Sunday, December 25, 2016

Cheerful? Why yes!

On Gossamer Wings (2016) by Pants

Well 'tis the season for it. Although times are testing, to be sure. With 2016, the new millennium has turned into the most petulant of teenagers. The important thing, as any parent knows, is to try not to panic. To prepare for the worst, hope for the best and keep fucking smiling. How difficult can it be? Easy for me to say. I'm well cushioned against future shocks. It's taken many years of practice and discipline to reach the comfort and satisfaction I now enjoy as well as some preemptive sacrifices and a fair bit of swimming against the tide. All things considered, life is good.

What if someone told you the secret to help you save money and the world, inoculate yourself against many of the ills of modern life and enjoy everything more on both the sensual and profound levels? 

So began an item on ABC Radio National's Life Matters. I don't normally listen to this drivel. Nor do I need the advice. It became necessary to plug my ears with something after I stumbled from the surf at Noosa Beach with my boogie board under my arm to find that the surf school had adapted my favourite spot under a clump of sheoak trees as a mobile classroom. After evicting a budding bombora buster from my neatly laid-out towel, I connected myself to some earphones and held my ground as the red-vested tyros learned how not to get smacked in the face with their malibus. And this is why I'm (mostly) cheerful. I'm always prepared when someone decides to chuck a Zed & Two Noughts at my Zen. I make sure the Zone is always within reach. Refusing to get annoyed at small, fleeting acts of cuntishness helps to ensure a speedy return to cheerfulness.

A 'secret' is what Australians call something that is so blindingly obvious that only a moron could miss it. Remember Rhonda Byrne? The key to happiness is to be satisfied with your lot and believe, like Scarlett O'Hara, that tomorrow is another day? A no-shit-Sherlock moment if ever there was one. Incredible as it may seem, a lot of people need instruction on how to live with the circumstances in which they reside, no matter how cushy. I generally find that the universe cooperates with me provided I keep my demands modest and infrequent. For people who seem incapable of intuiting the incontrovertible, there will always be a self-help book.

Turns out that I've been practising something called The Art of Frugal Hedonism for years. A new book with that title is the subject of the equilibrium-preserving interview. Annie Raser-Rowland, one of the authors, is the interviewee. The suggested frugality measures should come as no great revelation to anyone used to shoestring living. All the usual don'ts are present. Don't buy shit you don't need. Don't be lured by advertising into believing that your happiness depends on having the latest this or that. Don't focus on what you don't have. And the do's should be equally familiar. Do grow your own food. Do take advantage of facilities that are free - libraries, museums, forests, beaches. Do enjoy what you have and be grateful for it. Well, yes, yes, yes, yes. Only a tosser would live any other way.

Obviously, I haven't read the book. There may be more depth to it than this précis indicates. In the interview the author doesn't talk much about the hedonism bit, which is the more interesting aspect of the strategy. No sacrifice without reward, I say. Easy for me to claim success in this realm as I mostly live alone these days. Barney has taken up his new post at Trump Tower and TQW is more or less redundant since I've resolutely stopped trying to overlay logic on idiocy. They've both promised to be back in time for our annual Oscars party where we take hedonism to the limit of credulity. Here's a tip. Go super frugal on the news feeds and mega hedonistic on good old-fashioned arts and letters.

Saying that, the methodology is all well and good, but most people will spend most of their adult lives working. And that means they spend most of their time in a situation that they can't control. I've been in a very happy headspace since I stopped working for fuckwits and started working under my own direction. It was a good decision on my part. The pay sucks but my manager is a peach. I do not care about sucky pay so long as I'm happy doing what I do and don't have a psychopath standing over me. Having said that, when I did work I was always paid extremely well and, most of the time, it wasn't hideous work. Since the financial crisis of 2008 wage stagnation coupled with overwork and lack of purpose seem to have made work nigh intolerable for at least half the population of most western countries. Even in supposedly laid-back Australia. Not working can be financially challenging but working at something you hate for less money than you think you deserve has to be the pits. I've never had much money. Big amounts tend to come to me in windfalls. I've either saved it, travelled on it or made a big and vital purchase, like a car or a house.

To me, frugal hedonism means directing all of your resources, however meagre, into activity that is fulfilling, beneficial and, wherever possible, neither wasteful nor harmful. Good wine cheap from auctions. Luxury food from the 'reduced for quick sale' section of the supermarket. I'd dumpster-dive but around my way they lock the bins up. Growing crops that are expensive to buy - strawberries, tomatoes, aubergines, beans, garlic, salad greens and herbs. Knowing when the roadside walnut trees fruit and the best time and place to collect pipis for fettuccine alle vongole. And spending most of my time exploring worlds both internal and external.That's how I do it. I understand that not everyone is cut out for uncompromising independent living. If you have a strong need for company, it's probably not ideal.

