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Sunday, 30 September 2018

On Dangar Island

The weekend at the end of the third full week of spring we drove north to the Hawkesbury River and parked the car near the water in the town of Brooklyn. It was still late morning but there was a fish-and-chip shop open near the ferry wharf that also did burgers. There, we ordered barramundi-and-chips, a prawn bun, and some deep-fried battered school prawns. Having eaten we bustled down to the wharf and got on the small white ferry named ‘Sun’ with its long cabin and with its rows of wooden seats that are painted the same simple colour as the exterior of the boat. It was due to leave. I took a photo (shown below) of the water under the wharf, where a small white fish, about an inch long, was swimming in the green water of the harbour.

The pilot is a middle-aged man with a weathered face who took money from passengers and gave them tickets. He made change out of an oversized Tupperware box with clear plastic sides and a lid that was hinged at the back. The tickets we were given had ‘Adult single’ printed on one side and were made from a heavy yellow paper with perforations separating them from their neighbours.

The pilot guided the boat out of the harbour and set it on its course for Little Wobby, which is on the north bank, on the other side of the river. The settlement is a narrow strip of houses built in the lee of a sandstone cliff that hikers negotiate on day trips when they want to see the bush. As we approached the wharf there the boat shuddered at a lower frequency than it had done during the crossing on the open water. Olive slopes loomed above us, their brown-leaved trees and dark-green eucalypts alternating one next to the other.

Three Korean women who were aged in their early sixties stood up, ready to get off, but the pilot placed himself in the doorway and alerted them to the fact that they probably should wait until the boat reached its ultimate destination. There is no café at Little Wobby, he told them, just residences and a path for bushwalkers to use to scale the rises behind them. The women sat down on their bench again and we set off. In the water were brown jellyfish as big as soccer balls.

When we arrived at Dangar Island it was still low tide and everyone readied to disembark but before he cleared the way to the exit the pilot told people when they should expect the boat to return to pick them up. He said that the 3.45pm service would be well-patronised and encouraged people to consider taking an earlier one if they could manage it.

We ended up having a cup of tea at the café that stands next to the wharf. The waitress told us a little about the island to give us an idea of how to get around. After drinking the tea she served us and eating some Portuguese tarts we walked up the hill. Where a path seats out east from the road I asked a woman who was walking behind us if this was the way to the beach. She told us she didn’t know, that she was a visitor like us, and that she was on the way to use the lavatory.

After turning off on the path we ascended a small rise then came out in a clearing where there is a park with swings and other gear installed for children to use. There is also a bowling green with a clubhouse next to it. Some people were sitting on rugs in the park. A sign beside an open gate invited visitors to go in, and the message added, reassuringly, that the resident might be found out the back of the house in the garden. We walked through the gate and called out to alert the people living there that we had arrived.

An elderly woman with a heavy-set figure dressed in tracksuit pants and a sweater came around from the side of the wooden house standing in front of us. She introduced herself and asked us our names, shaking each of our hands, then invited us to go inside to learn about the history of the island. Next to the front door were stacks of books with stickers on them indicating the price of each one. The woman, who said her name was Ann, showed us the books, which she had published herself, that contained histories of the locale. We were told that we could buy copies of the books but that first she would give us a tour.

In the room behind the vestibule, Ann removed the cloth covering a table to reveal a clear plastic sheet beneath which were photographs and pieces of paper with text printed on them. She started to tell us the story of Henry Dangar, after whom the island had been named. Originally it had been called Mullet Island because there had been a time when plenty of the fish were caught in its waters. Ann proceeded to give us a detailed history of the man and, removing the cloth covering a second table next to the first, went on the relay the story of the building of the railway bridge over the river, which had been completed in the 1860s. The company that had won the contract was an American one and hence the township nearby has a name borrowed from the place with the same name in the city of New York.

