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Monday, 18 June 2018

Book review: Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin (2018)

This collection of literary journalism employs a psychogeography that locates it mostly in Melbourne but there are sections, such as where she talks about the entrepreneur Nahji Chu, that zoom in on Sydney. Like Hunter Thompson, Tumarkin brings herself as narrator into the drama but the main debt the author has is to another American, Joan Didion. When Tumarkin in one of the chapters talks about “hillbilly directors” she is nodding in the direction of Didion, who surveyed the culture of her native California and highlighted its big intake of migrants from the Midwest in the 1930s.

In fact Tumarkin’s prose feels more like poetry than anything else. It can be exhilarating. Her style reminds me of a trope I used myself about 10 years ago during question time after a talk organised by people from a major English news magazine. The talk was held at the Seymour Centre, near Victoria Park in Sydney, and I got up when it was over to ask a question of the person who had given it. China, I proposed, was governed by a terrified group of men who were like a circus performer who is riding bareback, standing up on a horse going around an arena, and he is frightened both of falling and of getting off. In Tumarkin’s book, the circus metaphor works (more a high-wire act) because of the elliptical nature of her impressionistic prose, which is fecund with ideas in a way one of the Romantics devised to describe Shakespeare’s blank verse: ideas tumbling and tripping over themselves in their rush to appear.

For this reason, the book can be incredibly satisfying. It is full of interesting insights and perceptions as Tumarkin uses her journalism training to take us behind the headlines to a different place where you can contemplate in a composed frame of mind more eternal things: sex and death, nature and nurture, love and hate. But on occasion the machine fails, as in the third section of the third chapter. In this part of the book, which talks about an old diary that was found in the countryside in Russia and led to strange discoveries by a person living in the present, the stated relationships between people named in the text elude the grasp of your attention and you cannot keep up with the narrative’s forward movement. Tumarkin likes to write in this way – running fast on a narrow track – but the slightest slip-up causes everything to fall down like a house of cards. She has a habit, for example, of leaving out articles in front of nouns (“a” and “the”) because to keep them slows down her delivery, and she is all for pace.

The book is like this from the very beginning, where the author introduces a girl who one day finds her sister has killed herself. She drops names into the flow of the text to indicate who is the subject and who is the object, but boundaries are made to blur by using ellipses, buttressed by punctuation (em-dashes, semi colons) and fomented by the author running along at a fast rate without checking to make sure the reader is still with her. All of a sudden a name appears (“Amanda”, say) that had been used earlier in the narrative, and you falter as you struggle to remember who Amanda was when she had appeared before. I had to tap my way back many pages in the Kindle on a couple of occasions up to the point in the book where I left off reading. There might have been more vaguely Didionesque failures like this later on, I can’t know.

On the upside, this author’s complex and sophisticated language reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov, another Russian emigrant, who went to American during WWII to escape the Nazis (his wife, Vera, was, like Tumarkin, Jewish) and who switched halfway through his life from writing in his native Russian to writing in English, with spectacular results after an erratic transitional phase. There are marks of the inventiveness and playfulness of Nabokov’s prose here, in addition to the nuance and elusiveness of Didion’s. Tumarkin made me think, as I was out walking today, about the male bowerbird who customarily brings an array of blue objects to his nest to decorate it as part of his mating technique. The precious coloured things Tumarkin drags out of a broad lexicon of experience she has built up over years of meaningful life are presented to the reader for his or her perusal, in order to complete the transfer of knowledge in a mostly reliable manner.

The highfalutin title motions toward what might have been a useful organising principle for the author in writing the book, which contains recounts from different parts of her life, including visits to local courts to hear the progress of criminal and civil cases, stories about people she has met (she has children who might be in their late teens), interviews with people, and quotations from books she has read. The chapter titles are like shiny coins struck from the ore of popular culture, refined within the crucible of the author’s imagination. But it is hard when you are gripped by the busy-ness of the prose to keep in your mind the overarching framework Tumarkin proposes. The title reminded me as I was reading the book of the often-arch titles that literary journal editors give to new issues of their magazines in order to lend some sort of form to them for the benefit of prospective readers.

In this book, the outlines of the forest disappear in the thickets it contains where cognates and feelings created by the author are used to weave tales about youth suicide, homelessness, drug addiction, administrative injustice, parental failure, and other totemic aspects of modern society. The gnarly problems that emerge in the newspapers on a daily basis that despite our best efforts always seem to elude anything approximating lasting solutions.

I highly recommend this book. It demonstrates how important migrants can be for a nation’s culture. They bring new ways not just of seeing the world but also of expressing ourselves. The twin branches of rhetoric – signification and style – are with their help refreshed and invigorated.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Men are key to stopping violence against women

In the wake of the cruel murder last week of Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon, an event which caused a general outcry in the community that had echoes of the reaction provoked by the death in September 2012 under similar circumstances of Jill Meagher, the #MeToo movement inevitably gained renewed focus.

Given that people are talking in public places about the problem, including on social media, it’s no surprise to learn that Australian publisher Allen & Unwin has contracted with journalist David Leser to write a book about the issue. In reporting on this fact, Guardian media reporter Amanda Meade was quizzical when faced with what might at first glance appear to be a point of dissonance: a male writer putting out a book on something so close to the hearts of women as the physical violence that is used by some men to get what they want. In her story, Meade included quotes from pugnacious commentator Van Badham, who is not surprisingly totally against the deal. Online, someone I know was equally scathing.

But men have to be part of the solution to the problem of violence against women and must also be helped to develop the empathy that will stop it from happening in the future. Empathy is not equally inherent in every person, and in many cases has to be learned, but we know that reading literary fiction helps people to respond with greater empathy to events in the real world. Leser, who started out in his career by writing up sensitive interviews with prominent people in the form of profiles, uses literary techniques in his work.

Literary journalism (also called creative non-fiction) differs from regular journalism in that it relies on the techniques of literature to achieve its aims. Things like characterisation, including a strong reliance on reported speech and the distinguishing of subjects using such elements of writerly colour as descriptions of their mannerisms. It also uses recounts of the feelings that the interviewer him- or herself felt during the interview, and often novelistic plotting, in order to build a sense of drama into the piece. The kind of details that make reading novels so satisfying. Giving Leser a wad of cash to allow him to turn his limpid gaze onto such a thorny subject as #MeToo strikes me as being not only good sense from a business perspective, but also constructive in a broader sense in that it might help men, especially, to pay more attention and take a more critical look at they ways they often cause women to feel fear.

Like using the body’s own immune system to fight a cancer that is growing in it, it is essential to get men to examine themselves critically as part of the wider debate about the murder and the movement. Just as is formulating better ways of educating boys to respectfully deal with girls. Because of the way that some men sometimes behave without the softening influence of empathy, we need to help them to view the way they act with fresh eyes. A book by someone as intelligent and skillful as Leser must go a long way toward furthering that project. Simply lambasting the project even before it has borne fruit simply because the book won’t be written by a woman merely demonstrates the kind of unthinking and corrosive partisanship that often prevails on social media and in the public sphere more generally, and which is a symptom of exactly the same lack of empathy that lies at the root of the tendency of some men to intimidate and hurt women. It’s fighting fire with fire.

We need to take a different approach and try to understand each other better if we are to find a way to solve the problem at hand. Just lobbing insults in order to give a narrow following a momentary thrill in the end won’t help anyone.

On 3 May this year I was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Carriageworks in Darlington. For me, the area is redolent with memories as in the 1980s I studied as an undergraduate at Sydney University. I met one of my oldest friends over lunch in a terrace house on Abercrombie Street, just around the corner from the event’s venue. But on this sunny autumn day I sat down in a crowd of mostly older women to listen to the short story writer Melanie Cheng talk about empathy. Cheng is a GP as well as an author of fiction. She was born in Adelaide, grew up in Hong Kong and lives and works in Melbourne. It was fascinating to be part of the crowd of people with their minds trained on such a difficult and important subject. Cheng reminded the audience that research studies conducted in various places around the world have shown that reading literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction or non-fiction) is especially good at helping people to use empathy in their daily lives. She said many other things as well, and hopefully her ideas and insights as a doctor will be published in a literary journal so that more people can learn from her studies into this fascinating subject.

Because it’s not male journalists writing about violence against women that is the problem, it’s the broader culture they grow up in that is at fault here. You see groups of young men or teenagers walking in the city from time to time and you keep an eye on them, just in case, even in broad daylight. Especially with teenagers aged from 13 to 16, you never know what is going to happen. Some uncritical uses of popular culture, such as spectator sport or music, can exaggerate the dysfunction characterising such deadly cliques, where solidarity with one’s peers is prized because their applause is more valuable to you than any other available good. You don’t score goals unless you work as a team, and you are more lethal and effective when it is night-time and there’s no-one around with the power to stop you doing exactly what you feel inclined to do.