There was one plank in my journey towards ultimate frugal hedonism that I've only recently set down. I've finally mastered the art of not giving a fuck. (Another book I didn't need to read as I'd been in training for it all my life.) Misha and I have been friends for forty-five years. Having lunch with him the other day, I realised that he has never, ever listened to a word I've said. I guess I must have known that all along, and simply internalised it. When I thought about it later, I realised that I don't mind. In fact, it's profoundly liberating. The thought that I can say anything to him and it won't penetrate. It used to really piss me off to be ignored. As a woman, I have had a lot of experience of being dismissed, ridiculed and seen my ideas blithely appropriated by men when it suited them. None of it matters. I don't know about saving the world, but I'm doing pretty well at saving me. That must count for something.

Of course, everything goes up the chimney at Christmas. I'm in Noosa, Queensland. Lounging on the best beach for elderly boogie boarding in the world, every day. Being lavishly supplied with tropical fruits. I never buy mangoes, pineapples or papaya at home. They're far too expensive and they only really taste good in the tropics anyway. Although every year the Pants family solemnly pledges to go light on the gifts, brightly coloured packages pile up under our 56-year-old cellophane tree. (It is truly frugal to have had the same artificial tree for almost one's entire life.) There will be (slightly) too much food. Years of me ranting at Ma Pants about waste finally bearing a little less in the way of perishables in her warehouse of a fridge. When I'm with others, especially family members, who are all extremely loveable, it's easy enough to relax and go with the flow. Although I do sneak out at 5am for a solitary jog with just an audiobook for company and I sometimes pretend I'm going down for a nap in the afternoons and do a bit of writing instead. Old habits, etc.

Now I hear Ma Pants stirring. Soon the rest of the family will be here. Better go. I wish you all the cheer that can be mustered and I will leave you with a fine thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson,

'Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants, and to serve them oneself?'

I think not.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Best Before (2016) by Pants

Democracy has thrown up a lot of lemons lately, and not the kind from which you can easily make lemonade. Unless you're a cartoonist or comedian. In which case, Mazel Tov! Although perhaps not. American satirists are complaining that their attempts at lampooning Donald J. Trump mostly fall flatter than a gluten-free crêpe. (The J. doesn't stand for Jerk-off, as I'd assumed, btw.) Trump supporters either judged the spoofs mean or found them oddly endearing. There you go. As our own Tim Minchin sang-whined last week,

'It doesn’t work any more to laugh at a fool. The fool is now the king. When the jester becomes the king, what do we do?'

 What indeed? There's simply no defence against a man who claimed that the election was rigged when he thought he was going to lose it and now claims it was rigged because some people apparently voted for the other candidate. All comedy is redundant in the face of such diabolically clever farce. It's the Twitter equivalent of an Escher drawing. So, how does this man manage to fool many of the people all of the time? Again, forests of digital trees have been sacrificed explaining the classic despotic moves Trump has so successfully deployed - Big Lie/Liar technique, Man of the People trope and, by far the most penetrating - tell the people what they want to hear. Even if it's not rationally conceivable, a dream, even an impossible one, is better than nothing. Dreams are currency in America. Hope? Well, that's obviously for pussies who haven't got the balls for winner takes all.

There probably isn't a lot of point in bringing up history when so many people were apparently born yesterday, but I happen to be re-reading The Past is Myself, a memoir by Christabel Bielenberg. An English aristocrat married to a Hamburg lawyer, she was resident in Germany from the rise of Hitler and the Nazis until the end of the war. The book includes some poignant, retrospectively insightful and seriously scary observations. At the risk of falling foul of Godwin's Law, I think it's worth looking again at the relationship between Hitler and the public he so successfully exploited, given that it ended up plunging the world into a six-year war, nearly wiping out European Jewry and destroying great chunks of Europe.

The Bielenbergs fell into a category not a million miles from the much disparaged 'cultural elites' of today who find scoffing at Trump the only rational response. They and their friends watched the Nazis rise to power with the same dismayed but dismissive distaste most of us broadsheet-reading poseurs now direct at Trump et al. Persuaded by their gentle, respectable neighbour Hans to at least give the National Socialists a look in, Chris and Peter Bielenberg attended at rally at which Hitler was the star attraction in 1932. They laughed when they discovered the venue was Hagenbeck's Zoo. Crammed up against the giraffe house, they listened with awed incredulity. Afterwards, Peter Bielenberg remarked to his wife,

'You may think that Germans are political idiots, Chris ... and you may be right, but of one thing I can assure you, they won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown.'

Three months later, Adolf Hitler became Germany's Chancellor, rendering 'famous last words' forever speechless. Having previously 'kampfed with four turgid pages before giving up' on the Hitler manifesto Mein Kampf at Hans's insistence, Bielenberg admits to bafflement and asks herself,

'What had Hitler provided which seemed to satisfy so many and persuaded them so easily to relinquish their freedom and to turn aside from the still small voice of their conscience?'

Turns out the question could only be guessed at in hindsight,

'Hitler understood his Germans well, or maybe he had just chanced his luck with human nature. There was a titbit for all in his political stew pot. Work for the unemployed, an army for the generals, a phoney religion for the gullible, a loud, insistent and not unheeded voice in international affairs for those who still smarted under the indignity of a lost war: there were also detention camps and carefully broadcast hints of what might be in store for anyone who had temerity enough to enquire into his methods too closely, let alone openly disapprove of them. He made every move, though, behind a smoke-screen of legality and also of propriety, for he was shrewd enough to know that the spirit of his revolution came from the disgruntled, disenchanted, dispossessed middle classes. He must strike the right note therefore, and he did so by making respectability the quintessence, the irresistible pièce de résistance, of all that he had to offer.' 

