Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The same only different

Holiday face-off by Pants

I'm on holiday which means I'm doing what I usually do, just in a different order and at different times of the day and in a place far, far away from Larrikin's End. Some things I do slightly less of (drink wine, eat toast), and other things I do slightly more of (exercise, watch television, talk to other people).

The most dramatic change is that my day shifts forward by about five hours. Instead of commencing at 10am with a leisurely cup of Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire blend, it begins at five with an elderly shuffle accompanied by an excitable Bichon Frise called Louis. When I'm in Queensland, I automatically wake at ten minutes to five. Ten minutes is all I need to poke in a pair of contact lenses and throw on some jogging rags, shoes and a hat. By the time we return at six, there is already enough heat in the day to fry eggs on our foreheads. Some body clock, huh.

Staying with Ma Pants means that I must adhere to a strict routine or find myself sitting on the settee in a recreation of a Monty Python sketch (I got up at five o'clock, made myself a cup of tea, looked out the window and I've been sitting here for seven hours...). It's not that Ma Pants is inert, it's just that time seems to go into free fall if I don't organise it rigidly but discreetly. As she is 85, she doesn't have a lot to do, whereas I have an entire lifetime's worth of unfinished projects to be getting on with. It's a situation that needs to be carefully managed. There are psychological factors in play, of which more later.

I allow up to sixty minutes for a shared breakfast at the world's most uncomfortable table. I find one of the greatest joys to be breakfast in bed and indulge almost every day. Back home in the cold south, I favour scrambled eggs on rye toast with a couple of slivers of smoked salmon, (strictly for the Omega 3, you understand), garnished with fresh herbs from the garden. I have this at around eleven so it's more of a brunch. I'll only eat 'chook' eggs, i.e. eggs from local people's backyard chooks that I buy from the grain store or one of the charity shops. Six o'clock is much too early for a cooked breakfast so I have fruit and yoghurt. Tropical fruit is unaffordable in Victoria and unavoidable in Queensland.

Food is a dominant issue when staying with Ma Pants. She has a fridge roughly the size of Reykjavik which she stuffs full of every imaginable perishable. She eats a spoonful of everything and then carefully packages the remainder in a clear plastic vessel and watches it decompose. It drives me nuts and I suspect, this may be a further benefit. Ma Pants is of the Wallis Simpson school of philosophical thought: one can never be too rich or too thin. She is less-than-secretly proud of being underweight though far from wealthy. Yet it's hard to envisage a more ostentatious display of excess bounty than the purchase of food you have no intention whatever of eating. My fridge, on the other hand, is the smallest fridge/freezer it's possible to buy and yet it still always looks pitifully empty.

Ma Pants has a four-bedroom house all to her tiny self. Three of the bedrooms have a wall-long built-in closet. Her own bedroom features a walk-in closet that Carrie Bradshaw would envy. All of them are jammed with her clothes. As a house guest, you are very lucky indeed to find a few inches of hanging space and a drawer in which to park a couple of sarongs. It's not like you could ever borrow any of her things, unless you are, in fact, a Barbie doll. I also have a four-bedroom house and two of these erstwhile sleeping modules are primarily libraries. Books are at least one-size-fits-all. I shelve my books systematically - fiction alphabetically, non-fiction by subject. I can usually find the book I want. Ma Pants knows where every single item of apparel she owns is located. No system, just a rather eerie sense of attachment. My clothes fall into two categories - in the wash and not in the wash. They are so old and faded now that I don't even need to separate darks from lights. It annoys Ma Pants that I don't dress up for a trip to the ATM. I am not above a little filial taunting myself.

The best time to get to the popular Noosa Beach is around 7.30. This guarantees a parking space close to the beach under a shady tree and a towel space also under a tree with low branches for the hanging up of sarongs and leaning against of the appropriately ancient 'boogie' board. I am still plonking my increasingly decrepit form onto a 20-year-old plank of Styrofoam but am on a sliding scale of success when it comes to catching waves. Chasing them is out of the question now. I can barely walk in wet sand. The encumbrance of flippers would render me completely incapable of going anywhere.  I have to be in the perfect spot when the wave peaks if I am to have any hope of launching. Still the water is glorious and the D's positively inspiring after a bleak winter. I stay at the beach until 10.45. In that time I write some diary notes, review the previous day's work, read some long-form articles or a few chapters of a book.

I am home and desalinated by eleven. Ma Pants and I enjoy our morning coffee. She will relate whatever governmental idiocy has been reported on the ABC morning programme. We are at least on the same political page. Despite our obvious profligacy, my family are all lefties. I believe I am what is known as a Chardonnay socialist - although possibly more actively Chardonnay than socialist these days. My conviction is as strong as ever, it's my belief that protest makes any difference that is waning. It's unwise to read too many capitalism-will-destroy-the-world books in a row. In quick succession this year I devoured Profits of Doom, Capital in the 21st Century and The Shock Doctrine. Vulture capitalism, rampant capitalism, disaster capitalism - all too, too vile. I'm fighting back by growing my own vegetables and darning my socks. Capitalism won't get fatter on my dollar.

Ma Pants and I lunch together at around 1pm. I've usually manged to sneak in a couple of hours work by then. Time to unpack the sneaking around bit. For reasons that I've never been able to fathom, Ma Pants dislikes the idea of my having any artistic aspirations, so I don't talk to her about what I'm doing lest it result in the dreaded frown of disdain. I am more sensitive than I should be and far more sensitive than I've ever been before. I no longer work towards public acceptance so the roller-coaster of disappointment is now rusting in the recesses of the part of my brain that used to deal with self-esteem. It was hugely liberating. Some time soon, I'm going to write a whole piece on what a crock the whole self-esteem phenomenon is. I'm not just working this out now by the way, I've never been the type who could look in the mirror and say, 'I love you, you're wonderful.' I've always been more inclined to say, 'Is that a melanoma on your nose or just a kohl smudge?'

In the afternoon, I take a swim in the pool. I can't do laps because Louis runs alongside barking like one of those sociopathic coaches that we used to praise in the 1980s for their ability to turn neurotic, exhausted teenagers into gold medals.  Breaststroke excites the canine pom-pom less but, unfortunately it's also boring for me. Sometimes we watch a film after my swim. Yesterday it was Nebraska, a film about an elderly man who may be a hopeless alcoholic in the early stages of dementia or may simply have withdrawn his cooperation with a world that can find no place for an individual with small but meaninful passions whose youth it stole in a pointless war. It's a long time since I've seen a film as satisfying. Irascibility is a very effective antidote to bleakness. 

Ours is not an unhappy family in any sense. It seems to me that we do not know each other well enough to have developed strong negative feelings and that doesn't bother us at all. We don't and never have shown much of an interest in what each other is doing. We always have trouble thinking of what to buy each other for Christmas and yet, our Christmas celebrations are always enjoyable. Not memorable, but enjoyable. This year I've found Christmas shopping almost unbearable, largely because the shit in the shops just gets shittier every year and this year the excrement levels have been elevated to extreme. Yet, it's done. The Christmas tree is up and the presents are all getting wrapped, a few at a time.

