Wednesday 30 April 2008

Kate Sylvester's designs - "anachronistic, ridiculous, Machiavellian, perverse, pompous, arrogant, completely glorious" - say Paul Bibby and Kate Geraghty in The Sydney Morning Herald today.

Or, at least, the "blurb" for the show (Rosemount Australian Fashion Week, 28 April – 2 May 2008) says this. Sylvester's website contains no photo like this one, though it has shots of a large number of other outfits displayed in Sydney.

The portfolio is titled 'Royally Screwed' but the website says she loves A Clockwork Orange - the movie (1971) based on a book (1962) by Anthony Burgess the writer says was notorious at his own expense (Flame Into Being: The Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence 1985; in fact Burgess equates Lawrence's plight in producing a book of monumental prurient interest, with his own) - and there are pictures of Magritte, a Belgian symbolist artist who is also famous for shock value rather than, say, for technique.

Sylvester is on to something, however much the RSL denies its relevance. The current taste for 80s pop may be glimpsed, here too, in a taste for 20s and 30s noirishness. In fact Neville Brody, the great typographer and graphic designer of the 80s, underscored in places the similarity between the two eras (rigid, totalitarian).

We see dark, brooding youth but it's aligned with a crippling sense of propriety that the online world foregrounds and does not mitigate, as early cyber pundits averred. Life's limitations are everywhere the same.

Modern tribalism is no joke, but there's no escape. It defines us in the public sphere according to two actors on stage at Parramatta's Riverside Theatre. One, Fayssal Bazzi, is Muslim, and then there's Will Snow.

Snow. Light, nice, pure, blank, placid. The diametrical opposite of fundamentialism. Or is it?

Sylvester is asking. Are we listening?

Online, you cannot escape flames by rigor or imagination. You're either 'with us' or 'against us'. Sylvester is perspicacious and it's fun to see her 'likes', which also include Georges Braque and Jackson Pollock.

Artists working in eras when 'saying something' was possible. Early and high Modernism evoke images of struggle and eventual triumph. It was against such as Derek Robson, of the RSL (quoted in the story), that they struggled.

On the other hand, to celebrate dogmatism and triumphalism is sort of neat, as reverse psychology. Artists create within structures: within the public sphere.

And it was within those structures - Anzac, 'king and country', country and city, freedom and tyrrany - that the artisans of Sydney (machines, poverty) and the cockys off the tablelands (sheep, wheat) struggled in the tumultuous first half of last century.

In a way, Sylvester is celebrating (not the point of view of either side, but) the face-off, the struggle itself:

  • Furtive glances down a dark street in drizzling rain.
  • Echoing footsteps receding, stopping, a door opening, silence.
  • A fugitive's breaths as he hides behind a wardrobe in the corner of a room searched by soldiers with guns and rope.

It's pure genre, sure. Nowadays, only within such a framework (so tempting to latch onto cliches!) does expression appear possible.

The 50s is cliche (was when I was an undergrad), the 60s is cliche. The 70s is done and gone. The 80s - you had retro 80s nights in Newtown last year. So let's go back to the 20s and 30s. Back to the time when newly emergent forces, combined with the potential of industry and capital, toyed with such novelties as 'democracy' and 'popularity'.

Let's go back to 'our' roots.

Many have rightly feared the negative potential of the demos with its short-sighted politicians and its endless desire for betterment - at whatever cost. 'Nationality' is such a powerful force that, unleashed without control, it may lead to a million deaths (Belsen, Van).

In the world of United Nations and bilateral agreements everything is suddenly organised behind closed doors - in back rooms and hallways on golf courses - and in blank-faced offices along major city streets.

We no longer see process and so we deny the media the licit franchise it once possessed. But the alternative?

The alternative is the public theatre of war, but war, we know, has unknowable outcomes, including the 60s counter-culture and the liberalisation of the West that followed. The RSL may hate war, but it has added value (as the corporates say).artists create

Tuesday 29 April 2008

Anzac Day, 4 am - Maroochydore - “more than 700” gather in Cotton Tree to rememberance a global century of theatre participation. The old may name them all.

Kids love pomp and lap up the ceremony like frisky kittens at a bowl of full-cream milk. They see mum and dad happy. They act for an event.

Mum and dad take photos of daughters positioned before the black monument (like a pen's nib, though uncloven) embedded in sand at the park's west (town centre) end. Soldiers in their thirties and forties chat with friends of relatives with ribbons on their chests. An old sailor talks to boys in blue-and-white.

It’s different in the bush. “That Rudd,” ejaculated the old Hunter Valley cocky off whose tray we picked a watermelon driving back to Sydney. “The banks! They raised interest rates on Anzac Day. How do you like that!”

Anzac Day is more than merely ‘important’ out here in the bush. It’s personal.

No point trying to shop on 25 April - even Sunshine Plaza is closed and bolted. This being Queensland, several off-duty police are assaulted asking a trio of revellers to leave the Redcliffe RSL, where their welcome had worn out.

One of them “refused and was restrained”. He “started to kick the side window” of the “police vehicle”, “tried to climb out the window” and “head butted” a copper. He then punched an officer.

This is the state where failure to say ‘thank you’ when taking change at the bottle shop inspires counter clerks to rebel. Expect a sharp comment in this situation and - whatever you do - don’t answer back!

Community is strong and feelings of entitlement are not altogether out of place, here, beneath the casuarinas. You sense that you’re just as good as the next man (or woman).

A sense of belonging. The fierce independence of the pioneer.

I'm about to leave the park when the middle-aged woman in the folding chair catches my eye. Quite alone and quite unconcerned. We chat. The subject of the weather covered, I mention the new mayor - Big Bob - voicing concerns on-air about development in his enlarged constituency.

“Absolutely,” she cries. But what about land value? “It’s happening too fast,” she counters (not to be outdone by a southerner). Having lived in Diddillibah from birth - her family moved here in 1912 - this woman resents gains made from exploiting a scenic coastal area she loves.

Developers are not popular in Maroochydore and the Sunshine Coast Daily often runs stories about their sins. But the flow of retirees (like mum and dad) will not stop.

Bad planning - Big Bob’s bugbear - is evident as you watch families and servicemen and -women mooch around Cotton Tree, unwilling to leave straight away.

Behind the trees loom towers - million-dollar, three-bedroom apartments - locals can seldom afford. Restraint is needed. Prior exemplars - similar structures built in the 70s and 80s - led to destroying common property: westerly views up the Maroochy river, its mangroves and pelicans.

While the paperbarks thrive on Cotton Tree, media smell ‘free blood’. A corporate collapse (“the biggest in Queensland history”) led a local “who had just paid a $25,000 deposit” recently to drive her Mazda 121 “twice through the plate glass window” of Residential Property and Development’s office in Warana (map).

For Anzac Day a bang of a slightly different nature is “ordered” (says dad, who knows local politics better than he remembers my name) when a jet fighter shatters the calm that follows the dawn ceremony.

