Wednesday 31 October 2018

Book review: Veronica, Mary Gaitskill (2005)

This strange novel emotes frantically about many things that seem central to modern society but I fear in the end it’s merely an indictment of the American education system. It has in it some of the odd-shaped ideas that Virginia Woolf discovered for use in her novels.

This the story of Alison Owen who in the early 1980s (I presume) leaves home when she’s still a minor and travels from New Jersey to San Francisco and does odd jobs – selling flowers to couples leaving restaurants is the most prominent – but then gets caught up in modelling. The gigs she lands take her to Paris where the abuse she has already suffered continues and she ends up back in the States. She befriends a woman she works with for a time at an agency that fills temporary roles in offices, whose lover, a man named Duncan, contracts AIDS and dies. The woman, Veronica, also comes down with the disease and it is the friendship that endures between the two women in the face of the stigma that attached to the disease at the time that animates the narrative. In the end, Veronica of course dies but the friendship ends up being the only thing that contributes to engendering a sense of purpose for Alison in her topsy-turvy life.

You wonder about the quality of the feelings that Alison experiences, and also about the ways she realises them in her life, that enable her to live such a ramshackle existence. One day in Los Angeles, she is in a car accident as she is being driven to a job by a friend named John. Complications stemming from that event continue to plague her throughout her life and on top of that she contracts hepatitis. One of her sisters, Sara, works in a nursing home and the other, Daphne, has a steady job and a family, but Alison just has her memories of Veronica to comfort her in her middle age and afterward.

The other thing to note here is the lack of universal health care: you have to keep a job in order to get health insurance and without health insurance you can’t afford to pay the doctors you need to treat the disease that is slowly killing you. It’s a sad state of affairs that American still struggles with today.

Gaitskill’s writing is impressionistic and evocative, but the way that Alison appears throughout the story does little to give you much confidence about her judgement. She seems always to be dealing in a line that you might not want to take home and is nothing if not an unreliable narrator. The introduction to the novel was written in about 2014 and in it the author describes how she had met a woman named June who, in 1987, came down with AIDS. She describes June’s personality and the way her essential humanity had always made itself apparent through the mask of her public persona. The book was written in a first draft in 1992.

Alison might therefore be taken as a version, in many respects, of the author. If so, it is a strange personality you find here. Alison seems in the final analysis to live by maxims learned from listening to songs played on juke boxes, which is a kind of existential failing that she might have inherited from her father, who also loves music. In the introduction, Gaitskill recounts how she had moved from New York to Marin County, in California, and had then occupied a house for the first time in her life. She also says that it was then that she for the first time in her life owned a TV. She also says she read magazines. You wonder when you read her novel if her character Alison ever reads a book, but there is no evidence in it of such an occurrence. Presumably Gaitskill herself did read novels of some sort before attempting to write one of her own.

The mixing up of the protagonist and the author in the preceding paragraph is something I am aware of, and I apologise for any confusion that might have entailed. I have tried to keep the two distinct, but it seems to me that this novel is an early exemplar of the kind of novel that is written based on autobiographical material. There are many authors these days who do this, From Karl Ove Knausgaard to Rachel Cusk. But Gaitskill was an innovator in this sense, and should be acknowledged as such.

Tuesday 30 October 2018

The sound of the waves

It started to rain as I left home in the morning to go into the CBD and by the time I had arrived there it was coming down heavily. The sun was shining from part of the sky at the same time as the drops fell onto the pavement. In Martin Place, men and women wearing yellow raincoats were giving away to people walking in the thoroughfare yellow-and-green umbrellas that had the logo of a travel insurance company printed on them.

Later I drove the car to the Shell station and put $55-worth of petrol in the car. The pavement near the pump vibrated sensibly as the liquid entered the car's tank, although I could not feel its flow in my hand where it gripped the nozzle's trigger. The sales clerk behind the counter told me "Have a great day" after I paid using EFTPOS and as I turned around to head back to the door of the shop, which I pushed with my hand to open. The car started normally and I watched the fuel gauge indicator zip to the top of the dial as the engine turned over smoothly.

Back at home in the mid-afternoon I was sitting watching Twitter as usual when loud music started up in the apartment next to mine. From outside the windows I could hear machinery operating at the site where they are putting up an office tower. Its mechanical noise blended with the heavy bass beats of the music coming from next door, and I remembered how I had quailed inwardly when my downstairs neighbour had made noise, in the years when I lived in southeast Queensland.

At that time, my home was on the second floor of a building that faced a park looked after by the municipal council. Rugby union teams played there on weekends and on some Thursday evenings a gridiron team practiced in the park. Utility vehicles belonging to tradesmen would be lined up in the parking bays that flanked the grass on my side of the expanse, in the middle of which, behind the clubhouse, stood a huge, olive-green paperbark tree with squiggly branches that was a resort for magpies and other birds that lived in the area. Magpies would sit and carol on the balustrade of my balcony in the early morning sunshine, and bananabirds would come to feast on the aloe flower that grew in a pot in the corner.

From the front windows facing it I could hear the surf as it struck the beach that lay to the east on the other side of the residential area. The beach sat beside the Pacific Ocean. To the north lay a river estuary and beyond that Mount Coolum rose like a woman’s breast from the plane where an airport had been laid out.

My unit had a light well near the front door that allowed noise from above and below to filter into it. I remember going down to the building’s entrance and at the front door buzzing my downstairs neighbour’s unit on the intercom after he had started playing music on his stereo, so that I could protest the intrusion. I once called the police and they came in a patrol car and addressed the residents of the ground-floor unit, which was not where my neighbour lived. On another occasion, the police came when I called and I gave them access to my unit, where they listened to the sound of the waves coming from the east and told me that they would not take the matter any further.

In the end I had a tradesman come in and put up a screen of louvred panes to block out the music and other noise that came from other apartments in the building. There had been plastic plants sitting in tubs amid a scree of smooth, white pebbles sitting in the enclosure that had been made within the light well, and all this was finally put behind frosted glass. The effect of moving air, which is so important in the tropics, was blocked off in order to enable more privacy and so that I could enjoy the sound of the waves uninterrupted. After I moved back to Sydney and put my mother in a nursing home there, I sold that apartment for $42,000 (plus inflation) less than had been paid for it five-and-a-half years earlier. The money resulting from the transaction was used for the deposit for my mother’s room in the nursing home, which its operator used to generate income and which was refunded once the contract terminated upon her death.

Now, living in the city, I am surrounded by the noises of humanity and nature is almost entirely absent, although currawongs land on the balustrade of my balcony from time to time, swivelling their dark heads from side to side and gawking at the space in front of my building. The bass beat from next door is, if anything, a welcome distraction from the clanking, hammering and droning that comes daily from the building site up the road.

Late in the afternoon when I went out to do some grocery shopping I was reminded of the ubiquity of technology in the city by a man riding an electric motorised unicycle on the pavement outside a renovated heritage building that is leased to commercial tenants for their offices. The sound the machine made as he rode it on the slick pavement, slippery with recent rain, was like that which is made by imperial fighters in ‘Star Wars’ movies. But at the supermarket when I went to pay with my debit card and when I asked “EFTPOS ok?”, the young woman with dark skin who stood behind the counter said, enquiringly, “Effpos?”, not understanding what I meant. I held up a plastic card in the space between us and she tapped at her screen to activate the transaction machine, which I used to pay the amount due for the goods that sat in my backpack: ling and snapper fillets, salami, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, broccoli, green beans, asparagus, bread and cheese. When I got home my apartment was silent.

My neighbour is a tall New Zealander and I meet him near the lifts from time to time. We say “Hello” to each other and make small talk when we pass in the corridor. He is friendly and he smiles at me and I have no intention of interrupting his enjoyment of music.

Monday 29 October 2018

One day in Wedderburn

It was the second Sunday in October and it had been raining in Sydney for two weeks. The eastern states of Australia had been in drought. I got up at the usual time that morning and logged into social media then drank my coffee and watched it until, just before 10am, I got in the car and drove to Alexandria. I parked on Botany Road and went to a house on the street and pressed the buzzer. When nothing happened I used Facebook Messenger to send a message to my friend and he came around the corner behind me carrying two bags.

He crossed the road during a break in the traffic and used the hand that held a set of car keys to shake my hand, then he went to a blue car parked off the street in a marked bay and unlocked the hatch at its rear. From inside the vehicle, he took out some other bags and we then crossed the road and put all the bags in the boot of my car. I got in the driver’s seat and did a U-turn so that we could pick up some pastries at a bakery nearby. We did that then picked up three other people so that by the end of the process in addition to bags filled with the cut halves of almond croissants and a baguette of white French bread there were three men and two women in the car. It was a bit sluggish, somewhat like a marshmallow might be if it had a steering wheel attached to it, as I drove down the curving access ramp to the traffic-filled carriageway of the M5, heading southeast. I stayed under the speed limit for most of the trip, which in all took about an hour, and drove defensively. It rained from time to time and the traffic was moderate; due to variable weather most people had chosen to stay at home.