Ann told us that the bridge had however been poorly constructed because the subcontractor who had been paid to build the piers on which it rested had failed to fill them with cement, so that by the 1930s the authorities had had to make trains using the bridge slow down when crossing it for fear that the pylons would collapse under the stress of transporting them across the river, which flows in a hilly valley. The war arrived before anything could be done about the faulty structure and after it was over a new bridge was built, which still stands today. There is also another bridge for cars that connects the township to the M1 that feeds traffic south and north into and out of the metropolis.

At one point in her delivery, the irrepressible Ann put on a recording of a popular tune titled ‘Rainbow on the River’, from the early part of last century, which had something to do with the Marine Hotel, which Henry Dangar’s son had operated on the island and which took visitors from Sydney who arrived on steamboats that came in from the ocean and along the river to dock at a long pier that has since been dismantled. As the music was playing, Ann hung from a nail, that had been hammered into the lintel over the entranceway of the room we were standing in, a plasticised sheet of paper that was attached to a cord. Twirling her hands and singing along to the recording, Ann sang the words that had set to the tune all those years ago, evoking ideas attached to old phonograph records that you used to be able to find in second-hand music stores, discs that were heavy and brittle and that would crackle with static when you put the needle down onto them as they span on your turntable.

As we stood next to the table near the front door where the books were stacked, with display copies standing on plate racks, I pointed out the two I wanted to purchase. Ann took the books to one of the tables that held the documentary evidence of the early settlement, and obediently signed them for us using a black Biro. I gave her thirty dollars and she put it on the table but while we were there she didn’t pick it up. After this we walked around Ann’s garden looking at the plants as she named them, one by one. Next to a pale green plant with spreading leafy fronds originating in a core hidden in the dirt of a large planter, Ann searched for a word and with her right hand silently snapped her fingers impatiently, as I thought “artichoke”. Which is what it was. We soon left, and walked east, then turned south and headed down a sandy path to a beach.

It was bordered, to the east, by a rocky outcrop covered in oysters. To the west it was clear and we walked in that direction. A jellyfish lay partially buried in the yellow sand. The mudflats were crawling with tiny crustaceans and boats at anchor lay stranded on them, revealing that the bottoms of their hulls were covered with marine growths.

We walked to the end of the beach and then turned back the way we had come. Navigating our way along the dirt paths that thread among the houses on the island, we arrived back at the café near the wharf and bought cold drinks to have while we waited for the ferry to arrive. Mine was off and I threw it out in a bin near the shop’s entrance. On the way back to the car the boat vibrated as it had done on the outward journey. I thought about Ann and her insistence that Henry Danger had not, as I had read in other books, paid for the legal defence in the case of the crown against the Myall Creek massacre perpetrators. It was an inconvenient fact and had to be ignored for the rest of the edifice to stand.


Saturday, 29 September 2018

Book review: Staying, Jessie Cole (2018)

This memoir chronicles the life of a girl who experiences the trauma of suicide, not once but twice. When she is 12 her half-sister Zoe kills herself while on an extended trip to Europe. Zoe is in Holland at the time and her body is buried there. Consumed by grief, Jessie’s father becomes delusional and six years later puts an end to his own life. The twin disasters have lasting impacts on Jessie’s life.

She comes to writing after having two children of her own, although their father is by this time living elsewhere. It is her therapist who suggests publishing. By this time Jessie had tried university but had dropped out with her course of study incomplete and had returned to her mother’s house to live. There, she raises two boys, Milla and Luca, the offspring of her relationship with Gabe, who she had met soon after starting high school.

Jessie is still in her mid-twenties when she discovers an aptitude for making stories and she embraces it with enthusiasm as a way to come to terms with herself and with a painful past. There is something therapeutic about it for her, just as there is something therapeutic about the bush surrounding the house in northern New South Wales that she shares with her mother and her sons. The book’s title points at the likelihood that some sort of resolution has been found.

What results from all the hours Jessie has spent in a vigil kept with the ghosts of her past is a narrative that is haunting yet reassuring and somehow very ordinary. Here there are important lessons to learn about grief and sanity, and about the keeping of secrets, but you won’t find much that reaches the transcendent. Jessie’s talent or vision don’t extend to the sublime, it is grounded and realistic and stable. Which is as it should be, in a way. What this competent work of non-fiction can give you is insights into how trauma can change people, and about their special needs, needs that even their friends might never venture to satisfy.

