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Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Private-school education promotes social mobility

I had a Twitter to-do last Friday with a couple of people who object to the government funding private schools. The day before, the prime minister had announced a package of new money for private education to the tune of $4.6 billion. I told the women I was communicating with on Twitter that I had gone to a private school and that people I know had chosen to send their kids to Catholic schools (even those who are not Catholics) because of concerns about educational quality.

I put up a review of a book that had been published this year by someone I used to know back in my undergraduate days, and that I had especially enjoyed reading. The review was published on 25 July and the book’s title is ‘Saint Antony in his Desert’. It's a work of fiction and it is full of wisdom, humanity and intelligence. The writer had gone to a Catholic school when he was growing up before moving to Sydney to attend Sydney Uni. But this example was written off as a mere anecdote not deserving of a response. I could have listed all the men I know who now write who went to the same school I attended but I didn't.

I also pointed out that a third of secondary school students in Australia go to a private schools, but I was confusingly asked by one of the women I was talking with what the relevance of this statistic was. The point was that funding private schools was popular because so many people sent their kinds to private schools for their secondary education. But the lady was not for turning. The standard left narrative goes that private schools are only there to make the children of the wealthy feel superior, and that they are part of a system of oppression that keeps some people poor and some rich. But social mobility is much better in Australia than in the UK or the US, where private schools do not get government funding.

In fact, according to 2012 research conducted by the Sutton Trust, a UK-based foundation established in 1997 to foster social mobility, in Australia and Canada social mobility is twice as good as it is in the UK or in the US. This information is illustrated by a chart produced by the independent Conference Board of Canada. In Canada, about seven percent of secondary school students attend a private school. But there, private schools receive a government subsidy on a per-student basis that is a percentage of the total amount of funds that public schools receive per student. The rate varies by province and in some provinces private schools receive no such subsidy.

In the UK, only seven percent of secondary school students go to a private school, and there is no public money for the sector (and private schools consequently do not need to make their students follow the state curriculum), although private schools do not pay tax as they are treated by the government as charities. In the US, around 10 percent of secondary school students attend a private school and there are some scholarships for students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. There are also scholarships for such students in the UK, where they are called “means tested bursaries”.

Something that often gets overlooked in all these debates is that not all private schools are the same. The one I went to, Cranbrook, is among the most expensive in the country but there are many other independent schools that are much less costly to attend. Fees for Catholic systemic schools are also not as high as those charged by the most elite independents. There is a range of options for parents who want to send their child to a private school.

One more important factor in the whole debate is that having a strong private education sector lifts the game for everyone because it can serve to offer competition for public educators. By giving parents an affordable alternative for their children, the very existence of private schools in Australia keeps public teachers focused on achieving good outcomes for their students. Any marked lapse in the quality of education will quickly be punished, with parents being able to move their children to the other side.

One of the women I was talking with admitted that Bill Shorten, if he wins the federal election that will be held next year, will not take money away from private schools. I had pointed out that Mark Latham's promise, voiced in September 2004, to take money away from private schools so that it could be given to public schools had, in my mind, lost him the election that was held that year.

In the end another one of the women I was talking to on Twitter flatly said that she would not read my blogpost once it was published. “I for one won’t be reading it. Thanks for highlighting your embedded class beliefs. Your privilege is screaming. Private education makes you better? Seriously.”

All of this does not lessen the need for good-quality public education, which is essential for the proper conduct of a democracy. I have written before about another urgent need: to make tertiary education free for the student in order to improve the quality of the populace.

What the present debate does demonstrate however is that there is a pressing need in general for more education, not less. The kinds of rebarbative, and sometimes even abusive, behaviour you find on social media tells us that we need to spend more money teaching young people how to think and reason properly. People’s emotional responses to things they see online could then be better tempered by wider reading and by taking more care in the formulation of their ideas. 

Monday, 24 September 2018

Book review: The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson (2015)

This experimental novel reads like a series of cuttings from catalogues made for art exhibitions. The tone is learned and this removes the reader from the action (if that is what you want to call the things that transpire in it) making it very difficult to form ideas about the characters who are presented to you.

The main character is a woman with a small son who strikes up a relationship with another person, who is presumably also a woman, and she has a child of her own. But nothing is confirmed (or not in the part of the text I finished, which was about 14 percent of the whole) so you’re left wondering all the time about how you are supposed to think or feel about what takes place in the story, such as it is.

A lot of the time the narrator refers to things that have been taken out of books that she finds germane to her own case, but there is an attempt to create a more enduring set of feelings when she starts talking about her own stepfather. This tactic is not fully realised however as she then goes off talking about something else that distracts her attention. Nothing gets hammered down and you are left floundering in a morass of ideas that do not mean much at all.

For me reading, I remembered the readings that I had done especially in my early twenties when I got interested in American literature and went off exploring in the wildernesses of learning with volumes secured in the university library and from second-hand bookshops. I would get on my racing bike in my apartment in Glebe and ride into George Street in the city looking for poetry and novels at Goulds’ opposite the Hoyts cinema that would satisfy my curiosity. On the other hand, I never managed to finish a book of postmodern theory, although I did read some of a book by Roland Barthes at one stage during my undergraduate degree.

Nelson’s book is an unfortunately remote exercise, in reading which you never really get to know the characters. This seems to me to be a fatal flaw. At least you need to have a handle on where the ideas are centred in the narrative. At least you need to give your reader something concrete to hold onto as you go about trying to render visible the inexpressible you feel at the core of your being. At least you need to be kind, or considerate.

I was reminded after putting the book down of the novel by the Australian journalist Bridie Jabour that I had read earlier in the year and which was reviewed here on 27 July. Titled ‘The Way Things Should Be’, it tells the story of a family brought together to celebrate the marriage of one of its members. In the end it all ends in tears and the daughter who causes most of the drama is the one who is a lesbian. Her animus against her mother results in a catastrophic misstep that almost leads to someone’s death. I thought that it was apt for Jabour to end her book in that way. The identities of urban minorities are usually still merely formulated in opposition to something else, rather than as a delirious affirmation of something unique that they find in themselves.

At bottom I’m in favour of privileging the aspirations of people like the women described in this novel and I understand the need they feel to establish the credibility. in relation to the mainstream. of their own heroes, their own models of conduct to follow. But the trick for someone like Nelson is how to make the politics of queer identity universal so that any reader can understand what it is like to live in that world. This book just doesn’t do that well enough.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Social media and the cultural elites

There are many “elites” in our society. If you are an executive with a company that funds building construction you are part of a economic elite. If you are a journalist or the adviser to a politician you are part of the political elite. And if you are a university teacher you are part of the cultural elite.

A construction company executive might have the same tastes as many of the construction workers his company pays a wage to. He might like the rugby league and he might go to the pub on the weekend and gamble on the pokies, or else make his way to the casino for a discrete flutter on the velvet-covered tables that are set up there. But the cultural elites make their living by participating in the process of creating culture, including in the form of education for people who want to understand it and so use it for some purpose that we think to be central to our identity as members of the dominant global civilisation.

Like anyone else, the cultural elites are involved in public discourse in many ways, including through social media. But the problem is that the way they use the new tools is antithetical, in many instances, to the spirit of enquiry that has animated their ilk from at least the age of Dante and Petrarch. The rules and, more importantly, the tone of social media, have decisively pulled the rug out from underneath them as they try to come to grips with the contemporary public sphere. They have fallen and there is no-one out there with the strength, apart from  themselves, to put them back on their feet.

I was talking not long ago with someone I know who teaches at a university and he was describing a program his institution was promoting for academics in order to get them to expand their reach in the broader community. Ideas were to be described on a platform the university had built and promoted in the community to garner support in order to work out which projects would receive funding so that they could go ahead. Like voting in a GoFundMe campaign. In his voice there was an intimation of incredulity as he detailed the ways that the institution’s management had short-circuited the collegiate nature of academia. Nowadays it seemed, you had to participate in a popularity contest in order to get money to back your ideas.

But academics have on the other hand enthusiastically embraced the censorious vernacular of social media. One man on whose Facebook feed I was debating the economics of agriculture in Australia quietly asked me to stop commenting because I wouldn’t accept his reading of history. I had been suggesting that agriculture had been central to the economy for much of the nation’s early history but his understanding was at variance with mine, and he thought that most people employed on the land in the colonial period had experienced unalloyed hardship. I had put forward a different case but he wasn’t interested in debating the details. He had his theories and he wasn’t going to be diverted from his course as he relied on them to make his points. I obligingly retired from the field.