We took the first available exit on the north side of Campbelltown and drove past a number of fast-food restaurants and car dealerships, turning into different streets from time to time until we were winding down a steep hillside through untouched forest, the big eucalypts creating depth and mystery where they stood as still as sentinels. One curve had a sign before it that recommended a speed of 35km per hour; it was a left turn and then there was a delicate right turn and then the road plunged into a gully where was a bridge across a stream then untroubled but that would, given enough rain, flood and stop traffic. On the other side of the dip the car crawled up the incline at 20km per hour and a string of cars banked up behind us as we climbed the twisty hill with its trees and its gorgeous silence.

Soon we were driving through farmland where native trees had been thinned out to make way for grassy swards. Gates delivered driveways to the road we were travelling on and the cars that had accumulated behind me took off ahead, one by one, crossing the broken white line and accelerating down the road to their destinations. We took one more left and soon turned in at the gate of a farm where a big house stood. A dog, chained near a doghouse near the front of the building, barked demonstratively. To our right stood rows of peach trees each of which had many small, unripe fruit attached to their branches. The leaves were bright green and looped in graceful curves. Each tree was less than the height of a man and had spreading branches. Beneath the canopy they made lay dark topsoil and between each row of trees grew weeds.

The five of us unloaded the car and walked to the house’s back entrance. Inside, there was a large space with terrazzo floors made up of pieces of different-coloured stone that had been set in polished white cement. Ornate carpets that were mainly pink and had a design that looked Persian had been placed over the floor covering part of the room. Leather couches and comfortable leather chairs were set along two walls that met at a corner, and near them was a large dining table with eight chairs set around it. Above the southern end of the table was a framed picture of a man that was intended to portray Jesus. On top of a coffee table in the middle of the carpet was a large bowl filled with artificial fruit that was so realistic that one of our party said she might eat a piece. People laughed and were soon sitting at the dining table eating food that had been prepared by my friend’s sister. There was a lentil dish, a cabbage salad, a Greek-style salad made with tomatoes and onions and asparagus and tiny bocconcini each of which was the size of the tip of your thumb, a Mexican salsa made with black beans and tomatoes which was not particularly spicy, and a quiche made with spinach.

After eating, three of us went for a walk past the orchards to a dam partially filled with water that lay at the end of the property. Kangaroo scats dotted the grass and we placed our feet gingerly between them. One of our number was a Frenchman who lived part of the year in Spain and we talked about Salvador Dali. Later, the five of us walked across the public road to an orchard that was completely covered by netting strung on poles that had been set in the ground, to protect the fruit from hail. The orchard was situated next to a dam, this one also partially filled with water. Among the trees, the weeds growing between the rows were wet with rain and lush with new growth. We left the orchard and walked past another dam, which was empty and which had been dug out recently, exposing pink clayey earth.

We sat in chairs on the verandah of the house of my friend’s brother and talked. There was a digital clock on the wall of the house that had a design featuring the emblem and colours of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, the rugby league football team.

My friend’s parents had migrated from Lebanon and their children mostly still lived on the same section of land the couple had settled more than a generation earlier. My friend went off to go back to the other house to use the lavatory and after it had started raining another one of his brothers drove up. We all got into his small white car and he took us on a circuitous route through the orchards on both sides of the road as he explained the work of the farmer. I asked about pollination and he said that in the spring the bees just come from the forest, where they also feed on the nectar produced by eucalypts, which also reproduce by flowering. He told us about the age at which trees need to grow before they will produce fruit, and the age at which a tree is first used to grow a crop. When crossing the public road he stopped the car and looked both ways before continuing to the orchards on the other side of it.

He showed us young trees that had had the fruit taken from the ends of their branches so that they would grow straight in the absence of a burden. Grey rotten fruit sat on the ground around the bases of their trunks. He told us that different varieties of peach are grown in order to stagger the ripening on the farm to enable a limited number of pickers to harvest the fruit so that it can be successfully taken to market. He showed us the shed where machinery had been set up to defuzz the fruit and to allow it to be graded before it was put into boxes ready for transportation. He told us that farmers are mainly price takers and that they are often at the mercy of wholesalers, who give a price at the time the produce is delivered, which is a long time after it has started to grow.

He parked the car at the front of the house on his property, which was located beside the house we had had lunch in, and showed us the structures covered in thick plastic where he grew tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables. Picking up a length of white plastic pipe, he demonstrated how he pollinates the tomato plants, which were ranked in rows along the entire length of the plastic enclosure, and which had black cords functioning as vertical supports to hold up their delicate stems. By knocking on the horizontal wires these cords were attached to, vibrations were transmitted to the plants which performed the function that bees usually perform, loosening the pollen and spreading it to the small yellow flowers’ female parts. We left the growing area and sat in a covered structure which had a concrete floor that had been built over a water tank that could contain 130,000 litres. None of the houses were connected to a town water supply and sewage was held in septic tanks, one of which was located near where we sat.

In the moisture-laden atmosphere, from the hill the Blue Mountains loomed on the horizon to the northwest. I drank a sweet beer that had a delicate flavour and some of the party tried unsuccessfully to set up an internet connection for the brother’s TV, which was mounted on a wall of the enclosure. From time to time he consulted with another person using his mobile phone. He closed the curtains on the south side of the building after some of our party complained about the temperature but soon we all got up from where we were sitting around a circular table, took off our shoes, and entered his house.

Inside at the top of one wall, which faced north, near the ceiling, which was clad in cedar, was a round, stained-glass window. The floor of the large room we were in was also wooden and in the corner were two green plaid couches and some chairs that had the same cloth covering. Near them was a clean kitchen and the house looked as though it had been constructed much later than the other house we had been in, possibly even as recently as the last 10 years. We sat down and some of us ate raw broad beans, which had a fresh, uncomplicated flavour. Some of them had small sprouts that had started to grow out of the top of the seeds, ready to germinate if put in the soil and watered. The brother told us the story of the coloured window, which he had commissioned from an elderly man who worked in the area. He had paid $220 for the work. The man had at first apologised about the sum he would ask for the thing and the brother was concerned that it might have been an amount in the thousands, and when he learned the asking price he was dumbfounded and paid immediately.

The story about the manufacture and purchase of the object was as important as its design and I would think about it the next day as I was writing the account you are now reading. The window showed a scene with a brown flower in the centre of the design and variously-shaped, roughly-rectangular pieces set around it making up a pond of water on which the flower sat, its petals thrusting into the air. Pieces of green glass that were set in the design were meant to represent the plant’s leaves. A ring of curved glass strips made a frame for the whole, which was set in the wall along with a regular glass window that had been installed outside it to keep out the weather.

The window had a purely decorative function but it enabled the sharing of stories that helped to create community for people who saw it and talked about it. It’s lines and planes were abstract and when considered in isolation they were limited in their ability to create meaning, but put together will talent and skill they formed a harmonious whole. I would think while writing this about society’s current preoccupation with authenticity and with the origins of things, a need that is fed by stories like the one my friend’s brother told. You see this kind of storytelling all the time on social media and in the mainstream media, and it forms the basis, in some cases, for entire businesses, for example food retailers and restaurants. The episode also spoke of our need to create meaning, often secondary meaning, when we talk about specific things in the world, and how in all spheres of our lives we imbue the things around us with special significance. One of our party, who was Chinese, spoke on more than one occasion during the day about fairy tales that are told to children in her native country and that feature the peach, a fruit that had been burdened with mystical significance in the millennia during which it had been cultivated there before being exported, via Persia, to arrive in Europe at that latest by the 1st century CE.

After a period of time talking while seated in a corner of the house’s living area, we walked out of it, put on our shoes, went past rows of vegetables, some of which had died but had not yet been replaced, and reentered the first house we had been in. Here, we sat around the table and took plates which we filled in the kitchen with leftovers from lunch. My friend put a lasagne in the oven and turned on the appliance, and when the dish was ready we ate pieces of it which were very hot. His other sister arrived and told us about her daughter’s planned wedding and about how the young woman had lost her job at an accounting firm just before the event was scheduled to take place. Luckily, she had quickly found another job. My friend’s brother was also there and with the sister whose daughter was getting married, he ate food that was gluten-free because of a health condition they both shared. His wife arrived later and the conversation in the room became lively. Seated at one end of the table, three of us talked about Tang-era Chinese poetry and forgiveness while the family sat on the couches and talked animatedly about the impending wedding and other things that they shared. It was soon time to go and the foot massages had all been finished so we put the bags of unused food in the car, along with a large cooking pot, that was clean, and did a U-turn to leave the property.

It was raining lightly as I drove along the dark road, decelerating from time to time in order to negotiate the curves. There were no street lights for most of this part of the journey and as we approached the dreaded gully a car came up on the road behind us, sitting right on my bumper and tailgating me as I manoeuvred our car down across the bridge and then up the steep incline on its other side. My car struggled to make progress, as it had done before when we had arrived in the forest, and when we reached a place where the road had a shoulder I pulled onto it to let the car behind us pass. Before long we were back on lit streets with houses and traffic lights and restaurants and car dealerships. Beyond that, we hit the motorway and as I had done earlier I kept to the left lane except where the interchange to the M7 makes it necessary to move to one of the right-hand lanes to avoid going on the wrong road.