Ma Pants and I take it in turns to prepare an early supper. In this weather, it is invariably salad. Easy. You can't go wrong with salad. On my non-preparing nights, I can usually manage it sneak in another 60-90 minutes of work. And what is this work? Well it sure ain't blog posts, as you know. This year, I finally had to admit defeat with my novel-in-progress for the last eleven years and as many drafts, The Full English. There followed a bitter winter of lying under three duvets with plates of toast watching all the old musicals over and over. And then, on a blizzardy day at Seat of Pants irascibility won out. I remembered that I had once written a musical adaptation of a Charles Dickens story which never quite worked. So, despite the fact that I had not played the piano in over six years and was coming off the back of another long project that had 'not worked out', I decided to revisit the musical. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, it has come right and I have learned to use a musical notation programme which eliminates both the need for a piano and the memory of how to play it.

In a couple of weeks, I'll go back to doing the same things in the usual order. I'll have eaten some Christmas pudding, kissed the family farewell and embarked on the dreary journey back to Larrikin's End. Somehow though, I have the feeling that 2015 is going to be a better year for me. I have had my own Nebraska moment. Like the film's character, I seem to have snatched a surprise success from the gnawing mouth of doomed failure, if only in my own mind. But then again, that is the only place where it really matters.

Best wishes to you and yours. See you on the other side.



Thursday, October 23, 2014

One Gough Was Not Enough

Edward Gough Whitlam (1916-2014) Kodakotype by Pants

Gore Vidal apparently quipped that Australia had elected its most intelligent man when Edward Gough Whitlam became our Prime Minister. As legend goes, he added that we were not likely to make that mistake again. How astute. We've mostly gone out of our way to seek precisely the opposite, especially lately.

On 2nd December 1972, three important things happened to me. I passed my driving test, got roaring drunk for the first time at our schools-out-forever party and Australia elected its first Labor Government in 23 years. It should be noted that item two is closely related to items one and three. Technically, I was in breach of the law as the drinking age, like the voting age, was then 21. Both would be reduced to 18 within the year. I would get to vote for Gough Whitlam's government twice - in the early election in 1974, (which they won narrowly), and the 'dismissal' election in 1975. I am happy that I was able to exercise my right, even though it had been rendered virtually pointless by the constitution-trashing actions of a dipso buffoon in a top hat.

Whole libraries have been penned on 'the dismissal' but there is only one thing you need to know about it - we Australians really, really care about principles until they get in the way of our personal interests or it all becomes a bit too hard. Unfortunately, both were in play in 1975. A couple of inconvenient oil shocks created budget havoc. Nothing scares an Australian quite like an economic crisis - even one that proves to be no more than a blip on someone else's horizon. Plenty of people have written books about that too. Panic is part of the national psyche. My then-partner's mother responded to the resulting inflation by acquiring a pantry full of toilet paper, even though there was never a risk of shortages. It's the sort of thing we do.

I've just written a short post over on Art of Pants about my feeling that those of us who came of age in the 1970s were robbed of 'our time'. Gough, although older than my parents, represented the values that we wanted in our country. We too believed that free tertiary education and universal health care would lead to greater equality and that restitution must be made to the first peoples of this country if we were ever to have a cohesive society and a coherent shared identity. 

We were also the first generation to travel abroad in large numbers. We knew how important it was to contribute internationally and not confine our cooperation to the Anglosphere. All of these things turn out to be true. We know this because the retreat from these efforts has led to greater inequality and instability. It's also true that we are not the only prosperous nation to cower when the pressures of progress squeeze a little too hard. We're just much better at it than anyone else. Australia could have and should have been the testing ground for a brave new multicultural world where every citizen got the opportunity to contribute his or her talent to our free and prosperous society. We were a blank sheet. All we had to do was follow the big guy with the big ideas.

Once I'd sobered up from that amazing summer night in December 1972, (and scrubbed the grass and Château Chunder stains from my white trousers and top), I began to anticipate the next phase of my life. I hadn't really much concept of how it would go. I'd grown up knowing politics only from the right-of-centre perspective. To be honest, it hadn't hindered me. As a girl who was neither pretty nor ugly and only averagely bright, I'd experienced neither favouritism nor discouragement. The best thing you could do as a young girl in the seventies was to go unnoticed. In that sense, I've always felt free to pursue my own interests without reference to others. I felt that life here was pretty good and also that it could be so much better. I was too young for Vietnam War protesting, although I did have a Moratorium badge. By 1972, it seemed even that terrible situation was coming to an end. The hard work had been done by others, something which I have always appreciated.

Sir Robert Gordon Menzies had been the Prime Minister for most of my life. He'd retired in 1966 to be replaced by Harold Holt, who disappeared whilst swimming in heavy seas in December 1967. By chance, I was also involved in a marine mishap on that day. Needless to say, my sabot's collision with a VJ on Sydney Harbour did not make the front pages. John Gorton followed Holt. He was both accidental and accident prone and his footnote in history will say that he abhorred the dismissal action taken by the Governor General and that he sponsored a successful Private Member's Bill which led to the decriminalising of homosexual acts between consenting adult men. Good things. But he was no Gough. His successor in the post 'Silly' Billy McMahon's footnote is likely to record only that he is the father of Nip/Tuck actor, Julian McMahon.

I had the benefit of a free university education but it wasn't entirely down to Gough. Before the Labor Government introduced its no-fee policy for tertiary institutions, there was a national scheme which had been instigated by Menzies in 1951. It too had existed before I was born. This was the Commonwealth Scholarship. It was awarded automatically to any student who achieved a certain level via the common public examination regime. I know the pressure cooker of the massive exam room and the 3-hour paper doesn't work for everyone but there was an upside. No interviews were required. That meant that universities couldn't exclude students of the wrong gender, colour or family.  A letter arrived along with your exam results offering a scholarship and listing the universities prepared to offer you a place. There was still an equalities gap in the shape of a significant points differential between matriculation and eligibility for a Commonwealth Scholarship offer. In other words, if your boy could scrape through, you could probably still get him into Law if you had the readies.  Fees applied also to international students. Those of us on Commonwealth Scholarships got our fees paid, a means-tested living allowance and a cheque at the beginning of each year to pay for books.

By 1972 my family had moved to Brisbane. It had been a tumultuous couple of years for us and I'd ended up at a pretty crappy state secondary school. I had made one great friend, and that did help. She'd also been uprooted from the New South Wales state education system at an inopportune moment. I had a couple of diabolical teachers and a couple of extraordinarily gifted ones. They turned out to have been crucial because, amazingly, they got me over the line and I achieved a score good enough to get me a Commonwealth Scholarship to The University of Queensland. So did my best friend. We both moved into a share house in Taringa, an inner Brisbane suburb just a few minutes by car from the university. The house had a dump toilet out the back that was emptied once a week - in 1973. Now that Gough has passed, (sorry), we're reminded of his honoured pledge to bring universal sewerage to urban Australia. He didn't confine himself to hifalutin notions like education, international diplomacy and universal access to health care. Having come far too up close and personal with the droppings of a houseful of my fellow students, I can honestly say that I am very grateful for Gough's having sweated the small stuff in the sanitation department.

