Monday, June 27, 2016

Blimey Blighty, what have you gone and done?

Brexit (assemblage and photo by Pants)

Well, that was quite a leaving do. I remember a similar one when I finished secondary school. My best friend and I got stonking on cardboard claret and the father of the boy who was having the party had to drive us home. I couldn't get my key in the front door, I was that plastered. Ma Pants opened the door, face like fury (let's call her France). She was disgusted at the state of my white jeans and halter top, which were claret red, grass green and mud brown. Lucky no one asked us to vote on our futures that night. I doubt we would have been starting university the following year - we probably would have voted to abolish higher education. Yes, we'd drunk that much cheap wine.

Now to your adolescent rebellion, dear old alma mater UK. Welcome to your cardboard-claret  hangover. In an exuberant seventeen-year-old, it's forgiveable, if not exactly charming. In a nation with power and responsibilities, such naivety won't go unpunished. Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't they call a huge battle where everyone loses a zero-sum  game? I say everyone, but there were possibly some hedge fund managers who cleaned up.

We know now that the Remain campaigners' predictions of chaos were bang on the money. The pound immediately plummeted and continues to fall. The markets went into food-fight mode and the Bank of England had to pay for the damage. Oh, and there's the political turmoil which no one saw coming - strange as that seems now. 

Let's tot up those political own goals. The Prime Minister immediately resigns, apparently quipping, 'why should I do the hard shit?' Understandable, really. Then HM Opposition implodes - just the thing when political advantage beckons. Bit of scenario planning might be a good idea in the future? Just a thought. I have met Jeremy Corbyn. He's a nice and very decent man and could be useful if 1972 ever comes back.

Now to the ashen-faced victor in all this. Boris, have you seen The Producers? Sometimes shit hits. Not only that, you might have to do some actual work for a change. FYI - getting your photo taken in front of a bus whilst fiddling with your hair does not qualify as 'work'. And now you're saying only the bad things will go and all the good things about being 'European' will stay? Good luck with magical thinking in the brave new world you've created, old bean.

Many years ago I was driving my BMW quite swiftly through one of London's so-called 'rat runs' on my east-west morning commute. I rounded a corner behind Highbury and Islington Station and came across a large man in a suit with a corn-hewed thatch of unruly hair. He was idly executing figure-eights on a bicycle in the middle of the road. I stopped to let him amble away and I thought, 'fuck me, that's Boris Johnson.' It was long before he became the force of nature that he is now. I missed my opportunity to save the world. May it forgive me.

Congratulations to everyone who got what they asked for - especially those who voted for one thing, presuming they'd get another.  A word to the wise, next time turn the lights on before making your choice. I know what it feels like to take a Jean-Claude Van Damme home after a wild party and wake up in the morning with a Jean-Claude Juncker. And I know what it's like to have a boyfriend (let's call him Scotland), want to break up with you after you've done something particularly foolish and potentially self-destructive.

One thing we've learned - if people are pissed off enough, they'll choose a promise based on lies over a truth that has nothing to offer them. What's that old saying? Hope is bread to a poor man. The biggest surprise is that the disenfranchised still seem to believe that voting will make a difference. Unhappily, on this occasion, it did.

So, to the morning-after pill. The most popular post on The Financial Times website this morning carried the title Can Brexit Be Stopped? A petition calling for another crack at this referendum thingy has attracted 3.5 million signatures at the time of writing. What's more, it's now being reported that the petition was started by a Leave voter when he thought his side was going to lose. He's now bitching that it's been 'hijacked' by the Remain cause. Not really how petitions work. Not really how democracy's supposed to work either but I have a feeling the re-imagining is only just beginning.

Oh, and good luck with the dream job, Boris. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Blooming on Bloomsday

Pants Patch - Photo by Pants

Happy Bloomsday, fellow citizens.

I thought I had a pencil portrait of James Joyce to put up but it turns out that I don't. So, please accept a tangential take on blooming by way of an illustration. I present instead a snap of my allotment beds, captured today just before I harvested some of that mizuna, rocket and cos lettuce for tonight's supper. I stopped in there on the way back from the Larrikin's End sawmill where I loaded a huge pile of frozen offcuts into the Pantibago.