On another occasion, on Twitter, a woman whose handle contains the name of a famous French postmodernist theoretician made statements about the correlations she had observed between Germany in the 1930s and contemporary America. I commented that I thought that the facts of the cases were different and gave my reasons why. She replied saying that I was “mansplaining” to her and further informed me that she was a teacher of sociology as it involved Germany and that she thought my arguments were incorrect.

Back on Facebook, an academic I am connected to was posting stories about the University of Sydney’s involvement with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. He objected to any alliance between the organisations on the basis that to open up a dialogue between them would, he thought, lend credibility to an ideologically-driven conservative body with a stale agenda antithetical to the ideals of progress at the centre of the university’s identity. I posted a blogpost I had written about the origins of modern technology and democracy, which said that these innovations had arisen in Europe at certain periods in history for certain reasons. The academic had read the post, I am sure of it, because he ‘liked’ another comment I made on the same thread, but he made no mention of my blogpost or of the ideas it contained. He clearly believed that democracy and modern technology were universal both in origin and in application and had decided to belittle my observations pointing to a contrary finding. His studied evasion in the face of the content I had put forward to advance certain ideas central to the debate told me much about the vaunted academic freedoms he was trying to protect.

Again on Facebook, I read a story published in The Conversation that a contemporary artist I was connected to had put up to provoke debate. It was about Australian women artists. I said that there had been no major Australian artists, either men or women, before WWII and gave the reasoning behind my statements. His reply was merely that I was “impressively ignorant”. I had been a follower of the art world from my teens and had been thought a good artist when I was young. I attended art school for a period of time and had studied fine arts at university for two years as part of my undergraduate degree. I had also followed the art industry with interest for my entire life. For certain I was not ignorant, but the tone of debate demanded that I be silenced, so I unfollowed this man quietly and went about my business.

On Twitter I read an article that had been published in The Economist by a young Australian writer which had been broadcast by a doctoral student at the Australian National University. I read the article and thought its ideas were half-baked and commented that I thought it was “amateurish”. The doctoral student rebuked me, telling me that my language was “unnecessarily harsh”. The article’s author told me that since she and I appeared to have irreconcilable differences she chose not to pursue the argument any further. I stayed silent faced with this opposition.

Journalists have the same basic goal as academics: to present the fact in an objective way. Accurate conclusions can be drawn from facts presented truthfully but there is even a word for the kind of bias you often find academics using online in their social media discourse. This is teleology: the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes. This sort of anti-intellectual behaviour does violence to the facts but is commonplace on social media where the aim is merely to win the argument by any means necessary, often at the cost of the truth.

What all of this unpleasantness tells me is that the cultural elites are enthusiastic proponents of social media and use it as aggressively as your average (left-wing or right-wing) troll in order to promote their favourite views regardless how narrow these might be. They are not babes in the wood, nor are they merely subject to unwarranted censure by an ignorant rabble. They are participating with eyes wide open in a system of communication that encourages verbal abuse at worst and at least an ugly contempt for opponents.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

User communication by technology companies

When I worked in the education sector as a technical writer I had, one year, a new manager. He was the manager of my manager initially but when my manager left, and wasn’t immediately replaced, he was the person I reported to. He was a physically large Anglo male who was younger than me and had a background in IT. I was part of the change management team, and part of my job was communication with users of the computer software that our unit produced. At one stage this manager asked me if I wanted to start asking users who had been phoned by the help desk for their opinion on their experience. I can’t remember exactly what I said to him when he asked me this question, but we never went ahead with the idea.

The other day I received an email from AbeBooks, the used-book outlet where you buy things that have gone out of print using a credit card, and which is owned by Amazon. The email asked me to complete a questionnaire about the experience I had had buying a book on their website. Of course I ignored it. Who would answer such a ridiculous question? The transaction was complete, the book had arrived, and I was busy reading it or contemplating reading it (books get put in piles around the place until I have time to sit down with them). The email was just an annoyance.

But communications from technology companies are almost always mere irritations. Designed to get you to interact with the provider in a way that suits them, and not you, these missives remain unread as a rule. Twitter emails telling me what people I follow have said online are a classic example of the genre but there are others, too. Facebook notifications telling me that someone I am connected to has had a birthday on the day the notification arrives are another example. Recently, LinkedIn has gotten in on the game by sending notifications to you that link to a “daily rundown” that presumably contains topical news; I wouldn’t know exactly, I have never checked to see what the page linked to contains.

Back in the old days when you signed up to an online service you would get a series of vapid emails on a daily or weekly basis sent to your inbox, and then after a barrage of complaints it became standard practice to enable users to unsubscribe from mailing lists. Of course, everyone immediately went ahead and unsubscribed from everything that they had unwittingly been signed up for. But technology companies keep up the feed of useless messages as long as they see a return in some form. Whether that is getting some lumpen prole to answer questions in a survey, or if it’s getting someone to leave a message on someone’s timeline wishing them happy birthday, the object is simply to get you to do something that the company wants you to do.

Meanwhile, I have been having real problems: with my internet connection. During one week recently I had to phone the company four times in order to get them to fix the service, which kept dropping out for no discernible reason. Then the help desk operator connected me to a supervisor who sounded like she would take shit from no-one. She took down my address details and organised for a technician to visit my apartment to check on the phone line. He duly arrived one afternoon and did some things inside the apartment where the socket is connected to the kitchen wall. Then I took him to the security office for the complex and got the key to the switch room in the basement carpark. He spent some more time in there and then came back upstairs and told me he would make a report. I expect to hear from the company in the near future but in the meantime, since starting all my phone calling, the connection has been fairly reliable. The squeaky wheel …

Friday, 21 September 2018

Japan would be advised to adopt multiculturalism

The other week on the way to the shopping centre near my home in Sydney to get my hair cut I passed a large group of children and adults in Wentworth Park who here having an "undoukai" (a sports day).

As I walked along the concrete path with green grass stretching away on both sides of it, I heard a public address system being used to count the number of beanbags that had been collected in two laundry baskets I could see from where I was on the path: one for the red team and one for the white team. A man was counting "ni-juu ichi, ni-juu ni, ni-juu san" ("twenty one, twenty two, twenty three") and other men were grabbing beanbags from the baskets and throwing them on the ground in a rhythm to match the counting. Two teams of children compete in this activity, trying to throw beanbags into baskets that are hard to reach, being placed on poles, and the team that ends up with the most beanbags in its basket wins the event.

Sports days like this are held every year in Japan. The children I saw were of primary-school age and they had little caps (red and white) on their heads to show which team they belonged to. On the way back home after eating lunch and the haircut I heard the guy on the PA system declaring the red team the winner in whatever event it was they were running at the time. All the kids with red caps stood up and cheered. This kind of socialisation of children is popular in Japan, and the ability to get along in groups is emphasised from a very early age.

But this event I witnessed was not so much Japanese as Australian. Our former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, liked to say that Australia is the most successful multicultural nation in the world. This view is predicated partly on the lack of mass terror events here. There have been two attacks on civilians in recent times that could be classified as Islamic terrorism, but not the kinds of events that they have had in Europe where many people have been killed.

But it has taken a long time to get where we are. Australia adopted multiculturalism in 1974 during the years of the Whitlam Labor government, becoming just the second country in the world to do so (after Canada), and the succeeding Fraser Liberal (conservative) government kept the policy in place. Now, over half of the population has at least one parent who was born overseas. The population is growing at a rate of 1.7 percent annually, which is over twice the rate as that which applies in the US. As of July, Australia had the fifth-strongest growing population of all OECD countries. Australia has not had a recession for something like 26 years.

In Japan, things are not looking so promising. The population is shrinking and the country’s sovereign debt is over twice the amount of its annual gross domestic product. But even people who have close associations with foreigners think that immigration is not a good idea. The Japanese are drowning in a morass resulting from their own xenophobia.

The recent US Open tennis competition win of Naomi Osaka, a mixed-race Japanese player throws these debates into high relief. Tokyo-based journalist Jake Adelstein wrote about the issues surrounding Osaka in a recent story. Osaka will probably eventually end up jettisoning her Japanese citizenship because otherwise she’ll have to give up her American citizenship, and she has lived in the US since she was a toddler. She also speaks very basic Japanese but is fluent in English.

The law in Japan that says that you have to choose which citizenship you want to keep is typical of the kind of unfriendly regulations that abound in Japan when it comes to foreigners. It is virtually impossible to get Japanese citizenship and foreign names cannot be used on the household certificate that the prefecture office holds for each family, meaning that fathers from overseas who live in Japan have to go onto their wives’ document as a dependant. If you are a holder of a permanent residency visa and you leave Japan and your passport expires, you cannot move the visa to the new passport unless you are still living in Japan, so effectively you can lose your PR. These kinds of rule will have to change if Japan wants to be able to pay for the care of its ageing baby boomers, but the very people who might make the necessary changes are dead set against them. It’s a Mexican stand-off.

