Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The planet deserves a better climate change debate

Cyclone Christine that is threatening the Pilbara in Western Australia is the second major tropical weather event the country has seen this summer and for me, living in southeast Queensland, this fact has an unnerving quality because although we're a good 1600 kilometres from Cairns people here know it's a matter of when, not if, the next big one arrives to turn everything upside down.

But in Australia discussion of extreme weather events like Cyclone Christine is conducted inside a kind of collective cone of silence and the worst perpetrators are conservative politicians. This species of human tends to front up at press conferences held in the course of such events and they are getting better and better at denying any connection between them and climate change. It's a kind of tic but one executed with fury, like those imposed by nature on people living with a disease of the nervous system. The Blue Mountains bushfires this year gave us several examples of this kind of spastic defensive gesture. As more and more such events transpire its efficacy hopefully will begin to wear thin.

In some countries the government is embracing climate change with positive results. See for example how countries like Spain, Germany and Denmark have migrated from dirty energy generation to clean ways of making power. And while China refused to sign any protocols in Copenhagen, behind the scenes authorities at all levels are pursuing clean alternatives, so that the country is now the major producer, for example, of solar panels.

There was a solar panel manufacturing plant in Australia but it closed down as it couldn't compete with cheaper overseas rivals. Embracing climate change can still serve our economic interests however by helping clean technology companies operating at higher levels here to build capacity and develop export markets. While politicians whine and spasm when Holden says it'll stop manufacturing in Australia - following Ford, which made the same decision - they seem to be utterly oblivious to the employment opportunities that exist within the cleantech sector. There are hundreds of Australian companies that are working to develop viable businesses, but look at their share prices and you see that the arrival of the Abbott government in September has functioned as a drag on their performance.

While it would be wildly optimistic to expect Abbott in 2014 to develop a concerted and functional plan regarding the cleantech sector, effectively killing two birds with one stone - reducing carbon emissions while simultaneously creating jobs - there seems to me to be no better way to move forward. Rusted-on right-wing culture warriors can whinge about Gillard and the famous promise but the fact remains that a carbon price would be good for the Australian economy because it would act as a lever to pull companies toward more sustainable ways of operating. For cleantech manufacturers with excellent prospects of strong export markets given the right regulatory environment, the equation is even more remarkable. If you want to create jobs, the carbon price is the way to go.

So if there's anything I would like to see change in 2014 it would be the way we talk about climate change. Scientists and left-of-centre pundits bang their heads against a wall every time there's an extreme weather event. Conservative pollies deny any link with climate change as if their family honour depends on it. The debate collapses in a white cloud of atomised claim and counterclaim, resulting in silence. Meanwhile conservative businesspeople throw millions of dollars at the PR industry in a sustained attempt to retard change. No wonder so many people just turn away in disgust, and remain silent. It's a dirty business but we should come clean and focus on the positives to be gained from acting responsibly. We only have one planet.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Fairfax keeping Abbott honest

As anyone who's done desktop publishing can tell you, changing the margins in a book can have a big impact on page count. And as anyone who loves books can tell you, fatter margins give a book a richer, more voluminous feel. Thinking about Tony Abbott's performance over the months since he was elected, I see a lot of tinkering in the margins - in addition to the three big policy switches. Those were, of course, the NBN, asylum seekers and the carbon price.

The tinkering is happening with things like the current issue of charging a $5 fee for doctor visits under Medicare, but it's also visible in the ways Abbott says he wants to adjust the NDIS. I think part of the reason for this hesitancy is due to two things, and they are probably related. One is the continuing willingness of the Fairfax press to challenge every move Abbott makes, highlighting specific problems asylum seekers are having under the Morrison regime, for example, or taking Abbott to task over the projected budget blow-out. The other is the way the Coalition is doing in the opinion polls.

The position taken by Fairfax is really important because of the way the Murdoch press heavily promoted a change of government in September. (Fairfax joined in with its own push for change, but only at the last minute and it's clear the honeymoon is already over.) With Fairfax now working to control the media cycle with negative stories affecting the way the government is perceived broadly, pressure is put on Murdoch vehicles to run related stories or risk looking out-of-touch. So Fairfax will run a story on an asylum seeker who is separated from her newborn in detention, and Murdoch papers will also have to go with the same story if it looks like gaining traction - and with social media operating the way it does now it's sure that any misstep by the Abbott government is going to get people talking online.

