goat when public figures come out and say controversial things – things that they actually believe in – only after they retire from their jobs. Why don't these people have the courage of their convictions and say something when they have a chance of making the changes they, evidently, want to see? Or are they hypocrites?

The truth is that people follow the herd and politicians are no different from the rest of us. They stick to the approved script because it is in their interest to do so, and because it is human nature to do so. We are social animals and our survival has always depended on our ability to conform to the values of the collective. The standouts – the artists, and inventors – have therefore always had a hard time of it.

I started this survey with the case of Julie Bishop – the former foreign minister under the Liberals – who was quoted by the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) on 14 August. The story includes this:
Former deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop says women need to take up 50 per cent of federal parliamentary seats before the toxic misogyny she witnessed during her 20-year political career ends.
Her party, which is conservative, had signally failed to appoint female ministers to its cabinet under a series of prime ministers. They had also poo-poohed the Labor Party and its calls for quotas for women. The Liberals had always insisted that people would be promoted based solely on merit and this had led to a low proportion of their party room being women, let alone their cabinets.

A former federal government department head named Martin Parkinson got a piece in The Conversation on 27 August about inequality. In it he deplored the number of generations during which some families in Australia remained poor. Parkinson had been in office under the Liberal party, which had signally failed to help the disadvantaged and who had, indeed, introduced a draconian program in the department responsible for welfare payments. Under the program, the recipient’s records were compared with data from the tax office, but this matching was done by software, leading to a large number of people being falsely accused of ripping off the government. Some had even suicided due to the pressure resulting from receiving a letter from the department.

Then there was the enduring matter of climate change. On 5 September I saw a tweet from Asher Moses, a former Sydney Morning Herald journalist, who said, “Former Head of the Australian Coal Association Ian Dunlop tells it like it is about the upcoming collapse.” The tweet came with a link to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) News web page that had a clip from an episode of the evening current affairs program ‘The Business’. The guest for the interview was the person Moses had mentioned in his tweet. In the interview, Dunlop called for businesses to take a firmer stand on climate change, saying that if nothing is done then the risks are extreme.

The idea of someone from the coal lobby campaigning for renewable energy was rich, but others were getting in on the act as well, including John Hewson, a former Liberal politician. On 11 September at 4.42am the Guardian tweeted a story with the comment, “John Hewson urges Liberal conscience vote on climate emergency motion.” At 6.17am Denise Shrivell, a person who routinely criticised the media, retweeted this with a comment of her own, “Anyone else think we missed a good PM here?” The idea of Hewson – who is a serial offender in my books, always nowadays coming out with some canard to throw at the conservatives he used to support – backing renewables was rich in the extgreme.

Hewson was back in the news on 10 October at 9.47am when Stephanie Dowrick, a prolific tweeter and a progressive, tweeted, “’PM turns his back on ordinary Australians.’ Exceptionally strong comment from #JohnHewson - surely now most cogent, best-informed commentator from the once-‘Liberal’ side of politics. @smh @theage This quality is what we want far more of.” Dowrick’s tweet came with a link to an opinion piece on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH; like The Age owned by Channel Nine, an Australian media company) that attacked the prime minister over his relations with Donald Trump and with China, and the government’s lack of action on climate change. He also wondered aloud about the likelihood of being dragged into further conflict in the Middle East. The first paragraph went:
Prime Minister Scott Morrison would have us believe that he is putting Australia "first", and is governing primarily to reflect the values and aspirations of the "quiet Australians" he would also have us believe gave him his "miracle" election win.
It is always hard for me to work out whether Hewson in his little sallies is being ironic or not, considering his past performance in office. The narrative that he seems to be peddling is that the Liberals have gone over further to the right since Hewson left office, and the current PM is a symptom of this trend. I don’t really see much evidence that this is the case, but many people in the community agree with him.

If you can credit it, I also saw a former diplomat (named Bruce Haigh) campaigning for refugees. He tweeted on 9 September at 10.33pm, “#QandA #Biloela Administrative Appeals Tribunal stacked with LNP supporters/sympathisers. Other courts looked only at the law and not the merits of the claims. Zed [Seselja] you are ill informed and a dope. I say this after this after 25 years in [the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] and 6 years on the [Regulatory Review Tribunal].”

