Friday, 19 July 2019

Book review: Acute Misfortune, Erik Jensen (2014)

It’s hard to know how to label this work of nonfiction but for the sake of brevity and of accuracy I’d say it’s a kind of biography. The subject is the Sydney painter Adam Cullen who died in 2012 aged 46 as a result of substance abuse.

As a piece of journalism Jensen’s narrative is well-crafted and you don’t get overloaded with unnecessary detail. On the other hand some parts are not as clear as they should be, for example the part of the book that deals with Cullen’s half-brother’s girlfriend Katie. I couldn’t work out why so much time was being spent on her. Had she tried to come on to Cullen? Was there a small indiscretion?

Apart from this, the story is engrossing and useful rather than revelatory. If Jensen is trying to emulate Helen Garner in this work there are some things missing. Jensen completely avoids talking about his own reactions to Cullen, even when Cullen started getting frisky, with the exception of some faint remarks on the question of whether the artist was a homosexual (it’s not clear from the book or from what I could find online if Jensen is gay). Cullen’s expressions of affection for Jensen make Jensen think that Cullen had been in love with him, but as for any information about Jensen that might help the reader to make sense of any of this: there is nothing. Zip. Zilch.

Jensen also strangely misspells the name of the Sydney suburb where Cullen’s father Kevin Cullen first came to live when he (Kevin) moved from rural NSW to the big smoke. In the book it’s spelled “Bellfield” whereas in reality it should be “Belfield”. (There is a “Bellfield” in Melbourne.) Belfield is Bulldogs country, as Cullen, who grew up in Collaroy on the northern beaches, would have known. But Jensen doesn’t seem to know the area and if you try to find out any information about Jensen online you will be disappointed. He worked as a critic for the Sydney Morning Herald from the time he was a teenager and then was employed by the paper, but I couldn’t find any information about where he was born and grew up, where he went to school, and what his parents did for a crust.

Sydney is a self-conscious town so this kind of information in this kind of book, where the relationship between the subject and the author is so close, is material. But it’s completely missing. It should hardly need to be mentioned that including the author in the narrative when writing journalism is so common it’s not even remarkable anymore. In fact, one of Cullen’s heroes, Hunter Thompson, made his reputation out of exactly this kind of writing. To leave out who you are and where you are coming from in a book like Jensen’s smacks of the kind of elitist remoteness that Cullen found so abhorrent during his life. He wanted to have contact with people, he craved it, and he suffered when it was not provided.

Cullen encouraged him to write, and Jensen is very willing to open the record books wide to display Cullen’s character and motivations – he even says outright that Cullen is not just a fabulist but a flat-out liar, and this happens more than once – but when it comes to giving the reader the information he or she needs to make sense of the story, he clams up. It seems from the information available that Jensen now lives and works in Melbourne. He has an editorial role with the left-leaning The Saturday Paper, which is backed by progressive property developer and publishing company owner Morrie Schwartz. It’s hard to know from the evidence available what kind of person Jensen is, and whether he has the depth of character and the intellectual honesty you need to do justice to a person as complex as Cullen in a book of this nature. Is Jensen a typical inner-city latte-sipping luvvie or does he have some meat on his bones? From reading the book and from what is available online it’s hard to decide either way, although I have my suspicions.

Having said these things, his book is not completely baffling, although it read a bit drily at times. I learned a lot about a man who came to prominence in the nation’s art world and for this I am grateful. Adam Cullen had something of the mongrel about him and he reminded me in some ways of Nick Kyrgios. He experienced strong impulses that he had trouble controlling, and this is not uncommon for Australian men generally. (I wonder idly what Tim Winton would think of this book.) There was something unhinged about Cullen, but in the end he came to be seen, as is the way of the Sydney cultural establishment when it comes across a difficult and creative rebel, as emblematic of the city he grew up in. Cullen craved recognition but at the same time pushed people away.

So this is a very Sydney book. The city is nothing if not needy of recognition as well as more often than not elusive when you ask it for solace. There is, furthermore, not a word in the book about football of any kind, which would have been unthinkable if Cullen had been brought up in Melbourne where Australian rules clubs are like churches. Cullen responded strongly to art from an early age. He had a good relationship with his father, whom he loved. He had a complex relationship with his mother. He struggled at school. He rebelled against the art establishment when he turned away from conceptual art and started making paintings that were largely figurative; Cullen’s embrace of this kind of painting was part of a return to figurative painting in Australia generally and it is now, for example, easy to find contemporary Romantic landscapes in commercial galleries.

Cullen was a better painter than Whiteley but both artists put their stamp on the culture that formed and nurtured them. As for Jensen’s book, I think that it does the job it set out to do but, in the end, I felt a bit let down by the author’s reticence. The extraordinarily talented Cullen warranted a more passionate and engaged approach from his first biographer. We’ll have to see what others produce down the track; it is extremely unlikely that this will be the last book on Cullen’s life and art.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Book review: Belief, Les Wicks (2018)

If I was still in the game and trying to publish poetry, as I was a decade ago, I would use the label “dun school” for the kind of irony-driven, flat-toned poetry that Wicks produces in this collection, which is very small physically but which is ambitious poetically.

The basic unit of meaning-creation in this book is the line, but there are also competent – even expressive and brilliant – narratives such as what are found in ‘Hopeland LA’ (about Los Angeles), ‘Go Fish’ (about an unsuccessful suicide), ‘Birthed’ (about childbirth), and ‘A Nike Size 5 White Jogger Beside the Pacific Highway’ (about a discarded sneaker lying by the side of the road). In these poems pathos is the dominant theme and the forward movement of the story in each case is strong and confident.

But what I thought about after buying the book in Glebe as I was walking back from the café where I had eaten lunch (which was a haloumi sandwich made with pesto that came with chips on the side, and an iced tea), having read a few of the items in it, was a cactus. A type of plant that survives on little water but that can give out beautiful flowers. A cactus is not lush as Wicks’ language is not lush. Often it is aphoristic and it is always precise. The line “decay eats the awful eternity of its rhythm” was especially memorable.

I think that the kind of effect that Wicks achieves in this collection has value. Certainly, this is better poetry than a lot of what is (optimistically) published in Australia. Did it move me? I felt as though I had come across someone who has spent a lot of time trying to achieve minimal effects with a careful, caustic brand of language. I also thought of Tennyson and Rexroth.

The causal reader can find good things in this book but most people don’t bother with poetry. Possibly Wicks might do better to try to use the narrative form more and rely on the cogent line less. Stories remain popular and bookshops are doing quite well despite the ravages of Amazon.

The things that stood out for me apart from the four poems named above are the ones about military personnel. In these poems, Wicks shows himself able to reach out beyond the narrow concerns of the Australian inner-city elites and find poetry in uncommon places. In those verses, he reaches a point that is a kind of justification for the whole collection.

With many of the poems in the book there is a payoff that is foreshadowed, and if you can reliably deliver this kind of experience then you deserve to be read. On the other hand I didn’t really understand the book’s title, nor the section labels.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Book review: White, Bret Easton Ellis (2019)

This tour de force is not without its flaws but it is timely. Trust a novelist to deliver the axe blow that serves to destroy the credibility of a whole generation of progressives. I almost wrote “a stunning tour de force” but remembered that I found the parts about what Ellis calls “Empire” a bit hard to follow.

This part of the book could have done with a bit more editing and there are other oddities (“Gen Xer” is capitalised but “boomer” is not, and “Tweet” is even, strangely, capitalised at one point; I couldn’t work out how the publisher’s style guide worked). The bits about “Empire” (or, the 20th century from the 1950s until the Twin Towers were struck by the jets) are confusing and while the narrative might make perfect sense for Ellis I couldn’t work out if Charlie Sheen was “Empire” or “post-Empire”.

With the exception of this section, the book is clear and stylish. The prose flows effortlessly and you take in Ellis’ interpolations along with his recounts of events, often involving what was said by different people on Twitter. The book contains a lot of this kind of well-crafted narrative and also a good deal of it relies on pure recall. The author’s recall of his childhood watching movies in Los Angeles is very detailed and made me wish I had a memory like his. And while his childhood adventures are not central to the book’s message they make sense in the context of the larger story, which ends, delightfully, with a gripping meditation on Kanye West.