The way Fairfax has moved from backing Abbott to challenging everything he says or does, or everything that happens as a result of his policy initiatives, reflects changes that took place at the company in the 1970s. For most of its history, Fairfax was a family-owned enterprise - much like Murdoch companies are today - and the proprietor tended to be conservative and interventionist (again, like with Murdoch now). But things changed due to the efforts of investigative journalists at Fairfax who began to report stories that were unpopular with the government of the day, and to demand more independence. (You can read about these things in Colleen Ryan's excellent Fairfax: The Rise and Fall, The Miyegunyah Press, 2013.) This push, coming at the same time as a major boardroom change, meant that Fairfax started to look like what everyone these days expects newspapers to be like: independent and fearless.

In a sense, the Medicare tinkering Abbott has flung out into the public sphere in Australia at this point in time might be interpreted as a gesture to test the waters. What other, similar gestures might have functioned in the same way? Certainly, Fairfax has been quick to take Abbott on and publish pieces that question and challenge the surcharge. Is Abbott softening up the electorate with this gesture or is he merely demonstrating a lack of ideology, and a practical bent, by making the proposed change so moderate? Maybe it's both. Either way, I think we can thank Fairfax for working tirelessly to keep Abbott honest.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Motorcycle diary 1987: the Ducati Dharma 900

This is only the second time I've written about my old Ducati Dharma 900 on this blog, which tells you something about how I feel about the thing. The first time was about six years ago. And the reason for revisiting the subject is because later today I'll be visiting an old girlfriend, let's call her Holly, from back in those days. I haven't seen her for 25 years, and thinking about Holly lets me better date my ownership of the Dharma, which must have been in around 1987. I had left university and had started working in various jobs and I was back living in Glebe and I had started hanging out with Gary, an Englishman who was a bit of a hippy but had a way about him that was attractive. Gary's friend Cyren had a Ducati SS 750 and also lived in Glebe. My first bike at the time was a Suzuki GS 450 which I learned how to ride on a parking lot in Glebe that is now a huge government housing complex, near the shopping centre. Gary had a Japanese bike as well but the sound of Cyren's bike and the aura of sophistication that Cyren himself possessed made it too attractive to resist buying a Ducati.

Getting the bike involved, as buying any vehicle did in those days, checking the classified ads in the Sydney Morning Herald, then driving out west to a suburb past Parramatta and doing the deal. I had my rider license by this time, of course, thanks to the Suzuki, but I fell in love with the Ducati in a way that Japanese bike could not merit. I was in love with the aura of riding an Italian bike, and anyway my friend Cyren had had an SS 750 (which was smaller but better suited his frame: the Dharma was a bit big for him but fine for me). I brought the bike back home and grooved to its mystique. For some reason no photos of the bike survive though I know some were taken: I remember Holly's mechanic friend helping me strip the bike inside my Glebe unit so that the frame could be taken away to be straightened. (It wasn't my fault the frame was bent, it was bent when I bought it but I didn't find out until later when I measured the gap between the horizontal cylinder head (see pic) and the front mud-guard, and compared that measurement to the gap on other exemplars of the Dharma I found.)

The Ducati Dharma is a long-wheelbase bike unsuited to city riding but ideal for longer trips on roads outside the metropolis and I frequently took the bike out along the Bells Line of Road into the mountains west of Sydney or up on the Old Pacific Highway to the north. These twisty routes suited the Dharma perfectly. I remember one time on the Old Pacific Highway when I was riding alone and I went past the wall into the Zone where you achieve a truly intimate synergy with your machine. In this place you feel as though you and the bike are a single entity and the bends in the road flow through you as you negotiate them - you don't have to go fast - and proceed unflappably toward the next one. Your field of vision narrows and you enter a meditative state. It's a natural high and it's impossible to get there in the city.

It wasn't all plain sailing of course. There was one long trip Holly and I did into the Blue Mountains when it rained and we found ourselves getting off the bike at rest stops feeling like zombie icicles: you ease your leg over the bike's body and slowly put it on the ground as you feel the vibrations of the ride vacating your aching body. My hands were frozen into grips from the rain and the cold even though I wore gloves.