Streaking off the Pacific, the single-man craft crashes over the heads of the laggards and many duck for shock. I finish the shoot and meander back to lunch with the parents - two bedrooms, two balconies, ensuite bathroom, ducted heating, undercover parking - over the estuary.

I don't see a single pelican the whole time we are there.

Monday 28 April 2008

Thea Astley's Hunting the Wild Pineapple (1979) is, ostensibly, a collection of short stories. This fiction is buttressed by inclusion, in 1997's Collected Stories, of some of them. In fact, the reality is different.

There's a man and there's a woman. They meet on a bus, much like the classic scene with Mrs Dun and Mrs Poulter near the start of The Solid Mandala. But we're in Queensland and we're in the midst of the post-60s counter-culture and it seems to be a private war instead of (the more prosaic and popular notion of) a reckoning, where youth repudiated social structures demonstrably lacking in authenticity following WWII.

There's not much on Astley online, and less on Hunting the Wild Pineapple, but it is clear that Astley belongs to the significant generation of women writers, which includes Helen Garner, who 'rewrote' our shared sense of morality. They didn't do it alone, of course, hence the White reference in this book.

Brain, we're told "is one of nature's dazzling failures, so injected with the fraudulent potency of his wildcat schemes he is always on the verge of financial bliss or ruin". So it goes with each of the male characters here, and so it went with Waldo, the Apollonian analogue of Dionysian Arthur.

In Astley, the referent is visible only in the telling or the dialogue. She is sure there is a way to transpose reality accurately (though not always cleanly). The irony is not self-reflexive; the author always knows what she knows, and we are in no doubt ourselves.

In other words, Astley believes it is possible to actually name things on the page (which, here in my copy, are thick in the first edition). But she plays effectively with the reader, drawing out of him reactions that allow little leeway. In this sense, Astley is a literalist: she can describe the world, regardless of how difficult this task may seem.

But the book shimmers with wisdom because of the complex relationships between each of the stories (the subtitle is "and other related stories"), where names and types pop up with disconcerting regularity. We are in capable hands, and this book is better than the earlier The Acolyte (1972), which I'm in the process of reading now.

And the sentences are not only intelligent (often with encapsulated clauses that meander to catch up, finally, with their beginnings) but colourful. Astley has, you feel, a tremendous amount of energy and it emerges at the tip of her pen.

And like Joan Didion, there is the sensation of control. That, despite the divagations and the byways taken, the goal is always in the author's sights, if not those of the reader.

The romance of the loser, the irrelevant, the marginal is here - and it's possibly a greater achievement to have discovered fine ore in such a lode, than merely to have charted, in the 70s, the lineaments of public morality in the noughties.

If I remember Astley for anything it will be this: that you can drive a nail through a piece of plywood even if you crack your thumb twice, and even though the first attempts result in bent and mangled shafts.

Sunday 27 April 2008

Maps from F.A. Brockhaus, a 19th century Leipzig printing house, were found - along with a note from an eBay seller - among a store of discards in southern Queensland.

We drove using the New England Highway, stopping in Armidale on the way out and in Tamworth on the way back. This was a mistake. Ten hours on the road is too long. But a junior football carnival on in Armidale meant we needed to find an alternative. Better, by far, to stop in Glen Innes or Tenterfield. The final hour or so was pretty close to murder, and not recommended to safe drivers.

The first map in the set - both occupy a page slightly bigger than A5 - shows Sydney's central business district (CBD). At least that's what we call it nowadays.

The map shows the 'neue kunst gallerie' and online resources date the map around 1895. The AGNSW website tells the story in some detail, so it's possible to get closer to an accurate dating. A building was erected as the Academy of Art in 1879 "where the glass pyramid in the Botanic Gardens now stands".

This is not the building marked on the map, however. "Present day courts 7 and 8 were commenced in 1896 and opened in May 1897," the website goes on. So the map dates from at least 1897, if not later (you'd need to get the survey or drawing to Germany and engraved, before printing).

Baths on Woollomooloo Bay date from the era. Currently, the Andrew 'Boy' Charlton Pool occupies one of the sites marked.

Where the Opera House now stands a structure called 'Fort Macquarie' was visible in the days when the German artist worked. (Whether he visited Sydney itself is another question.) The Jewish Synagog is visible on the map, in its current location.

Opposite the train station (now Central) is an armory. Cowper Street in Glebe is clearly visible, but the university (marked in text) is off the map. Where the southern pylon of the Harbour Bridge now stands, is a 'battery' (presumably with guns, for protection).

The site of the to-be-built East Darling Harbour development (dubbed Barangaroo by the state government) is occupied, in the map, by a gas works.

The second map shows the extent of development within a perimeter of about 15 kilometres. Major centres (Canterbury, Marrickville) are shown in red. In the map, 'Gipps Town' occupies the location of Five Dock and Five Dock on the map is where Drummoyne is now.

The water off Pyrmont in the map is named 'Johnstones Bai'. A suburb south of Leichhardt called 'Elswick' is no longer there. And a stream originating in 'North Ashfield' (Croydon) that debouched into Iron Cove is no longer there apart from an unnamed piece of water alongside the City West Link.

So the map is illuminating. But not perfect, or else made from an imperfect survey. Campsie, for example, is not marked (but was certainly settled then), nor is Strathfield (ditto), apart from the station, which is shown - the Northern Line was in place when the map was made.

In the east, 'The Mill Stream' runs from Centennial Park down to Botany Bay, near the mouth of the Cooks River. Tempe is there, as are Waterloo and Coogee. South Head is named 'Inner South Head'. (Outer South Head is the bit where the Macquarie Light House now stands.)

Fletchers Bai is Turramurra and Bronte is called Nelsons Bai. The Victoria Barracks is where it is now, as is Waverly Park and Waverly Cemetary (so some things don't change).

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Peter Simpson, a landscape artist, has on his website an essay by a curator who used to write for an art magazine. Among his 2004 words, Kronenberg includes some that try to locate a place for Simpson within the tradition of landscape painting as if he were somehow homeless.

He points to several obscure sources (no doubt having asked Simpson first) then brings our attention to a painting called Bruised Landscape and the "threatened ecological disaster" it intimates.

To say something similar in 2008 would sound quite pat but perhaps Kronenberg is right. I think other things more interesting for when I see the promo card, Simpson's images look in another direction: back to the future.

There is a renaissance in landscape at the moment; a figurative backlash against the acerbic wit of kid-art and street-art inspired 'comment' pieces (some very good) and highly conceptual work that doesn't 'touch' us as easily as the more well trod path.

It may have something to do with the large number of classically-trained Chinese artists working in Australia at the moment. As for Simpson, his colours hark back, for me, to the Australian impressionists.

Compare this piece - Towards Mt Darling from Graham II - in the current exhibition (from 1 May at Arthouse Gallery in Rushcutters Bay) with the following items painted by Arthur Streeton in his war artist days.