This comment was made in relation to a family of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka the government was trying to return to their country of origin. The case caused an uproar in the public sphere and it was discussed widely on TV shows. The Liberal and Labor parties had both adopted, after decades of debate in public about refugees who arrive near the coast of the continent by boat, a policy that mandated offshore detention.

In regard to refugees, the former head of the Immigration Department’s media named Sandi Logan (Sandi is a man) was getting hot under the collar. On 18 September at 9.37am I saw a tweet from Dowrick that included this, “The big muzzle: how a Govt turns information into propaganda.” The tweet came with a link to a story on the website of Crikey, a news outlet owned by Melbourne company Private Media, that had that as its headline. The article was by Bernard Keane, whose work I like. It included quotes from Logan. The story included this:
“Increasingly, Coalition governments are seeking to impose muzzles and very short leads and sometimes impose complete regimes of silence on their departments, and specifically on their department’s media teams,” Logan says in his distinctive Canadian accent, “and we’re really in trouble.”
The irony here of course is that the Immigration Department had been very solid in cracking down on employees who veered from the approved line. In fact, a woman named Michaela Banerji had been sacked from her job in Logan’s work unit for voicing publicly opinions at variance with the department’s official line on refugees.

Former cops were also getting in on the act. On 17 September a story appeared on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald about the former police commissioner of NSW, Andrew Scipione. He retired in 2017 and was being reported now as calling for the decriminalisation of amphetamines and ecstasy, saying “the system isn't working”.
He … had personal experience when he tried to find a treatment facility for a friend's adult son whose addiction had spiralled out of control and he was in trouble with police. 
"I saw this man, who was a good man, change overnight," Mr Scipione said. When they tried to find a room, there was nothing. 
"We couldn't get one. I couldn't get one. I am the commissioner of police. And what does that say for others ... that's an indictment. 
"It should be easier to get help than find a drug dealer," Mr Scipione said, borrowing a line frequently cited by Dr Alex Wodak, a leading campaigner for decriminalisation of drugs.
Also on 18 September an article appeared on the website of Ten Network by a former Australian Federal Police commissioner named Mick Palmer. The article was in favour of pill testing at music festivals and concerts. His profile page on the website describes him as a spokesperson for the Take Control campaign for safer, saner drug laws.

Journalists who, for decades, had lived high off the fat of the land now professed to have a sense of right and wrong. On 20 September at 6,11pm former journalist Mike Carlton tweeted, “Yes, I’m old and cranky. 50 years a journalist. Done Canberra, Indonesia, Vietnam, London, Washington. And more. Done the White House (Reagan). So I’m gonna be extra cranky about suckholing ‘journalism’ on this wanky Morrison odyssey.” The reference was to the visit by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Washington to see the US president, Donald Trump.

Then on 7 October, starting at around 6.30pm, the ABC’s ‘The Drum’ account tweeted words from Stephen Duckett, a former secretary of the federal Department of Health, that had been spoken on-air during the evening’s broadcast. His comments follow below.
“The rebate for private health insurance is about letting someone in the public health system have shorter waiting times for elective surgery.”  
“There’s a handful of greedy doctors who drive the private health excesses… roughly 7% of doctors account for 89% of all out-of-pocket costs.”  
"Unlike any other insurance, if you take out private health insurance, you have more out-of-pocket expenses."  
“If I had cancer, the pathway I'd want is the public system. I know I might have to wait an extra week or two, but I think in the end the quality of care would be better.”  
"If a 25-year-old could accurately predict their use of private health insurance, their premium would be half what it currently is."
Globally, leaders are exactly the same as they are in Australia. Does anyone else think that Mikhail Gorbachev in calling for nuclear disarmament is being just a tad hypocritical? On 5 November at 1.31pm Tim Wright, treaty coordinator of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, tweeted, “The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev urges all countries to declare that nuclear weapons should be destroyed.” The tweet came with a link to a video on the BBC’s website with the kicker, “The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has warned that current tension between Russia and the West is putting the world in ‘colossal danger’ due to the threat from nuclear weapons.”