What is more important is what Ellis has to say about the Left (he capitalises the word) and how it has become overly-censorious, immune to such things as irony (having exchanged it for sarcasm, a much lower-value commodity in letters or in any artform), subservient to a form of kitsch in such media as the cinema, and devoid of any sense of humour.

I’ve written about all these things in a series of posts on this blog since the middle of 2017 that focused on the media and on social media and how news stories are used by people to create community. I’ve also written about art and how it is used, and about the rise of the populist right in Australia. This happened in this country earlier than it did in the US; in Australia however because of the way the Senate is elected, minor parties are given more chance to win seats in the legislature than they are in the US. Many of Ellis’ observations are evident in what I have written, and it was such a darn relief to find my own best ideas reflected back to me in such a lucid and well-thought-out book.

Going by the way my own observations have been dealt with by people online, this book is going to upset people. But if you are an artist and you care about upsetting people then you are probably in the wrong profession. The bland pabulum that Hollywood produces in such profusion to satisfy the demands of Millennials is richly at odds with the strange and often difficult products that people like Ellis and I grew up watching and reading (he’s two years younger than me). With a lot of popular culture that comes out of Hollywood these days (I saw ‘Aquaman’ and ‘Avengers: Endgame’ this year) it’s as though the producers are saying, “Folks, here’s another superhero movie that pushes all the right identity-politics buttons. Now give us your money.”

If his book upsets people I suspect that Ellis will not be overly concerned. Art demands complexity and difficulty if it is going to adequately reflect reality. Captioned, glossed, and banal work that, for meaning-creation, relies on commentary that goes up on a label next to the painting, is going to fail to deliver the impact that art needs to succeed now, or in any generation. Bad art might please the social-justice warriors on Twitter, but it won’t stand the test of time.

So far I have seen one review and it was negative. It was written by a young woman. And Ellis is aware of the accusations that will be thrown at him because he is white and rich and male and therefore (by definition) out of touch, which is why he titled his book how he did. It’s all part of the author’s self-conscious package. If you fail to see the point of Ellis’ book, then I have nothing further to say that might give it the kind of meaning you need; it is all contained herein. And it is marvellous.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Dream journal: Nine

As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is always the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

24 April

There was a competition and the prize was a series of dinners cooked by notable chefs. I went along to one of these events and had some delicious food. For the second event, I asked the people organising the event if I could go to the restaurant the chef operated to eat by myself but this was not allowed, so I was booked in to eat a different meal. When I arrived for this event, there were people there from Scotland who were part of a wedding party. I talked with them for a while and they were eating some sort of pizza-like food outside in the area around two cars. They were very short and I told them I was Australian. Then I was eating a meal with Jeremy Clarkson and he was cutting up a piece of fish that looked overcooked. I wondered how he would rate the meal and I told him that next time he came to Australia we should get together and have some barramundi. He put some of the fish in his mouth and I saw a lot of bones were in it and I thought that he would do himself an injury. When he had stood up from the table I gave him my business card so that he would be able to get in touch.

27 April

I was at university but I wasn’t going to classes or doing assignments so it was uncertain whether I would pass or fail the year. It was looking more and more likely that I would fail spectacularly. Then I was working in an office and my employer sent me to buy the gift for the manager, who was leaving. I couldn’t work out why they had sent me, the newbie, and assumed it must have been because they didn’t want me to do anything else, and that they had just not wanted to flat-out fire me. I went to a bookstore but because I didn’t know the manager very well, in fact I had just started working there, I had no idea what to buy for her. I started collecting books. They had told me to spend about $150 on books. I got books of art history and some novels, and then all the other people who worked in the office joined me in the bookstore and we all collected books. In the end we had about $350-worth of books to buy for the manager for her going-away present.

Then Donald Trump was on TV talking about Walter Mitty and how the fictional character was morbidly obese and how he (Donald Trump) had had nothing to do with his (Walter Mitty’s) death. Then the scene cut to a very fat man in a dark-blue training outfit lying face-down on a grassy oval waving his arms around as though he were doing exercise. He has straining every muscle in an effort to get slim but he was so fat that his arms did not reach the ground. He waved his arms around and his face showed the strain of the exertion he was subjecting his body to. The camera panned around so that you could see his entire frame, and the futility of his undertaking was apparent.

26 June

I dreamed about blogging. The day before this dream my second Mascara Literary Review review had been published. In the dream I was talking with a woman who was the editor of the Guardian, showing her the things I write about on the blog, including book reviews. I also showed her some of the political articles I had done recently (although only in the dream world, not in real life) and talked about the Guardian’s Greg Jericho, who I compared myself with. The editor of the Guardian listened to me prattle on about all the good things that I offer and then the dream ended.

6 July

I was working for Honeywell and my manager asked me to go to his office one day. There, instead of giving me a promotion he asked me to leave the company. I was devastated. I then saw my father (who, in real life had worked for the same company) telling my grandmother, in memory, that he was going to ask them to let me go. I had to empty out my workstation. There was a cupboard full of my clothes as well as the desk drawers. I filled box after box with coats and scarves. Someone had even started to put their own clothes in the cupboard and I picked up a bottle of perfume that belonged to someone else and put it aside. I put a hat that was stained on my head, then took it off and put on a cleaner one. I thought that it would be necessary to get the dirty hat cleaned.

14 July

Was on the set of a film in which I was acting. The film was about racism and I was talking with one of the actors, a black woman, about the subject. Part of the dream had in it some police – this was all in the US, in some city or other, possibly New York – slandering the actors I was with on account of their blackness. There were offices that were fitted out with old furniture from the middle of last century. The desks were made of wood and there were filing cabinets in the corners. The actor I spoke with said that six billion seconds was equal to a specific number of minutes, but I don’t remember what that number she said was. The police who spoke with me as we were preparing the offices for the shoot were very racist.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Conversations with taxi drivers: Five

This is the fifth in a series of posts chronicling conversations I have had with taxi drivers. The first of these posts appeared on 6 June 2018. 

23 June

Caught a cab from home to Newtown and the driver was very chatty. We talked about the elections and he told me that the media (I had told him I was a journalist) had done a bad job because Labor was supposed to win the election in May. I said that all the opinion poll companies had predicted a Labor win and that most people lie to research companies when they are surveyed. He was very open and confident and we had a long chat about the election and why Labor had lost.

23 June

On the way back home from Newtown I caught a cab going the wrong way (south) because there were no cabs going north. The driver was Bangladeshi and I told him that I had been to the Middle East recently. He told me his brother works in Dubai. I said that many people from the subcontinent work in the Middle East and he said that 20 million Bangladeshis work there. He was very polite and said he had come from Campbelltown to work. He said the taxi industry is under a lot of pressure from Uber. I said I never use that service. I told him about the problems with getting taxi drivers in the Middle East to put on the meter at the beginning of trips and he said that in his country you have to settle a price before you start the journey. I didn’t tell him that it would be very difficult for a tourist to do that because they wouldn’t know how far they had to travel and how much it would cost. He dropped me off at my place and I paid using EFTPOS.

2 July

Caught a cab from Wolli Creek to home. The driver was Indian and might have been a Sikh, I didn’t ask. We talked about real estate for a while then I brought up hybrid Camrys. Most taxis in Sydney are this type of car. I asked him if he knew of any hybrid Camrys that were plug-in models but he said something like, “No, they’re hybrids.” He seemed not to know that some hybrids are also plug-ins. I thought this conversation said a lot about the level of knowledge in the general community. If a cab driver doesn’t know something about cars then most people won’t know either …

7 July

Caught a cab from Newtown to home. I told the taxi driver about the cab drivers my friend and I had met during our trip to the Middle East, many of whom were dishonest. He told me he was Greek and we talked about Istanbul (which, of course, he reminded me had once belonged to Greece). I recounted some of what I learned about Istiklal Street and he said he had been to Istanbul several times. He said also that used to be in the military police. He had, he said, travelled undercover (that is the word he used) to Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Turkey.

I didn’t know what to make of all this. He said the Australian government had brought him to this country. He said that the CIA had a plan to break up Turkey into “four pieces”, and he listed several areas. He said one part was to go to the Kurds and then he said “Syria, Iran,” but I didn’t know what he was referring to by this point. He was getting stranger and stranger with his stories. At one point he told me that the Turks try to take land from Greece 40 times every day, but that the Greek military always forces them back.