Book review: City Life, Seamus O’Hanlon (2018)

This is a curious book by an Australian academic that looks at the make-up of cities in the country from the 1960s to the present day, focusing on demographics and especially on employment and housing. I read about 30 percent before giving up at the point where I felt that I had no more to learn. At that point, O’Hanlon was talking about the way the two major cities (Sydney and Melbourne) had become magnets for immigrants from the Middle East and Asia in the early part of this century.

In the earlier parts of the book, the author spends a lot of time on more interesting aspects of the urban story, especially on the way that the economy in the post-war period was altered by deregulation starting in the Whitlam years when import tariffs were cut by 25 percent across the board. The oil shocks of the seventies combined with economic recession in the 1980s to worsen the effects of the widespread unemployment that followed further deregulation under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and O’Hanlon spends time later describing the ways that the economy nationwide changed to become more focused on services than on manufacturing.

He also notes that the model for the process of deregulation for which Hawke and Keating are more famous was Scandinavia rather than the UK or the USA, and the pain felt by the working classes in Australia was consequently less acute than that which was felt by workers in those two countries. Here, it was a softer fall, but the end result was the same: manufacturing now accounts for a very small proportion of the wider economy.

Alongside the shift from manufacturing to service jobs was the move of service-industry workers into the inner-city areas of both Melbourne and Sydney. Education, also, has become far more important to the national economy, as have jobs that are dominated by women such as healthcare. Demographic changes and changes in cultural mores have resulted in a very different workforce, now, than the one which was present in the 1970s, the point at which O’Hanlon’s book opens.

The question still has to be asked however whether the removal of cosseted manufacturing industries that were unable to compete against global competitors was a good move. When looked at in the aggregate, you’d have to say that we are better off now than we were in the 1980s when you consider things like the cost of goods and average salaries. To buy consumer goods now it costs a smaller proportion of the average salary. On the other hand, many jobs that are in growing industries now are not unionised, and the increasing number of workers on temporary and casual contracts means that such considerations as job security, and things it such as mortgages that rely on it, is today very much under threat.

Another point that the author makes is that the two big cities are becoming more like other major international entrepots, such as New York or London, than other population centres in Australia, even other capital cities. This is because most immigrants move to these two centres when they arrive in Australia. And our regions are even more dissimilar than Sydney and Melbourne. These differences are likely to lead to a growing sense of alienation in the polis more broadly as the regions react to the slow multiculturalisation of the two big cities where most of the country’s managers also live.

I found the author’s reliance on Latinate words unsurprising but challenging at first, but I persevered with the job of reading the book despite this shortcoming. It’s a common affliction when you read works produced by scholars in the social sciences, they seem to think that words stemming from a Latin root are more respectable than your common-or-garden Germanic noun or adjective.

I have to wonder at the author’s desire to make the book topical, as though no-one would be interested in reading about things that had happened in the immediate post-war period. For me, that period is precisely the most interesting part of the history of the 20th century. But O’Hanlon probably thinks that most people want to read about Chinese migrants buying two-bedroom apartments in Waterloo. 

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Book review: My Family and Other Animus, James Jeffrey (2018)

This memoir disproves the old adage that every journalist has a book in them. The author is a News Corp employee and this book reads like a series of newspaper columns kept together with sticky tape.

It reminded me of the unreadable ‘The Bootle Boy’ by former News Corp editor Les Hinton that I reviewed here on 31 July this year, although it’s not quite as vile as that is. Jeffrey’s book is however amorphous, prolix and lacks any sort of narrative arc that might have helped it to coalesce into something solid and useful. It’s a stab-in-the-dark, a good try that wants at the same time to appear both wise and whimsical but, unfortunately, is a dreadful bore.

A nursing home experience

After mum went into a nursing home (I should say more precisely, "After I put mum into a nursing home") there was never any time over the next two-and-a-half years that she lived there that she was being treated with anything other than careful solicitude. The stories that are coming out, that are linked to the prime minister's decision to set up a royal commission into the aged care industry, are alien to my experience. In the place mum lived in the staff were kind and considerate and always made sure to check on mum so that she wouldn't be unnecessarily inconvenienced.

There was one problem with another resident, who lived in a room near mum's, and who used to call out to mum to ask her to help her. This resident was very old and frail and bossy and would try to get mum to come to her room and help her to get to the toilet. I mentioned this circumstance to the staff in the nursing home and they eventually moved that resident to a different part of the building so that she could be better looked after and so that she wouldn't bother mum anymore.

The only thing that I consider a problem in nursing homes is their sanitariness. Mum had cellulitis on her legs because of her poor circulation. This is a condition that makes it easy to get infections. She was also taking a drug for her blood disease (myelodysplastic syndrome) that reduced her body's ability to fight infections. This combination eventually led to her death. On one occasion when I had taken her to the hospital to get her treated for an infection one of the nurses there said something about cleanliness in nursing homes, in a way that made me understand that she wasn't surprised by mum's dilemma.

During the period of time mum was in the nursing home I would usually go to see her two or three times a week. The place is in Epping in a leafy suburb and there is a park next-door to the nursing home where mum and I would go to watch dogs being walked by their owners. There are big eucalypts and pine trees in the park and sulphur crested cockatoos would come in flocks to nestle in the trees. There were magpies as well, who would stalk along on the grass looking for food.

Mum loved going to the park and I would sign her out in the logbook kept on the counter of the nurse’s station on her floor, and we would take the lift downstairs before walking out the front entrance with its ramp and guardrail. One of the residents who lived on the ground floor of the building was in the habit of feeding the cockatoos and often one of the big, white birds would be perched on her balustrade waiting for her to emerge. If she was sitting on her balcony mum and I would wish her good morning and comment on the bird that had chosen to sit there on that day, before heading to the street which we would cross to reach the park.

We would sit there on a bench in the sun for thirty minutes or so until it was time for lunch, then we would head inside again. Sometimes near the lifts on the first floor, the floor of the building where mum’s room was located, we would bump into the bubbly and intelligent manager of the institution, who always had a chat with mum about this or that when they met. She was a tall Anglo with dark hair and she had been the one to sign me up to the contract in the beginning, in 2015. She knew the names of all the residents and took time each day to talk with those of them she met during her sorites from her office, which was located near the nurse’s station, and share things with them. Eventually she was poached by another part of the company and went to work somewhere else and a new manager, also an Anglo woman, replaced her.

The floor staff were separated into the regular staff and the registered nurses, who were the ones who had gone through additional training and who were responsible for administering the types of care that required medical knowledge. There were also regular visitors to the building who brought special knowledge with them, such as the physiotherapist who told me to get rid of mum’s three-wheeled walker and buy her a four-wheeled one. On another occasion, a footwear company sent a saleswoman to fit special shoes that would go on mum’s often swollen feet.

One of the regular staff in the nursing home mum lived in undertook RN training and became a registered nurse during the time I was visiting the establishment. She had a round face and a high-pitched voice that was so small you had to concentrate to catch what she said to you. She was from a Chinese background, and spoke English with an accent. Other staff in the nursing home were migrants or 457-visa holders from India or the Philippines and some of them had elderly parents of their own back home whom they were unable to care for because they were looking after the parents of Australians. The staff were all familiar with the residents’ medical needs, and understood their cognitive and physical deficits intimately. Paying for this kind of care is expensive but the majority of the people who work in nursing homes are dedicated and responsible.

The thing about financing nursing homes is that the government has been trying for some time to get families to look after their elderly parents at home because it is cheaper that way. As part of the government’s campaign to reduce the costs it incurs that are associated with aged care, in 2015 the law was even changed so that people would have their assets assessed by Centrelink as well as their income before their nursing home fees were calculated. This was a bipartisan policy designed to capture more of the wealth of the elderly, who are usually asset-rich but who mostly do not have much in the way of an income.

The form that you fill in to declare assets and income runs to about 30 pages and it is a struggle even for a person who is able-bodied and whose mental faculties have not been reduced by common age-related conditions such as dementia. My accountant filled in the form for me when it came time to submitting the form. How an elderly husband or wife would cope with this stubborn bureaucratic hurdle is beyond my understanding.