All of these things were summed up for me by a couple of tweets that I saw around this time. I was listening to the ABC’s news channel on the TV on the morning of 8 September when a man started talking about how organisations that reward loyalty invariably become oligarchies. I looked this up online and found a page on Wikipedia titled ‘Iron law of oligarchy’ that talks about the theory of a German sociologist named Michels. The theory dates from 1911.

So corruption is inevitable as long as people are involved. The mob rules. The individual is crushed. In this vein, on 8 September at 8am I saw a retweet from a US account that regularly posts about the media and politics. The tweet she had sent was from a person called Ken Montenegro from Utah and it said, “The most dangerous silence is the silence people keep until it's ‘safe’ to break it.” ‘Nuf sed ..

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Dream journal: Thirteen

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is always the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

16 November

Dreamt I was walking at night along a river. I was carrying a stack of placards that I had picked up from somewhere after getting off a tram, which had stopped at its terminus. My destination was a bit further on. I had met a friend on the tram. In real life I meet with this friend regularly and I have known him for a long time. In the dream he was with a group of friends and they were going drinking. I talked with them for a while and then they headed off on foot somewhere else, away to my right.

Then as I was walking by the water, along a curve in the river that bent to my left, a young man in a yellow shirt came up to me, and talked to me. I asked him if he was going to rob me and he said he wasn’t, he just wanted to talk. He went away. I had under my arm 25 posters that contained the text of a piece of writing that had been on the walls of the tram carriage I had been in. I had thought the writing was very good and I knew the name of the writer (Geoff Page). One of the headings used in the text was the word “marijuana” but misspelled for rhetorical purposes as though someone with little education had written it. In the present case, the misspelling was done to imbue the text with humour.

After I was alone again I ended up talking with a black man and an old woman who were going in the same direction as me. At one stage the man and I were alone as we went along. I asked him where the woman had gone and he pointed ahead and said she was there. I looked and saw it was true: she was up ahead on a path that snaked up the hill we were ascending. Trees flanked the path and it was about as wide as a regular city carriageway. Then I got separated from the man and met another group of people, who I began to talk with.

It turned out that one of them had a stack of magazines in which Geoff Page’s writing – the exact piece that had been mounted in the tram and that was on the placards under my arm – had been published. I grabbed a copy and admired the red cover with its black text stamped deeply into the cardboard. I then decided to leave the placards, many of which I had already misplaced, behind. In any case I now didn’t have a complete set. There had been five different placards in each set and I originally had five sets. Now I had maybe eight placards under my arm and two of two of them, so not the full text. I hadn’t been planning on putting the text on my blog – that would have breached the author’s copyright – just writing about it, and I wanted the text to refer to as some of the expressions had appeared to me to be very nice.

I talked to one of the men, the one with the stack of magazines, about climate change and the burden humanity is placing on the earth’s ecosystem. I then quoted to him the final couplet of a sonnet I had written years earlier and he was enthusiastic, saying that what I had written was precisely the truth. In real life the sonnet was written on 4 February 2013 and it is titled ‘The Human Condition – I’. It goes like this.
Ideas must be coaxed to come to the fore;
success wants more than displays of power.
When after epiphanies we need more
than just the silence of the pre-dawn hours. 
Attached to the edge of each thought you have
there’s a docking station for the next one,
but they move right on, the good and the grave,
cascading from the body of the sun, 
falling off the moon’s contemplative face,
descending meekly out of the raincloud,
rising like fog from off the grainy page,
seeping like mist out of every shadow. 
When no more beasts can be put to the knife
beauty becomes everybody’s wildlife.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Book review: Where the Jackals Howl, Amos Oz (1980)

Originally published in Hebrew in 1965, this is the author’s first published work of fiction and it is ravishingly good on that account. Oz died in 2018 and I have written about his work before but it always strikes me, when I read his prose, how competent he was at what he did. I can’t understand why he never got the Nobel.