A nightly roaring fire is necessary at this time of year. Not only is it charmingly atmospheric, it keeps my fingers from falling off. The nights are cold but the days glorious, as you can see from the sun dancing on those broad beans in front. Back home at Seat of Pants, I dumped the load of hardwood bits onto the asphalt drive so that they could thaw out in the afternoon blaze. They dutifully did so while I stripped down to one layer of clothing and basked on the sun deck to read Ulysses for a couple of hours.

This year, I looked for and quickly found, a section to fit today's mood. I was thinking about my Uncle Bob who died in 2011. We did Bloom's walk together in 2003 - but not on Bloomsday. It was on an extended-family holiday with three generations of paternal Pantses crammed into a Toyota something-or-other for three weeks. Actually, it was a lot of fun. I was somewhat surprised when Uncle Bob chose the Joyce pilgrimage with me over a visit to the Guinness brewery with the other family members on one of our Dublin days.

I knew that Uncle Bob had been an editor of school books. His literary tastes, at that point, were not a matter of record. He knew, of course, that you can get a decent Guinness anywhere in Dublin. I guessed that he did want to spend time alone with me - as I did with him. My father had been dead a long time and Uncle Bob was the image of him - except older, smaller and gentler. I'd lived in England for twenty years and we hadn't seen a lot of each other.

We began the day with a visit to The James Joyce Centre where we picked up a map for the walk. As we browsed the exhibits, Uncle Bob spotted a familiar edition of Finnegans Wake in a glass case. He told me that, as a young soldier in World War 2, his unit had received a copy in a Red Cross package. Not only that - it was popular with the boys, and they were boys. Uncle Bob would have been twenty.

Our walk did not strictly adhere to the map. Uncle Bob was over eighty and the Pantses aren't known for following rules, so we skipped bits and changed other bits. We lunched in Davy Byrne's pub. Of course we did. Uncle Bob had a steak and kidney pie, which was far and away his favourite dish for his whole life as far as I can tell. The pub no longer did a glass of Burgundy and a Gorgonzola sandwich, more was the pity. We were there in August, one of the four months of the year where one can't get oysters. Damn. I had the fish'n'chips and a glass of house wine. Uncle Bob had a half of Guinness.

Here's a passage from my Bloomsday reading,

- There he is, says I, in his gloryhole, with his cruiskeen lawn and his load of papers, working for the cause.
   The bloody mongrel let a grouse out of him would give you the creeps. Be a corporal work of mercy if someone would take the life of the bloody dog. I'm told for a fact that he ate a good part of the breeches off a constabulary man in Santry that came round one time with a blue paper about a licence.
- Stand and deliver, says he.
- That's all right, citizen, says Joe. Friends here.
- Pass, friends, says he.
  Then he rubs his hand in his eye and says he:
- What's your opinion of the times?
   Doing the rapparee and Rory of the hill. But, begob, Joe was equal to the occasion.
- I think the markets are on the rise, says he, sliding his hand down his fork.
  So begob the citizen claps his paw on his knee and he says:
- Foreign wars is the cause of it.
  And says Joe, sticking his thumb in his pocket:
- It's the Russians wish to tyrannise.
- Arrah, give over your bloody codding, Joe, says I, I've a thirst on me I wouldn't sell for half a crown.
- Give it a name, citizen, says Joe.
- Wine of the country, says he.
- What's yours, says Joe.
- Ditto MacAnaspey, says I.
- Three pints, Terry, says Joe. And how's the old heart, citizen? says he.

Ulysses, Penguin Modern Classics (1971 edition pp 293-294)

I first read Ulysses as a university text. I was twenty. The copy I read from today is that same crumbling paperback. It's travelled far with me and is as dog-eared as I am. I liked the book a lot when I was called upon to study it and I wrote a credible essay about it, apparently. But I never actually got it until I'd spent a couple of evenings in a proper Irish pub, and by that I mean being allowed to stay after the lock-in, lots of times. Then, and only then, did I begin to understand what a grand and marvellous piss-take this book is.

In memory of Uncle Bob and in deference to James Joyce I give you a paraphrase from Finnegans Wake,

We live. We laugh. We love. We leave.



Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The milk of human blindness

WW2 Poster - Kodakotype by Pants

I'm just in from the allotment. Yes, I have an allotment now. I've joined the Larrikin's End Green Fingers Club and, for the grand sum of $50 per year, I get two (soon to be three) large garden plots and all the water and organic nutrients I need. By Larrikin's End standards, it's fantastically well run. A woman is in charge.