Spot the parallels. Well, we know Trump can stitch his own deepish pockets to one or two other pairs of similarly endowed trousers. Maybe he can build a media network big enough to qualify as a propaganda machine in the Facebook era. Perhaps he can get a get a mass surveillance and suppression system to work in the Instagram age. We'll see. Hitler's grand plan was an immediate success because he was able to conveniently loot Jewish wealth to fund it and later to keep it running with slave labour from conquered territories. How is Herr Trumpf to pump-prime the Make America Great Again project? Empty the coin purses of deported domestics? What we used to call the quality media outlets have been chasing down and quizzing professional, articulate, outwardly sane Trump supporters and posing the wtf question to them for months. They know the guy's an arsehole. Turns out they want, even think the country needs an arsehole at the helm. That's the point. A final parallel from Christabel Bielenberg's memoir,

'How was it though that Hitler had succeeded with some of the more intelligent ones, with those who still possessed personal integrity, unless he had provided something more, something which had made them long for his leadership to succeed, in spite of the ever more obvious viciousness of his régime? Would it have been with that sense of national identity which he could conjure up with such mastery?'

It would appear so. And that's the thing we all need to be afraid of. Trump has that ability. To unite and divide all at once and with potentially devastating results. There is a momentum there which we would be foolish to continue to underestimate.

It's taken a long time to get this post together. The shock and disbelief about the crazy events of this year have been repeated and repeated in and on my preferred news sources, as if chanting our collective incredulity will somehow alter the outcome. Why not? If trickery can deliver Trump the White House and the three stooges of British politics their Brexit, why can't good magic make it disappear? There are plenty of people suggesting that what we've seen this year could be part of a wider trend. There's to be a study published in January showing a severe decline in the percentage of people living in a democracy who say it's 'essential' to live in a democracy. It's particularly low in the Anglophone countries and most particularly amongst the young. Less than thirty per cent for Millennials. Democracy is an idea that must be believed in in order to survive. Doesn't look good for the Democracy Fairy.

This article by Martha Gessen appeared in the New York Review of Books this week. She is currently in Australia talking about the threat of Trump to democratic principles. Gessen  cautions against accommodation and compromise. She offers a different historical context for the dilemma of acting against moral instincts in the belief that ameliorative engagement  will enable some control and possibly deliver a less terrible outcome. She relates the story of her great-grandfather, a leader of the Bialystok Judenrat, (Jewish councils set up by the Nazis to administer the ghettos). Ultimately, Gessen's antecedent was forced into the task of compiling 'liquidation lists'. He complied, believing that by choosing the sick and dying, he could at least save some and fearing that the alternative was mass slaughter. Gessen concludes,

'We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge. We know what my great-grandfather did not know: that the people who wanted to keep the people fed ended up compiling lists of their neighbors to be killed. That they had a rationale for doing so. And also, that one of the greatest thinkers of their age [Hannah Arendt] judged their actions as harshly as they could be judged.

As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.'

I'm a great believer in protest and peaceful non-cooperation. In those heady, happy days before political correctness finally went mad and someone apparently took it out back and shot it, some of us found it quite pleasant that people weren't constantly calling us names based on the accidental circumstances of our birth or upbringing. And all of it took struggle. I'd prefer it if we didn't go back to clubbing each other over the head to get what we want. Now is not the time for passive acceptance of what we presume is the will of the people. The will of the people can be wrong. Has been very wrong. Democracy is corruptible. It takes work to keep it honest. Eternal vigilance and all that. Better to be awake and overcautious than screwed whilst asleep.

There are times when I despair of our version of dithering Democracy here in Australia. In moments of frustration, I often fantasise about a monster descending on Parliament and giving them all a good slap. And then I remember that thing Churchill said about Democracy being the least shittiest of all possible ways of organising a society. Just a note on the passing of Fidel Castro - wouldn't it be nice if it were possible to believe in excellent education and healthcare and not be a brutal dictator? Sorry, dreaming.

I have been a fan of President Barack Obama. One thinks of how much worse the last eight years could have been and how much deeper in the shit we would most certainly be now if not for his calm, reasoned presence in the White House, and in the world at large. Ditto Angela Merkel, easily the most effective politician in Europe for a generation. Imagine my consternation when I read the laughably lame op-ed piece they jointly penned on the future of Transatlantic relations in the German Daily Wirtschaftswoche. The full text in English can be found here. This snippet gives a sense of the tone of the piece,

'Germans make pilgrimages to Silicon Valley, where people practice and think about the future of the digital economy more than anywhere else. Americans thrive in Germany’s many world-class manufacturing and engineering companies, small and large. Americans and Germans learn from each other’s labor systems and study how each benefits their citizens: Americans study Germany’s remarkable labor apprenticeship system and Germans learn from how American companies benefit from the United States’ spectacular diversity.'

