Sunday 28 February 2021

Exhibition review: Art Xpress, 2021, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Every year the Higher School Certificate students – young people matriculating from secondary school – exhibit work at this gallery. It’s not a ticketed show, so the value is doubly good, but it’s not on that account that I decided to make this post. In fact, the quality of work on show was excellent though most of the works I’ve chosen to feature here are by girls.

The sole boy whose work I found was Jaeyoon Kim, who had studied at Epping Boy’s High School. This is an area that Asian residents of the city of Sydney favour, and it’s near to where my mother’s old nursing home is located. It’s a leafy, green suburb that has a major train station – serving two lines – straddling the M2 motorway that threads along through the north of the metropolis. The school is public.

Kim has chosen to show what he thinks are the dark lives of people with money, evidently something that factors large amid his peer group. He’s selected three views – I’ve only chosen one to show here – and has used sombre hues to demonstrate the loneliness of the elites, cut off, as he sees them, from the rest of humanity by their privilege.

I love the glossy, wet streets of Kim’s city (see above) in the series ‘Dark World of the Wealthy’. Kim’s chosen a country where they drive on the left but he’s put the steering wheel on the left-hand side of the car, too. I’m not sure why he’s chosen this configuration of elements through which to express his poetic vision. The auto maker’s badge is distinctly visible, the traffic light is green, and the roads are almost deserted. As in a comic book drawing, the buildings totter and threaten to fall over. But the feature in this oil painting is the satiny, glowing macadam of the roadway that stretches away, to the top of a hill – which forms a boundary – and captures the reflections of the car headlights, tail lights, and the traffic lights.

Next is the work of Sariah Cummings from Northern Beaches Secondary College, whose acrylic paintings feature fire. Inspired by the bushfires of the summer we had at the beginning of 2020, Cummings has created disturbing images that draw on the figurative tradition. Like a painting by Turner, Cummings’ pieces entice the viewer then throw their regard back in their faces as they come to grips with her poetic vision – a kind of dreamscape that resembles a Medieval conception of Hell.

Cummings' provenance in the Northern Beaches of Sydney – a pleasant part of the world that votes mostly conservative – also indicates a concern for the environment. Her work is strongly informed by narratives surrounding climate change.

The environment also features in Bronte Gooch’s drawings (see below). Here, in works titled ‘Detritus’, the meaning is clear but the method is anarchic and strange. I love the ephemeral, almost random series of marks Gooch uses to create signification in her work.

St Vincent’s College is a single-sex Catholic boarding school in Potts Point, an inner suburb of Sydney.

In Elizabeth Hayman’s ‘Scorched: Black Country’ the fires of last year feature again but here in delicate charcoal on paper (see below). These works are situated right at the end of the exhibition, near the exit.

Phoebe Turner of Ascham School – a single-sex girl’s school in tony Edgecliffe – has taken a different take on the environment, one that chimes with Gooch’s.

The label on the bottle of milk that the girl in the photo is drinking from features the design of one of Turner’s photomontages (see above), which are titled ‘States of Flux’. 

Plastic in the ocean is a major problem around the world, and Turner is not alone in seeking to embody a tonic political concept in her expressive work. Paige Colgate of Caroline Chisholm College has also borrowed her theme from the natural world (see below).

Colgate’s ambitious etchings are titled ‘Suburban Wilderness’. They augur well for the future and if she can stick with the medium over the coming years it’ll be – I have no doubt – a surprise to see where her talent (which is significant) takes her. Caroline Chisholm College is a Catholic school located on the western outskirts of the city, near the Blue Mountains.

More ephemeral are the messages in Nissa Violet Jenkin Brennan’s ‘Ephemeral’, (see below). St Columba’s Catholic College – where Brennan went to school – is located in Springwood, right on the western border of the city, in amongst the mountains and the retreats of lyrebirds. These works of hers were made with graphite and watercolour.

A completely different tack is evident in ‘Feast of the First Morning of the First Day’ (see below) by Jennifer Nguyen. This is a series of metallic prints made on a computer with the Procreate graphics program. Nguyen went to Canterbury Girls' High School, a public school in the inner west of Sydney that has seen significant development in recent years as industrial sites have been turned into blocks of residential dwellings for the expanding middle class.

Using just three colours – red, white, and blue (the colours of the Australian flag) – Nguyen has rendered a range of scenes that you might see played out in Cabramatta during the moon festival

It’s instructive to see what subjects these young people engage with in their search for meaning. The predominance of private schools is not a surprise, and where you’ve got public schools you’ve also got people whose heritage is Asian. For the Anglos – for example Turner, Hayman, Cummings, and Gooch – the environment is the main focus of the artist in the world trying to come to grips with modernity and the onward press of time. Each of them excels in her chosen form, and while the method of rendering the world in each case is different, you feel a common urge to change the status quo.