Having spent most of the last thirty-five years living in a flat, I'm fairly new to gardening and the tuition is most welcome, as is the generosity of my fellow gardeners. Happily, I've been able to reciprocate as my salad crops have yielded well beyond my expectations and consumption needs. It thrills me to collect a big bag of lettuce, mizuna, rocket, coriander and spring onion three times a week. The only independent green grocery in Larrikin's End closed down a couple of years ago so we have a choice of one of the giants that rips off farmers and charges close to the price of gold for salad leaves or a small local franchise with fare so limp you feel sorry for it - but not quite enough to hand over cash. There's a farmers' market once a month, but I always forget when it's on. The allotment is the perfect solution.

Ma Pants grew up on a dairy farm. I've recently transcribed the commentary she made for a family slide show we put together a couple of years ago. She disclosed that during the Second World War, her family supplied neighbours with milk and butter. 'We did quite well,' she recalls. I come from a family of black marketeers, or - in the parlance of neoliberalism - enterprising self-starters. Of course they also kept chooks and grew vegetables, so food rationing really wasn't much of an issue. While we're on the subject of milk - to a typically Aussie problem. The baffling conundrum of what to do when the cost of production exceeds the sale price has proved more tricky to solve than Fermat's Last Theorem - which did eventually get sorted. 

We wicked consumers apparently refuse to cough up the full value of a litre of milk. This situation dates back a couple of years when two corporate giants started a price war. Price wars are what capitalism invents when it has nothing better to do - which is often. And it would all be fine if we were talking about chocolate buttons or pineapple jelly but this is milk - an important food that comes from lovely sentient mammals. At least around these parts the dairy cows are fit, healthy and happy. I, for one, would like them to stay that way.

Milk was once considered so vital to the development of healthy Australian children, that we were force-fed it at school, an event that still gives me regular nightmares. These days, an endorsement on my school record that read 'lactose intolerant' would have solved that problem and, in any case, the days of free school milk are long past. I wasn't ever lactose intolerant. I just did not like to drink warm, unflavoured milk straight from a bottle. Ma Pants tried to solve the problem in a number of ways. We tried flavoured straws and little sachets of Milo. More often than not, I was refused permission to take these out with me for elevenses and was made to drink the tepid milk while a sadistic teacher supervised. Eventually, Ma Pants reached an agreement with the school principal that she would provide a note every term requesting that I be excused from the 'milk parade' on the grounds that milk tended to make me 'bilious'. What a fantastic word that is. I've never forgotten it as it was my passport to a settled stomach.

Back to the puzzle at hand - a standoff between capitalism and common sense. At least that's the way it seems to me. Commentators express outrage that milk costs less than bottled water and soft drinks. I want milk to cost less so that children drink it instead of Coke. And if people are idiot enough to drink bottled water when we have perfectly potable tap water, let them waste their money. So, what to do if we want children with strong bones and healthy teeth and contented cows frolicking in green fields - preferably not simultaneously, that could be dangerous. One or two of our crazy socialist types have suggested setting a floor price for milk. Imagine! Going back to those mad days of pesky rules and regulations designed to prevent rampant capitalism from doing what it appears to do best - rampaging? Hell, yeah. Let's do that.

What's that you say? We can't because of world markets and shareholders' profits and all that terribly sophisticated economic stuff that makes so little sense to ordinary folk. Murray Goulburn, the company that lowered the milk price retrospectively, still calls itself a 'co-operative'. It's nothing of the sort, obviously. The name is historic, from the days when we used to have co-operatives that, er, co-operated rather than embarked on murder/suicide sprees by attempting to put their suppliers out of business. That's the thing with capitalism - it works fine until it doesn't and then it turns into Hannibal Lecter.

The 'co-op' appears to interpret its duty to protect rather like the Ndrangheta does. Except the mafia has the sense to realise that killing all the geese at one stroke will result in the drying up of golden eggs. Having recently posted a profit of $40 million, Murray Goulburn might embark on a rethink you suggest? Well that would just be too sensible, not mention sort of socialist. The market must be left to do its thing - even if that thing involves driving off a cliff.


Here's an equation for you:

Price of milk = cost of excellent animal husbandry + cost of decent living for folk who are public-spirited enough to weather climate challenges and global free markets to provide us with quality nourishment - cost of supermarkets and milk middlemen gambling with our future food security for personal gain ÷ amount of money the poorest families can afford.