On the other hand, the book reminds you that grief is a universal experience, or at least it is very nearly so. Most people will have in their past something that will cause them to behave sometimes in unpredictable ways. So we should always be kind to one another. As the saying goes: you never know what the person you are walking past on the street is living through.

There is no mention in the book of the possibility that Zoe had experienced delusions deriving from the use of cannabis, but this is certainly a likely explanation for what happened to her. Jessie’s father also undoubtedly used cannabis during his life. People who use cannabis are three times more likely to develop schizophrenia then people who do not use it.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Moon festival, Cabramatta

On Sunday on platform 18 at Central Station I waited for the next service to arrive. Wearing a backpack, a young father was standing with his two children, both girls, near the edge of the platform. One of the girls was aged about five years and the other one was aged about ten. The small girl was hamming it up on the pavement, moving around and fussing in a way that made her father cross with her. When this happened she became contrite and raised her arms in the air, signalling for him to pick her up.

The older girl was paying attention to what was happening around her and noticed the yellow train pulling in from the north. The video screen hanging from a pole attached to the roof said that the scheduled service would depart in one minute, but when she saw the engine approaching the girl said to her father, “It said it’s coming in one minute!” “It’s going to depart in one minute,” the father corrected her. “Oh, it’s going to leave in one minute,” she said. She had light brown skin and green eyes and the three of them looked as though their ancestors had been born on the subcontinent.

From Redfern, where I met up with a friend, the ride took about 45 minutes, darkness descending as we rolled on the tracks. Next to the moving carriage the tracks for services going in the opposite direction shone silver in the lights. As our train sped up, the tone that it made rose in pitch, then there was a period of silence and then, as it slowed down in preparation for stopping at the next station, the tone fell again to a lower pitch.

A boy aged about eleven was goofing around in the vestibule near where his parents were seated on the mezzanine level next to the doors. He wore heavy tan-coloured boots on his feet and the laces for one of them was undone while he played. His head was shaved bare except for a strip on top down the middle of his skull which held shortish hair. He looked Middle-Eastern. Bored and at a loss what to do, he hung off the upright handrails, manoeuvring his body so that it could pass between them, and swung on the handrails that led downstairs to the cabin where we sat. He got up on the seats on his knees several times and finally sat down and got around to fixing his shoelace, dramatically stretching his right leg out and pulling on the laces with his hands before tying them together with his fingers.

At Cabramatta when the train stopped and we got off, there were hundreds of people and the access ramps leading out of the station were crowded with slowly-advancing bodies. Station staff stood at strategic points asking visitors to keep to the left and advising them where an alternative Opal card reader was located. Red-and-white plastic emergency tape was tied to portable posts to separate the ramps into lanes, one going up and one going down. In the street there were thousands of people milling about. Their backs up against the fence surrounding the station, sideshow rides and other amusements had been set up. A brightly-lit ride was lifting half-a-dozen children into the air. Next to it there was an inflated rubber slide and next to that there was a stall with containers filled with water on which floated yellow plastic ducks. Children queued up in front of it to pay money, then took hold of nets on long handles and used them to scoop out ducks.

The sideshows and their touts were ranged along two of the streets, letting people pick up air rifles to shoot at moving ducks or at balloons as they aimed to secure prizes that were pinned to the hoardings standing on the pavement. A brightly-lit stage had been set up and some young people were dancing on it to what sounded like hip-hop. Hundreds of people were standing in front of the stage watching the performance. We moved through the crowd and lined up outside a restaurant to wait until a table became available. An elderly couple stood in the doorway in front of us and they were soon seated and ordering their food.

