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Monday, 19 August 2019

‘Free Hong Kong’ graffiti, Chinatown, Sydney


I snapped this photo (above) yesterday when I was down in Chinatown for yum cha. This was visible at around 1pm on Dixon Street, in the heart of Chinatown. More than half of the street is a pedestrian mall, so wholesale deliverymen bring produce to restaurants that operate there using trolleys like this one, pushing them along the pavement on foot.

It wasn’t surprising for me to see the graffiti here. The day before, in Belmore Park, about five minutes’ walk from this spot to the east, a pro-CCP rally had taken place. Hundreds of protesters were there, and the day before that an anti-CCP rally had taken place in Sydney as well. These rallies can get quite boisterous, they are not at all friendly. The second photo (below) shows the same graffiti on the same ornamental lion but without the people walking in front of it.

It might seem a little incongruous for an Australian to publish a post like this one. Easy to do this when you are protected by centuries of precedent and by institutions that tolerate dissent. But I felt that it is important to do what you can to support the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Every little bit helps when you have an enemy as powerful and determined as they do. Whoever wrote this slogan evidently thought the same way as me.

I actually have little patience for people who say that it’s not worth talking about these problems because it’s common knowledge that the CCP is corrupt and unaccountable. For Hong Kongers, they are real and not at all abstract. It’s hardly a “truism” to say it if you live there and if you want to decide who makes the laws that govern your life. It goes to the very core of who you are.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Book review: Ottoman Odyssey, Alev Scott (2018)

Before I talk in detail about this book I have to register the importance of the feeling of pleasure that reading it gave me. At the time I bought it, in a bookstore in Newtown, in Sydney, on one of my regular weekend outings, I had just started three other books of nonfiction by people who were, or had been, journalists. I finished one of them, skimmed one, and left off reading the third out of frustration. They were all Australian books but out of the three only one was readable. Even then, I had reservations about the author’s approach to her subject.

But here’s the thing: all three of those books had been brought to my attention by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in programs on their local Sydney radio frequency. All three had been promoted probably without the people talking about them even reading them. Then, on this sunny day, I went into a bookshop and deliberately picked off the shelf a book that had as little as possible to do with the identity politics that those three books retailed in. Choosing this book by Scott was, consciously, a bird flipped at the local publishing industry, a business that has its usual methods of getting media coverage, and one that had let me down so badly.

Scott’s book is journalism but it is a kind of journalism that is more and more common these days. The author points, at the end of the book, to the danger that her brand of journalism faces, when she talks with a colleague, a man who had, like her, been singled out for censure by the Turkish government. She uses the word “activism” as an adjective to qualify the kind of journalism I am talking about.

One of the things that is most interesting about Scott’s book, in fact, is her own character as it appears from time to time in the narrative. More toward the end but throughout the book the author points to herself as an example of the kind of person she wants to talk about, or in order to register her reactions to the many different people she meets in the course of making her story. Now, there is nothing unusual about this kind of journalism. It is, in fact, a kind of commonplace for a journalist to includer him- or herself in the narrative. But it does mean that you are going to lose some of the control you have, as a journalist, over the messages you are making. At the core of journalism, indeed, is the idea of objectivity. If Scott tells us, when she visits a small village in Cyprus or Bosnia, that the man she is talking to wears a red shirt, then we have to believe this is true. But she cannot blithely bury her own ideological position vs-a-vis Ankara or Jerusalem.

At heart Scott is not in favour of nationalism although she does mention at different points how it functioned as an effective element of local politics in different places at the time the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating. And this book is about nationalism and religion, specifically, and how those two things combine within different individuals, and within individual communities, to influence personal conduct as well as politics. I hesitate to mention the positive role that nationalism played in Europe in the 14th century at the beginning of what came to be known as the Humanist project. With any tool or with any means to an end, sometimes what you use to achieve your goals can be constructive and sometimes the same thing, used by different people, can be destructive.

Scott singles out a kind of tribalism as an element in the political settlement in a number of different countries she visits, but especially in Lebanon, where the different groups of people in the community have their own representatives in the legislature and in other institutions such as the armed forces. This kind of extreme solution to the issues that Scott raises – the ways that people’s identities serve to mould the political settlement – is one of the insights that this book delivers. In a modern, pluralist democracy, most often the tribes that exist in the community correspond to the major political parties. The situation in a country in the Middle East can be very different and this dynamic can cause problems for politicians there that you won’t find in, say, Australia.

There are a number of different themes that emerge in the course of the book, although it is difficult to settle on one or two considering the broad range of places Scott visits in order to gather the material she needs to write her stories. Basically she is trying to pick out some common ideas that have emerged in the generations since the 1920s, when Turkey emerged from the ruins of the empire that had existed since the 14th century. The book’s subtitle is “travels through a lost empire” and the author certainly does a lot of travelling (although the government bars her from entering Turkey at a certain point in the tale). This is a useful book to read if you have some knowledge of the region already; it might be hard to gain access to it if you know nothing about the geographical area we know as the Middle East. My own May trip to the region certainly informed my understanding of what Scott writes.

What it makes clear is that Turkey today leverages its Ottoman roots to try to influence countries in the region through soft-power diplomacy, in the same way, for example, that China uses similar tools. Money to build mosques or to set up tertiary education institutions is linked to a crude branding strategy that emphasises the significance of past glories. Local politicians in different countries use this kind of jingoistic pork-barrelling to gain influence within the communities they lead. But this book is far too complex to enable a reviewer to make too many easy conclusions. You really have to read it if you want to understand the complexity of the region and the types of relations that have emerged, since the 1920s, between governments there and the people they govern.

Scott chronicles a dizzying array of different groups of people, each of which has its own history, its own forms of religious observance, its own values and allegiances and even, in some cases, professions. The region is characterised, thus, by a vast diversity of people and Scott is a worthy observer of this.

On the other hand, Scott’s opinion of Jerusalem I found unnecessarily harsh, and it was probably mostly due to her personal ideas about Israel. As a committed lefty, Scott feels an obligation to support the Palestinians and this aspect of her identity colours the passages that she writes about the old town with its high walls, many religious institutions, and shops selling tourist tat.

It’s salutary to contrast the things she says about the tourists who flock to the city in a steady stream, and the things she says about people with whose feelings she sympathises, such as the Greeks living in the northern part of Cyprus she meets and whose stories embellish the final pages of the book. Both groups of people are finding meaning doing their thing but Scott suggests that the feelings of rich Christians, from places like Europe and the US, as they stalk along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem are, somehow, inauthentic. It’s really a shame. You sense, too, conflicting emotions for the author when she talks about the pronouncements of Turkish President Erdogan on the subject of Israel. On the one hand she doesn’t like Israel but on the other hand she doesn’t like Erdogan, so in such passages she’s caught in something of a quandary.

Scott’s English is sometimes slightly idiosyncratic and this might be due to her having spoken a different language when she was growing up. One solecism can serve to illustrate this point, where she talks about “boiling oil”, which is an impossibility in the domestic context. It might be possible in an industrial plant to get oil to boil but at home it can only get very hot, and will not boil on a regular stove. It might possibly become as hot as boiling water, but it won’t boil without special help.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Polarisation and profitability as media compete for readers

Last week on Friday I unfollowed Greg Jericho on Twitter. I had been a follower of his since about 2009, before he was a Guardian employee. He used to follow me, too, but this circumstance had changed in recent months for some reason. Greg used to be a good journalist and would use lots of figures in his Guardian stories which were, however, often hard to follow. His writing style was not all that hot but he had a reputation for being fair and measured in his conclusions.

In recent times, however, Greg had become more and more polarising online and more and more overt in his ideological preferences. Following Jay Rosen's dictum that journalists should declare where they sit on the ideological spectrum, Greg would fulminate openly about, say, private education or about the use of renewables for energy production. It became more and more difficult to engage with him because of the types of rhetoric he would use to express himself in arguments with people whose views he disagreed with.

In a real sense, the decision to unfollow Greg embodies older ideas of mine about the internet. There is less and less room for debate as people become more and more extreme in their language choices. They do this to get more followers and to get retweets and likes. Funnily enough, on the same day as the unfollow happened I saw a headline from the ABC about media and the profits to be made from polarisation but looking for the story proved difficult after I had briefly seen the headline on Twitter.

Profitability as it pertains to the media is something I am always interested in, for obvious reasons. The Australian reported on the same day I unfollowed Greg Jericho that News Corp had reported 2019 full-year revenue of A$14.8 billion, a 12 per cent increase over the previous year. The Guardian reported that the company globally had reported a profit of A$228 million but said, on the same day, that, “Revenue at the Australian mastheads run by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp fell by 6% last year.” Nieman Lab reported in a story I saw on the same day that the NY Times "now has 3.78 million digital subscribers". "There was [A$165] million in digital subscription revenue, up 14 percent over this time last year." And on 1 May the Guardian had reported, “Guardian News & Media recorded an [A$1.43] million operating profit for the 2018-19 financial year — compared with a [A$102] million loss three years previously.” (For convenience I have converted all the figures into Australian dollars at the exchange rates that applied last Friday.)