It's not just the colour - though this is what made me make a connection. It's also the effect of light. In Streeton's paintings - which you can see at the War Memorial Museum in Canberra - the 'big' sky predominates, to be sure. Privileging sky was part of their ethos of light for light's sake.

But I think Simpson has caught something of the feeling of space captured by Streeton, here, as he looks across the battered fields of northern France and Belgium. The top item is Amiens, Key of the West, and the second one is The Somme Valley Near Corbie

But Simpson also owes a tremendous amount to Lloyd Rees and Brett Whiteley. In the following item (West of Sofala II), Simpson explores the physical sensibility that Whiteley and Rees attributed to the Australian in contact with the fertile valleys of the south-east.

Without doubt Whiteley is post-Rees and, equally without doubt, Simpson is post-Whiteley. I've seen another artist with this yearning for connection with the landscape, who also paints a budding hillside, a fragrant cleft: Craig Waddell.

The Rees items here (below) are:

  • Cliff Face, Central Australia (etching)
  • Gerringong Landscape, and
  • A South Coast Road.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Miles Franklin's Old Blastus Of Bandicoot (1931) bristles like a Banksia in bloom with "good writing" - this from Furnley Maurice's testimony on an inside page in this edition's front matter. It is the 1945 Allied Authors and Artists' ("The sign of a good Australian book") edition, on fox-prone paper yellow with age.

While Franklin doesn't swerve to avoid emotion - there are as many teary moments here as in Bleak House - she avoids at all costs extraneous verbiage. This book is tight as a drum and, like that instrument, responds to good reading with gusto.

Written on the eve of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the book ends with a bridge opening. But this is a dry event compared to the desertion that greets the Barrys when they return - in a car awarded to Old Blastus himself for services rendered during a recent bushfire.

Franklin's subtitle - 'Opuscule on a Pioneer Tufted with Ragged Rhymes' - serves two purposes. It downplays her art - which is fiercely and attractively evident - and brings attention to the poetry clips that serve to introduce each chapter. These are furiously relevant but I'm half convinced that they were written by the author herself, expressly to accompany her beautiful prose.

But it also does something else. It highlights the matter of 'beards' (see yesterday's post), and feminine aversion to large growths which Franklin cheekily presents as analogues of old-fashioned thinking.

The book is set on the eve of federation and its action takes place near Queanbeyan and the future capital, the site of which had at the time not been decided on. It works on so many 'levels' that your head verily spins.

In addition to notions of respectability and the very real feeling that the nation needed improvement - if only to erase the stain of transport on a government ticket - it touches very deliberately on the issue of women.

While Ross attracts Dora, she is, by the end, in no hurry to marry, preferring to go off with brother Bob until old enough to apply to become a nurse (the one job respectable women could take up, in those days). Dora is as tough as her dad - who has feuded with Lindsay, a neighbour, for decades since the man's son got his daughter pregnant and married another - and possibly tougher than any in the book.

But there's lavish helpings of humour. Especially near the beginning of a book concerned very much with female honour and with feminine participation in the public sphere, Franklin pops tiny, inconspicuous, erotic markers in the text. Code, perhaps, for future generations to decipher.

The problem of Mabel is tied closely to the problem of money. Her son Dora has always thought of as her brother (the hint near the beginning gives the reader no doubt about the truth). And in a sense the book is 'about' how to cope with loss of face in a society where communal action (fighting bushfires, for example) could mean the difference between survival and destitution.

Without trust, Franklin says, there is no community. But what about Mabel? Is she to pay, forever, for a single night's impropriety? Is she to blame when the man refused to acknowledge her? And what about Arthur? Are the sins of the mother forever visited on her son?

Franklin is, in fact, Dickens in the Bush. But she's got the sharp eye and biting wit of Jane Austen. This is a treasure, and will propel me to getting more books by Franklin.

Her economy - perhaps learned from habits instilled by life in the hot Australian bush - is endlessly exhilarating.

Saturday 19 April 2008

Ivan Southall's Simon Black In China - one of twenty or so books I bought today at the 2MBS book bazaar in Leichhardt - didn't register. No blast from the past. No intimation that I'd enjoyed a book (Ash Road, 1965) by this writer when still a child. No connection evident between a boy's adventure book from the 1950s and a very beautiful book of "danger and immediacy" (so says David Beagley on the La Trobe children's books website).

From "RAAF adventure stories" that "were based on Ivan’s own wartime experiences" (so says the Dromkeen Medal PDF on publisher Scholastic's website) to Ash Road is a long way in aesthetic terms.

The Dromkeen Medal is an Australian award begun in 1982 and awarded by the Governors of the Courtney Oldmeadow Children’s Literature Foundation. The name Dromkeen was given to a "homestead" in Victoria, bought by Joyce and Court Oldmeadow. The Oldmeadows ran an "educational" bookshop and in 1978 Scholastic Australia took over responsibility for their collection of children's books.

Kaye Keck, the Oldmeadows' daughter, is the current director of the collection. Other recipients include Colin Thiele and Mem Fox - both 'iconic' brands. Thiele died last year but probably few read his books any more. Fox is a name frequently used by Australian politicians aiming to garner the support of middle Australia.

Southall's early efforts, while working in a print shop, are not well known. The Simon Black books, it appears, are better known but unknown to me. The unnamed writer of the Collecting Books and Magazines website stridently declares a preference for Simon Black over Ash Road. I beg to differ. What I've read (today) of Black and his adventures gives me the geebies. Xenophobic and superior, the character of Black is a two-dimensional 'genre' type that belongs in the past.

More recent genre heroes, beginning perhaps with Philip Marlowe (in books set in Los Angeles), are far superior. Black is an anachronism. This book shows why. In the Big Jack sequence, it's all threat and counter-threat with, finally, Simon producing a gun, which he points at Big Jack.

Luckily, the likes of Big Jack have come of age. The picture is of Bob Abbot, the new Mayor of the Sunshine Coast who ran on a jingle: "Big Bob for a Big Job".

Not ashamed of his bulk or his beard, Bob is a (welcome) contemporary take on a cliche that is part of the book, where Big Jack is a "traitor", and looks it.

But the Chinese fare much worse, as the illustration shows. Every cliche is in the book, the illustrations underscoring woodenly what may only be implied in the text (which I've yet to read; apologies).

Thursday 17 April 2008

Opinion - Bill Mathew, Parkville (Vic) - 'Tibet: it's about economic equality, not religious freedom', 15 April 2008

--------------- note from Dean ---------

I'm posting this item from Tuesday's The Sydney Morning Herald because it's a rare view to a side of a debate we perceive as essentially black and white.

News showing China's 'recalcitrance' (to use a hoary - for an Australian - term) is a debased currency here, and pretty much everywhere a 'free' press operates.

Let me state firmly: this is not an apologia in favour of an autocratic and manifestly corrupt regime. It is a Leunig moment (if you like), a tool for making a slight gap in the endlessly extruded matrix of liberal orthodoxy.