What is that? A pantomime horse called Chamberlain? No, no, no. This will not do. President Obama - have you not heard the joke doing the rounds of the rust belt,

Used to be they made cars in Flint and you couldn't drink the water in Mexico. Now they make cars in Mexico and you can't drink the water in Flint.

It's time for the stalwarts of Democracy to stand up. And that means you. Your work is not done. You don't solve this kind of crisis by exchanging research scientists. President Obama - you have a new job. The movement to save and rejuvenate Democracy needs a leader. You're it. Pants says. You and Michelle job-share it. Tag-team it. However you want to do it, just get it done. The Nelson Mandela mantle falls upon you. Oh, and Angela, I'm very glad that you're seeking a fourth term and good luck with that, but should you find yourself with spare time next Autumn, feel free to join in. I have a feeling the war won't be over by then.

Postscript: I've been making an American flag out of plastic tabs for years. I now have almost enough to complete the mission thanks to the kind donations of people who eat more bread and potatoes than I do. It will be completed in the New Year.

Sunday, October 30, 2016


Seat of Pants (ink drawing by Pants)

Whenever I have one of those what-the-fuck-was-I-thinking moments, I try to remember that there are two very good reasons to live in Australia. The wine is good and cheap and you can have a big house by the sea. There was a third reason for my return to the birth-mother country eight years ago. It had supposedly tired of being the dickhead of the world and had elected a progressive government. That hope bubble burst almost immediately. Old habits die hard. But the wine's still cheap and I still have my lovely house by the sea. Lucky me.

Plenty of my fellow residents aren't so lucky. Home ownership rates have been steadily declining for years in this country, which would be fine if there were lots of cuddly housing cooperatives and decent socially owned accommodation for fair rent and with secure tenure. For someone like me on a low fixed income, the alternative to owning my own home would be living in my car. Much as I love the Subaru, I don't think it would do much for my mental or spinal health. There are many good reasons for being a homeowner other than it clearly helps your finances if you don't have to pay rent. Nobody can tell you to leave or get cross at you for putting lots of holes in the walls. Both things would be constantly happening to me if I were in that position.

The fastest rising demographic for homelessness in the country is older women. Increasingly, having a home of your own costs more than most people can afford to pay. Why this state of affairs? Absolutely baffling, it would appear. Like every other challenge in Australia, it's one of those wicked problems that defy the best efforts of our most gifted thinkers. Building lots of houses where people want to live might be a start. Or perhaps build some cheaper ones not terribly far from where people want to spend a lot of their time and pop in some fast, reliable transport and a local job or two. And at the same time, remove the tax breaks for people who already own lots of houses and want more houses so they can pay less tax. Chewing gum whilst walking on the moon, apparently.

We have had a succession of fine minds at work on this thorny problem for some time. A former national Treasurer advised,

'The starting point for a first home buyer is to get a good job that pays good money. Then you can go to the bank and you can borrow money.'

Who knew that's how it worked? Or you could always marry money. Like he did. And buy lots of houses. How did we reward this genius for his crystal clarity? By appointing him Ambassador to the United States of America. That bastion of clear-headed housing policy. On to Genius II who has concluded that the housing-affordability crisis is basically a planning issue. Which is the responsibility of the states and therefore not anything to do with him. He offered this enigmatic insight,

'Housing in Australia, especially in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, is expensive and increasingly unaffordable but that does not mean it is overvalued.'

Well that's a relief and must provide some comfort to the people who are facing a future domiciled in a caravan park. As the mastermind in question has taken to wearing a little Australian flag lapel pin, one can only assume he's in training to follow his former colleague on to Washington, where he too can get a lovely big house for free, collect a couple of salaries and charge his household expenses, (including babysitting), to the Australian taxpayer.

Most issues in Australia quickly reduce down to some sort of demographic conflict. This is no different. Basically the Baby Boomers have bought up all the houses, leaving the Millennials no option but to squander all their hard-earned cash on brunching out. Yes, it's either a two-bed semi-detached or the luxury of having some even poorer sap smash avocado and arrange it on fancy toast for you. Speaking as someone who's always been a bit partial to smashed avocado on toast, (with freshly squeezed lemon, cracked pepper and a little sea salt if you don't mind), I suggest that it's possible to have it both ways, with a little creativity. Smashing your own avocado is a good place to start.

One of the reasons we Baby Boomers were able to get a foothold in the property market is that we didn't have to pay off student debt. I get that this gave us a massive advantage. But we were also prepared to live in places that no one else wanted to live. It was lucky for us that this included the inner-city areas which we found very attractive because they were littered with old pubs that we could turn into music venues and abandoned factories that we could co-opt for our art collectives. I won't deny that these were good times. Millennials might think about giving us some credit for revitalising abandoned city centres from Sydney to London, Berlin to New York and beyond. 

I spent a lot of my youth living in drafty share houses, squats and hard-to-let London council flats. Yes, it was cheap but it was also quite hard work at times. Repairing broken windows, carting furniture home from skips and sprucing it up. We didn't have eBay or Freecycle. Sacrificing comfort while you're young enough to not care can pay dividends later on. We agitated, organised, found resources that were going begging and used them.Why not form a collective and house pool or jointly buy a property in a regional city to rent out? Then you too can negatively gear yourself an income low enough to evade paying back your student debt and give the government one in the eye while you're at it. They'd soon take notice of that.