Gough didn't invent social progress. Many other countries had free health care and free tertiary education. We also had them but eligibility and access varied between states, regions and socio-economic groups. What Gough did was make them simple and universal. I was the first person in my family to go to university, as was my best friend, as were most of the people we met there. Because of Commonwealth Scholarships, it wasn't a fish-out-of water experience. I didn't feel socially unprepared in any way. And they weren't the only source of free tuition. Teaching students were sponsored by the Department of Education. The catch was that you were bonded to work for them for several years or you had to pay it back. I entered the grandly named School of Architecture and some of my fellow students were on scholarships from the State Department of Works. Same deal - you worked for them over the holidays and for some years on graduation.

The long span of Commonwealth Scholarships and other types of fee sponsorship had entrenched a healthy social mix in our universities prior to the 1974 abolition of fees. It wasn't a culture shock for me or any of my friends. My university had been radicalised so sexism wasn't an issue like it is today. There was a near-even gender mix in my first year of Architecture and there wasn't any of this 'girls can't do it' bollocks either. My best friend studied Law and, as far as I remember, experienced a similar absence of intimidation. When we were at school together, we'd had an enthralling Modern History teacher who knew a lot about South-East Asia and was a specialist on China. He had even been there - several times. My friend and I had a game where we would stand together in silence and look earnestly north. If anyone asked us what we were doing, we would say 'recognising China.' 

The Whitlam Labor Government formally recognised the People's Republic of China three weeks after it was elected. Interviewed on Australian Radio, former Whitlam Government minister Barry Jones said he thought that Whitlam's approach to foreign policy was his most significant achievement. He'd removed the demonology from our foreign policy narrative and examined events rationally, making decisions based on verifiable evidence. And what has replaced that eloquence and analysis lately? Threats, paranoia and slapstick. We've done a lot of regressing in the past forty years. We should hit the Stone Age sometime in the next twelve months. At least our current Prime Minister believes in free tertiary education - but only for his own offspring.

What I think I'm trying to say here is that my best school friend and I came from ordinary suburban backgrounds but like so many others of our time, we were ready for Gough. Others had cleared the path but we had no hesitation whatever in setting out on it. The country was crying out for modernisation. The forces of capitalism hadn't anything like the power they have now to manipulate or close down social progress to suit their own ends. It was the right time for this little country to pioneer planet-saving environmental practice, reap the economic and social benefits of equality of educational opportunity and ensure that none of us suffer in pain because we can't afford medical or dental treatment. But we choked. We so, so blew it. We do all have indoor flushing toilets - many of us have more than one. That's progress Oz-style.

In this insightful piece in The Monthly, Mungo MacCallum observes

'...the dark side of Whitlam’s legacy is that the cost of trying to implement a grand political and social vision is now seen to be unacceptably high.'

 He also concludes that the scare has worked on us and we are exactly where conservative forces want us to be.

'Let them not dream of making real changes to society, let alone to the world; the upheavals can be too great, the triumphs too destabilising, the disappointments too crushing. Let them remain relaxed and comfortable, but just a little fearful of those who would shake their complacency.'

The problem, as I see it, is that we needed not just one Gough but a whole cabinet of them. We needed a Gough with economic skills and one with low animal cunning to face down the forces of treachery who were happy to act unlawfully to rob us of our democratic rights. As a nation, we are perfectly happy to follow a visionary until we meet the first hurdle, at which point we clear the supermarket shelves of toilet paper. It's all very well to vow to 'maintain the rage' after the fact. What good has it done us? Our democracy is being dismantled before our eyes. The funny thing is, we're constantly claiming to be 'world class' at this and that but there was a time, forty years ago, when that claim had the potential to be true. Now it's just an idiotic boast that no one believes.

At six feet and four inches, Gough was the tallest of poppies. He called everyone he encountered, 'comrade' until the end of his life and he never resented us for failing him. There's a lesson in that but we are not likely to learn it. We will do what we always do, revere our hero in death - a token gesture which risks and costs nothing. And that is the final insult to someone who brought us to the brink of maturity only find that we would always want to grow but never want to grow up.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Termite Theory 2.0

Collapsing House Nightmare (2011) by Pants

For months now I've been convinced that my house is being devoured by termites. Well, it's ever since I had it painted, to be honest. What termite wouldn't want to get its mandibles around a newly painted house? They've probably been lying in wait - counting down to the moment when the AM radio bleats no more and the stench of turps fades to lavender, I reasoned. Termites live underground. It doesn't get more sinister. They are the guerrilla fighters, assassins even, of the insect world. They exist for no other reason than to make you homeless - like a miniature on-line betting syndicate, but without the remote possibility that you could win something.

I imagined that I could hear them chomping away as I lay in bed at night. Curse the peace and quiet of a rural community! That my house would fall down seemed inevitable. What was even holding it in place anyway? I might just as well have built a gingerbread house on Sesame Street.

Larrikin's End is a termite-prone area and my house, except for the roof and windows, is made entirely of wood. I don't think that there is an insect that has evolved to eat either glass or Colorbond. Then again, a roof and windows are not much good to you on their own. If you live in a termite zone - or TMZ, if hyperbole is your thing - and are foolish enough to buy an edible dwelling, you are advised to have a thorough inspection once a year. As I generally like to live fast and loose with safety, sanity and financial security, I've always waited three.

Termite guy came this week. It had been nearly three years since his last visit. I was prompted to call him in when I found actual evidence in a dead tree stump that something might have had a bit of a naughty gnaw. In my head, I'd constructed tunnels from that stump to my house that were so extensive and sophisticated that they might feasibly be used in a Battle of the Somme re-enactment. My mind kept flashing back to a television programme I'd seen where a young couple had paid nearly a million dollars for a house that was only being held up by Gyprock. They hadn't had a pest inspection. At least I'd had the sense to do that before purchasing Seat of Pants.

But it's not enough to do the right thing once. One has to maintain regular compliance in order to avoid being slain by the terrifying unseen forces whose job it is to do that sort of thing. I'd already projected myself into a shelter-cum-punishment-facility for homeless people who really should have known better and have no one to blame but themselves, where I would be given a daily lecture on responsible home ownership along with my VegeMITE sandwich. I would surely have to hang myself rather than face that kind of humiliation - but would the beams hold up for long enough!

Termite guy found no evidence of termites in my house, the shed, the fences, the heavy wooden planks that define the garden beds or even that suspect stump. Wood rot or maybe some kind of borer that has no interest in making me homeless - nothing, that would have me sleeping in the Pantibago anytime soon. His exact words were, 'as good as it gets.' No termite infestation or ants or spiders or cockroaches or silverfish or any type of organism that is likely to disrupt serenity. See you in three years, termite guy. You have a bug-free day now.