When I showed the item here to a friend who is Chinese but who has first-hand experience of the dolours concomittant with group-think (her grandfather lost his mind, her father was hindered at every step, her own childhood has a dark-toned colour), her immediate reaction was "That's what we've been saying".

'We' meaning the thousands of Chinese residents of Western countries who gathered this week to protest perceived bias in the media. Sure, the mindset is in synch with the Party's media unit. But total media silence greeted the demonstrations in Australia.

This is surely bias.

--------------- back to Bill --------

In the late 1950s and early 1960s I worked in a Christian missionary school near the Tibetan border in north India, where refugees were entering in their thousands. A number of my students were Tibetan children. Talking to the refugees and my students, I learned about Tibet and its people before and after the physical occupation by China.

There were three classes of people in Tibet: the feudal landlords who owned all the land, monks who spent their time reading scriptures and begging, and serfs who worked the land for the feudal lords. The Dalai Lama presided over the whole life of Tibetans as god-king.

The landlords treated the serfs with the same ruthlessness as the landlords of the Dark Ages in Western Europe. There were no roads, no hospitals and no modern schools in Tibet, no human rights, and no democracy. Outsiders were banned during the Dalai Lama's time. The refugees did not speak of a genocide of Tibetans by the Chinese. The refugees who came to India were mainly the feudal landlords with their wealth in gold, their servants and some monks, together with the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese takeover changed the face of Tibet. They built roads, schools and hospitals and other infrastructure necessary for an acceptable modern life. They instituted land reforms and gave dignity in life to the serfs. That the monks still comprise a sizeable population in Tibet is significant, and makes me wonder how much the spiritual life of Tibetans has been affected by the Chinese.

Lindsey Hilsum, China correspondent for Britain's Channel 4 News has given an interesting perspective on the unrest in Tibet. In the New Statesman (March 19) she wrote that the unrest in Tibet is caused by the economic disparity between the Tibetans and the Han Chinese and Hui Muslims who own the majority of shops and businesses.

These Chinese minorities, with their better business acumen, have benefited most from the upturn in the Tibetan economy. This has fuelled the resentment of Tibetans against its Chinese minorities. Freedom of religion has very little to do with what is happening in Tibet now.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Skintight, Meredith Jones' new study of cosmetic surgery, should cause at least a frisson of interest in the broader community. Priced over 60 dollars by publisher Berg, it may not reach the same number of shelves as such classics of 'personal health' as The Hite Report or The Female Eunuch, but my feeling is that Jones is looking for a less popular release.

At least for the moment. In launching the book, Dr Zoe Sofoulis - "senior lecturer in feminist studies and cultural studies" at UWS Nepean - made a play, however, using the book's 'made here' tone, which she demonstrated in negative terms.

Sofoulis deftly made space for the book in a kind of facsimile of the 'public sphere' by 'othering' several groups of overseas academics.

Journalists and health practitioners would be the immediate targets, I suspect. Why else would Sofoulis make prominent note of Jones' neat analogy - Federation Square is "a building with cellulite"?

This metaphoric use of (what used to be called) 'plastic surgery' to remark on architectural styles (Sofoulis also notes how Jones points to the seamless facades of buildings put up in the late 80s and early 90s) is original. Many of Jones' friends - an eclectic bunch unlikely otherwise to find themselves, together, in a small, hot room (Gleebooks' 'upstairs' space lacks adequate facilities to offset the heat generated by well over 50 adult bodies) - can attest to the author's clever mind, and subtle pen.

In conversation, Jones expressed gratitude for the editorial component of Berg's involvement in the project, especially one (anonymous) reviewer who made sound comments. Others worked on the text, which took about two years to write (I was told).

Jones not only teaches at UTS, she also participates in the legendary blog Sarsaparilla as a list writer.

There's no mistaking the years of observing and note-taking. Some of it sounds like literary journalism, other parts like close analysis. Sofoulis claims that the tone avoids the moralising elements found in American studies of a similar nature. From a British author, she says, we're likely to read something that would bore us. A Continental (actually, she said "French") would couch content in incomprehensible and overfastidious terms.

So here we have a book for all seasons, a kind of humourous-yet-serious, not-taking-oneself-too-seriously, and compassionate (the extract Jones read about a French prostitute-turned-TV-host with massive breasts intimates a concern with the state of mind of the individual) look at what (the publisher hopes) will polarise the community.

We'll see. Since polarisation means more sales, this outcome may be good for the business, but a too-literal response ("why bring attention to this when it's a real problem" could be expected from some quarters) can damage the author and the ideas.

Friday 11 April 2008

Simon Caterson (LLB, BA (Hons), MPhil, PhD, CELTA) is a tutor in English, Literature, Media Studies, Journalism, Visual Arts, ESL at Mannix College, Monash University.

I did a search and this was the series of suggestions by the Google search field.

Caterson is clever, with a nice piece in Quadrant on (you guessed it) Mannix and Monash. The Jewish general and the Irish preacher. The fox and the hedgehog.

Or echidna - a touch of surrealism - says Caterson, whose item is filled with interest and, written in a fairly understated manner, also redolent with learning. History in a nutshell (or, possibly, a gum nut). History, at least, though (alas) it's only twentieth century history.

But you sense the erudition, the months and years of concentrated reading - most probably accompanied by note-taking - resulting in something very special. Yet the combination (Mannix, Monash) aligns a little too sweetly against Caterson's own place of docentary activity (Mannix, Monash). There's something not quite right.

Something fishy. Alas, that's all I can say. Melbourne is a thousand Ks away, and a generation distant as well, just another suburban fabric rising up in the world. Ah, Melbourne (land of my birth, of the gods of yore, of my transient dreams, of a host of good friends).

Melbourne. Bright city of gold, granite black and sky downcast; a hopeful emissary of more than money's bright train. A fairer battle, sunshine blistering the pavement that soaks up the rain.

Thursday 10 April 2008

Despite the fact that The Sydney Morning Herald is a sponsor of IQ2OZ, the very fact of the debate’s existence is a repudiation of the media who, presumably, are part of the “toxically emotional and the reflexively ideological” that, Herald reporter Tom Allard says, organisers want to “transcend”.

One might start by questioning (a) the credentials and (b) the track-record of those invited to participate in the “Oxford-style” debate.

But if one were able to do this exhaustively (we’ll assume that it would be fair, as well) one would probably be part of the very company of social actors deemed unsuitable to perform the essential task of telling voters what is right.

This is a brave attempt to transcend the stereotypical position that one must cut down the tall poppies, lest they cast a shadow over your own back yard. But in this case, the back yard is appropriately distant from anywhere you might be inclined to take some sun, watch the Saturday game, or set up a barbeque.

Blogger Kieran Bennet’s post was one of two that appeared in Google’s blogsearch page (using iq2oz as the search term), and she’s predictably ecumenical, damning the notion that Islam is somehow different in nature to other religions.