The other day I was in Newtown and as I was standing with a friend, who was born in an Asian country, a car with some people in it went past on the carriageway. Some cold liquid, it could have been water flung from a bottle or it could have been spit from someone’s mouth, erupted in the air among the people waiting for the bus to arrive at the stop we stood next to. A young woman who was standing there acknowledged that she too had felt the flying drops. “Too much freedom,” commented my friend severely as she motioned for me to step away from the kerb to the relative safety of the pavement under a shop awning.

Individual freedom is prized in Western countries but there is a trade-off in the form of undesirable aberrant behaviour, especially with young men in places where they think they can get away with whatever action comes into their mind to carry out. We need to teach young men and boys how to function better as parts of a society where the rights of everyone are equally respected. Teaching empathy is the way to achieve this goal, and it must be done at different ages in different ways. Young men must be made to experience how other people feel, and not to just obey the call of their own inclinations. A book by someone as skilful with his craft as Leser is a good place to start this journey.

A member of my family suffered a fate like that which befell Dixon and Meagher. In 1930 a young woman, a poet named Mollie Dean, was stabbed to death in a street in Elwood, in suburban Melbourne. Her cousin Harry Dean was my grandfather. Like his cousin, Harry loved literature. On my bookshelves I have some of his copies of Henry Lawson’s short stories. He had a habit of clipping poems out of the left-wing newspapers published in the cities in his era and pasting them in a scrapbook. A lot of these poems were not very good, but it was the sentiments that animated them that he prized rather than the skill with which they were expressed. He was all for sharing the wealth the community generates as widely as possible.

In my family, no-one ever talked about Mollie’s untimely death when I was growing up although mum would mention it from time to time when she arrived in her eighties and I was living up in Queensland looking after her. In the family trees that dad made using Excel spreadsheets in the years after his retirement, he signposted Mollie’s unfortunately brief existence with a few words.

But I think that Harry would have been pleased, to the extent that recognition and truth-telling are valuable quantities in themselves given the tragic facts of the case, with the book about Mollie’s murder published earlier this year by Gideon Haigh. Harry died in 1954 from cancer that had started as a melanoma and his daughter, my mother, was given away by her brother Geoff at the church booked for her marriage the following year. I was born eight years after Harry’s death but I think that if he had somehow survived his illness we would have got along. I regret also never having had the opportunity to meet Mollie and show her children my own poems.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Changing my email address on websites

This blogpost forms a twin with the blogpost that was published yesterday and should be seen as a response to it. Both posts are about how technology sometimes doesn’t work the way it’s meant to work.

It has been finished. I have changed my email address for a number of websites that I intend to continue using in future in one way or another. The reason for making the change was that my internet service provider sent me an email telling me that my inbox was 90 percent full. When the inbox became 100 percent full, it went on, I would no longer be able to receive emails to that address. That email address was the one the company had assigned to me when I had signed up to receive the service they provide. I had used this email address for a number of different websites to log in, so it would cause me considerable difficulty if I was no longer able to receive emails to it.

Only the year before, I had emptied the inbox manually. At that time, when I had tried to log into the account where this task is performed, I had had to change my password. I didn’t want to have to do this again. Also, getting help on the phone with this company was very difficult because they have in place an automated call handler that requires you to navigate through a complex web of steps to get to speak to an operator. If you walk to the company’s store at the shopping centre looking for this kind of help, they just tell you to call the help line with your phone.

So, predicting that the ISP’s email address would at some point become inoperable, as I had decided not to empty my inbox, I started changing my email address on a number of online accounts. With some, including Twitter and Facebook, you have to use your password to make the change. With Microsoft, I went to the store in the city and had a staffer there take me through the process. But even then the company uses two-step authentication. This means that after you try to log into your account with your email address and password, they then send a one-time code to your mobile phone that you have to enter in a field on the website to proceed. After typing the new email address in the relevant field on the web page on their site, before you are able to save the change, they send another one-time code to your phone. And when I got home, an email was waiting in my inbox (the one I wanted to stop using) from Microsoft telling me that unusual activity had occurred with regard to my account, and that I should log into their website and confirm that the action that had been taken had in fact been taken by me. I did this (again by way of the two-step authentication process).

Paypal won’t let you change a primary email address until you have made an alternative email address your primary email address. Once this has been done, you can delete the first email address. Amazon had a fairly easy process on its site for changing the login email address, but here you still have to use your password to make the change. AbeBooks was no trouble at all. I had no problem either making the change on the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) website. With the Sydney Morning Herald, I made the change then subsequently an email arrived from Fairfax Media in my old email address inbox, so I sent a message to the company through their help page to have them complete the change. Airtasker lets you use Facebook to log in.

Facebook flatly refused to acknowledge the email address I wanted to change to using for my login, telling me that the new email address that I entered in the field on the website was invalid. I don’t know how the company establishes if an email address is valid or not. I sent a message to the company through their help page about this problem and some days later received a message from them acknowledging receipt of my message, but they didn’t respond to my complaint and had said that they probably would not do so.

Instead, with Facebook I had to opt for specifying as my primary email address a secondary email address that had already been registered in the system. Luckily, there were already two email addresses registered on the site for my account, so the change here eventually went ahead without impediment. Twitter was a bit dicey because they won’t let you use the same email address for more than one account, so it was lucky that the email address I wanted to use now for my primary Twitter account had not been used on their site before.

With the bank that operates my cheque account, I went into the branch and had a staffer there walk me though the process, which involved logging into the internet banking interface on a laptop PC located in the shop and using two-step authentication to make the change. With another bank I use, I went into a local branch and had the teller there make the requisite changes.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Buying socks at the department store

After visiting the dermatologist, I went to the department store in the city to buy new socks. I got out of the lift at the wrong floor and asked a clerk I saw walking nearby for directions then headed down the escalator and went toward the Pitt Street end of the building. I saw some socks that were being sold in “one size” and picked out three pairs in different colours. Two pairs I chose had dots on them and one pair was a plain black.

At the checkout, the sales clerk used the register to ring up the total for the three pairs of socks and I paid the $20 using the EFTPOS machine that was sitting on the counter. As she put the socks in a small orange-and-white plastic bag, I asked her if the buzzer at the gate would go off and she assured me it would not. She was fair-skinned and fair-haired and wore a grey jacket and looked European. I took the bag in my hand and walked toward the lifts but as I went through the electronic barriers that have been set up to stop people stealing clothes, the alarm started beeping.

Turning around, I went straight back to the register and told the clerk what had happened. She was different to the clerk who had made the transaction, and had dark skin and looked to have her roots in the subcontinent. She took the socks out of the bag and rubbed their labels over a spot on the counter where there was a sticker affixed to the surface. As she did this, I asked her what would happen if the buzzer at the exit went off again and she told me to just go through. I headed back to the exit but the alarm went off again, so I turned around once more and doggedly walked back to the register, where the same clerk patiently heard my version of events.

She took the offending bag of socks and walked to another register on the floor, nearby, where an older woman employed by the department store was stationed. The clerk with the bag of socks told this woman what had happened and the older woman asked me if I had been to the chemist. I told her that I had not, and that when I had entered the store the alarm had not gone off. The two women had a short conversation, during which the woman with the bag of socks debated with the older woman the wisdom of leaving her register unstaffed. With her hand she motioned toward the register on the floor some distance away, where people were starting to queue to be served, and the older woman said, “Just go.”

She sales clerk with the bag of socks led me in a southerly direction to a part of the floor where a retail franchisee had its clothes set up on racks. She had a short conversation with a female sales clerk there and waved the socks with their labels in front of a device hidden under the counter that I could not see. When she had finished, she started walking west toward the exit and I turned to go ahead of her but she hurriedly spoke to me, telling me that I should take the bag myself and leave the store. She handed me the bag of socks.

With it securely in my hand, I walked through the exit barrier and this time the device was mute. A man was waiting in the lobby for a lift and I pressed the button to call one. We got in it together when it arrived. He got out at the ground floor and I went down to the sub-basement where the food court is located. A woman with a pram was talking with a security guard while she waited to get into the lift, and I exited it heading home.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Feral twins: strange visitations on the Malay Peninsula

It all started in March 2014 when Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared en-route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. This year, the search for the aeroplane, which had carried 227 passengers and 12 crew, was finally called off. Estimates had it ending up in the Indian Ocean but no trace of it has ever reliably been recovered. Only four months after that disappearance, MH17, another Malaysia Airline plane, this time flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was spectacularly shot down by a missile fired from the ground as it was flying over Ukraine. The 283 passengers and 15 crew became casualties of hostilities between Russian-backed fighters and the government of the country over sovereignty of parts of the European nation. Their mortal remains were strewn across fields in the countryside amid the refuse of the disintegrated aircraft.