Sometimes this emerges in an overly dogmatic and determined fashion and this indicates that today young people’s identities are forged within the collective in a way that is different from how the dynamic functioned when I was young. 

In Brennan’s work in addition to ideas of ecology you also find traces of a search for other types of meaning, but these are equally associated with identity. Here, and also in Turner’s work, feminism is clearly a construct to grapple with, adding another layer of complexity to the difficulty of being young in a post-postmodern world where the challenges are so evident but the way to their solution seems more fraught than ever. Artists of this generation therefore have not only to deal with the broader consensus of society, but also with a less liberating consensus – that of the coterie wherein they reside. 

Breaking free of the embrace of the one is just as difficult as breaking free of the embrace of the other, and here is where style can play a role. The states these works render in visual form are not in flux however. What I feel walking through my memories of this exhibition is a desire to find something fluid and ephemeral, a state of flux rather than a prison of ideas.

Thursday 25 February 2021

Take two: ‘The Sandcastle,' Iris Murdoch

For full review, see my Patreon

Despite the stuffy cover, this electric novel does two different things. One is to describe, in terms conducive to creating in the reader’s mind a picture, a community rooted in the period before the postwar counterculture arrived on the scene. To read this book is almost to practice archaeology. The other thing the book does is to outline the profile of human desire. A wonderful experience which has made me keen to read more books by this forgotten author.

Tuesday 23 February 2021

Podcast review: Hot Mess, Radio National, ABC (2020)

I found this program on the Apple Podcast app while searching randomly for something to listen to while driving. I didn’t specifically go out of my way to find a program about the environment.

It goes a bit fast at times but is otherwise adequately researched. It’s just that because of the faulty editing – you struggle to keep up with the narrative as your concentration wanders due to a sudden, urgent events happening on the road while you’re driving – some important things get lost in the transmission.

Especially at the beginning, before the basic premise – which is, on the face of it, sound – is cemented in your imagination. We do need to have more informed viewpoints on the subject of climate change so that we can – hopefully, with patience exercised on both sides – get away from the trolling and the flame wars. By focusing on why it’s so hard to get through to people this podcast tries to list the reasons why we seem to keep on having the same debates?

‘Hot Mess’ is a suitable place to start to find the answers to this question but it doesn’t go very deep until the final episode, and it also wears its heart on its sleeve. The bit about psychology that opens the show should’ve been placed closer to the end, because the filler – all the stuff about the IPA and the Minerals Council – is so well known as hardly to warrant inclusion. 

In fact, there’s not much in this program that is new until episode four. Most of the show is a slightly reheated dollop of quickly assembled interviews but, then again, you get what you pay for. 

There is plenty of stuff happening in the environment space, especially in research institutions such as universities and in the private sector, and that’s where the makers of this show head in the final ep. But Richard Aedy – who made this program – doesn’t know much about such initiatives, products, systems, or software. Lots of advances are being made all that time, and implemented quietly by people who want to improve the operation and efficiency of the properties they run, but the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is not privy to most of such activity because it routinely only concerns itself with politics. So it thinks that the shitshow that flourishes on Twitter every week when ‘Q and A’ airs is the whole story. It’s not and ‘Hot Mess’ ignores much fascinating detail.

Saturday 20 February 2021

Take two: ‘Hybrids: Stories of Greek Australia,’ Nikos Athanasou

For full review, please see my Patreon

This collection of short stories helps the reader of the 21st century to understand the not-so-distant past. Reaching back to the time just after WWII, and encompassing other years as well, this book has a strikingly modern title. Who’d have thought a medical specialist with a penchant for writing would, in 1995, come up with a title so modern? Thoroughly enjoyable read and well worth the effort to dig it up on AbeBooks. Must be out of print.

Monday 15 February 2021

Take two: ‘Life in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford,’ Laura Thompson

The original book review is found on my Patreon site. I’m posting this sequel to that article for friends who won’t subscribe or for those who cannot. 

In the main review I talk about what kind of book this biography is, and how it fits in with many other, similar works. The Mitfords never seem to get old. And there’s something nice about reading the lives of the dead when you’re – like me – past your prime. It is like Nancy Mitford – the subject of this book – and her decision, following the release of the two novels for which she is most famous, to gravitate to biography as a form of expression. As she wrote to one of her correspondents, one of the most difficult things about writing novels is inventing plots. With biography she could still express herself but the story was already laid out by time and circumstance. As for this book, the autumnal triumphalism of the ending will warm many cockles.

Sunday 14 February 2021

TV review: Death in Paradise, series 9 ep 2 (‘A Murder in Portrait’), BBC (2020)

Isn’t is odd that the only other episode of this show I’ve reviewed also had an artwork as a plot device? I think it’s awfully funny. More than a coincidence, it’s a sign.