I've only ever had three full-time, permanent jobs in my life. None of them lasted much more than a year. On the first two occasions, I took the opportunity to qualify for a mortgage and bought the cheapest house I could find in a rundown area. The first time, in Brisbane, I was just twenty-three and although borrowing the $1,000 deposit from my parents was easy, getting a bank loan for the rest was not. The barrier for a single woman was the potential for pregnancy. Fortunately for me, I had a very nice boss who also happened to be on the board of a building society. He managed to convince the loans officer that I was so ghastly no one would ever be likely to want to have a baby with me. He was right about that. I sold the house for a big profit then went to live in England. Had I stayed and if I'd had a permanent job, I could have used the money for a bigger deposit and stepped up from my starter home. That's why it's called the property ladder, folks.

I was over forty when I bought the London flat that inadvertently secured my financial future. It was in Hackney. A place that, until fairly recently, no one wanted to live in. Fortunately, they all changed their minds at exactly the time I wanted to leave. Saving the £5,000 deposit wasn't all that difficult because I had a council flat where the rent was very low. I was also eligible for a shared-ownership property, which meant a fixed price, low interest rate and easy access to a building society loan. It really is a good system, but suspiciously socialist-sounding so very unlikely to ever take off in Australia.

Given the present predicament, it would seem that there are rather more opinions on its causes and rather less in the way of sod turning and loop-hole closing than is good for anyone. The sooner our multiple layers of government can agree that people are unlikely to stop having children and that everyone has to have somewhere to live and work out which layer is going to sort out which bit of it, the sooner we can all get on with our Sunday brunches in peace. Yes, it is extremely bad that my generation is hogging houses. But then again, many of us don't have huge superannuation balances and all the tax breaks that go with them. For a lot of people my age, property is a way to fund retirement. One of my neighbours, a single parent, built a very good house next to hers and rented it to a family on a permanent basis at a reasonable rate. That's the system working. We need more of that. And there should be heavy penalties for investors who buy property and leave it empty. The system enables far to much of that at present. 

I maintained my winning strategy of buying cheaply in a seriously uncool place when I moved here. I've been lucky twice in anticipating gentrification - although in Hackney it did take twenty-five years for the hipsters to crack on. Larrikin's End has a ways to go. Some days I'd kill for a decent baguette. But I do have my own lemon tree and I've got a couple of young avocado plants. And I'd rather have the view than quality coffee. If a perpetually single woman with an appalling employment record can do it, it's doable. Believe it.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Apropos of Appropriation

Hattie McDaniel and Shirley Temple, (Kodakotype by Pants)

The shit storm Lionel Shriver ignited with her keynote address to the Brisbane Writers Festival a couple of weeks ago is still generating aftershocks. Like this piece by Kaitlyn Greenidge in The New York Times and this one by Nisha Susan in The Hindu. I don't propose to rehash any of the argument here. I'm sure you've all read and considered the talking points to death by now. I will say that I feel most closely aligned with this assessment by Francine Prose* in The New York Review of Books. Particularly this bit,

'The topic is a complicated and sensitive one, and Shriver’s first mistake, I think, was to ignore that complexity and sensitivity by adopting a tone that ranged from jauntiness to mockery and contempt. I can think of only a few situations in which humor is entirely out of line, but a white woman (even one who describes herself as a “renowned iconoclast”) speaking to an ethnically diverse audience might have considered the ramifications of playing the touchy subjects of race and identity for easy laughs.'

That mostly covers it. There's a world of difference between some students freaking out when they find sushi in their canteen and, as Prose puts it,

'...the sorry spectacle of feather bonnets and fake turquoise jewelry for sale at Native American fairs staffed and attended solely by white people. White musicians who get rich performing the songs of black soul and blues singers who live and die in poverty. The fast-food chain Taco Bell, which purveys a bastardized form of Mexican cuisine while paying its workers (who, in the West and Southwest, are often Mexican-Americans) wages that average between eight and nine dollars an hour.'

Why is the difference between these things not blindingly obvious? Now that I find interesting. Prose suggests that there's some misdirecting going on by the elements of society that most benefit from the ongoing exploitation of all cultures subordinated by white patriarchy. I'd include the creative work of women in that. Another interesting element is that men have stayed largely out of this brouhaha, perhaps choosing to view it as a spat between women. Which conveniently makes the issues raised much easier to trivialise and/or ignore. There's one other thing that Shriver might have considered - you can say any number of oppressive things in Australia without unleashing conniptions, but cultural appropriation is an area in which there's a confident history of resistance. Then again, perhaps Shriver did know that.