Why was I so worried? I talked to Ma Pants who'd been through a similar process recently. She did, in fact, have a tree stump that termites had briefly partied in. And she had a friend whose kitchen renovation had just uncovered an infestation. It's safe to say that termites were upper mind. The pair of us talked it through and decided that the state of world affairs, as filtered down to us via the limited points of view that we get in the mainstream media, leaves no alternative but to fill in the gaps with ladlings of doom and despair. Where is the hope? Where is the future?

'Does he have beagles?' queried Sis Pants. No, just a hammer, a screwdriver and a torch. What if termite guy had missed something? He wasn't even sniffing. Sniffing surely is essential. All genuine existential threats are thwarted by animals with extrasensory gifts, are they not?

'They bring a termite in a jar and let it go in the house,' Sis Pants informed me, 'so that the beagles can find it and get their reward.'

'What if it escapes and lays a billion eggs?' I was suddenly glad that termite guy is lo-tech. At times like this, you want faith in the old methods. A hammer. A screwdriver. A torch. Tools you can trust.

I had almost gotten over myself and prepared to chill for at least a year when the news broke of early morning raids on 'terror suspects' involving 800 police and resulting in just one arrest for a terrorism offence. The person charged is Omarjan Azari, a 22-year-old with no previous record. He was apparently intercepted in unguarded 'chat' agreeing to carry out the beheading of a random civilian. 

We are all understandably jumpy, given the recent public decapitations of three Westerners - none of whom were Australians, incidentally. These events have dominated the news and colonised the headlines. Australians are particularly edgy about beheadings because of atrocities committed during World War II by the Japanese, particularly on the notorious  Death Railway. Prisoners of war were frequently beheaded by sword. Many were Australians. More were Dutch. Most were British. 

Australia lacks both a quantity and quality of significant war milestones. Those we do have loom very large. Australia also lacks self-confidence and a sense of security. The latter might go some way to explaining, but certainly not justifying, our legendary hysteria over refugee arrivals. We are still very much a nation in progress and we are easily spooked.

'All that is required to carry out a terrorist attack in Australia is a determined individual, a knife, an iPhone and a victim, PM says.'  Really? Gosh, I could almost manage that myself. Determination? 'Go ahead, make my day,' ring any bells? Knife? My SwissChamp will suffice at a pinch. It certainly stepped in valiantly when my can opener broke. Victim? Should I make a list? Damn it, I don't have an iPhone! Does it have to be an iPhone 6? Is Stephen Fry a threat to national security? Lord, I hope so.

I received a petition on Change.org a couple of days ago informing me that every week a woman is killed in a domestic violence incident. By my crude calculation, a woman's chances of being killed by someone she knows intimately in Australia are about 150,000:1. Her chances of being beheaded by a terrorist on a city street, supposing one should exist with that intent and ability are about 5 million:1. 

We are presently being groomed for tougher anti-terrorism laws, which appear to sanction torture provided neither death, serious injury nor sexual abuse results. Human rights lawyers are, quite rightly, up in arms. Domestic violence quite often involves all three. Advocates try to kick the subject up the headline ladder. Occasionally, they succeed, insofar as someone sort of commits to sort of commissioning a review if they get sort of elected. No one is up in arms about that.

The concept of a terrorist threat scares me far less than the possibility of a termite invasion. I experienced over twenty-five years of living with periodic terrorist events in London. I understand that, if these these things happen, people cope. I was travelling on the London Underground when the bombs went off on 7th July 2005, and also two weeks later when a follow-up attempt failed. I've written about that at length here. I learned that when the threat turns into a visible challenge, we humans manage to deal with it, generally with sense and compassion. I've never had termites. The worst kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

Terrorists and termites hold the allure of being undetectable until they devour your house or your state and/or your peace of mind. Supernatural threats provide a useful metaphor for the inescapable feeling that there are forces bent on taking away what you have - e.g. your privacy, your right to breathe clean air, your belief in the public health system... When all the while, these invidious forces are telling you to stop being so silly, they mean to do no such thing, it becomes necessary to construct a narrative to illustrate the feeling of anxiety that somehow does not disappear with these palpably false assurances.

It almost seems as if we're born backwards, like Benjamin Button. In the absence of a plausible explanation for why everything feels like shit, we latch onto any story that will validate our fears. In that sense, we're not that different from the neo-medievalists we're so eager to condemn. We are also products of those legends and are not so far removed from them as we'd like to believe. The real answer to our latent timidity is, I suspect, a much greater effort on the part of all of us to strongly assert our citizenry and get politically angry - oh, and remember to have regular termite inspections.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Two for the road

Recent CDs by Peter Loveday

This is another review for which a disclosure is required. Peter is an old friend and former musical colleague. We go way back, which is why Peter has very kindly sent me copies of all six of the excellent solo albums he's made since his 2002 debut, A Bend in the Road. I listen to them a lot and am always thrilled to get a new one, as I did, er, quite a while ago now. Roadside Ballads came out last year and I have been meaning to write about it for ages. Ditto Standard Ideal (2009). No excuses there, obviously. Two soaring birds, one pseud's stone.

Peter has lived in Barcelona for over 25 years which may go some way to squaring the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon that is his absence from the world's stage. Scoff not. Usually, when I have one of these what's-wrong-with-this-picture moments, it's because otherdom is a little slow in catching on to something I've known for years. And yes, I do think all of my friends are genius personified but that is not really the point. All I ever ask of the universe is that it reward fairly. I submit in evidence the novel of my writing buddy Phillip Mann, which I always thought was brilliant and which not only finally got published last year but was short-listed for the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award. Please do feel free to eat my short stories at will. Sorry, I've gone off topic again. I should never get started on how I'm right about absolutely everything.

'Are you planning on getting to the point any time soon?' queries TQW whilst delivering the traditional char...

'What is this?'

'A Chilean Pinot Gris. You'll like it. Trust me. When have you not liked a white wine?'

'I believe there was a Frascati back in 1984...'

'Please let's not go there.'

'Fine by me. Pour.'

I'm the last person who should even be thinking of reviewing new music. These days the CD player spins little else but Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Ministry of Sound dance compilations -  and only when I feel like pirouetting around the house like the idiot I have become to annoy the neighbours late at night. (Some habits are hard to break.) And the CD player, incidentally, was a free gift in 1999 with the tinniest possible mobile phone. The tinniness extends to the player. The phone died over a decade ago but the player lurches on pluckily. I survived the traumatic transition from vinyl to CD, not to mention the expense. I have a digital player but the toil of loading it seems a middle eight too far in my declining years. Besides, there is a dim memory from my own recording days that we always listened to 'mixes' on crappy domestic speakers. They didn't flatter.

'Come on already, I have plans for the rest of the month.'

'A timely top-up will yield better results. How is it that you still don't know that?'

So, we were discussing Peter Loveday and his thirty-plus year's worth of distilled euphony available in handy packs that you can even try before you buy. It's not often that you come across people who are innately musical, even in the music business. Peter is such a phenomenon. His voice has always been generous in timbre and mellifluous in tone and has maintained its youthful vitality. In every respect, he's a true original. He would be the first to admit that he's no virtuoso on the guitar, but he wears it like a favourite coat and it serves him well in his storytelling. He's also canny when it comes to collaborators. He has drawn, mostly from the expat community in Barcelona, exceptionally competent and inventive musicians. They get him and they've stayed with him over the years to create an ensemble that gels instinctively. It's a formula for aural joy.