This collection of stories derives for its inspiration from the desert, where Oz lived for part of his life on a kibbutz. The jackal follows the reader from one story to the next, popping up like a refrain to enliven your experience. And you can feel the author’s youth in these stories – he was about 26 at the time they were first published in his native tongue – and there furthermore is a kind of ellipsis in some of them, a gap where things seem to happen outside the reader’s sight. Violence is never far from the surface and the thing that is left out is usually some form of extreme action that serves to turn the narrative in a new direction.

Having spent some time in Israel and in other Middle Eastern countries, I intuitively recognised the characters that Oz creates. For me, reading this book at this time, it was like returning to a place I had already been to.

The last story in this collection – ‘Upon this Evil Earth’ – is different from the others as it is not set in a modern Israel, rather, instead, it is a kind of parable set in a mythical past. It is stupendous, however, a great shining jewel of a story ..

My copy of the book is part of an edition brought out by Vintage in 2005, and I bought it from the Co-op Bookshop.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Train trips: Nine

This is the ninth post in a series. The first in the series went up on 27 July 2019. This series is similar in its execution to the ‘collage’ series that started in May 2017.

16 August

Caught the tram from Central to the casino, on my way home. I arrived at the light rail platform at Central at 9.40pm and tapped on with my Opal card using the reader installed near the tracks. Then I queued. There were seven minutes to wait until the tram arrived. There were other people on the platform but it wasn’t crowded. It was late on a Friday night and most people had already gone home.

Two young Asian women standing near me on the platform were talking to each other and it sounded like Cantonese but I wasn’t sure. When the tram pulled up at the inbound stop the sign on its front read “Central.” After the passengers had all got off, the sign changed to “Dulwich Hill.” The tram moved forward along its rails, with the driver, a heavyset, older Anglo man, visible in his cabin at the front of the vehicle. It came to the outbound platform and the doors opened. I got on and sat down.

Other people got on the tram at the same stop, including two young Asian men who looked tired. One of them sat down in a seat opposite me, to the right, and the other placed his bottom on the top of a raised seat and leaned his torso back a bit toward the window.

A group of young people also got on who were evidently on their way to the casino. There were some young women, and a young man who wore a tan coloured camouflage T-shirt with writing on it. He had dyed blonde hair and he spoke in a husky voice. He moved around the carriage a lot and talked to his companions. They all looked to be just out of their teens, on a big night out in the adult world.

At another stop two more young Asian men got on. One of them sat down in a seat near mine and he gestured to his companion to sit down next to me, but this man declined the invitation. They talked to each other in Chinese. At Pyrmont Bay a young couple, both of whom were Asian, got on. The woman placed her bottom on the top of a raised seat and, leaning her back toward the window, stood there as the man had done who I had earlier seen standing in the carriage. The man who was with her stood to her right, facing her and talking with her.

Apart from the group of young revellers everyone, at this hour, seemed to be exhausted. It was unusual for me to travel on a train so late, so I was especially aware of these things. At the casino, where we arrived at 10.05pm, as I had anticipated the young people on their night out got off the tram. I tapped off with my card and, walking just behind them, went up an escalator. They were talking about how they should have stayed in the casino’s hotel. One of the young women commented that there were seven of them in the group so they could split the tab seven ways.

At the top of the escalator I looked north along the corridor but from a glance that way it looked as though the door at its end was closed so I went down the external escalator and walked around the east side of the building, heading left up the hill. I got home at 10.15pm.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Book review: The Clash of Fundamentalisms, Tariq Ali (2002)

I read up to page 256 many years ago and I thought, a few days ago, that this book might be worth revisiting but I was mistaken: this is a tendentious screed only justified by the stupidity of the US administration in preparing to invade Iraq. I even hadn’t remembered anything from the time of my first reading, which would have happened at least a decade ago.

The cover of the book has a Warhol-style montage with George W Bush’s face photoshopped with a beard and cap (taqiyah) to make the (then) US president look like a mullah. The message is clear and reflects feelings that were shared by many in many communities at the time about the US’ approach to radical Islam following 9/11.