Then, in February 2017, Kim Jong-Nam, Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother, was killed by two women who smeared VX nerve agent on his face in Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The murder is still being investigated by Malaysian authorities.

About a year later, we saw surprising eventualities on the Malaysian political front involving a pair of strange characters, when Mahathir Mohamad was elected president in a national poll contested by several parties. The ruling party, which had been in power since emancipation from British rule in the 1950s, was for the first time in the country’s history displaced by a rival. In the wake of the poll, Mahathir’s former rival, Anwar Ibrahim, has been freed from prison, where he had been sent having been convicted for a second time on trumped-up sodomy charges. It had been Mahathir himself who had first accused Ibrahim of what is still considered by law in Malaysia to be a crime. Ibrahim looks set to take over as president of the country at some point in the next couple of years.

Such dramatic events presaged something equally strange in the shape of the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. Here, there is scope for more sudden reversals in direction as weirdness emerges in Singapore, the tiny city-state located at the very tip of the Malay Peninsula.

The despot and the demagogue appear to be made precisely for one another. Each possesses a gargantuan ego fuelled by a sycophantic media (Fox News, in Trump’s case). But if anyone can come to grips with the thorny issue of the DPRK it has to be someone as unhinged and unpredictable as Trump. Whatever sceptical residents in neighbouring countries such as China and Japan think about the meeting, which took place on Tuesday, they will all have been deeply interested in every small detail relating to the event.

It is yet to be seen whether it will lead to a lasting solution to the uncomfortable military stalemate that characterises the divide between south and north on that other Asian peninsula, where the two Koreas snuggle close together like a ying and a yang. What is certain is that in recent years there have been an astonishing number of very odd things happening in a small part of Southeast Asia that in normal times evades any special mark of distinction.

Apart from its surprising cuisine! On Monday, having used part of the holiday to see the new Star Wars film (a movie made for the age of Trump if ever there was one) I ate an early dinner at a restaurant in Newtown here in Sydney with a friend, and ordered a curry chicken dish that tasted like the kind of fusion you get in a multiethnic country like Malaysia. It contained intriguing spices but was also rather sweet, offering both a complicated gustatory experience as well as the comfort of something unchallenging and familiar. It was served in a bowl And there was a separate plate with steamed rice that had been moulded into the immediately-recognisable shape of a heart. The dish was relatively cheap.

If everything goes well, then the Trump-Kim negotiations will lead to equally positive outcomes. Outcomes that people throughout the region, where there is still so much poor government, even today, can talk about with unalloyed pleasure as they discuss the news around the kitchen table of an evening.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

TV review: Back Roads, series 4 episode 1, ABC (2018)

Monday night’s show was the first episode in the program’s new series and it contained interesting ideas because it centred on stories about people living along a road in northern New South Wales, the Waterfall Way. The route took Heather Ewart from Ebor, a town east of Armidale in the New England tablelands, down the mountainside to Sawtell on the coast south of Coffs Harbour. The route took in Dorrigo and Bellingen.

The region is known best for alternative-lifestyle communities, where young people moved in the 1970s and 1980s to escape from city rhythms and to live lives animated by values closer to the ideals they held than those which regulated the routine of existence for people in Australia’s big cities. It was an aspect of the post-war counterculture that continues to have currency today and Ewart commented as she drove through the landscape on how the land has been regenerated in places she visited on this trip by people who have progressive political views.

The shots of the waterfalls up in the high part of the journey were accompanied by an uplifting, bucolic tune played by an orchestra and you wondered if the program’s producers had the music written especially for the episode or if they had found it on a recording somewhere. The sensations created by the combination of video and music was generally optimistic, giving you an impression that the district is a part of the country that is blessed with many fruits. Shots of the host with her companion Erica Jessup and their horses with the leaves of a tree and small, yellow wildflowers in focus in the foreground emphasised this feeling.

Ewart went to meet Lorraine Gordon, who runs a retreat in the tablelands that offers a range of activities designed to help people unwind. The retreat is called Yarrandoo and was set up to help carers of people living with mental illness maintain their own good mental health.

The show then took in Dorrigo, where you can find the Dangar Falls. The name Dangar is prominent in Australia because it was the name of the owner of a number of cattle runs in the colonial period, notably the Myall Creek station where the famous Aboriginal massacre occurred in 1838. No mention was made in the program of this or of how Henry Dangar resourced the legal defence of the men accused of committing the murders that terrible winter. The men were acquitted but retried after a public outcry and some were found guilty and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol. The name Dangar was given to a sports field belonging to my secondary school in Sydney, Cranbrook, where presumably one of the scions of the family went to school in the early 20th century. There’s also a Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury River near Brooklyn.

Ewart did meet an Aboriginal elder in Dorrigo, Uncle Mark Flanders, who showed her the Great Dividing Range from a tall tourist lookout that has been built in the rainforest. There is also a raised and fenced path on the forest floor that you can walk on to experience what the eastern slopes of the ranges are like close-up.

Andrew Turbill in Thora Valley lives with his family in a house that is part of a shared community that comprises about six different families who occupy the same piece of land in the bush. He moved there in his twenties, he told Ewart, and built his home himself. His children are Hugo, Winona and Floyd. He knows the names and calls of all the birds in his district and can copy the sounds they make. Hugo plays violin in the Bellingen Youth Orchestra, whose patron is pianist David Helfgott, who was portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in the 1996 movie ‘Shine’. Ewart went to Helfgott’s property where he displayed a curious need for physical contact with the people he talks with. Ewart took everything in her stride and also talked with the pianist’s wife, Gillian. The couple moved to the place in 1989.

In Sawtell, on the coast, Ewart met a sea-changer named Stephanie Ney, who moved from the northern beaches of Sydney to the small town. She had been living in the inner west of Sydney with her husband but when her marriage broke down she had moved back to the northern beaches. She was running a not-for-profit in Sydney and found she was drinking too much on weekends. The move north to Sawtell was good for her and she told Ewart that she hadn’t had a drink for 11 years. She has instead taken up the ukulele and teaches classes in the Country Women’s Association hall.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

We still possess no details about the “Voice to Parliament”

Last night I had a dream. I was in Japan and talking with some union bosses about a company named Crown that had something to do with trucking. The unionists wanted something from the company and had decided to call a global strike on the company. I enthusiastically agreed with the move, telling the men that workers everywhere had been losing out in the fight to own the profits that companies were increasingly making, and that throughout the world the managerial class had been quarantining money for themselves at the expense of the worker. In Australia, I told the men, young people could no longer afford to buy their own houses because wages were not keeping up with increases in real estate prices.

I woke up before dawn and got out of bed with the images from the dream still fresh in my mind. I feel that the future of civilisation lies in the hands of a small group of very wealthy, very selfish people who cannot see that the fortunes of everyone are connected, and that if you take away prosperity from the masses then you invite demagogues to take the reins of power, which will result in everyone’s freedom being taken away except for that of an elite who can afford to buy their own. We all risk ending up like China or Russia.

When I turn to look at the future of Aboriginal people living in Australia, it strikes me that it has been almost a year since the Referendum Council handed down its report. I wrote about it on 5 August last year, and I was sceptical about its recommendations because of the lack of detail. It turned out that the Liberal-National Coalition was equally wary of what the report suggests we should as a nation do to help improve the fate of our first inhabitants. The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has said many times in the media that a “Voice to Parliament” – an elected body representing the first people living here – would operate like a third chamber of Parliament. He will not support this aspect of the report, and it seems as a result the whole thing has fallen apart.

In Victoria and the Northern Territory, elected representatives have been moving to establish treaties to embody the relationship between the state and their first peoples. In Canberra, Bill Shorten, the leader of the Opposition, has said he will support the Referendum Council’s recommendations if elected. It looks increasingly likely that he will be elected next year when the general election is held. But the support of one of the major parties is not necessarily enough to accomplish the goal. You still need to hold a referendum, which will be difficult to win if you don’t have bilateral support because of the margin that the motion that is put forward has to achieve in the poll.