I had asked my friend if the peach crop would be good this year and he had said it would be if the rain continued, although he had mentioned while we were in a nectarine orchard that too much water at the wrong time can cause the purple fruit to split. Now I mentioned that they had had hail in southeast Queensland that had damaged peach trees the fruit of which was ready to pick. We drove on and exited the tunnel at the Princes Highway and soon we were dropping people off at their homes. The Frenchman was dropped off at his hotel and I said “Salut” to him as he got out of the car. “Salut,” he replied, before adding, “Au revoir!” When I got home I found a water bottle on the floor in front of the back seat that was partly made from pink plastic. In the container’s transparent middle, visible in the clear liquid, were a thick pebble about the size of a dollar coin that was the colour of lapis lazuli, and what appeared to be a milky white crystal, one end of which was shaped like a pyramid. Its flat sides terminated in a point.

Sunday 28 October 2018

Book review: Do Everything in the Dark, Gary Indiana (2003)

When I was a young man and was still asking questions about who I was I met a man in a disco on Oxford Street in Darlinghurst who was very ironic. He was also clearly gay. I used to visit him in his house on a street in the same suburb and one day he took me in his car to Enmore where tradesmen he had contracted to do work for him were in the process of renovating a terrace house. In my poetry I call him Arturo but I don’t remember his name. He lived on the fringes of social acceptability and this was what drew me to him. He worked for the post office and his boyfriend’s name was January. January studied Arabic.

I visited another house in Darlinghurst one day after a party that had been held at my house in Newtown. I had met a girl there and we had danced to ‘New York, New York’. Back at her place she took off her shirt and raked my chest with her fingernails. I was confused and soon left. I don’t remember her name but she and the man I have named Arturo remind me of Gary Indiana. There is a certain superficiality in the case, a pose that you strike for the purpose of making an impression, but this is as deep as you get, this place situated just below the surface of life, where dreams come to either live or die.

There is no attempt in this book to create a singular place where ideas and feelings can be explored. The only guarantee of usefulness you have is one that is based entirely on whether something has been experienced by the author in his wanderings in New York or Los Angeles. Name-dropping is par for the course. But within this restricted circle of friends and acquaintances the drama, if that is what is on offer, plays out in a desultory fashion. It’s all frightfully conventional, like a second-hand version of Kapuscinski or a forgery that is meant to look like a Miro. The currency used in this world is all at one remove from originality, rooted firmly in a facsimile of sensation that leaves the visitor wondering what all the fuss was all about.

Saturday 27 October 2018

The ALP’s negative gearing policy in the run-up to the 2019 federal election

The other day I had a long Twitter conversation with a person who ended up huffily insisting I refer to him as “professor” because he is an academic at an Australian university. I had merely referred to him by his surname but he evidently though I wasn’t displaying enough deference. His field is one that is completely divorced from the thing we were talking about, which was the ALP’s policy on negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions. I have seen this person on TV on a panel show and in general he is left-of-centre politically. He is American.

The conversation covered a lot of ground but his main problem with negative gearing seemed to be a belief that people buy properties and leave them unoccupied, so relying merely on the capital gain the property would attract to offset any loss they might incur from eschewing rent. He seems to think that Australians routinely buy properties and leave them empty, thus pushing up rents. But the evidence does not suggest that this practice is at all widespread. In a 2017 story published in Domain, Dr Cameron Murray, an economist specialising in property markets and environmental economics who taught at the time at the University of Queensland, said that out of a total of 9.7 million homes in the country about 300,000 properties were empty at any one time, representing about three percent of the total stock.

There may be many reasons for a home being empty, and it might be completely unrelated to an investor trying to exploit the tax system for personal gain. The property might be left vacant because the owner is intending to sell soon and a vacant possession might be more valuable than a tenanted one. The home might be part of a deceased estate. It may be rented out for part of the year and left vacant for the rest of the time. It might be a holiday home that a family only uses for a month or so during the year. Or it may be owned by someone who is intending to let a family member or friend live there, but in the meantime does not want the problem of having to remove a tenant. There could be any number of reasons for a property lying vacant for an extended period of time. Water usage is the method Murray used to derive his figure. The Australian Bureau of Statistics regularly finds that about 10 percent of properties in the country are vacant on Census night. Again, there are many reasons why this might be the case. So the person I was arguing with has merely taken a single random idea out of thin air and turned it into a primary objection to a policy that has been in place for generations. And he accused me of relying on intuition while insisting that he had evidence.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) currently has virtually admitted that removing the negative gearing concession for the taxation of income will reduce the amount of housing stock, because it has said it will still allow negative gearing on newly-constructed properties. Party strategists are likely mindful of the rent increases that resulted in the 1990s when an earlier Labor government removed the ability for investors to negatively gear their property costs. At that time, after removing the concession the party quickly put it back in place due to community concerns.

The party has also said that it will reduce the capital gains tax discount, which you can claim for keeping a property for more than one year, from 50 percent to 25 percent. As with the negative gearing policy, for properties owned since before the law change comes into effect the exemption would be grandfathered.

My accountant says that the ALP’s policy will certainly change before or after the election due to pressure from interested parties. He suggests that it is simply too early to say which way the ALP will go on either matter. At present, new housing approvals are down 13 percent on the level they were at the previous year, suggesting that construction of housing is being affected by the current market downturn with less investor interest in new builds, and that as a result there will be a housing shortfall in the medium term that will push up rents.

One thing to keep in mind is that ownership of investment properties in Australia is very widespread. Approximately ten percent of Australians aged 25 and over own at least one investment property, a rate that is much higher than what applies in the US. Australia recently claimed the global mantle for personal wealth, as well, displacing Switzerland. The average Australian is much better-off than the average American.

UPDATE 2 November 2018 8.20am: A subsequent story in the Sydney Morning Herald by journalist Jessica Irvine on negative gearing noted that there are 2.1 million Australians who own at least one investment property, equivalent to 12 percent of the adult population. So my figures in this blogpost were an underestimate.

Friday 26 October 2018

What to do if a taxi won’t accept your fare

The other day, a weekday (it would have been my mother’s birthday had she still been alive), I was in the centre of the city of Sydney at mid-morning and I needed to get home quickly so I went to Market Street where the taxi rank is located and went to the door of the first cab in it. The driver asked me where I was going and I said it didn’t matter where I was going, he had to take my fare. He would not unlock the door and so I went to the second taxi in the rank and told its driver I wanted to go to Pyrmont. He pointed to the taxi in front and said I had to take that one, but I told him the driver would not take my fare. He still would not open the door, so I went back to the first cab and told him I wanted to go to Pyrmont. He said, “If you tell me I have to take you I will not take you.”

The driver, who had dark skin and spoke English with an accent, still would not open the door, as he was, I thought, waiting for an apology. I went back to the second cab and told the driver of the first cab would not take me, but the second taxi’s driver also refused to open his door. So I crossed the street, hailed a cab that was moving in the carriageway, and got into its passenger seat. Once I had buckled the seatbelt, I told the driver what had just happened and he said that the first driver had been wrong: a NSW taxi cannot refuse a fare based on your destination. I took out my mobile phone and noted down the number of the taxi the driver of which had refused to unlock his door for me, and also noted down the name of the company that operated his cab.

Once I got home, I went to the NSW Taxi Council’s website and lodged a complaint and also lodged one with the taxi company, which was 13 CABS. The taxi company sent me an automated response very quickly, which contained a ticket number. The email told me that someone would review the complaint and get back to me.

Less than an hour after lodging the website complaints, an email arrived from the NSW government telling me that they did not look into complaints about taxi drivers, and told me to talk to the taxi company involved. I phoned the feedback number that is listed on the Transport for NSW website but the operator there told me to contact the relevant taxi company.

After lunch I visited the NSW Ombudsman’s website and read about making complaints there. The web page referred me to NSW Fair Trading and I filled out the form they provide on their website for service complaints, then submitted the form to their server. About thirty minutes after making the submission I received an automated email from them in reference to my complaint telling me that they would try to finalise the complaint within 30 days. The email said that they would contact all parties involved in order to do this.

Late the next afternoon an email arrived from the taxi company thanking me for the information I had sent. It also said that the complaint would be looked into by the company’s driver services team. “We appreciate you taking the time to advise us of this experience, and apologise for the lack of service you have received,” the email went on. There was also a receipt number in the body of the email.

At about 3.45pm five days after the event described at the beginning of this blogpost, I received a phone call from NSW Fair Trading during which I gave more details to the caller, who identified herself as “Kate”, than I had in the website submission I had earlier made to the organisation.  Usually, she told me, a resolution took the form of a refund in cases where a contract had been entered into, but in my case she noted that I had merely asked for appropriate training to be given to the driver. She told me that she would call me back in due course when they had finalised the matter, and said that this would happen within 30 days of the complaint being made. I thanked her and hung up.

