Sunday 31 March 2019

The Greens, One Nation and the dynamics of reaction

People are getting incensed on Twitter about the idea the Liberals are advancing of One Nation being an obverse of the Greens, as though to do so were somehow illegitimate, but in fact they are 100-percent right although most of them would not know what the actual delineations of the process was that resulted in the emergence of One Nation in Queensland.

The origins of both parties lies in the post-WWII settlement and the dynamic that regulated their appearance is the usual one of action and reaction, a law that seems to apply equally well to both the physical world and the world of politics.

The war ended and with it ended a long period of economic stagnation. The causes of the war are complex but they mainly boil down to stupidities that were allowed to fester at the beginning of the century and that resulted in the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. Once that monster had been put back in its cage, world leaders set up a number of large organisations that were intended to prevent a repetition of the disaster. In Australia one of them was the Reserve Bank of Australia but there are plenty of them and they still operate globally.

At the same time, the economies of the western world started growing at a staggering rate and to service ours the Australian government set up a number of new universities that were designed to produce graduates with qualifications in such disciplines as engineering and accounting. Because of the way universities work, there were suddenly also a lot more humanities graduates and this changed the country in a number of ways.

Another thing that changed at the same time was the way immigration was handled, and this would have major repercussions further down the track. Because of the realities of post-war immigration the Liberal government in the 1960s started to take apart the White Australia Policy that had controlled immigration in the country since the start of the century. The process was accelerated by Labor in 1974 and when they got back in power in 1975 the Liberals kept the momentum up by embracing multiculturalism as official policy.

One of the ways the emergence of new universities changed the country was to provide a base for the Australian Greens, which was formed in 1992 as a result of the success of a particularly militant part of the union movement called the Builders Labourers Federation. The BLF had taken a lot of progressive ideas from the universities in the 1970s and had made them union policy, including Aboriginal land rights and feminism. They were also very strong on what was then called the ecology, but which we now refer to as the environment. They went down in flames because of their aggressive use of work bans (the so-called "Green Bans") and were stopped from operating by apparatchiks from interstate egged on by construction industry bosses.

Even if you don’t acknowledge the success of the BLF in the emergence of the Greens, it was matched by that of a Tasmanian anti-development movement that led in the 1970s to protests against plans to dam Lake Pedder. This was later galvanised by a plan to dam the Gordon River, which resulted in protests in the early 1980s. What both the NSW and Tasmanian movements had in common was the participation of educated, young, urban residents who were listening to the new language coming out of the universities. Words like “the greenhouse effect” and “climate change” began to appear more frequently in the 1980s and to modify public debate around things like the economy, and transportation and energy policy.

The 80s also saw the rise of xenophobia of a brand that Pauline Hanson made popular in 1996 when she was put on the federal Liberal ticket in Queensland. One of its first exponents was a conservative historian named Geoffrey Blainey who in 1984 voiced anti-Asian sentiments during an address at a Rotary conference in the Victorian city of Warrnambool. The same man was also vigorously exercised by the environmental movement. He couldn’t understand how so many young people could object to the rise of technology in the post-war era of cheap energy. How could you object to indoor toilets, private transport, domestic appliances, petrochemicals (a completely new industry, that didn’t exist before the war), pharmaceuticals, soaring highways, and high-rise living? He even wrote a book about this phenomenon, titled ‘The Great Seesaw’, which came out in 1988 and which attempts to establish the case for a theory where, at certain times in the course of a civilisation, anti-intellectual forces threaten the wellbeing of the community. He saw environmentalism as just this sort of force.

When anti-intellectualism did appear along with the Liberal preselection of Pauline Hanson for the federal seat of Oxley, he might have been surprised to see his own ideas reflected by words used in her campaign statements. Although I’m not sure. He might in fact have been unsurprised. He might indeed have been flattered. Some gun postgraduate student can go into the archives to find out what Blainey said when Hanson appeared. He must have said something. (It should be noted for the record that Blainey is still alive, and the conservative media still seeks out his input from time to time.)

So, Hanson wasn't the first to complain about Asian immigration but when she entered politics as an independent MP she galvanised parts of the community who had felt the influence of progressive ideas in the mainstream and who resented it. University graduates, naturally, supported the government’s immigration policies because they thought that they conformed to an ethos they believed in that was based on what were considered in the era of the post-war counter-culture to be universal human rights.

Hanson, like Trump, viscerally distrusts such ideas and so her emergence marks the appearance of the mirror-image of the Greens. She’s the supreme anti-intellectual, the face of white-bread, conservative, suburban Anglos in the same way that Greens leaders like Bob Brown are the face of educated, inner-city, progressive elites. If you offer people something that is objectively good for everyone some of them will naturally (though perversely) think that it is bad for them personally. And if you add the rise of neoliberalism, which cruelled the spread of new wealth that appeared in the wake of the war, an ideology which threatened to keep many people poor who might otherwise have aspired to belong to a growing middle class, then you give people even more of a motive to hate.

The Greens and One Nation are two sides of the same coin and it puzzles me why some people object to the comparison. Perhaps they think that 15 percent of Queenslanders are not racist dullards? (Note: I lived in regional Queensland for five-and-a-half years.)

Saturday 30 March 2019

Book review: Hare’s Fur, Trevor Shearston (2019)

This simple little novel – it’s almost a novella, it is so diminutive – has the unusual distinction of featuring a protagonist aged in his 70s. Russell is a potter who lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in a cottage he and his wife inhabited until she died from a stroke while out shopping one day. Russell has a close circle of friends in the locality but the couple’s son died as a child, so otherwise he is alone. Then one day when he is down in the valley in the bush collecting iron-laden rocks to use to make a glaze for his bottles and cups he sees a chocolate wrapper on the ground. Then he hears voices and he spies on two children playing in the deserted canyon through which runs a creek.

The next day he goes back down the mountain and leaves a note with his name and phone number written on it, along with some food. He estimated that there were two small children and a young woman, who is possibly their mother, and he had been concerned for their safety. It is autumn and the nights are cold up in the mountains.

Later, he is contacted by Jade, the older sister of Emma and Todd, the two little ones, and he lets the three of them live in his house. Teenage Jade is as flighty as an antelope on the open veld, suspicious of other people and easy to startle. Russell teaches Emma how to play chess and Jade starts making things on Russel’s wheel. Todd is happy with the TV shows he watches.

The title of the novel comes from a particular type of glaze made with iron and it had been used on an old Song dynasty cup Russell owns that had been given to him by an admirer. The object is 900 years old and worth tens of thousands of dollars. So when Jade takes Emma and Todd away from Russell’s place without an explanation one day you worry whether she has also lifted the cup. In the end the signification of the title is emblematic not just of Jade’s volatile nature but of the mixture of good and bad that characterises existence when you stand back and look at it through narrowed lids. The glaze that has this name makes a complex pattern of alternating colours on the objects it is used with, much in the way the fur of a hare might look if you saw it up close.

Like his protagonist Shearston is elderly and this novel has about it an older person’s view of the world. It is full of wisdom and even the odd moment of humour but mainly it is deeply well-intentioned. It reminds me of those stories you see in the media about groups of people in the community (they are always older people, usually retirees) united by membership of a particular church and who join forces to help new migrants, often refugees, by providing them with food, or clothes, or advice. Or all three. Civil society is at work every day although we don’t normally learn about what it does.

Not many people would welcome members of Australia’s underclass into their homes, although Russell never loses focus and remains throughout the work a credible creation. His need for companionship serves as a powerful goad to action just as Jade’s need for food and shelter draws her to his home. In many ways this novel embodies a fairly mechanistic way of understanding the world, but there is something about dour Russell and his addiction to the material – the use of technical language to describe the making of pots and cups might exasperate some readers – that makes the solution he arrives at seem reasonable.

While the denouement is not unduly delayed by an elaborate plot, the final reckoning when it comes has a certain freshness that is in keeping with the novel’s dedication to human decency. If the novel has a weakness it is that Jade’s version of the state government’s approach to housing children without parents to look after them in foster care – that families are split up – is not interrogated by Russell or by Helen, the neighbour who helps Russell from time to time. Jade’s animosity toward the authorities constitutes a bullish plot device that underpins many of the twists and turns that the story takes, and a more nuanced approach to this single idea might not only have resulted in a truer version of reality but also a more complicated and satisfying plot. The way this book ends, with a sudden jolt, suggests that more development of the kind I mention could have improved things.

Stylistically, the novel relies on a concise and unadorned prose that makes you pay attention. If you go too fast or skip a line you will likely lose the plot, so take care with this exacting book.

Friday 29 March 2019

Book review: The Exquisite Corpse, Alfred Chester (1967)

I came across this author while reading the memoir of a publisher’s editor named Diana Athill. Her book came out 19 years ago and I reviewed it on 24 February of this year. Athill’s book included a section containing her reminiscences about notable authors whose work she had helped shepherd into the world. The story of one of them, a man named Alfred Chester, struck me at the time as particularly tragic due to the existence of mental illness in it, so I promised myself I would one day read one of his books. This review is the result of that process.

I though about the unfinished book awaiting me at home on the day the review was eventually written when I went with a friend to a café in Glebe in Sydney’s inner suburbs, for breakfast. The waiter was young and had long, dark, painted fingernails that looked artificial. He also wore a skirt. He took our orders and served the coffee and the food with the same aplomb as any other person, but he looked pretty outlandish it has to be admitted. At the time Chester’s book was published such a person as our waiter would have been inconceivably outre. In 1960s New York a male waiter in a dark cotton skirt could not have existed outside perhaps some private clubs designed for the use of rich patrons with unusual tastes. How far we have come! But, if you read Chester’s novel, you also realise that we are still bound in our daily lives by conventions that existed in those days. Which makes this novel seem sort of timeless.