And if that doesn't produce a viable dairying industry, then perhaps we can pop back in time and ask the Mesopotamians how they managed to square the circle. 

That global market prices even factor in the discussion about how much we pay for milk is astonishing to me. We're a high-wealth nation with high wages and production costs and fairly decent social security. We willingly pay much more than everyone else on the planet for books, software and episodes of Game of Thrones (except the bad people who pirate, obviously). Exactly why a 50c differential (if that) on the cost of milk has turned into such a potential catastrophe is beyond me.

Am I the only one who's stunned at the concept of reducing a contract price retrospectively? Because that appears to be what has happened. Murray Goulburn has sent its farmers large bills for milk already supplied. That's a bit like Miele sending me a letter saying, 'you know that new dishwasher and washing machine you bought a while back? Well, we think we charged you too little for those. Here's a bill for $1,000 and, fyi, if you don't pay up, we'll take your house. You have a nice day now.'

The social media-led campaign urging consumers to buy so-called 'branded milk', i.e. the same stuff in fancy packaging, is short-term and misses the point spectacularly. It will last a few weeks at best and risks shaming the poor, who will quite sensibly continue to buy the cheapest milk available. Ditto for taking up collections for farmers. Token gestures of solidarity are not going to solve the systemic problems. When will we realise that random acts of protest and charity are not a substitute for a fair and responsible attitude to commerce? We can't be putting our hands in our pockets every time some maniacs take a notion to run amok with our essential food supplies, now can we?

Let's have a national subsidy or levy, whatever you want to call it, so that we can have cheap milk and contented cows and viable farms. And it might be timely to reacquaint the corporate sector with the maxim that they own the risks associated with business as well as the profits. And we could remind ourselves that growing healthy teeth and bones in the young saves plenty in health costs further down the line. We also might want to consider the cost to society of threatening and stressing the farming families who provide this essential product. I may have shunned warm school milk in the dim and distant past but I make up for it now in cheese and yoghurt.

Thank goodness for the allotment. At least there won't be a potato famine at Seat of Pants.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Time to Manus Up, Australia

'Captive' by Pants, 2016

Gomer Pyle, late of Mayberry, North Carolina, invariably responded to the manifest unfairness of the world with a simple,

'What a mean thang. What a mean thang to do.'

Yep, that just about covers most pointless, spiteful injustices. Explain, it doesn't, but we'll get to that.

Last week, the five judges of the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea unanimously ruled that Australia's asylum-seeker detention centre on Manus Island is illegal and they've ordered an immediate cease and desist. Locking innocent people up and tormenting them is against the law? Who knew? Apparently not the Australian Government. Our national leaders appear to think it's okay as long as you pay some money for it, like trashing the environment or bypassing the taxation system. Elsewhere they think of that as bribery. For us, putting our responsibilities as international citizens on the national credit card makes them  'someone else's problem' - for a while. It's like when you transfer your balances to one of those new cards that offer you 'no interest for two years'. And we know that never ends well.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, the Spanish contractor that runs both the Manus Island and Nauru Detention Centres, announced that it was pulling out of the tawdry business altogether. Gomer Pyle's superior in the memorable television show of my youth was Sgt. Carter. His response to even the merest hint of ideological dissonance was a bellowing,

'I can't hear you.'

After which, he usually got the reply he sought. Except when he was dealing with Gomer Pyle - an improbable, yet powerful convolution of height, idiocy and goodness.

PNG has offered permanent residency to those of the 850 men currently imprisoned on Manus Island who have been assessed as refugees, if they wish to stay. Unsurprisingly, they don't. Despite our demonstrable inclination to become a nation of Sgt. Carters at the drop-and-give-me-twenty of a hat, these poor souls still desire to live among us. No accounting for taste, but desperate times would appear to call for desperate measures.

Now we find that our government may face up to $1billion worth of claims for wrongful imprisonment. That's in addition to the multiple billions already paid to PNG and Nauru, not to mention the $55million deal with Cambodia that saw five refugees settled in that beleaguered place. Only two of them remain there. You can get a lot of social housing, job training and ESOL for that kind of money. And well, you know, we're not exactly pressed for space.

Now here's the bit I really don't get. Australia has been admonished by the UN whose Special Rapporteur on Torture found that our asylum-seeker policies violate the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Why can't our government just claim that the UN insisted we resettle these people in Australia? That way they can blame the UN for the whole deal. They'd get to brag about how great we are at 'doing the right thing' whilst losing not one jot of credibility with the electorate as we, apparently, expect them to patrol our borders with fanatical devotion.

