Saturday 31 October 2015

Fact: Australians hate people smugglers

Waleed Aly wrote a screed for the SMH yesterday on the occasion of Tony Abbott's appearance on-stage in the UK at the Margaret Thatcher Centre, in which the perennial poster-boy of the left attacked the ex-PM's refugee policies. Big target, right? Hardly difficult to do now the guy's left the frontbench? Right on both counts.

Personally I'm a big supporter of refugees and have on many occasions publicly called for a refugee processing bureau to be established in Jakarta so that we can get more of these people settled in Australia where they can happily contribute to the national economy in peace.

But Aly like so many other commentators on the left ignores one major, glaring fact when they set out to attack some sectors of the conservative side of politics in Australia. This fact is that most Australians supported Abbott's policy of turning back the boats because they didn't want to see any more asylum seekers arrive via people smugglers on our shores. We know this is the case because both major parties had stopping the refugee boats as official policy. And why? Because both parties ran endless focus groups to try to find out what average Australians thought about the issue. What they found is that average Australians make a difference between refugees who arrive by legitimate means through camps and the usual vetting process that applies in them, and refugees who arrived by boats from Indonesia.

It's as simple as that. Australians were smart enough to know the difference. If you had asked me, I would have said something along the lines of, "Let 'em all in!" But the average Australian - and I've never pretended to be an average anything, just ask my mother - thinks differently. They didn't want to be supporting the business model of criminals who took money to ferry desperate people across thousands of miles of sea, to get here.

It's hard to accept, I know, but if you want to do justice to the truth accept it you must. The average Australian didn't like people smugglers. In fact, she hated them. Badly. So badly that she was willing to see refugees locked up in open-ended detention, including women and children. It's a fact. Get over it. Next problem.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Having a dekka at the Goods Line

Opened in the past few months, the Goods Line is obviously still a work in progress. We ascended to it from Ultimo Road via a very narrow staircase that quickly gets congested with all the people wanting to get up and down. And once you get up there there are not many places to go.

You can walk north past the Chau Chak Wing Building of UTS - which Frank Gehry, the designing architect, likened to a tree, but which I think looks like a sweet brown milch cow (all undulating, soft, slow curves) - and eventually reach the Powerhouse Museum. Or you can walk south and enter underneath the TAFE Building on Broadway to pass through to the tunnel that goes under that thoroughfare toward Central, the Devonshire Street Tunnel.

There is an awkward bridge constructed near this underpass that leads students up into the bowels of UTS, as well as some corporate entrances on the Goods Line such as the one coming out the back of the ABC Building (which however has its main entrance on busy, unpleasant Harris Street). But that's about it. You can easily get through to Quay Street now from the Devonshire St Tunnel, for example, but the access for the Goods Line to street level generally is pretty poor where it counts. Adding to the confusion is a simply massive quantity of construction happening at the moment around Darling Harbour as the Darling Square apartment building and the new Convention Centre get built.

All in all it's a bit confusing, but for keeps is the cafe inside the Chau Chak Wing Building on the level of the Goods Line where you can meet up with someone for a friendly coffee if you want to get away from the rush of cars and pedestrians that characterises most of Chinatown.

Chau Chak Wing Building, UTS.
Chau Chak Wing Building from the Goods Line, looking north.
Bridge over Ultimo Road, Goods Line, looking south.
Good Line looking north (outside Chau Chak Wing Building).

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Sydney infrastructure investment back on the table

While Tony Abbott wanted to be known posthumously as the roads prime minister on the back of his decision to fund the M4 extension and the link to the M5 in inner-western Sydney, it is turning out to be Malcolm Turnbull, perhaps, who will go down in history as the infrastructure prime minister. It's an odd conundrum but I think the recent talk about new debt for infrastructure has something to do with Mike Baird's popularity.

Baird won the March election this year with a comfortable margin, albeit against a roughly 5 percent swing to Labor, but came out of the contest with over 45 percent of the primary vote. A rail line to Rouse Hill had been originally mooted in 1998 but under subsequent Labor governments the plan was cancelled and reanimated and in 2011 when he won the state election, Barry O'Farrell made resumption of the project a major priority of his government. O'Farrell famously came unstuck over a bottle of Grange red wine in April 2014 but Baird, who replaced him in the top job in the state, went on to do well despite the large spending promises of his government. He also kept O'Farrell's promise to build a light rail line down George Street in the city and out to the University of New South Wales.

So if any government can claim to be friendly to infrastructure, it is the Liberal government of New South Wales. And the premier's continuing immunity to attacks from the left on account of the large quantities of spending says something both about Baird himself but even more about the dire state of infrastructure in Sydney.

It's a truism that it takes longer to get anywhere in Sydney these days on a weekend than it does during the weekday rushhour. I read something somewhere recently where someone was saying Bondi was a nice place if you live there. Getting around is just too hard. Taxis don't help, either. On Twitter yesterday someone I know complained about getting sicker in Sydney traffic in a taxi than during the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race, because of the constant acceleration and deceleration required due to the horrendous traffic.

The fact is that noone living in Sydney can stomach any attempt to block building of roads and rail. And the politicians know it. Baird knows it, and has done well on the back of going ahead with two important rail projects in the harbour city. And Turnbull knows it because he lives in Sydney, albeit in one of its tonier suburbs. Sydney is choking. The city is bursting at the seams. And infill development that is going ahead on the back of the 2013-2015 property boom is just going to make the urgency for better infrastructure more pressing. All those new apartments going up with people and their cars inside them. There's no time to wait.