The first thing to be mindful with it is that you need to be patient. Overall there is no conventional narrative and the different stories it contains are elaborated on in episodes that have a disjointed feel to them. The ways that the stories overlap and integrate with one another constitutes one of the unique characteristics of this curious novel, but without a bit of patience at the beginning you will fail to give them enough time to take root in your imagination, and will therefore miss out on the thrilling ride Chester takes you on if you persevere.

I was reminded reading this book of another mid-century Modernist work I read recently, Friedo Lampe’s ‘At the Edge of the Night’ (which is reviewed here in 14 February this year). Like Chester, Lampe was gay and both of these men’s books use a kind of collage method of arrangement to build the narrative arc that eventuates, and that gives structure to the texts. So both of these books are experimental in their methodology and both deal with people who are transgressing social conventions.

What they both provide is a kind of catalogue of a city, in Chester’s case New York, in Lampe’s case Bremen (a north German city). By delving into the lives of multiple people, the authors each in their own ways demonstrate an awareness of the existence of many people in the same geographical area. They are cognisant of the realities of different individuals and of how such people’s lives are connected by casual meetings and by liaisons. There is a strong sense of community, a sense also of a shared destiny.

In Chester’s case there is a good deal of scatological material that lends an earthy quality to his stories of men and women of the demimonde. Amid the stories of desire and hatred, of comfort and hardship, of crime and convention a number of characters emerge that invite the reader to understand ways of life that, while they may seem unconventional, borrow ideas and feelings from the everyday vocabulary of middle class life. How different are the majority of people from the odd personalities that Chester creates in his fabulous fiction? What do people in the mainstream want from life? What gives it meaning? What makes people happy? Do we not all want security and safety and companionship? Do we not all act out of desire from time to time?

The articulation of desire has one of its greatest practitioners in Alfred Chester. In the course of developing a fiction that can convey all the ideas that he sees to be real in his world, the author reaches back in art as far as Rimbaud and the men and women who inhabited the liminal zone between the Romantic and the Modern. In the strange tales Chester dreams up of people living on the fringes of polite society there are echoes of the ideal, of the just, and of the beautiful that characterised the works of some of Europe’s most celebrated poets and writers.

And even though the form of Chester’s novel is unusual you are able to follow a number of different stories to their conclusions. Certain names rise up to the surface of the narrative at different times, and some names even blur across the boundaries separating one story from another, notably the name Dickie, which stands in for some kind of masculine ideal in the author’s world of lovers and their beloveds, of dominant and submissive, of roles obeyed and of conventions transgressed, of masks put on and of identities given up in an endless search for love and for home.

Thursday 28 March 2019

Book review: Hell Has Harbour Views, Richard Beasley (2001)

This legal drama is a rare thing: a novel about working in an office by someone who knows what it entails in reality. Unfortunately, for the first part of the book the poetic vision is rather flat, endorsing a sort of “practicing law is a meaningless pursuit” view of the profession that might flatter punters in the broader community but that doesn’t really work very well for a work of fiction. It certainly doesn’t help you to like the main character, whose name is Hugh Walker and who lives in an apartment in Woollahra.

Contributing to the book’s two-dimensionality in its early parts is the fact that there are virtually no children in it. You rarely get to see the kids of any of the associates or partners whose conduct provides Hugh with so little spiritual nourishment. It seems to me a weakness in the book’s design that the only thing you get to see are people’s professional lives.

Things get more interesting with the appearance out of the blue of two plot devices. One is to do with the professional life of the protagonist and involves an affidavit that he is asked to produce in order to settle a dispute between some of his firm’s partners. The second plot device that saves the book’s poetic vision from a fatal case of insipidness is Hugh’s meeting a young woman named Caroline.

Before the addition of these two structural elements, the beginning of the book is a desultory series of episodes that are linked by little beyond a feeling that the hero of the book is wasting his life. This episodic section of the book is a slog to get through and I have to admit that several times during this part of proceedings I was tempted to just put the thing down without finishing it.

Things turn around soon enough, so that you get involved in drama which is given depth by some good secondary characters such as Hugh’s mother Pam who is a Legal Aid lawyer. Several other people are included but for many of these the hooks for their individual identities are not very strong, so when they are mentioned a second or third time you are sometimes at a loss as to who the author is talking about. This failing extends to the feuding partners, as well, which to me seemed like a rather unfortunate shortcoming. Hugh’s journalist friend Jim never succumbs to this weakness in characterisation, fortunately for us, and he goes on to have a pivotal role to play in the book.

Another failing that the book has is that at points it assumes the reader has an intimate knowledge of the law’s operations. When you are asked to turn your mind to the “plaintiff” and the “defendant” you are being asked to participate in the same kind of thought process that a judge or a barrister (Beasley is one of the latter) engages in on a regular basis on any working day. But it is hard on such occasions for the layperson to follow who is winning and who is losing. The ends are neatly tied up at the end of these passages, but you are frequently at a loss to know how the author managed it and when this happens you rather feel as though you have witnessed a magic trick. Better editing might have saved readers from feeling they have lost control of the material in front of them.

Once the book hits its stride at the core is Hugh’s disenchantment with life. He has a job with the country’s leading law firm but he finds his existence to be meaningless. He is involved on the side of big business against defenceless individuals and this makes him hate himself. The way that he extricates himself from this impasse constitutes the genius of this mostly entertaining book. The plot thickens by increments until, with a snap, pressure is released for Hugh, who has a tendency to try to avoid conflict that serves him well (in some cases) and that gets in the way of his happiness (in others).

The author’s deployment of fictional characters drawn from popular culture is, however, like Hugh’s love of the Beatles, a bit tiresome. More thought on the author’s part might have relieved the reader of some stale analogies and repetitions of a single theme. As for high culture, Polonius wasn’t stabbed while he was in a cupboard. It’s not a major error but it sort of emblematises something about Beasley’s attitude to his literary referents. Close enough seems to be good enough.

This is a strong Sydney book, drawing on notable locations for their particular significations and for the sort of colour that helps to give life to a work of fiction. The southern, low-rent part of the city is where the law firm Hugh worked for straight out of university is located. One day he meets with a witness on a boat on the harbour and is forced to change out of his suit and into a pair of too-large bathing trunks. There are topless women bathing and bubbling glasses of Krug. There is a scene at Royal Randwick Race Course that suggests Hugh’s taste for wagering is shared by Beasley. And Jim and Hugh meet for drinks on several occasions in one or another of Sydney’s trendy watering holes, places young people gravitate to after work every Friday night to wind down after a week spent in the office.

Then there is the concrete-and-glass tower in which Hugh’s firm has its offices, a building that is something like a panopticon, with rooms facing each of the cardinal points: east, north, west, and south.

Monday 25 March 2019

Book review: The Helpline, Katherine Collette (2018)

This comic gem is all about women but it encompasses a number of major themes. Foremost among these is the importance of cooperation and the dangers of discord, so the book is timely. In an age when the things that separate us seem more prominent than ever before, Collette’s message is crystal clear.

The drama involves Germaine Johnson, who loses her job at an insurance company when an annual review meeting goes badly for her. She lands a new job at the local council in Deepdene (which is a suburb of Melbourne in real life) to be a staffer on the senior citizens’ helpline. Fortunately for Germaine, the mayor, Verity Bainbridge, asks her to help solve a problem the council is having with the committee of the senior citizens’ centre, which uses a municipal property for its activities. Committee members had reportedly chained up the tyres of cars that had been parked in its parking lot but that belonged to patrons of the neighbouring golf course, which is managed by Don Thomas, a man Germaine had known from earlier in her life as Alan Cosgrove the national sudoku champion. Germaine had been a sudoku fan since her adolescence and her job at the insurance company had involved calculating probabilities.

Much to the mayor’s delight, Germaine is successful in resolving the problem with the senior citizens but things become complicated when Germaine gets involved in teaching maths in the centre on weekends. She also starts to have feelings for Jack, a guy from the council’s IT department. And then one day she finds out that Celia, who had been the president of the centre’s committee, has been calling the helpline looking for company as her husband had died.

Germaine is caught between conflicting loyalties, and the magic of the book is to show how her feelings change with time. On the one hand the mayor has been very generous to her, giving her a pay rise and an office. On the other hand she sympathises with the committee and the people involved in the senior citizens’ centre.

It’s not often that you find a competent novel that explores the conflicts that are implicit in keeping an office job, and Collette does a very good job of describing how an individual can be affected by the shifting ebb and flow of power in a typical office. The kinds of stories that Germaine tells herself to justify her behaviour at various points are emblematic of your average workaday existence, and they involve such ideas as justice and expediency, loyalty and friendship. This is a complex novel in which humour functions as a kind of plot device, facilitating the emergence of new trajectories as Germaine navigates the intricacies of office politics and the sometimes conflicting demands of the relationships she makes.

Secondary characters play important roles in the drama. There is Celia, already mentioned, who is a stalwart for the senior citizens and who marshals her forces like a general on a battlefield. There is Germaine’s mother Sharon who is a committed greenie. There is Germaine’s neighbour Jin Jin who is an international student from Japan. There is Betsy from the committee who is a champion CWA bakery expert. And there is Jack, who likes to wear shorts to work and who is kind and a bit goofy (a perfect foil to Germaine’s punctiliousness).