I must say that was I baffled as to why they insist so needlessly on carrying on like pork chops until I read this interview with the President of the Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs. She explains what it was like trying to communicate with the finest political minds on offer here,
 
'I was unprepared for dealing with senior political figures with no education whatsoever about international law and about Australia’s remarkable historical record which they are now diminishing. We’ve got senior public servants who will roll their eyes at the idea of a human right. They say, “Look, Gillian, you’re beating a dead horse.” It’s not going to work, because they can’t talk to the minister in terms of human rights.'

Rolling their eyes at the idea of a human right. Let's pause while that sinks in. The commissioner goes on to say,

'Our parliamentarians are usually seriously ill-informed and uneducated. All they know is the world of Canberra and politics and they’ve lost any sense of a rule of law, and curiously enough for Canberra they don’t even understand what democracy is.'

This really does illuminate things for me. The answer is as simple as it has always seemed. They know nothing about democracy and are prepared to squander much of our money and all of our international reputation on demonstrating that. Donald Trump? Don't make me laugh. We've got a whole cabinet full of these little Trumpets right here. They would literally rather spend billions harming refugees than millions helping them.

Yesterday, New Zealand renewed its offer to resettle some of the refugees soon to be displaced by the closure of the Manus Island camp and, once again, it was rejected by our prime minister who read this human act of generosity as a cunning and underhanded attempt to sneak them into our big-island paradise, 'by the back door'. Should these humans become New Zealand citizens, they would be entitled to residency in Australia.

That really is a mean thang, a mean thing to do. And more than a little paranoid.

And now, a refugee has died after setting himself alight. He was driven to this drastic action after a visit from UNHCR officials. For reasons best known to themselves, the officials tactlessly advised the detainees to get used to the idea of being stuck there for at least ten years.

We all need to get a little bit Gomer - I mean gamer - or maybe I mean a mix of both.

Australia - yes, I'm talking to you fellow minions. Let's just get these people here, now. And we can worry about the next 850 next week. In my head I'm hearing Gomer exclaiming,

'Shame, shame, shame on you.' 

And I just know he's right.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Still talking to the hand

The Hand by Pants
I heard an unfamiliar expression the other day - 'lifestyle refugee'. I gather it refers to someone who has chosen to embark on a particularly severe form of tree-slash-sea change.

'I think they mean you, Pants.'

'Barney, will you shut the fuck up.'

I mean no disrespect to the millions of real refugees who've been forced to trudge across Europe in search of the most basic of human needs, but I have to admit that seeking 'refuge' is not a million miles removed from what we do here at Seat of Pants. To be clear - we are very grateful for the beauty and security of our Larrikin's End hideaway, but we are less pleased with the diet of intellectual empty calories and even obvious and blatant lies on which we are expected to satisfy our still-active minds.

It comes as no surprise to me at all that some young, idealistic refugees from Syria, Libya and Iraq,  having reached safety and had a chance to draw breath, might find themselves horrified to discover that they have risked their lives for a future comprising Coke, McDonald's and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Perhaps they had some understanding of the post-WW2 social settlement that had, until relatively recently, underpinned the stability and cultural flourishing of Europe and the Anglophone countries for which they strike out with the greatest of hope. Capitalists love to claim credit for our spectacular lifestyle advances since 1945, but higher worker wages, decent housing and access to education and healthcare created the rising tide that lifted all boats. These were not provided by capitalism but fiercely fought for by socialists and grudgingly conceded by business owners left with no choice but to pay some tax.

It's very Australian to suspend compassion towards the desperate fellow humans to whom we've extended our largesse if they display even a hint of ingratitude or non-cooperation. Our outrage is almost always fuelled by incongruity. We simply don't get it if they don't immediately fall in love with our terrible food and menu of cultural options limited to watching other people chase a ball around or splashing about in swirling water. We're constantly being told that anything other than total embrace of our national inanities is a 'threat to our way of life'. I can only imagine the shock once it sinks in that our version of 'the west' really is culturally bankrupt. It's been bad enough for me and I should have known better.