The Guardian is one organisation that seems to have taken a leaf out of a book opened by Rupert Murdoch over a generation ago. In her book ‘On Disruption’ (review on this blog on 9 July last year), the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy regrets the polarisation that had started to take over the public sphere but her colleague was now ignoring her warnings having turned the practice into a fine art, one he prosecuted with acid wit.

When I posted about what had happened that morning, one person I know from my childhood, who is also a journalist, commented, “There’s no clicks in balanced. Plenty in outrage, [outspokenness], shock and put downs. Gets 50 per cent of the readers liking you and the other 50 looking at what outrage you’ll make next.”

There’s money in a bad attitude, but the public sphere is being debased because of it. Conversations can only be held with people with views like yours. Anyone else will lose their temper and unfollow you or block you. Or you will do one or the other to them. No quarter is given and people go in hard and fast to avoid similar treatment. The bubbles that people inhabit are becoming less likely to overlap with others, those of people who think different to them. Dialog is difficult and compromise impossible. What kind of government will arise as a result of this situation remains to be seen but I’m not optimistic.

The issue of polarisation is actually a very important one because if you are always unthinkingly wedded to the policy platform of your preferred political party, or if you will only listen to what its spokespeople say when an issue is raised by the government, and follow that lead, then you are going to miss out on the benefit of the good policies from the government that might be proposed. It just doesn’t make sense to always follow the lead suggested by the Opposition, if you are politically inclined that way, as you restrict yourself unnecessarily to a narrow set of ideas and principles that might not, in all cases, be suitable for the production of good laws.

This kind of politics is endlessly frustrating. We need to be able to pick and choose the good policies from both the government and the Opposition so that we avail ourselves of a wider range of ideas and principles than would otherwise be available to follow.

When it comes down to it, your view on any issue will correspond to your values. If your values require that your preferred political party is in government, then you will always criticise what the other party says. This is a kind of tribalism, which is something that is a major problem for people living in developing countries. The difference in a pluralist democracy being that the tribes correspond roughly to political parties.

But if your values demand good governance and the implementation of good policy, then you will cherry-pick from the parties’ responses to whatever issue comes up, and choose the best one. Is winning more important than good governance? I think not.

The reality, however, is that many people find the public sphere too complex to navigate. Surveys that have been conducted recently in some countries, showing that younger people are often in favour of abolishing democracy, point to this fact. Democracy requires that the individual deal with a broad range of issues that are thrown at them constantly, day in and day out, in a busy media ecosystem. Following a political party simplifies the process for people. If people are always being asked to decide where they stand on every, single issue that arises, then the danger of burnout is real.

So party loyalty is a coping strategy that most people resort to in order to maintain their equanimity. Resorting to a primary media outlet that shares the same values as you do, makes this easier to do. People don’t necessarily want the truth, they want comforting verities that resemble it often enough not to worry them.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Train trips: Four

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

3 August

Caught the train home from Newtown, arriving outside the station there at 8.05pm. I went downstairs to wait for a train I saw was due in four minutes’ time.

At 8.07pm a train coming from a point further west cruised east on a different line from the line that had its tracks serving the platform I was standing on. About a minute later a Berowra-via-Strathfield service cruised west on another set of tracks lying out past the platform’s hard edge. A train that was going west stopped at the platform adjacent mine and a large number of young people alighted. Evidently they were going to enjoy a Saturday night out with friends in the pubs and restaurants on the street above. Then, just before my train arrived, a diesel service, an intercity train, cruised east, heading to Central Station.

I got on the local train that arrived on schedule and went upstairs where I walked to a bench of three seats, pulling the hinged seat in front of it into position so that the back of it would face me when I sat down next to the window. A pair of young women, both aged in their twenties, got on at the same station and one of them pulled the same seat back the other way so that she could sit down, next to the aisle, facing her friend, who sat down on the same bench as me.

The woman who had shifted the seat’s upright into place was Asian and spoke with a kind of American accent, emphasising strong “r”s. She told her companion a story about how she had worked at a restaurant and how her job had been to bring in new customers. One night five drag queens had come into the restaurant under her tutelage, she said, and had even flirted with her. They tipped her well, she went on, enjoying the sensation of something outré. She later dove into her mobile, as did her friend, and then she showed her friend a photo on its screen, saying, “The sacred mountain of the Aborigines.”

When the train was about to reach Central Station I asked them if I could get out and they both shifted their legs out of the way, swivelling in their seats as they did so. I heard one of them say they should get off at Town Hall. I got off the train when it stopped and went downstairs from the platform, heading through the barriers. I walked through the Grand Concourse and next to the light rail platform tapped on with my Opal card using the reader mounted at the building’s exit.

There were still 11 minutes to wait for the next tram. Standing next to me on the platform an Anglo couple, who appeared at a glance to be aged in their sixties, talked quietly between themselves. They had small wheeled suitcases with them and had evidently caught a plane from somewhere.

When there were two minutes to go before our departure the tram came up the hill through the park. I got on when it pulled up and its doors opened, and sat down in a seat. Opposite me, to my right, a man and a young woman were seated. She looked to be his daughter and wore a white hoodie that had red writing on its front. The hood was pulled up over her hair. The man had black hair and dark skin, but the girl’s skin was darker. They might have been Indian or Bangladeshi. The man had some grey hairs and wore a green, blue, and black Adidas windcheater. On his back he had a backpack and around his neck he had a black bag hanging on a strap. A Woolies shopping bag sat between his feet and he wore black plastic sandals.

At Exhibition Centre a man wearing a red embroidered vest got on who was talking loudly to a group of neatly-dressed young people. Their high spirits made me think that they had been to the theatre. They stood in the carriage as all the seats were full by this time. The man with the Adidas windcheater got off the tram at Pyrmont Bay with the girl and a large young male who had been seated elsewhere. I got off at the casino and, after waiting for the line of passengers to let me tap off with my Opal card, left the building through the east exit. The Century Restaurant was doing a brisk trade, with all the tables facing the street occupied by diners.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Book review: Trust Exercise, Susan Choi (2019)

This is a big novel and it has made a splash. I have read two positive reviews of it and I share with those reviewers a need to praise this novel, which takes its central theme from something that is very topical: the #MeToo movement.

The novel is made up of three parts, the first of which takes you up to about 50 percent of the way through the book. This is an account of the lives of a number of teenage students at a performing arts school in Houston, Texas. The central characters in this section of the book are students Sarah and David. The narrative in this part of the book is focalised through the character of Sarah.

The two young people have a romance and this part of the book examines their relationship through the lens offered by the linkages that exist among the faculty of the school and the pupils. There is also a number of people who come from England to put on a performance of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’, and some of these people go on to occupy an important place in this part of the book, as well as the second part of the book, which starts in the middle of the volume.

This second section is focalised through a person named Karen who has an ambiguous relationship with the Sarah of the first part of the book. Sarah is also present in Karen’s narrative, as is David and as is Martin, one of the actors who had come from England and whose exploits had been covered in the first part of the book. In the second part of the book, it turns out that Martin has written a play and David, who now, 13 years after the events chronicled in the book’s first part (a time that took place in what we are told was the early 1980s), is a theatre director, wants to stage it in Houston. Martin has also been accused, in England, of sexual impropriety in relation to a student of his and this occasions some alarm in the mind of Karen, who sets in motion a plan.

The third part of the book starts at about the 90 percent mark and involves a young woman named Claire who is looking for her biological mother. She goes to the school described in the first part of the novel, which has expanded and which is now housed in new premises, and there talks with a man named Robert Lord who is the school’s head. He invites her to dinner at his place and she goes along but the outcome is not satisfactory for either person.

Now, this complex and brilliant novel has a tight plot but it also relies for a good deal of its allure on the quality of its language. The page-long sentences and subtle examinations of motivation and awareness put this book in the same league as the greats of the past. One of the authors that Choi deliberately nods toward is, of course, Nabokov. But it’s not ‘Lolita’ that you think of in relation to this challenging novel. The novel of his that I was put in mind of is the less well-known and less well-liked ‘Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle’, which came out in 1969, 14 years after the author’s more famous work.

As in that novel, here time does not move in a uniform or predictable manner. There are detailed descriptions of small events and there are also, unexpectedly, quick jumps across time that span periods of years. Choi’s medium is adequate to both types of narrative, attesting to the superior skillset that she has at her command.

Choi’s book does more, furthermore, than just dramatise the problem of what is sometimes bad behaviour by males once they are sexually active. The way that the different sections of her book are structured says important things about not only the writer’s craft and the art of fiction, but also more broadly about the ways that reality is constructed after the fact, and the ways that key individuals can get left out of the really important stories that need to be told. From what Karen says in the second part of the book, her story is central to events that are communicated in the first part, even though she only plays a minor role in it, as “Karen”. In fact, she is present in many ways that only become evident later.