In that earlier episode the detective inspector (Kris Marshall) drove badly while the detective sergeant (Sara Martins) suffered in silence. In ‘A Murder in Portrait’ the detective inspector (Ardal O'Hanlon) gins up his confidence to go on a date and the detective sergeant (Aude Legastelois) indulgently encourages him. The dynamics operating between these two dramatic personae have improved, and no longer is there the temptation for the viewer to see creepy romantic possibilities.

Which is a relief. What hasn’t changed is the quality of the art. In both cases the paintings are pretty dreadful. In ‘A Murder in Portrait’ the artist – Donna Harman (Louise Brealey) – is a hopped up professional who invites criticism due to her threatening to ditch her gallerist (Barbara Flynn). Harman’s liking of energy drinks – the can of Boom Ting she uses becomes a point of fascination for Jack Mooney and Madeleine Dumas as they go about their work assisted by Ruby Patterson (Shyko Amos) and Officer Hooper (Tobi Bakare) – serves to muddy the waters as the police try to link it to the murder, but the fact that it hadn’t been tampered with prior to Harman’s collapse make their job a lot harder than it might’ve been.

As usual Amos adds piquancy and lustre to a rather plodding plot and despite Mooney’s interest in Anna (Nina Wadia, pictured) the sparks didn’t fly for me when the two go on a date-cruise around the island. In addition, Mooney’s propensity to talk to a photograph of his dead wife felt flattish rather than pathetic, so the point of this device was lost on me.

More credible was P.J.’s childhood attachment to mice, Harman’s pet mouse Rothko (named after a famous American painter – who doesn’t like the luminous colour-scapes of Mark Rothko?) giving Patterson a chance to rib her colleague insistently and for the episode to suffer a comfortable conclusion as the gang get together around a table in Catherine Bordey's (Elizabeth Bourgine) bar, a resort for the ensemble – for this, after all, is an ensemble production – to resolve any slight differences or to celebrate any small victories.

The show’s ability to prioritise the ephemeral highs and lows of ordinary life being its major attraction for me, at least. I appreciate the gentle humour it retails in, its whimsical nature, and its overall kindness. I think this is the secret to its enduring popularity.

Not many shows go for so long. I just wish they’d find a proper artist to make the props.

Thursday 11 February 2021

In The Field, number 05: Drone mapping

Recently we met Emma Ayliffe. She is the farmer who is using strategic tillage to enhance soil health, reduce evaporation, and remediate compaction on her farm. You can read that story here.

Emma and partner Craig have been making decisions around what they can do to improve the health of their soils. In their low rainfall environment ensuring that they have the soil structure to store moisture and support plant growth in the driest of times is critically important.

Everything they do is about trying new techniques and tools – based on research – in their environment so that they can ever improve, be better stewards for their land, and ensure they can feed and clothe the world well into the future. 

Today we’ll take a look at Emma’s use of advanced technology – specifically, drones.

The challenge

Actually, there are several challenges Emma has overcome. 

Weeds use moisture that might otherwise be used by crops, and they also harbour insects and disease, so it is important to minimise their occurrence. To maintain the best ground cover and to control weeds chemicals are needed for application. But chemicals cost money and reduce soil health. There is also the danger of chemical resistance if you use them too often on the same piece of land – the paddock.

The solution

A drone is sent up over paddocks to find green areas indicating that weeds have started to grow. This is a photo taken in the field showing Tristan Stevenson from StevTech launching the surveillance drone.

Sending a drone out with a camera attached that transmits a video of the fields lets Emma pinpoint the areas that need spraying. The resulting data maps the weed population and allows her to turn it into a green area map. 

The following photo shows the StevTech ute with the drone on the ground in front of it.

Chemical costs are kept down as they are spraying only a proportion of the total paddock. Emma can also often look at using higher value chemistries that may be cost prohibitive if she and partner Craig had to spray it all. 

The following two images shows weed cover of paddocks. In the first image, drone mapping produces a 95 percent saving of chemicals.

In the second image, drone mapping produces an 83 percent saving of chemicals.

Data from the mapping that the drone completes is then sent to a computer in the spray rig allowing the rig operator to target chemicals to conform precisely to hotspots where weeds are concentrated. In the following image, which shows what is displayed in the spray rig during application of chemicals, the olive green circles on the screen are the weeds being sprayed. 

“The great thing about this technology is that we can utilise the machinery and systems that we already have, so don’t have to spend a lot of money on new equipment,” said Emma in an email.

Wednesday 10 February 2021

Light at the end of the tunnel

I’m writing this in the dark – not the dark inside a long tunnel (such as you might find in the place I’m leaving) – but in the dark before dawn. It’s a clean dark (as Robert Adamson proposed long ago) with the silence of the morning and the hope of a new day arriving.