I'll leave the last word to a friend of mine who lives in the inner west who takes a train to work in the city every workday. He has been banging on about now being the best time to borrow for infrastructure, for ages. Well, it looks like he was right all along. Now the politicians are starting to see global low interest rates as an opportunity to do something about the simply massive problem of getting around in Sydney.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Not all the people of Toowoomba are redneck hicks

Ok, bear with me. I know it sounds like just another inner-city attack on rural Australia, but there's a point to this headline. It stems from the Q&A the ABC screened from the Empire Theatre in Toowoomba, southern Queensland, and a question from the audience that emerged about halfway through the show. The questioner in the audience wanted to ask the mayor of Toowoomba about strategies to help the town's share of the mooted 12,000 Syrian refugees Australia recently elected to accept "assist [them] in adapting to our [Australia's] democratic laws and system of government, and what is being done to ensure that they contribute positively to the social cohesion of Toowoomba and to the economic growth of the city, rather than become welfare dependent."

The person the question was directed to, Paul Antonio, started by using the word "assimilate" in his long response to the questioner, so you didn't have to wait long to see the redneck impulse raise itself up in the crowd. Given that the question was designed to whistle up the racist impulse in any case. But it didn't stop with the mayor. Next up to talk was Katie Noonan, a singer and a political progressive, who also used the word to describe the process whereby refugees are included in the society. It went on, too. Compere Tom Ballard used it, then quickly changed his word choice - possibly realising that the official policy of assimilation had been ditched by the Whitlam government in 1973, and replaced with multiculturalism - from "assimilate" to "resettle", a far less loaded word.

Then Jan Thomas, the VC of Southern Queensland University, also used the word "assimilation" in her peroration on the benefits of learning English and of getting a tertiary qualification in order to become a contributing participant in the local economy. Thomas did, however, change that term to "helping people acclimatise" later in her answer. And even the Labor Party pollie, Joel Fitzgibbon, used the term in his response.

None of these people released that what they were doing using the word "assimilate" - which the original questioner did not use even though he had certain racist designs in mind when framing his question - was taking the debate back to the 1950s when assimilation was official government policy. They didn't clock to the fact that they were perpetuating the myth belonging to the redneck hick that migrants just congregate in the big cities and bludge off the public purse (and vote Labor).

But it's this kind of almost-unconscious backsliding that is going to do us in in the end. We have to realise that diversity and tolerance are the best ways to move forward. All of us do. And especially those in southern Queensland. All of Australia still remembers Joh Bjelke-Petersen who had his political base in the Darling Downs. And Queensland itself cannot forget, which is why the last LNP government of Campbell Newman only lasted one term. Anything ... Anything at all to avoid the endemic evil of that era ever occurring again.

Monday 26 October 2015

TV review: The Beautiful Lie, episode 2, ABC (2015)

Deeply in love, Anna and Skeet take a walk in the street near Anna's house in the middle of the night. Then they go for a drive in Skeet's old Volvo. They sit on the bonnet and Skeet initiates Anna into the rarefied world of listening to random night sounds - as a musician, Skeet is well qualified to advise his lover - and in the morning Anna wakes up in her own bed, next to her husband. The night becomes just a memory except for the cable tie Skeet put on Anna's wrist during the midnight walk. There it is in the morning, resting with her arm on her sheet.

The two meet by accident at a celebrity auction a few nights later and the subterfuge comes crumbling down around Anna's ears when she and Skeet are arrested for using cocaine - which Dolly had found among Kingsley' s belongings - in the electrical room of the house the auction is taking place in. Incensed, Xander confronts Anna with the evidence of her adultery and Anna knows she can never give up Skeet. The episode ends with Anna lying down in the darkened bedroom of her son, alongside the sleeping child.

Meanwhile, Peter tries to have it off with a neighbour and lucks out, and Kitty absconds from the detox institution she has been immured in.

Episode two of The Beautiful Lie is less elegaic than the first episode, lacking some of the strength of Dolly's first explosion and some of the calm of Anna's initial romance. I stopped watching last night halfway through and went to bed because I was tired, then caught the remainder of the show this morning on iview. There's something insipid in the deliberate way the direction takes the action in this episode that was missing in the first ep. I'm not sure what it was but it might just be that everyone had got tired of their roles, or the directors were not entirely convinced by the storyline. Still, the show maintains its ability to entertain. The scenes with Kitty in the sanatorium were unconvincing probably because it was not clear which way her story would play out. We'll have to see next week if she goes back to Peter or not (I saw a trailer, and she does go to his place).

Sunday 25 October 2015

TV review: The Beautiful Lie, episode 1, ABC (2015)

It screened a week ago but because I was so happy with the TV series, The Beautiful Lie, I decided to review the first episode on the afternoon when the second episode is due to screen. Last night they screened the first episode again on ABC at the prime TV timeslot of 8.30pm, which shows how much they have invested in the series. I was particularly happy to review the series because of how unhappy I was with the other, most recent series on the ABC, Glitch (also 2015).

In The Beautiful Lie, the writers have reimagined in a contemporary Australian context the 1878 realist novel of Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, which also tells a story of adultery. Tolstoy wrote the work partly in order to criticise the Russia of his day, and it's a little hard to conceive of a society so different from Russia of the 1870s as Australia in 2015. The pressures on spouses, for a start, are very different now. The law is very different. Social expectations are very different. You wonder how the makers of this new TV series are going to play it with their new visual vehicle.

Some things never change however. Which brings me to the role of Dolly Faraday, played by Utopia's Celia Pacquola. Dolly's husband has been unfaithful with the au pair girl and Dolly is struggling to keep her family together while simultaneously allaying the internal pressures produced by her vanity. Particularly troublesome, you would think, for a young mother with several children.