I'd like to talk about this in the context of a few personal experiences. Recently, a friend here in my district decided to write a song cycle incorporating local history, to be performed at a public event. As you will no doubt be aware, there is by no means agreement on happenings in Australia since white settlement. In our particular corner of the world, there was extreme brutality deployed in the displacement of Indigenous people. And those wounds are far from being healed. The first draft my friend showed me was incendiary. Not because she meant to cause offence, but because she's not a very experienced writer and her initial effort was, shall we say, enthusiastic but quite crass. I urged my friend to tread very carefully, perhaps seek to collaborate with Indigenous writers and musicians and, at the very least to consult with elders. I also suggested she go in heavy on the metaphor and end the cycle with a reconciliation song as the narrative seemed to call for it. A community like ours can't ever have too many of those, and that's for sure. These projects are tricky but worthwhile to get right. My friend is both genuine and courageous and I very much want her to succeed.

Flash back fifteen years when I found myself in a not entirely dissimilar situation. I was living in London and had been for around twenty years. I'd written a novel. In it I'd related some stories that had been told to me by an Aboriginal elder in my callow youth. I remained largely ignorant of what is known in Australia as the culture wars, a long-overdue reassessment of the standard colonial view of our history. The trashing, suppression, exploitation and appropriation of Indigenous peoples' cultural traditions, languages, stories and objects became an important focal point in that contest. I'd inadvertently crossed that line by including material that wasn't rightly mine. I sent the manuscript to several agents and publishers in Australia and was quickly set straight. I should note that the gatekeepers were all white women. Not that it matters. They were correct. I accept that it's my mistake. Like my friend who's writing the song cycle, I'd erred in ignorance. For my part, I've shelved the book and plan to rewrite it as part of a series I'm working on at the moment. The elder who told the stories frequently invited young students to her home and shared these stories to give us some understanding of the history of our ancient homeland. She's no longer around to ask. I have two choices. I could omit those sections altogether, which would obviously be the easiest. Or - it may be possible to gain permission from the current custodians of this knowledge to include them. I'm still thinking about how I might go about that.

Like a lot of Australians of my vintage, I grew up spending rainy Saturday afternoons watching old Hollywood films on television. I was particularly fond of Shirley Temple films. The screen shot above is from The Little Colonel (1935), a sentimental favourite and one that I've based a couple of artworks on. The film, adapted from the novel by Annie Fellows Johnston is set immediately post Civil War in the American South. There are six prominent black characters in this film including parts played by Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar, (Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind). McDaniel suffered many indignities in her long and successful career, including being sat at a segregated table at the Academy Award ceremony the year she won. When criticized for accepting stereotypical roles and pressured to petition the studios for a better deal, she apparently responded,

'Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid. If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one.'

And therein lies the folly of having a pop at someone for sticking her neck out and at least doing what can be done. If there hadn't been a Hattie McDaniel, would there have been an Oprah Winfrey? Yes, I know that these films were made for white folks and that there's always been Black Cinema, sometimes called Race Cinema, where the roles for actors were more diverse, but I'm talking about what I was able to see as a child in Australia on B&W television in the 1960s. And whilst these films don't represent the perfect model of equality that we have today (not!), I recall only positivity from the films I saw in childhood in which black and white characters interacted. I retain a lasting affection for Hal Roach's Our Gang series, in which black and white, boys and girls and even the odd fat kid were cast as equals and undertook adventures together. I'm grateful for those black pioneers of American cinema because they set the somewhere from which to start.

I'm not in any way apologising for past and present stereotyping and discrimination in Hollywood, or anywhere else for that matter, I'm just saying that I feel my childhood was enriched by seeing films  featuring Bill Robinson, The Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, Sidney Poitier among many. I'm saying that as an adult, I am capable of spotting and calling out racism, perhaps because of rather than in spite of my exposure to black folks on film, even in a subordinate cultural context. Just as I'm capable of appreciating Marilyn Monroe's immense contribution to the arts without obliging myself to dismiss her as a sex object. I believe we call that empathy.

I saw Gone With the Wind for the first time in about 1969, when it was shown in a cinema in Sydney. My mother and I went. She had seen the film but I hadn't. I'd read the Margaret Mitchell book. It was probably my first grown-up novel. I thought the film terrific then. I still think so now. I remember when it was first shown on television in Britain in the mid-eighties and the shock when arguments for and against slavery were advanced in the film and the black characters shown as fearful and reticent. Really? I thought. You think people raised in slavery are going to be confident and sassy? There's nothing to be gained by pretending the past is anything other than the ugly thing it so often was. The idea is to learn from it.

At the risk of casting out one more tangent than I can reasonably deal with here - there's also the layer of ownership and its definition to consider. My excuse is that Shriver based her argument on the proposition that stories are anyone's to tell. In a perfect world with level playing fields as far as the eye can see, I might agree with her. But we don't live in that world. The telling is not so much the problem. Profiting is the real problem. Capitalism has commodified human experience and lays down the law about who gets to benefit from its packaging and sale. It has no appreciation of cultures based on the ethic of community property, who can suddenly find themselves thrust into the foreign world of proof and claims. Who do we make the cheque out to?  No one in particular? Great, we'll just take what we want. Traditional custodians of culture are forced to either protect their heritage or watch as some entertainment behemoth poaches at will. That situation can make cross-cultural sharing fraught and risky. But what's the alternative? We all retreat to our cultural corners and eye each other suspiciously? No, the huge middle ground is collaboration. Not stealing but sharing. We all have an obligation to advance the human project by building understanding through cooperation. That project is not furthered by the kind of attack narrative proffered by Lionel Shriver. As plenty of people have pointed out, nothing is stopping her from writing whatever the fuck she likes. She just needs to understand that she's not the only one with the right to free speech.