Just before midday three days later, Kate called me while I was driving and left a message. I phoned back and spoke with a colleague of hers, who told me that the cab company had lodged my complaint on the driver’s permanent record. She also told me that the company had offered to give me $50 in free cab fares, but I said I wasn’t interested in accepting this gesture of goodwill. She also told me that the case would now be closed. A little later the same day, after I had hung up from that call, Kate called me back and explained that the taxi company had said it would be giving the driver in my case customer training. I asked if the company accepted that the driver had done the wrong thing and she said, “Yes.” She said that it was against the law for drivers to pick fares based on the travel distance, and that the company in question tells its drivers that often the fare turns out to be bigger than at first anticipated.

Thursday 25 October 2018

Book review: So Much Blue, Percival Everett (2017)

This wistful novel by a major African-American author contains three separate threads that are worked out in alternating chapters that are uniformly short and punchy. All are tied together by the theme of secrets, of lies that are spoken and that continue to influence a person’s life for decades.

One of the threads is about Kevin and his friend Richard and it takes place in 1979 when the two young men travel to El Salvador to find Richard’s brother Tad and bring him back home. Tad has been out of contact and his family had started to worry about him. In the nation’s capital, they meet a man they are introduced to as the Bummer who is a kind of fixer and he takes them out into the countryside in search of the lost brother. The country is on the verge of civil war and the streets are full of soldiers. They meet a man named Carlos who is from the Netherlands and who makes a living helping the relatives of the dead to identify their loved ones. Kevin, who is African-American, develops an intense dislike for him that is not explained. The story unfolds at a fast pace and the cuts are dramatic, giving you an intense desire to rush forward to find out what happens.

The second strand of the novel concerns a time later in Kevin’s life when he is travelling in Paris for the purpose of opening an art show at a commercial gallery in the city. There, he meets a young woman named Victoire and has an affair while his wife and his children, who are small and reliant on their parents, are back in Rhode Island in the family home. Kevin falls in love with Victoire in a way that he sees is different from the way he feels about his wife, Linda. One night when he is with Victoire, Linda calls the hotel hoping to speak with Kevin and he misses the call. Again, you are always on the edge of your seat reading the chapters that contribute to this strand of the novel because you want to find out what happens in the end.

The third strand of the novel concerns an episode that takes place later, once Kevin’s children April and Will are older. April is 16 now and she tells her father that she’s pregnant but she gets him to promise not to tell her mother. As with the other strands of the novel, there is always something unknown about the drama that keeps you turning the pages impatiently.

For most of the time reading this book I was anxious to know more but when Kevin decides to go back to El Salvador 30 years after the events that had been recounted in the first strand of the novel, things fray a little at the edges. The dramatic force of events that take place in this segment of the book is not as punchy as it had been earlier in the narrative, and you wonder if the poetic logic that underpins them is as solid as the author hopes it is. I felt a little let down in this part of the book and found that things seemed a little too neat in their unfolding, especially when he revisits a town that he had first gone to in 1979, and there meets the father of a girl who he had earlier seen killed in a road. He visits the girl’s grave. The woman he meets who does the translations seemed to me to be a little too convenient a character given the circumstances of this trip undertaken to bury old ghosts. The novel’s finale is apposite however and in general I thought the book was executed well and had a competently-formed artistic vision.

In my mind the character of Kevin however always remained a bit thin. The emotional core is not strong in this man, a painter, who has had to come to terms with trauma and make a meaningful life in its wake. I wondered while reading the novel if this impression had to do with the fact that Everett is black and that it might be difficult to communicate ideas and feelings across racial boundaries, but other things left me feeling that this author has problems making credible characters. In Toni Morrison’s novels you don’t find this kind of absence at the centre of the main characters. In Everett’s book, Victoire is also oddly absent in the end and therefore the impact she has on the reader is weakened. I felt that the potential for either fulfillment or menace that she might have embodied was ultimately left unrealised. Despite the anticipation of drama you feel when you read this book, and despite the eagerness with which you turn its pages, its emotional aftereffect is disconcertingly pale at first but, given enough time to reflect on it, I had a physical reaction to the final scene. Everett is a talented writer.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Women should go for the bookish introverts, not the smooth talkers

Not long ago I read a fascinating novel by someone I used to know back in my undergraduate days. Anthony Uhlmann’s novel ‘Saint Antony in His Desert’ has as a protagonist a young man who comes with a friend to Sydney from Canberra, where he grew up. During the trip, they visit a radio studio to show the staff there some new songs from back home. But they also meet up with some other young men who are in a band that plays in Sydney. One of them has a girlfriend named Louve who works at the radio station. During the evening that occupies the span of the novel, Louve and Frederick, the book’s hero, go off in Louve’s car to deliver an asthma inhaler to someone at a house in Redfern but on the way there they run out of petrol on Abercrombie Street and seek assistance in the office of a non-profit that agitates for workers’ rights.

The man who works there, whose name is Monte, is a plausible type of guy who seems willing to help the two out but when he finally offers them the petrol het puts his hand on Louve’s leg and suggests that he should get something in return for the fuel. Frederick stands up to challenge Monte, but Monte grabs Frederick by the neck and punches him efficiently in the face, breaking his nose.

This is not where the novel ends but it’s a crisis point that anchors much of what has gone before, and much of what will come after. Frederick is introduced at the beginning of the book as a man unable to perform small-talk but he comes across as an intelligent person with high ideals and lofty goals. The book is set in 1981 and there is something about Frederick that embodies what it was to be young in that era. One of the other characters, Kheiron, who is Louve’s boyfriend and who plays synth in a band, seems equally intoxicated by knowledge but his inane patter demonstrates that he hasn’t really understood what he’s been reading. The patina of cool that characterises him is embellished by a veneer of learning, and there were many people like him at the time.

That generation was not the first to move itself bodily to the inner-city of Sydney, the process had been happening since the 1960s and it had transformed working-class Paddington into a kind of antipodean Left Bank, but it continued the process so that now you have hundreds of restaurants in Newtown and Glebe and Darlinghurst that cater to the upwardly-mobile middle-class people who are the beneficiaries of te economic reforms introduced in the same era by the Hawke government. The flat white was invented at this time, and foreign restaurants became regular resorts on Friday and Saturday nights.

The problem with society is not so much the presence of boofheads like Kheiron but rather the ubiquity of feral types who resemble Monte and who possess a strong line in small-talk that can charm the leg off a goat, but who turn out to abuse their wives and rape the women they go out on dates with. People like this who can keep up the smooth banter get used to concealing their true natures behind a fa├žade of sociability and they are the ones to watch out for, not the bookish types who prefer their own company to going out with friends at the pub.

But women go for a kind of plausible rogue because he makes them feel comfortable and he makes them laugh, and women like to have fun. Which is something that poor Frederick is signally unable to deliver. However, society needs more men like Frederick, who are willing to risk exclusion from it because they follow their passions and say exactly what they mean. They’re not the type to just paper over the cracks in conversation with jokes and neat phrases, which are things that are often mere subterfuges designed to delude because they allow their users to control women.

Women are among the many who publicly call for men to be more open and express their problems. Women themselves tend to talk out things that trouble them, and thus mainly avoid the severe life crises that impel many men to take their own lives. But this apparent aspiration to offset through conversation some of the more toxic elements of masculinity is actually false because still women tend to go for the guys who hide their problems behind a veneer of sociability. Men learn that they should lie about their feelings if they want to attract desirable women. They have to be strong and reliable and considerate, but some of these things can be easily faked in the absence of actual experience of how someone behaves in different situations. As a result, many women are deceived into complacency by controlling men.

But the ability to lie and conceal your true ambition is prized by large organisations as well, so men who can do this are rewarded with material wealth. Managers have to be able to develop working relationships with their colleagues while at the same time engineer situations so that they themselves get more of the resources that are available to spend in order to further the aims of the business, the government department, the not-for-profit, or the university. To do this they have to have what are called in common parlance “high-level communication skills”, which are just weasel words that means a person has the ability to companionably deceive others about his or her true motives.

The inevitable correlate of this sort of personality of course is the passive-aggressive narcissist who neglects to have a contretemps during a meeting but who later on goes behind your back and engineers some form of revenge on the quiet that impacts on your career. This kind of psychopath rises fast in organisations because he or she instils fear in his or her colleagues while on the surface maintaining working relationships with them.

When in fact the only place where lying should be tolerated is in art, where it is central to the project. When writing a book, an author will flatter the reader with select tropes, phrases and gimmicks in order to elicit a certain reaction from him or her at specific points in the narrative. This is legitimate because the end result is to entertain and inform, and the two things are best done when they are done together. This kind of flattery is completely legitimate but it must always stay on the page or in the podcast or in the MPEG file. Once it breaks out into the real world, the trouble starts.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

A legacy of underinvestment sends out new shoots of discontent

A story from 13 October by Peter Hartcher about the NSW premier’s about-face on immigration reveals unease felt by the Liberal Party in NSW in the run-up to the March election. Opinion polls have them neck-and-neck with Labor. The ALP had called for a cut to numbers of migrants arriving in Australia because they usually go to either Sydney or Melbourne.