Also a standout for me in the TV series is Alexander England as Peter Levin. In the novel, Levin is Tolstoy's hero, an independent rural landowner and therefore a cut above any other breed of personage you could imagine. Certainly more noble than someone as trivial as Skeet Du Point (Benedict Samuel), whom the Anna character, Anna Ivin (Sarah Snook) falls in love with in a fairly comprehensive way in this episode. The tensions introduced into the drama by the appearance of each of these characters in the episode is testament to the quality of the acting and directing. There is a palpable presence in the voice of someone like Dolly as she drags the tattered rags of her relationship around the sets inflecting every utterance with her own brand of disastrous calamity.

In the second episode the police get involved and Anna is arrested, so you wonder what the poor snipe has gotten up to. Bad luck if anyone's been murdered, you'd think, just as she's found the love of her life. But this is that kind of drama. The production is so high quality that you really do care, and you talk about these fictional characters as though they are real people inhabiting your own world. Make sure you watch the second episode tonight at 8.30pm on the ABC.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Who would win in Amazon versus The New York Times?

You should start by reading at least part of this New Yorker story about Amazon's Jay Carney and his battle of words with The New York Times this year. Carney, who once worked as Barack Obama's press secretary, wrote and published on the SF-based website Medium a story rebutting derogatory claims the NYT had made some months earlier about Amazon's work culture.

The backstory for this article is of course the way that the new media economy that has developed in the age of the internet is sucking the lifeblood out of the mainstream media, represented here by the NYT, in favour of new companies like Amazon, which is a company that completely owes its existence to the internet.

First-off and to be frank I was surprised by the deferential tone in the New Yorker story toward Amazon, as though the article's writer found it difficult to credit any claims that Amazon might treat its workers badly. Why, I thought, would it be so hard to believe that a company treats its workers badly when history is replete to overflowing with examples of companies treating workers badly and doing thousands of other unethical and immoral things to boot? But there seems to be something different about companies in the new media economy, at least in the eyes of that writer.

In general there seems to be an understanding especially among the young and those who are intricately involved in the internet that the mainstream media is somehow responsible for its own economic woes. To a certain degree this is deserved criticism, as there have been plenty of opportunities for mainstream media companies to make investments in new media properties over the years, which might have made the difference between success and failure on the economic front in the internet age. In the Australian context, the example of Fairfax Media is a salutary one.

But this seems a little harsh. The way I see it the mainstream media has struggled to come to terms with the new media economy and although it has not done everything to save itself in the way it might have done in a perfect universe, the fact is that back in 2005 when revenues started their long downward slide it was not at all obvious which way things would work out. Social media was still pretty much just an idea in those days. Online classifieds? Still emerging in the real world.

But the stigma associated with failure persists, and sticks to mainstream media companies like body odour and people like the young writer of this article continue to go out of their way to give credit where it is by no means due. Companies behaving badly? Welcome to the real world!

Friday 23 October 2015

How do crowds cross at traffic lights?

You see it all the time in big cities where there are lots of people using the footpaths. Dozens of people will gather at the crossing point beneath the traffic light waiting for the signal to turn green, and when it does they cross the road, threading together with the crowd coming across the road the other way seamlessly.

It's sort of magical how this process happens hundreds of thousands of times each day in cities across the world. Each person in both crowds knows there is only so much time available to cross the road and they do so without fuss, without connection, without practically even brushing a sleeve against the shoulder strap of someone coming the other way. Just by making tiny adjustments in their trajectory, each person in both crowds manages to find the optimal route through the oncoming crowd to the other side before the cars start moving again.

This is something extraordinary and it's practically unconscious. We just somehow seem to find the shortest way to the other side through the oncoming crowd without talking to anyone, without making any outward signal, and without hurrying. I can't see how self-driving cars are going to become a reality until the boffins can develop the kind of hive mind that allows crowds crossing at traffic lights to thread together soundlessly and in complete harmony, to reach the other side of the road. Once they come up with something as seamless and effortless as this, I'll start to take them seriously.

Thursday 22 October 2015

I haven't been blogging as much this month

Compared to last month the blogging rate this month has been pretty dismal and I can't really account for it. Why should it be that during this particular calendar month I decide to let thoughts lie unexplored and mute inside my busy brain - because the quantity of mental activity doesn't change from month to month, just the output volume in word form - when last month it was frequently twice in one day that I would apply myself to stringing words together to describe the things that occurred to me?

An unwritten blogpost is a stillborn thing, inchoate, inexpressive, immobile, like a bud that refuses to flower. A blogpost that emerges in text is something that can talk to other people, can move hearts, animate other minds, that has a life of its own beyond the confines of my skull.

This month I have also been feeling somewhat listless and lacking in energy. I have been going through the motions to some extent, and life has consequently been unfulfilling and dull. I have been on the verge of unhappiness this month. The appearance of blogposts usually has this correlate in my life. To a certain degree I am beholden to the blogposts for my happiness, and have told people at times that the blog is like an index of my happiness. When I post it means things are going fine, when I do not post it means that things are not all that good.

Happiness is such an elusive thing. It may be the kind of existential quantity that defines our lives in profound ways. We may even explore the world and describe what we see there as bad when in reality what has happened is that we have just found ourselves to be unhappy and we have transferred this unfulfilled quality to the object of our endeavours. The old joke about ennui comes to mind here. There is just something that is unsatisfactory about the way that things transpire and this can colour our endeavours to such an extent that they can themselves turn out to be faulty constructs, badly-meshing gears in the machinery of life. The thing might not even move at all.