Our food was good: braised beef with seared onions and spring onions and a tomato-flavoured rice, and a plate of rice noodles cooked with a seafood combination. It was cheap too: $25. A husband and wife and their two boys aged around seven or eight were eating their dinner at the table next to ours. One of the boys was restless and moved around on his chair a lot. He knelt on the floor at one stage and for a minute or so his head disappeared below the level of his chair’s back. I later saw his father, who was sitting next to him, feeding him something with a spoon. The man’s wife wore a dark-coloured sweater with a semi-abstract picture of a handgun on the front and the words “bang bang” coming from its muzzle.

Outside and around the corner, there was a big yellow lantern shaped like a lotus flower standing on the pavement that was lit from within. People stood in front of it and used their mobile phones to take photos of it. Two young women posed in front of it, adding variety to the shots. The overwhelming majority of people on the street were Asian. There were a few Anglos, some Pacific islanders, and a couple of people from the Levant but in the main this was a distinctly Asian cultural celebration and there were people of all ages except for the very elderly. I saw one man who was probably aged in his seventies walking doggedly along the footpath. He had white hair growing on his face and he looked reassuringly like a classic Chinese sage.

The biggest cohort were teenagers and parents with small children. There were children in prams with their parents, and small children aged around four or even younger. This was an event for young people to get out and meet with their friends in order to talk and enjoy themselves. Groups of 12-year-olds and 18-year-olds with bright eyes and handsome faces walked through the crowd, which thickened further up where another stage had been set up. This one had ‘Mekong Mounties Group Stage’ printed on its front and the music here was very loud. Hundreds of people were holding up their mobile phones taking videos of a woman on the stage singing into a microphone.

At one point we went down a side street looking for a lavatory and ducked into Café Nho on John Street. The coffee that arrived in a paper cup had a dry taste, as though it had been made from freeze-dried granules. The cup was mainly filled with ice and I only took a few sips before the drink was finished. My friend had a pennywort drink that was dark green in colour and that came in a plastic container with a rounded cap that had a hole in it to allow a straw to stick out. There were half-a-dozen other patrons in the café and the stereo played sentimental music with Vietnamese lyrics. One of the songs playing while we were in the shop sounded like a Japanese love ballad from the 1980s. Behind us, TV screens were mounted on both end walls of the room. They showed Manchester United Television and it was all sport.

The video feed matched the tone of the place however, and very much embodied the feeling you had when you were on the street: all that youth congregated in one place to enjoy the spring night. The festival we were helping to celebrate is also called the “mid-autumn festival” and it is scheduled to fall on the day of the year when daylight and darkness are equal in length: the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Wikipedia says that the festival is associated with the harvest and that it became popular in China during the Tang dynasty (I wrote a post about Tang poetry here on 16 September). In Japan the festival is known as “otsukimi”; “o” is a subject marker, “tsuki” means “moon”, and “mi” means “look at”.

Back on the street we walked past kiosks that had been set up on the carriageway, which had been closed to vehicular traffic. One was covered with four-colour printed posters showing the faces of politicians Frank Carbone and Dai Le. Another kiosk was selling Turkish “gozleme”, which is flatbread and pastry with savoury fillings. Fireworks were being set off at two points on an adjacent street, the reports loud in the air like shots from rifles. Missiles lofted invisible into the air and exploded in a variety of colours, making bright flowers in the black sky. People stood facing the spectacle.

Another kiosk sold cold drinks in plastic containers served with straws. There was a kiosk staffed by people from the Amitabha Buddhist Association of New South Wales. As I took a photo of the blue banner with white lettering that was attached to the front of the structure, a woman standing in front of it invited me to look at the books and videos they were giving away. Three police walked south along the carriageway through the restless crowd: two uniformed men and one uniformed woman. Fairfield City Council website says that 90,000 people attended the previous year’s festival and I guessed there was a similar number on the night we visited.

We bought a plastic-wrapped red-bean mooncake for a few dollars and the two of us ate half of it each. It had a scalloped edge and in its form resembled a multi-petalled flower. It had a delicate, floury taste and the filling was semi-sweet.