If the narrative in the first part of the book – a text produced by one of the students – had been written differently the events that close its second part might have been impossible to conceive of. But as in the Nabokov book already mentioned things that might have revealed dark secrets went unnoticed by many people involved in the story. The metafictional elements of this book are competently handled and have a signification beyond a purely rhetorical one belonging to novel writing and the fictional act itself.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Twitter redesign mainly serves its purpose

This company has done some things that turned out to be less than impressive, such as the acquisition of Periscope (does anyone even remember it?). The decision to allow people to use 280 characters in tweets was, on the other hand, a good one to make.

Overall, the recent native site redesign seems to have been managed well. The actual design decisions that were implemented as part of the redesign are mostly good and have to a large degree improved the experience of using the site. This is just my view, and other people might have different ideas about this.

With the new interface, the navigation buttons have been put down the side of the feed. You can, for example, click on the “Profile” link if you want to see how many followers you currently have, or to see how many people you yourself are following. Nearer to the top of the page, the “Notifications” link allows you to click to see the interactions people have performed with respect to your account, such as likes and retweets and replies. As with the “Profile” link, clicking on this link does not cause the home page to refresh (unless you are at the top of the feed) so you won’t always lose your place when you go back “Home”.

The indicator on the home page that shows the number of notifications currently registered that you haven’t look at yet, is also welcome. This feature is also linked to your mobile phone app, so looking at a notification on your phone will mean that it will be flagged as having been seen on the website as well.

The following image shows the notifications page in a screenshot I made recently. You can see that the “Notifications” link has been selected using the mouse cursor. The notifications are shown in the centre of the display and some other, unimportant, items are (optimistically) shown on the right-hand side of the screen. The indicator that shows you how many unseen notifications there are is not visible here because it disappears once the “Notifications” link has been clicked.


From these implementations of interactivity, it seems to me that the designers have thought deeply about how people really want to use the site, and they have evidently tested out different iterations before settling on the final configuration. 

One thing that surprised me however is that the “Profile” page does not show all tweets that you put up. At least that’s true in my case, as it only shows me tweets that contain links from my blog. Other tweets, such as replies to tweets from other account holders, are omitted from my view. This is a bit strange but, in any case, I usually use TweetDeck to carry out my daily tasks on the platform.

The new webpage is a big improvement over what existed before the change. Back then, I used to use the app on my mobile phone to view notifications, whereas now I use the webpage. What is especially welcome is the ability to easily see different views of information associated with your account without constantly refreshing your feed. Even given the reservations I have described above, in my view the changes make for a big improvement in Twitter.

Many people have been asking for a means to allow people with a Twitter account to edit tweets once they have been sent, but I haven’t seen any indication from the company that this change will be brought in. Personally, this does not appear to be a major issue. When I write a tweet I usually reread it before sending it, often more than once. Perhaps people should just slow down their conversations a bit if they want to avoid errors. When I do make an error in a tweet it is usually a minor one that, often, I just allow to stand. Sometimes, depending on the recipient and depending on the nature of the error, I will delete a tweet and resend it, but this doesn’t happen very often at all.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

The hat lady and her important husband: A China tale

This was too good not to share. It’s a short story but an interesting one for people who are curious about China and how the public sphere works there. Most people will know about the strict controls the Communist Party imposes on online service providers such as social media and news websites, but the public sphere, as this story shows, can function effectively merely given active participation by ordinary people.

The story unfolded in Chongqing, a populous administrative area next-door to Sichuan in central China. On the day in question an expensive, red Porsche driven by a woman wearing a hat and sunglasses hit an undistinguished sedan driven by a man. The resulting encounter between the two people was captured in a video that was widely shared.

The woman and the man got out of their cars and the woman walked up to the man and slapped him across the face. People watching the events unfold were surprised by this tactic but they were even more surprised when the man slapped the woman across the face in return, causing her hat and sunglasses to fly off. She slumped back onto her car. The woman went on to declare, in a voice audible to people in the gathering crowd, “It was my fault, but you can’t arrest me!” In the end the police arrived.


Intrigued, some of the people who saw the video investigated the woman’s identity and found out that she was the wife of the most-senior officer at a local police command. In the face of the woman’s hubris the outcry from people using social media was so intense that her husband’s organisation became alarmed and embarrassed, and he was compelled to resign from his position. A surprising twist was added to the saga when the man whose car had been hit by the sports car publicly apologised for causing trouble.

The first picture, above, is from the video that was taken on the day of the slap. The second photo, below, was unearthed by a citizen intent on finding out more about the Chongqing hat lady.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Are institutions good for us or bad for us?

I thought for a long time about writing this and eventually decided to go ahead. I am going to omit names of organisations in what follows, and the names of people will also be left out. Some people who have worked with me in the past who read this will know what I’m talking about, but I am going to take a risk and talk about these things because few do.

The title of this post is somewhat inflammatory. This was done for rhetorical reasons. But this post will be deliberate and careful in its conclusions. This is more like a piece of memoir than a piece of journalism, so care should be taken to generalise for the whole of society on the basis of observations made and conclusions drawn here. This account is based on what happened to me and to people I have known. Other people might have different experiences, I wouldn’t know. The lack of information about this kind of thing is, itself, disturbing. I imagine personnel managers attending convocations where such issues are discussed in a collegial setting, but news of such conversations never seems to gain a place in the broader public sphere.

Since the majority of people work, or have worked, in an institution at some point in their lives, and many still do so, this absence of material on such a central part of our lives seems to me to be scandalous. People often talk about suicide and how it is hard to talk about it in public. But work? Surely we are able to have meaningful conversations about something that is so central to our lives. Something that occupies such a large proportion of our lives, in fact. Eight hours a day, five days a week for 40 years. Day after day after day of labour, of restlessness, of thwarted ambition, of disappointments and satisfactions. Month after month. Year after year. And not a peep about any of it in the media unless there is a scandal such as an employer underpaying staff or someone who breaks the law and embezzles funds. We only talk about work if it gets into the court system.

To get back to the title and start off: institutions have been around for as long as society has existed. Some of them, like the parts of national armed forces, are very old indeed. The role of institutions is to organise people so that they can achieve better results than might be achieved if they operated alone.

It is often said that in the West we have such good polities because of the maturity of our institutions. But if you work in one you often find that things are not quite so rosy. The place of the individual in an institution is usually difficult because it is fraught with danger, as well as with opportunity. Like a game of snakes and ladders, you can find yourself on a ladder one year and the next you are on a snake. Twists of fate, things over which you have little control, can affect your mental health and your domestic life. If you are sidelined or if you lose your job this can have a big impact on you in many ways. Marriages can fail, children can lose a parent, financial ruin can follow from events that can operate completely independently of the individual.

Conversations that I have followed about institutions often point to their failings, but these seem to be linked to precisely the same things that go to form their merits. In my experience, institutions can shelter the individual against such things as economic downturns but at the same time they ask for loyalty. Loyalty, for its part, can operate to stymie innovation because people are unwilling to speak out when they see that a policy pursued by a superior is having a deleterious effect on the health of the larger organisation of which his or her work unit forms a part. Often, feuds over territory that an organisation cannot properly modulate into meaningful action can result in people being unfairly criticised, and they may even, as a result of the outflow from a disagreement, lose their job for no reason other than to make sure that another manager, whose work unit had been threatened by the actions of the first one, keeps his or her budget and privileges intact.

In this kind of situation, line workers are often asked to say or do things that are not in the best interests of the larger organisation. Their managers might encourage them to continue to voice opposition to a change suggested to work processes that would result in a diminution of the importance of their work unit, but they will do what they are told even though they can see that making the change suggested would benefit a large number of people. Turf is protected and front-line workers are forced to deal with the majority of the friction it creates.

One problem with institutions is that there is often a knowledge imbalance that characterises the work unit. Line workers know more about the problems that exist but they are not empowered to make decisions that might solve them. Instead, often, a manager has a policy he or she is following in order to achieve a result that consones with her own ideas about how the organisation should operate, or to conform to industry best-practice, or to further their own ambition or the ambition of someone further up the hierarchy from them. Front-line staff may have to do things, in such cases, in order to benefit someone other than themselves. That person might be right and the policy they are following might in the end benefit the broader organisation. But, on the other hand, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So whatever policy it is that is being pursued, there will be conflict resulting from interactions with people in other work units.

What to do? If you are caught up in a feud you are probably best advised to keep your head down and get on with the job. But this can have costs to your and to your family. You might suffer stress or even, in a worse scenario, a mental breakdown. If the latter outcome eventuates, will your organisation let you keep your job or will they sideline you or even fire you? All of these things happen all the time everywhere in the world.

The paradox of organisations is that they both help people to earn enough money to live decent lives and operate to make people conform. Just to survive you have to do what you are told. Failure to do this will often result in your being sidelined into a useless role with low status and no prospects for advancement, or even to you losing your job. For my part, I not very good at working in organisations, although as an arts graduate, at a time when getting an arts degree was considered to be a waste of effort, I didn’t have the most auspicious start.

In my career have learned more than just the rudiments of writing an application report. I have learned more than just that I am good with words. I also learned that the knowledge gaps that exist in organisations lie at the core of the problems they evince. People up the tree know more about the direction your work unit is heading in, but people on the front line know how those decisions are influencing relations with other work units. Caught in the middle are these front-line staff, men and women who risk everything sometimes for no other reason than to feed the ambition or vanity of a person with more power than them.