On another occasion I neglected to refill the tank. I was out in a suburb past Gladesville and it was night and it was raining. Water was getting into the engine via the air intakes. I rode precariously up the massive slope of the Gladesville Bridge, heading home to Glebe, with the bike hammering away unhappily beneath me and the petrol gauge indicator knocking on empty. Fortunately there was at that time a petrol station located at the opposite foot of the bridge so I was able to coast down the bridge's eastern slope - the bike stopped running just as I hit the apex of the bridge - refill, and continue home without having to push the heavy bike in the dark and in the rain on a major city thoroughfare for 10 kilometres.

While I loved the bike it was a problem in the city with its long wheelbase, and city car drivers also made me unhappy so eventually I sold the Ducati and bought a Holden V8 Kingswood ute - gold in colour - from Holly's brother. The ute like the bike had a certain mystique about it and a tendency to roar a bit when prodded, also like the bike. It could also accelerate pretty fast. I appreciated the speed and the sound - as I had done with the Dharma - but I also liked the feeling of safety. Riding bikes can be spacey and fun but it only takes one moron in a car to ruin everything. I got out before I came across that idiot.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Thinking about Christmas and its representation in English literary culture

If I ever go back to uni to study literature I've already got my PhD thesis topic worked out ... Thinking about Christmas and its representation in English literary culture it's only in the mid-19th century with Dickens (Scrooge etc) that we see the event marked as somehow definitive for the whole society, as an event characterised by mass market appeal and consumerism. There is no celebration of Christmas in Jane Austen or any of the writers who influenced her. And it was in the 1850s that we see the final outpouring of Romantic culture aimed at the entire population: Melville, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Whitman, Rimbaud. After that you can more easily see a split with two modes of representation: high and low (or popular) culture. Innovation was taken away from popular culture, which became merely a vehicle for Capital, a way to earn money on the back of the growing proletariat, who are thus atomised, and able to achieve agency only as a collective. For high culture practitioners there emerged a fruitful substrate of cultural generation upon which to lay the seeds of innovation and (by definition, somehow) individual agency.

Immortal songs of youth at Christmas time

This is the composer Handel, like the King of England a German who settled in Britain, and for me it's the Messiah, a choral piece from 1742 that in a real way symbolises the relationship between the English middle class in the 18th century and its culture, and as well represents the Christmases of my childhood. My parents took us to see the Messiah performed at the Sydney Opera House on more than one occasion - if I remember correctly - but I especially recall one performance there when I was about 18, by which time I had moved on, in a way, from Classical music to the Romantics. Decades later I would spend months reading the Romantic poets and would come to understand even better the relationship between the Classical and Romantic periods, and what that shift represented - and represents - in the history of the English-speaking people. So I can safely avow that Christmas for me is best played in the Classical mode: order, beauty, balance, reasonableness. Although German, Handel was very English (he arrived in Britain in 1712) and by the time the Messiah was created he had spent decades living among the people who fulfilled the part of his audience. Because of the way artists operate the role of the audience can never be underestimated.

But I had already been moulded in a way to fit the message. Going to a private school (what the English call public schools) meant regularly assembling in a hall and singing songs, including Christmas hymns, taken from the classical English canon. There was the weekly chapel meeting, and the end-of-year services held at associated churches around the place. So standing in rows among your peers and singing was part of the way of celebrating or commemorating a special calendar event, and Christmas was the major event of the scholastic year and it strongly underlined the sense of community for the boys and their immediate families. Like the motto of the University of Sydney - Sidere mens eadem mutato (Though the constellations change the mind remains the same) - we lived in a world characterised by very English cognates and modes of behaviour. Given these things it's hardly surprising that by the age of 18 I was predisposed to like the Messiah.

And a public enactment of community like Christmas consones best with those Classical virtues of order, balance and reasonableness that Handel's work epitomises.

Further, I can take the image of someone like William Cowper and say that I was raised in the same tradition as he was; born in 1831 Cowper was just another part of Handel's primary audience. The link to the Romantics - in whose shadow we still live, reading the immortal songs - is found here, and especially in The Task, published in 1785 when the writer was about my own age (now, as I write). It was this poem that the young Romantics (walking the fields in day's lea, chronicling the tide of innovation, affirming individual agency) used as their model, especially Wordsworth for his long 1805 poem about his emergence as a writer, The Prelude. Cowper and Handel would never have thought the individual a fit subject for such a long work. For them it would have smacked of egotistical self-importance but for us it seems natural. For them a fit and proper subject for a work of art was nothing less than Christ himself. The Romantics turned the model on its head and placed the individual at the centre of the work.