Sometimes the dark has to become so complete that you cannot see the hands in front of your face before you change. 

Yesterday my brother wrote, upon looking at an image of me posted on Facebook wearing a colourful shirt – a shirt so outrageous only my mother could’ve bought it – “Holy cow, Matt, it makes you look like dad.” He was referring to the comment from a friend – two friends, in fact – about my weight. 

It was true. I’d lost 25kg in four months and I looked different. So different that my brother – bless his soul – compared me to a man both of us had feared. For his sharp words and for his dark eyes.


My eyes are hazel.

After mum died I wasn't smoking – not by that time – but I was drinking about one-and-a-half bottles of white wine per day. I weighed over 120kg. 

It was a dark time. I almost drank myself to death. I survived pulmonary arrhythmia due to ventricular tachycardia (in 2019) but then started to have panic attacks – this was what led me to quitting the booze. Then, last October, fed up with it all and encouraged by a change of regime, I started losing weight. I'm now weaning myself off antidepressants for the panic attacks and it's working; they're not returning.

This is a relief. It’s another thing I don’t have to worry about. 


I have to worry about so many things, and as I get older – my psychiatrist told me that stress accumulates over time, as you age, so that old people experience its effects more sharply than young people – there are more of them every year. Perhaps, I suggested to him, this is why old people are more conservative. “Yes, maybe,” he said.

The light is glimmering like a CGI effect at the end of a virtual tunnel. I see hands but they’re not my hands: they’re someone else’s hands. Someone I might become. 

A robot, perhaps.

Not a robot like we used to have in the old days before all the computing power in the world changed the cinematic experience. But something almost-lifelike, new, and real. Something pink and orange and navy blur and hazel.

Like my eyes They shoot out sparks when I turn to people. People look and turn away, ashamed at things they’ve done. I remind people, now in my slimmed-down state, of wrongs they’ve done and of small victories won in the face of adversity. I can see how this happens when I walk down the street. Before, I used to be the fat guy in unprepossessing clothes. People would wonder if I was homeless or mad or just needy. 

Not anymore. 

Now, they make space for me – I almost wrote “form” – and treat me as though I’m visible. They can actually see a person where before they’d seen something shameful. 

Now, it is they who are filled with shame.


My father’s ashes disappeared after mum and I moved back to Sydney from the little town she’d been living in since 1999, and to which, in 2009, I also moved so that I could look after her. I discovered the ashes had gone in 2015 and grieved again – but not as much as when, the next year, mum died. 

When she died I grieved hard. I hadn’t wanted to move to Maroochydore. I’d offered, in 2009, to move her to Sydney so that I could live something like a normal life, but she’d declined. “No,” she said, "I want to stay here." In a way it was a good thing. If I’d moved to Sydney I would’ve gotten some dead-end job – the kind of role in an organisation I’d been filling since I left uni for the first time in 1985 – but, as it turned out, I gave myself to writing. Mum celebrated each story with me as it was accepted by one magazine or another and slowly I became more proficient, earning my stripes, as it were, upon the treadmill of low rates and long hours spent transcribing routine interviews – the device driving the software on the floor under my desk and my feet tapping now this peddle, now that – as I made the material I needed to communicate the subject I’d been commissioned to live with for a time.

Eventually, after a few years, I stopped.

I didn’t stop writing. Now, it was poetry. Sonnet after sonnet, line after rhyming line. Words tumbling in bright cascades down the cliff of my dissatisfaction that stood at the edge of the glacier of perfection within which my body was immured like the Ice Man. 


Alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than life-giving water, and I bathed the frozen cascade in litres of chardonnay, the yellow liquid running in rivulets over the place where no earth could nurture a seed.

I was the seed. I was looking for earth, for a patch of ground, for a space. I got the suggestion to move house last year in winter – the time of frozen cascades, the time of hallucinations and paranoia, the time of death (mum died one July) – and the friend who gave it to me will move into the new house. She will paint. I will paint – or, no, I won’t paint; I’ll use knives to fashion images and then bend paper to the prepared surface as though I were making an imprint of my soul. 

This is the thing that has happened. It happened to me and though I still don't know what a soul is I know that so many things have happened and I don’t have the words to describe them. Do I even need the words, now? Perhaps the message will come out of the frozen cliff in a bottle launched a hundreds years since, like a blessing for the future by an unnamed relative whose face I can never see. I care about this person, but I’m leaving.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

In The Field, number 04: Strategic tillage

‘In The Field’ began as a post about the use of herbicides for weed control. That was back in November 2018. Today I’m introducing a different farmer – her name is Emma Ayliffe – and she has a slightly different approach to the puzzle of productivity. This farmer will be featured in two posts, and you’re reading the first.