But the problems with the book go much deeper than any general unease about the “coalition of the willing” – which included the UK as well as Australia in addition to the US – invading Iraq. The book is evidence of a fairly conventional but misguided understanding of economic realities. Ali blames Capital for all the evils of the world, including the attacks on the Twin Towers. This despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of men, women and children from the developing world annually migrate to developed countries seeking out opportunities to prosper in pluralistic democracies. Ali’s view is, unfortunately, shared by many but it is deeply flawed as the problems that beset the frail and corruption-filled polities of so many countries reflect mostly indigenous failures to adequately manage the polis. 

But you find so many, especially in the developing world, who share Ali’s ideas. Their countrymen and -women however reveal a different truth when they move to live in Australia or the US or to Canada or France. This is the real mark of value, but no country can ever learn the lessons it needs to understand in order to thrive. Each country must make the same mistakes as every other country, just as a parent cannot save his or her children from making the same mistakes he or she made in his or her own youth.

I didn’t read as much of the book the second time around. The section on the author’s childhood is, like the other parts of the book I read this time, boring and over-long.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Visual disturbances: Six

These photos were taken, on 3 August 2008, while I was visiting the capital of the state of Victoria. At some point during the afternoon or late morning on that day I walked from Melbourne’s central business district to the suburb of Fitzroy. Later that day, in the evening as it was getting dark, I walked to Carlton, another inner-city enclave.

This photo of a burning motorcycle taken that day at 1.07pm, from the doorway of a restaurant on Johnston Street in Fitzroy, neatly echoes the theme of armed revolt that emerges in what follows below. (I don’t remember, unfortunately, what I ate for lunch.)

The rest of the photos that are shown below were taken between 5.37pm and 6.15pm. The final shot shows Drummond Street as seen from the front door of Carlton’s La Mama Theatre, where I went to see a play. I don’t remember too much about that day, but the play’s title is ‘Three Oaks’. Its final performance at the theatre was on 10 August, so this must be the one (I looked up the details online). The playwright’s name is Monica Raszewski.

That evening’s migrant theme fits a pattern as my grandfather, who came to this country from Africa in around 1925, was from the earliest parts of his sojourn in Melbourne – which would last until his death in 1979 – a staunch supporter of the Carlton Football Club. He died a few years after the revolution in what is now Mozambique but which, when he had lived there, was called Portuguese East Africa. 

"Self taught to speak and read English and proud of it," wrote my father Peter in his memoir (which he started in the early 90s in his retirement), "I understand that my father’s view of the world was that the British knew the best way to govern and both he and Maria Nazaré (his sister) desired to have English spouses and live in English speaking countries.” This expressed sentiment could, of course, merely indicate the bias that influenced my father’s memory. We’ll never know.

In 2011, dad died from septicaemia stemming from refractory (stubborn) urosepsis which, it is recorded on his death certificate, existed for two years prior to his demise. Before entering the nursing home in 2009 he been forced, for a period of about two years, to empty his bladder using catheters inserted into his penis. Eventually, he had a permanent catheter installed so that he could micturate. Dad also had Alzheimer’s disease, which had marked his life for at least three years.

So we never knew for sure why Joao Luis left the home he grew up in, although he did go on a long trek overland when he was 18, visiting different countries, including South Africa, where his sister ended up living.

There were more mysteries about my father’s parents that in time I learned about, but this one remains intact. No-one in the Portuguese arms of the family knows the answer to the question. Joao Luis’ father had been the chief of police in the colonial capital, so Joao Luis had been practically guaranteed a comfortable life if he had chosen to remain at home but perhaps, in addition to admiring our British heritage, he anticipated by 50 years the upheavals.

I was born in Melbourne but grew up in Sydney. When I was 10 days old my mother, with me in her arms and my brother in tow, relocated to the capital of New South Wales. In these photos you can see some of Melbourne’s wide streets which, when the city was designed, were set out in a regular grid. This pattern extends right across the city and contrasts starkly with Sydney’s disorganised road network, which grew haphazard from a tiny core at the end of the 18th century.