And that suits the aesthetic of our own Modern age but for some events a more modest and public-spirited approach is to be preferred. (Sings) For unto us a child is born ...

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Heroin taps into an authentic aesthetic of the verboten

When I lived in Bondi in the late 80s there were occasional scares because junkies would leave their used needles on the beach where they would stick unsuspecting visitors in the foot. This is the ideal kind of social response to heroin and is the kind of narrative that a new BBC program about the drug is designed to counter. In this Guardian story journalist Andrew Hussey glances back at how the drug has operated as an aid for artists as well as a point of reference for late-era boomers and he ends up proposing reasons why the drug remains such a no-go subject for the middle class:
[I]it is clear that artists who are heroin users have a clearly developed sense of negativity in relation to society, and that has its own aesthetic. This indeed is the true art of heroin – to refuse life, to refuse society; terrifyingly, in every absolute sense: to just say "no".
Culture products that operate in this space include the 2006 movie Candy with the great Heath Ledger, a movie I found so disturbing - especially because of the masterful acting of the male lead, played by Ledger - that I just couldn't watch parts of it. This doesn't often happen to me. I remember staying over at a friend's house when I was a boy and refusing to watch the vampire movie they'd chosen as the evening's entertainment; it was too psychically disturbing for me at the time. Later, when I was a bit older, there was on TV QB VII a drama based on the Leon Uris book about the Nazi concentration camps; as it was playing in the sunroom I had on David Bowie's Fame, the song, in my room and so I've forever been unable to comfortably listen to this song.

There's something truly awful about heroin that taps into this same, authentic aesthetic of the verboten, the prohibited. It's not simply a matter of the laws of the land; I used marijuana on and off during the 80s - but not since - and happily scored and rolled joints in my Glebe apartment. But I never even got near using heroin, and it was completely by design that this was so. I did come close to heroin at one time, though. It was after I had returned from Japan, where I'd gone after year two of my undergraduate degree to work on a casual basis and to travel, in 1983. Looking for work in Sydney before the academic year started in March I replied to an ad for art salespeople and ended up in a terrace house in Darlinghurst, up a flight of stairs. There were a few of us and we got into a car and travelled out into the western suburbs of Sydney to sell posillipo paintings - production-line paintings, created in studios where several artists work, each putting the same marks on the canvas under production. We sold door-to-door.

One of the other salesmen was a Frenchman who in my long poem about those years I called "Henri". He was a special soul and we talked about philosophy, modes of living, and art. We became friends. I visited him in the squat in Darlinghurst, north of Oxford Street down the hill, where he lived. One day we went out to score heroin in my car, a green Toyota station wagon. We drove into the underground carpark at the bowling centre in Rushcutters Bay and then headed back to Henri's place so he could shoot up. I sat in the room while he prepared the implements and the powder, and then hung around as he spaced out quietly.

Henri had one physical deformity: he'd lost some of the fingers from one hand. This didn't stop him rolling joints but it certainly drew your attention. Henri said it was from an industrial accident; it may have been true. I didn't mind. When Henri suddenly disappeared one day I was briefly but deeply saddened. The main outcome from this friendship was that Henri operated as a kind of prophylactic against my experimenting with heroin. What I'd enjoyed about him were the talks we had and the laughter we shared. There were the wry, knowing barbs flung at middle-class consumer society. There were recounts of his amatory successes when he'd persuaded a bored housewife to sleep with him when he was supposed to be flogging canvases. There were lots of great things about Henri and I wish I knew where he lived today so I could send him a Christmas card. 

Sunday, 22 December 2013

An artifact of early San Francisco multiculturalism

In the America exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales you can see this painting by Yun Gee which shows fellow artist Miki Hayakawa painting the portrait of a black man. Gee migrated to the US in 1921, which is about the same time as my father's father came to Melbourne. (Hayakawa went from Hokkaido to the US even earlier, in 1903, when she was a small child.) Qua painting this is not particularly special, this study, but as a document of multicultural San Francisco it's quite interesting. It's a shame my grandfather had so little interest in the fine arts, as he might have collected works made in the 20s and 30s in Australia.