The other thing that needs to be noted in relation to nursing homes is that your position as a relative of an elderly person who is looking for a place in a nursing home is delicate. You are not working from a position of equality vis-à-vis the nursing home. If you find a place in a nursing home you have to take it straight away in most cases because places don’t often come up. So you jump at the chance offered and you will sign away assets without looking in too much detail at the terms of the contract you are given.

The government’s attempts to reduce the cost that looking after the elderly places on it has fed into decisions it has taken in recent years. These decisions reflect the uncomfortable reality that the baby boomer generation is ageing and that its members will, at some point in the not-so-distant future, require looking after in a way that costs a lot of money. Most of the medical expenses you will have in your life, if you are a typical westerner, are incurred in the final six months of your existence on the earth.

The idea of living in a nursing home might put some people off but the reality is that in many cases older people have multiple health problems, each of which would make it difficult for them to be properly looked after at home, even if you provide services that involve professionals visiting during the day to do such things as bathing, physiotherapy, housecleaning, laundry, maintenance, and cooking. The burden will rest with carers, who are usually part of the person’s family.

In the US, where the government provides no funds for aged care, it is very common for the elderly to live with sons or daughters, possibly in a spare room in their house, possibly even in the basement. During the day, who looks after such elderly citizens if their child works in an office? Sometimes children have to give up a job in order to be at home during the day. We don’t want that kind of system to evolve here. The collective must pay to look after the old and the frail.

To get a better settlement in this sector of the economy we need to work from a position of informedness. But that probably won’t happen soon. Even with the two-part ‘4 Corners’ program the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has made, most of us are not able to know all the details of the case unless we have lived through it ourselves, and even then our knowledge will necessarily be partial and incomplete.

I was reminded of the level of ignorance about nursing homes in the broader community when I saw the other day a cartoon by David Pope, who draws images for the Canberra Times. In his cartoon, the prime minister is shown standing facing a wall in a dingy-looking corridor, dressed in a hospital gown (with the back open) and holding a cup of what looks to be tea. The implication is that the PM has dementia and has forgotten that he had defunded the sector as part of a previous government. But hospital gowns are never worn in nursing homes, it is purely a piece of fiction. Similarly, most commentators who will be talking about the royal commission in the near future will not understand the conditions that exist in most nursing homes in Australia.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Book review: Outline, Rachel Cusk (2014)

This perfectly-formed novel of ideas resembles a Faberge egg in its scope and in the intricacy of its detailing. The narrative takes in a trip made by a writing teacher (whose name is given in the book but I didn’t take the opportunity when I read it to write it down; it only appears at one point in the story and for the rest of the time the narrator is just referred to as “she”) to Athens where she has been hired to run a writing course.

On the way there in the plane, she starts talking with an older man who the narrator identifies throughout the book as “her neighbour” because he sat in the seat next to her during the flight. She has coffee with a man named Ryan, who is also a writer, at one point. She also has dinner with a man who works for a publishing company and a woman who is a writer, and later she has dinner with two women, one of whom is a poet. The narrator’s neighbour twice takes her out on his motorboat, on which occasions she takes the opportunity offered to her to take a swim. Finally, the narrator meets another woman at the end of the story whose intercession is key to helping her resolve a problem she faces.

The book is full of stories. People are always telling the narrator about their lives, and her students tell her stories about animals because she has set that as a task for the class she holds. So there is plenty of material offering Cusk a chance to say important things about life, and she takes the opportunities offered to do just that. There are recurring themes, such as one which is introduced early in the book where you are asked to imagine a mountain climber who stops in his ascent and turns back to survey the route he has taken.

The author whose writing this novel reminded me of most is Helen Garner, the Australian literary journalist. Cusk, like Garner, has a genius that makes her vision appear to be precisely tuned to catch the way most people perceive the world, so that she ideally articulates the aspirations and beliefs of the mainstream. There is something here of the perfection of the very normal.

There has been some discussion as to whether Cusk’s narratives might be nonfiction but I think this is impossible. The interstices between seminal events is too short, the resonances that the author sets up between things that occur in the stories the characters tell each other and in the surrounding machinery of the narrative are too neat. You couldn’t orchestrate the world to behave with such aplomb. That way lies madness (and madness does appear in ‘Outline’ in a very real way). And there’s just too much detail in the recounts that Cusk integrates into the narrative for them to have been transcribed verbatim. Sometimes she has interlocutors who are talking with her hero while telling a story that someone else had told them. You are sometimes very far removed from the source of the story being told, but the texture of the stories is always entirely reliable and you don’t feel as though things are getting lost in the process of conveying details to the reader.

I think that the biggest threat to a novel with this much poise is that it will become mere material for undergraduates writing essays about literature. The book is so deeply self-referential, but nevertheless it retains critical links to the experience of living that let it retain universal relevance.

The refinement that characterises Cusk’s novel is not unlike the image Jane Austen used when she described her own novels to a correspondent: like pictures that are painted on little pieces of ivory with a fine brush. Another point of reference for me are the poems that Emily Dickinson wrote on the backs of old envelopes when she was alive. The use of this kind of material for her poetry is somewhat like Cusk’s use of conversations between people to tell her stories.

I think that the quiet way that Cusk creates meaning is the most important thing about her novel, and it would be a shame if it were to be referred to as a self-indulgent exercise only suitable to form fodder for university students. There is no doubt that Cusk is now a major force in literature globally but some people might turn up their noses at this book’s tendency to intellectualise the world. Again, I think that would be a shame as the book contains worlds of its own, and hints at the unseen depths that surround us in our daily lives where others abide wrapped in layers of stories, some of which are true and some of which are fiction, that they use to sustain and fortify themselves in the process of living their lives.

In fact, there is something about telling stories that is very profoundly human. We tell ourselves stories all the time. And the history of progress in the west is all about the telling of stories, as I described in a blogpost not long ago.

Book review: The Carrying, Ada Limon (2018)

This spectacular collection of poetry oozes sophistication and raw talent like some ravishingly decadent cake that is steeped in honey and garnished with lashings of dark chocolate.

I zipped through the book in a short hour or so, clenching my jaws to bite back guffaws of appreciation and sensing the hairs rise on the back of my neck as some of the poems worked on my central nervous system like a forgotten memory that you retrieve from its niche in your brain when you get into a lift and you smell the perfume of a previous occupant still lingering in the air inside it.

This work is exciting stuff. Words are given freshness by being granted the force of their original meanings once again. The poems are not long and they keep you interested in what they talk about for their entire length before delivering the punchline with a smack. The report that results from reading the final line in each poem is usually considerable, and this burden is paradoxically carried effortlessly across the barriers to your consciousness, serving to form an exclamation point to emphasise the meaning belonging to the whole.

At the heart of the book (the title alludes to this) is a problem conceiving children despite years of trying. So the writer produces this stunning poetry instead. At one point one of her avatars in the book says she describes things “to be useful” and there’s a deadpan and unsentimental core here that reminds you of the fundamental decency behind the American experiment, despite all the signs saying something to the contrary.

Some items that stood out for me were ‘Full gallop’, a poem about a dream, which is very successful. Less successful though still good is ‘An new national anthem’, which interrogates the nationalism that lies within the hearts of all her fellow countrymen and -women.

‘Mastering’, about a woman who cannot make children, is sublime and has the trademark kick at the end like the one a horse gives just before galloping off with your emotions clinging to its back. Horses feature in this collection and the poet spends part of her year in Kentucky. In this particular poem you are told a story and the ideas develop, sway as though a truck has just passed close enough to them so that they reflect the displaced air moving around them, and coalesce in the final line like an image that snaps into focus in the beam of a portable projector shining its light on the wall in front of you.

It’s not often that you find a poet as assured and confident as Limon. This is a truly original voice and it belongs to probably one of the best poets working in the world today.

The voice belongs to someone who is grounded by a realisation that valuable truths often lie hidden in the simplest experiences, like the sight of two birds sitting on a branch, or in seeing the deciduous trees in her neighbourhood turn green in spring, or taking pleasure from growing things in the earth, and deriving satisfaction from looking after the cats of a friend who has died. Birds and horses and stories the author’s father told her when she was a child: particular things that belong as memories to one person but that, written down as verses, all of a sudden assume a universal significance so that they belong to everyone.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Book review: 2062: The World that AI Made, Toby Walsh (2018)

This is a very strange book indeed, but not for reasons its Australian author might find complimentary. In its opening parts you get the sort of awkward potted history of humankind that the makers of ‘Jurassic Park’ included at the beginning of the 1993 film to show how the technology behind the revivified dinosaurs worked.