I wrote about the election back on 28 June in a blogpost that detailed the fact that poor decisions – or a deliberate policy by the then-premier, Bob Carr – dating from as far back as the 1990s had led to the congestion that Sydneysiders now see in their city. And the complaints are coming from the well-off in the inner suburbs, where state government planning action favouring property developers has led to residents’ groups teaming up with municipal councils to protest against what they see as overdevelopment. There was a story in Neighbourhood Paper last year that was written by a resident of one of these suburbs, and he was vocal in condemning the emergence of high-rise apartment buildings and the traffic congestion that has resulted from higher housing densities in the city.

The other day as I was travelling on the light rail to Central Station on my way to Cronulla to have a walk, I sat on the tram and nearby two women were talking. One of them had entered the carriage at the casino and had asked the woman sitting two seats away from me where to apply her Opal card to pay for the trip. She had an English accent. The Australian woman – middle-aged, well-dressed, polite – told her how the system works and then they got to chatting.

The Englishwoman told her new friend that she had only come to Sydney for a couple of days and was on that day going to Circular Quay for sightseeing. The Australian woman asked her how she found the city – we had just crossed George Street, where the construction site goes all the way down to the water at the northern end of the CBD – and she then said something about her own circumstances. She and her husband (I assumed it was her husband she included in the pronoun “we”) were living in the inner west but all the new apartment construction had made them decide to move to a small house they owned in Bundeena, which is just south of Cronulla. The town is accessed from Cronulla by a small ferry, she said.

A few days ago on this blog I wrote about a trip I had made to Cronulla some weeks earlier. On that trip, which marked my first-ever visit to the suburb, I noticed how many apartments there are in the place, many dating from the 1970s with their red double-brick construction and small balconies. There are new cranes visible at different points along the train’s route to the beach, indicative of continued demand for homes in Sydney. I read somewhere that there are currently around 320 cranes on the skyline in Sydney.

On 21 September I wrote a post about Australia’s multiculturalism, and the post included the following:
Australia adopted multiculturalism in 1974 during the years of the Whitlam Labor government, becoming just the second country in the world to do so (after Canada), and the succeeding Fraser Liberal (conservative) government kept the policy in place. Now, over half of the population has at least one parent who was born overseas. The population is growing at a rate of 1.7 percent annually, which is over twice the rate as that which applies in the US. As of July, Australia had the fifth-strongest growing population of all OECD countries. Australia has not had a recession for something like 26 years.
Now, the ALP’s legacy of underinvestment threatens to damage the successful post-war consensus that had been forged with the participation of both major parties. This is a terrible outcome for Sydney and for Australia, because we had been doing so well before the populist rhetoric that some – particularly Greens voters living in the inner suburbs of Sydney – have encouraged and that the NSW premier and others have answered with public statements. Now, the new federal population minister is even talking about doing something the Chinese already do: limit where people can live when they migrate to the country. I feel ashamed to call myself Australian.

Monday 22 October 2018

Book review: Stoner, John Williams (1965)

It seems somehow ironic to say, but this seems to me to be the best American novel of the 20th century bar none. How it remained a secret for so long is the big question the critics will have to ask themselves, but it’s definitely time for a revisit. It stands up there with Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’, Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House,’ and Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Dead Souls’ as one of the great Romantic novels. It might sound odd to lump this book together with such ancient precedents, but there you go. For the rest of this review, caution is required because I will be revealing details of the book that would spoil the reading for people who haven’t read the book and want to. People who don’t want to know what happens in the book should stop reading here.

The story concerns the life of an academic in Missouri whose parents were farmers. Young William intends to study agricultural science but once he discovers the beauties of literature due to the teaching of a man named Archer Sloane – it is a particularly circuitous sonnet of Shakespeare that does the trick – he never looks back and goes on to secure two postgraduate degrees before taking up teaching at the university, where he gains tenure. Meanwhile, he marries a woman named Edith Bostwick who turns out to be a psychopath, and who, in the course of the novel, will do everything in her power to torment her gentle husband. There are intimations that Edith’s behaviour might be predicated on her relationship to her father, who suicides after the stock market crash of 1929, but this point is not clarified by the author before the book ends.

At the university, Stoner is offered the position of head of the English department by his old friend Gordon Finch, who is the faculty dean, but he declines the role. Instead it is given to a man from outside the town named Hollis Lomax who had arrived at the university with a strong reputation. He also has a hunch back, and this disfigurement will come to define the reader’s understanding of Lomax because of a contretemps that he has with Stoner.

The episode starts when one of Lomax’s students, a man with a partially-paralysed leg, named Charles Walker, arrives at Stoner’s office one day and asks if he can join a tutorial Stoner runs for sophomore students. Stoner is unwilling to admit him at first because the class is already full but ultimately allows it, but Walker turns out to be completely unable to fit in with the class. He makes irrelevant points in response to things that Stoner says and puts on airs that merely display to a disinterested observer that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He is a devotee of the Romantic poets and at the expense of real scholarship he adopts their uncritical enthusiasm for Shakespeare along with the Romantic ideal of the tortured genius.

The problem gets worse when Stoner is invited to help to assess Walker’s competence in a viva voce exam that Lomax and some other academics are involved in. Stoner shreds any credibility Walker might have had by asking him some simple questions that a first-year student should have been easily able to answer, and fails him. The verdict of the judges must be unanimous so Stoner’s rejection turns out to result in Walker failing his course of study. Once Lomax becomes head of the department he immediately takes measures to punish Stoner, who he thinks has discriminated against Walker because of his disability, instead of on account of his learning.

Back at home, Stoner and his wife live largely separate lives and Edith tries to distance Stoner from their daughter, Grace. Stoner begins an affair with a young woman (he is in his early 40s by this time) and for the first time in his life experiences sexual intimacy. But Lomax, who employs the young woman, whose name is Katherine Driscoll, finds out about the liaisons and threatens to fire her. Finch calls Stoner to his office and informs him of the situation and in the end Katherine leaves town of her own accord. Stoner goes back to teaching the first-year students Lomax has saddled him with and in the end contracts cancer before his retirement comes due. He dies when his grandson is entering junior high school. Grace by this time is drinking too much.

This bare sketch of a plot doesn’t by any means do justice to the poetry that resides within the book. We talk about a writer having a strong or weak poetic vision, and in this case the author’s ability to communicate ideas and feelings through his prose evidences a high degree of refinement. Like Gogol or Dickens, Williams uses descriptions of the environments that animate the places in which the characters work out their dramas to talk about the world he wants to create, and to comment on it in ways that will contributed to the reader’s experience of the characters and ideas that are contained in the narrative. These moments of poetic signification are scattered throughout the book and add a vibrancy and lustre to the conception of the whole, enabling Williams to talk about the America of the 20s and 30s and 40s that he remembers from his own experience of it, even though the story itself is entirely a fiction.

When you are reading the book the pathos embodied in the character of Stoner is powerful, and while Edith and Lomax are far worse than the average person based on the level of evil they perpetrate on their unfortunate victim, the circumstances of the drama are not so foreign to everyday experience. Many people will have had a bad experience with a spouse or partner and even more will have had bad experiences at work. The home and the workplace are, of course, two of the most productive loci of novelistic endeavour we have. For this reason, what happens to Stoner is, shall we say, emblematic of something sinister that is woven into the very fabric of modern society.

While reading the book I tried hard to understand the meaning of its title and I think that I finally made sense of it. Obviously the book is named after its main character, but a book published in the mid-60s with this title must raise eyebrows, especially because of the drug culture that was emerging in society as the generation born at the end of the war emerged into adulthood. In my mind, the title makes sense if you turn the plot on its head and instead of Edith tormenting her husband, her husband is imagined doing something similar to her. This kind of flipping of the bias in order to critique masculine domination, which was and is far more prevalent than the kind of abuse Edith is guilty of in her relations with her husband, lets you create in your mind an obverse image of the whole, and it is one that fits in with the kinds of innovations in social relations that were appearing in America and in other countries around the world in the era when the book appeared in print. Some might take exception with this interpretation, but I found it to have a neat relevance when I considered the social ambience in which the book was published.

The other point I wanted to make is that the kind of identity politics that encourages Lomax to take revenge on Stoner is something that, these days, seems unremarkable. Privileging a colleague so that they gain professional preference simply because of the position they occupy on the political continuum might have seemed unusual in Williams’ day, but it is easy to contemplate this occurring today, in our more polarised era, where identity politics determines so much about our public personas. The term “identity politics” might have seemed a novelty for Williams’ first readers, and would not have been understood by the previous generation of adults (such as Lomax and Stoner) but nowadays it is key to understanding the way people behave. Williams was right to pay attention to it in his novel, to show how even those on the left can behave in unedifying ways given the right circumstances.

The only weak point in the book is its ending. Williams tries to conjure up the experience of dying in the last two or three pages of the book. We see Stoner’s world contracting to his room in his house and the clutter on the bedside table as sounds come through the window near him in the hours and minutes before he finally and for the last time loses consciousness. Now, I have seen both of my parents die. With dad, mum and I were called to the nursing home he was living in at three o’clock one morning in April 2011 and he was pretty much unconscious during the time we were in the room with him before he finally drew his last breath. Before he died he never knew we were there in the room. With mum, I had seen her in the hospital in the afternoon of the day she died (which took place at some point during the evening) in July 2016, before she was taken back to her nursing home in a patient transport vehicle. While I did not see her at the time she died, what is certain is that in the afternoon she was only partially conscious of her surroundings. She was talking sometimes but what she said didn’t make much sense. She was not really aware of where she was or of her physical state, let alone her own state of mind.