When we got close to my destination he said he had a friend who lives in my street, “A multi-millionaire,” he assured me, before asking how much I had paid for my apartment. I told him as I had concluded by this time that he was a fabulist but a harmless one. I paid using EFTPOS and he had warned me earlier, when we were driving through Redfern, that he wouldn’t be able to give me a receipt. I had assured him that it would be fine regardless, and had said I trusted him to do the right thing. I said, “Good to talk with you,” when I got out of the car and he returned the compliment. You meet all types …

10 July

Caught a cab at the NSW Art Gallery to home and the driver was Bangladeshi. He started the conversation by saying that Sydney is expensive and I mentioned that a unit I own in Campsie had not had its rent put up in over two years. He said he lived in a house in Wiley Park, which is a few stations from Campsie. When we were almost at my building I said that Pyrmont is a lot more expensive than Campsie and he said, “Yes, I know.” I told him that I wouldn’t be able to afford the unit I live in if I were to look at buying now and he asked me how much I had paid for it in 2010. I told him and he said that he thought it would be more expensive to buy now. He then said the exact figure that I had received from a real estate agent the last time I had had the place valued. Even taxi drivers in Sydney are property mad …

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Responses on social media to Ken Wyatt’s reconciliation effort

On 12 July The Age reported that Scott Morrison had "shut down the idea of enshrining an Indigenous voice to parliament in the constitution in any upcoming referendum", according to Crikey.  A little time before this news appeared in the public sphere people had been talking about Morrison’s decision to allow Ken Wyatt, the minister for Indigenous Australians, to look at the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the related matter of how to implement recommendations of the Referendum Council, which had brought a report to the government – which at the time was under Turnbull as PM – in late 2017.

Turnbull had famously rejected the council’s idea of setting up a Voice to Parliament, which the council said would have acted as an advisory body, on the grounds that it would have constituted a “third chamber” in Parliament. In the period of time that followed that series of events no-one on the left had proven Turnbull wrong even though the Referendum Council’s web page said that the VtP was never intended to have a legislative role.

The period of time used for this survey was one day (12 July) and a lot of the comments came with the #auspol hashtag. Late in the morning the MyGov website crash became more visible as a topic of conversation on the hashtag stream, but this kind of switching tracks is common. At any one time there will be a dominant subject that most people are focused on. For the present survey this was only early in the morning on the back of the Age announcement that Crikey had telegraphed. At around lunchtime a second wave of media stories started to appear, sparking more commentary.

The overwhelming majority of the 40 individual tweets included in this survey were critical of the government for what was perceived to be a failure of policy in not deciding to enshrine a VtP in the Constitution. This was not surprising since Twitter in general and (particularly) the #auspol hashtag skew progressive. Some people offered helpful suggestions to the government about how to go about changing the Constitution to recognise Aborigines as the first occupants of the continent.

In the end the needed information was delivered to me but it only came at the final call. If someone had provided this information in 2017, I thought, a lot of anxiety and confusion might have been avoided by many people.

What this entire exercise showed me is that people tend to be irrationally cemented to their party position but if you decide to step outside of that kind of mindset you can reach a position that different parties can agree on. If people who know the answers are not approachable and instead dig in, relying on scorn to achieve their goals, nothing gets settled. People need to calm down and talk like rational human beings if you want to create a forum where meaningful dialogue can occur. It’s only in this kind of environment that any progress can get made.

I haven’t categorised the comments any further than putting them in the order in which I saw them. At some times during the day I wasn’t at my desk so I will have missed some comments; this survey is therefore not exhaustive. I think however that it is indicative of a general mood in the community surrounding this issue and surrounding the government’s performance more generally. Having said that here are the tweets …

On 12 July at 7.07am, a Queensland account with 445 followers tweeted, “Is Ken Wyatt really the man he now portrays? As he stood with the Abbott ‘Ditch the Witch’ mob, I question his ethics and underlying agenda.” At 8.30am on the same day, a Melbourne account with 259 followers responded with this: “He chose to join the Liberal Party. The same party that instigated The Intervention and that wound back Mabo gains, that is removing support from remote communities etc. He knew their history before he joined. It was a telling choice.”

At 9.55am a Lilyfield, Sydney, account with 443 followers tweeted, “Time for action rather than prayers. Essential poll: majority of Australians want Indigenous recognition and voice to parliament.” The words came with a link to a Guardian article with news of the poll mentioned in the man’s tweet.

On the same day at 9.58am a New Zealand-based Australian scientist with 37,902 followers tweeted, “Sorry just catching up here - are we back to ‘Recognition’ in the Constitution instead of implementing Makarrata?” The second reference was to a part of the Referendum Council’s request for truth-telling bodies to be set up at the state level in order to ensure that the community understood the nature of the wrongs done to Aborigines during the period white people had been dominant on the continent.

At 10.05am on the same day an Australian account with 1943 followers tweeted, “Ok here's a new definition of Privilege for Modern Australia. 1. Free speech to Vilify and descriminate [sic] for organised religion. Coupled with 2. Denial of Constitutionally based role in determining First Nations own future (because Whitefellas have done such a bang-up job).”

At 10.14am an Australian account with 4271 followers tweeted a link to a story in the Saturday Paper along with the comment, “PM to ’veto’ Indigenous voice to parliament despite popular support,” which I took to be the news outlet’s story headline.

At 10.17am the Australian newspaper tweeted a link to a story on its website with the following text: “If you ask Malcolm Turnbull, he’ll tell you a referendum on indigenous recognition was his idea and Scott Morrison is merely copying him ... or so STREWTH hears.”

At 8.47am a fake Andrew Bolt account had tweeted, “SAY IT OUT LOUD, PRIME MINISTER. NO RACE-BASED PARLIAMENT.” This was retweeted 11 times and I saw it at about 10.19am.

The previous day at 7.36pm a Melbourne account with 2042 followers had tweeted, “The proposed referendum on Indigenous recognition by this government is a red herring to distract the populace while they continue to erode public services, transfer wealth to the 1% and expand the military industrial complex.” The next day at 10.23am he retweeted his earlier tweet and added the following comment, “And so it is... they want to knock the Uluru Statement on it’s [sic] head and conjure up a ‘debate’ for three years.”

At 10.30am the Radio National account tweeted a link to a story on the ABC’s website with the following text: “The #MorrisonGovernment appears to be shunning any move to enshrine an Indigenous voice to Parliament in the #Constitution.”

At 10.31am an Armidale account with 694 followers retweeted the Guardian story as a link and added the following comment: “When was the last time a Poll got anything right in Australia? Asking for a friend who lost a $1m on the election. Are you really going to tell a pollster you are a racist?”

At 9.48am as part of an ongoing conversation about the referendum Council’s report and the Morrison announcement, a person from western Sydney with 5389 followers tweeted, “And [it was] the Howard-Abbott position. A referendum circus for symbolic recognition. Not sure they have reckoned with Voice Treaty Truth tho. It is superbly well crafted and the people power behind it is undeniable. I think the Liberals are gonna get schooled in Black democracy.”

In response a person who routinely criticises the media (and who I used to work with) tweeted, “Pee-ramble II: nobody likes it, don't bother.” The reference was to the suggestions dating from earlier in the century about changing the Constitution’s preamble to acknowledge Aborigines as the country’s first occupants. Then a few minutes later in response to that, a person from Canberra with 4679 followers tweeted, “yes, symbolic recognition is Howard Preamble Mark 2 .. #Voice referendum should be a one-liner, a non-specific head of power in s 51 under which Parliament can legislate, eg #ATSIC .. any more detail in the Constitution will not happen, but a head of power is .. powerful.”

At 10.36am in response to a story from the ABC’s ‘insiders’ program that had gone up at 8.15am, a person who lives in Australia and who had 31 followers tweeted, “Must be such a relief for all the bigots in the Morrison govt. to finally feel empowered enough to openly voice their racism. No one is buying the whole ‘3rd chamber’ [bullshit] excuse.”

At 11.33am the account for the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ TV program tweeted a video showing Annabel Crabb talking (but I can’t listen to audio on my desktop) along with the text: “#Insiders host @annabelcrabb on the last attempts to change the Constitution.”