I have been feeling especially down in the evenings. Last night when I went to bed I felt depressed. (I have made it a point to stop saying "very" this or that, because the word "very" is a lazy way to create a sense of urgency.) I felt as though someone was in the apartment and so I got up in my underwear and went into the living room and turned on the computer. The operating system software had to finish installing itself and so I waited. Then I looked at social media for a few minutes and went back to bed. I fell asleep and slept fitfully until morning but I dreamed that I was setting up a new Australian rules football team. An old friend appeared in the dream and in the morning when I came to the computer there was a post he has put up on Facebook the day before at the top of the application's newsfeed. Strange how things play out in the "real" world.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Up at the nursing home

When I dropped by the nursing home today I found that mum had recovered somewhat after being quite poorly on Monday when she was very unwell and had tended just to sit on the edge of her bed hunched over. It is not a good look and makes you feel very inadequate and out-of-control. But today despite her rather ragged cough that has persisted for some time she seemed a lot more lively than then.

When I contacted my brother on the iPad and gave it to her, however, she tended to put it down on her lap despite being reminded to hold it upright so that her other son could see her face. Although I reminded her about holding the iPad a couple of times she still would lie it flat on her lap, and nod off. Nodding off is something she has come in recent times to tend to do at the slightest opportunity. She will just close her eyes softly like switching off a light at the wall, and her head will fall gradually forward, her chin coming to rest on her chest.

She has been fading to this point over the past few months, despite her heart failure being now adequately treated. She just doesn't seem to have any energy for anything else other than napping. If I ask her whether she wants to go out to the park to watch the dogs she'll just decline the offer, and say "No, I don't think so". She is gradually fading away into the endless slumber that awaits all of us on the other side of the final crisis. I saw my father die and I expect to see my mother die too. My father died at the end of his mortal tether, between ragged gasps that shuddered through his whole body. I don't know when mum will go but I am resigned to being a witness at that point in time, too.

I watch and wait as the signs of mortality become clearer and clearer. A few visits back mum said to me that the nursing home "Is a good place to die" and I agreed that the staff seem to supply everything you need to feel comfortable. "You did well to find this place," she will tell me on occasion, and I suppose it is partly due to the mysticism that seems to come over the elderly when they are getting closer to the end, and partly in order to make me feel reassured. In fact to be truthful I don't know what prompts mum to say these things. I do know that each time she does she is presaging in a dramatic way the final crisis that will come (to all of us eventually).

Sunday 18 October 2015

Twitter's 'Moments' curated news

Last month I wrote about Twitter's new curated news feed option on the blog, but there's now more information available if you haven't seen the actual thing in your Twitter interface yet (presumably they're rolling out the new feature to different groups of users at different times). You can view this video podcast from MediaShift for more information. This podcast runs for just under 30 minutes and includes a number of different people's points of view.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Book review: Australia's Second Chance, George Megalogenis (2015)

The author was on the air with the ABC earlier this year - about 6 months ago in fact - doing a show he wrote called Making Australia Great: Inside Our Longest Boom and this book draws on the same research he did for that series of programs.

It must strike anyone who reads this book - at least those, like me, who read almost half of it - that the roots of Australian democracy resided firmly and in complete neighbourly calm within the xenophobic quarters of the hearts of the colonists. In the late 1880s as the colonies were about to end a stunning run of two generations of unprecedented and world-beating economic growth the premiers of most of the colonies decided to start turning away Chinese migrants. A few years later when the global economy turned bad again the country would be facing its first depression, and it was immigration that might have helped them fight it. But at this moment colonial residents decided to shut the door in the faces of newcomers from the north.

It is at such moments as these that the otherwise-dry Megalogenis really shines. Here's what he writes at the end of Chapter 9, 'Centennial Tantrum: Closing the Doors':
[New South Wales governor Henry] Parkes said it himself: he did not care for the rule of law if it did not suit his view of the national interest. He saw a white Australia as a declaration of independence from Britain: the first step to nationhood. This was a meaner country than the one he had landed in half a century earlier. The old Australia wanted to be seen as a role model. This new Australia was bloated with self-importance.
Self-importance because "[Australia's] political economy, like its real economy, had made the dangerous assumption that the world owed it a living.

"This Australia no longer wished to set an example: it was issuing demands." Where earlier in the century Australia had led the world in wages growth and in the levels of democratic freedom it offered its residents, now it feared foreign competition and decided to merely shut the doors to new arrivals from Asia when what it should have done was to open them.

Britain's treaties with China mandated free access to its colonies by Chinese subjects of the Celestial Throne, but the colonists - not just powerful dignitaries like Henry Parkes, but just as equally run-of-the-mill Johnnys-in-the-street - refused to allow Chinese immigrants to step off the boats they arrived on from China. So began our shift to self-determination, in a sad twist of fate. It turns out that we had bigoted parents.

Until after WWII we grew to love foreigners again, so that today we are again one of the world's most prosperous nations. That's the thesis of Megalogenis' book in a nutshell. When we're open we prosper. When we shut the doors, we suffer economically. It's a good lesson to learn and it's not surprising that it took a journalist to teach it to us. It is also a timely lesson to remember in this age of anti-immigration political parties; the children of Pauline Hansen carry many acronyms.

But Megalogenis for all his ability to present adequate facts to support his analysis - and the analytical parts of the book, such as the chapter-closing quote I place above, shine the brightest of all - has written a rather prosaic work that for me failed the critical appetite test: if I eagerly went to the book at odd moments that are otherwise unoccupied during the day. It's also a book that largely ignores the consequences of settlement for the indigenous population of Australia.