Is this what we want? Is this the best we can do? Personally, I think not. We can’t live without organisations but if we want them to be better places we need to have intelligent conversations about them. This can be difficult for obvious reasons. People are usually unwilling to jeopardise their livelihood by talking in public about a current employer even if that employer is causing them to experience levels of stress that might, given the right circumstances, lead to a breakdown or worse. People are afraid of organisations and therefore organisations continue to treat people as commodities. A new person can easily be brought in to replace someone who breaks. The whole survives even if an individual is hurt.

But how are people chosen for the fast track to the top? Is it enough to have good ideas? I think not. Is it enough to be good at your job? Again, no.

I haven’t worked for an organisation for a decade but I think that the old rules are still in place. What I found in my time working in them is that in order to survive and thrive you have to obey the ethos they embody and you have to have what are usually referred to euphemistically as “superior communication skills”. To be able to parley your way to achieving personal goals can send a message to people higher up in the hierarchy that you might also be useful for them. So, to get ahead in an organisation you have to believe in its virtue and you have to be skilful at lying without being caught doing it. A strange amalgam of duplicity and conformity is what will help you to progress in your career. Sort of like being in a royal court: every step you take is watched and displays of obedience carry weight.

For every Steve Jobs there are tens of thousands of dead-weight executives who live fat in expensive suburbs in big houses and who send their children to private schools. For executives an innovative mind is relatively low on the list of desirable qualities, so an organisation usually continues to follow a well-trod path until the whole thing is taken over by a more profitable organisation, until it fails completely and its assets are sold off, or until things get so bad that there is a major shake-up and heads roll.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Train trips: Three

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

3 August

Caught the train home from Newtown. Arrived on the platform, after using my Opal card, at 1.25pm and the train pulled up a minute later. As I had been coming down the stairs to the platform two tradies had been descending at the same time. One held a large white plastic bucket containing some items I couldn’t see well enough to identify. The other one carried in his right hand a long paint mixing machine with a spiral on its end. They got on with me and I went downstairs to the lower deck and sat down next to the window on a bench of three seats.

In front of me sat a young man aged in his twenties who had on a grey top with a hood and round black headphones. His hair was short and dark brown and his neck was shaved neatly at the back. I could see one white hair on his head. A few rows in front of this man sat three young women, two of whom had blonde hair. One had brown hair. They were talking and laughing and seemed about to go somewhere to have lunch. I counted 24 passengers on the deck, including myself.

The young man with the headphones got off at Redfern Station as did two young Asian women who had been sitting on the other side of the carriage. At the same station a young Asian woman got on and sat down in one of the seats that had just been made vacant by the women. A young woman also sat down on my bench in the seat next to the aisle and when I got up to get off at Central Station, before I needed to say anything, she stood up to let me out.

I decided to use the toilet at Central and on the way there passed a young woman in a railway uniform talking with an old man with a thin build. She smiled and said something to him in reply to something he had said, although I didn’t hear clearly. In the toilet cubicle I had to forcibly tear a strip of paper off the roll because I couldn’t find the end to pull it out. I also had to wipe the seat as the person who had used the cubicle before me hadn’t put up the seat before urinating.

Outside, once I had washed my hands with soap and water and dried them, I used my Opal card to leave the concourse, then went up on the escalator to the Grand Concourse. On the way inside I passed two women wheeling suitcases out of the building. The one bringing up the rear said to her companion as they walked, “Do we go this way?” I went to the light rail platform and tapped on with my Opal card, then queued to wait. By the clock there were six minutes to go before the tram would leave.

A black man and an older Anglo man, who appeared to be aged in his late fifties, were talking in front of me. The black man was evidently an employee and appeared to be either starting or finishing his shift. The older man wore the distinctive hi-vis vest of tramline employees. At one point he said, “I can’t wait to have grandkids, I really can’t.” The two of them left the queue and I moved forward but before the tram arrived a heavyset, bald man aged in his thirties came and stood next to me, outside my queue, but in front of me. Clearly he wanted, like me, to sit down in the tram.

When it arrived I got on and sat down in one of the seats nearest the door. The bald man sat down opposite me. I saw he had a black bag on his lap with the name of the casino and a logo printed on it. He wore a grey top and blue trousers and black shoes. A group of young people, one of whom was pushing a pram, got on just as the doors were shutting and then made some noises and looked outside, indicating to anyone watching that their companion had missed the tram.

At one of the stops further along a young man wearing brown jeans and a green sunhat with sunglasses propped on it entered the crowded carriage. He had a small white bicycle and an orange Boogie Board. He sat on the bike in the carriage and, at one point, lifted the front wheel up off the floor and span it with his shoe. A sticker affixed to the top tube of the bike’s frame had “Raleigh Racing” printed on it.

The bald man got off with me at the casino; evidently he was just starting his shift. He hesitated to push through the crowd that congealed at the door and I said, just before finally moving forward, “Yeah, well, we’ve got to get off.” He didn’t hear me but the man behind him, an older Asian man, heard me and turned his head momentarily to see who had spoken.

I left the station via the east exit and walked home. Above the light rail station nearer to my place were four men and others who appeared to be their personal trainers. Four men had padded mitts on their hands and the other four were punching them with their gloved fists.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Book review: The War Artist, Simon Cleary (2019)

This gripping thriller offers a marvellous overview of contemporary masculinity. At its centre is the death in Afghanistan of a solider, a sapper, named Samuel Beckett (yes, the writer’s presence has to be acknowledged at this early stage in the piece). The man who had been the cause of the death, Brigadier James Phelan, brings Beckett’s body back home but the memory of the death lingers in his mind and he is let go from his command and is retired on a pension.

When doing a review it’s hard to know how much of a book such as this, one which relies so heavily on its plot for forward momentum, you should reveal. I won’t say much more than is necessary to outline the basic themes and to give an idea of the kinds of ideas that lie at the work’s core.

One of the themes – as well as being a major plot device – is physical danger, and this is illustrated early, in the domestic context, away from the battlefield, when Phelan goes to get a tattoo in memory of Beckett in the studio of a Surry Hills artist named Kira. Her boyfriend, Flores, deals in drugs and on the day Phelan comes to get inked a man turns up trying to rob the shop. Phelan decks him and the police take the junkie away but the threat of physical danger lingers, for the length of the book, and never entirely disappears. Flores’ brother Prince is a major dealer and Flores is an abusive partner.

While he is in Sydney attending to official duties Phelan has a fling with Kira and then returns to his home in Brisbane where his wife, Penny, a nurse, tells him she has had cancer and has had a mastectomy. Then, in an effort to control his own physical ailment – post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD – Phelan enrols in a creative writing course and produces some poetry that is published in a university journal. The story gets picked up by the local media and goes national, with Phelan regretting, on TV, the country’s involvement in the Middle East. Kira sees the broadcast, finds his email address online, and contacts him, then makes a quick decision that will change her life. And his.

Cleary tries to reach into the national psyche with this complex novel that, despite overt trade aspirations, attempts to discourse intelligently on weighty themes. It’s hard these days to talk about masculinity and what it means but Cleary gives is a solid go, making believable characters, each of whom possesses a clarity of invention and a substance that enables them to survive a series of long, detailed passages where not much happens beyond the poetry of the words on the page. Kira is finely drawn as the rebel who gave up a comfortable life on account of her art. Penny is the partner Phelan deserves as he tries to come to terms with his changed circumstances. Even the boy, Kira’s son, Blake, has his own personality. Then there are the soldiers and their rude egalitarianism.

There have been other books like this produced in Australia in recent years, and the mixing of genres seems to be a characteristic of publishing nowadays as writers try to reach new audiences while, at the same time, remaining true to their artistic instincts. In fact, the embedding of large themes – such as war and domestic violence, or courage and loyalty, or atonement and redemption – in narratives with tight, fast-paced plotting seems to be something of a new thing for readers here.

I don’t see any chance of this trend abating. Going by the quality of the books that are appearing that conform to this pattern, it looks like we are in a golden age of publishing. An age of new hope and of creative strength that allows people to enjoy the fun of a complex, well-knit plot as well as the satisfaction of big ideas that have currency and that offer their own inherent drama. How could you go past this kind of writing?

Cleary isn’t the only creative artist who has made the link between war and crime. George Gittoes, who made the movie ‘Soundtrack to War’ (2004), which featured US soldiers in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, would later go to the US and do a series of dramatic drawings of youths living in rough parts of Florida. Like Cleary, Gittoes is an Anglo Australian of mature years.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Real power or an advisory role? The nature of a Voice to Parliament

There was a flurry of commentary about Aboriginal reconciliation last Friday as a result of the annual Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures, which is held every year in the Northern Territory. Things quickly died down, however, as people turned their attention to other things. But on that day, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Patricia Karvelas, doing a clip to camera, was talking about the constitutional recognition that Aboriginal people aspire to achieve and said, with reference to that aspiration, "they want real power.”