I'm a bit rusty on categories, leave alone all the sub-genres, but I have worked out that Peter's music is not Indie, nor Rock, nor Folk, nor Country. It is, in the most nourishing possible way, all of the above. He is a balladeer, a troubadour. He builds ordinary-yet-fascinating stories and glues them with allegory. Like all natural artists, he chooses himself as his primary subject. He does not tell other people's stories, neither does he appear to invent a persona to tell stories. His songs are intensely personal but not at all confessional. Even if I didn't know him already, I feel like he's someone I might want to know. This is going to sound weird to anyone who isn't me, but it sounds like the music you make when you're young, but with the benefit of hindsight and minus the world-weariness. Can you be both fresh and mature at the same time? It seems so.
Peter pursues the big themes. That great old standard 'love' is one of them. There are always a couple of beautifully calibrated love songs on his albums. You'd beat a singer/songwriter who couldn't deliver a decent love song to death with his/her own plectrum if you had the opportunity - I know I would. Nothing to fear here. Peter is uncommonly good at translating the personal into the universal without casualties on either side. He does human experience with both candour and dignity. No rare accomplishment. 

A major preoccupation of Peter's is 'the road'. Expats typically have shallow roots. Believe me, I know all about this. No matter how long you've lived in one place, home still feels more like a backpack than a bungalow after you've upped stumps a couple of times in your youth. Peter has made two albums with the word 'road' in the title and several videos shot from a moving car or train. Roads, paths, byways and journeys in general make regular appearances in his songs. If there is anything of the constant nomad in you, this music will bring an itch to your feet.  And this is an excellent reason to buy any or all of Peter Loveday's six albums. Get the two featured in this review and you'll crave a road trip. 

Thursday, June 05, 2014

A long time between thinks

Think (2014) Kodakotype by Pants

So, last week,  I says to TQW,

'Can I really go another month without writing a blog post?'

'You can if you've nothing to say,' TQW replies helpfully.

This would be the moment to invoke John Cage, but having nothing to say and finding a way to say it in a blog post is easier said than done. Silence has a legitimacy in music that doesn't easily translate to the written-word form. A 'tacit' in a piece of music invites the listener to imagine what might have been there - hence the huge and continuing success of Cage's 4' 33". It's the ultimate conceptual musical statement. Musicians follow instructions. What notes to play, whether to play loudly or softly or joyously or poignantly. Why not a whole piece of tacit? Why hadn't someone thought of that before?

A few years ago I saw Tacita Dean's video piece Stillness, the very moving dance performed by Cage's life partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham.

'Tacita - a name that actually means silence?' enquires TQW en route to the Esky. 'What kind of parents would give a baby a name like that?'

'The kind that would call their son Ptolemy,' I reply.

'So, they wanted a mute daughter and a screeching warrior of a son?'

'I guess they didn't count on the Cleopatra factor. Give a woman a challenge like that and then stand back.'

Tacita does indeed mean 'silence' so, clearly, she was born to interpret 4'33", as was the former dancer and, by then widowed, Merce Cunningham. It's so poetic I could cry or die or both. And now, you can even get an iPhone App for 4'33". Beyond brilliant. There is something about this that pleasures me in ways that are probably not even legal.

'Barney, crack the Chardonnay.'

The old self is peeping through the keyhole and wondering what the fuck is wrong with this picture. All the pieces are there somewhere but the letters and numbers are floating around in space like a Halloween episode of Countdown. I mean the British game show and not the Australian Top of the Pops with the mad guy in the cowboy hat.

I already have eight posts in the draft box in various states of incompletion so having nothing to say is not exactly the problem. Either that or it's an octopus of a problem with eight independent legs. More likely, it's a case of not being able to get all the ingredients to bind so that something nourishing and original results. Is it a passing phase or an early sign of death? It would be just my luck to have organ failure start with the brain.

For weeks I've been struggling to blurt out the most bleeding of obviousnesses. Is it just me or is everything really so overwhelmingly shit? Apart from John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Tacita Dean ... and Yoko Ono!

'Barney, still waiting here.' [Memo - Pants, write something long and rambling about Yoko.]

I loved that thing she did where she had vintage landline phones installed in art galleries and occasionally rang one and talked to the person who answered. You would think that there is no gesture more breath-takingly witty than that but then someone else cranked it by surreptitiously using the phone to dial their mobile, capturing the number and installing an imposter Yoko. Once a serious brain sparks it sets off a chain reaction. See, it's not that difficult to cheer me if you know the right buttons to push.

Alice Walker was asked in a radio interview how she remained so insatiably cheery and she said something like,

'It's such a joy to realise how disillusioned you are.'

That's a new way of looking at it and one which I had better quickly adopt in the current global political climate. It's not that I'm incapable of feeling joy in disillusionment but it requires rather a lot of Chardonnay these days,

'Barney. Refill!'

I would prefer not to have to resort to such self-preserving tactics as pretending I live on one of those Star Trek planets that looks like Hellenic Greece with iPods but needs must. The inevitability of disillusionment is especially galling in a country where the only thing standing between the populace and responsible, fairly distributed prosperity is a tiny but powerful class of Cohiba-chomping morons. Australia - Downton Abbey minus the lush pastures, potted meats and pretty dresses. Oh, and I think they even pay their servants at Downton.

In the interview Alice Walker also revealed her approach to composing an essay and it goes something like,

'You start writing and by the time you get to about page two or three, you've figured out what you're going to say.'

That method has worked for me too - until the last eight times, I mean nine, that I've tried it. Trusting the process is tough when it fails repeatedly. Right now, I'm more like the lyric to an unfinished Hollies' song. Road = long. Winding turns = many. Leads to = who knows? When = ditto.

'Barney! Get your ornofeline arse down here and pour me another Chardonnay.'

'What's that you say? You can't. You've got to pack. You've been asked to star in a new TV reality show called I Wanna Mary Hairy? Okay, that sounds interesting. So you're an ordinary, neutered owly-cat billionaire posing as a poor orang-utan and a bevy of Wall Street flash boys is competing for the chance to roger you as the star turn at their bucks party? And you will pillow-talk your way into the darkest secrets of this new breed of Übertossers. And the denouement is that you're going to expose all their highly illegal financial practices and thoroughly unpleasant social attitudes. And you expect this to adversely impact on their careers how exactly? Oh, you're going to hire the winner yourself. Goodo. And, you've already posed for the Vanity Fair cover? This explains why I've had to fold my own canapés two nights in a row. How is anyone supposed to work under these conditions? I'll be here to pick up the pieces when you crash'n'burn babe. Remember our pact. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better. Remember to credit Beckett. The cellar's fully stocked, right?'