With partner Craig and his family, Emma operates a 1700-acre (688-hectare) farm at Burgooney, Lake Cargelligo (roughly northwest of Wagga Wagga, in the central west of New South Wales, about 550km from Sydney). The land is rolling hills with red loam which gets a relatively modest 360mm of rain per year. 

Primary outputs are wool, first cross lambs, and grains (mainly wheat but also some oats, barley and canola). Here’s a moment during the 2020 harvest.

Secondary outputs: If above average rainfall, may plant canola, chickpeas, mungbeans. Opportunity cropping depends on amount of moisture in the field, the market (some crops might have a higher price at any given time) as well as the time of year.

The challenge

Three challenges are addressed in this report. One is ground cover, which must be maintained in order to prevent erosion and evaporation of water. In Emma’s environment ground cover is critical as she and Craig can never be sure if and when the next rain event is going to occur.

It is a low rainfall production area with a tendency to have a “sharp” (ie hot and dry) finish to the year. Growing season rainfall is only around 180mm, and to put that in perspective the average annual rainfall for NSW is 555mm/year and the high production areas of new like the eastern area like Temora sit closer to 600mm/year.

Another challenge is maintaining soil health. As a seed, a plant requires water, air, nutrients and heat for germination. Then to be able to maximise growth the plant needs a biologically active soil biota. This includes soil fungi and bacteria, which enables good soil structure and nutrient cycling, leading to optimum plant health. It is the interaction between all of these factors that determines how well plants and crops grow.

The third challenge is compaction, which happens when livestock are let into fields after harvest to eat the lost grain and the stubble that remain after a combine harvester has gone through the paddock. Compaction also happens due to farming equipment. And the soils are naturally hard setting.

The solution

Emma’s vision involves capitalising on the resources she and partner Craig have in a marginal environment and finding the systems that best suit their landscape to ensure the farm is able to be productive and profitable well into the future. 

They are moving to a minimum till/strategic tillage system that means using knife-point press wheels. Minimum tillage means avoiding anything that causes major soil disturbance, hence the knife-point press wheel system. Strategic tillage is similar but allows for one significant soil disturbance pass no more than one year in eight. This strategy reduces erosion, conserves moisture, and maintains soil structure.

A knife-point (see photo below) is narrower than a coulter but does the same job, only without disturbing the soil as much. The press wheel comes in behind the knife point and closes the furrow. 

Research tells that working the soil one year in eight is fine. It ensures that Emma and Craig are managing issues like compaction while maximising productivity and soil health. 

Sunday 7 February 2021

Book review: A Backward Place, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1965)

God knows how long this old thing has been in my collection, but since moving house my books have been shifted around so new ones have come into my sightlines. I pulled this one of the shelf recently and found it completely engrossing.

It outlines in Austenish fashion a community of expatriates in Delhi who revolve around each other like satellites. Among them are Indians of different kinds who also go about their lives in peace, though this is relative due to the friction that ensues when Judy’s husband Bal comes up with an idea to set up a theatre company.

You mightn’t think that such a premise would furnish adequate drama for an entire novel, but here you have the proof that it’s possible to make such a story entertaining. The wit is rapacious, gobbling up characters and spitting them out when it’s finished with them, as though they were cough drops and itself a child of nine. Never satisfied with one – for example Etta (turning 40 and past her prime, a woman with no visible means of support) – it turns on another – for example Clarissa (Etta’s bosom buddy, a woman having problems with her landlord, and who is in need of a place to live).

The title is ambiguous in its intent, but having read the book it’s meant tongue-in-cheek. Then again, the arrow has an oblique trajectory, and Bal, in particular, comes in for some criticism. Given Jhabvala’s ability to grasp the subtleties of cultural references from both sides – the European and the Indian – her intent must be understood as primarily empathetic. But not completely so. There is still enough fuel in the tank once the vessel has been emptied of spite and shallow posturing to find reason to think that Indians stood in need – at the time the book is set (and it’s evidently a contemporary setting; see publication date above) – of some honest brokerage vis-a-vis the past and the future. 

India has, it appears, a long way to go to before it can successfully reconcile itself to history, and while it’d be too much of a stretch to say that Jhabvala is reactionary – a near concept while reading certain parts of the book, notably the picnic near its end – her expressed personal acumen should perhaps be taken as a corrective to some unattractive personality traits. Bal evinces an emphasis on face, a sense of victimisation that can be used to justify poor conduct, male privilege, and an inability to easily forgive – such characteristics, that might be taken to address questions about the Indian psyche, are offset against positives: ambition, dreaminess, inclusiveness where it comes into contact with identity, and a Romantic urge to attain perfection. Bal is finely drawn, as is Judy, his English wife, and the contrast between them is a source of intrigue as the matter of how to support the family gradually resolves itself in the plot.