At 11.42am the Australian Defence Association tweeted, “National unity is a pillar of our national security & sovereignty. Prof Anne Twomey, Aust's top constitutional law academic, notes key facts & concepts for a ‘debate’ largely lacking it on both sides. Repeating the divisive & corrupt ATSIC experiment can be avoided.” This tweet came with a retweet of one from the ABC’s ‘The Drum’ program of the day before that said, “'It clearly couldn’t be a third house of parliament.’ Are you confused about what an Indigenous voice to parliament would look like? Let constitutional lawyer professor Anne Twomey, who wrote the constitutional draft, explain.” That tweet came with a video taken during the screening of the night’s program.

At 11.52am a Sydney account with 3547 followers tweeted, “RT: It's so important that people have clear, factual information about an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and counter the #IPA misinformation that Morrison, Joyce & others are happy to promote #FactsnotLies.” This tweet came with a retweet of the ABC ‘The Drum’ tweet already mentioned.

At 11.53am a Canberra account with 64 followers tweeted, “Day 2 of #IndigenousRecognition referendum (?): dancing on head of pin re definitions; PM & Ministers don't agree; Indigenous (organisations) pitted against each other. All aided & abetted by News Corp. Pay close attention to the detail & background jigsaw being assembled.”

On the day before, 11 July, an anti-gambling campaigner who lives in Melbourne had tweeted, “There is no bigger enemy of Indigenous Australians than Andrew Bolt who today says an indigenous voice to Parliament will ‘wreck the nation’. The Murdoch family is disgraced by their support of this nasty bloke.” Then on the day of the survey at 11.58am a woman with 8307 followers retweeted this tweet with her own comment which said, “And I repeat what Kerry O'Brien told journalists and all Australians during his recent Logies speech: ‘And if you're told that, don't you believe it.’”

At 12.07pm a Canberra account with 56 followers responded to a tweet by the columnist Peter FitzSimons that included a tweet from the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ TV program that had gone up the day before at 8.35am and that had said, “Liberal MP @CraigKellyMP has warned he and other Coalition members could ‘actively campaign for the no side’ if @KenWyattMP pursues a proposal for constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, writes @murpharoo.” The tweet contained a link to a story on the website of the Guardian titled, “Craig Kelly says he could 'campaign for the no side' on Indigenous recognition.” FitzSimons’ tweet said, “And this is where @ScottMorrisonMP needs to step up and put his whole weight behind @KenWyattMP. LEAD, PM!” And the new tweet from the Canberra resident said, “In Australia’s constitutional preamble replace ‘humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God’ (kowtowing, irrelevant) with ‘acknowledging Australia’s indigenous peoples as first Australians’ (or similar words).”

At 12.12pm a former ABC staffer I follow tweeted a link to a story on the ABC’s website with the comment, “Indigenous constitutional recognition a difficult goal for Scott Morrison and Ken Wyatt...” that had the same text as the headline.

At 12.23pm a Queensland account with 13.902 followers tweeted, “Also, we have a third chamber. It's called the Federation Chamber. There's no reason why the person(s) tasked with being the Indigenous voice couldn't make speeches there. No legislative matters occur there. Dutton doesn't want people to have that, though.”

At 12.30pm an account with 559 followers tweeted, “So @ScottMorrisonMP not showing any love for our ATSI brothers & sisters, but weakly caving to the IPA-bred, hard right neocons. S’pose he’ll offer a prayer instead...”

At 12.32pm an account with 217 followers tweeted, “Where's the supposed new found respect & authority of PM Morrison? No leadership to quieten his reactionary rabble of hard right racist naysayers to progress. No clear statement of support for Recognition. Minister Wyatt is left to ever patiently ask. So painful. Blighted.”

At 12.32pm Gabrielle Jackson, who works for the Guardian, tweeted, “What a waste of time. Peter Dutton rules out voice to parliament, labelling it a 'third chamber', by @AmyRemeikis.” This tweet came with a link to a story on the outlet’s website.

At 12.33pm the Financial Review tweeted a link to a story on its website with the comment, “The country's first indigenous minister, Ken Wyatt, tells Lunch with the AFR he joined the Liberal party to change it.”

At 12.38pm in response to the Guardian story mentioned above, Samuel Clark, the executive producer of the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ and elections coverage programs, tweeted, “Meanwhile, Craig Kelly has just told @tomwconnell that it's not a third chamber but it could be ‘seen to be a third chamber if it's entrenched in the constitution’.” Tom Connell is a Sky News reporter. In response to Clark’s tweet a woman with 5669 followers tweeted, “Star chamber still scaremongering on this chamber.”

At 12.57pm a Guardian contributor with 3618 followers tweeted, along with the link to a Guardian story titled “Peter Dutton rules out voice to parliament, labelling it a 'third chamber'” (that had gone up at midday), a comment that said, “Sadly predictable: `Sources close to PM' (read advisors under instruction) & Dutton torpedo #Indigenous Voice before genuine political discussion. L/NP l/ship - Abbott to Turnbull & Morrison - never serious & always lied about it as '3rd chamber'.”

At 6.51pm an Australian Catholic University academic retweeted a tweet that had gone up the day before, from a man with 1572 followers, who wrote, “’The Voice to Parliament is a common feature in many liberal democracies around the world. It is a simple proposition: that Indigenous peoples should have a say in the laws and policies that affect their lives and communities.’ - Professor Megan Davis.” The tweet came with a link to an ABC story titled “The Voice to Parliament: Our plea to be heard” by a constitutional lawyer and Pro Vice Chancellor Indigenous at the University of New South Wales named Megan Davis. Davis had blocked me the year before for asking questions about the VtP.

At 8.25pm a law academic from Melbourne tweeted, “Education needed on purpose of voice to parliament: @DaniLarkin2.” The tweet contained a link to an ABC radio website featuring a recording titled, “There's misconceptions around the function of a voice to parliament: Dani Larkin.” I thought this was mildly optimistic since no-one knows how the VtP will actually work, and I said something along those lines. No reply. As an aside, I can’t listen to audio on my desktop PC so I was unable to hear what Larkin had said on-air.

Later, the academic responded, saying, “How it works can be worked out, there are many different types of advisory bodies already part of the public law system, [Australian Law Reform Commission], Productivity Commission, etc.” And then Dani Larkin replied to me, saying, “We have more than enough bodies to look to (for our structuring of the Voice) to be guided by (both within and outside of Australia). This is a strength and a reform mentality for us all to be guided by.” So why didn’t anyone say this in 2017 and save us all the anxiety? When I read these comments I didn’t understand why people had been so unforthcoming over the past two years. All the confusion seemed so unnecessary.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Complaints about the media on social media

This kind of tweet is so common it’s almost a meme. It usually comes from people on the left side of the political spectrum who want to object to something the government (which federally is on the right) has done. As they are doing so, they also attack the media which, many believe, has been coopted by the right side of politics. This sort of attack often ropes in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), despite other parts of the community (notably people on the right) who think that the ABC has long been coopted by the left. If that all sounds confusing, wait until you read the actual tweets.

This sample is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, and covers a period of only four days, from 8 July until 11 July (although I was looking for this kind of tweet on only 9, 10 and 11 July; the ones from 8 July were retweets that came into my feed on later days). I could have continued with the exercise indefinitely but I decided, for practical purposes, to set limits. I also decided to anonymise most of the comments but where the tweeter was a public figure or public body I have sometimes given an attribution that identifies them. Most of the comments were published on Twitter.

A lot came with the #auspol hashtag, which is not unsurprising considering their low quality and general lack of factual support. This hashtag is a rich hunting ground for journalists looking for views that come from out of left field but, on the other hand, there are sometimes enough people there with similar views that they can form collective movements in support of single ideas. This is certainly true (you will see if you read on) of people who set out to attack the media.

What follows only catalogues the complaints about the media seen by me, but during the same time period some tweets I saw were in support of the media. Some of these were about how the federal government has been cutting funding to the ABC. One I saw on 10 July in the #auspol hashtag stream was about the ABC’s investigative TV program ‘4 Corners’ and how good it was, this person thought, for the country. There were one or two about a conference on media freedom that a Liberal federal senator for NSW, Marise Payne, was attending in London at the time. And there were some tweets about the various laws that the federal government has brought in over recent years that have functioned to curtail the freedom of journalists.