There must be a way to write that book: the book that adequately deals with white settlement while at the same time detailing in a useful way the deleterious consequences for Aborigines of that settlement. So far I have not come across that book, but I would love to read it one day. Megalogenis' inspired book makes a fine start in that direction but it seems that our conception of the Aborigines has not been adequately integrated with our conception of who we are ourselves. As a nation we still have some distance to go down the track if we want to really understanding who we are, it seems.

Megalogenis does draw the past closer to the present through his analysis of the way settlement was performed, and especially the way democratic institutions were erected, by focusing on the matter of immigration. Immigration is a key part of our history and goes some way toward defining the character of every person living on the continent, including Aboriginal people. But we need something else that is situated in the present to draw upon in order to properly write Australia's history in a way that can include Aborigines in it in a meaningful and compelling way.

That thing might be a set of values surrounding a contemporary institution that gives prominence to the Aboriginal heritage of the continent. It might be something that defines a very special relationship between the Aborigines and the rest of the community living in Australia. Whatever it is, it will have to be something that goes to the very essence of who we believe we are - both Aboriginal people and the rest - and that does something to define our very identity. Once we have that thing in place we will be better situated to write the definitive history of Australia in a way that can suit everyone.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

TV review: Vera, prod Elaine Collins (launched 2011)

I've been gradually forgiving Sunday night for not being Monday night for some time now. In fact, it has been hard to forgive the weekend by any means since the Early ABC TV News does not screen on weekends and I have to wait until 7pm to get my media fix for the evening. It's distracting and unfair. Why? I ask myself ... Oh, if only the station producers knew in their bones how much ordinary people in the community rely on the news to keep them sane, they'd screen the Early News every night of the week!

But getting back to Sunday nights on the TV, it's been a while now since I've been gradually accommodating my senses to Vera, a British crime drama that has been running since 2011, and I must admit to having become a fan. It has been a while since a crime drama caught my attention, and probably the TV event prior to this that did so was the regular screening of the Kurt Wallander series. Of course I loved the Lisbet Salander series of novels by Stieg Larsson and read them several times each. I think what I loved about Salander most as a character was her eccentricity, if you can forgive that epithet. She was strange and flighty, irrational and frustrating, but quite whole as an artistic concept.

In the case of Vera you also get someone who stands apart. In this case, just being a middle-aged woman makes Vera Stanhope stand out because people in this class are usually completely overlooked. It's something you get used to when you reach middle age: the fact that everyone younger than you utterly ignores you. For an overweight woman from a working class background - the accent apparently is Geordie, which I learn from doing an internet search is the local accent of people living in the northeast of England around the city of Newcastle - the cloak of invisibility must have nary a chink in it.

However there's something strange that happens with this copper. Unlike with male DCIs (detective chief inspectors), with Vera it's the small voice that you bend your ear to hear. You find yourself actively listening in anticipation of what she'll say next. And what comes out next is as likely to be some solid piece of homespun philosophy as a direct command to a subordinate. She has that effect on you, Vera does. You find yourself listening carefully to what she'll next produce from that smooth and weathered face of hers.

The powerful female is a rarity even today in the world of TV and Vera Stanhope occupies a prominent position in the echelons of leading female roles on the small screen. Her bustling, busy presence is also one that is full of compassion and canny understanding of human frailties and eccentricities. She takes nothing that is said to her at face value but will also never be seen shouting down at some dumb crim from a position of dominance across the interview table, even though one of dominance is the position she occupies in most scenes when she appears on the screen. Author Ann Cleeves, who wrote the novels the TV series is based on, was born in 1954, and Brenda Blethyn, who plays Vera in the TV series, was born in 1946. There is much that most people can take away from this TV series. For someone of my vintage its lessons can be considered to be even more timely than they would be for most other people because of the small size of the age gap.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Living in an ocean of uncalm souls

But late in the afternoon you get this strange feeling that you are wanting something. You want everyone you know to feel well, and be happy. You want the world to be a better place. You just want everything to be alright. But nothing changes and you go on wanting as the roar of the city from over the tops of the buildings fades imperceptibly, tone by tone, into the eventual silence that you know will mean that it is night.

It's something like the feeling I had this morning when I was walking in a crowd of strangers over the pedestrian bridge that spans the highway and goes into the city. I felt that everyone looked the same, and I wanted to take on a different appearance, to dress in an outlandish fashion maybe, in order to break the concatenation of sameness that people were making in the streets. The feeling endured even after I came out of a pedestrian tunnel into a mall and the sign belonging to the large fashion brand that occupied the building presented itself to my eyes. In there, I thought, all these people who are dressed the same go to buy the clothes they want. It is because they actually want to feel the same as everyone else, and the company that satisfies that craving will benefit in the end.

I thought it might help if I had a tattoo made and affixed to some visible part of my anatomy. If I had a bird flying tattooed onto the back of my hand, a bird which passersby as they went by me could catch a glimpse of and that would make them think to themselves, "Not everyone has to look the same in this world. Maybe it would even make the world a better place if some people looked different."

And then as if by magic I thought of how when I was back living in Queensland for all those years I tried as much as possible to blend into the scenery in those lonely small-town streets because to stand out was to make yourself unnecessarily conspicuous. I thought how much my thinking had changed since I had moved south to the big city. Into this big city where I now live. Dreaming of a better place where before I only ever dreamed of living in the big city. Before. When I lived in that small town on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Now the ocean seems so far away even though I can get to it in less than an hour if I want to. I live in an ocean of uncalm souls and I dream of a better world.