Judy is timid but decent and loves Bal very much. On the other hand you have the scatterbrained Clarissa’s misguided ideas about Indian spirituality. She is a salutary figure as well, summing up attitudes belonging to an entire generation of Westerners who harboured – and many still must do so – consuming fantasies about the subcontinent that seem, on account of their force and frequency, to be a reaction against earlier attitudes, ones that had allowed for the relegation of India to second-class status, and that dated from the early 19th century.

Beyond such ideas Jhabvala is concerned with social mobility and how it relates to people’s identities. When Bal’s actor friend talks about setting up a production company, Bal asks Judy for cash so he (Bal) can travel to Bombay to enter into discussions with Kumar. But Judy, the family breadwinner, is sceptical and thinks of all the times Bal has had big dreams that never got off the ground. She won’t easily part with 200 rupees for train fare and meals – and you ask yourself: why doesn’t Kumar pony up the necessary to enable Bal to comply with his wishes? Kumar is not short of the ready.

Cartoonish and sketchy as some of the characterisation is the overall effect is profound. Even the secondary characters – such as the Hochstadts – spring to life at unexpected moments to deliver a rich stream of meaning to the reader. 

At once satirical and elegiac, Jhabvala’s novel is delicious and can’t see how it’s possible that she didn’t win the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is classy realism of a popular kind but it is unassailably competent and hilariously funny. There are no postmodern tricks here and, with money a foundational plot device, the story is rooted firmly in the world of affairs. Its cultural angle is all show. At heart what these people worry about is how to pay for a taxi or whence will derive money for the theatre company. Within the budding grove of ‘A Backward Place’ a universe abounds with delight.

Saturday 6 February 2021

China and Russia form new Axis of Evil

It had to happen. In fact I’d been waiting for this development, and the election of Joe Biden as US president only hastened it. 

You get what you ask for. George W Bush signposted an “Axis of Evil” back half a generation ago and in the absence – the raid on the Capitol just being the icing on the cake – of the dictator’s friend in the form of the Orange Liability, a new bloc has sprung up to threaten democracies everywhere. They’ve been busy in recent years. They promise, now, to be busier.

The development is serious, and its ramifications will need a long time to work themselves out. Be prepared for plenty of argy-bargy in the domestic public sphere as the political parties jockey for position. In a way this news is good for the Liberal-National coalition as they are traditionally perceived as the protectors of borders and wagers of war. 

The international policemen, if you prefer. Like little Johnny Howard being Dubya’s “deputy”, “Man of Steel,” “lapdog” – choose your preferred epithet. You do, after all, choose who governs you so why shouldn’t you choose what you call your leaders? You have far more freedom than a man or woman living in Beijing or in Moscow.

For its part, the Labor Party in Australia – the country from which I write – will be disappointed by the moves of its old conferes (China and Russia, harbingers and fellow-travellers in past times of revolution) to rachet up the global security stakes. 

Winners will be defence contractors, arms manufacturers, and the military. Spy agencies will also use this as a pretext to seek additional funding due to the predilection of agents working for foreign powers to try to influence politics in target countries, and to steal intellectual property that can then be used in the new Cold War. Soft skills will be in demand, as well, due to the use of virtual attacks on infrastructure, and the infiltration of important government websites as cybercriminals working for different governments try to steal information, secrets, and defence plans.

Joe Biden has to be careful to be seen to be tough on demagogues, and if he’s smart he’ll link Trump with Putin. If I were his PR director I’d be pushing out stories with this theme, and getting allied organisations to do the same. 

It’s important for America – like Russia and China – to be on the front foot. Linking Trump with kleptocratic fascist states like China and Russia can only, in the long term, do the Democrats good, especially if they stick to their guns and push a consistent line over a long period of time. 

To the barricades!

Wednesday 3 February 2021

Book review: Landlocked, Doris Lessing (1965)

No idea when or where I bought this book but it must’ve been second-hand, so it’s probably been in my collection for a decade at least. I was looking for something to read and picked this off the newly-loaded shelf of a downstairs bookcase. The old, worn bookcase I stripped of paint in about 1989. 

An age ago! Almost – but not quite forgotten – as is the story in ‘Landlocked’. The author’s focus is on male-female relations in a group of political activists in Rhodesia (which was what Zimbabwe was called before independence) but in the novel it’s shifted slightly off-centre and called “Zambesia”. The writing is very good and you get a keen sense of Martha – the protagonist – as she goes about her business, though it’s not clear how she earns her money. 

It’s also hard to classify this novel. Is it a coming-of-age story? A romance? A political roman a clef? I was left wondering where the centre of the thing was located. Finding it might’ve seemed hard because the novel is one of a series of five – you do get the impression, reading ‘Landlocked’, that the centre of gravity might be situated in another book. 