So, not all comments were critical of the media: some were in fact supportive. This kind of complexity is typical of social media. About most issues there is usually a wide range of different views, not just one, single, monolithic opinion. One thing above all other stood out, however: most people who use social media read a lot of news stories. The relative visibility of journalists and the important role they play in a pluralistic democracy like Australia’s makes them a reference point when conversations get difficult as well as a target for complaints aimed at the powerful generally.

Often it seems that the people who are most reliant on the media are the ones most likely to criticise it. They find themselves in a position of dependence and they react against this situation by attacking the very people who give them the information they crave to sustain their identities. It’s sort of like a junkie blaming the dealer for his addiction except that media products, unlike illicit drugs, are completely legal. The comments included here are in four categories:
  • General complaints
  • Complaints about the ABC
  • Complaints about the Murdoch press
  • Complaints about specific stories or issues
General complaints

On 9 July at 10.48am, an account with 15,406 followers that often attacks the media tweeted, “Can anyone believe how quickly [Australian politics are] unravelling after the election? We’re now openly discussing the clear breakdown of our democracy - we’ve no Opposition - & media is focused on itself as the predictable actions of this Govt closes in on them.” At 11.19am the same day another left-wing account, which had 8282 followers at the time I took the snapshot, retweeted the earlier tweet with the following comment, “Aust's 4th Estate abdicated years ago, choosing to die as a prominent propaganda arm of a rising nationalistic authoritarian regime. The regime now turns its eye to that dead 4th Estate, & all so predictably, the ghost cries ‘help’ when there is no one left to help.” It’s possible that the reference to a ghost pointed to Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ (finished circa 1602) but, in this context, what the “ghost” the tweeter wanted to refer to – presumably someone or something in the Australian public sphere – was unclear to me. Was the “ghost” the remains of the mainstream media, given cost-cutting in response to reduced revenues resulting from the emergence of the internet, or something else?

On 10 July at 10.07am a person with 177 followers who joined twitter in 2011 posted a tweet that said, “Highly relevant to the media situation here in Australia and how we're all being sold a pup by our #MSM.” The tweet contained a link to a story on Medium about two Russian news agencies being banned from the media conference already mentioned in the introduction above. The article was titled, “Government That Tortures Journalists Bans RT From Media Conference.” It wasn’t clear from this however what kind of “pup” the people of Australia are being “sold” by the mainstream media (whatever that is). The link wasn’t clear but this is often the case with Twitter. People who post there make connections between disparate things that seem obvious to them but, for other people, need more explaining.

This one’s a bit complex, so bear with me. On 8 July at 9am The Age published a tweet saying, “Federal police demanded Qantas hand over the private travel arrangements of a senior ABC journalist, a request revealing the sweeping nature of their investigation into how the national broadcaster published top-secret government material | EXCLUSIVE.” Then Sally Neighbour, a journalist who works on ‘4 Corners’ tweeted about two hours later, “This is outrageous. We should all be up in arms.” A Brisbane account with 4909 followers tweeted on 8 July at 4pm, “Only IF the whole nation is made its collective media. Politicisation of govt agencies & parlous state of federal governance happened, because it could. It’s the direct result of fourth estate’s failure to call out incremental decay, with has escalated, unchallenged.” Then on 10 July at 3.10am another account tweeted, “#msmfail are shit. Really really really shit.” And another Australian account, with 748 followers, tweeted on the same day at 9.26am, “Because 4th estate now mostly the propaganda arm of the Murdoch/IPA axis of evil.” Then (I told you this would take some time), on the same day at 10.26am another account tweeted, “Yep, & that includes #TheirABC.” All these tweets were connected by retweets and comments added on for effect.

On 11 July at 9.04pm a Melbourne account with 162 followers tweeted this into my feed: “Don't blame @AustralianLabor for the shit we're in. Labor had good policies but the #sheeple listen to the BIASED media and didn't know what they were voting for. We need to #BiasShame media in 2 reportg facts.” The woman who provided me with this piece of wisdom lives on the Central Coast in NSW and has 4331 followers.

Complaints about the ABC

On 9 July at 10.24am an Australian tweeter with 13,897 followers put up the following comment, “Oh come on, media. Please tell me you're not going to let Morrison and Dutton get away with this.” The tweet came with a link to a story on the ABC’s website that had the headline, “Australian Federal Police accessed journalists' metadata, stoking new media freedom concerns.” Considering that the media had actually written a story about the incident, it was hard, for me, to see what the objection was in this case. Perhaps there might have been grounds to complain if the ABC had not written and published a story about the incident. But, then, how would we know it had happened?

On 9 July at 6.52pm a North Queensland account with 818 followers tweeted, “Dear ABC. If your long game was for progressives to gradually tune out, you win. I refused to let you beat me, but after 6 years of LNP and another 3 to come, the country is in a massive mess and the economy in dire straits. But hey, ‘Labor, Labor Labor.’ I'm done. FU.”

On 9 July at 7.15pm an account based in Australia tweeted on the #auspol hashtag, “Stan Grant talking about 'taking taxpayer dollars ...'  what .. like #THEIRABC and then IGNORE the Charter ....   #thedrum  #AUSPOL  Ohhhh no don't mention those $Billions that we are forced to cough up to pay them.” The comment referred to the ‘Drum’ program that was on at the time the tweet was sent.

Complaints about the Murdoch press

On 8 July at 4.11pm, the Sleeping Giants account tweeted, “Just to demonstrate how Murdoch has already launched the "Kill Albo" campaign Sky News & Paul Murray actually ran with this fairy tale blaming Labor for a $2b cost to the budget. All semblance of truth is dead - its all hands print, online & TV to hold Labor underwater.” The tweet came with an embedded video showing a Sky News presenter talking. A Brisbane account with 11,226 followers the next day retweeted the tweet with a comment, “Has Paul put on a bit of weight?  I'm sure he was only a little bit huge last month. Might be wrong.” This comment was aimed at the Sky News presenter and was rather unkind, I thought, but that’s the sort of thing that happens on Twitter all the time.

On 9 July at 2.50pm an account with nine followers and lots of numbers in its handle tweeted, “Think they tried to in Tasmania, the gambling lobby threw millions into getting Labor defeated. The country is run by the mining council, gambling lobby and Murdoch. We are F******.” The tweet was retweeted by a Victorian gambling harm lobbyist with 31,746 followers at about 4.10pm.

At about 5pm on 9 July on Facebook a woman who is related to me and is a left-wing commentator who usually posts about nuclear energy, put up a photo that read, “I can’t believe Australians are comparing Rupert Murdoch to Satan. Yes he’s evil, but certainly not as evil as Rupert.”

On 10 July at 9.30am an account with the words ‘Stay angry!” in its profile and with 100 followers put up a tweet saying, “Saw two very old people intently reading The Courier Mail with Labor hate pieces prominent. Not many read it these days, just the oldies. They’ve been brainwashed but they’ll refuse to admit it. It’s not news anymore, it’s just a propaganda tool.” This kind of comment denigrating old people – especially denigrating Baby Boomers – is all-too-common on social media. There is a broad perception that Boomers are responsible for most of the problems in the world, and comments like the one shown here illustrate that feeling.

On 11 July at 8.50pm an account with 143 followers tweeted, “Unfortunately when you combine an outright crooked dominant media owner...with an incompetent, incurious, intimidated and underfunded remainder...with a disengaged, apathetic and proudly ignorant wind up with contemporary Australia.” This was retweeted by an account based in the Blue Mountains in NSW with 2936 followers at 9.44pm the same day with a comment: “This tweet below was in a thread about the NBN but is so very true of Australian politics in general.” The reference was to the suspicion that Rupert Murdoch had pressed the Liberal Party to water down the National Broadband Network as it competed with the cable TV services he owns.

Complaints about specific stories or issues

On 9 July at 10.50am an Australian account with 5701 followers tweeted within the ambit of the #auspol hashtag, “@4corners Your latest effort, posing as investigative journalism, is an insult to the intelligence. A prelude to Morrison announcing a ‘review’ of [the Murray-Darling Basin Plan] to hide evidence of their corruption. #4corners #GoneToTheDogs.” This tweet referred to the ABC’s ‘4 Corners’ show, ‘Cash Splash’, that had aired the night before on the TV. The program was about what were flagged by reporters as rorting of the system by big irrigators. Cotton Australia replied to the ABC the next morning but the fallout from the program, as usual, was considerable. This tweet, which unusually went the other way, criticised the national broadcaster for actually trying to do its job.