This comment confused me. I published on Saturday 13 July a long post that had been written over the previous couple of days and that included a survey of tweets posted in response to comments from the government in relation to the Voice to Parliament (VtP). The post was titled ‘Responses on social media to Ken Wyatt’s reconciliation effort’ and it ended with the achievement of part of a personal goal: to understand what the VtP would actually be and how it would work in practice. I didn’t end up understanding the second part because this kind of detail hasn’t been finalised yet; Ken Wyatt will be in charge of a consultation effort that will, hopefully at some point in the near future, lead to us knowing more about the government’s anticipated proposal. But according to all leading lights the first part was clear: the VtP would have a purely advisory role.

Karvelas’ comments were made in the context of discussions she had had with Aboriginal people at Garma and the panel for ‘The Drum’ on the ABC on the same night comprised entirely Aboriginal people who had attended the festival. That night I watched the program, which was hosted by Ellen Fanning. This is a photo, taken during the screening of the show, that was posted on Twitter (Fanning is seated at left).


Listening to the panel discuss the issue of constitutional recognition for Aboriginal people, it became clear to me why Karvelas had made the comment she made. There is a lot of frustration in the community that these people belong to and most of it is directed at the government. It would be fair to say that their frustration sometimes comes out of their mouths in the form of rancour.

If you took in the information that the panellists were conveying to the ABC’s audience on the night the show went to air, then the aspiration to have “real power” would seem quite normal. Natural, in fact. Why wouldn’t you want a way to influence government policy so that your people could live productive, useful, and happy lives? But this aspiration seems slightly at odds with the stated role of the VtP, which is supposed to be an advisory body, much like the Productivity Commission. The government of the day can accept or ignore the findings of the Productivity Commission as it sees fit. Influencing government policy is not the same as making laws. It’s not “real power”.

Perhaps we should spend a little time looking at the Productivity Commission in order to understand it a little better. It is an appointed body whose members are appointed by the Governor-General (presumably on the recommendation of the government) and has no legal basis beyond its statutory license (in a 1998 federal law). Looking at the ledger of appointees that is available on the Wikipedia page it’s hard to say whether newly-elected governments are in the habit of changing its membership. Since 1998 it has only had 3 chairs, 4 deputy chairs, and 34 other appointees, including current commissioners.

So it’s a fairly stable institution, which no doubt assists it when the time comes to getting its recommendations accepted by the government. Now, a government can only suffer reputational damage if it ignores a Productivity Commission recommendation: if you do it you have to then justify to the people why you took the steps you took despite the advice of people who are, presumably, experts. If your government had not chosen the chair, the deputy chair, or a majority of the other commissioners then you might take a jaundiced view of their findings on a particular issue. But the assumption would be that appointees operate independent of government and purely in the interests of the broader community.

Here we come to a slight impasse with respect to the VtP because we don’t yet know how its members would be selected initially and how the membership would be periodically renewed. If the VtP is to be elected by a cohort of the population that had been selected as deserving to own the franchise, then the VtP would be an elected body representing approximately three percent of the country’s population, and it would not be like the Productivity Commission at all. If the VtP were elected then a government that ignored its recommendation could justifiably be accused of ignoring the will of a minority of the electorate, a minority of the electorate who would be the primary (but not the sole) beneficiaries of its operation.

The current state of play in this debate is that Aboriginal people want to have the VtP enshrined in the Constitution and the government says it won’t do that. As noted above, the Productivity Commission is not enshrined in the Constitution, so it’s not entirely clear to me why the VtP should be.

As this post shows, there are any number of issues that need to be more fully explored before voters can reasonably be asked to change the Constitution. One of these issues is the mere fact of demanding that a VtP be enshrined in it rather than through a law made in Parliament. Presumably, Aboriginal people don’t like this latter option since it makes it easier for any future government to abolish the VtP if it so desires. 

It’s probably germane to remark at this point that no government, in my memory, has even gone so far as to suggest that the Productivity Commission should be abolished. I did find one article published this year in which the Australian Council of Social Services is quoted recommending the Productivity Commission be abolished and replaced by other types of bodies that would be more likely to consider public issues in broader terms than purely economic ones. But this request was rooted in a belief that the commission had been a positive force for good, and that its power should be directed at different kinds of questions, questions that cannot be answered simply by focusing on economics. 

The commission is respected by governments, the media, and by the community because its findings are reasonable and measured and adequate to the purpose. A VtP should aspire to be the same kind of institution. But just changing the Constitution would not necessarily give a VtP “real power”, so it’s not clear to me, beyond the symbolism involved, why doing so is necessary. I thought the object of this entire exercise was to achieve better outcomes for Aboriginal people, and to “close the gap”.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Movie review: The Keeper, dir Marcus H Rosenmuller (2018)

This useful biopic would have been pretty out-there if it had been made a generation ago, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Instead we got the equally functional ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (dir Steven Spielberg, 1998). If ‘The Keeper’ had been made at that time, this review would have been very different.

The title of the movie has two meanings, the less technical of which is “something that you want to keep” and I think it is in the light of this reading that the thing can best be understood.

Hinging on the negative animus against Germans that existed in Britain after WWII, the film examines some aspects of the post-war settlement and benefits from very good performances by Freya Mavor as Margaret Friar, a young woman who married a German POW who became the goalkeeper for the Manchester City soccer team, and John Henshaw, who plays her father Jack.

The lead male character, Bert Trautmann, is played by a heavy-faced David Kross. Mavor’s agile features are a stark contrast to Kross’ usually impassive physiognomy and Henshaw’s dour-but-good-hearted paterfamilias is an effective foil for Kross’ earnest athlete, a man with simple aims and an understandably limited emotional vocabulary. Seen this way the casting for this movie has to be rated a success. The secondary characters are also effective although I found Rabbi Altmann (played by Butz Ulrich Buse) a bit thin.

This is a feel-good story and it doesn’t make many demands on the audience, hence the primitiveness of the part created for Buse, whose character might profitably have been given a bit more depth and some extended speaking lines. The filmic Trautmann is almost uniformly mild-mannered and dutiful and from what I have been able to glean from online sources some contrary things about the man’s life – his second and third marriages, his combative behaviour on-field, which resulted in a number of referee warnings – were omitted in the making of the film.

I wasn’t entirely happy furthermore with the line the movie takes on Trautmann’s complicity with Nazism. The line, “I was only doing my duty,” seems to be a commonplace apologia from Germans who lived at the time that I’m not sure the facts of the case entirely justify. Hitler was elected to office initially on the back of certain stated policies, so you can’t really turn around at the end of the war and say, “We didn’t know.”

But what I think is probably beside the point, although a point I want to make in the above is that the life of the goalkeeper has been sanitised for artistic (and, possibly, political) reasons. On the other hand, this film will mean a lot more to Brits than it does to some random Australian blogger. The match scenes, especially, meant little to me although I would pretend, when I was a boy growing up in Sydney, to take part with a friend of mine in mock FA Cup finals on local sports fields.

The speed at which time passes in the film is not uniform and this is for dramatic reasons. In order to make sense of Trautmann’s eventual success you need to see where he came from and so the early years are rendered in some detail, starting from the time when the soldier is captured in the woods in Germany. He is taken to a camp in England and is kept there when victory is declared by the Allies, but while living there he catches the eye of a grocer (Henshaw’s Jack Friar) who is involved with coaching a local soccer team.

In the end, Friar takes Trautmann into his household so that the young man can have a base while he continues playing for his team. While living in the house, Trautmann continues his wooing of Friar’s daughter Margaret and the two eventually marry. The next step is for Trautmann to be accepted by the Manchester community in his role as star goalkeeper, and in this circumstance he comes up against censure from a local rabbi who resents the team’s choice. Before the film ends other trials facing Bert and Margaret must be endured or overcome.

The film is uneven also in its emotional engagement with the audience. In the early parts you are fully engaged with Trautmann’s story as he goes from a position of disadvantage to one of security. This is a classical underdog narrative and it is easy to orchestrate cinematic material with this kind of dynamic in play. Once the keeper has reached the apex of his craft, however, it becomes more difficult to sustain the kind of tension that a movie needs to keep its audience engaged and happy. In these later parts, the movie’s tone noticeably flags and without a strong performance from Maven, it would have been very flat indeed.

This is a common problem with movies of this kind, where one character embodies ideas that have to carry so much baggage. How do you go about dramatizing such a life without resorting to cliché and without making every moment imponderably heavy? This is why fiction exists. In fact, history is one of the earliest types of creative endeavour but it was never the only one. Fiction allows you to cast off the rigid jacket of convention and explore the same kinds of ideas that nonfiction can convey but without the spanner of community expectation jamming the works.

One theme that is explored in this film is regret – communal regret for Germany and an equivalent, countervailing sense of grievance for the English – and this is dramatized for the audience through the use of a small Polish or Ukranian boy the young Trautmann comes across when he is a solider in the field. The boy is aged about seven or eight and he is one of a group of children that come face to face with a group of German soldiers. I won’t spoil the film by telling you what happens to the boy, but in order to give substance to the idea of atonement which the filmmakers make central to the meaning of the movie, the child appears in period costume, including a baggy cap, at key moments within the realm of Trautmann’s imagining. I wonder how British audiences feel about this film but, for me, this dramatic device was not wholly convincing. 