Meanwhile, there is still no detail about how the “Voice to Parliament” is supposed to work. Aboriginal people want this body to be established because they only account for about three percent of the population and they want their views to be given more prominence in Parliament. It would therefore operate as a sort of amplifier. But many things are still to work out. You wonder for a start how anyone would be chosen to become an elector. Who will decide if one man or woman is eligible to be counted as a member of the Aboriginal community, so that they will have a vote in who sits in the body? What sorts of legislation would the new body be able to vote on? What would happen if it was unable to agree with the decision that the Parliament had made about a piece of legislation? What, exactly, would be the relationship between the body and Parliament? How will that work?

There are so many questions to answer and no-one is making any noises that would result in satisfactory answers appearing. Meanwhile, the electorate is quietly getting on with life in the age of Donald trump, wondering when the next shock will appear, and where. Today, the US president is meeting the with head of North Korea in Singapore to discuss the situation in north Asia, a place where the DPRK holds Japan to ransom with its missiles and nuclear weapons. Japan is one of Australia’s closest allies, and their fate should be important for all of us here. What influence we might have with regard today’s meeting it is difficult to estimate, but it’s a lot closer to zero than to 100 percent. Maybe we need an “Australian Voice to Congress” here?

UPDATE Friday 15 June 2018, 9.43am: So today on Twitter I see a tweet that tells me that there's a parliamentary committee looking at the issues surrounding the proposed constitutional recognition of Australia's first peoples, and that it is currently touring the country for meetings and taking submissions. They will make a final report at the end of November.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Movie review: Solo: A Star Wars Story, dir Ron Howard (2018)

This tightly-plotted action movie resembles nothing so much as a shoot-em-up American “Western” from the middle of the 20th century. In the seats next to mine there was a middle-aged father with a posse of four 12-year-old boys that no doubt included at least one of his own children, and they really got into this silly film, which has little of interest for adults. When Solo (Alden Ehrenrich) and his love interest, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) started kissing at one point, one of the boys expressed his distaste for the sentiments being expressed on-screen in suitably dramatic fashion by bringing his hands to his mouth and making sounds as though he were throwing up.

The only point of interest for adults was the story of L3-37 (with the voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who humorously provokes a general revolt on the planet Kessel when Solo and his team of bandits go there to carry out a heist, and who is in love with her owner, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) but is too proud to admit it to anyone even when asked directly. She brings a rare spark of life to an otherwise dead product. The extent of the absolute bankruptcy of the franchise is critical and nothing other than tonnes of money can conceivably bring it back to life again.

For Australians the other amusing aspect of this movie is the title. The word “Solo” was commandeered by Australian soft-drink manufacturers in the 1970s for a lemon-flavoured beverage. The drink has always been marketed to men on the back of a myth of masculine individuality, so slapping the word on a movie like this makes the whole episode feel like a brand of perfume that has been brought to market by some random celebrity with an eye for a quick buck.

The action is relentless and as soon as one problem is solved another one offers itself up for solving. But there’s no point to it all and there are no deeper themes being explored apart from the notion of feminine loyalty, which Qi’ra strongly embodies. This is not really important enough to compensate for a paucity of meaning elsewhere. Americans keep on telling themselves the same tired stories again and again, they can’t get enough of them, but nobody but themselves believes them. And giving young men more food for their violent fantasies is hardly heroic from the point of view of a film’s conception.

There are too many deaths being perpetrated in America every year because of unchecked access to guns, they don’t need any more aggrandising cultural products that feed into the same corrupt complex of ideas. The frontier and its violence were anyway a myth dreamed up in the 20th century by Hollywood in order to make money, and if anything can be taken away from this movie it is that unbridled greed will lead to misery or, if not that, at least general unhappiness. This is truly a movie for the age of Donald Trump.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

What it is like to live with a mental illness

News that Anthony Bourdain died has animated social media. He had a TV program apparently, because I’d never heard of him except in passing. People come out and express support for people living with a mental illness and telegraph positivity in a way they think such people will appreciate, but living with a mental illness is a complicated thing, as I know from first-hand experience.

Recently, I have been going back through the poetry I’ve written over the past 12 years and separating the good ones from the not-so-good. This is a kind of housework designed to help me to see where I’ve been so that I know where to go. Reading old poems is salutary because it shows you what has worked and what has not. And I also date all my poems, so that they stand as a kind of memoir for the past. Re-reading them lets me revisit things and people inhabiting that distant realm.

The poems start in 2007, in September. But in 2008 I had a relapse of the paranoia that has occasionally plagued my life over the past two decades. My world became very dark. Looking back now, it is difficult to really experience the kinds of feelings that motivated my actions in those days, so the poems give me access to places that might otherwise have remained hidden. There are a half-dozen or so from April and May in that year that show me where my mind was at the time. And I have to say that these poems have not made the cut. They are strange, with unwieldy transitions from one idea to another, transitions that are sort of spastic and certainly ungraceful. There are also lots of negative emotions, some curse words, and unworthy feelings are expressed such as jealousy and resentment. I consider these poems to have an interesting diaristic value only. They will never be published in my lifetime.

What they show is that you can never really empathise with someone who is experiencing a mental illness, or an episode given an ongoing condition, unless you make allowances for them that are abnormal. The poems tell me that when I see on my way to lunch a ragged man walking down the street swearing out loud, what I am witnessing is a man whose mind is enveloped in the clouds of a mental illness. We often talk of “demons” that a person with a mental illness is fighting, because this casual trope gives us a way to express the otherwise inexpressible. But in fact it is that man himself – or the woman herself – who has become a kind of demon that is animated by emotions that are alien to the experience of most people whose minds are properly regulated by the chemicals that control them.

From experience, I know that when I am in a delusional state most people cannot stand being around me. I have brought someone to tears because she tried to give me the company I craved when I was sick, and people do not stay around when you are living in a state like this. They flee to safer and more genial places. Professionals can cope, however, and it is a professional attitude, which holds fast to the real even while the world of the person they are talking with is disintegrating in a cascade of negative emotions and very strange ideas, that is useful. Giving succour to a person living with a mental illness is not easy. Mental illness is not something that is warm and fuzzy or aesthetically pleasing, it is weird, sometimes violent and often ugly.

In 2008, the poems that will survive restart again around September, so I know that from April until then I was living with the delusions that haunted me like savage ghosts, that turned day into night, and that tore away at my psyche with their restless claws. The September 2008 poems show someone with a distressed but basically ordered mind fighting with his demons, but staying afloat.

What got me back to normality in the end was physical exercise. I knew I had to beat the thing myself and so I started swimming every day, giving my poor brain the good chemicals it craved to replace the bad ones that the illness had been supplying up to that point in time. A regulated, calm, and ordered lifestyle is what people living with mental illness need. It has to have good food and plenty of exercise. But not every person responds to their illness in the same ways. These are just the things that worked for me.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Words exchanged with taxi drivers

Up to this point in time I have avoided registering my details with Uber. The idea of having another login to worry about, and the trouble involved in updating your credit card details every three or four years when the bank changes the expiration date, repel me. I dislike also the notion of enriching an entitled coterie of businesspeople located offshore who won’t pay the local taxes they are obliged to. We rely on taxes to fund such necessities as schools, hospitals, the police and public transport.

Making some random geek from Silicon Valley rich is not my idea of a positive outcome for anyone but the entrepreneur. But more immediately, I have always had good experiences with taxi drivers. It is my custom, when getting into a taxi, to use the front passenger seat. Australia’s democratic ethos demands it. And you get to have a short, meaningful conversation with someone from a different walk of life. Most taxi drivers in Sydney were born overseas, furthermore, so it vivifies your experience to hear what they have to say about the world.

This morning I went to Target with the object of buying a doona and a cover for it. At the front door of the store in the shopping centre I asked a mature woman waiting for customers where to go to get what I needed. She pointed out the sector in the large space where I would find the things on my list, and I picked up a doona in its plastic packing from the stand that was located next to the front door where we were standing. In the distant aisle she had directed me to I found a doona cover. I also picked up a new pillow. I am having guests staying in my apartment at the end of the month. I paid using EFTPOS and exchanged a few words with the woman who had helped me, then went down in the lift to the ground floor, where I exited onto Bay Street and headed to where the taxis always wait for passengers.

There was a taxi there and I went to the front window and looked in. The driver was already motioning through the glass as I approached indicating that I should get in, so I opened the back door and put my purchases on the seat there. Then I got into the front seat and told the driver where I wanted to go. He eased the car into the traffic and we went along Broadway before turning north into Wattle Street.

To start off the conversation, I suggested that rain is good for his business but he demurred, saying that people are reluctant to go out when it rains. I don’t know how we got onto the topic but we were soon talking about online purchases. I told him that I buy almost nothing online, and he said he was the same. He added that his children buy things online all the time. They had, he went on, bought things they didn’t need from China. We drove past the Fish Market, heading along Bank Street. When we arrived outside my building I gave him my card so that he could use it in the EFTPOS machine in the cab but it didn’t work, so I paid him with a banknote instead.