On 9 July at 5.15pm a Victorian account with 3749 followers tweeted, “The media's tax cuts coverage ignored substance and focused on trivia.” The tweet included a link to a story on the Crikey website that was titled “Tax cuts coverage ignored substance, focused on trivia” that was with a story by Bernard Keane, who works for the outlet. The story, which referred to the previous week’s debate in Parliament in Canberra, and in the broader community, about tax relief for Australians,  contained a lot of facts and conveyed the idea that the media coverage of the issue had been mainly superficial and skewed to support for the government. This was not surprising as Crikey tends to skew left in its editorial approach on most issues.

On 9 July at 5.03pm a journalism academic with 35,825 followers tweeted, “How the ABC once again failed to understand a complex policy issue because of a lack of dedicated policy specialists in its news room.” His tweet retweeted also a tweet from the ABC’s ‘7.30’ program that read, “How Netflix and the streaming revolution killed the NBN's dream of super fast broadband on fixed wireless.” The academic’s tweet was retweeted later on the same day by the account of a rural Australian with 3321 followers.

On 10 July at 9.08am an account I follow with 3690 followers and that makes a point of criticising the media (I worked with its holder during the time I worked at Sydney University, which was from 2003 to 2009) posted a tweet saying, “’... set to promise...’ great reporting, can't wait.” The tweet came with a retweet of one by sports commentator Peter FitzSimons who had put up a tweet about the government’s announcement about the Voice to Parliament. His tweet read, “Bravo the Government! Let's all get behind it. If the Morrison Government can achieve that in this term, it will be a great achievement, and a tangible Morrison legacy.” This tweet went with a link to a story on the ABC’s website titled, “Indigenous constitutional recognition to be put to referendum in next three years, Minister to promise.” The deprecating comment from the first tweeter was entirely typical of the person who made it.

On 10 July at 10.18am the Nation Farmers’ Federation posted a tweet that read, “EDITORIAL:  In today's @australian read @afsnsw on Monday night's @4corners & how a pattern of reporting by some quarters of @abcnews on the #MDBP points to an agenda to unravel the Plan &/or agitate for a Royal Commission, @ the expense of enviro, communities & farmers.” The tweet contained a GIF that showed a story headling on the web page of the newspaper referred to in the comment. The headline read, “Stead trickle of fibs on ABC’s Four Corners.” The Murdoch media has a longstanding policy of attacking the ABC, mainly because it competes with it and its editors think, like the Liberal Party itself, that the ABC should be privatised and not funded by the people.

On 11 July at 8.26am a Melbourne account with 10,552 followers tweeted, “Disgraceful of @theage to push this uncritical view of Morrison as a wonderful Christian while innocent refugees are tortured and persecuted under his watch.” The tweet came with a link to an opinion piece titled “PM prays with us and refuses to keep his faith in a box. Amen to that.” The piece had been written by Professor Stephen Fogarty, the president of Alphacrucis College, a Parramatta, NSW, independent school. At 9.20pm the same day, an account with 66 followers tweeted, “Fairfax always kept the balance, so sad to see @theage turn into this crap.” The reference was to the sale of the Fairfax mastheads to Channel Nine, a publicly-traded company. Neither of the people who commencted seemed to realise that the article they were complaining about was an opinion piece that had been labelled as such, with the affiliation of the person who wrote it. But this kind of unthinking criticism of the media on account of supposed bias in favour of the right side of politics is commonplace, as we have seen.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

The 2019 Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes: personal favourites

In May last year I did a quit whip around the Art Gallery of New South Wales and on the blog put up a series of reflections about what I had found interesting in the shows held that year.

This year I am doing the same thing. As before, my visit was very quick but I saw some very good works in the three exhibitions on display downstairs at the gallery. I liked all the winners and will put up the Sulman Prize winner here. The Wynne Prize winner, as in the case last year, was an Aboriginal artwork. The Archibald winner I thought also very good but it has gotten a lot of coverage and it will be easy for anyone who wants to to find a photo of it online.

In what follows most of the selected paintings are figurative works and the other thing that links them is a certain looseness or gestural quality in the application of the paint. Two of the works are naïve and one is a curious mix of abstraction in the tradition of John Olsen and the literalness of Indigenous painting.

The show that was located nearest to the entrance this year was for the Sulman Prize finalists, so I’ll start with those that I found interesting in it. The first painting in my catalogue is by Nick Santoro and it is titled ‘Hewitts Avenue montage’.

This painting is right near the entrance so you see it as soon as the usher has scanned your ticket. The colours are very interesting, particularly the sky, and the naïve style is reminiscent of a lot of artwork by Aboriginal painters that I have seen in recent years in different exhibitions, including some at this gallery. Like abstract Aboriginal art, there is a literalness in this work that is very appealing as it challenges convention in an oblique fashion. There is no doubt what each object in the work represents and so meaning is created by the associations that the different elements of the painting produce as they combine together to form a whole. I also like the narrative tendency of this kind of art.

The winner of the Sulman Prize this year is McLean Edwards’ ‘The first girl that knocked on his door’, a portrait of a young man in a yellow check jacket. It’s not clear what the man has on his shoulders or even what he is holding in his hand, although the text that accompanies the painting says that the latter object is an “apple/phone”, which doesn’t really make things much clearer. I liked the directness of the subject’s gaze, which is straight at the viewer as though challenging him or her to make a judgement of the very bold jacket he is wearing. This is a nice meditation on youth.

The next painting that I want to look at is Tom Carment’s Sulman Prize entry ‘Singer typewriter in Don’s shed, Perth’. This painting has echoes of de Kooning, especially in the types of colours used and in the loose, gestural application of paint. The text that accompanies the painting says that Carment has painted a number of different typewriters in recent years. I like the mix of abstract and figurative elements in this lovely painting.

Ken Done’s ‘Dive 3’ is a lovely work that reminded me of Arthur Boyd’s late works when I saw it. Done is best known for his T-shirts and scenes of Sydney Harbour, but this time he has focused his attention underwater. Wonderful use of colour and so delightful it’s almost edible!

Now to the Wynne Prize. The first painting I want to look at is one that is overtly controversial. It is Abdul Abdullah’s ‘A terrible burden’. 

This painting combines figurative elements – in the background – with conceptual elements – in the text that is written boldly over the top of the image. Commenting on the dispossession of the continent by white people at the expense of the Aborigines, the work will not appeal to many people because of its calculated message. I didn’t like the way the text that accompanies the work has been picked up by other commentators who have written about this work. It seems to me that an artwork has to survive on its own, unassisted, or not at all. But this is a bit purist, I am aware.

The next painting I want to look at is Jun Chen’s ‘Magnolia trees’. This artist is represented in Sydney by a gallery in Chippendale and I didn’t go along to see his work last year when there was a show on there. Chen was born in China in 1960 and migrated to Australia in 1990. In an appealing and oblique way this lovely painting references ideas current in the last century in China; a way that doesn’t mask the figurative brilliance of the work.

We now come to Marc Etherington’s ‘The view from my mum and dad’s place’, a fetching naïve work with strong figurative elements and a terrific colour scheme that suggests dusk, an evocative time of day.

Robert Malherbe’s (below) ‘Lithgow, path to water’ is very striking with almost exaggerated figurative elements and vigorous brushwork.

Below is Yantji Young’s ‘Tjala tjukurpa (honey ant story)’ combines John Olsen’s distinctive style with the Aboriginal style that Olsen himself drew on. This is a fine work and was very memorable.

I didn’t fix my attention on too many works in the Archibald but the ones that grabbed me were, again, mainly figurative in their content. The first one I want to look at is Ciara Adolphs’ ‘Rosemary Laing and Geoff Kleem (in their garden)’, which relies on a very subdued palette and is done in oils even though the paint appears to be very thin. White space has been used inventively to create texture and contrast and the painting looks something like a black-and-white photograph.