“All religions call upon their followers to accept their strange and fantastical beliefs. Most strands of religious delusion call upon their follows to accept the supposed words of their particular imaginary friend as the ultimate authority in governing their actions. And many of these cults will try and impose outcomes informed by these religious delusions upon the whole of society, and thus subverting the secular democracy.”

While she has a point, it’s not as valid now as it would have been around CE 1400, at the turn of the ‘Renaissance’ (a 19th century term of endearment from German Jacob Burckhardt). Most likely, Bennet is as ignorant of the history of the word (let alone the period itself) as she is of the functioning of mitosis.

The topic “is sure to inflame passions”, says a meeker poster on the Headlines blog (‘a look at the most relevant news articles for clients of left field’).

That’s it for the blogosphere. The comments in the Muslim Village thread are tame. A few alternative suggestions appear. Two posters remember that a western-Sydney sheikh had been asked to give it a go.

Tanveer Ahmed apparently said recently that “women who wear hijab and men who grow beards is analogous to rebellious teenagers wearing nose and belly rings”, recalls one poster.

Another suggests academics Jamilah Hussein or Abdullah Saeed for the debating team. None of these posters evince the ‘inflamed passions’ the blogger dramatically predicts.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Merrylands High School has been in the news since Monday's machete attack. On that day, the news reported that "men" had attacked the school using baseball bats and machetes.

Today it's revised to "youths" and "teenagers". The five are:

Two 14-year-old boys from Carramar and Auburn, two 15-year-old boys from Merrylands and Seven Hills and a 16-year-old boy from Merrylands.

Because they're minors, names are not released. When I heard about it yesterday, I immediately thought of a specific ethnic community, because of the choice of weapon (machetes).

One boy broke bail conditions stemming from an armed hold-up (knife, replica gun) earlier this year. The Sydney Morning Herald put Arun Ramachandran on the story (among others). We learn nothing about ethnicity until halfway down today's front-page story.

We learn that "former students" said that "there had been tensions between the school's Pacific Islander students and other student groups for many years".

We also learn that a 16-year-old Merrylands High School student said that "the gang was made up of students from neighbouring Granville Boys High School" (see pic).

The distance between Granville Boys High School (right dot) and Merrylands High School (orange dot) is about three kilometres.

The boys, who will attend Parramatta Children's Court on 22 May, "will remain in custody". They apparently gave themselves up to police quietly.

In overall Sydney-scope, the attacks took place in the area marked with orange.

Monday 7 April 2008

Tinling Choong's FireWife combines Beckett's insatiable 'I' with a rollicking magical-realism. This is not, as one blogger says, "the story of a woman named Nin who lives as a dutiful daughter and wife".

Nor is it, as another blogger quotes (from the publisher's website), "a fictional tale of a fledgling photographer, Nin, who leaves her corporate job in California to photograph women in various places throughout the world".

Even Choong, herself, is not quite candid, stating: "a story of eight contemporary women". Closer, though, is the website 'synopsis', which promises a novel

about plight and emancipation, sexual subjugation and liberation, escape and desire. It’s about human vacillations. It’s about the gap between merely knowing and actually living one's true self. It is about the tension between being mentally adventurous and being physically (therefore really!) adventurous.

This is an Asian Kundera. Choong addresses issues which are common across cultures (we could talk usefully about the impact of writing on culture, and the death of the goddess).

Nevertheless, the fundamental strain is to do with self-determination in its many aspects, which would include both economic independence and mental liberation. At one stage near the end of the book Nin, the protagonist, feigns "a worldly woman at the pinnacle of her charm and power confidently surveying her prey and insinuating what she desires".

But the subsequent narrative collapses this image into a cold box of play. Choong wants more. The final creation myth points to the generosity (and arrogance) of her project: she wants to synthesise her pain and anger into a real solution.

With mud and mothers as her vehicle, she points to a particularly Chinese tendency to "a determination to express humanistic concerns transparently and unequivocally", as Gloria Davies writes in her Worrying About China: The Language of Chinese Critical Enquiry (p 224).

"The presumption of transparency," continues Davies, "reflects an intense longing for an unequivocal truth that is imagined, in turn, as articulable in language." If we take, as an obverse beginning, Michael Galak's belief that "religion playing the role of social glue, became portable and universal" ('Anti-Semitism, Its Origins and Prognosis', Quadrant, Jan-Feb 2008, p 23), it is possible to locate, in Choong's text, a seminal point.

It is the death of Nin's sister ("I made Mian big when she was only five, and she died" in a well), but it pursues her (as only an Asian family can - Nin's early life is defined by her close relations) into corporate life ("God, please cut me loose from the Rat Race, the Machine! The Guilt! Please, God, I've heard of your Strength. I want only my Guiltless Original Me. Please.").

She desires release but can only express it in negative terms, and in terms that draw her attention, relentlessly, back to her family:

Over the years, I duplicated and duplicated, just so I could travel, or more precisely, fly, especially in the empty night flights. Tied to a small seat by a belt on a plane, I would first see my sister in my mind's eye and I would feel guilty and die and heal and renew and see a new me outside, against the window, not an architect of any kind, not a sister, not a wife, not a daughter, not woman, not friend, not worker, not stranger, not not stranger. Absolutely self-less. Yet absolutely self-centered. Absolutely guilt-free. History-free. Absolutely anonymous.

In Choong's cosmology, Fire is a liberating thing, and is tied to sexual gratification. But Water tries to douse Fire, and its mechanism in the human sphere is shame.

But I felt ashamed, acridly ashamed. I couldn't stop my moving and his looking. Shameless woman I am, I thought to myself, as I rubbed more and more violently against the base of his thumb.

On her website, Choong notes that the start of the novel coincided with seeing "a photograph in a book about Japan" in which men ate sashimi from a woman's body, as if it were a plate. I sense Choong's tremendous power. But this ignitial, tonic moment (moment of truth) carries with it some danger. This is such as any 'engaged' fiction faces: that it may generate fame at the cost of real artistic accomplishment.

Choong, furthermore, is a budding academic.

The book is beautifully set in a sharp, accurate typeface that oozes sophistication and flair. Its uncut outside page edges add charm. I read it in a few hours, after work on a weekday, so it certainly must be entertaining.

The enthusiasm is both persuasive and thrilling. The short sentences, many uttered conversationally by this character or that, create a breathless, intimate tone that serves to deliver the book's more recondite themes easily to the reader's mind.

I look forward to reading the novel Choong mentions in her afterword, and wish her all the very best good fortune - both yellow and red - plus a thousand happy mornings in New England.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Archibald “mediocre”: McDonald

Over at The Australian, where national art critic Sebastian Smee runs an efficient operation, editors decided this year to allow him to post a sound recording (with basic visuals) on the same page as his run-down of the Archibald.

Smee praises the judges’ selection of Del Kathryn Barton’s “audacious” and “ardent” self-portrait with her two young children. It is an unusual choice, says Smee, because judges are wont to favour ‘cooler’, more “philosophical” expressions in paint.