It’s always like this with cab drivers. I had a conversation once with a cab driver who told me the name of the best Lebanese restaurant in Lakemba. Another cab driver told me that Urdu and Hindi are almost identical, and that if you are an Urdu speaker you can understand what someone says in Hindi. Taxi drivers are reliable participants in the wider conversation that we are always having about ourselves, and they bring different points of view to the table. Every trip I have had with a taxi driver has given me something to think about and enabled me to live a more meaningful life.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Attacks on the media are fuelled by the same feelings that make people support populists

At 9.59am today Denise Shrivell, a Sydney resident, retweeted a tweet that had gone up a few minutes earlier from a man named Ray Wilton, who doesn’t publicise where he lives, that said:
I say it regularly, given the saturation demonisation of Bill Shorten over many years by lnp, msm & crap like sales & cassidy, it amazes me Bill still commands as much popularity as he does. Imagine if Bill was treated (respectfully) like Turnbull/lnp, by msm & ‘Kill Bill’ freaks?
Bill Shorten is the leader of the federal Opposition (Australian Labor Party). The name of the prime minister (who leads the federal Liberal-National Coalition) had been replaced in the tweet by a top hat emoji, in the manner that commentators on the left routinely use on social media.

Shrivell is often vocal in condemning the mainstream media, including the ABC, even though she professes political beliefs that lie on the left of the spectrum. The tweet from Wilton was catnip for a certain class of person who uses Twitter and who votes for the parties of the left. Their narrative is that with the appointment of Michelle Guthrie, a former Sky TV executive, the ABC has been taken over by conservative forces and that the national broadcaster is pushing an ideological line that favours the right as a result. Even the neutral Fairfax Media gets raked over the coals by such people.

This approach to the media conforms to a pattern familiar to watchers of politics, where voters are increasingly favouring populist parties such as One Nation and Nick Xenophon’s SA Best. It follows similar shifts in political behaviour in the populations of other countries, including in the US. Donald Trump is a symptom of the same malaise, where rising inequality is forcing people to look to populists and their empty blandishments for answers to day-to-day problems they face in their communities. In Europe, the shift has taken an even more sinister tinge as many of the alternatives that people are looking to to solve their money problems offer policies that lie on the far-right of the spectrum, including even ideas that stem from the Nazi era in the 1930s in Germany that led to WWII.

There was even a tweet this morning showing an image that contained a clip from a Melbourne newspaper of the pre-war era. The story was about a raid that had been conducted on the offices of a labour union in Danzig, a city in Germany, by Nazi troops and police that led to violence. In Australia these days, unions are trying to address the problem of income inequality but there are forces on the conservative side, notably the Murdoch media and the Institute of Public Affairs (a sort of training ground for Liberal Party politicians before they are preselected for seats), that are working to minimise their strength.

In the past few days there was a decision by the Fair Work Commission that led to the minimum wage here being increased by 3.5 percent to $18.93 per hour. Such efforts on the part of officials to help people cope with cost-of-living pressure in an age of stagnant wages are welcome but more needs to be done by the Labor Party, which looks set (at the moment) to win the federal election in 2019, to address the cancer of inequality that is tearing at the social fabric in many countries.

But despite feelings of disappointment within the community aimed at the canonical mainstream, support in official polls in Australia for minor political parties remains weak. Only a small proportion of people actually support people like Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon when the time comes to put their marks on the polling forms in the voting booth. Even the Greens, which have now been around for a period of time approaching 30 years, struggle to get more than 15 percent of the primary vote at best.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Ramadan food festival, Lakemba

We caught the train from Town Hall on the Bankstown line, which takes you through Wynyard and Museum before heading out west. It was around 5pm but the train was not completely full. The sun had set and the sky was dark by the time we arrived at our destination. On Railway Parade there were stalls setting up their equipment and food in preparation for the arrival of customers after evening prayers. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink from dawn to dusk (which they calculate for practical purposes in Sydney as 6pm), and we had arrived a bit early.

When people did start to arrive later, they would flood the street with their bodies as they sought out restorative meals at the small stalls set up with barbeques, hotplates and display cases on the pavements outside shops on both sides of Haldon Street. One stall even had braziers full of hot sand that were used to boil small pots of coffee for people to drink. Another man was staffing a stall with a machine for crushing fruit. He sold orange juice and carrot juice in small plastic bottles for $5 each.

The food was surprising and often spicy. We tried a dish named “chicken 65” at one stall up the end of the main drag where the darkness of the residential zone sat like a wall. The dish had this name, we were told by a woman who was buying food there, because it had 65 spices in the recipe. A small container of the dish cost $7 and it was salty and slightly sweet, coloured a bright red like some Indian food. There was also a lentil dish sold at the same stall.

A bit further down toward the station for about $8 we bought a small brown paper bag filled with vege pakora, which came with a diminutive container of yoghurt dip. There was an unoccupied table there on the pavement so we sat down to eat the food, which was in the form of fritters made with vegetables stuck together with chickpea batter, before being fried in oil. The dish was filling and had a spicy tang to it. A young woman who was sitting there next to us said that she didn’t eat the dish because she never ate spicy food. But she added that the dip was known to function to take away the piquancy of the chilli used in preparing the fritters.

In a small, brightly-lit restaurant run by Pakistanis we bought a large place of lamb biryani for $10 from a menu affixed to the back wall of the restaurant, behind the display cases full of food, much like in a fast-food restaurant. The dish is rice cooked with pieces of lamb and is also spiced with something, though I did not ask what it was. The restaurant was well-patronised with locals eating their food at tables covered with white plastic table cloths. I had to drink some water with the meal because it was very filling and I was concerned about it getting stuck in my throat. I had been hungry.

Next, we bought some knafeh – a sweet dish made with cheese – from a Palestinian man with trays of the red confection laid out on a table in front of him that was set on the pavement. The man charged me $8 for a piece of the knafeh but when I gave him $20 he only gave me $2 in change. I was so startled by the strangeness of his banter that I didn’t ask for the rest of my change. He had told us that knafeh was originally from Palestine but that it was now a staple in many other countries.

We met some other people who were sightseeing and who had come with a group of street photographers, at a table near the train station. I bought a small bottle of pink drink for $2 from the café outside which the table was set. It was basil seed drink with lychee, made by “American Flower”. The drink was slightly oleaginous and sweet. I had been thirsty. Later, in a shop selling women’s clothing, I bought a small can of mango fruit drink for $2.50 that was made by a company named “Avila”.

Being understood was sometimes a problem. I stood at the counter in the café with the bottle of drink in my hand for a good two minutes before someone offered to take my money. As we were sitting outside in the group, a man snatched up a chair that had been unoccupied, from its place next to our table without asking permission first. He had wanted to sit down with his friends at a table nearby.

People spoke English with accents and you got the impression that they might prefer to speak in another default lingua franca such as Arabic. But in the dress shop people used English when referring to the woman managing the enterprise, calling her “sister”. Most of the people on the street were men. At a prayer hall next to the photographer’s table a steady stream of men entered a nondescript doorway that had a green-and-white sign hanging from the awning that referenced Allah and the prophet Mohammed. The men walked into the doorway, but while we were sitting there no-one walked out. One of our party remarked on this fact.

There were plenty of small children with their mothers and fathers on the dark street. I saw a little girl trying to drag her father in one direction while he stood immobile on the pavement. Another father held the hand of his small daughter as they walked down the street. There were lots of young men, including some who swaggered with all the confidence of youth. One who was hurrying along the footpath called out “habibi!” (“friend!”) in Arabic as we walked past, on our way finally to the station to catch the train back to the city.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Getting some Indian for lunch

“You’ve got to stop walking under my legs,” said a man to his small son in Darling Harbour as they walked north in a family group.

I went up Bathurst Street to Oxford Street and had some Indian for lunch. On the way back west after having eaten I overheard a man talking with his companion as they walked down the street. “Because the Sichuan is very, very spicy,” the man said. They were talking about a restaurant. The man wore a jacket that was made of cloth in two tones of blue, as well as white. His companion had hair that was dyed orange. Both wore shorts.

I saw a man begging with his dog on Oxford Street. The dog was chunky like a Staffordshire terrier and the man was stroking the standing animal’s back with his right hand as he sat there on the pavement. I offered him the few coins I had in my pocket and he took the change in his left hand and thanked me for stopping.

Further down on Liverpool Street outside the courthouse I saw two Mormons with name badges on their white shirt-sleeved shirts talking with a young man on the street. A young woman handed a dropped black cardigan to one of two elders as he was talking. “Oh thank you,” he said to her.