History serves to anchor the narrative at tonic points and while the plot is flimsier than it should be for a novel of this length the characterisation is excellent. As Martha goes about her business you start to get a feel for who she is and what she’s capable of. She’s amenable to external suasion, for a start, which you’d think would put her at a disadvantage, but such people are often more flexible and tend to nurture stronger relations than natural-born leaders or excessively competitive individuals. Martha’s not like this at all. She’s caught in a web of relations that sustain her and that she feeds with her good nature and guilelessness. And her intelligence. You wonder how the book will play out but even after reading a few dozen pages I was engrossed by this clever novel of manners masquerading as a novel of ideas.

The plot is not always clear but in short the book is about a group of socialists working to foment revolution. How this happens is not always clear – “To the barricades!” is less relevant to the case than “Shall I do the typing?” – but things are happening all the while Martha Quest (Matty to people who know her) is engaged in a romance or looking after her carer mother. 

The backbone of the book is colonialism, and it takes a very fine-grained view of proceedings, zeroing in on individuals caught up in the disruptions that eventually result from years of activism by the group – which includes Martha’s husband Anton (a German), Thomas (a Polish Jew), Athen (a Greek), and others. The women are the main topic, and while Marjorie is only generally sketched in, Maisie is more fully-rounded (literally!).

There are three deaths of characters the reader gets to know, and while there is violence it’s mainly suppressed by manners and the rule of law. 

Death involves others – not the least being Africans who must dig the grave. Africa is represented most often by its vegetation – though the jacaranda (a South American import) is also present – and at the end you get one of the rare situational glances, during which the author turns her attention to the continent in which her drama is set. At this point you feel the size of the land breathing on the outskirts of your consciousness, how the rain scuds on low clouds across the veld to drop its bounty here and there, missing one township while soaking the next.

At this point in the novel you also get a date marker. Rare, these, but here it serves to set in stone a revolutionary vision. It also bookends the action, which started at the precise end of WWII. The war features as a presence throughout most of the novel, a malign thing that serves to form people’s attitudes toward those around them, and also to form for the reader’s benefit the delineations of character. Revelations of events that had transpired in Russia appear as a plot device during the course of the narrative, and this also adds to the dimensioning Lessing performs in order to bridge the divide between the reader and her creations. You get to feel the size of Thomas’ soul or Martha’s by how they react to the news of Russia’s shame. 

Likewise at the end. But I won’t tell you what that second global event is. You’ll have to read the book to find out for yourself.

Tuesday 2 February 2021

Tweeting better stories, episode two: January 2021

Wanting to find a lighter-hearted way I offer readers this second post in a series.

I felt inclined to add a section here for bison man and Bernie but, wanting to avoid topical issues, most of the tweets in what follows have to do with books and movies.

Favourite resorts for people online. In socmed, at least. I’ll try to keep my promise and start with a tweet – with the familiar pets theme – seen on the 7th at 9.33pm. I cannot go past a dog photo – though probably would never own a dog – without needing to know more. Ray Martin was once a popular journalist in Australia and, since retiring, has garnered a wide following on social media. His salute to his followers, shown below, forms part of his new persona.

The following tweet appeared in my feed at 11.04pm on January 25. I have no justification for appreciating this tweet, but will offer the excuse that I just liked its evocative photos. I’m a big fan of the ITV show ‘Vera’, which is set in the north of England, and these photos have the same half-neglected, half-populated look as many of the shots you find in the show. I was reminded of Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant 1979 film ‘Stalker’ and of William Cowper’s ‘The Winter Morning Walk’, a part of a long poem titled ‘The Task’ that was published in 1785.

Serial oddballs

On 8 January at 7.30am I saw a post from Darcie Wilder that conceptually went AWOL. 

It has – topicality warning! – an environmental theme but Wilder is a serial humourist for whose posts sometimes the retweet function is set to “off”. She’s verified – as you can see in the following screen shot – and is based in the US – as you can tell from the use of the word “sidewalk”. Her posts are flippant and evasive and funny, resembling nothing so much as a butterfly with a megaphone.

Another serial nonsense tweeter is Dan Mellamphy. The following came into view at 8.17am on the 12th. The subject is a musician (marginally famous). It’s nice to see that people with hobbies also have a sense of humour. Going by the way that the majority of online denizens – not “dinosaurs” – behave, in the world laughter is a rare commodity.

The following tweet is pleasantly off-centre but unpleasantly conscious of itself as proposing entertainment outside the Canberra- (or Washington-) bubble. The self-reflexive glance is typical for Twitter but it takes most of the fun out of the promise of watching a dead movie star dance because it depressingly points to that topicality effect that takes so much of the pleasure out of browser sessions. Politics intrudes even when it’s not explicitly mentioned. 