Monday 12 October 2015

The silence we attach to suicide

When news hit today that Fairfax columnist Sam De Brito had been found dead at his North Bondi home the obvious question was: did he suicide? Because despite the fact that the writer of the story is the SMH's crime reporter, there was no information in the story about how he died. Which is secret code in the media for that silent killer, suicide.

On social media the response was heartfelt and immediate, especially from female journalists. I retweeted four tweets from this breed of online commenter before I had to go and get a haircut at Broadway. One of them pointed also to the last column De Brito wrote, one about co-sleeping with children. Some of them noted that he had a young daughter.

The media have problems with suicide. The traditional view goes that if you openly discuss it you might give someone who might otherwise not do it some unhealthy ideas. Hence the reticence surrounding the act, which has not been illegal for a long time in any Australian jurisdiction. The religious opprobrium attached to it is obviously just an obsolete hangover from another time when people cared what God thought about what they did in private. In Australia today only about eight percent of people go to church on a regular basis. We're over that nonsense. Now we only care what the law thinks of what we do in private. Which is as it should be.

But in the media the strange strictures and their attendant ellipses remain. There are ways to write about suicide that can be healthy and of positive use, of course, and there are guidelines available for the curious journalist faced with one of these stories who might have an inkling to go against the mainstream. It's just a matter of deciding to lift the scab off the wound of silence that still holds in place to this day in this country when it comes to talking about the taking of one's own life, which is something that is not against the law and therefore should not come with any shame attached.

De Brito was an uncommon writer of course. Liable to create long, complex sentences and to attempt to tackle difficult and often obscure subjects, he brought an active intelligence to play in a media environment where such talents are frequently hard to find. As such he should be remembered. And we should remember him. In all his varied shades and shapes. Including the fact that he killed himself.

Friday 9 October 2015

The verdict on Nine's The Verdict is in: it's a flop

I have to be honest to start with and say that I only watched about 20 minutes of the program before switching off and going to bed to read a book. I was tired and the program was frankly a disappointment, a conclusion others also came to: this from Fairfax and this from the Guardian echo my own feelings. It was basically a shout-fest with lots of ranty bits from promised loudmouths Mark Latham and Jacqui Lambie.

The only coherent participant seemed to be Anne Aly from Curtin University - who was recently also in the news talking about the #freekaren episode - as she is an expert on extremism generally. Watching her being mansplained by Latham was just painful. No participant was given free air to enable them to make their points and all had to fight for space in the broadcast against the most vocal members of the panel. Karl Stefanovic had none of Tony Jones' gravitas and was signally unable to stop people being talked over.

What the ABC did with #qanda of course was to build their program slowly from a low base into a successful franchise. The ABC are able to do this with new show ideas because they don't have the same commercial imperatives making decisions about which shows get to air. So they let things ride and slowly gain traction with the community and tweak the variables until they arrive at something solid. Channel Nine has apparently tried to fast-track this process because they can't afford to run something on the channel that doesn't have enough viewers. The result is this dog's breakfast.

The ABC has fine-tuned its program #qanda over years to the point where they can change small variables - such as switching panel members, or inviting a certain kind of question from the audience, or letting a certain kind of tweet onto the screen during the broadcast - in order to create substantial effects in viewer reaction. Their careful strategy and their use of panel moderation - so different from what resulted in Channel Nine's shouty ranting - has resulted in a program that people can trust. It seems that you can't easily replicate this kind of experience because The Verdict is a complete failure on all levels.

Thursday 8 October 2015

To maintain a free media you have to pay for news

It's like watching a slow-motion train wreck: you can see the disaster coming but there's nothing you can do to stop it. The forces are inexorable. On the one hand you have the tendency for corruption and illegality in society - even in government and in trusted institutions - and on the other hand you have the liberalising force of the internet, making information free and easy to copy. In the middle sit the mainstream media; those stalwart bodies that break stories on a regular basis and so make society better, safer, and more productive.

Actually there's another actor in the equation that I missed out on above: it's you, the reader. As Jonathan Holmes - who used to do the ABC's Media Watch program, but who now writes about the media for the two main Fairfax broadsheets - wrote yesterday, most people say they won't pay for news. So it might end up being that the only news outlet protecting us from the forces of criminality and venality in the community is the ABC (who yesterday told us that three of the Australia Post contractors who had been underpaying employees were let go; this story was originally broken by the ABC).

Now the media as an industry has many issues that might be best addressed and rectified but overall it does essential work. The media has preceded democracy in every country where that system of government has appeared. In fact, a free media is a precondition of democracy. Along with freedom comes responsibility but in general it is the same thing that corrupts the media - the forces of capital - as causes so many other problems in society. In order to keep both capital and government in line, the media plays an essential role. You would not like to live in a country that does not have a free media, believe me.

Soon this blog too will have a paywall, mainly because I am a bit fed up. I put up the 'donate' button over two years ago and not one person used it to send money my way. So now there will be a stronger incentive to pay. Either you don't give me some money, or you won't be able to read the site. Obviously it's your choice, but I am quite prepared to see the pageview statistics take a fall in the interests of a bit of lucre. I like having readers but I also think that my work has value and therefore should be compensated for. Dear reader, it's your choice. And don't forget: a free media comes with a cost.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Let's tell realistic stories about mental illness

Last night's ABC program Changing Minds showed parts of the personal stories of a number of inpatients at a psychiatric ward in a hospital in Sydney, including 20-year-old Taileah, pictured here. It is an ambitious task the broadcaster has set itself, as for most people the idea of a psychiatric ward is a kind of chamber of horrors where people go when they are beyond practical help. Yes, the stigma persists, but the program might go some way toward alleviating its power.