As I was walking along Union Street in Pyrmont there were four teenage girls, all aged about thirteen, walking in the same direction as me. I walked across the road ahead of them and they followed up behind me on the pavement. One of them bellowed out in a loud, masculine voice, “Just do it!” to make fun of me, as I was wearing my black Nike slicker with the red swash on it. I saw them again later on, on Harris Street, walking ahead of me, and I crossed the road to ensure I didn’t attract their attention again.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Personal favourites from the Archibald and Wynne prizes

Although purists tend to diminish their significance, the hanging of the finalists of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes constitute the major visual art event in the Australian art calendar. The prizes are given each year in autumn. I went up yesterday to have a quick sticky-beak of the work of this year's finalists in the gallery. It was a sunny day and, inside, plenty of people were in the rooms even though it was a Tuesday. I had planned to avoid the crowds by visiting during the week.

The first painting I have chosen to talk about is ‘Hall of fame – portrait of Pat Corrigan’ by Joanna Braithwaite. This is an extraordinary work that condenses over a dozen portraits of the well-known art collector (from top left to bottom right are vignettes of works by Paul Newton, Adam Knott, Anne Zahalka, Michael Muir, Peter Smets, Euan Macleod, Alan Jones, Paul Newton, Nicholas Harding and Nigel Thompson) shown in a salon hang on a red wall. There’s also a self-portrait on the wall, over the model’s shoulder, showing the artist at work painting him in her studio. So you get about 17 portraits for the price of one. It’s a little overwhelming.

Corrigan’s involvement in freight forwarding businesses sometimes means he is confused with Chris Corrigan, of Patrick Corporation, according to Wikipedia. I have a memory of visiting Pat Corrigan’s home in Vaucluse when I was aged about 19 along with Pixie O’Harris, the Australian children’s book author and illustrator. My brother and I had grown up living in the house behind Pixie’s in Vaucluse and mum was a good friend of hers. Pixie encouraged me when I showed early promise in drawing. Corrigan’s house overlooked the harbour and he had paintings hanging on walls all over the place.

I find Braithwaite’s portrait of Corrigan somewhat suffocating and intense. It is contestable whether it constitutes a sympathetic portrait of her subject. She said in the comments that come with the painting that even though Corrigan had been depicted by so many artists over the years, hers was the first portrait by a woman artist. So perhaps she’s making a comment on the boy’s-club nature of business and public life in Australia generally. I don’t know. All I know is that her work sort of gives me the creeps.


The second painting I have chosen to include in this short review is Kirsty Neilson’s ‘Anxiety still at 30’, which the commentary says shows an aspect of the painter’s mental illness, of which she is aware. She says she has battled anxiety since she was 15 years old, and that on average one in four people will experience it. The self-portrait is almost entirely in monochrome, giving it a dream-like look and feel. The heavy shadow on the model’s neck is not quite apt given the angle from which the light source derives, but this element of the work adds drama to it. 

I find the rendering of the flesh particularly effective. The skin of the hand, which is raised to the model’s mouth, covering it, and the skin of the face, are done with modulated colours that give you the impression that you can see the muscles hiding just beneath the surface of the skin.

The eyes are also very striking. The left eye, in particular, is painted in such a way that you can see the red part near the corner of the opening in some detail, emphasising the sense of apprehension the painting creates. The painting serves to underscore the fragility that mental illness can cause in the person living with it, the feeling of imminent collapse and tension. 


The third painting I wanted to look at briefly is Julian Meagher’s ‘Herb and Flan’, a portrait of Australian novelist Richard Flanagan and his pet galah. Meagher says that Flanagan is one of his favourite novelists. “Herb, Richard’s writing partner, was pretty insistent that he be included in the painting,” the artist told curators. Meagher was born in 1978 and lives in Sydney. 

I like Meagher’s light washes and his use of white space, as though he were always using watercolours. This painting was done in oils. The artist exhibits at a gallery in Brisbane I know and so I have seen his work before. The sense of brightness and illumination that he gives his work is refreshing.


The next painting I chose to feature here is Mathew Lynn’s ‘Galdys Berejiklian’, a painting of the NSW state premier. The politician currently leads the conservative Liberal-National government and before she became party leader she had been the transport minister. She has invested heavily in rail infrastructure, something that the former Labor government had notably failed for decades to do. A previous Labor premier, Bob Carr, didn’t believe in population growth and so he saddled the residents of Australia’s largest city, which welcomes about 100,000 new residents every year, with a train system struggling to keep pace.

The portrait of Berejiklian shows a woman at home with power. She is seen in her office, standing with her the backs of her thighs leaning comfortably against the desk behind her, her hands serving to support her weight where they rest on the wood. There is a feeling of substance in this portrait and the blue colour of the sitter’s dress does more than just reflect her conservative allegiance. It radiates strength because of the way its tone contrasts with the colours used to paint the rest of the room. The predominant colour of the rest of the painting is a rich, nutty brown. 

A rare highlight in the restrained palette of the painting is the politician’s watch, emphasising how busy she must be in every day she is at work. She is facing directly at the viewer, the slight asymmetry of the placement of her eyes underscoring the realism that lies determinedly at the heart of this impressive work.


Next up is ‘Studio self-portrait’ by Vincent Namatjira, grandson of the famous Australian Aboriginal landscape painter, Albert Namatjira. I love the jaunty rhythms of this refreshing work. The way the people who constitute the subject of the painting behind the model – the artist himself – intrude into the pictive space reserved for the primary subject suggests that they have a vivid life in the artist’s imagination. Shown in that painting are Chuck Berry, the American rock-and-roll legend, and the artist’s grandfather. 

The way the faces of the people shown are drawn in a naïve fashion while still being immediately recognisable demonstrates the serious accomplishment of the artist. He has appropriated the naïve style – often used by Aboriginal artists – but given it a twist of his own in order to achieve the effects he has in mind when he sits down to paint.

Namatjira lives in the Indulkana community in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunitjatjara region of remote South Australia. I wrote about the works that the Australian War Memorial has commissioned from artists in that region on this blog on 17 December 2017.

Namatjira says in his comments that the painting shows him sitting resting at the end of a day spent painting. “I work in a busy art centre, and there’s always different music playing – country music, gospel, inma (cultural songs in language). It must have been rock ‘n’ roll on this day because I’ve put on a Kiss t-shirt and Chuck Berry is playing his guitar back there on the canvas.” He likens painting to a “battle” in his comments.


Next up is Christian Bonett’s ‘Queenstown, Tasmania’, a finalist for the Wynne Prize, which is awarded annually for landscape painting. I love the semi-abstract nature of this mainly figurative painting, the way the colours occupy the parts of the canvas and create a sense of space, despite the diminutive size of the painting, which is only about 50cm wide. 

Bonett spent eight days in Tasmania during the execution of this work, getting up early every morning and camping along a river. I presume that the black area along the horizon represents the ocean. The lemon yellow Bonett has used for the roadway is particularly satisfying, I think. I also like the way that he has modulated the other colours, although the painting is mainly made up of green and brown. Each colour has its own tonal signification and the juxtaposition of the different fields of colour, one next to the other, sets up interesting sensory vibrations.


The final painting I have chosen to feature is also from among the Wynne finalists. It is James Drinkwater’s ‘Hammer and breath’, which was painted during a sojourn at Bundanon, the property on the Shoalhaven River in southern NSW that was gifted to the nation by the painter Arthur Boyd in 1993. Artists regularly go to the property to paint. Drinkwater calls himself “a self-confessed Boyd tragic”. He sees a link between Boyd’s Pulpit Rock and Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. “Painters require places to meditate on, places which inspire endless exploration with the ancient material of paint.”

I really enjoy the De Kooning-like echoes in Drinkwater’s painting, which is riotous with colour and with the articulation of different shapes and textures. The way that the dark colours and the strong colours contrast with the subtle and pale colours is particularly interesting, and mimics the way that poets who write in English can use words deriving from both Romance and Germanic languages to create texture and manage meaning in their works. The tonic white and red that are deployed from time to time on the two canvases this work is made up of set up curious rhythms that reverberate throughout it in a very satisfying way.


Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The chugger

In Redfern yesterday the sun was shining and we had brunch in a small café on the corner of Pitt Street. The food was tasty and reasonably-priced. I sat facing the direction the sun was shining from and people walked along the footpath where the table had been placed with chairs that had backs and metal legs. After eating, we left and walked down the street.