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A Quantum of Gravity

Lost in Time and Space (2014) Kodakotype by Pants
It's easy to misinterpret the purpose of the Oscars ceremony. It's not, as you might assume, a showcase for pretty dresses or even a trophy night for movie stars. It's a measure of mood, a tonal talisman. If you want to know how America aspires to feel about itself right here, right now, watch the Oscars. In previous years, the message has been more meandering, more cloaked and also much more about pretty dresses and, actually, movies. This year there were few chortle-inducing sartorial distractions to detour us, (how we miss SJP), so the message came across clearly and unmistakably at a carefully calibrated volume.This year it was all about the dignity of work, the audacity of dreams and the righteousness of reward.

The Question Why and I sat down to view with our traditional glass of cold Chardonnay and plate of warm eggs Vladivostok and immediately realised we would be writing a very different post this year.  From the off, it was apparent that there would be no ostentatious frivolity. No mini-musicals, no being John Malkovich's Alaskan Malamute or whatever, no fantasies involving Alec Baldwin. In fact, not even an Alec Baldwin. (We don't think - we might have blinked.) And no Woody Allen. Definitely no Woody Allen. No off-message merchants of any kind. From the moment host Ellen DeGeneres took to the stage in what appeared to be nineteenth-century clergy clobber and parked herself in front of all those gold statues, it was clear that we were in the temple and about to partake of some serious evangelising - a hunch later confirmed by brother McConaughey's prayer of thanks for his Best Actor prize. 

The subdued designer drapery alone nearly sent us into a coma. Black on white. White on black. A fleeting flurry of turquoise. What we would have done for an emerald velvet jacket. Jared Leto almost made us smile with his burgundy bow tie and non-regulation hair but then he folded himself neatly back into the status quo with this emotional outburst, 

'To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela, I want to say we are here and as you struggle to… to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible… We’re thinking of you tonight.'

Sorry Jared? Do you like know what's happening in Ukraine and Venezuela? There's no 'the' in front of Ukraine btw bro' - at least try to keep up. It set an unfortunate bar.

Sure, sure, the Oscars are always about heroes and dreams, but this year that's all they were about. The minor detail that some people were getting some awards and seemed to take personal pleasure in same was almost a footnote. The main event was conveying the message that movies are made by ordinary but gritty people with big dreams, lashings of courage (and no bad habits - although noble failings are acceptable up to a point and we'll get to that). No matter how humble your beginnings, provided you work very hard and your dreams recognise no boundaries, you can make it in Hollywood.

Woven into the dominant narrative were several strands of subtext, not least of all implied equality. This is a tenet of the American Dream project that those who benefit from it so disproportionately are very keen to perpetuate. We don't know how they did it given the predominant pale-stale-maleness of the vast voting population in the Academy, but someone managed to coordinate a result that looks very like there really is equality of opportunity in Hollywood. We all know that can't possibly be the case so someone, or a cast of a thousand someones, worked very hard to conjure it. Not so difficult if illusion is your business perhaps?

What did Ellen DeGeneres really mean when she jibed that there were only two ways the night could end? Possibility No. 1: Twelve Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility No. 2: You're all racists. Was it prescience or zeitgeist or something more engineered? Lupita Nyong'o won Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Twelve Years a Slave did indeed win - bagging Director Steve McQueen a first-ever Oscar as the first black director of a Best Picture. And what is to be made of her introducing Anne Hathaway as 'the first white presenter' of the night? Is there perhaps a tear in some indiscernible tissue of delusion? Is someone maybe twigging that they might be participating in a fabrication, or indeed contributing a diversity tick in their own less-than-tiny way? 

Then there was the veritable rainbow tribe that comprised Team Oscar - three men, three woman, every major ethnic group represented. They looked like the culmination of a thoroughly measured cultural nutrition plan. You can cobble together a version of 'equality' that is appearance-based, and let's be clear, the Academy certainly has some catching up to do in that department, but if that's all you do, well here at Seat of Pants, we might call that a sham. Genuine progress does not happen overnight, even if that night is sparkling with all the glitter Hollywood can produce.
"Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!"
Read more at http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-pizzas-celebrity-selfies-and-pointless-montages-at-the-2014-academy-awards#EFWhF3ESAFIxiXZL.99
"Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!"
Read more at http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-pizzas-celebrity-selfies-and-pointless-montages-at-the-2014-academy-awards#EFWhF3ESAFIxiXZL.99
"Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!"
Read more at http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-pizzas-celebrity-selfies-and-pointless-montages-at-the-2014-academy-awards#EFWhF3ESAFIxiXZL.99
"Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!"
Read more at http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-pizzas-celebrity-selfies-and-pointless-montages-at-the-2014-academy-awards#EFWhF3ESAFIxiXZL.99
"Possibility #1: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You're all racist!"
Read more at http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-pizzas-celebrity-selfies-and-pointless-montages-at-the-2014-academy-awards#EFWhF3ESAFIxiXZL.99

Heroes and dreams were more than mere themes. As the night inched on, they appeared to achieve the status of gospels and even managed to anchor themselves in science. Accepting an honorary Oscar on behalf of all film-lab technicans, Dark Knight writer/director Christopher Nolan praised the unsung 'alchemists' who turn 'silver and plastic into dreams — and not just any kind of dreams, but the kind of dreams you can unspool from a reel and hold in your hand, hold up to the light and see, frozen: magic.' And, as it happened, frozen turned out to be a bit of a sub-theme too. More on that later. And then there was the science evoked in the Gospel According to Matthew in which the saintly one cited the little known 'scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.' Oh, and dreams are 'valid' according to Lupita Nyong'o - although we're not clear on the validation methodology as Lupita doesn't have a biblical name to fall back on. 

Frozen, both the film and the state, developed some unscripted momentum thanks to a couple of wins and some unfortunate presenter juxtapositioning. John Travolta's mangling of Idina Menzel's name may have had something to do with the apparent difficulty he was having persuading his facial muscles to respond to instructions. The invocation of Fifties America via the dreams & heroes theme threatened to backfire spectacularly when the real 1950s turned up in the shape of former screen siren Kim Novak. It was like the picture of Dorian Gray had escaped from the attic. The fruit of faux earnestness carries within it the seed of grand irony. Had no one bothered to check the physical and mental state of the elderly star before dragging her from whatever therapeutic exercise she was engaged in at the time? They might have given her a minute to change out of her sweats and comb her hair. Both semi-ossified stars were landed with the unhappy task of having to actually pronounce the word 'frozen' using mouths that were still in the icebox.

We got not one but two montages of random Hollywood heroes from film-making history which ranged imaginatively from Dumbo to Jessica Rabbit, from Eliot Ness to Lawrence of Arabia? (Okay, so hero is a fairly elastic concept then.) There was a feature to mark the 75th anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz and a tribute to Judy Garland. The sub-theme of happiness and the pursuit thereof snowballed, not least of all due to the prominent presences of Pharrell Williams and Will Smith. Our hero capes and dream coats found themselves overlocked with thick threads of equality, diversity and happiness. It was all getting a little bit too dopily Disney for our liking. More Chardonnay was needed and some balance too. 