Germaine herself is an interesting and multifaceted character who demonstrates a common human failing: an inability to see ourselves the way others see us. She sometimes bumps into things as she makes her way through the world and even though she has a strong work ethic she often finds herself in conflict with others. She is a comic masterpiece, one suitable for such a novel as this, which is suffused with an abiding humanity and love of justice.

Sunday 24 March 2019

Book review: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, Holly Ringland (2018)

The main theme this novel deals with is that of domestic violence but I found the story too upsetting to read past a certain point so I didn’t finish it. Clem Hart, Alice’s father, is a controlling monster who beats his wife and daughter. He also forbids Alice from going to school, insisting that she be educated at home. Alice’s mother finds respite from her husband’s cruelty by tending her garden, and Alice becomes enthralled by books.

There are at times signs of hope for the reader. On one occasion, Alice runs away from home and goes into town, where she has never been before. There, she finds the library and goes inside. The librarian is a kind woman who takes an interest in the raggedy Alice – the child has left home dressed only in a dirty nightdress – and who calls her husband to report on the apparition, but Alice flees before the authorities can be called and so an opportunity for relief for poor Alice and her unfortunate mother is lost.

The writing that serves the purpose of conveying meaning in this book is very fine and suggestive. Ringland does a good job of communicating the depths of feeling experienced by a child, and while the threat of danger is ever-present other things are also given prominence, notably the love that Alice feels for her mother, and for her dog, Toby, who is deaf because of Clem’s violence. Clem has a wretched habit of spoiling his daughter in the aftermath of episodes of abuse and tiny Alice’s feelings about him are complicated as a result. There is plenty of nuance involved in creating the drama that animates this book but I just couldn’t continue to subject myself to the suspense that orbits around Clem’s outbursts. I found no fault with the novel.

Saturday 23 March 2019

Book review: The Everlasting Sunday, Robert Lukins (2018)

This relatively short novel is fairly narrow in scope although thematically its ambit is broad. The style is graceful, borrowing from Joyce, especially the first chapter of ‘Ulysses’. The writing also reminded me of that of Cynthia Ozick for a certain economical flair that it possesses. Many will find the writing in this novel to be difficult but I found it vigorous and fresh. As a vehicle for signification, it is acutely metaphorical and does well the job it is meant to do.

The ensemble that the author creates has echoes of the Harry Potter mysteries because of the way the old house in it seems to contain elemental forces that emblematise good and evil. But while the Harry Potter stories were deliberately aimed at children, this book aims determinedly at securing a place in the adult market for literary fiction.

The story centres mainly on the lives of a group of young men. Most of the narrative is focalised through the character of Radford, a youth who is sent to Goodwin Manor, a foster home in rural Shropshire, by his uncle, who presumably cannot look after him. The first winter of Radford’s stay is harsh but he gets by in the company of others, notably a physically delicate but lively boy named West. There are others too who animate this cloistered universe with its country lanes and its tame river. Parts of the narrative are also focalised through the personification of winter itself, and this is intended to lend the story a kind of gravitas in the same way that a chorus can lend depth to a song.

In charge of the home is a kind man named Teddy who gives the boys in his care a degree of freedom to do what they like. He is helped by the cook, whose name is Lillian and who dispenses affection according to her own categories of deservingness. Manny teaches Radford about electrics and one day a former resident named Snuff turns up with a young woman, Victoria, who takes a liking to Radford.

The boys often seek diversion from other activities (lessons don’t appear to take place very much) and can often be found outside drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes. One tradition the boys have is to go to a cemetery nearby and stage a wake for one of the people buried there. To do this they make up stories about the dead person and make toasts to their memory. It is all very congenial, serving to underscore in dramatic fashion the loose regulations circumscribing life in the home.

But of course there are dark undercurrents that confuse the glow these kinds of events provide. The character of Foster, a heavyset young man, is loaded with secondary motivations and Radford discovers things about him that he might have wished to remain ignorant of. Foster stands in, in the drama, for the irrational forces that exist wherever humans live their lives. The story tells us that terrible things can happen despite people’s best efforts to create a nurturing and supportive environment. The story’s climax comes with the end of winter, and it has echoes of two earlier events that had shaken Radford to his core.

By setting the bulk of the story in the early 1960s Lukins is able to establish a certain distance between the present and the events he chooses to convey in his fiction. When the story opens, wartime shortages have not yet ended and there is a kind of grey pallor thrown over the whole that serves to muffle some of the emotions felt by the people involved. Yet even in this circumscribed world there is plenty of room for several stories to evolve that enable the writer to explore a range of different themes, including loyalty and mental illness, friendship and desire.

This historical setting also enables Lukins to focus on ideas to do with society’s understanding of the nature of the individual and his or her place in the community. Teddy comes across as particularly enlightened in this regard and the point is reinforced when an inspector named Cass is sent by the authorities to Goodwin Manor to report on the situation there.

This carefully-crafted novel is successful on its own terms and the quality of the writing in it promises good things to come from Lukins, who is Australian, if he decides that he wants to essay another novel at some point in the future. 

Friday 22 March 2019

Getting some bags repaired at Venus Repairs

My satchel and my rucksack, the one I use for grocery shopping, needed repairs. The satchel’s strap has a metal link that had twisted and had cut into the loop that is attached to the bag. The cloth of the loop was almost severed. I had bought the satchel in southeast Queensland while on a trip to see mum and dad, probably in 2008. The rucksack had developed a tear in the Nylon fabric at the seam at the back, and there had opened a hole that threatened to let purchases fall out onto the road as I walked home from the supermarket. I had bought the rucksack in about 2002 so that I could carry library books back to my home from Sydney University.

Having decided to repair the bags instead of throwing them out and buying new ones, on the last day of February I put up a notice on Facebook and someone I used to work with responded telling me to try Venus Repairs, so I emailed them and the next morning a reply came asking me to bring the bags in for them to have a look. They said they could fix them. I had to go to the city that morning so I left home a bit early and walked across the bridge into town. The business is in a building on Bathurst Street and I got in the lift when a young man who had arrived before me held the door open.

On level three of the building, where I got out of the lift, the rooms are all numbered. I opened the room numbered “36” and saw a woman wearing a red singlet and a skirt, who was standing behind a table that had been placed next to the door. I put the bags on the table and told her about my email, which she said she remembered.

She had a look at the rucksack and commented on the plastic piping that runs around the seam, but conceded that it was possible to fix it. The satchel she also looked at, and in this case she said that she would have to take off a black band that had been sewn on to hold the loop in place. She told me it would cost $77 to fix both bags. I gave her the money in cash (they have a sign on the wall informing clients that they don’t use EFTPOS) and then she had a look at a calendar on the wall as we decided which day on the following week I should return to pick the bags up.

About two weeks later the shop called me on the phone because I had not come in to pick the bags up. I had had a cold, I told the woman on the line, and would come in the following week to do so. I had actually tried to email the shop earlier but the email address that I used for them (in reply to an earlier email from them) resulted in a bounce error.

On Monday of the following week I caught a cab into town and picked up the two bags. I gave the same woman who had served me the first time the receipt I had brought with me, and she found the bags in a pile next to the front door. I helped her by pointing out my possessions in the crush of bags on the shelf. Then I took the lift back down to the street and walked home. On Kent Street I walked past two camping goods stores on the way to Market Street, where I turned left and crossed the bridge over Darling Harbour.

Thursday 21 March 2019

More conversations with taxi drivers

On 9 February I caught a cab to Enmore. The driver told me that the taxi industry is not doing well. I said I never use Uber, that I'm not interested in making a rich dude in Silicon Valley who won't pay income tax even richer. He told me he never uses social media. "If I want to read a news story I use the internet," he said. I said I use social media a lot but that to me it was an indictment of the education system. He told me he wanted to go away. Where? I asked. He had plans to go to the Philippines to live. He reckoned he would be able to use a tourist visa and just renew it every few months. If you take out a retirement visa, he explained, you have to deposit a large amount of money into a bank account and he wasn't hopeful the money would stay there. He told me that you can rent a studio apartment in a security building in Cebu for $200 a week. In other areas, not so close to population centres, the cost is even lower. He told me how much it cost to buy a bottle of rum and a packet of cigarettes. He told me how much he had paid for a recent holiday there, including airfares and accommodation. He was three years older than me, 59. I don't know where he had migrated from but he wasn't a local. It seemed as though his life was just beginning.

Another taxi driver on 9 February, who took me home from Enmore, told me about how he had lost his entire wages on the pokies in the days after he had migrated to Australia from Chile. In those days, the machines had handles that you pulled to make the barrels turn. After he had left the Spanish club, where he had been playing a machine, he had had to beg for money to get the bus fare so that he could return to his home in Leichhardt. A woman on the street gave him 20 cents. When he got back home he had to go to see his landlady, an Italian migrant, and explain that he would be unable to pay the rent because he had lost his wages. She verbally berated him but allowed him to continue to live in the apartment until his next pay came through and he was able to pay her what he owed. So, he said to me, "Two women helped me when I had nothing."