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Movie review: Ophelia, dir Claire McCarthy (2018)

It’s utterly shocking that this film isn’t being given its due. When I saw it, at a tiny theatre in Newtown, in Sydney, there were about a dozen people in the audience. Its global critical reception, too, seems to have been pale and I can’t for the life of me understand what is wrong with people. Are they stupid or is it just that they have terrible taste? The word that, in my mind, comes closest to summing up this film is, “deft.”

I’m not going to rewrite that. No, I won’t take the quotes away, because this is a film that revels in the spoken word and it is also full of knowing nods to artists who have come before its creators and who have shared posterity’s opinion of Shakespeare: that he was possibly our single, most influential writer.

The writing is brilliant (concise, epigrammatical, echoing WS) and the script was, I learn from looking online, adapted from a young adult novel by an American author who was an academic. The script is by the American Semi Chellas. The only problem I had with it was the use of the word “science” (spoken at one point by Horatio, who is played by Devon Terrell, a black actor). In the early 17th century the expression that was used was “natural philosophy” but you can’t put footnotes in movies, so the more modern word was used instead.

The directing is as good as the writing: even better, and there are no qualifications from me concerning McCarthy’s work here. The narrative is fast-paced and even thought the plot is intricate you never lose track of what is going on. Part of the reason for the film’s solid structure is the quality of the cinematography and the music. It all falls into place at the right time.

The reliance on the English Pre-Raphaelite painters to provide the visual model for the pond scenes was especially touching, given their celebration – inspired by their predecessors the Romantic poets – of Shakespeare’s artistry. This was accompanied by an overall visual richness that allows the viewer to take pleasure in the trappings of luxury amid the paraphernalia of the Renaissance ruling class. The shots, that help to constitute the film’s cinematic vocabulary, are varied and well-chosen and the camera doesn’t linger on undeserving objects and so create any false dramatic effects. No plodding, nothing excessively deliberate, no cliché.

I thought that the acting by the majors was exceptional. Clive Owen is a suitably despotic and mercurial Claudius. Naomi Watts as the queen and her sister Mechtild (a sister absent from the play that started all this dramatic art) is robust and carries off the demanding parts she is given with aplomb. A boyish George MacKay as the earnest Hamlet is the perfect foil for the more glamorous Daisy Ridley in the title role. Together, this troupe brings about a series of twists and turns that might easily have overcome a less skilful director or else resulted in something awkward and trite.

There are also strong performances from secondary players: Sebastian De Souza’s malevolent libertine Edmund, Dominic Mafham’s avuncular and sadly powerless Polonius, Daisy Head as a bitchy lady-in-waiting named Christiana, and Tom Felton as a loyal Laertes. Without these meaningful components the movie would be materially poorer.

This is a work of art made by women who are imagining a world that was, for many of their gender, difficult and dangerous. It is also a giving-back to and a creative celebration of Shakespeare’s talent; a movie for our latter day that borrows all the drama it needs from an earlier and more earthy time. Forget ‘Game of Thrones’, forget Harry Potter, this little beauty will live on longer still. It’s a movie for the ages that gives agency to a character usually considered merely a victim.

I haven’t read the story the script is based on so I cannot comment on how closely it sticks to the novel, but what Chellas and the novelist (American Lisa Klein) provide is something both deep and wise. I was filled with emotion on many occasions while watching the movie. Certain ideas that emerge in the course of the thing offer a tonic for complacency, such as the one that has Ophelia, who seems to possess a large proportion of the raw common-sense on offer among the characters shown, become the ruler of Denmark. But how optimistic can you be given the realities of social organisations today and given the second-rate men who largely constitute our leadership?

There was little time to reflect on anything for too long because the story progresses so fast. And there is absolutely nothing mawkish about its portrayal. Two scenes must serve to illustrate the quality of the acting and the direction.

In a play famous for its metafictional components, the scene where Hamlet exposes Claudius’ guilt with a piece of theatre is powerfully done here. The acting especially by Owen is superb, evoking the strength of the ability of art, if used in the right way, to serve an immediate utilitarian purpose. The other scene that stood out for me has a similarly self-referential drift, and this is the scene near the end of the movie where Ophelia gives flowers to Gertrude and Claudius while appearing to be mad. The only thing that saves her from the king’s wrath, in fact, is the fact that she is perceived to be out of her mind with grief over her father’s death, but the shot that comes before her little performance, as she is hiding at the door of the chamber where the royals and her brother Laertes are sitting at a table, tells us that it’s a fabrication conducted as part of a larger scheme aimed at survival.

The major themes of loyalty, constancy, justice, and power that the play ‘Hamlet’ embodies are also found in this movie, but you are given additional plotlines absent in the original including Mechtild’s unborn child and the role in that story of Claudius. You are given new things to think about too: such as the power of love and the importance of forgiveness. And romance: there’s plenty of it. Even some magic.

The ending (it’s impossible to even hint at it here, it would spoil the thing for people who have not seen it and who want to) has about it a rightness that is all of a piece with the very particular nature of the character of Ophelia that Klein and Chella give us. This is the “untold story” of Ophelia. A story that was never meant to be told. But now it’s been told, and we have to deal with it, and personally I think WS, if he were alive today, would be delighted with what has been achieved in this tribute.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Book review: Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi (2018)

This thrilling novel of ideas pushes all the right buttons and delivers a series of breathtaking punches to the reader’s guts. The twists and turns are dizzying and the plot is unconventional and loose but the book’s superstructure survives intact and while the whole thing gels beautifully its message is complex and multifaceted.

Initially published in Arabic in 2013, my Kindle translation was brought out by Oneworld Publications in the UK and Australia. I don’t know what the Australian link is but I’m interested to find out because this is a very talented author indeed. I bought this book before my Middle Eastern trip (which was chronicled on this blog in May, June and July) but I didn’t get around to reading it until after I got back home to Sydney. I only spent just under a month in the region but reading this book a number of things that I had thought as a result of the travel kept coming back to me. I’ll get to that in due course but to look at the novel, to start with, I can say that the plotting, characterisation, and poetics are all very strong.

The story hinges on a piece of magic. One night a hotel security guard named Hasib Mohamed Jaafar is killed by a suicide bomber driving a truck primed with explosives and Hasib’s spirit goes to the cemetery where his remains are being buried in a coffin. Very little of him remains however and he talks with the spirit of a young boy he meets in the graveyard who tells him to find a body otherwise, the boy says, things will turn out badly. The ghost of Hasib follows a man who had been injured in the blast, a junk seller named Hadi, back to Hadi’s house, and there finds a sewn-up corpse made from the parts of different bodies that had been created by explosions similar to the one that had killed Hasib. He inhabits the body and walks next-door to the house of an old Christian woman named Elishva. Thinking he is her son Daniel, who had been taken away by the Baathists in the 1980s, Elishva looks after him.

(To digress for a second: at least one of Elishva’s daughters lives in Melbourne, and this woman’s attempts to get her mother to migrate is one of the plot devices that helps to move the story along at different points in the narrative. So there might be other things linking the author to Australia, it’s hard to say.)

The monster goes about killing people who had wronged him but finds that he is disintegrating and needs new body parts in order to remain whole. His followers help him to stay entire by helping him kill more people, and the authorities try to capture him but he cannot be killed by bullets and always eludes police.

A diverse cast of characters is invented to give substance to the city and to the country in the aftermath of the American invasion. The owner of a magazine titled ‘al-Haqiqa’, a man named Ali Baher al-Saidi, seems to embody the country’s values. He has a friend who runs what is known as the Tracking and Pursuit Department, a shadowy government organisation staffed by well-dressed thugs and astrologers. This friend, Brigadier Sorour Mohamed Majid, plays a central role in the drama, as does a young reporter in Saidi’s employ named Mahmoud al-Sawaidi, who manages to capture a recording of the monster after he passes a digital recording device to Hadi. The comedy draws on, dragging a whole range of different characters into its orbit and exposing them all to scrutiny, the kind of forensic appraisal that great humourists like Swift and Sterne applied to their creations in an effort to make things about their societies clear that could be expressed in no other way.

It’s very hard to do justice in this kind of short sketch to a novel as broad in ambition and as substantial of poetic vision as this one. But above and beyond the musings on the three great religions of the book that the author tangentially allows himself, the things that came back time and time again to impose itself on my mind was the degree to which, in Saadawi’s Iraq, everyone is responsible for the health of the nation.

I felt this myself travelling – admittedly for a short period of time – in that part of the world. There is an unwillingness there to submit to secular rule that expresses itself in lawlessness, and which comes out in this novel as violence. In the absence of institutions that people can agree are deserving of the privilege they aspire to have as arbiters of life for the communities living in the cities and towns of the state, other forces function to regulate existence. Religion is one of these, but the law of the streets – a trope that Mahmud returns to from time to time in his role as observer – is also something to worry about.