That sequence, if you remember the film at all, is done in the form of a theme-park ride that the guests of John Hammond (the head of InGen, the company that developed the science behind the dinosaurs) sit through and that the theatre audience also watches as they sit in their seats in front of the screen. It is full of cartoonish humour and a kind of blithe optimism that is meant to be deeply at odds with the stark message that the rest of the film conveys about hubris and the role of science.

I was reminded of the American psychologist Steven Pinker and his weak grasp of history when I read Walsh’s first chapter about the rise of homo sapiens. For a start Walsh says that the Neanderthals were replaced in their usual habitats by homo sapiens (although Europeans have some Neanderthal genetic code in their DNA) and then says that it might have happened because the newcomers had language whereas the Neanderthals didn’t.

In the twinkling of an eye this becomes more than just a supposition and is turned into an unequivocal fact and then Walsh goes off, higgledy-piggledy, to explain just why spoken language gave homo sapiens an evolutionary edge. Snap! go the magician’s fingers and everything falls into place neatly, like blocks in a game of Tetris.

The bits about the birth of science in the sunset of the Renaissance are correct in the sort of vague ways that Walsh retails in when he’s not talking about computers, as when he underscores the impact that moveable type had on the progress of knowledge. But he doesn’t really understand the mechanisms that were actually involved and glosses over the important bits with the same sort of supreme confidence he had already shown when turning doubt about a lack of spoken language for the Neanderthals into certitude. Pinker is like this too in his book ‘Enlightenment Now’ (reviewed here on 9 March this year): full of half-baked ideas informed by patchy learning.

And will an IA robot become a future Shakespeare? I am not sure that mere computing power alone, even if you link up the consciousnesses of multiple instances of the “universal computer” that he blithely and confusingly introduces, can do the trick. Given Walsh’s slim understanding of history, anthropology and linguistics it’s certain that he’s wrong on questions of aesthetics and psychology as well.

You’d think that once he got onto the subject of computers themselves, Walsh would be in safer waters, but here he seems to think he’s writing for the benefit of a classful of first-year IT students. This is a trade publication and needs to be written in an accessible way for the lay person. Walsh is quit unable to do this, simple as it may seem as a task for an expert. This book is a good example of exactly why we have journalists. 

Book review: 4 3 2 1, Paul Auster (2017)

Who reads this guy anymore? I’ve never finished a book by Paul Auster that I’ve started, and this attempt ended up being the same as the earlier ones. I read and read waiting for the story to get going and was always disappointed at the end of each of the long lists, with their items separated democratically by plain commas, that the author uses to describe the family history of the character who is introduced at the start of the first chapter merely as “Ferguson”. A suitably democratic name.

Presumably you’re supposed to be getting to the point in that history where Ferguson is born and then, again presumably, you will be informed of the point of all the endless backstory, but I didn’t manage to get to that point before getting bored. And I had been desperate to find something that I could finish, having put down uncompleted the previous two books I had picked up.

Ferguson’s grandparents were immigrants with their origins in Russia and they were Jewish, so presumably you’re supposed to be interested by the inherent drama that such a trope sets up in your mind if you are a normal American with your stale fantasies about individual effort and financial success, your belief in the inherent dignity of the individual, and your long study of yourself to the exclusion of everything else of interest in the world.

I didn’t buy the idea that such a story is inherently interesting, and I don’t buy the common notion that belongs particularly to Americans where the lone genius is the source of everything good. But mainly I didn’t buy the flavour of the narrative, with its breathless patter and endless elencations of colourful incidentals that are supposed to assist me in establishing a relationship with the hero Auster is intending to introduce at some (unspecified) point in his (seemingly interminable) story. No sale this time, buddy.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Getting light treatment

This morning I set out before office hours to visit the dermatologists’ in the central business district. On Harris Street where a new office building has just been finished a man on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle was waiting at the access panel at the foot of the driveway that leads to the building’s parking garage. He wore a helmet and the machine was painted black with the distinctive logo printed in white on the petrol tank.

Crossing Pyrmont Bridge I saw in the crowd walking in the opposite direction from me a man, who was quite young, carrying in his right hand two black plastic objects longer than they were wide. They looked like shin guards to wear while playing sport and I thought that possibly he was used to doing this during his lunch hour. On Castlereagh Street as I was heading north I saw a man who looked a lot like the author Karl Ove Knausgaard walking in the opposite direction. He held his chin up and his handsome face was thrust skyward as though he were off on a quest in the wilderness.

In the office building where the clinic I go to is located I got into the lift and then as the doors were about to close I saw a woman and her daughter approaching the wall where the lift is housed. I put my hand out to stop the doors from closing and they got in. As she turned around to face the doors the woman thanked me. Her daughter, who was aged about 12 years and who was dressed in comfortable clothes with Ugg boots on her feet, timorously held her mother’s right arm with both of her hands. Her mother spoke to her softly and smoothed the girl’s blonde hair with her left hand as the lift ascended. They got out on the fourth floor and I continued upwards to another floor.

In had light treatment for my psoriasis and as usual wore the tinted plastic glasses and welder’s mask (see photo) provided to protect the patient’s eyes from ultra-violet rays that are produced by the tubes mounted in the booth that you stand in, in your underwear, for treatment, which this time took just over three-and-a-half minutes. At intervals during the treatment the booth’s sound system tells you how much time is remaining, and the voice is a standard American male voice with the “o” of the word “approximately” pronounced “ah”.

After the treatment I walked west and saw an Orthodox priest in Pitt Street Mall, as people walked to and fro going about their business. He was dressed in a black cassock and had a wooden cross on a cord slung around his neck. He was standing with a woman who was also dressed in black and they seemed to be lost, or at least unsure of their surroundings. On the man’s head was a black hat shaped like the torus that you find at the base of some classical columns.

I walked downstairs into the food court and as usual at one of the concessions there I ordered a pide. This is a closed Turkish pizza that in this case was filled wtih sujuk, a type of sausage, and egg. As I was eating while seated at a plastic table I saw the priest again, this time next to me in the food court, and he was looking around as though trying to get his bearings.

Back on Harris Street once I had crossed the bridge again I saw a group of young people standing outside another office building. One of the group was explaining things to what were evidently new recruits unfamiliar with the area. On her feet the guide wore pink pumps with four-inch heels and as I walked past them she was telling the people standing on the pavement in front of her where to find a supermarket.


Book review: All Roads Lead to Blood, Bonnie Chau (2018)

I read the first of the stories in this collection (‘Monstrosity’) and part of the second (‘Medusa Jellyfish’) but the book was not appetising for me and I stopped reading before finishing the second story. The edition I had is a bit strange furthermore as there were no location numbers on each page as there usually are on Kindle books. Also, there was no copyright page to show the year of publication.

Chau has no Wikipedia page and the biographical information online is thin. She has a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University, which is in New York, but she comes from southern California. She works in a bookstore in New York and also does work for a website publishing literary fiction. (A master of fine arts degree is an American thing which focuses on professional practice rather than on academic study, as a master of arts degree does.)

This book is determinedly experimental and it uses a kind of method that Laurence Sterne introduced in ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ (1759) where the narrative is slowed down in an effort to accommodate the consciousness through which it is focalised. In Sterne this can have hilarious consequences as the writer inserts lengthy asides into the narrative, so that it can take a couple of pages in that book for the character being described to do something as simple as walk down a staircase.

In Chau’s stories, there are halts, stoppages, asides, and deliberations aplenty as the story unfolds at a glacial pace while the writer incorporates as much as she is able in order to render reality in the way that she deems suitable for her purposes. This kind of writing is as old as Joyce, of course, and they even had to invent a new term to describe it: stream-of-consciousness. But in Chau’s hands it’s frustrating because the utility of all the pauses and doublings-back is not clear. There’s no lack of effort but the result does not impress.

It’s also difficult to understand who is who and what they do. In the second story in the collection we find Rhiannon and she talks with different people in the course of the period of time rendered in the story but it’s not at all clear where she works and how she’s involved in a restaurant. This is a devastating failure in a story where the nuances stemming from the relationships between people constitute much of the material being deployed to create character and to further the plot. Suddenly she’s talking with a cook, then she is talking about her intern. Where does she work? What does she do? Who are these young, educated people in the room and what is their relationship with Rhiannon?

Evidently you’re supposed to wait until the end where presumably all would be revealed, but I was floundering in the morass of images and feelings that were thrown up apparently at random as the author tried to make a world out of words. It’s a world animated by a consciousness the people living in it have of their ethnicity. Chau presents us with people who come from a Chinese background in such a way that you cannot ignore the rhetorical points that are part of the stories’ aspirations for the reader. 