On 4 March I caught a taxi with a friend and the driver had a heavy foot, causing me to begin to get sick. I told him as we were on the Princes Highway that we weren’t in a hurry. He had been checking compulsively to see if there would be a slightly faster trip achieved in the alternative lane. It was like a nervous tic. Added to his tendency to accelerate constantly, and to break seemingly at random, I had to speak up. We dropped my companion off at her house and I caught the same cab home. This time we went through Alexandria but he was still doing the overtaking thing all the time. And I was sneezing. My companion on the outward leg had asked him to turn off the aircon and he had done so, then when I got in the cab again for the trip back to my place he turned it on again. When we were on Wattle Street he asked me which way I wanted to take to get back home. I said that it would make no difference at that time of day, so either Fig Street and Harris Street would be fine or else the other way, around past the Fish Market. He asked me how long I had lived in the area and I said four years. He said that I had worked out which routes were fastest by this time, and I agreed with him.

On 17 March I was in a taxi coming home from a dinner in Newtown and the driver was Chinese. He had asked me if I was going to the casino and I said “No.” I said that the only time I went there was to go to the food court to have a meal. He said the only time he goes to the casino is to go to the theatre. I mentioned that there would be a Chinese performance on soon and he said he knew about it. It would be put on by the Falun Gong religion, he said, in order to raise money for their cause. The dancing would be very good, he added. I mentioned that I had read a bit of Chinese poetry from the Tang era and he made an appreciative comment. I said that what struck me about this kind of poetry was the focus on the natural world. He agreed, and added that the poets of that era didn’t talk about their own feelings. I said that what he said was true. He said that this was the case because their lives were not very good, and they didn’t want to complain. I agreed that the poets whose work I had read from that era never talked about themselves, and instead mainly took inspiration from the world around them.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Book review: Cries of a Dying Waterhole, Wa’qaar A Mirza (2018)

This novel is promoted as a thriller but it relies on such a stale confection of tropes that you find yourself pinching yourself every time a character opens his or her mouth. In addition there are a lot of basic grammatical errors that might have been prevented by better subediting.

The drama centres around an actor named Harry Firstone who has a mixed Lebanese and English background. When the novel opens, Harry is on his way to attend a ceremony where he is to receive an award. He goes by train and arrives at an art gallery in London. For his acceptance, Harry ostentatiously screws up the speech he had prepared and wings it, giving the audience, which comprises people from the London entertainment industry, a piece of his mind. Poverty is his subject and he lets rip with both barrels. After he has finished, the place is invaded by a group of anarchists who use smoke grenades to create havoc and who unfurl a banner with a message on it. During the confusion, Harry is injured and is transported to hospital in an ambulance.

Harry’s manager Max goes with him to the hospital and Harry is taken into the operating theatre as soon as they arrive. The action then switches rather abruptly to Virginia where Harry meets an American industrialist and the two then meet with a CIA operative of some seniority. This man also wants to talk about poverty. The action switches again, this time to the offices run by an Israeli software firm. Here the two men meet an attractive woman aged in her late 40s who shows them a large control room filled with computers and holograms of city streets representing places around the globe.

There is very little preparation for each of these cuts of scene, and you get the feeling that the author thinks that this is how thrillers are meant to work, just as he thinks that, on the level of prose, stale clichés are enough to keep a reader interested in the narrative he is making. And the mechanics of the work are just as poorly conceived as are the ideas behind it, ideas that suffer from a desperate lack of information. It’s as though the lamest commonplaces that animate Twitter had been hastily cobbled together to formulate the semantic core of the novel, ideas of such blundering obtuseness that you fairly grunt with the effort needed to sustain your belief in the story unfolding.

The stupidity starts very early on in the piece, as Harry is travelling to the art gallery. On the way, the author conveniently lets Harry take in with his eyes the sight of a beggar on the pavement and, at almost the same moment, two men driving Aston Martins (not one, mind you, as if without two you wouldn’t get the message strongly enough). Stretching the credibility of the artifice even further, the author lets us see into the cars as they pass along the street and note that the drivers are both well-dressed and, as well, that they are both using mobile phones as they are driving (just to press home the idea that such people must necessarily be so selfish they are completely heedless of public safety).

You can almost hear the gears clashing in the author’s head. But the problem with this sort of material is that it shows the author doesn’t understand the complexity of the realities of wealth and, especially, of homelessness. Most people who are homeless are not rough sleepers; only a very small proportion of the people without a home on any given night are sleeping in parks or on the streets, although the UK doesn’t count these people as homeless. Most homeless people are in fact sleeping in friends’ living rooms, in cars, or in some other kind of unsuitable accommodation.

Further than that, the solution to rough sleeping is not just making accommodation affordable. Even if you find an apartment for a rough sleeper and give them the money they need to pay the rent, and even if the rent is low enough for them to afford, the chances are that they will not stay there very long unless they are supported in a number of different ways. You have to wrap rough sleepers in a swathe of services in order to keep them housed, and even then some of them will end up again on the streets. For many rough sleepers, there are multiple problems preventing them from living normal lives. There might be alcohol and drug addiction (or both). There might be mental illness. There might be all three operating on the same person. A rough sleeper might never have finished secondary school and may have spent their childhood in foster homes because of problems with their biological parents. There are any number of reasons that a person is unable to even use a welfare payment to pay their subsidised rent.

But well-intentioned, misguided people like A Mirza don’t care about facts, they are so focused on pushing a line aimed at shaming what they see as a distant and uncaring elite in the developed world. This author doesn’t care about the problems with incipient democracy that are faced by the demos in many countries around the world. He doesn’t acknowledge the steady stream of refugees travelling across borders intent on finding homes in one stable democracy or another. He ignores the fact that what these refugees want more than anything else is an opportunity to get ahead on their own steam. He thinks that a simple transfer of wealth will solve all the world’s problems. In the same way that many Americans chose to vote for Donald Trump, he decides to turn to an undemocratic solution because he can’t see elected governments making the kinds of changes he aspires to create room for. And to top it all off he can’t write a line of prose to save himself.

Monday 18 March 2019

Book review: The Tailors’ Cake, Noel Devaulx (1946)

Every now and again as a reviewer you come across something so strange and sui-generis that you find yourself looking for things to compare it to among the sister arts. In the case of this book, the closest thing I can think of to illustrate the nature of the short stories in this collection, which were written in the late 1930s and early 1940s, are the photographs of Eugene Atget, a Frenchman whose strange portraits of the places he lived in are so strikingly modern to our eyes even though many of them date from the beginning of the last century. There is also in this book an echo of Italo Calvino’s fabulism.

Each of the stories has a strong dramatic core but the structure that supports it in each case is often not very strong. Devaulx tends to peter out at the end in his narrations, and there is a distinct lack of force at the conclusion of each story that limits the reader’s enjoyment.

If there is anything beyond the magical qualities already mentioned that unites all the stories in this book it is the existence, near the surface of an otherwise bourgeois normalcy, of otherworldly forces, forces that embody something outlandish or evil or, in the case of the story that concludes the collection, something angelic. In one story, two people driving in the hills in a car have their way blocked by rocks and are forced to proceed on foot. They enter a township where the people don’t speak the same language as them but where they are shown the kind of hospitality that is due to travellers. In the morning they wake up and walk through the forest a bit further and come across the town they had been heading for in the first place. The strange town they had initially come across recedes from consciousness as though it had been part of a dream.

In another story a travelling salesman driving in the countryside comes across a large manor and he goes off in search of its occupants. There, inside the walls of the building, he sees many people seated silently around a table. Below, through a grating, he can see horrors and the existence of some infernal creature (the story is titled ‘The Vampire’) is hinted at, a being that demands regular sacrifices.

It is a shame that this author is not better-known in the Anglosphere. These are fine stories that have aged well and they give access to ways of thinking that belong to a time now well in the past. The poetic vision that animates the stories in this book is very strong and so the whole can serve to form a kind of link to a simpler time. The melding of magic and realism in the stories is, furthermore, something marvellous, hinting at things that would come alter in the century, and beyond that this book can be seen to form a legitimate part of the canon of speculative fiction. It will please readers of science fiction if they decide to give it a go.

Saturday 16 March 2019

Heteroconceptuality and the political left

Heterochromia is, I learn, where a person has eyes of different colours. This kind of thing is common in nature. We talk about people who do not identify with either of the common genders (male or female) and we pride ourselves in being able to recognise the validity of their various realities. Difference is as common as its opposite, homogeneity. In fact, when it comes down to looking at the details, people are usually different one from another. Except when it comes to politics.

Here, people are less tolerant. If you want people to go along with you you have to adopt the position, on whichever issue is under discussion, of one of the major political parties. If, for convenience's sake, you are largely in favour of progressive policies but if you also think that some conservative policies have merit, then you will find yourself without a home. There is no place for heterodox opinion in the public sphere, you have to be either on the side of the people you are talking with or against them. All or nothing.

This kind of thinking appears to me to be a tyrannical constraint on intellectual freedom. It is also logically fallacious, for as long as we have existed people have been taking exception to ideas, or to the ways society implements them, that are accepted as routine. If you belong to a community you are hardly likely to stop being a human being simply in order that you can continue to live in harmony with your fellows. But that is what the political left asks you to do. If you want to get along with the crowd you have to lobotomise yourself. You have tor remove the faculty in your brain that enables you to make distinctions between things, to separate the wheat from the chaff. You are not allowed to disagree because to do so is to threaten the coherence of the group.