“If an emotion is gestured at, best that it be melancholic, couched in the consolations of philosophy, rather than genuinely ardent.” This conservatism is built into the fabric of the prize and results from the reality - possibly surprising to many - that judging is carried out by a group of people more often drawn from the corporate world, than that of art.

The trustees number eleven and are “appointed by the NSW Governor on the recommendation of the Minister for the Arts”, according to the relevant section of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Act 1980. So as not to completely put the bite on flair and inspiration, the Act also stipulates that “at least two of whom shall be knowledgeable and experienced in the visual arts”.

But who are they?

  • Steven Lowy (shopping centres)
  • David Gonski (lawyer)
  • Sandra McPhee
  • David Baffsky (hotel management)
  • Guido Belgiorno-Nettis (engineering)
  • Anne Fulwood (media)
  • Irene Lee (BA, history of art, lawyer)
  • Dr Lindy Lee (lecturer, Sydney College of the Arts)
  • Prof Janice Reid (Vice-Chancellor, University of Western Sydney)
  • John Schaeffer
  • Imants Tillers (artist)
  • Peter Francis Young (MBA)

I think Smee’s summation of the overall trend in talking about Barton’s “aesthetic daring” and “emotional daring” and that “traditionally” the prize goes to ‘cooler’ images, is apt.

Over at The Sydney Morning Herald, John McDonald states that “the weird stuff, all the kitsch, all the eccentricities” were left for Jane Watters (SH Ervin Galley director) and Susi Muddiman (professional art curator) to “pick over” when putting together the annual Salon des Refuses.

Chosen to accompany his article is Stephen Nothling’s Self Portrait out the Front, which McDonald says “may or may not be taken as irony”. I certainly took it in this way. In fact, there is something deeply wrong about the picture, which is done in a sort of kitsch-na├»ve style that leaves everything up to the imagination while evading irony by seemingly stating the obvious.

I noted that the two most-prominent trees - the jacaranda that McDonald describes and the bouganvillea - are both imports (one from South America and one from the eponymous island near Papua New Guinea). As the eye scans across, from left to right, you suddenly catch the car in the driveway.

For me, this felt wrong, and all of a sudden. My aesthetic hackles went up and my eye stopped right there. Then immediately afterward I saw the seccateurs held in the subject's left hand, and the cut flowers in his right. Finally, I noticed the dropped bike, which raised the obvious question: where are the kids?

If this figure is a member of that favoured class of “working families", he seems awfully alone. The pathos of cut flowers (destined to be ‘taken inside’), which are rendered in gorgeous, intimate detail, allies itself to the emptiness of the scene the painter has constructed so that your eye travels from left to right.

This man does not seem to be in paradise (the word blazoned across his T-shirt) but, rather, in some kind of self-imposed purgatory.

At some point (we hope) the kids will run screaming around the side of the bright pink bungalow, the screen door will fly open and the ‘missus’ will step onto the veranda with a conventional message: “c’mon, lunch is ready”. Standing in front of the picture we wait in vain.

It should be noted that the cropping of Nothling's work, here (and which matches the Herald's cropping), is not true to the full extent of the actual canvas. To see the full-sized painting, you must visit the gallery.

Another point: the Art Gallery of NSW does not print colour illustrations of exhibited works but the Moran prize does. Comprehensive, full-colour catalogues of Moran entries (painted portraits and photography) are free when you enter the exhibition. You can drop a few coins in a box near the door, but there's no obligation to do so.

Among the Wynne refuses at Observatory Hill we have, for me, a spectacular celebration of the beauties of pre-stressed concrete in Tom Carment’s Concrete Wings, The M5, which could be a painting of the Lighthorse Interchange but is not. The technology is the same, the location is different.

I particularly loved the imaginative compositional ideas of Ishbel Morag Miller’s Streetscapes - Glebe. Here, as in Carment’s painting, the routine elements of our visual landscape are jostled together with the intention of recognising how important this aspect of our lives is. These are things we cannot escape, regardless of how often we buy a ticket to a sunny island stranded in the tropics.

For this reason, too, Chris O’Doherty’s Hitchhiking on the F3 (Wet Day) is pleasurable. The short prose paean written for his prize entry is included by the curators on the wall sticker. In it, O’Doherty says the F3 is his “favourite” highway because of the way the sandstone has been cut and blasted, striking a path to unplanned beauty.

Another rendition of daily reality is Jo Shand’s King St. Afternoon. In this medium-sized canvas, the artist has captured the north-east vantage of this famous street, at a point where it curves northward. Traffic combines with nineteenth-century shopfronts. Stylistically, Shand’s decision is to appropriate the classical free-form of the kind of cheap, kitsch paintings you used to be able to buy from a door-to-door salesman.

Or, that was brought back from Paris by your travelling aunt, and which shows a generically ‘romantic’ view of a side-street of the city of lights. Geraniums, crumbling facades, lacework iron balconies, striped awnings. Shand’s tone is thus both ironic and emotional. How is Newtown to be ‘imagined’ by Sydneysiders? Is it the analogue of Paris or is it a determined attempt to recreate the ‘alternative’ lifestyle we instantly contemplate when the word ‘Paris’ is spoken.

How many American writers, for example, descended on Paris in the first half of last century looking for the kind of liberal environs they despaired of finding at home. Where was Lolita published, for example?

Another stand-out, for me, was Vayu’s portrait of Martin Sharp, the reinventor of Australian kitsch. Here, he stands looking a bit glum and a bit smug at the same time. The necessity, in Australia, of burying your light under a bushel is manifest in this piece. But this also means that the artist - or any deep thinker - is privileged by exclusion, because in this place there’s no dialogue (or very little). The locus of transgression is both a refuge and a cage.

It should also be noted (because I visited the Moran at the State Library also) that O’Doherty is depicted twice this year. Once by Leo Robba (at the SH Ervin) in Australian Gothic, and once by Steve Lopes (State Library). This personality’s iconic status would almost justify a retrospective of paintings done that include him. I wager there’d be at least two dozen floating round the art world.

Saturday 5 April 2008

Wendy Were has toned down her 'tude this year, as she promotes her second Sydney Writer' Festival. Against last year's 'argument' theme, this year she says "the idea of vision underpins" the new program.

Not all are agreeing on just what makes this year different. In yesterday's The Sydney Morning Herald, arts writer Angela Bennie wrote that "the subject of death and dying has emerged as a continuing threnody throughout Were's programming".

Were denies any deliberateness in this direction, and in today's paper it's the 'vision' thing. She lists a bunch of reasons for the concept, mainly two though: a new government here and a pending US election (with a Democrat set to take office).

Another list includes:

  • future imaginings
  • dystopian visions
  • fear of annihilation
  • the drive towards conservation
  • reconciliation
  • indigenous politics
  • an altered sense of personal and civic responsibility
  • mobilising
  • political activism
  • hope
  • optimism

These are strong concepts. Meaty, redolent with significance, potentially disruptive. And odd, considering that Were has chosen a label usually (a tired trope dating from the early 1990s) associated with management of companies: 'vision'.