If you don’t know what I mean then perhaps you need to at least read the book. If you can get yourself on a plane and visit one or more countries in the region, even better. Saadawi deserves greater renown than he has achieved (although I did see one UK review which was, like the one you’re reading now, full of applause). He deserves to be read widely especially by people who regret, as I do, the US-led invasion of 2003. He certainly deserves much greater acclaim than that which is offered by my inadequate regard.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Train trips: Two

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

31 July

Caught the train home from Newtown. I got to the platform just after 8.30pm and a train was pulling out. I had 12 minutes to wait for the next one. I sat down and used my mobile phone.

To my right, standing on the platform, a young man and a young woman aged in their early 20s were canoodling. The man wore shorts and had a skateboard under one of his feet and I heard him say something about getting off at Town Hall, whence the expected train was bound. The woman had on a red skirt and a light blue jean jacket and had a black handbag on a chain strap around her neck. He put his arm around her at one stage and they were talking companionably.

When the train arrived I got on and sat down on the mezzanine level. Opposite me were two Asian men and an Asian woman all aged in their late 20s. Between the woman and one of the men was an empty seat with some full white plastic singlet bags resting there; possibly dinner. The woman and one of the men were using their mobiles and the man in the middle was talking on his phone. At Redfern the woman and one of the men got off the train and the man in the middle got off with me at Central.

I went to the light rail platform and the sign said the tram would come in six minutes. I stood waiting at the platform’s edge. The tram was visible across the park when the indicator said there were still three minutes before its departure and it rode silently up the hill, its lights blazing in the darkness. A young woman who was throwing her hair around stood behind me on the platform; I could see her out of the corner of my eye as I watched the tram pull up to let passengers off.

It came to the outbound platform and stopped and I got on and sat down in a seat. A young Anglo man wearing a hi-vis vest and an Akubra hat who had a short light-brown beard got on and told people how long they had to wait until the tram would leave the station: three minutes. A young Asian man wheeling a silver-coloured compact suitcase got on and sat down opposite me, just to my right.

After the tram started moving, at around 9.05pm, two other transport company employees started checking the Opal cards of passengers, moving through the carriage with handheld devices and scanning the cards people offered to them. Mine was checked. The young man with the hat kept talking, telling people, after we had crossed George Street, that the next station would be Paddy's Markets. At Exhibition Centre the young Asian woman sitting in the seat directly opposite me, who was carrying a bag holding two milk tea containers, got off. By this time it was raining steadily and quite heavily. The two rail employees who had been checking Opal cards also got off at this stop.

The young man with the silver-coloured suitcase got off the tram at Pyrmont Bay and I got off at the casino, as usual. The rain was still coming down but I had brought an umbrella in my green satchel so I was safe. I walked out the east exit and turned northwest, walking up the hill. The gutters were running with water. A man in a suit came out of the casino at this point and entered the building opposite, a residential block, through its garage entrance. He had no umbrella but it looked as though he lived there.

I went to the pub on the corner of John Street and used the ATM to take out some cash. A group of five or six people aged in their sixties were sitting at a table in the front bar. The bartender looked up at me as I left the building onto Harris Street. I got home at just on 9.30pm.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

George Calombaris is just the tip of the iceberg

According to one news source I have seen George Calombaris and his company MADE Establishment failed to pay $7,849,324 to 524 workers between the years 2011 and 2017 at six Melbourne restaurants operating under the trade names Press Club, Gazi, Hellenic Republic, and Jimmy Grants. According to the Fair Work Ombudsman’s (FWO) website he has repaid the money owed to these employees and has also paid a $200,000 fine on top of that.

While the stated deficiency is somewhat less striking in the form given above than it is in the news headlines that most often portray it, there is no online information about how much each member of staff was underpaid. Was it a few dollars an hour across the board? Was it just a few staff who were underpaid by a significant amount? What is the exact nature of the misdemeanour here? Clearly, the 524 workers weren’t all working in the restaurants at the same time; so many workers wouldn’t be needed to run six establishments. And clearly you won’t be able to arrive at an answer to these sorts of questions just by dividing the total amount by the number of workers affected, hoping to arrive at a figure that was denied each one of them. The reality will be more complex than either of these calculations would provide for.

I wrote a different version of this post a couple of days ago and saw its deficiencies after publishing it so took it down in order to rework it a bit more so that I could give a more accurate picture of the issues involved.

What I think is that to justify the level of negative animus being aimed at the chef we deserve to know more. The information from the FWO is partial, for example. And while Calombaris is a major employer in Melbourne there is no information I could find online about the turnover of his business. But it must at least be in the order of tens of millions of dollars each year. Given that, it is unforgivable for him to have underpaid staff who enabled him to enjoy such profits as he earns from running eateries. On the other hand, Calombaris has to be respected for building a successful business and for making it grow to a size that would allow him to employ so many people.

The media feeding frenzy – every time you turn on the radio or look at the TV or open your web browser there is a new story about this one man – and the rancour that this chef has stirred up among people in the community I think say more about us than they do about him. There is something unseemly about this kind of aggression. I think it is something that politicians and prominent journalists know well: the baying mob, hungry for blood.

So I wonder at what point people will stop sticking pins into effigies of this one owner and start to look at the systematic underpayment of hospitality workers in Australia, workers at almost every restaurant and cafe – going by my sources – in the country. The Calombaris debacle should be making us turn our attention to other abuses in the same sector of the economy, but it’s not.

This is because the issue is complex and doesn't fit the black-and-white treatment that is usually given to topical issues by the news media. In Calombaris’ case, there is a ruling by a statutory authority, so all the necessary digestion of facts has already been done and it’s just a matter of writing a simple story. All news outlets have written this story. Easy as pie.

But the reality of the situation is extremely complex in fact. On the one hand, people who want to set up businesses need to be given some leeway. On the other, workers need to be paid properly. Furthermore, diners need to be prepared to pay a fair price for the food and drinks that they consume, and they might not be willing to pay more if restauranteurs suddenly put up their prices in order to enable them to adequately pay staff.

And then if you are a student who was born in another country and you are working at a Sydney restaurant for $10 an hour you are unlikely to say anything. Presumably you would know you are being underpaid, at least you would eventually find out the truth. But getting the sack is easy and it can be very disruptive when you have to pay rent, pay for transport to get to your work and to your university or college, and pay for food, electricity, clothing, and entertainment for yourself. If you do complain and if you do take your case to the FWO in the hope of getting fair treatment from your employer, chances are that your employer will suspend your employment with no pay. So you effectively lose your job even if you are not sacked on the spot. Then it takes time for the FWO to process your case – time during which you are not being paid – with the outcome uncertain.

The barriers that are put in place that stop workers from receiving their legal entitlements are high enough for a local, so how much harder must it be for foreigners to achieve justice? If we want to do the right thing we have to leave Calombaris alone for a while and turn our attention to the much larger problem that exists in places where light is rarely shone. And the next time you sit down at a Thai food place to order a pad see ew, ask the waitress if she’s being paid the award wage. 

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Conversations with taxi drivers: Six

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

16 July

Caught a cab from Harris Street, just up the road from my place, to Newtown. The cabbie was an Anglo, for a change, and he wanted to talk. Naturally I sat in the front passenger seat. We talked about the poor rainfall in rural areas and he said that Sydney’s desalination plant can only satisfy about 12 percent of the city’s demand for fresh water. Then he wanted to talk about climate change but I wasn’t going to be drawn on it, so we talked instead about population figures. I told him my theory and he said that if country population figures are wrong they are likely to be underestimates. I said that I thought countries try to look bigger and scarier than they are, and so probably overcompensate.

After exhausting that subject I told him some stories from the Middle East. He said he’d never had an inclination to go there. He said that cab drivers are usually honest in Sydney but that sometimes for women, especially late at night, cabbies sometimes overcharge. Women in that situation won’t normally argue, he said. He said that he had been told stories like that. He dropped me off at the train station and I paid using EFTPOS.

19 July

Caught a cab home from Newtown. After I got in the car the driver, a young man with a faint accent and imperfect grammar, asked me how my day was. I said I was glad to be going home, and that being out in the evening on a Friday night in Newtown was not my idea of a good time. He said, “Fair enough,” and then I asked him what he had asked me. In his quiet voice he complained that he had queued for 90 minutes at the airport that afternoon and then had got a fare to Enmore, “A $20 fare,” he said, which had put him in a bad mood.

We talked about the economics of driving a cab and he said that it costs $150 on a Friday or Saturday night to rent a new Toyota Camry (as his car on this day was). It is much cheaper to rent an old Falcon, he said. Driving five nights a week (starting at 4pm and finishing his shift at 4am) if he rents a new Camry it costs him $700, but if he does the same with an old Falcon it costs $600 or even $580. But it’s much nicer to drive a new car, he said. It is easier to drive a new car and, he added, “You don’t break down on the highway or something.”

I told him my car at the time was a 12-year-old Toyota Aurion and that I get it serviced every year so although I was thinking of buying a hybrid Camry I wasn’t in a rush to get one. He said Aurions are good cars and in general he had nothing bad to say about Toyotas, or Camrys. “They are the strongest car, in my opinion,” he said. I suggested that the Camry, which has a 2.5-litre petrol engine, is not very powerful but he said he has never had a problem in that regard. I paid using EFTPOS when we got to my street.