Artists and individual thinkers have faced this kind of problem for as long as society has existed. Language is innate and we have been telling each other stories in order to create community, without which we cannot survive, for as long as communities have existed, which is as long as we have been a distinct species. The thing that is different now is that orthodoxy does not belong, as it did in the past, or at least until very recently, purely to the conservative side of politics. Nowadays there is a very strong and very vocal progressive orthodoxy that is every bit as crushing for the spirit of the individual as its counterpart.

I’ve stopped telling people how I intend to vote in elections. People respond in unseemly ways, very often, when confronted by this sort of information if they personally have a different preference among the available choices. But I find as I get older that no single party can answer all the questions I have about the world. For some issues I find the Labor Party is the most satisfying but for other issues the Liberal Party does a better job in my mind of rationalising the world. I even agree with the Greens on several important matters, but if you want to know more about all of these things you’ll have to follow me on Facebook.

Friday 15 March 2019

"No, that’s not correct": A Twitter language survey

This short survey chronicles the quality of language used on Twitter. It started on the morning of 10 March, at about 11.15am, so any earlier time stamps are retweets. It continued for a period of about three hours and 45 minutes but I did also take a nap during this period as I had the flu. As in the cases of other surveys of this type I have done, the examples included here are from the #auspol hashtag. Nothing of this nature can be exhaustive but what this shows is that the basic skillsets that people bring to social media vary widely.

I categorised the entries (spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, grammar) to make them easier to consume, but you will see if you pay attention that some posts contain multiple problems. If a tweet has more than one problem it will still only be included in one category of tweets, that being the most obvious category for the tweet in question.

It was surprising to find that people might have no idea about where to put spaces other than between words. In the punctuation category I could have made a separate subcategory for tweets that used the ellipsis or the n-dash in place of more conventional forms of punctuation, such as commas or full-stops. A prominent form of grammatical error I found was a lack of agreement of number (where a plural noun results in the use of the singular form of the verb). Some problematic tweets I found did not make it into the survey, often for the simple reason that there were already sufficient examples of a certain type of problem to give an accurate idea of what was happening.

From time to time a completely error-free tweet appeared to break up the routine, but I didn’t include any of these, although they usually left me feeling as though I should at least give a cheer.

  • 10 March 2019, 11.17am: Who is Michael McCormack? Encourage the Nationals to replace him with Barnaby.  It will be a complete electoral route for them.They are stupid enough to do it.
  • 10 March 2019, 12.02pm: NSW  Premier coming across as being under pressure.  Maybe she is not used of going so far out as Penrith. No smile evidient.
  • 10 March 2019, 1.48pm: It's funny, you never hear a peep from Rowan every tines there's a heat wave, or the BOM release the fact we just had our 3rd hottest year on record. Climate change deniers always rally against records until they want then to work in their favour. Rowan is a conman
  • 10 March 2019, 2.13pm: Yes. And his calling out of the political press gallery "reporters" as LNP stenographers feels good. We've known it for ages but first time AFAIK it's been acknowledged be someone still within the profession
  • 10 March 2019, 2.15pm: Scraping the bottom of the barrel? Go back a few more years, godness knows what you find.
  • 10 March 2019, 2.56pm: Gladis. you love building hospital's but what about giving them money for beds, nurses and other health professionals.@smh @GuardianAus release your figures in how many Full time staff there are in each hsoptial compared to population!
  • 10 March 2019, 8.11am: I would be extremely disappointed in Labor if they left Brandis there. And ....former senator David Bushby, who was appointed consul-general to Chicago just one hour after his resignation from Parliament in January......this guy should go too, seeing that Abbott removed Bracks.
  • 10 March 2019, 11.41am: Sanctions on two of the countries you have shown crippling these countries ...Cuba despite sanctions still has better medical than America ...imagine if America and corporations were fair and no bullies these places would be great !!
  • 10 March 2019, 11.53am: Paul Kelly- One certain consequence of Bill shortens Wages referendum will be, Job creation will dry up and unemployment will go up.
  • 10 March 2019, 12.07pm: Accepting the blame-shifting narrative of #auspol staffers- gone-rogue just perpetuates the status quo of Australian politics - also speaks to the character of (would-be) politicians
  • 10 March 2019, 1.17pm: So @Dymocksbooks are to be applauded for their actions to ensure every child in Aust has a book - but this raises the question - in an affluent democracy - why is the private sector relied on to address this clear failure of governance?
  • 10 March 2019, 1.45pm: There's a women's only gym down the road. Should  go down there and demand entry? No, because I'm perfectly fine with women's only gyms. Let the market do what it wants. This is much ado about nothing.
  • 10 March 2019, 2.52pm: Everything they sacked Malcolm Turnbull for...they're implementing... Dutton just wanted to be PM.  All it was about.
  • 10 March 2019, 3.04pm: Idiot ppl have no jobs to go to and are shit scared of losing what they have with 13% under and unemployed its little wonder
  • 10 March 2019, 11.52am: Vital Signs: Australia’s sudden ultra-low economic growth ought not to have come as surprise because it is deliberate @LiberalAus Policy , Low Wages , Wage Stagnation , Wages Not Keeping It With Cost Of Living
  • 10 March 2019, 12.18pm: An additional 20,000 people each year for 10 years will inevitably cost Australian Tax Payers much more than $6,200,000,000, as it equates to only $31000 each year for  20,000 people over Ten Years & that's bugger all for what Government/Centrelink would need to hand out!
  • 10 March 2019, 12.19pm: Warringah voters know, that I'm not wishy washy on all policies. I stand for more Dunnys for Manly to accommodate the visiting Knights and Dames, and I'll Shirtfront Putin to get them if I have too!
  • 10 March 2019, 7.24am: Is been nearly a month since the medical bill has passed but no sick men from Manus or Nauru has been medivac to Australia. The govt is trying to delay the removal of sick refugees from the islands till the federal election, Ppl with critical conditions can’t wait another 9months.
  • 10 March 2019, 1.43pm: Isn't it a bit too late when in the past few years @GladysB and the @LiberalAus had done nothing but serving the oligarchy of powerful men in the business world and the society? Ordinary citizen and culture didn't count for them as those proved to be empty pledges
  • 10 March 2019, 1.56pm: @VictorDominello you're a scumbag. The actions by your supporters carrying corflutes with your name and party assaulting a woman and young child is disgusting. You don't deserve to be in parliament.
  • 10 March 2019, 2.35pm: Why are the Adelaide Crows Womens side playing at Unley oval??? You wouldn't have the nerve to make Crows or Ports men's teams play a league game there!!!!

Thursday 14 March 2019

The Labor Party: lapdogs of the big end of town

You see these graphs all the time these days showing how increases in productivity have been captured by the managerial class since the beginning of the 1980s. Here’s one that I saw just the other day.

This graph shows the change in relative growth to incomes in the US since the 1980s, when neoliberalism kicked in under Ronald Reagan. There are others and they’re not even hard to find. Here's another one which I also saw just recently. 

In this graph the black line shows that average incomes in the US between 1946 and 1980 doubled. In the years between 1980 and 2014 they flatlined for the majority of the population, with the notable exception of the incomes of the very rich.

All of these diagrams (and they appear all over the place all the time, you don't even have to go looking for them) show the same thing: that beginning in Reagan’s day the salaries of the middle class have stagnated in the US. And it’s not just in the US either. Even the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia thinks that unions have to be given more power in order to make sure that wages start to rise, since they have been flat for years here.

On the last day of February, the Sydney Morning Herald tweeted: "The NSW Business Chamber has filed a groundbreaking application to create a new type of employee in between a casual and a permanent worker: 'permaflexi'." Here you have the managerial class still trying to squeeze more profits out of employees without giving them a just wage in return. 

In the run-up to the federal election we have the Labor Party looking set to win. And what do they do? They go after retirees. Instead of picking on the big end of town and its tame attack dogs, the Murdoch press, the ALP has decided to go after grandma and grandpa, those twin evils of contemporary society, people so heinous that they remember your birthday and send Christmas cards even though no-one else does. They deserve everything they get from Bill Shorten and his loyal troops.

But the rot set in a long time ago. Back in the day, Whitlam actually had policies worth believing in. Things went downhill beginning with Hawke, who began to liberalise the economy to suit employers. Then Dawkins with his university fees for students. (Can’t have people getting educated for free! Oh no!) The less said about Rudd the better. Labor is now the party of faceless apparatchiks and technocrats, people with the sort of vision that you would expect from a manager at a bank. They are spineless and full of wind, like some special tribe of puffer fish. They are beneath contempt.

Wednesday 13 March 2019

Women and the laughing emoji

This is about Facebook posts, so it might not make sense to people who don’t use that social media platform. It has to do with the “laughing” emoji that Facebook brought in a few years ago to accompany the standard “thumbs up” (or “like”) emoji that had been in use from the early days. Other emojis brought in at the same time as the “laughing” include a “surprised” emoji and a “crying” emoji. There are others too but the one that concerns me here is the “laughing” one.

I’ve written about women and the way that they can sometimes use social media on one earlier occasion, on 9 October last year, when I posted a piece titled, “Ever been mansplained? How about femmesplained?” That piece talked about how women will often stand on ceremony when they have a conversation with you. If you argue with a woman or counter something she has said she might say something like, “I’ve got a doctoral degree in English literature so you can just shut up.” Men don’t do this kind of thing. Men will argue with you no matter who you are, and bugger the consequences, but they won’t stand on a high horse and look down at you as though you are a pleb if they are better-qualified than you. Women do.