Bennie's story also notes that two venues would be used this year instead of one. The pier next to the regular one has been refitted for the purpose. Clearly there's money involved, now, in a way that didn't apply even five years ago.

Dymocks' adjacent promo features a new, inviting design with author snaps accompanied by book-cover photos. The cool, lay-over labels with author name and book title add lustre to the design. It's a slick look and it's new this year.

Notable here is Susan Wyndham, who normally appears in the arts sphere as a books editor with the Herald, but whose new book, Life In His Hands (about a concert pianist, Aaron McMillan, whose brain surgery to remove a tumor she will discuss at Mosman Library this coming Wednesday) is subtitled 'The true story of a neurosurgeon and a pianist'.

Archaic and sonorous, reminding us of Peter Carey's lauded book on Ned Kelly, the title points to a resurgence of interest in the past. We saw a similar moment when the ads for the Royal Easter Show appeared on post-office LCD monitors. A fox hunter mounted on a thoroughbred, in full chase.

Were's bright orange bangles give her publicity a distinctly Asian cast, however. Are they yellow? (Yellow is a royal colour in many Asian countries.) The photos are by Edwina Pickles. Both are posed in a stylish, retro cast. In the first, Were highlights her arms and the accessories they carry. Here the bangles glow yellow in their centres, in contrast to her brown-and-black frock.

In the second, Were adopts a deliberately 60s pose. Her head and legs are angled to the left while her hips sway right. This draws our attention to her gender, but in a commanding way that plays with stereotypes of femininity.

Marieke Hardy's photo on the Herald's website today (along with a three-page story by Elicia Murray) also leverages cliches about female beauty.

Wyndham's book began with a story published in 2003.

Thursday 3 April 2008

George Megalogenis is in Melbourne writing for The Australian, which dubs him "resident nit-picker". My creative treatment (pic) is not representative of the man, who is only visible online (except in print) with a single image.

Yet he's there, picking nits and writing dry columns about everyday politics and, occasionally, a book on dry, day-to-day politics (I've found two, but there may be more). In other words, he's not my cup of tea.

Just look at the photo (untouched here)...

From the rumpled grey suit to the routine tousel of hair, and from the inexpensive blue shirt to the bits of black, wiry hair sticking out at the top, Megalogenis' visual persona is unthreatening, routine, run-of-the-mill, laid-back. But polite. A good boy who is just doing his job. A guy who goes out of his way to fit in.

Not a loner. Not a fanatic. Not a disturbed individual. No chip on these shoulders, ladies and gents. (Possibly dandruff, but that's a matter for him and his significant other.)

Yet, suddenly, Megalogenis has put his finger on an item of publc concern that a work friend brought to my attention some two years ago, and that I've seen spruiked about in a haphazard fashion: we're sick of the old left-right thing. It's so gone.

But Megalogenis still gives the "culture warriors" an ear. In a column from yesterday's Australian Literary Review, I can pick out several points I fully concur with. In a column with this topic, that's a rare accolade. Naturally Robert Manne is here (he edited Dear Mr Rudd: Ideas for a Better Australia, Black Inc), but Megalogenis does not subscribe to the stale, orthodox, inner-city narrative of decline that Manne and his followers have been putting about like a flock of Chicken Littles, this many-a-year.

He highlights the "level of complexity" that operates in our public sphere, and bolsters this notion pointing to three "established mainstreams":

  • The traditional white male
  • the tertiary-educated woman, and
  • the Australian-born children of immigrants

As if they were all equal in influence!

Melbourne seems to foster wog journos. The Herald has Mary-Ann Toy now on the ground in mainland China, replacing Hamish McDonald, who returned to Sydney last year. She's from the southern capital, too.

Apart from these two, however, there's frankly few options for your average wog living somewhere in the suburban heartland of Sydney. Lakemba, say, or Blacktown. Perhaps Quakers Hill. (They've all gone from Leichhardt and Marrickville, just as they left Paddington, when the pickings got good.)

"[T]he pots and the kettles create a din that most Australians ... close their ears to." The suburban wog closed his (or her) ears decades ago, and tried to mingle with the mainstream without (a) looking foolish or (b) destroying self respect.

Meanwhile, we see blondes on TV as though they were the majority. The stats must be there, somewhere (I'm too jaded to look them up). In the media, too, 95 per cent of journos are Anglos. Not because they're smarter, but because they can bully the wog and feel superior (crypto ethno-triumphalists to the last).

Years and years of slights, missed romances, misspelt names, an eternity of frustration that builds up like piles of lego in a three-year-old's bedroom. Step on them and you feel pain.

It's part of Australian culture, and has been since the White Australia Act hit Hansard in 1901. Six year later, women got the vote (not all of them, mind), but your Oz-born wog is still waiting for equality.

I'd better stop. Megalogenis thinks that the average Australian can "spot the ideologue". I fear reprisals at the tuck shop. Ginger Meggs is alive and living in Leumeah.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Deirdre Coleman's Romantic Colonization and British Anti-Slavery (2005) appeared when she worked at Sydney Uni but she's now in the Robert Wallace Chair of English Literary Studies (School of Culture and Communication, Faculty of Arts). Melbourne Uni has no English Department now.

Despite having 36 pages of notes, a bibliography spanning 23 pages, and a 12-page index, the book is a gorgeous read. If you are a fan of Romanticism and/or have an interest in 'post-colonial' studies (which is probably de rigeur nowadays), it's a heap of fun. I finished it in just a few days, and often in preference to, say, a novel or the news.

Lots that is new inside, too.

And some not so new, including the standard PC (post-colonial) narrative of identity. Using this set of discourse markers, the Anglo academic attempts to form a bond with the dispossessed. To do this a certain amount of 'othering' is requisite. In Coleman's case, this is done by rubbishing, for example, the British propensity to raise the flag on new discoveries (a "bogus rite").

To contrast this with something, Coleman imaginatively refers to aboriginal burial rites ("a far more profound symbol of possession"). Later, she will write about the way early settlers thought of aboriginal burial sites (shallow, meagre). But how do you dedicate so many years to a project such as this without adopting some sort of stance vis a vis (say) the government (today's as much as an earlier era's)?

In fact, it would be very difficult to make sense of this book without significant prior reading, especially in the literature of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Knowledge of James Thompson and Wordsworth (note the dropped descriptor...!), or Mark Akenside and Coleridge (ditto!) more than helps.

In brief, there's no easy way to sum up Coleman's findings. She covers a lot of ground, initially by discussing a failed colony near Sierra Leone called Bulama. Its instigator was Henry Smeatham, who was a sort of rogue adventurer, book publisher and collector of entomological specimens for rich English patrons. It's hard to be too hard on Smeatham because he didn't belong to the aristocracy.

But Coleman's main field of interest is New South Wales in the late 18th century. Her introduction is launched by a stunning little vignette to do with the early colony's cattle. They wandered off one day (nobody knew if they'd been eaten or killed). Some years later they were found in the interior having multiplied ten-fold.