John Gray, writing in Lapham's Quarterly has this to say about the rise of ISIS,

'It is baffling only for those who believe—despite everything that occurred in the twentieth century—that modernization and civilization are advancing hand in hand. In fact, now as in the past some of the most modern movements are among the most barbaric. But to admit this would mean surrendering the ruling political faith, a decayed form of liberalism without which Western leaders and opinion formers would be disoriented and lost. To accept that liberal societies may not be “on the right side of history” would leave their lives drained of significance, while a stoical response—which is ready to fight while being doubtful of ultimate victory—seems to be beyond their powers. With mounting bewilderment and desperation, they cling to the faith that the normal course of history has somehow been temporarily derailed.'

Yep, and those of us who ignore our history are doomed to repeat it. Capitalism is, quite literally, the monster that devoured Cleveland - to quote my hero Maynard G. Krebs. The vacuum of value we're experiencing now is the beginning of its grizzly end. Douglas Rushkoff, whose most recent book is Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, (and what a great idea that is), said this in recent interview on our ABC Radio National,

'Here in America, many Walmart branches are going out of business because they've bankrupted the communities on which they depended. They put everybody else out of business, they don't pay a living wage, so they've gotten to the point where they don't have customers, they just have poor people living around them. That's not a good long-term business strategy.

'But when you are looking at quarter-over-quarter growth, when you are a CEO who just wants to get another two or three quarters of bonuses out of this and then leave, then that's what you're going to do. It's bankrupting not just the people, it's bankrupting corporate America as well.'

This is what it looks like when a system starts eating itself. We don't want to believe it's happening because the structure appears to have served us so well, and what else is there? Some of us do believe and wonder what we can do in mitigation. Believe me, if there were an honest and serious socialist revolution to join, I'd be there in seconds. I long for that. I actually believe in collectivism. The best working experiences of my life were in collectives. If we could just eliminate the zero-sum-game problem of power corrupting... there's a human advance that's crying out for invention. Any takers from the corporate sector? Nah, didn't think so.

I absolutely get why people who've been raised with a community ethic, as many have in Asia and the Middle East, would be horrified when they see that all we seem to do is consume and compete, whilst waxing lyrical that we do nothing of the sort. I'm less clear on why they think that sexually harassing young girls in the street is the antidote to that. Kant said, 'a sane child put with mad children will go mad.' I suspect that may be true.

The Pants strategy is not in any way a solution to the problems of the world. Even I don't believe that we can stop the monster that devoured Cleveland from eating us all for supper, eventually. I do, however, think that those of us who still want humanity to have half a chance of surviving, can and should use whatever passive weapons we have at our disposal to fend it off for as long as possible. We might not be able to stop but we can stall. I don't shop - even though I can. I've pared down the need for buying to the bare basics, (books, wine, smoked salmon). I grow my own vegetables. I'm in a garden club and now have an allotment as well as my own large patch at home. I use recycled framed boards from charity shops for my paintings. I don't buy clothes - I mend and make do.

I'm as obnoxious as I can get away with when dealing with the few authorities and corporations I can't avoid. The bigger the entity, the more belligerent I become - in the nicest possible way, of course. I make my life as simple as possible. Capitalism hates that. The most potent power a woman has is to withdraw cooperation. I exercise that power. No entreaties to my vanity will ever tempt me to buy creams or pay money to have my hair cut or volunteer my labour to cover for the shortfall in social spending.

Back to John Gray,

'For many in the West, the threat ISIS poses to their view of the world seems a greater disaster than the atrocities ISIS has committed and threatens to repeat. The bafflement with which the West approaches the group is a symptom of the senility of the liberal mind, a condition for which there is no obvious remedy. Perhaps what our culture lacks, in the end, is the ability to understand itself.'  

I agree, and it's absolutely infuriating. It's a sign of addiction when you know what you're doing will kill you but you can't stop. You simply don't believe there's another, better way. Individually, we can challenge that belief. I'm very lucky, I am in a position to opt out and I'm going at it for all I'm (not) worth. The less you have, the less you fear and the less you crave. I've discovered that to be true.

'Barney - you were right! Though I prefer 'lifestyle refusenik', it sounds more radical. Now bring me wine, there's a good chap.'