Lately I’ve been seeing another thing that women often do on social media. This is to use the “laughing” emoji on Facebook to ridicule something that has been written.

The other day I was on Facebook and someone posted an article, with a comment, about Julie Bishop, the former foreign minister of Australia. I commented saying that Bishop is my cousin and I gave some details about the family that I knew, including information about another cousin who is a genealogist. Then someone, who is a theatre critic, put the “laughing” emoji on my comment and said below, in a comment of her own, “So what is your point.” No question mark, just those words. I decided to remove my comment entirely in order to avoid an ugly confrontation. I saw her name and realised that in the past she had been a Facebook friend, but that now she wasn’t.

Then the next day the same thing happened again. I had put up a post on Facebook saying the following:
Not sure what Roger Waters has been smoking but the fact is that Australia allows tens of thousands of Asians and Muslims to become citizens every year. What is his problem?
This was in response to a story in which the English rock musician had been quoted saying that Australians are racist. A woman who is an academic, put the “laughing” emoji on the post. I didn’t take my post down but I did feel as I had before when this sort of thing had happened. I felt hurt.

It had appeared on posts in this way before, of course, this “laughing” emoji. And always it is a woman with progressive political views who does it. Conservatives are too polite to do something like this, although they might put up a counter-argument if they feel strongly about something they read on Facebook.

It is usually progressive women who use this particular item of commentary in order to signal their feeling of scorn in the face of what you have said. One woman who had done this I quickly unfriended because even though she had been enthusiastically “liking” posts of mine and even commenting on some of them, it became clear that she was likely to be nasty again on a mere whim. Another time that a woman had used this kind of emoji I had unfriended her, then about a week later she asked to be friends on Facebook with me again and I assented. (It would turn out that one of her friends would use the “laughing” emoji to criticise a post of mine again, later, and in that case I decided to unfriend her, and her friend).

Of course, women aren’t the only people who use the “laughing” emoji in this way. There was a man who did it to me once who had been nasty on a few other occasions and so I unfriended him. He is the cousin of an Australian historian and writer whose books I admire (and who is now deceased). He is, like the women I have described in this post, a progressive. In fact, he is very left-wing in his views, which no doubt gave him the feeling that he was justified in being as bad-mannered as he wanted because, presumably, he would end up being on the right side of history …

Tuesday 12 March 2019

“Whataboutism” and the political left

Radio station 2GB tweeted at around 9.10am on 5 March: "Labor leader Michael Daley tells @AlanJones he will sack him and the entire SCG Trust board if elected." Then a Queensland journalist tweets at around 11.30am: "Seeing a potential NSW premier refuse to kowtow to a puffed-up radio personality is the best thing you'll see today." If that wasn't ironic enough (freedom of the press works both ways, it doesn't just apply to views that agree with your own), an ex-subeditor tweeted at around 2.50pm: "Hey Alan Jones, you don't get to refer [to] the Leader of the Opposition as 'this man'." When I pulled him up on this, he replied: "It's Jones being discourteous to the next Premier while having a sulk. AM bandwidth is in limited supply. Responsibilities apply." So much for principles!

In response to this nice piece of bias I posted a link to an article I had written about the insulting comments that were put up on Twitter on the day Christopher Pyne announced his resignation from Parliament. In reply to this, the guy tweeted, “Whataboutism doesn't apply. Don't do it again. But I'm also on record criticising what you are talking about.” I then put up a link to an article I had published in February about the way that politicians and other people in the public eye are treated by the political left on social media. “The left is manifestly worse than the right when it comes to this sort of behaviour,” I tweeted with the link. He responded, “You've crossed the line.” Then he blocked me.

This accusation – “whataboutism” – had been used in a conversation I had had earlier on Twitter with a guy who, like the ex-subeditor, is a professional. This class of progressive likes to think that they are right about everything, even though their field of speciality is actually quite narrow. The accusation they level in these cases is a way of avoiding scrutiny and indeed of diverting attention away from a weak argument. In my case, described above, the things that the ex-subeditor accused Alan Jones of doing was exactly the same as what dozens of people had done to Pyne on Twitter. There was no difference in nature between what they two parties did. Because they cannot win the argument in any other way, the only recourse that people like this have is to block. 

Monday 11 March 2019

Studied Sunday Night Takeaway ad entrenches stereotypes

The other day I was casually surfing the web when I saw an ad for this TV program on the SMH website. It was beautifully put together. Whoever had designed it had lots of talent and it struck me as it often does how much effort is made in our society just for the purpose of appearing normal.

The program has its own web page and there’s also another, separate page introducing this new product to the community. This page, like the ad, has a likeable tone and has been written to within an inch of its life by some very clever PR people so that you are offered something that will fit in with your regular weekend routine. Ever had takeaway on a Sunday night because you couldn’t be bothered cooking? Need a night off, mum? Then this is the place for you.

The introductory web page has some special features too. It addresses the issue of the program’s name (“Wait, why isn’t it ‘Julia & Chris’ Sunday Night Takeaway’?”) quickly before it can fester, with humour and a sly nod in the direction of the comedian, Julia Morris, whose name comes second. She, we are told, is also asking the same question. From a purely aesthetic perspective, the formulation adopted is much easier to say than the alternative would have been, as in the latter case you would have a repeated vowel (the “a” marking the end of the name “Julia” and the beginning of the conjunction) that would impede the production of the required sounds.

Chris Brown is about 10 years younger than Julia. He was the vet in the program ‘Bondi Vet’ which began screening in 2009. He is a vet. In the ad it looks like he’s going to play the straight-man as a complement to what we are led to expect will be outlandish routines from Morris. But he’s also, like his co-host, remarkably Anglo. Plain white-bread stock of a kind that is now a minority in this country. Regular features, blonde hair. Who do the Channel Ten executives think they’re kidding?

In the SMH ad, Brown is seen standing facing the camera with a goofy look on his face. Anything could happen with a host this crazy! To underscore the comedic potential, he has a party horn in his mouth, as though he were in the middle of creating some goofy mayhem. To his right, Morris is standing with her right arm leaning on Brown’s shoulder in a familiar way, although her face is turned away from him to face the camera. Close but not too close (she’s married to someone else). She is smiling very broadly while Brown is not smiling at all, which also serves to emphasise the differences between the two people. It’s as though she had been in the middle of doing something and had just at that moment looked up and smiled. She has her left hand on her hip in a confident pose designed to communication “independence”. She’s her own woman but she’s happy to play second-fiddle to Brown for the show. Nothing here that would serve to rock the boat.

Brown is wearing a dark suit and tie that make him look very formal, as though he were about to go out to a posh dinner in town. Morris wears a pink jacket and you assume she’s wearing a matching skirt or trousers but you can’t see that far, and she has a formal black shirt on. Their clothes speak of the special treat that the program promises to give viewers. The cuffs of brown’s shirt are just visible in the frame, which serves to make the formality of his attire more prominent. Morris is wearing a set of pearls around her neck, and this does the same thing too. In her right hand she is holding a party horn that matches the one in Brown’s mouth, implying that she was about to blow her own horn or that she had just done so. There is a certain quantity of movement in this prop, which ads to the zany vibe the designers were looking for.

To the left of the couple, deep in the ad’s field of signification, is the logo for the program. It is done as though it had been made out of neon tubes of different colours. The words “Sunday night” are blue with, above them, “Extend your weekend” set in red letters. The word “Takeaway” is done in a different, cursive font designed to emulate the kinds of fonts that were used for the signs of cheap restaurants in films of a past era. The whole assemblage is set at a jaunty angle that mimics the diagonal line separating the ad’s background colour fields. The sense of nostalgia that the neon lettering contains is strong. Nestled in among the glowing letters are the names of the show’s hosts, in a neat, compact font that is distinct from the surrounding words but that has a strong visual impact.

The background for the show’s name is black and this section of the ad is separated from the canonical orange that is used for the company’s logo and the rest of the ad by a diagonal line that serves to give movement and vibrancy to the whole design. On the right-hand side of the ad are the words “Live” and “7.30 Tonight” which give the viewer the essential information they need to connect the drama of the ad with their own schedule. Now, they can tune in and watch something that is going to buttress their conventional beliefs in a way that accommodates diversity and inclusiveness with a nod and a wink. Brilliant work by designers. Give them a raise!

Sunday 10 March 2019

People on Twitter are like friends who crash a party

People like to have their biases confirmed on social media. Proof is the response I had to a post I made about the way politicians and other public figures are treated on social media. I had spent about four hours one day surveying the types of comments that people used to attack individuals, as opposed to attacking policies. Most of the language I picked out was insulting and some of it was obscene. The majority was from political progressives attacking politicians who are part of the government. The post is on the blog if you want to read it.

Then someone said today on Twitter, "Good grief man. Get a life." I responded by saying that someone has to do the hard work. She responded to this in this way: "I don’t think you know the meaning of hard work. Looks like you have a lot of time on your hands."

Progressives are always complaining that conservatives ignore the evidence when it comes to things like climate change. They want the Liberal Party to take what scientists say more seriously. But what my story shows is that this only applies if what you have to say confirms their own beliefs. If you show them something that can be construed as an attack on their prejudices, they will try to belittle your achievement.