In her spy thriller ‘Transcription’ that was published in 2018, UK author Kate Atkinson tries to do something like what Williams attempts in his novel: convey the lived reality of a person who is dying. She doesn’t spend as much energy on the task as Williams does and while I thought that she was closer to the mark there are still things awry in her version. What I have seen of people who are near death is an absence of conscious thought of the kind that Williams shows Stoner still capable of in his story. If anything, the person who is close to death might experience some sort of reverie that might be filled like dreams with confusing images and feelings. But there is simply no way of knowing one way or the other. When a person is sick with an infection and unable to speak, or even to open their eyes or turn their head, and is completely reliant on people around them, it is difficult to see how the kinds of thoughts that Williams ascribes to Stoner in the final pages of the book could have existed.

Sunday 21 October 2018

A reckoning in the eastern suburbs for the Liberals

In the morning I was travelling to Newtown to buy coffee but at Central Station my right ankle packed it in and so I came home without making the purchase. Then I cancelled the movie I had organised to see that evening and sat down to watch the Wentworth by-election take place. I’ve filled out this account with some details that will make it easier for people outside Australia to understand. For various reasons this election was particularly important, although it was not part of a general election. General elections for federal Parliament are held every three years. As an extra, in this account there is a storm.

The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had lost his job in August in a party-room coup and had been replaced by Scott Morrison. Wentworth was Turnbull’s seat. He then decided to resign from Parliament, making it necessary to hold an election for the seat outside the normal general election cycle, with the next scheduled to be held in May 2019. The by-election was critical for the government because the Liberal-National coalition held power in the lower house by only one seat. If the Liberal Party lost the by-election, the Parliament would be hung and getting legislation through it would be hampered by the necessity of making agreements with cross-benchers (members of the lower house who belong to neither of the two major parties, but who sit between them in the chamber).

Soon there was news that sausages on sale at polling places were being sold for $5 each. Normally, sausage sizzles like these charge a gold coin ($1 or $2) for a piece of bread with a sausage wrapped in it. This point was funny because Wentworth is home to some of the wealthiest parts of the city of Sydney. “Democracy is finished,” added Guardian journalist Greg Jericho to the retweet that contained the news. Later, he added, “Although to be fair it looks like they’re using hotdog rolls rather than a slice of [Woolies’] bread. And the snags do look rather big.” The reference was to the retailer Woolworths, which is a dominant player in the domestic grocery market. The original tweet, from Channel Ten reporter Jonathan Lea, had contained a photo that showed a man standing at a BBQ wearing a black T-shirt that had “I see a little silhouetto of a man” printed on it in white.

At 10.39am Health Nerd (who calls himself an epidemiologist and says he writes for the Guardian and the Observer) tweeted, “The fires have been started. The sausages are burning. Anthony Green has been called from the deep. THE VOTING HAS BEGUN.” The reference to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) psephologist would have reminded people that the usual post-election telecast covering the vote was scheduled to start at 6pm. Green always features heavily in these productions, sometimes bringing in accurate predictions ahead of official announcements as the counting by Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) volunteers and staff progresses once the polling places close at 6pm.

After getting back from my aborted outing I had ironed my shirts and changed the sheets on the bed, putting the used set into the washing machine to clean. Now, the machine told me its cycle had finished and so I put the top sheet in the dryer with the pillow case, set the dial, and turned the machine on.

At 10.51am Sean Bradbery tweeted, “So far Scott Morrison's only achievement has been to turn the 8th safest seat in the country into a marginal.” He was referring of course to the fact that Turnbull had held the seat of Wentworth by a margin of around 18 percent. The previous day as I had been driving in my car, the ABC had told listeners that opinion polls had an independent candidate, Kerryn Phelps, a local GP for many years as well as a former president of the Australian Medical Association, and a City of Sydney councillor, neck-and-neck on a two-party-preferred basis with the Liberal Party’s candidate Dave Sharma.

The acronym “2PP” is used in discussing opinion polls to indicate that the number under discussion is the two-party-preferred number. Another acronym that is used is "2CP", which means two-candidate-preferred, and this acronym was used for this election because Kerryn Phelps, the front-runner in the opinion polls, was an independent, and had no party affiliation. The acronyms rely on the tendency for voters to give their preferences in a predictable way. So, for example, people who vote for the Australian Greens tend to give their second preferences to the Labor Party. So, in most contests the votes given to Greens candidates will be apportioned to the candidates of the Australian Labor Party when the second preferences of those voters are counted by the AEC.

How-to-vote cards that are handed out by the competing parties at polling places are printed 4-colour leaflets that show how the party in question wants people to mark their votes on the ballot paper, which is filled out using pencil in the booth. The resident has to get their name crossed off a master list by a volunteer, then they are given a ballot paper and go to an empty booth. (In general elections, residents get two ballot papers: one for the House of Representatives and one for the Senate. In the Wentworth by-election, there was naturally no Senate contest.) The booths are made of folded cardboard. Once in the booth, the resident marks the ballot paper with numbers in the order they want to preference candidates. The voter can follow the how-to-vote card of their party or they can mark the names of the listed candidates in any other order they choose. All of the boxes on the ballot paper have to be marked with a number otherwise the ballot is counted as informal and if that is the case the marked votes are not given to any of the candidates whose names appear on it.

At 10.54am Greens candidate for the seat of Wentworth, Dominick Wy Kanak, the deputy mayor of Waverly Municipal Council, a local-government authority in the area, tweeted using the @IndigenousX account, “Busy Bondi with enthusiastic Greens at the gate.” The tweet came with a photo showing a group of people, some with the party’s green T-shirts on, standing in a street with how-to-vote flyers in their hands. Kanak was in the centre of the photo wearing a T-shirt with a design made to look like the Aboriginal flag, in red, yellow and black.

At 11.13am Jieh-Yung Lo, a commentator, tweeted, “I am not a resident of Wentworth but as an Australian who believes in a fair go, I'll be cheering for Dr Kerryn Phelps because the well-being & survival of children, refugees & asylum seekers are more important than the survival of the Morrison Government.”

At 11.16am comedian Dan Ilic tweeted, “Bellevue Hill Public School #democracysausage review: Full bodied, tasty, good caramelisation of the onions, just a hint of forest floor, subtle flavours harking back to '07. Cheery fellas on the tongs. Good banter. $5.” The ironic tweet came with a photo showing a sausage held in a bread roll and a paper napkin held in the same hand.

At 11.19am Jack’s Project SafeCom tweeted a photo showing a cardboard sign that had been made for the by-election. It was branded with the name of the prominent independent candidate and had other words on it as well: “Where’s Malcolm? Vote 1 Kerryn Phelps. Send the Liberals a message.” The sign also featured a photo, in a cut-out, of the former prime minister.

At 11.26am Melbourne resident Lesley Howard retweeted a tweet from commentator Dee Madigan that had gone up at around 10am, and which had said, “No matter what happens today in Wentworth, climate change and the treatment of kids on Nauru are back on the political agenda. Massive kudos to @drkerrynphelps for that.”

At 10.28am Sydney resident Jodie Salmon tweeted a photo of her hand on her ballot paper in the booth. Her hand was holding a pencil. The tweet that came with the photo said, “The pen is mightier than the bonesaw.” The comment was a reference to the alleged Saudi killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, and was especially apposite as he had been killed for wanting to encourage more transparency in government in the Middle East. The tweet also had the hashtag #Journalismisnotacrime in it. The ballot paper in the photo was not numbered so it did not show how she had marked her preferences. The green slip of paper said at the top, “Number the boxes from 1 to 16 in the order of your choice.”

At 11.34am a professional photographer from Queanbeyan named Hilary tweeted a photo showing men and women wearing white T-shirts that had “Freedom for refugees” printed in black letters on the back and on the front. Some of them were holding their hands above their heads with their wrists crossed. The tweet also said, “Paddington.” The signage behind the volunteers was blue in colour and it was not immediately clear which party they were representing as they stood there on the pavement.

At 11.38am Blue Mountains resident Preston Towers retweeted a tweet that had gone up at around 11am from News-dot-com political reporter Sam Clench that had said, “I've located the best polling place in Wentworth - Paddington Public School. It has a market AND, even more importantly, cakes.” The tweet came with a photo showing a table covered with a white cloth on which a variety of cakes and other baked goods had been laid out. Towers had said, “THIS is more like it, though it’s not #DemocracySausage.”

I noticed at about the time I took the top sheet and the pillowcase out of the dryer, and put the bottom sheet in, that #wenthworthvotes had also been used by some people as well as the correct hashtag #wentworthvotes. The extra “h” was puzzling and I wondered how it had got in there.

At 11.46am Brisbane resident Fran Ross tweeted a tweet the progressive activist group GetUp! had put up about an hour before that retweeted one from Liberal Party MP Craig Laundy which had been posted at 9.29am, and which had said, “Bloke pulls up at a polling booth in a black BMW X5, gets out & and puts up a @GetUp sign .....”