Enter Gravity, both the film and the sentiment. The film deserved a narrative thread all its own as it swooped in at regular intervals to snaffle all the techie awards and remind as that America produces the bravest heroes and the biggest dreams. The Best Director pick-up for Alfonso Cuarón also conveniently ticked another box. He's the first Mexican director to win. The constant mention of the word 'gravity' also acted as a metaphor for the final, sombre narrative thread. The ghost of Phillip Seymour Hoffman hovered over proceedings like an unwanted ectoplasmic guest in the Halliwell mansion. He was the spirit unable to move on and seemingly in need of a rather huge dollop of magic to affect his elevation to the place where St Matthew of McConaughey's daddy is waiting in his underwear with a welcoming pot of gumbo and a Miller Lite. It was the moment of clarity for TQW and me (and by now we wished rather for a moment of claret). Glenn Close arrived in graphically funereal black to introduce the In Memoriam segment. The segment ended with pictures of Hoffman and then Bette Midler flapped in to emotionally chant 'Wind Beneath My Wings'. Thank you, thank you, thank God for you, la-la la-la la-la.

Hollywood hasn't yet worked out how to deal with the way Hoffman exited this life. It was like his character just wouldn't do that. The ending didn't make sense in the Hollywood way. Cory Monteith, who died in a scene eerily similar, was laundered from memory and his picture did not even make the In Memoriam cut. Bad habits vs. noble failings. Given the strong thread of equality running through this year's Oscars, the distinction seems disingenuous, not to mention baffling. Is it so that some drug users are more equal than others? Do these dream-weavers really think that you can edit life the way you edit a movie, removing all the bits that don't perfectly fit the script and leaving any awkward characters on the cutting-room floor?

Despite the intrusion of occasional wafts of darkness, the keynote had been conveyed. It's all Gettysburg-good stateside. From the ordered-in pizza, (see, we get hungry too - not for fame but for good ol' pizza), to the genius selfie stunt, (see, we are family), it was all so relentlessly I'm OK, You're OK. Even the documentary winners were all feelgood fare. When the icing is this perfect, it's advisable to check the cake. The problem is that there is some bad-ass baking under that marzipan. None of the hokum rings true, except maybe inside the Hollywood bubble. Economic inequality in the USA is the worst it's been for nearly a century - and worsening. Cities are going broke. Public infrastructure is crumbling. And the increasingly numerous poor and disadvantaged are too exhausted to have dreams, much less chase them. 

Now is really not the time to morph into Marie Antoinette. Aspiration and reality are on separate paths heading in opposite directions. And no Lupita, the act of wishing upon a star won't 'validate' your dreams, much less make them come true. And no Matthew, 'gratitude' doesn't 'reciprocate', neither can you use it to buy potatoes. And you know what Jared, we doubt that the dreamers of Venezuela and Ukraine will be able to use your inspiring message of support to protect themselves as they strive towards their own version of 'living the impossible' - which looks rather like the carefree life you have always taken for granted.

Meanwhile, back in America's perpetually aspirational Mini-Me, the immediate post-Oscar headline read,

Australia Cleans Up at Oscars.

Did this mean that our controversial and multi-tentacled Transfield Services had won the contract to clear the pizza boxes and sodden hankies from the Dolby Theatre? No. It meant that we won a couple of minor prizes and one big one. All won by women. Women don't normally get a mention unless they get caught smuggling drugs or top themselves tragically when they have so much to be grateful for, but beggars can't be choosers. Catherine Martin is now recognisable to the entire world by her initials alone - she is, after all Australia's most prolific Oscar winner. Right on message, she was eager to demonstrate her down-home unpretentiousness by extracting an A4 sheet of paper from her bra. CM has obviously been spending far too much time down among the sequins as she should have known it would have been far more authentic to have the speech tattooed in a spiral up her forearm.

The insufferable Cate Blanchett, as always, followed her own script, not to mention agenda. Adopting the first-amongst-equals position she reserves for such occasions, she lavished praise on her fellow contestants. No doubt she was keen to demonstrate her rigorous Aussie egalitarianism. Missing the mood entirely, she bragged, 'there is so much talent in Australia!' She apparently overlooked the directive that movie stars are ordinary folk who reach the top because they have big dreams rather than big egos. In explaining to the homespun homies at E! News that she nearly missed the cue for collecting her trinket she revealed her true self,

"The blessing and the curse of this is it happens at the arse end of the evening and so you watch so many other extraordinary people get up there and you lose track of the fact that you're even nominated. And then you get taken by surprise, 'It's my turn', and I was with Julia Roberts in the bar for rather too long and just got back to my seat in time."

'so many other extraordinary people.'  Seems to us there might be a stray 'extra' somewhere in there.

During her speech, Sister Blanchett also blithely inserted an unscheduled and entirely opportunistic ad for her equally odious husband and his parochial little Sydney Theatre Company. Happily, she ditched a few notches from the pitch of her previous gushing when congratulating Woody Allen on his excellent choice of leading lady. Grudging applause for his writer nomination earlier in the evening was evidence of his (no doubt) temporary suspension from favour. Nice work for picking up on that one Cate.

All over for another year. We're off to order more Chardonnay. God travel with you through every limousine journey of your life.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Humanity and sanity overboard

Refugees 3 (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

Not a day goes by without we Australians waking to discover that our government has ramped up its cruelty to asylum seekers a thumbscrew or two. A predictable protest at an offshore detention centre on Manus Island this week resulted in one person being shot dead and 77 being injured. The protests were triggered when around 1340 asylum seekers were told that they had no chance of being resettled in Australia - ever. This begs the question of why anyone would be so stupid as to say such an egregious and explosive thing to a group of distressed people;  unless a riot was the desired outcome? To be honest, that would not surprise me. It's right up there with bear-baiting on the scale of gratuitous bastardy.

Now it's been revealed that the personal details of around one third of asylum seekers currently being detained by Australia have been accidentally (?) dumped into the public domain. These details could identify vulnerable people, including children, to the governments of countries from which they have escaped persecution. So, the dashed hope of a tolerable life in a safe place somewhere in the world is compounded by the threat of repatriation to a clued-up and very angry country of origin with the apparent collusion of a nation which claims fairness and tolerance as national characteristics? Carelessness or callousness? The Question Why is always saying, 'never rule out complete incompetence.' And I don't, but how convenient an error is that if you really want to terrify people?

Australia is a signatory to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Our officials seem unacquainted with Article 7 of the ICCPR which instructs,

'No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.' 

The definition covers psychological and emotional mistreatment as well as the more obvious types of physical torture. The thing that always baffles me is why, when you have people manageably subdued and demoralised, you would want or need to torment them to the point of total breakdown. Fortunately, The Question Why has just arrived with a highly anticipated glass of Chardonnay.

'Only two reasons I can think of,' says TQW, 'fun or fear.'

'If you want to terrorise people for fun, you don't become a politician or government official, surely. Wouldn't you rather join a criminal bikie gang or buy a shed in the middle of nowhere and fill it with rusty farm tools like that Wolf Creek guy?'

'So that leaves fear. And how does one usually respond to fear?'

'Fight or flight?'

'Well, it's quite difficult to shift a continent this big to a place where no one will ever find it.'