Chardonnay socialism - now there's an idea.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Through a Glass, Arkley

Primitive Gold, (detail), Howard Arkley, 1982 - Photo by Pants

TarraWarra Museum of Art is an eight-hour round trip by car from Larrikin's End. There's no other way to get there as it's located in the middle of a vineyard. I will make that trip only for something very special. With a few days to spare, I packed some smoked salmon sandwiches and a flask of coffee and headed west for Howard Arkley and Friends. The price of petrol helpfully plummeted to 95c a litre on the day and the Pantibago was eager for a long run down what passes for a motorway in this part of the world. You can't trust the coffee or the sandwiches outside of the city and I'd rather spend $40 from my tight budget on a catalogue than squander it on unpleasant but necessary nourishment. The trip went well and I'm still snacking on the catalogue, so only good decisions there.

I didn't know all that much about Howard Arkley. He rose to fame after I'd abandoned the mother country and he died young, long before I very foolishly decided to give the relationship another go. (How was I to know that the place was about to plunge into a socio-political suicide spiral?) Speaking of which, I often wonder why I'm drawn to the work of self-destructive people. Mark Rothko, Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, Diane Arbus, Brett Whiteley, not to mention Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix and Ian Curtis. When you burn the candle at both ends, it doesn't half light up the room. Standing surrounded by Howard Arkley paintings, I quickly realise that I have another name to add to that list.

As I enter the gallery via vast glass doors, I feel myself smiling in that familiar way that I immediately recognise as wordless joy. It's an instinctive understanding between the eye and the brain where pure information is transferred without resort to a single adjective or metaphor. None are needed. Makes it a bit hard to write about though. I'll try to limit my usage of superlatives, but be warned, I might not be able to get through it without blurting out a 'splendid' at some point.

What I want from a retrospective, more than anything else, is honesty. When an artist has died, and especially when he/she has died young, unexpectedly and within living memory, I want to see instantly that the curator has understood how important it is to convey a sense of immediacy and loss. I need the room to grieve, in a way. I want the tension of a life interrupted, the suggestion that the artist has just stepped out of the room, perhaps uttering the words, 'I may be some time...' This is exactly what I get.  Sensitive and complete. In the white-cube world in which we are compelled to witness, that's no small skill.

This is only the second exhibition I've been to at TarraWarra. The first was Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940-2011. The subtitle flummoxed a few fellow visitors - Smart was still breathing at the time of the exhibition in 2013. But he had completed his very last painting, Labyrinth, which was on display. He had said it was his last. At ninety, he retired. That understanding of a life lived uncompromisingly but tranquilly came across very clearly. After visiting that show, I bemoaned the fact that there was nothing to buy - the catalogue had sold out. That was my only complaint.

The Arkley catalogue is a continuing delight but the essays are like unsalted water crackers minus the spicy dip, which is a pity as the artwork reproductions are quite, well, splendid. Someone like Arkley doesn't easily distill into sterile art-speak. Does anyone worth writing about? One of the great curating innovations of the last decade has been the inclusion of artists' sketches, notebooks, workings-out, correspondence and related artefacts. These tend to be much more illuminating than the white-card pronouncements artsplaining the 'explorations', 'investigations' and, (pause for disdaining grimace), 'interrogations' which supposedly drive the artist's 'oeuvre'.

Years ago, I visited Brett Whiteley's former studio in Sydney. This is what I want, I thought - personality, steps you can retrace, presence. One of the best exhibitions I ever experience was Diane Arbus at the V&A in London in 2005. Her notebooks were a revelation and I nearly burst into tears when I saw the cameras. Give me poignancy any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Fortunately, on display at TarraWarra, were a number of Arkley's 'visual diaries'. He kept notes and drawings in 20c school exercise books - as opposed to the $30 hardcover A3 journals filled with pristine white paper too good for scribbling on that they made us buy in art school (grrr!). Arkley's own sketches and notes offer a connection to the person that crusty old statements like this never could,

'In this installation, the artist playfully and somewhat perversely, elaborated on his longstanding project to explore the interrelationships between high and low culture, abstract painting and everyday decoration, and art and commerce.' (Anthony Fitzpatrick)

Really? So this energetic, spontaneous magpie woke up one morning and mumbled, 'I think I'll spend the day exploring the interrelationships between high and low culture!' Doesn't work does it? There is surprisingly little of substance written about Arkley, given his prominence in a certain reasonably prominent milieu in this country. He produced a stunning picture of Nick Cave which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and died of a heroin overdose at the age of forty-eight. That's about it in the way of an obit. So off I went in search of a quote from the artist himself and found this,