If you see this kind of thing – as I did with the insults being hurled on Twitter at politicians – and you yourself have mainly progressive views, then find yourself at a crossroads. It’s sort of like crashing a party when you are a teenager with a group of friends. They are your friends and you like them but you see them doing things that are bad, like drinking all the vodka, trashing the living room, stealing things, and aggressively hitting on girls at the party who are trying to have a good time. How do you deal with this sort of thing if there’s a fight outside the house later on and someone is seriously injured or even killed? How do you react if the cops ask you questions, when you saw what was being done by your friends? How do you deal with this kind of ugly situation? Where do your loyalties lie?

This is how I feel when I see people who have views that are similar to mine behaving badly on social media. I can understand why they are doing what they are doing but I disagree with their conduct, in fact I find it objectionable in the extreme.

Saturday 9 March 2019

Book review: The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe (1962)

I read enough of this piece of Postmodernism to get a feel for it but it wasn’t really very good so I stopped. The story opens with the tale of a man who goes insect collecting near the sea and who then goes missing. After seven years the authorities declare him dead as no trace of him had been found. This tiny vignette at the start of proceedings sets up a certain quantity of suspense.

Then the story of what happens to the man begins. On the day in question, he goes from the train station by bus to a small village and then climbs a large sand dune to get to the beach side, where he starts looking for insects. He is intent on finding an insect that he can be the first to discover, and he has a net and a box at the ready. As the day wanes, he is approached by an old man who asks him if he has somewhere to stay. He says that he does not and the man organises for him to spend the night in the home of a woman aged about 30. Inside her house, the sand is forever encroaching, and she tells him that it causes things to rot. He disputes this while she keeps digging the sand that accumulates around her house.

The ideas that animate the drama within the secondary material that is used to flesh out the bare bones of the narrative are encouraging on account of what appears to be a certain quantity of perspicacity. There is something about sand and its shifting, impermanent nature that the author is trying to convey to the reader, but the story’s forward movement by contrast lacks a certain vigour and you get caught up in apparently irreconcilable differences between the views of the two main characters. The thing doesn’t just go anywhere.

I’m all for novels of ideas and for free lateral movement in narratives that I read. They are often very entertaining and they can offer the reader ways of seeing the world that can be quite surprising. But what happens – or, more precisely, what doesn’t happen – in Abe’s novel means that you lose your ability to imagine the world he is trying to invent. Without this kind of engagement on the part of the reader, the whole enterprise falls apart. It’s as though Abe sets the reader up to expect something extraordinary and then subsequently forgets that he ever did so. The result is something like a broken promise.

It’s true that sometimes it can feel like a writer who creates a story for a reader to enjoy is like someone who throws a stick for a dog. You set up a scenario, you give the reader a puzzle to solve, then you release clues over the length of the novel until you reach the denouement, at which time all the problems are tied up in a neat bundle. Fini. Applause. Buy the next one. But writers at a certain point began to feel that this kind of pattern was inauthentic and they started looking for new ways to engage the reader that would be “more meaningful”.

In a sense, what Modernism was about was writers saying “No” to traditional methods of characterisation and habitual stylistic forms. They began to try to find ways to represent reality using texts that did the job more faithfully and more accurately. New forms and approaches were investigated for a period spanning about a century, right up to the emergence, in the middle of the 20th century, of the postmodern mode. You might be forgiven for saying that the Modernist project takes in everything from Melville to Proust to Faulkner. Things began to change with the appearance of novelists like Nabokov and Cortazar, who began to interrogate the very stuff of the fictive process itself, and whose books are therefore called “self-referential”. For these writers it wasn’t just about style and character, it was also about plot. Abe’s book falls into this category, it’s just that it’s not that good.

Friday 8 March 2019

Grocery shopping list for February 2019

This post is the third in a series.

7 February

Went to the IGA and bought some snapper fillets, mahi mahi fillets, tuna steaks, pork medallions, lamb cutlets, Cheddar cheese, milk, corn chips, snacks.

15 February

Went to Coles and bought a container of Greek salad, some sliced silverside, bread, milk, snacks, chocolate biscuits, zucchini and broccoli.

19 February

Went to Coles and bought some tabouleh and quinoa salad, some dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), some sliced silverside, some biscuits, snacks, and soap.

21 February

Went to the IGA and bought some sliced cooked pork, a ling fillet, some sea perch fillets, a couple of pieces of fillet steak, some quinoa salad, some chickpea salad, potatoes, corn chips, milk, Cheddar cheese, snacks, a packet of loose black tea, and a container of laundry liquid.

25 February

On the way back from the post office in the morning I went to IGA and bought bread. In the afternoon I made a trip out to Coles to buy toilet paper.

28 February

I went to Coles and bought chicken mince, Scotch fillet steak, lettuce, shallots, pears, mushrooms (shimeji, oyster, shiitake, white), biscuits, vermicelli, and rock sugar. In the evening I went back to Coles and bought some salmon fillets, celery, corn (on the cob), sweet potatoes, carrots, oranges, eggs, pine nuts, bread, biscuits, and tissues.

Thursday 7 March 2019

Book review: Balga Boy Jackson, Mudrooroo (2017)

The story told in this novel starts in 1947 when the protagonist is aged nine years. He lives with his mother and sister in a town named Shiloh near Perth and the two kids start breaking into buildings in the town and are confronted by the local police. Balga is sent away to a Catholic orphanage in the capital to be educated. The man who wrote this book, Colin Johnson, was also reportedly born in 1938, and was reportedly educated at an orphanage. At least the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica says as much, so you are inclined to believe it.

But then you are confronted by other details of the author’s life. There seem to be two versions. One is as the author sets down in this novel and the other is slightly different in some of its details. According to this alternative version the author has no Aboriginal forbears and so the claims he made during his life (he died last year, reportedly) to be a representative of that community were fabricated. At the present point in time it seems impossible to discover which version is accurate. One person, a Dane, calls attempts to discredit the version of Colin Johnson (he adopted his pen-name in 1988, it is reported) “politically correct” when, in fact (if she knew much at all about politics in Australia), the reverse would be truer. It’s all a bit of a puzzle and I don’t mean to attempt to clarify things here.

The first thing to say about this curious production is that it desperately needs more subbing. There are incorrect spellings, a sometimes cryptic sentence structure that in many cases suggests a lack of education, and some really serious solecisms, as where the same character is given words to say in reply to himself, but under a different name (Balga is deprecatingly called “Skinny” by the malicious priests in the orphanage, and both names are indiscriminately used for the one person by the author, which sometimes causes problems for the reader).

The second thing to note is that the truth of the version of events as they relate to the time spent in the orphanage is brought under question by the controversy surrounding the author’s ancestry. If you can’t believe one set of facts, it makes it harder to accept the other. The parts that cover the period Balga spent living with his mother and sister in Shiloh are furthermore very vividly imagined but once you get into the orphanage the details are not quite as convincing. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which way he or she wants to fall: on the side of Johnson or not.

Johnson also has this problem with his story: there is no shape to it. He hasn’t thought out what he wants to say and when, and all you get is a plain recount in episodic form. One thing comes after the next in a straight sequence and the dramatic arc is constantly being interrupted by unrelated events. Sometimes, with little preparation, a new event or theme is introduced, and you struggle as you get through the narrative, all the while trying to make sense of what you are reading. As well as the sometimes idiosyncratic syntax this characteristic of the book makes it hard to follow. The payoff is usually not there and just as one episode ends another has appeared to take its place. There is enough drama to make this novel interesting but it needed to be written a bit more, to be given more form and structure.

Wednesday 6 March 2019

Book review: Grand Hotel, Vicki Baum (1930)

This book was originally published in German in 1929 and was brought out the next year in England in English. It was made into a film by MGM that was released in 1932. Baum was an Austrian Jew who ended up living in California. Her publishing career, first in German and later in English, was long and she died in 1960 of leukemia, or blood cancer.

With a history like this you might have expected a novel of some note if not brilliance, but the latter most certainly does not apply here. Except for the fact of its vintage it would be stretching the truth to say that this book is even worthy of remark. The plotting is as creaky as an antiquated lift and the characterisation is as stale as week-old bread. The narrative is merely episodic, like a picaresque novel left over from the 18th century where one thing happens after another in a raw sequence and there is little development. The concept sustaining the novel relies for its vigour on the wisdom of focusing, in turn, on different occupants of a hotel: visitors and staff.

The hotel is reputedly a fine one that is located in the heart of Berlin and it is one that attracts businesspeople, members of the nobility, and actors, among other guests. But only one character in the part I read exhibited any sign of life. This was Doctor Otternschlag, a WWI veteran whose face has been terribly ravaged by the violence of combat. In one scene that managed to scrape together a few scraps of readerly emotion, Otternschlag gets Rohna, the head reception clerk, to find a vacant room for a strange man named Kringelein who appears one evening at the front desk looking for accommodation.

No-one in the lobby that night knows it but Kringelein is in Berlin due to an illness that we writes to his solicitor with information about, and he has left his wife, who he despises, back home in Fredersdorf. Kringelein knows about the hotel because his boss, an industrialist named Preysing, is due to arrive any day, and he, Kringelein, wants to stay in a hotel suitable for that eminent personage. We are meant to sympathise with Kringelein but no reason is given to us that would justify such an emotional investment.

There are other characters who inhabit the hotel but over all of them lies a blanket of sheer mediocrity that stifles the emergence of anything like personality or even of life. These characters are all dead. If there can be said to be a theme that survives the desultory progression of scenes that appear in this novel it would have to be that no-one in the hotel cares about anyone else and that practically the only thing that motivates anyone to do anything at all, is money.