At the traffic light a tall thin man holding a disposable coffee cup in his hand was waiting for the light to change. At his heels was a black cavalier King Charles spaniel that had paralysed legs and wore a device on its lower body that had wheels on it, allowing the animal to pull itself along the pavement using its front paws. We crossed when the signal went green and walked the same way as the man. He stopped at a café near the corner and the dog came up to the step that separated its interior from the pavement. The man then turned to walk away and called the dog and the animal did not move, but kept facing into the shop. Then a woman holding a white plastic bag came out of the depths of the café and squatted down on her haunches in front of the dog, which had a diaper attached to its lower body, presumably to prevent waste from escaping unchecked.

The woman spoke to the dog in her native language; it sounded like Tagalog or Thai. She took some cooked bacon out of the bag and gave it to the dog, who greedily ate it, dropping part of the snack onto the pavement as it wolfed the food down its throat. The woman also spoke in English to the dog's owner who answered, “I got a free coffee from the park.”

Next door to the café an old woman wearing a printed dress and a black cardigan sat on the small verandah at the front of her house next to the door that led inside it. On her feet she wore socks and plastic slippers. Behind her the window of the front downstairs room had bars over it fashioned into a shape like a Christmas tree and images of Christ embellished the window for people in the street to see. The woman got up from her chair and came to the kerb where her wheelie bin stood. She did something with some newspaper and opened the top of the bin, then turned and walked back to her house. The garbage truck had just gone past, with a man driving and another man attending business at the back of the vehicle, collecting rubbish.

We walked through the streets and looked at the trees with their leaves changing colour with the season. The shops were open and people were eating and drinking at tables set on the pavements. The sun was warm where the trees did not shade the street from it. After a while we walked back toward the city, through Prince Albert Park along the paths that curve through the grass there. We separated at the train station and I continued alone toward home, through Belmore Park where a chugger said something to me as I approached him on the path. He kept facing me as I walked along intending to ignore him. “I have to ask you a question,” he insisted. “I don’t think so,” I answered without stopping. “Enjoy yourself today alright?” he replied passive-aggressively as I stalked past him in the waning sunlight, making my way northwest.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Cross-cultural threads embellish the royal wedding

A bearded Prince Harry wore a plain, dark military uniform and his fiancé Meghan Markle wore a white, off-the-shoulder Givenchy gown to get married in. Harry’s brother William was best man. William wore a uniform which matched his brother’s but it had an additional aiguillette on the right shoulder.

Yesterday’s ceremony borrowed from both American and English traditions to give spectators around the world some idea of the kinds of themes that the pair, now styled the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, will observe in their future careers as members of the royal family.

The measured, temperate tones of a royal event such as this were thoroughly ruffled when Bishop Michael Curry, the first African American to preside over the Episcopal Church in America, took to the pulpit.  Curry had been installed as leader of the US-based member of the Anglican Communion in 2015 and he gave the attendees – and, through the medium of television, the global audiences – a glimpse into the distinctive preaching styles used in the American south. The spicy sermon was full of striking images and evocative rhetoric.

He spoke about the invention of fire as a watershed moment for humanity and noted that he had harnessed fire to get to the event by flying across the Atlantic in an aeroplane. His main message was that people should embrace the logic of love in their daily lives. Love, he said, was as powerful as fire and could change the world. It was a reminder for the audience of how Harry’s mother had embraced the humanitarian elements of the job when she was a royal. Harry’s championing of the Invictus Games demonstrates that he also is a conviction player who is motivated by his passions as much as by a sense of duty.

Meghan, who is 36 years old, was born in the same year in which Diana and Charles were married. In another nod to Meghan’s heritage, a gospel choir based in England, the Kingdom Choir, led by Karen Gibson, performed a vocal rendition of 'Stand by Me' with no musical accompaniment. It is a 1961 hit song written by Ben E. King (1938-2015). I wrote about the roots of pop in gospel music and its own roots in the hymns of the 18th century on this blog some years ago. In that post, I pointed to hymns written by William Cowper and John Newton for use in Evangelical churches during the years when some Protestant denominations were still discriminated against by the Anglican mainstream.

It was impossible to become a government employee, for example, if the dictates of your conscience rendered you unable to subscribe to the articles of the Church of England. Those laws, which had been put in place in the years after Charles II returned to England in 1660 at the end of the republican Commonwealth, would eventually be repealed in the first decades of the 19th century. However what is more important to remark on here is that the enthusiasm that had animated the Evangelicals in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries would eventually be leveraged for the purposes of improvement by reformers of the established church in the 19th century, which was also the era when Victoria pioneered the family-centred model of royalty that is still followed by the Windsors today.

After the ceremony, which both the young people negotiated without mishap, musician Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who has been on TV in the UK, played some tunes on a cello. There was ‘Sicilienne’ by Austrian composer Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), ‘Apres un reve’ (‘After a dream’) by French composer Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), and ‘Ave Maria’ by German composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

A nice moment occurred when Prince Charles, dressed in a plain grey suit, was on his way to the exit of the chapel. As he was walking, he held out his hand as an offering of companionship to Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, who had been standing waiting in front of her seat in the choir stalls near the altar. The two parents walked out of the place together. It was an impromptu gesture that showed a fitting level of solicitude for a king. Charles had also walked Meghan down the aisle before the ceremony started.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

There are many religions but we all worship for the same reason

As a species, humans everywhere are consistent in their need for religion in order to ensure the strength of their societies. Humans are communal animals and need societies in order to survive. We are also descended from apes, which are hierarchical animals. Apes live in small groups that are led by a dominant male.

In his 2009 book on democracy, Sydney University academic John Keane points to the pantheism of Mesopotamia to find the origins of the dominant political structure of today. In those ancient cities, which were built next to rivers and were surrounded by fields filled with ripening crops and healthy cattle, people worshipped a family of gods and they used the stories that arose from the interactions between the family members to animate their daily lives, give form to their thoughts, and regulate their societies.

In the absence of a deity that all people in the community can worship, people tend to become homicidally competitive. They need a god or a set of gods at the top of the hierarchy in order that all men (and of course women) can live as equals.

The religions of the book, which were monotheistic, took the idea of cosmogonical justification to a new level. Starting with Judaism, the beliefs and moral codes of the group were codified, regularised, and written down so that they could be easily transported and spread to other groups that the original group might trade with. Writing was another invention of the Mesopotamians that allowed this to occur. The stories that the Jews told each other about the origins of the earth, their tribal histories, and the stories of their leaders and notable community members formed the basis for the new books.

Christianity and, later, Islam, drew upon this influence in order to make a claim for the dominance of their own cosmology in the face of the pantheism of Rome, which however adopted Christianity as its state religion in about 300AD. Stories continued to be told to children in order to educate them in the ways that a man (or woman) should live in society. The books also helped communities enact the symbolic rites that they relied on to periodically underscore their shared interests. When Europeans arrived in Australia they saw Aboriginals conducting corroborees that constituted their own communal rites, although they did not take the time to sit down and learn about the stories the original inhabitants of the land were telling each other during those dances.

In short, religion is the sharing of stories to form a community that sustains lives. It has a critical function in every society on earth because of the advantages and difficulties of people living in communities. We need to live together, but we also need something to enable us to treat each other as equals. Religion is a species habit of human beings, a type of cognitive artefact that in different forms is common to all of us, wherever we came from and wherever we live. Where people form a community they will naturally establish stories of origins that enable them to flourish together, and thus be strong in the world. In modern times, in the absence of a revealed religion, people often rely on such things as nationalism to buttress the fabric of their communities.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Book review: The Leveller Revolution, John Rees (2016)

This unsatisfying book takes us back to 1641 and the years running up to the decapitation of Charles I, which took place in 1649 and which preceded the establishment of the English Commonwealth. We know what happened after that, of course. The favourite son of the Parliamentary faction, Oliver Cromwell, who had won the wars, eventually up and died and instead of it putting at the head of government his son, who turned out to be a bit of a dud, it brought back the next available Stuart king, Charles II. To borrow a trope from one of Jane Austen’s works, this king is notable for reopening the theatres and for establishing the Royal Society. But English history continued to be tumultuous at least until 1688, when Parliament unceremoniously turned his brother James II out of the palace and installed in his stead the Protestant William of Orange, imported from Holland. The long period of stability that is the 18th century followed until the again-tumultuous years at its end that were riven by discord sparked by aspirations for reform that had been stoked by the French Revolution.

This is a very rough sketch of the United Kingdom in modern times up to the start of the Victorian era, and in a substantive way this story begins in 1641, the year Rees opens with in his book, when certain parts of London began to chafe against religious strictures imposed by the tin-eared Charles I under his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Charles’ predecessor, James I, had famously said, “No bishop, no king,” and Charles seems to have taken this tenet very much to heart, but the times were changing. With the Henrican settlement of the middle of the previous century, all boys had been taught to read and write in parish schools. Hence we have Shakespeare emerging out of the bucolic wilderness of rural Warwickshire. Moveable type had been invented in around 1440 and books by this time were relatively cheap.