20 July

Caught a cab to Newtown. The driver was Bangladeshi. He said my accent sounded American. I told him I had grown up in Sydney and I was 6th generation Australian. He said that the American accent was, for him, easier to understand than the Australian accent. I told him that a woman of Dutch heritage had recently told me that I sounded like a Dutchman. He dropped me off on King Street and I paid using EFTPOS.

27 July

The train was not running on this day so I caught a cab home from Newtown. The driver asked me if I’d had a good day and I said it had been quiet and that I’d walked then eaten lunch in a pub. I showed him the package that I was carrying that contained a book. He asked me if I read a lot and I said, “Yes.” He asked me what kinds of books and I said I read different things: novels, journalism, poetry, history. I said there was so much variety available, with translations from foreign languages, books by Australian authors, and books imported from countries like the US and the UK.

He asked me if I had read ‘Mr Chips’ and I asked him if it was titled, ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips.’ He said it was and he went on to describe the book for me when I asked him questions about it. He said it was the story of a schoolteacher who had taught children in a UK school in WWII (it was actually published in 1934 in book form). He said it was nonfiction (it was a novella in actual fact). But he seemed to have liked it despite, at this time, being loose with the facts. He asked me if I write as well and I said I do. I asked him if he writes and he said he doesn’t. I said he should start a blog and said he must hear lots of interesting stories from passengers.

Later we talked about Japan as he had asked me if I was brought up in Sydney. I said that people tell me my accent is not typical of Australia. He didn’t say anything about this comment but after I said I had lived in Japan we spent the rest of the journey talking about that country.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Book review: Fake, Stephanie Wood (2019)

This is the third in a series of drafts prepared for this review. The first was microscopic and harsh. The second was critical and measured. Then I picked up the book again and finished it and found that it delivered on its promise of a strange tale. And it was well-told.

This book is one of a number of nonfiction books that have appeared in recent years that deal with people’s private lives. There seems to be a growing appetite for this kind of writing in the community. Not all of them are of equal quality, however. At least I have found this to be true.

The two sentences above were in the second paragraph of the second draft. That draft also contained a short discourse on the well-used idea of the constructed self. What follows was in the second draft, and I keep it now as a reminder to myself that some of my misgivings about this book from my initial reading survived the completion of it.

For people of my generation (this author and I are about the same age) blaming your parents for your own failings was a kind of trope when we were young, at the time when we made the formative relationships and life choices that would to a certain degree decided who we were. “My mother made me a lesbian,” read some graffiti on the Devonshire Street tunnel near Central Station when I was a young man growing up in an inner city enlivened by punk music bands. “If I give her the wool will she make me one too?” someone else had written underneath the first message in a display of humour that has not, in my view, been surpassed on this subject in the years since.

So, even back then, people were making light of such claims but Wood seems never to have reconciled her own character – mostly no doubt the product of genes, rather than of upbringing – with her destiny. At one point in her book, Wood describes in detail how the brain is changed by such emotions as love, which can alter our perceptions so radically that we are, for all intents and purposes, a different person once we are in its throes. But then she curiously turns around and points a finger of blame at her mum. This jarred.

The idea that anything as complex or deeply-rooted as sexuality or the personality are circumscribed by the circumstances of our upbringing – except for very unusual cases where there is actual criminal abuse involved – is probably, along with eugenics, the largest single fraud that the academy has ever perpetrated upon an unsuspecting world during the past 200 years. Postmodernist thinkers are in the vanguard of this dismal parade and constitute, for truth, a case of fakery.

Having said these things, there is still reason for people to pick up this book and give it a go. About half of the book is consumed in recounting Wood’s relationship with a malignant narcissist she names Joe. The rest of the book is mainly about how she processed that experience including, in her role as a feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, writing about it and publishing the account. Wood then met up with at least two people whose lives had been changed by Joe’s actions. She ends the book with a philosophical digression on ocean swimming.

The colours blue and green appear at different times throughout the book, most notably in the plaid of a shirt that Wood bought for Joe at some point in their relationship. It’s not entirely clear what the colours are supposed to mean for Wood or for the reader. There is a prosaic murmur in the background throughout the narrative that makes you wonder about the author’s level of insight into the circumstances of the relationship she survived and even into the meaning of art. And I wasn’t overly encouraged by the attempt, near the end of the book, to try to classify the personalities of women who had been taken in by frauds and fakes. I felt also that she was on safer ground when she was describing what Joe did to her than when she was cogitating blithely on the character of Donald Trump.

This kind of rationalising is unsurprising considering the depths to which Wood sank in response to Joe’s callous manipulations. It does however seem surprising that such an intelligent and educated woman could be so completely taken in by the man, and part of the author’s job, as she sees it, is to understand how it could have happened.

This book offers readers a bit of a mixed bag of treats. Male readers who have themselves been exposed to narcissists, if not outright fakes, might not find it entirely comforting to see Wood getting emotional support from such activists as Clementine Ford. (I fully expected Wood to start corresponding with Van Badham in an effort to assuage her feelings of incapacity brought on by the ravages of exposure at close quarters to a truly toxic personality.)

The sea serves Wood better as guide and counsel. I grew up next to the water and so know that it can cure many ills. Sailing boats on Sydney Harbour from the beach where my parents had their house made the sea a constant presence in my life until I left home and went to university. At night from my bed I would listen to the sound of the wash made by the pilot boat coming home to moor, having returned from guiding a container vessel through the Heads and down to the port that existed in Darling Harbour, one that has since been removed. In the place where the port was located they are now building a casino. Times have, indeed, changed.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Grocery shopping list for July 2019

This post is the seventh in a series.

5 July

Went to IGA and bought dauphin, brie and Jarlsberg cheeses, olive oil spread, bread, sliced roast pork, sliced ham, a container of capsicum spread, water crackers, plus two sandwiches (one chicken and avocado, and one egg and lettuce) for lunch.

8 July

Went to IGA and bought sliced corned silverside, sliced leg ham, a container of mushroom soup, sausages, lamb chops, milk, and a chicken and avocado sandwich.

12 July

Went to IGA and bought lamb rump steaks, pork butterfly steaks, lamb cutlets, and brie, cheddar, and dauphin cheeses. Also bought some sliced silverside and some sliced ham, water crackers, bread, and two sandwiches for lunch (egg and lettuce, and chicken and avocado). On the way home I stopped by the convenience store near the light rail stop and bought some eggs (because I had forgotten to get them in the supermarket) and a lychee drink to have for lunch with my sandwiches.

16 July

Went to IGA and bought sliced roast beef, lamb chops, dauphin and brie cheeses, shallots, tomatoes, potatoes, beetroot-and-hummus spread, water crackers, dark chocolate, milk, and toothpaste. On the way home, for lunch I bought two meat pies and a bottle of lychee juice.

22 July

Went to IGA and bought lamb rump steaks, lamb chops, pork sausages, sliced roast pork, sliced ham, dauphin and brie and Jarlsberg cheeses, water crackers, a container of minestrone, capsicum spread, milk, bread, and two sandwiches for lunch (chicken and avocado, and egg and lettuce). On the way home I stopped off at the convenience store near the light rail station and bought some eggs because I had (again) forgotten to get them in the supermarket, and also a bottle of lychee juice to have with the sandwiches.

24 July

Went to IGA and bought canola oil, olive oil, sliced roast pork, sliced ham, a container of chicken laksa soup, and cheddar cheese. Also bought a roast beef sandwich and a tuna salad and lettuce sandwich (for lunch). On the way back home I stopped at the convenience store near the light rail station and bought a bottle of matcha tea to go with them.

28 July

Went to Coles and bought strawberries, a sweet potato, some fresh rosemary, a bag of baby spinach leaves, and bread.

30 July

Went to IGA and bought pork butterfly steaks, lamb rump steaks, barramundi fillets, snapper fillets, milk, tomatoes, potatoes, a container of minestrone, dauphin and brie (blue) cheeses, water crackers, laundry liquid, and toilet paper.

31 July

Went to Coles and bought some large-sized sandwich bags, some stainless-steel scourers, and a couple of sandwiches (for lunch: one chicken schnitzel, and one egg and lettuce).

The reason for using Coles this day instead of the IGA is that I had to go to the pharmacy. The pharmacy was crowded when I went in there to fill a few scripts. A man came in with his 3-year-old sharpei and it seemed as though everyone in the store wanted to pat the dog. A young black woman with dramatic hair was buying some things and asked the pharmacist what she should do for her child, who had a fever. They were down from Newcastle staying at the casino. The pharmacist got her a box of special Panadol off the shelf and told her to kiss the child’s forehead to see if there was a fever. A Chinese woman who was in the store with an older man who might have been her father was filling a script for dermatological ointment. The pharmacist told her that what the doctor had prescribed would not be available until the following day, so he called the GP to find out if he could substitute a different medicine - which he had in-stock and which was a third of the price - for the one prescribed. The GP said it was ok.