'True. Let's go with fight.' 

'Or there's the third option - ignoring the scary thing in the hope that it will go away.'

'Ah, the Monsters Inc. Strategy - the one we use on climate change. Didn't we try that one back in 2001?'

'Oh yeah, the Tampa affair. Pretending that asylum seekers don't exist only works up to a point. We still have about 10,000 actual people to deal with, no matter what we end up calling them. '

'So it's full-on combat then.'

But why? Surely it would be so much easier to recognise asylum seekers as people needing our help and provide that help as quickly and efficiently as possible. Other countries with far more demand and far less capacity manage to alleviate the distress of displaced people with much greater grace and sincerity than Australia could even contemplate. Take this example of a refugee camp in cash-strapped Turkey where Syrian refugees are treated as equals,

"When I asked the administrator why the camp took the amenities this far, he said: 'We just put ourselves in the Syrians' shoes. We need Internet. We need barbershops. We need workshops. We need art. What we need as Turks, we give them.' He shrugged as though this were totally obvious. 'We're humans.'" (New York Times article by Mac McClelland, 13.2.14)

There's a theory bouncing around our vast land that the globally conspicuous cruelty being meted out to the tiny number of asylum seekers currently in our 'care' is a calibrated deterrence signal, the modern equivalent of heads on pikes, to discourage others who might have it in mind to follow the same route. Further, that the cast-iron veil of secrecy is merely bait for the media, deliberately set to ensure maximum international publicity. Well, obviously it's certainly an incentive. It won't stop people from being displaced, but it might mean they go somewhere else. Provided, of course, there is somewhere else to go. Presumably, the calculation has also assumed a toothlessness on the part of the UN and that a small slap on wrist is a fair price to pay for making sure that asylum seekers get the message that Australia is not somewhere they really want to go.

That's all very well, but we still insist on maintaining a self-image that we're generous, kind people. Not even the Nazis did that - pretend they were actually nice while shipping people off to camps. Imagine what that schizoid disconnect is doing to our national psyche. And again, why? Why not just stand up for racism, be proud of our white supremacist roots? We obviously don't believe it's wrong to discriminate against a particular group of people who also happen to not be white. No one ever questions the motives of the seventy-or-thereabouts-thousand white South Africans who emigrated to Australia for 'a better life' after the ANC election victory in 1994.

And then there's the bogus 'concern' about asylum seekers drowning at sea. If we really cared about that we'd set up immigration centres at the points where fleeing people first arrive so that they don't have to undertake desperate sea journeys. We'd get them sorted and settled quickly so that they could become productive members of our community. And we're apparently worried about the cost of all these extra people? Well, most of them will end up living here anyway. Do we accept this and make the pragmatic and compassionate best choice in a difficult situation? Hell no. We would much rather spend a fortune imprisoning and guarding people in limbo for years; building, staffing and repairing offshore detention centres; deploying naval vessels to guard great expanses of ocean and dealing with the shattered physical and mental health of whole generations when they are finally allowed to settle here after years of constant trauma. So, why do we do that then? 

Novelist Christos Tsiolkas, in this long piece for The Monthly written in 2013, attempts to fathom, 'why Australia hates asylum seekers'. It's a considered view and I hope you'll read it in full. He says that racism is an aspect of our attitude to asylum seekers that we never discuss,

'By not confronting the reality of racism, we can only look at the issue through a distorted lens. At the same time – and this is a point overlooked by the left, another of our failures – reducing the whole debate to the question of racism is equally problematic and unsatisfactory.'

Drawing on his own experience of racism as an immigrant he recounts,

'“Australians are racist,” my parents would say to me as I was growing up. “They are racist and they are amorphoté. That’s the real problem in this country.”

How do I translate this Greek word? Literally, it means to be uneducated but this is inadequate. My parents were not educated people; born to peasant families, they didn’t undergo secondary schooling. What Mum and Dad were referring to was a code of behaviour, a civility that they believed Australians lacked.'

He concludes,

'This is what amorphoté means: it is not about academic education, it is barbarity, pure and simple.'

How did we Australians end up like this - especially since we're so keen to think of ourselves as the exact opposite of barbarous? And yes, a lot of developed countries have problems with racism and display hostility towards asylum seekers but no one does it with quite the ferocity and mania that Australia does. No one fears foreign quite like we do. Why?

The Seat of Pants theory is this. The 'no-room' nonsense, the be-like-us bollocks, the procedural hokum, the Janus-faced faux concern - all a smokescreen. The thing we really don't want the rest of the world to know is that we have no idea how to be decent global citizens. From our shove-it-in-your-pipe resource profligacy to our hysterical 'border protection', our deeply embedded and universal commitment to inequality is our shaming open secret. We are, indeed, amorphoté.

But why? We're an educated, well-travelled population with freedom of expression to die for. And nearly all of us are from immigrant stock. And there's another rub - once new ethnic immigrant groups become established, it isn't long before they too join the stone throwers. How is this possible? Simple answer - insecurity. The unfinished treaty business with the first Australians is making it impossible for any of us to feel truly at home here. White settlement in Australia was based on the lie of terra nullius. In order to validate that, it was necessary to reclassify the indigenous inhabitants as non-people. That self-granted permission to deregister certain groups from the human race at will has never been revoked or even genuinely rethought. So now, we simply reframe asylum seekers as non-people in order to strip them of their human rights. It's a bad habit that goes way, way back.

Since I've lived nearly half my life so far in Europe, I can tell you that while racism is certainly a problem in other places, Australia is in a league of its own on this particular type of racism. It feels so hopeless when there is no anchor, anywhere, for anyone. It's taken me a few years to get close to the beginnings of an understanding of just how and why it's so different. And I will admit to being roundly fooled myself while I was living abroad and only experiencing Australia in small, fun-packed chunks and via brilliantly orchestrated, love-us-because-we're-so-naff PR campaigns.   

Nothing will change until we understand that this is who and what we really are. A little pain now for a decent and honest future - how hard can it be? Very, apparently. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating managed to transport us to a place of idyllic imagining for an afternoon back in 1992 when he delivered his now-famous Redfern Speech right smack in the centre of Sydney's Aboriginal community.

'We took the traditional land,' he said. 'We brought the diseases and murders,' he admitted. 'We took the children from their mothers,' he confessed. 


We Australians clasped the sentiment, if not the actual message, to our collective heart. In a recent poll ranking Unforgettable Speeches of our time, the Redfern Address came in at No. 3. The top spot went to Dr Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech - see, we're not racist. In second place was Jesus with The Sermon on the Mount - so, we're all biblical scholars now? I'm thinking you don't even want to know that No. 4 was Churchill's 'fight 'em on the beaches' and No. 5 was Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Twenty years ago, Paul Keating gave it his best shot. It didn't even hit the barn. That's how thick our barn actually is. In a recent interview he said,

'When they were handing out continents, not many people got one. We did. We got a continent of our own, unbelievably. Twenty million of us. We've got the great event of our time.'

What is wrong with us that we could even think of squandering that?

Barney! More Chardonnay. Now!