Except for the general poverty of imagination that people often betray by making some books, and not others, into commercial successes, the enthusiastic reception the novel received when it was first published is something that, having read part of the novel, would be utterly beyond comprehension.

Tuesday 5 March 2019

Tweets published as Christopher Pyne’s retirement announced

This brief survey started at around 3pm on Friday 1 March and went for about an hour after it was announced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the Liberal Party’s Christopher Pyne would retire from politics at the upcoming federal election.

This post will be of interest to people who observe Australian politics but on the other hand it does show in general how people in the public eye can be tarred once with a brush, only to have the same perceptions resist the effects of time and stick to the bitter end. In Pyne’s case, the accusation of effeminacy has stuck around regardless of its truth. The tag “poodle”, which you will find in what follows if you read on and which is related to this idea, focuses specifically on Pyne’s distinctive wavy hair. Other labels have survived as well, such as “fixer”, a word Pyne had unwisely used to describe himself in public on one occasion.

What is striking in this survey is how nasty many of the comments are, a quality that reflects badly on the Australian character. The charge of effeminacy, especially, is in very poor taste. And this from social justice warriors who pride themselves on being “politically correct” in their dealings with minorities. In response to a comment I made the other day about the lack of manners displayed on Twitter by people on the left of the political spectrum, one of these people said to me: “And define ‘political correctness’[. A]s far as I can tell it means being polite and respectful.” When I sent a link to her that led to a post I had written that illustrated precisely the opposite, she countered with this: “Yeah we swear all the fucking time, but then we don’t issue quite as many death threats as [people on] the right.”

Pyne is notable for being the Liberal Party whip (the person responsible for making sure that lower-house MPs are in the chamber for divisions, which is what votes that are held there are called, and also for draughting and assigning questions for MPs on the government’s side to ask during Question Time). He also performs a role in the management of House business as leader of the House, and is one of the government’s most senior MPs. Because of his prominence in the Parliament, his holding a portfolio (minister of defence), and his characteristic (slightly toffee-nosed) way of speaking, he has gained notoriety in the broader community.

In what follows, tweets included that are time-stamped earlier than 3pm on 1 Mar are retweets. The greatest intensity of comments came in the period leading up to about 3.45pm, after which time they slowed down and plateaued to a trickle. Most were taken from the #auspol hashtag.

This sample mostly ignores the more mundane type of comment of the “rats leaving a sinking ship” variety, of which there were literally dozens of examples, and instead concentrates on ones that had a sharper edge. I have classified the comments using arbitrary themes. As usual with this kind of thing (politically most people who use Twitter are progressives), most of the comments were insulting. Some were merely observations concerning the types of policies Pyne promoted in Parliament and these are included at the end of the selection, followed by a few comments that I saw applauding Pyne.

Other news on the afternoon in question was the announcement that retired journalist Mike Willesee had died and the announcement of the identity of the secret “Lawyer X” who had been part of the reason for the Victorian Royal Commission into Management of Informants. For three-quarters of an hour Christopher Pyne was all anyone was talking about.

General celebration
  • 3.32pm: Omg!!! We’re getting #pynefreepolitics !!! Imma throw a fucking party
  • 3.33pm: Hope the door hits #Pyne's butt on the way out. A nasty piece - good riddance
  • 3.44pm: Why wait until tomorrow #Pyne? On the bright side, 12-24hrs of more fabulously funny twitter posts
  • 3.48pm: #pynegap
  • 3.54pm: Splitters.
  • 4.02pm: And ciobo and pyne resigning. Gosh. The stench is appalling
  • 4.05pm: Quitting before the electorate .... er.......cuts his throat. Good riddance.
  • 3.14pm: Don't let the manhole hit you on the head on the way out Ciobo and Pyne. (Came with a photo of a rat coming out from a manhole set in a street.)
  • 3.16pm: Rats. Ship. Glug.
  • 3.18pm: Running from his constituents. What a sad miserable pathetic loser
  • 3.20pm: @cpyne puts himself out with the trash on a Friday afternoon.
  • 3.23pm: Oh isn't it wonderful to see all these "totally committed" LNP grubs abandoning ship. Are they expecting rough seas? Pencil Pyne broken, and addio Ciobo. Hope the emus kick down your super funds.
  • 3.24pm: Rats. Ship. Sinking.
  • 3.39pm: Squeaky won’t be missed, you know the Government is in trouble when they all retire before an election
  • 3.41pm: Christopher Pyne is take-out-the-trash Friday!
  • 4.07pm: ‘Oh oh the Rats are getting bigger’ 2 more rats @cpyne & Steve Chobo deserting sinking @LiberalAus flagship ‘No Policies’ in the background are the still afloat ‘Turnback’ & ‘Fear’ Both vessels are believed to be empty despite the cacophony emanating from them.
  • 3.19pm: But who’s gonna fix stuff now the fixer is leaving politics?
  • 3.29pm: I guess even 'Mr Fixer' could not fix what is left of this minority government.
  • 3.36pm: In a career full of hysterical interviews, @cpyne I'm A Fixer classic I think will always be my favourite. One of the funniest in #auspol history.
  • 3.41pm: Of course, he fixed it #Pyne #auspol lovin' politics at the moment #LNPFail #LibFailing BIG time. Private schooled kids don't like to lose
  • 3.42pm: The Fixer is done? Bye Pyne!
  • 3.45pm: There - that’s fixxxxxsssssed it
  • 4.06pm: I guess it can’t be fixed if the fixer is going. Call the election.
  • 3.19pm: Young Pyne to leave the Halls of Residence!
  • 3.20pm: See ya princess.. Actually - I really hope NOT to see you anywhere - ever again
  • 3.22pm: News of Christine's  retirement is a good thing for the CWA who are looking forward to his ANZAC biscuits and inclusion at the Canasta table!
  • 3.25pm: I wonder if Young Pyne is going to take a gap year? If so, what will he do? Towel boy in a "gentlemens'" private club? Who knows, the world's his oyster.
  • 3.25pm: I hear that US president, Darth Mango needs a groom of the stool. Sounds like a good job for Young Pyne.
  • 3.28pm: Ermehgerd how spicy
  • 3.43pm: Can't wait for the #ScoMo farewell speech where we reflect on Pyne's famous shoes!
  • 3.51pm: You fuck off! No, you fuck off! You fuck off first! No, you fuck off first. Why don't we both fuck off? Yes, let's finally do something positive for the Australian people & fuck off together. (Came with photo taken in the House of Reps showing Pyne and Ciobo talking to one another.)
  • 3.58pm: The other guy at the back called #CPyne a F***wit and he loved it. As he as confirmed the little weasel unpopularity.
  • 4.02pm: What now for "ship ahoy" Pyne? Off to star in a remake of a Carry On or AB FAB?
  • 3.08pm: Be good to see the back of the “mincing poodle” the duplicitous weasel, Pyne..
  • 3.12pm: Run, Poodle. Run!
  • 3.15pm: The poodle is going to the farm.
  • 3.45pm: If Pyne was the rep top bitch that I think he thinks he is, then when he announces his retirement he should say it’s because he has no confidence in the government and Scott Morrison farts when he yells.
Just strange
  • 3.34pm: I hope everyone in #auspol still remembers that time Christopher Pyne helped his dear old granny out of her chair using a friggin’ Jedi mind trick (Came with a video about the former speaker of the House of Reps, Bronwyn Bishop.)
Moderate (tweets in this category, which is about Pyne’s distinct brand of politics, were a bit more responsible than most of the others)
  • 3.17pm: With the lefties being purged from the Coalition Party or leaving because they can't handle the thought of losing, it might now be time to vote for Libs again instead of a minor? Maybe... we'll see
  • 3.17pm: It’s official. The moderates lost the War.
Past performance
  • 3.48pm: Ahhh the of my first twitter posts featured a picture of Pyne, back in the day when he was Minister responsible for pushing $100,000 degrees and a deregulated fee structure
  • 3.50pm: pyne as opposition education spokesperson for 5 years asked just three questions in parliament... none related to education...but he was thrown out 28 times.. he is a complete dick
  • 3.31pm: ....will both walk straight into high paid jobs associated with their portfolios?.......yep, of course they will......
  • 3.34pm: Would anyone be surprised if @cpyne takes up a job with the defense industry, maybe ship or submarine building in SA?
  • 3.38pm: Christopher Pyne is 51 and the Australian average life expectancy is ~82 meaning he will likely receive upwards of $6million. For NOTHING.
  • 3.41pm: The only thing that #Pyne has fixed is his superannuation - $220,000 a year.
  • 11.48am: If Pyne goes straight into a Defence Industry job I will lose it.
  • 3.52pm: What a personally rewarding career and now retirement it will be. After beinf part of a regime that made the vulnerable more vulnerable. Nevermind the irresponsible fiscal mismanagement and wilful environmental vandalism. What a generous reward for failure
  • 4pm: Time for Kevin Andrews & Rowan Ramsey to step up post Election #auspol #OppositionInWaiting
  • 3.27pm: End of an era.
  • 3.36pm: BREAKING: It's official. Christopher Pyne to announce his resignation from politics tomorrow. We may not have agreed on everything, but Christopher was one of the best in his party. His departure is a huge loss to the Liberals. All the best in your retirement mate.
  • 3.37pm: He gives the best gossip in Canberra, with daylight second.
  • 3.38pm: And it seems @cpyne is set to go. A big portion of @LiberalAus front bench experience out the door now...