A similarly mild palette was used by Keith Burt to paint ‘Benjamin Law: happy sad’, a portrait of the popular journalist and TV personality.

Also figurative but with some more expressive elements is Paul Ryan’s ‘Self-portrait in the studio with the Beastie Boys, painting James Drinkwater for the Archibald Prize (Los amigos)’. This self-conscious work has considerable panache and features another Australian artist; Drinkwater is the subject of a post I did on the blog in November. Drinkwater is represented by the same gallery that represents Jun Chen.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Historical Middle East, seven: Military hardware

This is the final post in a new (third) series of blogposts based on the ME trip I completed in May and early June. The other posts in this series are on orientalist art, funerary customs, ritual objects, applied and decorative arts, sacred buildings, and civic and commercial buildings.

It might seem wrong to end a series on history in the ME with a post about military hardware but as you will see there is a story here that links the point of departure – orientalist painting – with the finale. We didn’t spend much time looking for this kind of thing and I just snapped the occasional photo when the opportunity arose to do so. This will be a short post relative to the others in the series.

The driver who took us back to Amman from Petra, whose name was Maruan, guided his 3-year-old Hyundai Sonata hybrid through the city in order to visit his sister and on the way to his relative’s house we passed by the government’s tank museum. We didn’t stop as it was already late in the day and we were keen to get back to our hotel.

But Maruan slowed the car down and told me in English to read the sign that had been installed at the gate of the compound. Seeing this institution even from the outside underscored for me how, in the ME, the military sits relatively close to the surface of the polis compared to a country like Australia. In one shop in Jerusalem when we were looking at the goods on sale I struck up a brief conversation with one of the staff. He expressed a feeling of longing for the kind of peace and security that we take for granted.

There are police everywhere in Jerusalem, as there are in Istanbul. Big grey trucks with water cannon mounted on top of them stand at busy locations in that city ready to be put to use if there is civil unrest. The police there wear civilian clothes with badged vests but they carry automatic weapons in their hands.

As usual with posts in this series, I will start from the earliest objects and proceed to talk about more recent ones. The first object that draws my attention is the iron cannon in the photo below dating from about 1500 that was in the museum next to the Temple of Hercules in Amman. The label that accompanies the exhibit says that the writing cast in the object’s exterior reads: “Ezz for our master Sultan Al-Ashraf Abu Al-Nasr victory for the sake of God the work of Kamal Ibn al-Hamawi.”

The grenades below were in the same case as the cannon and, like it, they are made of iron.

The photo below shows the Aqaba Fortress. We drove to this Red Sea coastal town on day three in Petra after we had gone to Wadi Rum to see the sandstone cliffs among the dunes there. The fortress dates from the 16th century. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, the 1962 Hollywood movie, was filmed in the city and in the area surrounding it. Apologies for the finger in the frame.

The photos below show two trains near Wadi Rum that sit abandoned on tracks that lead, presumably, somewhere. When we were there a man and a woman were engaged in a photoshoot. The woman, who wore a Lycra top that showed her midriff, was doing handstands and other manoeuvres while the man snapped away with his camera. 

Khalid, our driver, said that the steam train originally came from Japan. He took us to see the trains as a treat after we had decided to accept his offer of a trip to Aqaba in his 3-year-old Hyundai Elantra. While the two of us took photos he went into a prayer room in the station building and completed his devotions. 

If you look online you can find traces of stories about the Hejaz Railway. The steam train in the pictures below is reportedly part of that service and it was during WWI that local Arabs, urged on by Lawrence of Arabia and with the help of the British, blew up sections of the railway tracks in order to disrupt the Ottoman war effort.

The sea mines in the photo below can be seen at the back of the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul. I don’t know when these mines were made or if and when they were deployed. They can be seen from a path outside the painting museum at the back of the palace compound.

The photo below shows a military installation that was set up for Ramadan in Boulevard Abdeli Mall, in the western part of Amman. The sign that accompanied the installation said that the cannon was used in the 1940s to signal the end of fasting during Ramadan but the installation also had a PR purpose.

After I got back to Sydney at the end of the trip I was watching TweetDeck as I usually do during the daytime and saw a photo a Turkish account, that normally posts photos of orientalist art, had put up. It showed a tank or a large gun (I don’t recall this detail clearly) and it had a caption that placed the photo in Cyprus following the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974. I was a little surprised and asked why the account operator had put this image up but in reply the person in charge of the account blocked me. It had been put up, they said, just to rub it in. 

For many people living in the ME, memories of war are fresh and going by the way people who live there think there is little to be optimistic about. Conflict characterises the region and I see no chance for that to change in the near future. Maruan had opened the conversation with remarks about soccer – he showed me on his phone part of a game that had recently been played by the Australian and Jordanian national teams, which Jordan had won – but considerate and peaceable people like Maruan are not always who you meet with.

Some are like the man who, on the day this post was written, climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge in order to protest against the government of Iran. During the climb, which stopped traffic on part of the bridge for about an hour, the 33-year-old made a video of himself that he loaded to social media. In it he addressed President Trump of the US. The Sydney Morning Herald story on the incident went on:
In the video, the man identifies himself as a member of the "Restart" movement, a group that, according to its website, wishes to "overthrow the regime of Islamic Republic of Iran" and "establish a government based on knowledge and merits" to bring peace to the Middle East.
Is the region a contested space? As Tony Abbot might have said, “You bet you are.” You bet it is. And one thing that strikes me as a result of writing this series of posts is that creativity and power have always gone hand in hand. In order to effectively project power you need more than military strength. You also need people who can paint and sculpt and engineer and design and build. You need artisans and artists and architects: people who command the plastic materials that we use to communicate feelings and ideas. 

I have focused in this series on physical things (buildings, ritual objects, kitchenware, glassware, castings, paintings, jewellery, carvings, mouldings, decorative items, even a mechanical device) but the same rules apply when you deal with words and with other such cultural artefacts as music and dance (I wrote about the extraordinary rite of the dervishes in a June post). And it is as true today with social media and videos uploaded to the web over wifi, and short segments of text such as tweets, as it was in the days when cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) letters stamped on clay tablets were the medium of choice for people living in the Middle East. 

Mere strength will only get you so far; to create a successful polity you need people’s trust. To gain it, religion and culture were combined in many potent forms: stories of origin that lived in the present. History keeps these stories relevant to us today so that we can learn important lessons and avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

So how did the guy who climbed the Harbour Bridge fare in the courts? According to the SMH, “Naghi Pirzadeh, 33, pleaded guilty in Central Local Court on Monday to entering the structure and disrupting vehicles.” According to his lawyer Michal Mantaj, “his client's night in prison had a ‘profound’ effect on him and [he] had broken down in tears when they had spoken on Monday morning.” So a second chance for this guy, at least. He got a nine-month intensive corrections order, was banned him from going within five kilometres of the bridge, and was also fined A$1200 for this and two other offences.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Historical Middle East, six: Civic and commercial buildings

This is the sixth in a (third) series of blogposts based on my ME trip. The first post in the series was on orientalist art, the second was on funerary customs, the third was on ritual objects, the fourth was on applied and decorative arts, and the fifth was on sacred buildings.

I am getting near to the end of this series but it seems as though I have just started. How many memories are captured here! The current post – not the longest in the series but the one that has the most photos (43) – will be about buildings that did not have a sacred purpose and, as with the previous post, it will start in Jerusalem because that is where the oldest civic and commercial structures we saw are located.

I couldn’t find a definitive etymology for the name of the city. Suffice to say it has stood in its present location for a very long time and so the walls that surround its core – the old city, or old town, which is filled with narrow alleyways and religious buildings and shops selling tourist tat – are doubtless very old as well. The town that stood where the core of modern-day Jerusalem stands would always have had walls as a protective barrier. Jericho, which is one of the oldest settlements in the world, had walls and any child who has gone to Sunday school will be able to talk about them.

The old city of Jerusalem has a number of gates to allow people to get in and out of the town, and there are tens of thousands of visitors who enter the place every day. The gates are dotted around the place and the one we used most often during our visit to the city was the Jaffa Gate, which is on the western side of the old town and which leads to Mamilla Avenue, an upmarket pedestrian mall that is closed to cars and that is lined by restaurants and shops. The first photo below shows another gate, called Zion Gate. The second photo below shows a gate that is located just east of it called Dung Gate.