At 12.06pm Towers put up another sausage tweet, this one retweeting one from ABC News’ Sydney digital editor, Riley Stuart, which said, “$5 for a sausage sizzle???! I’ll vote for anyone who brings these prices down ...” The tweet had a photo showing a hand holding a white bun with a sausage in it that had tomato sauce and mustard on it.

At 12.15pm LaLegale retweeted a tweet from a Geelong resident (“Grumpy, conservative old gay man”) named Eileen Twomey-Wright that had gone up about 30 minutes before, and which had said, “In the category of: Never Underestimate the Stupidity of the Electorate - #WenthworthVotes is trending number one on my list. Try: #WentworthVotes, people. Gawd.” The wrong hashtag was tending on Twitter.

At 12.20pm Central Coast man Troy Grant tweeted a tweet that Antony Green had put up about two hours before and that contained a photo showing the ABC’s psephologist standing on the pavement outside a voting booth dressed in Lycra. The tweet said, “The set-up at the Watson’s Bay polling place on my Tour de Wentworth ride this morning.”

At 12.23pm Milan resident Philippa Nicole Barr tweeted a photo showing a piece of A4 paper that had been stuck to the side of a garbage bin on a street. The paper had a picture of a polar bear on it and the caption, “Think of your children and your grandchildren. Vote Out Climate Deniers. Vote Out LNP.” Barr had commented, “Omg I love this. So DIY.”

At 12.40pm Jess ‘McGiggles’ Epps, who lives in Sydney, tweeted, “Would you like a damocrisy sossige with your misspelt hashtag?” The tweet came with a screenshot of the Twitter interface showing how many tweets the wrong hashtag had received. The people who had used it included ABC journalist Patricia Karvelas and the MEAA, the journalist’s union. Three minutes later Jodie M, a Melbourne resident, noted that the hashtags #voteWentworth and #WentworthByElection were also being used for the event.

At 12.47pm comedian Joel Creasey retweeted a tweet from theatre director Richard Carroll that had gone up at around 11.30am, that said, “Just voted for @kerrynwentworth @drkerrynphelps.” His tweet showed his face, with a fashionable, dark, three-day growth, as he stood in a suburban street outside a polling place.

At 12.53pm Maria, who only identified herself as living in Darug country, tweeted, “Sky news [sic] saying Dave Sharma is going to lose, but thinking it may be a scare tactic.  Depends on preferences which are impossible to predict, my guess is as good as @AntonyGreenABC.”

At 1pm Melbourne resident Max Alexander retweeted a tweet from Jonathan Lea, who we have met before in this account, that had gone up an hour earlier and that said, “Government now telling me Wentworth is no longer conservative or their heartland but progressive. Say heartland is more Qld. Clearly repositioning to soften the blow for what’s coming...”

At 1.24pm shareholder rights activist Stephen Mayne retweeted a tweet from Sam Clench, who we have met before in this account, that had gone up a few minutes before, and that said, “Bit of juxtaposition going on here in Bondi.” The tweet came with a photo showing a poster of Scott Morrison putting his hand on the shoulder of Malcolm Turnbull. The poster also had the word “Remember” printed on it, and “Disunity. Dysfunction. Chaos.” In the background behind the poster was Bondi Beach, with its lifesavers’ tent and its blue and green waves and with people sitting on the sand in the sun. Bondi is in Wentworth.

At 3.23pm Fiona Caldarevic from the NSW town of Narrandera tweeted a photo that had gone up about five minutes before from ALPHRW founder Nart (there was no more information about him, but the ALPHRW might mean “ALP human rights watch”; it seemed to be an activist group) that showed a photo of the tourist advisory sign in the Blue Mountains that is set on a road indicating toward Wentworth Falls, a town that is situated there. The man after whom the federal division of Wentworth and the town are both named was William Charles Wentworth, a famous colonial-era statesman who was also an explorer in his youth. “Brilliant,” commented Caldarevic in her tweet.

At 3.24pm Jonathan Green, the editor of the literary magazine Meanjin, retweeted a tweet from Sky News Australia that had gone up on 17 October at around 10pm, that quoted a columnist for the News Corp vehicle The Australian, Chris Kenny, saying, ”The reason they're having the by-election is that @TurnbullMalcolm spat the dummy and ran away. He shouldn't be putting the Party through this. He's shown no loyalty to the Party that gave him the Prime Ministership.” Green added the comment, “They. Assassinated. Him.”

At 3.40pm Paul Colgan, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Business Insider Australia, tweeted, “All these people who like their martinis stirred rather than shaken coming out of the woodwork now. Fitting, given it's #WentworthVotes today.” The comment was a reference to the positions on some issues that had been voiced by the independent candidate Kerryn Phelps. In most elections, the ALP is the primary candidate against the Liberals, but in this election, because of the high net wealth of the average voter in the division, the ALP candidate was not considered a likely contender. But of course, the stakes in the contest were much more significant than Colgan had stated them, because it wasn’t just the personal philosophy of the two major contenders that was germane in the case, but rather what was in the balance on the day was the Coalition’s majority in Parliament. On top of that, Phelps has different views on such major issues as climate change and on the status of refugees detained in offshore camps operated by Australia. It was true however that on economic issues Phelps has a campaign platform that is not so different from that of the Liberals, including lower company taxes and policies that encourage entrepreneurship.

Phelps had said that if elected she would guarantee supply to the government (the ability to raise money for government business) but had not ruled out launching no-confidence motions in the lower house. The government’s ability to ensure supply and to avoid no-confidence motions in the lower house is critical to its survival. If it cannot ensure supply or if a no-confidence motion is successfully moved against it in the lower house, the outcome is likely to be a general election.

At 3.46pm Sam Clench tweeted, “One voter sums up the problem with the Liberals' stability argument: ‘That's a joke, isn't it? After what they did to Malcolm?’” The tweet contained a photo of the Kerryn Phelps cardboard sign mentioned earlier that featured a picture of the former prime minister.

Rain had been predicted for Sydney in the evening. At 3.49pm @giddeygirl tweeted, “Really raining now in Canberra. Thunder. Lightning. Wind. Heavy drops. Hooray.” The reference to the Queen song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was topical considering the T-shirt that the BBQ chef had been wearing in an earlier tweet. By 5.25pm the dark clouds had started to cover Sydney and thunder could be heard rumbling in the distance.

At 5.29pm @Roger192964382, a resident of Victoria, tweeted the odds that had been given that afternoon for the Wentworth 2PP contest by a betting agency. It wasn’t clear from the enclosed image which betting agency had given the odds, but the numbers were definitive. Phelps was on 1.32 (the lowest odds, meaning that she was the most likely to win based on the bets that had been received), Dave Sharma was on 3.20 and the ALP’s Tim Murray was on 16.

At 5.36pm I received a text message from my auto insurer notifying me that there was an increased chance of hail in my suburb. They send out these messages when storms come over the city. The last time I had received a similar message was in September. At 5.43pm Therese Taylor, a lecturer in history at Charles Sturt University in the Riverina, which is located in the southwest of NSW, tweeted, “Sydney settles down at the end of the day and waits to know the results of #WentworthVotes. A storm is rolling in, on the twilight sky. Atmospheric.” At 5.46pm the TV signal was lost for a few seconds due to the atmospheric disturbance the storm had created.

At 5.50pm @suthernx tweeted, “My prediction is Sharma will poll 30-35% of votes. Phelps will get up on the back of Greens preferences.” The TV signal was lost again momentarily. Outside, the sky was almost black with clouds, and thunder was sounding continuously with lightning flashing in the gloom. It was still 10 minutes before the polling places were scheduled to close and the storm was smothering the city in moisture and electricity. Rain was falling steadily and the sound of thunder was almost continuous. Flashes of lightning broke through the dark sky and from my apartment the city skyline was almost invisible. By about 5.07pm the centre of the storm had moved over my location just west of the central business district and the thunder had by then died down to a distant rumble that disturbed the evening from time to time. By then I was watching the ABC’s election coverage and the thunder could be heard in the background in the telecast as the storm moved east.

At 6.43pm Antony Green tweeted, “0.3% counted - LIB Projected [first preferences]=35.2%[,] down 27.1% [from the previous election, which was held in 2016].” The tweet contained a link to a story on the ABC’s website.

At 6.51pm Central Coast resident Bill Quinn tweeted, “My late mum always said that fair weather on polling day meant no change, and wild and/or wet weather meant a change. Just sayin'...”

At 6.52pm Antony Green tweeted:
2 of 41 counting centres reported.
PartyCode, First pref %, (matched PP [(polling places)] change in %)
LIB 57.1 (-23.4)
IND 23.9 (+23.9)
ALP 7.0 (-0.4)
OTH 6.2 (+1.9)
GRN 5.8 (-1.9)
At 6.58pm Guardian journalist Katharine Murphy tweeted, “One [Darlinghurst] booth in now (Phelps territory), swing against the Liberals up to 30%.” “Terrible figures” for the Liberal Party, said Green on the TV just after 7pm adding that he wanted to wait a few minutes before making a prediction about the result.