At the station we tapped on with our Opal cards and proceeded to the platform. I cast a glance at the video display and saw that a service was soon to arrive. “Three minutes,” I said to my friend. A group of teenagers was skylarking on the platform to the west of where we stood. One of the station staff blew his whistle at them, and another one walked toward them to tell them to take care because of the anticipated train. As it pulled up at the platform I asked a third Sydney Trains employee if it was heading to the city centre and he confirmed that it was.

We stepped on and headed down the stairs to where the seats are lined up. Three young people also got on and sat down across the aisle next to us on two three-seat benches that were facing each other. There were two teenage boys and one teenage girl. They talked among themselves and got off a few stations later but at Punchbowl a married Pakistani-Australian couple got on the train and sat talking in the seats they had vacated, until they in turn got off at Lakemba. At one point during their conversation, the woman proprietorially tapped her husband on his left leg to get his attention. She wore a hijab and the man had thongs on his feet.

Later, a group of six people aged in their twenties got on the train and sat down in the same seats, talking among themselves in animated Spanish for the whole of their journey. There were five men and a woman. At Dulwich Hill the woman kissed all the men on the cheek to say goodbye and got off the train, and one of the men got off at St Peters. The train’s guard got out onto the platform at each station we stopped at on the journey, checking the doors for passengers and giving his whistle a blow when he saw they were clear of passengers. He was solidly-built and wore shorts and his booth was located in the same carriage we rode in. The rest of the Spanish-speakers got off with me when I alighted at Central Station.


Thursday, 27 September 2018

Book review: The Lebs, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (2018)

It’s not quite clear what this book actually is. It has something about it of the proto-realist novels of the 18th century that we refer to as “picaresque”, in which the hero sets out on a journey in the countryside, encountering adventures along the way, until the point at which he reaches his destination and everything is finally and neatly resolved.

I didn’t get that far; I read about 15 percent of the book before giving up. What is certain is that there is very little structure in this novel, and little that keeps anything like a plot ticking along reliably so that different characters can grow and develop, and so finally deliver a message to the waiting reader. Anything as basic as a plot is entirely absent and in that void what we are given instead is a series of unconnected episodes each of which contains more or less drama than the one that came before, and that conveys a message in one form or another.

There is also no evidence that the author understands exactly what is distinct and unique about the hybrid of his ancestral culture as it exists in what appears to his classmates to be the wilderness of Sydney’s western suburbs. There is no irony or humour to militate against the crushing recalcitrance of the students in this high school, their bad behaviour and unwillingness to get a useful education. Their adolescent jokes at the expense of long-suffering teachers are not critiqued as the modulated violence that they really are. And the narrator might be able to recite passages of Faulkner or Nabokov in an effort to impress his teacher, but it’s furthermore not clear that the stylistic achievements that their works contain have been understood by him even partially.

It’s all very ad-hoc and premature, the praise that the Australian literary elites have given to this author, who seems to identify completely with the badly-behaved crop of students who are being taught by the beleaguered staff at the school he attends, but at the same time seems to have little idea what it might mean to actually command respect for the knowledge you might gain through education. Ahmad’s voice might conceivably be authentic but his is yet an incomplete talent.

The lack of insight the project at its most basic level evinces dulls the effect of this sort of book. It has been published presumably so that readers might, blindly but in good faith, spend their money to acquire some knowledge about the culture that produced it. But more work is needed. I give it a score of five out of ten.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

The charity collectors were out

On the way to the dermatologists’ the other day I saw a man walking along heading west with his mobile phone attached to his ear and he was talking to someone on the other end. I head him say the word “program” but didn’t catch a complete phrase.

I passed by a number of schoolboys in brown uniforms that had light-coloured piping on the edges of the material, who were collecting money for the Salvos. The jackets of their uniforms had school crests sewn onto the fabric where the heart is situated. There were two sets of boys dressed in this way on Pyrmont Bridge and they held in their hands white plastic bags with red designs printed on them. Near the city end of the bridge, one of the charity-collectors, a boy of about sixteen, asked me if I wanted to give money and I turned my head as I walked and told him that I gave a lot of money to charity. It wasn’t true but I reminded myself that it’s certainly true that I often do give money to beggars I see on the street.