Movie review: Crazy Rich Asians, dir Jon M Chu (2018)

This review contains spoilers so if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know the ending at this point in time, stop reading here. I’m not going to pussy-foot around with this comedy (used in the traditional sense of a drama that ends with a marriage), which has so much in the way of revelation about it. Box office for the movie on the weekend before I saw it in Australia was just over $4 million, and its gross receipts for the weekend monitored made it the top-rating movie in the country.

To start with, I didn’t finish the book on which the movie is based when I started reading it in 2015 because I didn’t like the revanchist story that opens proceedings. And I thought that the book’s regard for wealth as it is used by the people described in it was not sufficiently penetrating. Revenge fantasies are by definition ugly and having seen the movie I can say that some of the shortcomings I found in the part of the book I completed also exist here in some form.

But it is a big, emotionally-demanding movie that draws the viewer in, shakes you up, and leaves you a bit exhausted with all of the high-toned drama on display. The actors are not the only people who end up with tears on their cheeks. Music is used effectively to stoke the feelings of the audience and to vary the tone of the spectacle at different points, lending it colour and texture.

The American actress Constance Wu is Rachel Chu, the New York University professor Nick Young (played by Malaysian actor Henry Golding), the favourite son of a wealthy Singaporean family, falls in love with. She given a lot of work to do and this is really her movie (Rachel is novelist Kevin Kwan’s Elizabeth Bennet and Nick is his Fitzwilliam Darcy). I’m not sure that I uncritically buy the underlying narrative of virtue rewarded that’s offered up, embodied in the figure of Rachel, especially as the US is full of working poor who (on a minimum wage of $7 an hour) are often left homeless or unable to feed their children properly even if they manage to keep down more than one job.

On the other hand, the narrative that’s offered to us by the matriarch of the Young family, the formidable Eleanor (MIchelle Yeoh), of sacrifices made and adversity endured, is also somewhat difficult to swallow. It’s true that sacrificing one’s own happiness in order to promote the wellbeing of the family is a particularly Confucian virtue, one that seems at odds with the western aspiration for the individual to develop their innate talents. Of course, in most cases the second aim, if pursued successfully, will also result in achieving the first aim. But here Eleanor is making a simplistic comparison that ignores the subtleties of the argument, in order to get what she really wants. Which is sort of like the white phagocyte’s ambition to eject a foreign body from the organism.

And it’s more really a matter of a bit of luck enjoyed by people on both sides of the equation. I’d say that Rachel is the more deserving of respect but America in reality is by no means always a mecca for migrants or other types of Cinderella, nor is it just chock-full of rough diamonds, as inherited privilege constitutes a significant barrier to success for many people who grow up there.

Nick is not given as much work to do, and I was disappointed that there was but one scene in which we see him in the company of only his family talking about his life choices. That scene, near the beginning of the film, involves Nick alone with his mother and she comes off looking like nothing less than a fond parent. There’s no hint there of the cruelty and superficiality that taints her persona later in the film when it becomes clear that Nick is going to propose to Rachel. The critical scene at the end where he talks to his mother to get her to change her mind about Rachel takes place away from the camera.

The deference everyone shows to the elderly grandmother (Eleanor’s husband’s mother) Ah Ma (played competently by Lisa Lu) turns out to be nothing more than hollow ritual when it transpires that Eleanor has hired a private investigator to look into Rachel’s past. Ah Ma is the first to tell Rachel that she opposes a marriage between her and her grandson. The movie illustrates the pitiless demands placed on people by Asia’s ceaseless striving to maintain an unblemished public face. Just as it drove Rachel’s mother Kerry (played by a gritty Kheng Hua Tan) to work to become a successful real estate broker in America, it likewise propels Eleanor to try to impugn base motives to Kerry’s daughter.

The investigator finds that Kerry had had a child with a man who was not her husband. Kerry had always told Rachel that Rachel’s father had died before Rachel was born. It turned out in fact that the husband had been violent and Kerry had had an affair with another man, but had not gotten back in contact with him after she had brought her daughter with her to America. Kerry was afraid that her husband would seek revenge on them all.

So much unhappiness should not be answered by more cruelty, but the culture underpinning Singapore’s success is shown at times in this movie to be deeply flawed and vanishingly frail. At the beginning of the movie Eleanor is shown sitting around on her verandah with her low-church gal-pals reading from the Bible but it doesn’t appear from what comes later that any of Jesus’s many messages have sunk in that emphasise the centrality of the notion of forgiveness to his way of living.

And the spending habits of the children of the generation that built the island-state’s flourishing economy reveal them to be undeserving at best and feckless at worst, impressed by nothing more than money, just like their distant parents. It’s disturbing how often in the movie celebrations involving large numbers of people turn out to be places you want to escape from, rather than join. Neither Nick nor Rachel truly belong in the society on display.

Standing somewhat apart from the vulgarity of all the conspicuous consumption is Nick’s sister Astrid, but she’s nevertheless very attracted on her own account to expensive clothes and jewellery although she appears to have better taste then the average female we’re shown. Her husband ends up leaving her, having commenced an extra-marital affair that Astrid finds out about just as Nick is arriving to celebrate the wedding of his best friend.

Also separate in spirit from the crowd of feckless men and women who make up the flower of Singapore’s monied youth is Rachel’s friend Peik Lin Goh (played by a puckish Awkwafina) who provides Rachel with the kind of stability that the Young family seems intent on depriving her of. But Peik’s mother and father are even more crass than Nick’s family, and have unselfconsciously decorated their big house with lashings of gilt and carved wood in a fashion made famous by the epitome of European vulgarity, the Palace of Versailles. No-one is exempt from some degree of satire.
The question of what it’s all for comes up occasionally but the film has no real answers to offer the viewer apart from Nick’s dauntless ardour and the wisdom of his girlfriend.

Rachel is shown in a lecture theatre talking to a gathering of students in the opening scene of the movie but you rarely see a book anywhere in the film thereafter despite the fact that the Young’s establishment credentials as the holders of “old money” are laboriously underlined. In Nick’s old room no bookshelf is visible. The scene with the Bibles on the verandah has already been mentioned and apart from that there is only a scene showing Astrid reading French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘The Little Prince’ in French to her small son, who is asleep on the bed with her. It is a lovely vignette that hands the viewer a calm centre in the maelstrom of otherwise mindless consumption of the vain trappings of wealth.

It’s not evident from where your virtue originates if you constitute part of the “establishment” in the city-state. The scene where Rachel is exposed to the Young family’s tradition of making dumplings together around the kitchen table is so burdened with signification it fairly rattles along like a poorly-maintained shopping trolley pushed along a gravel path. When Rachel makes a comment about Eleanor’s huge sapphire ring the air between them is as thick as pea soup, as they sit in their chairs like warm mannequins surrounded by what is supposed to be a wholesome family. In this scene as in several others Philippino actor Nico Santos as Nick’s cousin Oliver T’sien, who is arch and ironic about what he sees, provides an effective foil for the weak Eleanor and her doddery mother-in-law yet these two are paradoxically allowed to retain their dignity largely intact right to the end of the movie.

This is the thing with this movie: you feel like you’re getting into the passenger seat of a cab. Things are familiar in some ways but unfamiliar in others. The dashboard is set too close to your legs and you have trouble getting the seatbelt fastened. Despite the conventional story it uses, there’s something left in the film of Kwan’s original book and it is something that is different in fundamental ways from what we’re used to getting from Hollywood. Nick’s father, the patriarch of the family, is away on business in the movie (in the novel he lives permanently in Australia looking after the family’s business interests there). In the movie, he remains an aloof presence, as though too illustrious to be tainted by the author’s and the director’s and the screenwriters’ laughing regard, like some modern-day emperor.

One thing that I am reminded of when thinking about this film are the mummies that were made in Egypt after the country was colonised by the Romans. Prior to this point in time, intricate abstract designs painted on the sarcophagus had some relation to the person of the individual encased inside it, but they mainly had symbolic and religious significance. The designs were painted on the outside of the container by craftsmen involved in the burial of the notable person who was being honoured in the process. We all know what those designs look like because they have become so familiar to us from reproductions in the years since the 1970s when the King Tut exhibition toured the world.

After the Romans arrived people were still mummified and interred in memorials however instead of the stylised designs that had previously been used on the sarcophagus’ exteriors, now for burying residents of the colony realistic portraits of the dead person were painted on the containers. This kind of fusion, melding two completely different cultures, is what the viewer is faced with in this movie. It offers a way in for foreigners and a way to communicate for people in the culture being portrayed.