This appeared in my feed at 7pm on the 9th with the original tweet coming from @BarnabyEdwards. His profile describes him as “Actor, writer, director, artist, Dalek. Home studio! Pronouns: he/him.” He also provides links to his acting agent ( and voice agent ( Keen.

The following tweet appeared at 6.55pm on the 10th. The account that retweeted it is a serial originator of off-beat content, and this post is hardly different. The subject is a famous writer and the poster of the original tweet has the handle @PetitTheatreJMP. This post should perhaps have been classified with my “literature” heading – see below in this article – and in truth I was of two minds about where to locate it.


I don’t have any excuse to be sarcastic about the following tweet, which appeared in my feed at 6.28pm on 9 January. It’s so goofy! The account that posted it is themed as is the account that retweeted it into my feed. In fact, that account is solidly comic-book related, so I *really* have no excuse. 

I just wasn’t being careful enough. 

At 8.07pm on the 19th the following weird little post appeared in my timeline.

I liked the accuracy I felt in the following tweet, which appeared at 6.55pm on the 20th. I miss my mum though, and realised this month that I’d only really just started getting over her 2016 death. 

The negative feelings that the event inspired in my heart had dogged my steps during the intervening years, making it difficult to trust others. I’d lost touch with a part of myself that had only in the previous few months come to be within reach. In my case I’d never disliked doing things my mother asked. I’d always been amenable to her suasion and had been a very obedient little boy. Even when I grew up and was looking after her, mum’s opinions calmed and reassured me and, now, when I want to have a healthy lunch I’ll slice up an apple and eat it with some Cheddar cheese – just the way she used to do when we were living near each other in a part of southeast Queensland.

The backward glance was also present when, on the 23rd at 5.50am, I saw the following tweet referencing a show I’d sometimes been watching on one of Network Ten’s secondary channels, ‘10 Bold’. In the afternoons before I get to watch ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ I often catch an episode – or part of one – of ‘Star Trek’. It’s magnificently corny and I love this aspect of the show, which has aged well despite the clunky plot devices – often involving attractive women – and all its silly technobabble. 

On 31 January at 1.15pm I saw this goofy screen grab from a guy named David Biancucchi.

The tweet didn’t have much more information – just a hashtag! Curious! What did the guy think of this vastly successful Netflix thriller? Did he like It? Hate it? Did he even watch the whole thing? Was he waiting for the next instalment? So many questions.


I was intrigued by this little effort put up on the 28th at 9.38am by a person called @DDM_Graham. The writer’s Amazon product link is here. This person’s tweet was so mesmerically whimsical and *hopeful* that I felt compelled to include it here. I felt deeply sorry for them, so followed them with one of my active Twitter accounts. Doing so justified the strength of my feelings.

At 8.17am on the 30th the following appeared in my feed.

At 7.58pm on the 17th the following cryptic tweet appeared in my feed. I didn’t know what to make of it, and still don’t, but I applaud the intent of the poster, whose handle is @77alesandoval.

At 12.28pm on 31 January the following little sally appeared in my feed via the #fiction hashtag.

Community announcements

On the same day at 8.31am I’d seen the following in the #poetry hashtag stream. It’s from an account that routinely publishes there quotes from the Bible, and I chose this one because it was chiming in with my experience on that day watching the feed from this and from other accounts – but I’ll stop there before I say anything topical! The account’s Twitter handle is @SevenShepherd.

Biblical echoes are often created by authors looking to imbue their works with gravitas. Other authors rope in phrases from dead colleagues in the hope of giving their offerings the cachet they link – in their hopeful minds – with financial success and with popularity. But what makes me smile with this account is the idea that the Bible is poetry. Many would object to such a view, but I think – given a working knowledge of all the evidence available on the subject to date – that this most accurately sums up the realities of the case. What we don’t know is probably larger in scope and – therefore – in importance, than what we do.

Here’s another community announcement, this one seen at 6.32am on the 16th. 

The story in the link is available here. The woman whose handle appears in this post has a profile that looks like this:

Another tweet on the 16th at 12.38pm went like this:


On 9 January at 8.42am I saw a tweet from a promoted account named Kueez containing a link to a story about the notes that people in offices leave for colleagues when they’re unhappy about something. Here’s the tweet:

It seemed strange to see this tweet in my feed just a day after the previous post in the series went up on the blog. It was like SOMEONE WAS WATCHING to monitor my conduct online, and was deliberately placing content in my timeline in response to such input. 


Surveillance takes many forms, and when it’s monetised this is what it looks like. This is the type of player you have to confront when all you want is to be entertained:

“Not followed by anyone you’re following” sort of sums up the case. I almost felt sorry for the operators.