I went to the office building where the doctor’s clinic is located and ascended in the lift. The treatment was about four minutes long and I was feeling a bit light-headed at the end of it. I dressed and put my shoes on and told the receptionist I had finished the treatment.

In the lift going down there was a woman of about my own age holding a large plastic bag full of some sort of supplies. She was talking with an Asian man in his thirties. I caught some of their conversation. It appears that there had been a water leak in the building that morning. The woman was saying that someone from the security company had driven past the building early in the morning and had seen water coming out from its front doors. The Asian man got out of the lift at the fourth floor and the woman got out on the first floor. I took a photograph (see below) outside the building showing the street as it was at about 9.30am.

In Pitt Street Mall I handed five dollars to a young woman who was sitting on the pavement with a small black dog held in her lap. She had terrible teeth. Several teeth in her skull were badly discoloured, giving her a decrepit look when she smiled, as she did when she said, “God bless you.” I bought a pide at the food court under Myer and savoured the tasty filling made from minced beef. There were black and white sesame seeds sticking to the outside of the bread, giving the food an exotic flavour.

After the food, I walked through the underground tunnel to the QVB and went up the stairs to street level. At the corner of Kent Street I gave another five dollars to a beggar who was sitting on the pavement with his back to the traffic, which is quite heavy for most of the time during the day at this point. He had a shaggy beard and he told me to have a good day as he palmed the banknote in his dirty hand. I walked to the bridge and near its western end there was a mother aged in her thirties with a small child aged about four. The little girl was walking a few paces behind her mother and wore a pink hat on her head to protect her against the sun. As I passed them she was asking her mother something that I didn’t catch but that sounded like, “Where are the omelites?” I’m sure that this was not what she actually said but the consonants in her mouth were not clearly defined and the sounds all ran together as she spoke.

Near the casino there were two women walking toward me who were talking to one another. As I passed them the one on the left, who was wearing tight black pants, could be heard saying, “Oh yeah?” Her delivery started on a high note and the opening of the second syllable was lower than its remainder. The word was stretched out to contain all the expression the woman wanted to embed in her vocalisation. She was showing her interlocutor that she had understood what the other person had been saying and that she was merely making that point clear. The phrase didn’t contain any agreement as to the truth of what the other person had said.

On Harris Street as I was walking past an office building there were two men sauntering along deep in conversation. One of them, who was about my age or a bit older and who was wearing a jacket, said the word “yesterday”. I didn’t catch the rest of what he said. His younger companion was, like him, kind of swaggering slowly along the street in a way that suggested indolence although it was clear that the relationship between the two men was a professional one. They might have been workers in two separate parts of the same company. Their lazy demeanour was not necessarily reflected in their words, which seemed to be focused on important matters that they would otherwise not have had the opportunity to share in such detail.

I bought a toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich at the Olive Station shop near the light rail, where the Korean lady works, and took it home held in my hand. The bread was warm in my fingers through the aluminium foil wrapping it.


Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Private-school education promotes social mobility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 24 September 2018

Book review: The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Social media and the cultural elites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 22 September 2018

User communication by technology companies

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 21 September 2018

Japan would be advised to adopt multiculturalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 20 September 2018

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

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

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

A nursing home experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Book review: Outline, Rachel Cusk (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: The Carrying, Ada Limon (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 17 September 2018

Getting light treatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also separate in spirit from the crowd of feckless men and women who make up the flower of Singapore’s monied youth is Rachel’s friend Peik Lin Goh (played by a puckish Awkwafina) who provides Rachel with the kind of stability that the Young family seems intent on depriving her of. But Peik’s mother and father are even more crass than Nick’s family, and have unselfconsciously decorated their big house with lashings of gilt and carved wood in a fashion made famous by the epitome of European vulgarity, the Palace of Versailles. No-one is exempt from some degree of satire.

The question of what it’s all for comes up occasionally but the film has no real answers to offer the viewer apart from Nick’s dauntless ardour and the wisdom of his girlfriend.

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

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

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

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

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

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