At 7.04pm Edo Voloder, a resident of Dandenong in Victoria, tweeted, “By-election Primary Votes (1.6% counted): LIB 40.9 (-30.3) Phelps IND 33.1 (+33.1) ALP 9.9 (-2.1) GRN 8.8 (-3.6).”

At 7.13pm Antony Green tweeted:
6 of 41 counting centres reported
PartyCode, First pref %, (matched PP change in %)
IND 36.5 (+36.5)
LIB 33.9 (-24.6)
ALP 10.9 (-8.3)
GRN 10.4 (-6.9)
OTH 8.2 (+3.4)
It took more than a few minutes but at 7.17pm, less than 80 minutes after the polling places closed, Green called the election for Kerryn Phelps. At 7.20pm Katharine Murphy tweeted, “The Morrison government has lost its majority in the lower house.” At 7.21pm Green tweeted:
9 of 41 counting centres reported
PartyCode, First pref %, (matched PP change in %)
LIB 35.8 (-25.0)
IND 35.5 (+35.5)
ALP 10.9 (-7.2)
GRN 9.6 (-6.7)
OTH 8.2 (+3.4)
At 7.23pm federal editor and Canberra bureau chief for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Bevan Shields, tweeted, “At the Paddington Central booth, the Liberal Party vote has collapsed from 60.43% under Malcolm Turnbull to just 33.7% now.” Just before 8pm on TV Green announced that, with 29.4 percent of the ballots counted, on a 2PP basis Phelps had won 54.7 percent of the votes. The TV coverage about 10 minutes later showed what was happening in North Bondi at the Phelps post-election event, where Macklemore’s 2017 song ‘Glorious’ was playing for the crowd. Phelps thanked her wife Kathy, her children, and her grandson.

At 8.10pm Canberra journalist Samantha Maiden tweeted, “The whole comedy of the Liberals trying to look into banning gay teachers from schools or gay teenagers from private schools or whatever and then Double Bay saying SCREW YOU WE ARE SENDING IN THE LESBIANS! Is also ...delicious.”

At just before 8.30pm I logged into the coffee company’s website and ordered a kilo of my usual blend to be shipped to my home.

UPDATE 21 October 10.32am: Margin in the contest narrowing with postal votes still being counted. Last I saw, Phelps' lead was down to 905 votes, with thousands of votes still to be appraised.

UPDATE 21 October 11.06am: Antony Green on ABC News says the result of the contest will not be known for several days.

UPDATE 21 October 1.14pm: In a tweet from Sydney artist Jeffrey Wood that was retweeted at this time, there was a screenshot showing a page from the AEC website which had Phelps 889 votes ahead of Sharma with the time-stamp in the comment of 12.51pm.

UPDATE 21 October 4.13pm: In a tweet, Antony Green said, "Check count corrects increase Phelps lead from 884 votes to 1186 votes. Two-candidate preferred percentages Phelps (IND) 50.8%, Sharma (LIB) 49.2%."

UPDATE 21 October 5.39pm: A tweet from Miranda Devine, the right wing commentator: "Dr Kerryn Phelps has increased her lead by another 679 votes, to more than 1700, after a check count at Bondi Beach public school booth." The tweet carried a link to a story in the Australian newspaper.

UPDATE 23 October 3.40pm: Phelps is ahead by 1540 votes in the continuing count and Antony Green says on ABC News that it is unlikely that Sharma can overtake her going by the trends in the postal votes that are being received by the AEC.

UPDATE 24 October 6.08pm: The Phelps lead at this time was 1643 votes.

UPDATE 27 October 9.34am: ABC News announces that Phelps has won the by-election.

UPDATE 29 October 7.01am: Checked the AEC website again this morning and the most recent results are dated 25 October at 6.03pm. They showed Phelps ahead by 1783 votes.

UPDATE 2 November 9.38am: This morning a person on Twitter asked if the Wentworth by-election result would be announced today and at 9.22am the AEC's Twitter account answered, "No. Today is the final day for late arriving postal votes.  The AEC will issue a media release and tweet in advance of the day when a declaration will be scheduled."

UPDATE 4 November 3.56pm: A Sydney Morning Herald story published today said that the announcement of the victory of Kerryn Phelps would take place on Monday and that she would be found to have won the contest by a total of 1851 votes.

UPDATE 5 November 10.39am: Business Insider Australia tweeted that Phelps had officially won the election, with a link to the story which quoted the AEC. The final margin between the two leading candidates was 1851 votes.

Saturday 20 October 2018

The conformity of the news media

In an 18 October podcast he did this year with Ezra Klein of Vox, Jay Rosen criticised the news media for conformity, identifying the tendency of different news rooms to report on the same stories and poking fun at their desire to get the scoop first rather than to cover something original and unique.

When I wrote for magazines I had this experience so I know it is true. The editor at a small outlet would email me asking if I could do 500 words for a story about something that had just been broken by one of the major outlets.

This kind of piggybacking however seems to me to be more normal now, in the era of social media. Since the emergence of the internet, news editors have always been able to see which stories got the most traction in the community. But now, with Twitter especially, they can see exactly what people are sharing and how they are sharing it: either with approval, criticism, irony or some other attitude layered over the original story. Editors know exactly what people want to read because they can see several different metrics measuring what links get clicked on.

Social media has not only changed the way that journalists see themselves, it has changed the way people use news, making them more likely to share and engage with stories that they are already familiar with because it is these stories that satisfy a deep human need for connection with others. I wrote a number of blogposts earlier this year about how stories are used on places such as Twitter. The first of these posts came on 2 July and it was titled ‘The articulation of stories and the dynamics of progress’. In it, I provided a theory of narratives, describing the way that people in the community use stories in order to create community: to bring them closer to allies and to distance themselves even more completely from enemies. I said that the way they do this is similar to the way that people barrack for sports teams in national leagues: the contest is a zero-sum game, where the prize is a scare resource and there can only be one winner.

But in fact there can be many winners, and on 21 July I continued the discussion with a post titled ‘The left-right tango is a dead end’ in which I talked about the need to find the best policies regardless of which side of politics introduces it. We need, if we want to move toward a sustainable future, to take the best policies from wherever they come, and use them to expand the pie for all members of the community.

Journalist Katharine Murphy talks about the dynamics of social media in her new book, ‘On Disruption’, which I reviewed on 9 July on the blog. In it, she identifies the election to the office of US president of Donald Trump as an artefact of the social media era. Others have pointed to the fact that no Australian prime minister has been able to serve out a full term at the head of a government since the invention of Twitter. Social media has changed the ways that we use the media, as it has changed the very nature of democracy. Our thinking about the media has to take that into account. Murphy herself works for the Guardian, a left-leaning outlet that operates on three continents and that has used its ideological position, as have other outlets, to build a community. Many people in it pay for the news they receive.

So the “view from nowhere” is gradually disappearing as people form communities around different news outlets that validate the positions they themselves hold about issues. In this new environment, of course, there will also be a place for a news organisation that takes a more objective view of the world, and which deals with issues in a dispassionate manner, such as the New York Times or the Sydney Morning Herald. But objectivity will gradually become the exception rather than the rule because of the economics of the news: people like to back their own team in the contest.

Friday 19 October 2018

Movie review: Star, dir Johann Lurf (2018)

This collage, or mash-up, or sampling of movie segments showing stars, with the original soundtracks, is an evocative and experimental work of cinema that takes a little patience. The director and the team of people (who found all the segments of film from the earliest days of filmmaking to the present day, with the segments displayed in roughly chronological order) ask you to take a little time to reflect and think about what all of these attempts to understand the immensity of the universe mean in aggregate rather than in their particular instances.

The sampling is done so that the original sense or meaning of the sampled scene is absent. You get rough cuts, half phrases blurted out, music out of phase and cut up in a crazy asymmetrical array. The words used in the segments are in a wide range of languages, from English to Japanese and from Russian to French. Seen together in this way the scenes let you start to understand that we have always used the night sky as a place on which to project our deepest fears and our most soaring ambitions. The blackness with its myriad of small white dots is the perfect canvas, replete with abstract space, on which to depict all of our hopes and dreams and anxieties.

Stars have been used as carriers of signification by every community on the planet at one point or another; the use of stars for cultural communication is a universal trait of the species.

I had to convince myself at times to watch the whole thing. The temptation to get up and leave was sometimes powerful, but in the end I was glad I stayed. The significance of the project creeps up on you slowly as you try and then fail again and again to construct a meaningful story out of the fragments that you are shown. The meaning comes later, once you have been sitting in front of the screen for long enough that you have been able to relinquish control over your imagination.

The scenes wash over you and gradually patterns emerge to fill your busy mind with new understanding. When you see a film you are usually given a conventional story to follow with an opening followed by development, a crisis, and a resolution. The mind is ever seeking to form narratives out of lived experience and with Lurf’s film it is often at a loss as to what to make of the material offered to it. Letting go allows you to see new things.

The name of the film is correctly only rendered with the symbol of the star, as the musician David Bowie used it in his last album. Lurf is from Austria.

The screening I saw was the Australian premier of the film, which was shown as part of the Sci Fi Film Festival, on at Event Cinema on George Street in Sydney until 21 October. The festival website is here