The rendering of mental illness in popular culture has long been exemplified for me by the cruel demise of Trip in Sophia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1999). The young man gains the trust and affection of Lux, one of the Lisbon sisters at the centre of the film's plot. From Wikipedia:
Trip comes over one night to the Lisbon residence to watch television and persuades Mr. Lisbon to allow him to take Lux to the upcoming Homecoming Dance by promising to provide dates for the other sisters, to go as a group. After winning Homecoming king and queen, Trip persuades Lux to ditch the group and have sex on the school's football field. Afterwards, Lux falls asleep and Trip, becoming disenchanted by Lux, abandons her. At dawn, Lux wakes up alone and has to take a taxi home. 
When next we see Trip he is in a psychiatric ward, about to take his medications. The austere and sanitised surroundings of the place reflect badly on him and his apparent mental collapse is rendered in the film as a moral failure. We are invited to view Trip's changed circumstances as a kind of poetic justice in favour of the departed Lux, whom he betrayed. So nothing can be worse than the inside of one of these facilities, in the colourful judgement of popular culture.

But things are changing. In Bernard Keane's recent novel Surveillance one of the characters hears voices in her head, and she must deal with this intrusion on a daily basis while negotiating the stresses and pressures of a full-time job. Emma Thomas is central to the plot but her mental issues require constant monitoring, and she frequently resorts to various medications in an effort to treat them. Emma is a sympathetic character who lives in meaningful symbiosis with her mental illness, and receives a kind of reprieve at the end of the story when her job prospects materially improve. More poetic justice, but of a kind that is signally different to the punishment meted out to poor Trip.

In my case ending up in a mental institution was a bit different because it happened when I was living overseas, in Japan. I remember the staff to all have been unfailingly kind and supportive. I played catch with one of the pretty nurses once, and on another occasion I played ping-pong with another inpatient, a young man who had succumbed to illness as a result of the use of narcotics. We ate our meals in the dining room three times a day. I remember having trouble getting to sleep in the men's ward area because the beds were all set up in one large room with only curtains separating them from each other. The doctors liked me because I was well-behaved and let me back out into the community after six weeks.

The thing is that a mental institution can quite easily be a mere waystation on the individual's journey from victim to a life of useful integration in the broader community. The thing to keep in mind is that mental illness can strike anyone at any time, and in any event - because people are living longer nowadays - most people end up living with Alzheimer's disease, a mental illness, anyway. One-in-five people over 80 will get dementia, and the ratio narrows to one-in-two by the age of 85. Rather than being exceptional, occasional mental problems are a routine part of life for the majority. It's time we started to tell more realistic stories about it.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Barangaroo is being overdeveloped

Yesterday I took a walk around Darling Harbour toward the top end of the CBD in an effort to visit Barangaroo Headland Park but I found that it takes an absolute age to get there. You find yourself in a set of new streets just up past the Macquarie Bank building, and then the fresh black macadam takes you to the right back to Hickson Road (what was once called "the Hungry Mile" during the Depression because this is where hopeful workers would congregate in the mornings in an effort to get employment at the docks during those terrible years).

Once you arrive at Hickson Road you have to turn left and walk for a good half kilometre past a series of fabric hoardings and chain-link fences. Behind these structures is empty land that in future is going to be filled with construction sites as the next phases of Barangaroo are built. At the present moment only the three office buildings for the south part of the overall site are being built. To come are buildings that include a new casino, which Sydney needs like a jogger needs hemorrhoids.

After walking for a good twenty minutes from your stating point in Darling Harbour you get to the park. All the good land to the south of the park is taken up with just more ugly development to come. It is a real letdown. The state government should be ashamed of itself to allow good useful parkland to be taken up by useless developments like the new Packer casino. Noone wants it and it should be scrapped. It's a complete joke. The people of Sydney deserve more, but their short-sighted politicians only see the dollar sign when it comes to the use of public land near the city. I came away from my little walk disappointed and angry at the scale of this lost opportunity.

Monday 5 October 2015

Movie review: The Martian, dir Ridley Scott (2015)

A movie with a directorial assignment like that you'd have to be rooting for. Ridley Scott's filmography reads like a Who's Who of brilliance, including as it does the first Alien film (1979) and the classic sci-fi dystopian thriller Blade Runner (1982). He is obviously a genius and so for the man to pick up tools once more to do something useful for humanity you're not surprised that it's a movie that celebrates pure competence above every other consideration.

I might sound overly Romantic in this assessment but this movie describes a world I want to live in. It is a world where superpowers unite in a concerted effort to resolve insurmountable problems, where women are treated as equally able to lead as men, and where it is brains - rather than brawn or a narrow type of physical courage alone - that shines when things turn pear-shaped. A movie that ends with the classic camp anthem 'I Will Survive' (1979) by Gloria Gaynor, that also featured in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1992), another film about a trip on a red planet.

So if you come out of the movie thinking that this was just a slick piece of mental chewing gum, I tell you that I enjoyed the heck out of it. The casting was superb, the timing of the songs was magnificent - especially when David Bowie's 'Starman', from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), and ABBA's 'Waterloo' (1974) kick in - and the overall triumph in the story of the nerds was unsurpassably delicious, especially in our age where the technocrats are in the ascendant on account of the pervasive influence of the internet.