Because it is this mathematical inevitability about colonies that gnaws at Coleman's heart. And she does well to locate colonial fecundity and wealth-generating properties within the classical Romanitic discourse of self-determination.

From the Nova Scotian blacks (enemies of the Americans since they fought on the British side in the 'war of independence') to the Eora people of Port Jackson might seem a long way, but Coleman is up to the challenge.

In the first case, it was thought best by the best minds of the age to relocate them to an African colony. This colony would, under the tutelage of a small clique of well-connected and -educated Englishmen, expand and multiply. Wealth would accrue to the locals but also to the British economy due to the enormous size of Africa.

It could be said that the existence of better maps, which could accurately show continental scope, was partially responsible for this fear. This need to tame the beast before it took its revenge.

Of course, many of these entrepreneurs were Quakers (the Christian fundamentalist sect responsible for kicking off the anti-slavery movement). Coleman does not investigate this avenue, nor does she once mention Matthew Lewis.

Bulama was eventually ransacked by marauding French sans-culottes. Other Frenchmen were nosing around the coast near Port Jackson, and Coleman astutely notes that these enlightened men could voice approbation of the English because, simply, Arthur Phillip got there first. They would have done exactly (moots Coleman) the same themselves given the chance. But such realpolitik, despite being correct in every way, is generally eschewed by the Anglo academic intent on laying blame where it may not be deserved.

Ultimately, our impression of these young English men is that, despite possessing a deep lore of Romantic ideas, they were unable to control their greed. And this, for me, is where Coleman's book is most valuable: as part of my narrative of identity, which is self-determination in Australia.

Here, you had (on the one hand) squatters who wanted more convicts and (on the other) city tradesmen who wanted to 'better themselves'. No surprise that the oldest educational institution in Australia is the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts (now in Pitt Street, near Market). Henry Parkes (the 'author' of the Oz constitution) was a toy-shop owner.

The tone of debate in this milieu (which drew heavily on the US experience, and that of Canada) meant that people such as Parkes felt despised, and they vowed to get revenge. But to do this they, too, had to 'other' more than just the squatters, their mortal enemies. To get the support of the monied men of Sydney (an alternative force to be leveraged), they had to look down, in turn, on aborigines, blacks (Polynesians), Chinese propspcetors, Irishmen (and -women), and 9finally) anyone with a funny name at all.

The White Austrlia Policy (a catchphrase, but actually one of the new commonwealth's first legal instruments) was dominant for more than half a century. Unfortunately, many Australian think it should still apply today and this is where Anglo academics such as Coleman feel compelled to side with the underdog.

When she talks about Smeatham and his ilk, she looks for discourse elements (the book is riddled with short quotes strung together with commentary to make points). many of these can be usefully deployed within a later debate about 'racial vigour' and 'racial health'.

Other ideas in existence at the time of colonial establishment endured throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. One of these is that blacks constitute an early 'model' of modern, white Europeans (p 15).

Another idea that endured over the same period is that the 'vigour' of a lifeform should be controlled so that it would not "waste its force" by breeding indiscriminately so that it created "inferior" men and women (p 41).

One more. The idea that "natives" should be subject to "a gentle servitude" and then freed "after a service of apprenticeship" of "a few years" (p 92).

Coleman has laboured hard to put together a large mass of useful information, but her strength is not in making large-scale narrative work. Her virtue is in making a lot of valuable data readable, when it would have been easy to be obscure. There is no postmodern idiom here, and for this (at least) we should be grateful.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Kenzaburo Oe's protest against bad things done by Japanese soldiers in Okinawa at the eve of war's end has manifested itself in a court case he won a few days ago. This photo is NOT a regular file photo, and is the only one I've seen where the writer has white hair.

The Guardian covered the story on 28 March. The next day, The Japan Times got into the act.

An earlier story (10 November 2007) in the same newspaper marks his day giving testimony before judge Toshimasa Fukami.

Unrest in September on the island saw "a large rally", on Okinawa streets in response to government recalcitrance (The Guardian says "more than 100,000 people"), held

to protest ... instruction to authors and publishers of high school history textbooks to delete references to the military's role in coercing civilians to commit mass suicide and mass murder-suicide.

'Whitewash' is an ambiguous synonym for 'propaganda'. It is nowhere near as destructive as the reality, which in this case encouraged a 90-year-old to "file the suit against Oe and Iwanami Shoten Publishers in August 2005". The implication is that recent government drum-thumping encouraged the men to sue for 20 million yen in damages.

Yutaka Umezawa (joined later by his brother Hidekazu Akamatsu) said that Oe's 1970 essay implied "that he could be regarded as inhumane". They also wanted the essay's publication to be "halted". Odd, this, considering it's been in print for three decades!

Jitsuho Murata hailed the March win as a "defeat for the (Imperial) military". Murata "represents a group of elderly islanders", the newspaper says.

The plaintiffs say they will appeal the ruling in the Osaka Supreme Court. In any case, the fight is clearly not yet won:

Education minister Kisaburo Tokai asked his advisory body to consider requests from textbook publishers to reinstate references to the Japanese military's role in forcing the mass civilian suicides and murder-suicides during the Battle of Okinawa.

The Textbook Authorization Council will rescreen the requests, which were filed by five textbook publishers.

In the initial screening process, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology instructed the publishers to delete references to the military's role in the mass suicides from high school textbooks on Japanese history for the 2008 academic year starting next April. The five publishers followed the instruction and revised seven textbooks.

Textbooks cannot be used unless they clear the ministry's screening process.

Oe's victory means little if children do not learn about how their forefathers behaved (pretty much uniformly barbarously) in the first half of last century. Now, there are individuals intent on retaining hold on a truth they themselves contributed to, like old man Murata

himself a second lieutenant in the Imperial army, was on duty away from the island when his family committed murder-suicide with a hand grenade provided by the Japanese military. His younger sister was killed instantly, while his mother died slowly over months due to the wounds she suffered, according to Murata.

Oe said, charmingly (self-effacement in the presence of authority is part of 'Japanese culture', we're told):

"I felt strongly that the judge accurately read my Okinawa Notes to hand down the ruling," he said. "I was most strongly impressed by that."

Nevertheless, reading the judge's comments we see plenty of latitude for equivocation. He said it was "fully presumable" and "there are reasons to believe" that soldiers encouraged islanders to commit suicide.

"It cannot be determined if the former garrison commander and others issued the order by themselves, but Mr. Oe has an adequate reason to believe so," the judge said.

"It can be said the military was deeply involved in the mass suicides," he said.

"It is reasonable to say the book presented rational resources and evidence, though we cannot determine whether the two [plaintiffs] were the ones who issued the suicide orders as described in the book," he found.

Unlike The Japan Times, The Guardian reports that "Accused of trying to whitewash Japan's wartime history, the Education Ministry soon afterwards agreed to restore to textbooks accounts of the military's involvement in the suicides."