Dung Gate is situated in the wall at a place very close to where the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall are located, and it provides vehicular access to the city. Not all of the gates of the old city do. The only way to use some of them is to walk in. At Jaffa Gate you can catch a taxi and Zion Gate allows cars to exit while Dung Gate allows cars to go both in and out. 

The following photo shows the walls of the old town from a point just west of it. This photo was taken on day three of our stay when we had walked down the hill from the hotel to find a restaurant. The restaurant only served vegetarian food and the meal was very filling. It is located in a park and before entering the park I turned around and snapped this photo, looking east. The cypresses that you see in Jerusalem, like the limestone used for buildings, is mirrored by what you see in Amman, the capital of Jordan.

The photo below shows a tunnel in Jerusalem. The old city is full of funny little laneways like this and there are often shops leading off them, as you can see in this photo. The shop here is an art gallery. It’s difficult to know when such structures were built and who built them.

Now to Amman in Jordan. The following four photos show the Roman amphitheatre there. It is made from limestone (naturally) and it sits on Hashemi Street, a busy thoroughfare that leads in and out of the old town. Our hotel was located right opposite the theatre and to get back home at the end of the day if we had been out we just had to tell taxi drivers “Roman theatre” and they immediately understood where to go. 

The photo below shows Hashemi Plaza in front of the theatre. People use this space to gather and talk and socialise.

The following photo shows one of the limestone column capitals that is on the ground in the space. The place is not very well looked after by the authorities and although there is a gate with a turnstile at the entrance it was never manned when we visited the plaza.

The photo below shows me with some of the columns that are still partially standing.

The following photo shows a sign erected on the theatre site by the civic authorities. It dates the theatre to the second century AD at the time of Antoninus Pius; not sure where they got the spelling of this emperor’s name from but it’s different from what you find online. The sign also asks people not to smoke, which seemed odd as the site is in the open air. Perhaps the invocation was for people going into the area inside the building. The sign was situated next to a gate that we never saw open, unlike the turnstile at the entrance, which people just walked through to get into the plaza.

The following two photos show me in Petra, 250km south of Amman, standing in front of the amphitheatre located in the lost city of the Nabataeans. The kingdom became a client state of the Romans in about 100AD, at the same time that Amman (then called Philadelphia) was taken over by the Romans. No doubt theatre formed part of the Romans’ PR apparatus, keeping people loyal and quiet.

The photo below is also of the theatre in Petra, and it shows the stage entranceway (the black hole in the centre of the frame) and the walls of the theatre facing the thoroughfare that people would have used to move from one part of the settlement to another.

The photo below shows the remains of a wall that made up part of the fabric of the theatre. You can see the rubble inside the wall and its smooth, dressed facing stone.

The following photo shows the nymphaeum (a water source) built by the Romans in Amman. The US embassy and scholars at the University of Jordan are restoring this structure. Currently, there is a kind of keeper who lives on-side and he lets you into the enclosure, which is hard by the produce market in the downtown area. Before you leave the place he will ask you for a tip. I gave him, I think, one Jordanian dinar (about A$2).

Having touched on Jerusalem, Amman and Petra we must now go to Istanbul. Here we visited what is called the Basilica Cistern (see photos below), which was a water supply constructed by the Byzantines when the city was still called Constantinople. 

At 3.50pm in the afternoon on day three in the city we entered the site and paid for two tickets (20 Turkish lira, or A$5, each). Downstairs, the cavern the Romans built in the time of Justinian I (about 500AD according to online sources) is pretty spectacular and the Turks heighten the drama by piping in a kind of ancient music so that you feel as though you are in a Fellini movie. Both locals and tourists use the place. We wandered around along the concrete walkway that has been constructed to support visitors, and took photos, then at 4.20pm we came back out onto the street via the exit, which took us to a street different from the one we had used to enter the cavern.

Still in Istanbul, my next stop is the Topkapi Palace, which was established as the sultan’s home and as the centre of government for the Ottoman Empire in the middle of the 15th century. The place is a museum now. The tickets were 60 Turkish lira (A$15) each for the palace and 35 lira (A$9) each for the harem, where the sultan and his family dwelled. The following two photos show scale models of the palace that are located inside the compound, for the benefit of tourists. The first model shows the palace on the headland with the Bosporus marked in blue.

The following photo shows the imperial hall inside one of the buildings in the compound, which contains a large, well-tended garden.

The following photo shows the imperial council hall with a group of visitors in it. The decoration in the place is pretty remarkable and it combines (as I noted in the post about applied and decorative arts) Western and Eastern influences.

The following photo was on the wall in this part of the palace compound. This map shows the official Turkish version of the various extents of the Ottoman Empire at different times in its history. 

The two photos below show arcades of buildings in the palace compound. Note the different coloured stone used on alternate columns, a feature that mimics what you find in Hagia Sophia.

The following photo was taken inside the sultan’s library.

The photo below shows the floor in the part of the palace where guards lived. The hexagonal flagstones reminded me of the flagstones that are found in the great temple in Petra.

The photo below shows the bathhouse in the harem.

Not far from the palace is the Grand Bazaar (see photo below), which also has its roots in the period immediately following the Turks’ 15th century conquest of Constantinople. Originally designed to enable the trading of cloth and jewellery, it is still today full of jewellers and gold merchants.

Still in Istanbul, the next port of call is the Dolmabahce Palace, which one of the sultans built in the middle of the 19th century to serve as the centre of government as well as his personal dwelling. As with the Topkapi Palace there is a harem where the sultan’s mother, wives, and children, as well as the sultan himself, lived. We took photos of the exterior but you’re not allowed to take photos inside any of the buildings, which are grand in design and which mimic European models. The third photo below shows the harem’s exterior.

The photo below shows Sirkeci Railway Station, which was built in Istanbul in 1890 on the south bank of the Golden Horn to serve as the eastern terminus of the Orient Express.

The photo below shows Istiklal Street (Independence Street), which has a tram running down its centre at various times during the day. At the north end of this pedestrian mall is Taksim Square and at its south end is what is called the Tunel, an old subway station (the second-oldest in Europe, according to online sources).

The photo below shows a residential building. In the distance is the Golden Horn.

The photo below shows a building in the tourist area of Istanbul, near Sultanahmet Plaza and Hagia Sophia.

The photo below shows the hotel where we stayed in Jerusalem for the first three days. It is called the YMCA Three Arches Hotel and it was originally opened in the 1933. The building has both a civic and a commercial purpose. 

The land purchase and construction were funded by American and British philanthropists. The interior is very gorgeous and is in a style that reflects the historical importance of the city. “The neo-Byzantine-style complex was designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, architect of the Empire State Building,” says the hotel’s website. The ethos behind the hotel is animated by ideas close to the heart of the Jerusalem YMCA’s 19th century founders, who wanted the place to celebrate pluralism and peaceful cooperation. The vaulted ceiling of the lobby is very fine and the exterior is made from local limestone. The more luxurious King David Hotel is located just across the road from it. 

The photo below shows Boulevard Abdeli Mall in Amman. This is a modern, upmarket shopping centre in the western part of the city.

The photo below shows a woven wall hanging depicting the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates. The object was in the souk set up for Ramadan in Boulevard Abdeli Mall.

The following series of photos were taken at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi, another city in the UAE. It is a very grand, air-conditioned edifice that tourists have access to. It was reported in 2011 that it would cost US$490 million to construct and it was completed earlier this year. The size of the structure and the quality of the workmanship involved in its fabrication are remarkable. 

I didn’t note down on my phone how much it cost to get inside but it’s not a lot. They can set up a tour for you as well but when we were there this would have meant waiting a while before it started so we declined the offer. You get on a bus to get from the ticket office to the palace itself, then there are more staff who can guide you from point to point. There is a shop near the exit, after which you get on another bus to take you back to where you can catch a taxi.

The following photo shows the skyline of Abu Dhabi. This photo was taken from the hotel we stayed in. This photo embodies a vision of the future of the Middle East, and is a sincere expression of the ethos of the UAE, one that sets this country apart from its neighbours. Rather than looking back to the past, the UAE determinedly looks to the future and it attracts workers from throughout the Muslim world to work and live.