The story is remarkably simple yet effective. The plot is pushed along by the intellect and passions of a group of men and women following the fortunes of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a biologist with a Mars mission who gets left for dead when a severe storm strikes his expedition and the rest of the crew embark for earth. Using his unique scientific knowledge, Watney works out how to extend his meagre rations for the time left until the next Mars mission is due to arrive on the red planet by parlaying a vacuum-packed bag of potatoes into a workable crop of potato plants. Back on earth, a NASA team led by Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discover by accident that the abandoned Watney is still alive. Using equipment they have to take out of storage, equipment dating back to the first unmanned Mars missions, they establish communications with Watney and work with him to help him overcome his difficulties.

When the rocket launching the relief payload NASA has prepared to extend Watney's rations explodes during take-off, however, things take a distinctly negative turn until a young physicist named Rich Purness (Donald Glover) at an affiliated agency comes up with a plan to slingshot the returning Hermes spaceship - the craft carrying the rest of the mission crew, which is captained by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), back to earth - around the earth and back to Mars, and the head of China's space agency Guo Ming (Eddy Ko) decides to step in to help.

Sunday 4 October 2015

Island Press 45 year celebration at the Harold Park Hotel

On stage, from left: Martin Langford, Les Wicks,
Philip Hammial, Roberta Lowing.
This was a pretty unusual event in the Sydney culture calendar but it gave people like me who enjoy poetry as a unique form of cultural expression an opportunity to touch base with peers. The email notification for the event was from Roberta Lowing, who had previously been responsible for organising reading nights at Sappho Books in Glebe (although she doesn't do that job anymore).

Island Press is also a pretty unusual institution in Australian poetry. Established in 1970, at the time and for decades into the future it gave local poets an outlet who might not match the publishing criteria of poetry stalwarts Oxford University Press or Angus & Robertson, then the only two houses putting out poetry (I learned at the event). In 1979 the founding editor Philip Roberts returned to his native Canada and handed operations to Philip Hammial (see pic). The press went on to become a stalwart itself in the Australian poetry scene, publishing early works by some of our most renowned poets.

For me the location of the event at the Harold Park Hotel had added significance as there had been many evenings of readings by poets and others in my early days in the 1980s at this place. On Saturday the crowd who turned out for the Island Press event tended in general toward the senior end of the age spectrum but there were younger people present as well.

During the afternoon's program I spoke at length with a woman who turned out to be the mother of Roberta Lowing (see pic). Early in the proceedings Roberta read from a new book of her poetry that has been published by Island Press. Her mother Pat was originally from Queensland and in her youth attended the University of Queensland.

Two other meetings on the day were notable for me. I met Adam Aitken and Richard James Allen, who are both well-known Sydney poets but who also used to work with me on the young poetry magazine Neos during the early-to-mid-80s. The doyen of that venture was Neil Whitfield, then a Sydney secondary school teacher but who is now retired. Neil unfortunately was not at the Island Press event yesterday. It was nice to meet up with these old friends again after such a long period spent doing other things apart from nurturing poetry. As I mentioned to Pat, we all undertook the entire range of tasks required to bring out a magazine, from selection of the poems to publish, to editing and typesetting and layout, through to distribution in bookshops.

It was a grand adventure. And from listening to the current editors of Island Press, who were seated during the afternoon on the stage, the same can be said for that imprint as well. As someone said during the proceedings, you get involved in this type of activity for no other reason than that you have a passion for it. There is no other word adequate to describe what it means to publish poetry in contemporary Australia.

Thursday 1 October 2015

News about mum is there's nothing much that's new

This is what often happens when I go up to see mum in the nursing home. We will normally make a FaceTime call to my brother in the US and then after that is finished we will get ready to go outside. We'll go for a walk in the park today when I go up to the nursing home because the weather is rather good.

In the park we'll sit and watch the dogs. People bring their dogs to the sports field inside the park because it is a designated leash-off place, where they can let their dogs run around and sniff things, in the way dogs like to do. We sit on a park bench and watch the walkers and their dogs make rounds of the oval. The dogs may go running off to retrieve a ball, or else cavort happily as one dog greets the dog belonging to another master.

Once we return inside though we might have 30 minutes before lunch is scheduled to be served, so we'll go back to mum's room and she will then lie down on the bed and zizz off. The bed or the chair, she doesn't mind. She has no trouble catching a few zeds wherever she find herself.

On the health front, we went to an imaging lab not long ago to check her heart function and as the GP suspected she has heart failure, which must then be added to the list of other major health problems mum faces. Those are the myelodysplastic syndrome and the Alzheimer's disease. With all these things to deal with it's good that I managed to get mum into a good nursing home. She often says to me, "I think you did very well to find this place" or else "I don't mind staying here, we don't need to move" and I just nod quietly, happy that mum is not bothered by her surroundings. She has been in permanent aged care since December.

One thing that had bothered me was mum's relationship with her friend in the nursing home who I have elsewhere referred to as H. In my mind H is rather sharp in the mouth. She often says things that obviously trouble mum, or that might wound her, but mum usually responds to these barbs with silence. Other than that they seem to get along well. When I arrive at the nursing home on one of my visiting days I might find mum sitting on her wheeled walker inside H's room. It appears that they sit and talk and keep each other company for long stretches of time.

I have decided to keep my mouth closed about my concerns with H when it comes to the nursing home staff, although from things they have said over the months it is clear that they know what kind of person H is. She is a bossy person, and can be a bit of a bully. She tends to call out to the nursing staff from her room by yelling "Nursey, nursey!" from where she is sitting in her chair. This can be caused by any manner of concern, and even by nothing at all, it seems. She just needs to be fussed over and looked after. Sometimes when I am there she will call out like this a few times and then she will switch to calling out "Jude, Jude!" in an effort to attract my mother's attention. Mum will often just continue to sit in her chair, unfussed. I think in many ways she has become accustomed to H and her habits.