The appearance of cheap printed books had proven too much of a challenge for the established Catholic Church, which had for centuries successfully fought heresies threatening its formidable structure. Now, starting in Germany, Protestant denominations (originally considered by Catholics to be mere sects) started to appear and England was not immune to the fever that access to the gospels in the vernacular and in printed form offered to those who wanted a more personal relationship with their God. Henry VIII, who had established the Church of England, had said that all boys should read and so now they were reading their Bibles obediently. What the authorities in London had not predicted however was that people would start to disagree with official interpretations of the Bible, on which at least part of the law of the land was founded.

Elizabeth had led a broad church after her father died but Charles seems to have thought that a more rigid application of the fashions of the church he led was necessary in order to successfully govern. Where Rees comes in is to introduce the Levellers, who were Protestant enthusiasts often coming from among the ranks of the apprentices in London. The big trade companies that organised labour there formed a substantial element in the basic fabric of English society, and these young people had a sense of identity that tied them together and that could be exercised even to violence by individuals in their group given the right circumstances. Religion formed a key part of the social fabric, and the apprentices reacted to broadsheets clandestinely published in London with the aim of discrediting Laud and inciting them to public acts of civil disobedience. It was the king and Laud against Parliament. In the end, Parliament defeated Stuart kings not just once but twice and religion lay at the core of the matter in both cases.

What brought me to this book was curiosity about the way that religion functioned as part of individual identity, and this book provides some clues as to how those things worked together to bring about political change. Of course some people suffered. Others even died. Many lost other things as well, including their livelihoods. This creation of scapegoats when the authorities crushed popular disaffection continued throughout the 17th century and even into the more temperate 18th century as the king tried to maintain his power in the face of community opposition. But scapegoats can also serve the purposes of your enemies too, such as John Lilburne, who lost his ears in the process that was launched as a result of his public disagreement with Laud and the king. He became a modern martyr.

I think that the history of the civil rights movement begins before this point in time, but certainly from a modern point of view the year 1641 must stand as a sort of watershed with regard to the relationship between the government and the governed. In terms of the literature, the eventual victory of the party of Parliament over the party of the king forms well-trod ground for many Australians, and I wrote about it in a bit more detail when I reviewed Peter Ackroyd’s book on the 18th century a week ago. But it seems to me that a history of British radicalism has to incorporate a view that includes modern times at least from the rift with Rome started by Henry and going up to the importation of the Hanoverian kings after the death of Anne, the last Stuart monarch. The story would then recommence in the 1790s as the UK entered a war against France, and then include the appearance after the war’s end of the Chartists. Under this chronology Victoria would be the first truly modern monarch of the United Kingdom, the one who set the ground rules for kings and queens to follow, down to the present day.

Where this book falls down is in its use of ancillary facts that serve to illustrate broader points the writer wants to make. They impede the dramatic flow of seminal events and interfere with the reader’s ability to follow the plot. In short, the pacing of this book is very poor, making it a hard slog. Another failing is the structure of the book. I would have started the narrative right in the middle of things, at the moment of greatest drama, after the establishment of the Commonwealth, when Parliament had to crack down on innovations favoured by the Levellers once the king had been removed from the scene.

After I had written the first draft of this blogpost yesterday I went out for lunch and headed to Enmore to get some Egyptian food. On the way, I walked through Victoria Park and passed by St Paul’s College, a residential college attached to Sydney University. St Paul’s is an Anglican establishment and has come under fire in recent years for the hazing rituals it continues to tolerate and for the sexism exhibited by senior residents.

In 1981 I was at Paul’s. Even then, it was a riotous establishment, with drinking heavily favoured as a pastime by residents, who were however saturated by counter-culture favourites such as the 1971 song ‘American Pie’ by Don McLean, which they would sing when guzzling beer and spirits late into the night. The dining hall stank of beer at all times. Periodic toga parties would take place there during which young men drank to excess and had what they thought of as “fun”. Late at night they would occasionally “raid” Women’s College, which is situated just behind Paul’s on the main campus of the university, harassing the young women who lived there by barraging through the corridors and making a disorderly ruckus. I left Paul’s after a year. It evidenced the same kind of lax moral standards that the Levellers and the Roundheads objected to among the establishment supporters who fought for the king during the Civil War that started in 1642.

Further up, I passed by Moore Theological College, another Anglican establishment. Its crest has four elements:  an open book with a shepherd’s crook, a dove holding a twig of leaves in its beak, an arrangement made of two stems of olive branch, and a clipper ship with two masts under sail. The crest is visible on the King Street frontage. Down on Enmore Road, past the beggars with their outstretched cups, I stopped at Cairo to have my lunch and they sold me a bottle of Camperdown Ale to drink with it. The meal included two types of meat, two types of salad, and two dips with a piece of flatbread to eat them with. I wonder how the military in Egypt will view the events of recent years in the years that are sure to come. Surer, certainly, than their temporary hold on the levers of power is that down the line there will be some red faces.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

When identity politics start to fail

The other night I was driving home in my car. It was late in the afternoon and James Valentine was on the ABC talking to a woman who represents a local Aboriginal land council. The Coalition government has said it wants to give $50 million toward the construction of a new monument to James Cook, who had sailed up the eastern coastline of Australia in 1770, thus claiming the continent for the United Kingdom.

Valentine was being fair and exhibiting interest in what the woman, who I presume would classify herself as Aboriginal, had to say. He asked her about the stories that Aboriginal people tell themselves about the discovery and settlement of Australia, especially the people who are descended from the Eora people who lived in the Sydney area at the time. What she said made me listen intently.

She said that Aboriginal people still teach “culture” to their children, in order to pass on their civilisation from generation to generation. She also said that the survivors of the Eora people who still live in Sydney have been asked for their opinion about the planned memorial. Valentine had asked for quite different information, however. He had wanted to know what those same people, the Eora, tell themselves about the discovery and settlement itself. But she brushed him off and at length gave him some bland pabulum that contained little or nothing of interest to listeners. What she said was merely what everyone already knows about Aboriginal people. It was as though the stories that Aboriginal people tell themselves about the dispossession were somehow sacrosanct, not to be revealed to outsiders, and especially not to white people.

The response told me something that I already knew: there is little trust between the two communities. Or at least there is little trust in the Aboriginal community for the mainstream. Because the Aborigines only account for about three percent of Australians, they find themselves in a besieged minority, where everyone outside the circle is a potential enemy. The stories they tell themselves might be different from the ones people in the rest of the community tells itself, but there’s no need for this.

The response also told me that Aboriginal identity is more important for them than any other consideration. They cleave to their Aboriginality as if their lives depended on it, rather than a good job, an education for their children, or any other one thing that might make their lives better. It further told me that the stories that Aborigines tell each other are probably different from the ones they share with the rest of the community.

We see from the protests in Palestine that what you teach your children determines the future of your people. Palestinians teach their children to hate Israelis, which means it is easy for those young people to break the law in Israel. For Palestinians, as for Aboriginals, the whole system is stacked against them, and there is no incentive for them to apply themselves to any metier or calling, and to thrive as families or as a people. They fail from the outset but because of the way identity politics work the blame falls not on them, but rather on the mainstream they oppose.

It is time for the Aboriginals to lay aside their special claims to a unique identity. Or at least to stop defining themselves purely in opposition to a monolithic mainstream. Only a small minority of the mainstream holds an animus against them. Even in her home state of Queensland, Pauline Hanson only got about 13 percent of the primary vote in the 2017 state election. The vast majority of Australians have changed their way of seeing Aborigines and most of them disagree with the measure of building a new commemorative memorial for James Cook. The majority of people teach their children in schools that the Aborigines were the original inhabitants of the continent, and that they were treated very badly by the settler population for generations. But that political settlement belongs to the past. Things are different now. Being black should not be more important than being successful and happy, and giving your children every opportunity to be successful and happy.

Aborigines account for a significant proportion of those who are incarcerated in Australia, so we know that the identity politics that they have so greedily consumed from birth no longer do anything for them. They also die earlier than people in the broader population and have poorer education outcomes. Instead of seeing themselves as a besieged minority, Aborigines should spend more time looking after their children, so that the young people can grow up to live successfully within the community. Identity politics doesn’t keep working in the same way forever. Once equality has been achieved, it merely serves to separate you from the mainstream, and thus reduces your chances of being successful.