*Isn't that just the best name for a writer ever?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Why the long face?

The Old Grey Mare (2016) assemblage by Pants 

10th Anniversary Post

Impossible as it is to believe, That's So Pants is ten today. I'm known for brief personal relationships and very long projects. Ten years is short by my standards of labouring. I'm working fairly consistently now on a toil that is into its twenty-fifth year. For most of that time it has languished, forgotten, in a box file on a bottom shelf. I'm not what you'd call a brilliant finisher but I get there in the end with most things. I have learned that it's fine to work slowly, as long as you live for a long time. Thankfully, I have.

TSP has spanned the move from Hackney, London to Larrikin's End in regional Victoria, Australia. I still use the same selfie profile picture I took in 2006. I'm older and fatter now. And unashamedly grey. I'm thinking of using the illustration above as my new profile picture. If I can be arsed to work out how to change it. Which isn't at all likely. Life is very different from what it was when I started this blog. Much of what I've done in the last ten years has been documented in the 984 (including this one) posts on That's so Pants and Art of Pants. There are three novels and two musicals I haven't mentioned, in addition to the two novels I've floated via this blog. You haven't missed much, don't worry. Like I said, triumphant finishing is not my forte. I'm more the puttering on until the bitter end type.

I was originally thinking of ending the blog today. Readership isn't what it was in the old days. And then I thought, actually, that's a reason to keep going.What do I care? And, everything is still pretty much pants. Even more so. For the past year, Larrikin's End has been on a time-reversal trajectory, retreating from the wind-up internet that I'd just about gotten used to to the hardly-at-all internet. This is progress Aussie-style. There is a mythical beast that supposedly lives underground called En-bee-en*. At some point in the far reaches of space time, this beast will surface at a preordained spot a few streets away. Rather like a summoning from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. From there it will, apparently, guide me towards a goal of digital connectedness the like of which I took for granted back at the turn of the Millennium. My London flat had cable broadband. I now exist on a strict data diet and borrowed WLAN.

So, I have been spending hours in the Larrikin's End Municipal Library, waiting for Windows updates to swipe right for me. In anticipation of the arrival of the fixed broadband system, I've been struggling on with the old dongle. It has served me well in the past. Now, with the perfect storm of the drop-in-drop-out mobile signal and Microsoft's adversarial attitude to customer service, I've had to turn off the automatic updater. It tries and fails until it uses up all my data allowance. Positively medieval. So, it's over to the library's mean-but-just-about-effective wi-fi for downloads these days. It works about one in five times for Windows 7. Meanwhile, whilst wondering whether I could, theoretically, survive a transfer to Linux - I have seen The Martian - I've been downloading and saving old TSP posts while Windows does or doesn't do its thing. I'm definitely in an archiving phase.

In the beginning, and for quite a long time, I wrote a blog post a day. Where did I get the energy? I was probably a good deal more hooked in to what was happening in the wide world ten years ago. I lived in the wide world ten years ago. Being in Australia is like being in one of those sensory deprivation chambers. But mostly in a good way. I have enough self-generated sensory stimulus to keep me going and the lack of external distraction has been a boon to some of my decades-long projects. Real progress has been made. There's a perpetually almost-finished musical, (the 25-year project previously mentioned), and a couple of new novels - with sloppy first drafts completed. I don't know what will happen to these. Apart from them continuing to be works-in-progress for the forseeable future. And, at last, I'm not at all bothered. The making of any kind of art at all is a gift to the world, even if the recipient is none the wiser.

Last week's story of the Italian couple found weeping in their small apartment in Rome almost prompted a blog post. Jole (89) and husband Michele (94) had fallen into despair out of loneliness and distress at seeing television reports of children being abused. The police attending made them a pasta supper. We can't know for sure, but the reports that sparked this grief spiral very likely came from Australia where cases of child abuse have dominated our media for weeks. Indigenous children have been beaten, gassed, shackled and isolated in a youth detention centre. Perhaps Jole and Michele witnessed that shocking footage. Or maybe they saw coverage of copious reports of sexual assaults on and mental distress of refugee children held in our offshore indefinite-detention camps. And the furious denials of the ogres who put them there. Or it could be that they were learning of allegations of sexual assault against children by one of their church's most senior clerics, back in his home country. Australia. 

There is something profound about an elderly couple anguished at the state of the world. They'd come through Fascism and a world war - on the losing side. Yet everything must seem so much worse now. Because no one cares about the children. I get that. And here is a different and deeper take on loneliness. It's possible to feel lonely even if you aren't physically alone. Perhaps Jole and Michele were sensing and responding to the alienating perversion that is globalisation. A force that challenges cooperation, the foundation of our humanity. They were perhaps expressing a global social bereftness. Well, I think that's worth having a bit of a sob about. I won't do it loudly. In Australia, you'd be more likely to get a knuckle sandwich from the police if they caught you blubbing about children who had the temerity to be vulnerable.