But America is slow to come to grips with things that lie outside its borders. When you think of how long they have been exposed to the culture of Japan, for example, and how stereotypes about the Japanese still dominate in the media in America, you realise that Americans have only just turned up the corner on the covering that wraps Japan in its layers of protective cladding. The truth itself still lies buried deep inside.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Book review: Three Hundred Tang Poems (2009)

This hefty little book contains poetry, in a new English translation, that dates from the time of the Tang dynasty (AD 618 to 907), which was in power in the years during which Chinese calligraphy and Buddhism were first exported to Japan.

The poems were compiled originally in the 18th century in a different order than that in which they are presented here. This is an Everyman edition and scholarly content is absent, making it hard to understand the subject and relevance of each of the poems it contains. The introduction is very short and says nothing about the individual poets (around 75 of them) whose work is featured. Some people might have heard the names Li Bai and Du Fu. Their work is included in the collection.

Most of the poets whose work is included in the book are men; there are a few women but it seems that most of the poets were imperial retainers who were employed on official business because they could write. Being versed in the literature of the kingdom they found gainful employment and were often, it appears from reading the poems, sent to distant parts of the realm. I read more than half of the poems in the book before tiring of the exercise. The lack of academic glosses made reading the work more frustrating than it otherwise could have been.

To help describe these poems it serves to use the example of painting. Most people will have some acquaintance with Chinese brush painting, with its clean lines, realistic depictions of birds and fruit, and creative use of white space. This poetry resembles that kind of painting. Here, the negative space is provided by descriptions of nature. There are endless meditations on the natural world, such as the sight of the clouds reflected in the water or the sight of the wind blowing through grasses. Birds fly across the sky against the backdrop of rugged mountain peaks. It’s hardly remarkable that such things occupy so much of the poets’ energies; descriptions of nature are apolitical and it would be hard to get into trouble for admiring the sound of cicadas in summer.

What is less often examined in much detail are the poets’ own feelings. Although they might be mentioned briefly in a poem they are not articulated or explored to see where they lead the writer. Most of the writer's effort is spent describing the landscape. The person is thus rendered in terms of where he is absent: in the spaces between words like “tears” and “sighs” that crop up occasionally. These poems are mainly occasional meditations on life with reference to specific, concrete things in the here-and-now. There are a few fictions with complex narratives but they are the exception rather than the rule.

A recurring theme in the poetry in the book is the longevity of the country’s culture. Already, for Tang Chinese, people were aware that China had existed in a recognisable form, to which the Chinese people alive at the time might profitably compare themselves, for a very long time. Certain people’s names recur, such as those of famous generals or noblemen, just as the name of the capital city of the empire (Chang’an) crops up from time to time as a point of reference. There is a longing to be close to the centre more frequent than there is a longing to be close to a woman.

Women are referred to fleetingly, often in concert with references to the zither, an instrument that they evidently played in those days. The illustration on the book’s cover shows a contemporary painting of a woman dressed in ornate robes holding a stick in her hand that has a tassel attached to its end. She is using it to play with a small dog. There is mention of wine in the book but more often of ale, although it’s not clear what sort of crop it had been made from. Poets drinking beer and talking about the moon while listening to women play a stringed instrument: good times for a Tang author right there.

Like Chinese music, in tone the poetry in aggregate is plaintive, and sadness seems to be the emotion invoked most frequently but there is very little use of psychological development that I could see; the pieces are mainly too short and merely give a snapshot of reality at a given moment in time.

Other emotions might flare up on occasion but overall the feeling of the poems contained in this book is elegiac, like a sunset or the dying days of spring. Life itself is full of pathos of course, and as time passes so does precious youth. While a reliance by the poets included in the collection on the physical world for imagery seems unsentimental the emotion contained in each poem is strong. The most common point of reference is the living world surrounding the poet as he gets by in his rural backwater, where the sound of troops marching against the Tartars is audible and where he fondly imagines the moon shining on his wife’s arms in remembered moonlight.

Here is a sample of the kind of poetry this collection contains. It is by Li Qi and it is titled ‘Something told as of old’:
As boys they did service with the frontier troops,
Youthful adventurers from You and Yan,
They tested their prowess under horses’ hooves –
Then as now men careless of their lives.
Now when they’re killing, no one dares come forward:
Their beards stick out like bristling hedgehog spines. 
Below the ridge of sandy clouds there are white clouds flying;
Their ruler’s grace is not yet required – they cannot yet go home.
There’s a young woman from Liaodang, fifteen years of age,
Who knows the lute, and can sing and dance, and now is playing the tune
‘Going beyond the frontier pass’ on a Tibetan flute,
Making the soldiers in our legion shed their tears like rain.
This poem strongly reminds me of the movie ‘Youth’ (in Chinese ‘Fang hua’), by director Feng Xiaogang, which was released in 2017. I saw it this year on New Year’s Day and wrote about it on the blog at the time. It tells the story of a troupe of entertainers attached to the People’s Liberation Army in the days when it was active in the task of cementing the borders of China in the years around WWII and later.

The fortunes of the troupe members are examined by the director in the movie, and it also contains many patriotic messages that people in the theatre audience were receptive to. Love of country, it seems, is ageless, but the Communist Party of China initially did not allow the movie to be screened in the country because of some things in it that were critical of the party. It was finally released in China in the middle of December and despite that ended up being the 6th highest-grossing domestic film of the year. To my eyes, the movie was heavily sentimental and determinedly nationalistic, but having read these poems I can see that the feelings it retailed in have always been there in the culture that produced it.

Here is another poem from the collection. It is by the monk Jiaoran and is titled ‘Looking for Hong Jian, but without finding him’:
Although the place you’ve moved to is near the city walls
It’s reached by a country path through mulberry and flax.
By the fence nearby you’ve planted chrysanthemums –
Autumn is here, but they haven’t flowered yet.
I knock at the door, but the dog doesn’t bark,
So I go and ask in the home to the west of yours.
They tell me you have gone off to the mountains
And won’t be back as usual till the sun starts to set.
Once again the imagery is strikingly secular and is formed to have an impact in the reader’s imagination. The moment is captured in a few, choice images like a bird in a painting made in the same era might have been formed with a few brushstrokes. All at once, in a few lines, you are there in the moment knocking on doors and questioning the neighbours about the friend you have come to talk with. The journey the narrator takes assumes the significance of a quest and the feelings you are left with at the end, as the final words pass through the barriers that sit in front of your mind, are sadness and a longing for something unattainable.

As in the case of the poem by Li Qi included above it, the monk’s poem takes you very quickly from the particular to the general, so that you are suddenly faced with universal things that can have resonance for anyone. This I think is the essence of the beauty contain in this collection of poetry. The thing that is also evident about a book like this is that it can take you in your mind to a foreign country: the past. Doubly foreign in this case: ancient China. I wonder why people spend so much time reading science fiction when this kind of diversion is also available. Spend a few hours of your time getting to know about the feelings of a Tang bureaucrat as he experiences life on the borders of civilisation, wishing he were at home! These wonderful poems may transport you away from the concerns of contemporary life.

And having read this volume it is quite clear to me that there is an urgent need in the trade book market for a better-presented collection of the same poems, one that comes with detailed scholarly notes that can help the reader to position the poet whose poem is being read, and the referents used in the poem, in relation to historical events and in relation to the corpus of published work of the era. Being situated so far from the time when the poems were written, as we are, we can form conclusions and make associations that someone alive at the time would certainly have missed. I would definitely buy and recommend such a book.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Construction site for townhouses, Pyrmont

This gated site that sits behind a hoarding on Harris Street is located near the recently-renovated Terminus Hotel and has been gradually hollowed out over the past year. I wrote on 28 December last year about the sandstone blocks that Bundanoon Sandstone had been transporting away from the site on trucks.

In the photo, which was taken on 22 August, you can see the tradesman’s utility vehicle parked at the bottom of the hole they have made in preparation for building 14 townhouses in coming months. The development has been pragmatically named ‘New Life Pyrmont’ and is designed by architects Tzannes. The units will have their addresses on Harris Street and, parallel to it, on Mount Street, which is a dead-end.  They are being financed by TWT Property Group, which used to be known as Auswin TWT.

There was a story about the units published by the Australian Financial Review on 16 July 2016, in which it was estimated that the units would be on sale for over $5 million each. They will each be large in size at 325 to 410 square metres.


Activist Danny Lim in Martin Place

The other day I snapped this photo of a man who the Sydney Morning Herald in 2015 described as a “peace activist”. In their story Lim is also described as a former municipal councillor. They recounted that he had been fined for obscenity due to the contents of a sign he had with him on the street.