The colours in the paintings are symbolic – I know they're right – people get them – I mean taxi drivers will come in and they'll understand – it's their street – I've seen people do it, I've heard people do it – 'Oh, that's the house in my street – that's just like Dot's house!' and they'll say, 'Gee, I wonder what it's like inside – I bet it's the same as Dot's house inside!' It's true! This is pleasure, this is I've got it – when people actually really think it's a house in their street! (From a 1994 interview with Leo Edelstein for Journal of Contemporary Art)

He's talking about a series of paintings he made of ordinary suburban houses. It should be noted that Arkley came out with this after Edelstein had asked him a couple of times if he approached his work from an 'anthropological point of view.' I have dug a little deeper and discovered that Arkley had on occasion conformed to pleas for self-explanation, describing himself as a formalist - who knows under what level of duress? His notebooks show him to be a brain-stormer, ideas-miner and compulsive gatherer of ephemera. I prefer the Arkley getting all thrilled at 'that's Dot's house' over the one who supposedly belongs to a movement that,

'...problematises the concept of the new and that refuses to be situated at the end of an aborescent account of history.' (Paul Taylor, 1982)

Aborescent? Well, Arkley did have a thing for succulents, apparently. I was thinking about the film made to accompany the Jeffrey Smart exhibition and something Clive James said in relation to Smart. It's a paraphrase as I can't remember it exactly but he said something like - Australia expects artists to contribute to the national identity project - and that's why Smart got out. According to James, 'he was above all that.' My observation is that there's also an expectation that artists market themselves as a kind of public good. This could have something to do with grant-funding dependency. And then there's that weird thing where Australia got all hung up on post-structuralism, critical theory and metalanguage in the sixties and has never quite wriggled free. Arkley's work has that 'get stuck in and taste everything' quality that I associate with the real era and the actual scene in which he lived - an experience I shared in different locations. I can tell you, we were not sitting in circles asking ourselves 'what would Roland Barthes do?' around the time the Sex Pistols released Never Mind the Bollocks...

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert said in a recent interview, 'all art is basically collage.' It's by no means a new idea but it is one in full and universal bloom. Our contemporary 'authentic selves' are all an amalgam of aspects and influences on a variety of platforms. There's no escape from that. More than ever, the artist's brain is necessarily an internet of things. We're all collagists now, whether we express our desire for rearranging the material world on our bodies with tattoos, in scrapbooks with glitter and bits of coloured paper or in our homes with soft furnishings and fresh flowers. 

Like Arkley, I grew up in a world that was rapidly turning into the one we have now, a world of clashing clutter and plastic excess, with lots of noise and little substance. It's impossible to view this world without seeing too much. There are only two ways of dealing with that and maintaining composure - you can either look away or look beyond. It was and is a fascinating place to filter and reorganise. This is what I love about Arkley's work. In a world where everyone has the opportunity to see the same thing, it's the alteration that defines one's unique vision. Georgia O'Keeffe said, 

'Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.'

If you want the truth, go to the artist and not the critic. The artist offers you a glimpse of what you might see in familiarity if you took another look. Everything is in conflict if you have an active eye and an enquiring mind. There's no point in getting all fidgety about subject matter and angsting over whether or not painting brightly coloured pictures of houses is kitsch or parochial or postmodern or, as Prof Robert Nelson suggests 'gilding the silly'. The subject is irrelevant and has been ever since Marcel Duchamp plonked a urinal down in a New York art gallery and called it Fountain

The impression that Australia is not sure whether it's cool to endorse Arkley or not is hard to avoid. I learned recently that architects of the realm, Lords Foster and Rogers honed their respective design aesthetics from Eagle comics and boxes of Meccano. Popular culture - is there any other kind? Frances Upritchard commissioned friends Ali Smith and Hari Kunzru to write the catalogue essays for her last show. I hope that's a trend that catches on. 

This exhibition really was a joy and on the return journey, I listened to a pile of 70s/80s 'mix tape' CDs that Sis Pants made for me a couple of years ago. The Slits, Subway Sect, X-Ray Spex, Buzzcocks, Penetration, Wire, The Clash, The Adverts, XTC. I smiled all the way to Larrikin's End remembering how much exuberance and energy there was back then. I think my favourite paintings of the day were those comprising the Primitive series, named for a song by The Cramps. Arkley describes the amphetamine-fueled mega-session that produced the first of these in 1981 as 'claustrophobic speed pain.'

Now, that's what I'm talking about - there's your authenticity.