I thought of taking the opportunity to kill off Barney. Lord knows the little devil deserves it. But he has his uses. Right now, he's a mole in Camp Trump. He'd be digging the dirt for us if he wasn't completely buried in it. Sadly, he's been taken in by some Trump 'promises', specifically, the proposal to introduce 'extreme vetting'. Barney seems to think this is a kind of deluxe Obamacare for domestic pets. And there's no dissuading him. Perhaps 'uses' wasn't the right word. TQW and I are living off his criminal earnings so it's probably better we keep him alive, at least until we can claim the OAP. At a date which advances further into the future whenever we get close to it. Like a mirage in the desert. So, for the moment we will carry on, in every sense of the phrase.

I'm having a Georgia O'Keeffe moment, in more ways than one. Consider this wonderful thing that she said,

'I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life - and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.'

Not one single thing, Georgia? Well, we know what she means. In the grand scheme of things, she appears to have done pretty much as she pleased. And the results were magnificent. It's an argument for, as much as it galls me to say it, 'feeling the fear and doing it anyway'. I'm not sure that's what I do. All I know is that I have developed the capability of satisfying my own creativity above all other demands. If something more interesting comes along to care about in any given moment, I have no hesitation in giving it my full and semi-divided attention. I'm not an obsessive, after all. Let's just say that I've got index cards dotted around the house and, at my age, fleeting thoughts need to be captured before they, er, fleet for good. It may be necessary for me to excuse myself from the general gaiety of our enviable lifestyle and make notes from time to time.

Lifestyle is a word you hear a lot in relation to Australia. Believe me, it doesn't mean what you think it does. There is no inherent 'style' in Australian 'life'. If you want it, you have to invent it yourself. It's a challenge worth mastering because mostly living here is simple and predictable. And no one will bother you if you take the precaution of avoiding any and all  trouble. I've pretty much got the tedious admin tasks pared back to the unavoidable. Apart from the idiotic internet problems, that is. The Larrikin's End library is not a terrible place to be. Earphones help. I make a habit of listening to soothing music while I'm battling the techno-demons. Debussy is particularly comforting and effective at blocking the cackling that accompanies any and every transaction in this country. Even in a library. There's more than a little Clair de Lune in me. I can't explain it, but at some point, I ceased to be able to work effectively listening to UK garage.

Another transitional anomaly is that I suddenly became a talk-radio person when I repatriated to this country. (I mean 'talk' apropos Lord Reith as opposed to shock-jocks.) I began to listen to ABC Radio National. I'd never been a Radio 4 person all the time I lived in Britain. Even after I turned 40. Not even after I turned 50. I podcast BBC now. I can only take so much of the no-shit-Sherlock ABC 'talks'. I was listening to one the other day. Earnest academic researchers came up with the astonishing revelation that walking in the woods is good for one's body and soul. These Aussies. World class or what? With typical clairvoyant skill, I'd been doing this for years. Not realising that it was beneficial. Isn't intuition the most spectacularly marvellous thing? The fresh air. The movement of limbs. The opportunity to experience the sounds and smells of nature. Who would've thunk? So glad we have copious Sociology PhDs sweating away on putting two and two together for us.

On a walk along Lake Larrikin a couple of weeks ago, I happened upon a large piece of driftwood that looked exactly like a horse's head. I pick up any driftwood that suggests an animal. It's spooky how often I come across those. I knew as soon as I saw this fragment exactly what I would make. I pictured the square timber frame I had in the shed. It had housed a particularly vile little print of a cartoon cat. It would be perfect. I found an old leatherette strap in a charity shop throw-out bin. The strip of cord had previously been the frame's hanging fixture. The Old Grey Mare came together.

It was surprisingly difficult to separate the hideous cat picture from its support. It had been cemented onto backing board with the kind of manic super-efficiency of which I can only dream. And secured onto mounting board mitred to perfection.  With the kind of double-sided tape that comes with a life-time guarantee. A Galápagos tortoise's life. So often in discarded artworks, the framing outclasses the main attraction. People go to an awful lot of trouble for rubbish prints. Most of what I make is so atrociously constructed that loving framing would seem a subversion too far - even for me. I'm always suspicious of an artwork that is improved by framing in any case.

However, I can attest to the robustness of this piece. Having not yet replaced the hanging fastenings, because I'd reoriented the frame to operate diagonally, I judged that I could drape it over an existing hook for photographing. I was wrong. As I lined up the Kodak, the masterpiece bolted. Fell five feet to the floor. Then bounced down thirteen hardwood steps. And landed, face-up, on the timber floor below. Yeats was wrong on this occasion. Gee up Nelly. On to the fair. 

Cut to several days later and The Old Grey Mare is now securely fastened and proudly displayed at Seat of Pants. Making things brings me enormous joy. Not least of all because I never know that I will succeed until I've tried. And that, in itself, is a reason to stick at anything. And so I will. See you in September, if not before...

* NBN or National Broadband Network.