The text on the plastic sandwich board he was wearing when I saw him was similar to what it had been on that earlier occasion. This time it read, “Smile Tony U Cvnt B” and “Insignificvnt” and “Peace B With U”. There were other things printed in the same colourful, neat letters on the back of the vest which I didn’t capture. His dog was lying passively on the pavement at his feet as pedestrians walked docilely past him on busy Elizabeth Street.


Cardboard sign on Union Street in Pyrmont

Someone give this guy a job! Ad agencies looking for originality and flair should pay attention to this homeless guy who had "cardboard sign" painted in pink on his cardboard sign on Friday morning as he slept on the pavement near the casino. His meta-narrative critiquing the dominant genre of sob-stories you see around the traps demonstrates the essential uselessness of conventional approaches to begging. I snapped this photo on the way to an appointment and on the way back home when I passed him he was sitting with his back against the wall, and I gave him the change I had received when I had paid for my breakfast.


Friday, 14 September 2018

Book review: Transcription, Kate Atkinson (2018)

This engrossing spy novel is set in England during the war and in the period immediately after it. But it is also a timely novel of ideas because of the way it discusses the political movements that animated that era. In the scenes set in the 1940s the fight is against Nazism and in the period immediately after the war the fight is against Communism. In the midst of the confusing and sometimes paradoxical deployment of national energies that were unleashed by numerous countries in those years stands Juliet Armstrong, who works for MI5 as a typist and then as an operative in her own right.

The real story is how Juliet changed in her relationship with the organisation over the years. There are deep secrets which are only revealed when you think that every possible drama has finally played itself out. This book keeps you turning the pages. I ripped through the book in just two lazy sessions spent on the couch.

While she is infiltrating a ring of Nazi sympathisers in London during the period leading up to WWII Juliet is intrigued by the shadowy, unsentimental figure of Godfrey Toby, who in the light of day is a colleague who has been tasked with extracting information from Englishmen and -women who hope for victory for Hitler. But Godfrey appears to have other allegiances that Juliet doesn’t at first comprehend. And 10 years after she is relinquished from her duties Godfrey mysteriously reappears; by this time Juliet is working for the BBC making children’s programs. There is a Czech scientist MI5 are extracting from Europe to send to America and he needs a place to sleep and Hartley, another spook, liaises with Juliet to set the poor man up on her couch.

When someone starts sending her threatening notes Juliet goes off in a quest to scare up the ghosts, which she assumes stem from her own past. But the ghosts she is chasing and the ones that seem to be chasing her are somewhat like the fog that envelops London one day that passes in this supremely confident and charming drama: murky and hiding real horrors. The punchline comes late and when it does several confusing matters are finally resolved.

The challenge for us today, of course, is to prevent a repeat of the disastrous mobilisation of forces that brought the world to the brink of disaster in the middle of last century. Maybe we don’t need Tom Cruise. Maybe, instead, we need more people who can see the similarities between now and then. to remind us of what might have been if things had turned out differently. In a note at the end of the story the author describes how her fiction was inspired by historical records.

I have to admit that at first I was a bit puzzled by the voice of the narrator, which reminded me of that of my aunt, Christine, who is English. The beginning is a bit slow and fusty, reminding the reader of a world before the appearance of Thai or Greek restaurants, a time when talking about sex was taboo and homosexuality was a crime. A time of oppressive class barriers and domestic servants, of gross inequality and the stiff upper lip. King and Country, that sort of thing. All very proper. In Atkinson’s hands, however, the personalities of people who might have lived at the time are fleshed out and you see them for who they actually might have been. This book is an antidote to the oblivion that often surrounds historical figures and it is a delight to read.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Tonightly loudly bites the dust

This blogpost is basically a rant, so Millennials might want to stop reading here. The other week it was announced that the comedy program ‘Tonightly’, featuring host Tom Ballard, would not be funded in the coming year. For all intents and purposes this means the end of the program, which I had never watched. ‘The Weekly’ with Charlie Pickering (another host aged in his thirties) is one I do watch. I find the abrasive Tom Gleeson refreshing.

But the reaction to the canning of Tom Ballard’s program caused widespread consternation. People commented frequently on social media in support of the show. It became something of a minor cause celebre around the traps. You didn’t have to look far to find someone willing to put their name out there in favour of keeping the show on-air.

My interest was piqued, so I went out of my way to look at some of the segments that had been put on the TV. In general, I have to admit that as a result of my research I can’t see the appeal of the program. It’s too narrow in its focus, and too likely to stay on subjects of interest only to people aged in their thirties (I’m 56). The median age in Australia (the age at which half of the population is older and the other half younger) is 37, so presumably ‘Tonightly’ was aimed directly at the mainstream, but what I saw wasn’t very encouraging in the way it illustrated the taste, the education, the character, or the intelligence of its creators.

Going all the way out there in the naughty stakes, much like Steve Bannon making like a maverick and talking over the top of Sarah Ferguson last week during his infamous ‘4 Corners’ interview, one segment on ‘Tonightly’ was titled ‘Why the Fuck Not’. The slot’s title served merely to give the creators the opportunity to use a bad word. Shock, horror! You don’t need to be clever these days, you just have to be rude. One of the segments with this title had a fat man with a beard writhing in a plastic pool filled with some sort of lubricating substance. It was called ‘Mr Oily’. This was no doubt aimed at making some cutting comment about sexism and the objectification of women, but I’m not sure I understand what it has to do with Baby Boomers, which was evidently the target of this attempt at satire. Going by domestic violence rates that are reported in the media it doesn’t appear that the current generation of Australian husbands is any more or less likely to disrespect women than any that came before it.

Then there was a segment in which the creators had a narrator using a DNA testing service in order to discover things about his ancestry. There are several companies in this market who charge you a fee to make an ethnicity profile and to link you, through their website, to people in your extended family who are also listed there. They have charges for some of their website’s features. They also share the data they discover as a result of doing your DNA profile with other companies, although they don’t advertise this aspect of their business model.

But what really irritated me about this segment was they way the narrator, a young man, spoke dismissively to his putative grandmother, who had offered to tell him about his family history. It was harsh and unkind. It’s a fact that older people are more interested in genealogy but it’s not surprising if you think about it for a moment. Older people have raised children and seen them grow into adults themselves. They have also probably buried parents, and so have different feelings about their forebears than young people do. Just making fun of old people because of something that is as natural for them as it is for a young person to want to see a rock band play loud music is trite and puerile, and it caused offense to me. My father when he retired spent a decade writing his memoir and also making family trees that he put into spreadsheets. He died in 2011 of dementia and complications stemming from it. His memoir is precious and irreplaceable, quite unlike the bad ‘Tonightly’ sketch that cruelly pokes fun at grandmothers for doing what comes naturally to them.

My last example is a segment that looked at the outrage industry, during which the host brought in an academic to give his expert advice about how the public sphere operates. I thought that the segment betrayed an alarming lack of self-awareness, especially since there are plenty of articles (some written by me, by the way) about the way social media has developed over the years. It’s not rocket science to think that Twitter is an abrasive, unhealthy, narcissistic environment filled with people who are motivated by the worst instincts to behave in some cases in appalling ways. But ‘Tongihtly’ thinks it is breaking a big story by running a segment that deploys one person with educated opinions talking about this widespread problem. You wonder where the creators usually go for their information, and if they have somehow missed the widely-available sources you yourself use to keep yourself up-to-date.

If this review appears unnecessarily negative, I would add that things I’ve seen elsewhere tend to cement the views I built from watching the segments talked about here. One day, for example, as I was walking on the street near my home I saw three young men, aged in their early thirties, walking toward me. As they went along the pavement one of them, who was telling a story to his friends probably while they went to get something to eat for lunch, said loudly, “He literally got down on his knees and sucked my d***!” (using the common slang word for a part of the male anatomy). And he said it not once, but twice, evidently thinking that to repeat his unsavoury remark gave him added appeal in his companions’ eyes.

This, I remind myself, is the audience for ‘Tonightly’. This crass generation that flocks to see dull, amateurish superhero movies at the cinema and that complains about drinking restrictions in parts of NSW that have resulted in earlier pub closing times. This is the future, I tell myself, but the feelings this thought inspires are not reassuring.

UPDATE 2pm 13 Sept 2018: I was informed on Twitter this morning that in the 'Tonightly' sketch about DNA testing, the narrator is supposed to look uncaring and thoughtless after he tells his "grandmother" that he doesn't want to hear about the family history. I'm unsure how you're supposed to grasp this meaning, there is no obvious clue given to the viewer at the time the comments are made. I have to take the information from my source as truthful however.