What's interesting in the painting from a stylistic point of view is how the figured sitter "in the flesh" is rendered in a more abstract way than his figuration in Hayakawa's painting, which is on the left-hand side of this study. You can think about what this means at leisure. To me it suggests that the social relations that conditioned how people lived at the time are more "normal" in the context of the artist's practice, than they are in everyday life. It's just an idea, anyway.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Have a happy humbug this year

This is the kind of image that I grew up with as a child attending a school operating in the Anglican tradition. For many years there was also Sunday school at a hall that sat next to the local Anglical church and which we reached by going out the back gate into the park and around the foreshore of the bay, across the suspension bridge and up the road a bit. At my kindergarden, which is still associated with the school, we played parts in nativity plays; I might have been a shepherd, I just can't remember, or an ox. My parents also sent us away during a few summers to a camp operated by the same church; I remember sitting one evening on one of those trips with another boy, by the river looking up at the stars trying to imagine a Creator and what the existence of such a thing might mean for me. I admit to having been a serious student and I suppose that being so gave no displeasure to any of the adults who supervised me and my friends during those years when I barracked for Manly and sailed boats on Saturday mornings in local regattas.

There were of course also presents at Christmas. I can't imagine any small boy complaining about them. And naturally it didn't take long to work out where the presents came from, especially as I was put to working in my mother's gift shop saving up my wages from time spent behind the counter during the busy end-of-year season. With the money I would buy presents for my father and mother, and for my grandmother and my brother. And with adolescence came the obligatory focus on (mostly imported) popular music - Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, The Beatles, ELO, Earth Wind and Fire - and also an interest in my brother's collection of science fiction novels. At this time, I was still standing up during the weekly assembly at my secondary school singing hymns and God Save the Queen but on weekends with friends I was studying lyrics that would make a parson blush. I lived a double life and I suspect that my father, especially, was slightly dismayed. It was he, after all, who had taken me and my brother to see a matinee performance of Jesus Christ Superstar although he was not openly religious and was the kind of man who tended to refer to those who were, as "sky pilots".

I stopped sailing when I went to university and spent all my spare time in the library and in bookshops. Now it was Renaissance poets and Bukowski. Christmas would of course never be the same again; Christmas never had a chance.

So to the matter of this post. Ebenezer Scrooge is an artifact of the mid-19th century, the creation of a writer born in the early Romantic era and whose early life was characterised by penury and want. Dickens must really have enjoyed fame and fortune considering the circumstances of his youth. But he never let the light go out and as a result he is still read and written about now. I find it hard to reconcile Scrooge with my own person however, and in fact I find Dickens a bit overwrought and sappy at the best of times, a man prone to creating blocky, cardboard-cut-out caricatures for sensational narrative affect. Dickens may be admired by many but for me he's hardly the writer at the acme of the art especially now as we approach the 200th anniversary of his birth. In fact I can take his books or leave them, it makes no difference. Stylistically he owed everything to Jane Austen - who never wrote about Christmas because it had not yet, in her day, become a commercial occasion - and must be reckoned, if we're fair, to be an acolyte of the master of prose who came before.

So you see I'm on top of Dickens, just like I'm aware that the writings we refer to as the Bible are undatable, unattributable and are probably mostly fiction. Yet people still choose to believe they are factual records of things, and on that basis they choose to maintain strong ideological positions, on many issues, that I find repulsive. Is it any wonder that "humbug" is the thought that has, for so many decades, quickly appeared in my consciousness when I think about Christmas? The only thing you can say about Christmas that is uncontroversial and entirely positive is that it makes people act in ways that help to strengthen the sense of community. People exchange cordial greetings, send cards to each other, buy each other gifts, and sit down to share specially-prepared meals. On that basis alone do I tolerate Christmas, and that will have to be enough for you. Otherwise: "humbug!"

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Pictorial snapshot of America exhibition shows differences

While I was down in Sydney I dropped in at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and found the exhibition of American paintings that had been reviewed in the broadsheets. Maybe it's because I am generally starved for culture such as this, or maybe it's just that I saw things the reviewers didn't see but dropping by made me disagree with what those people said: this is a fascinating exhibition that rewards the visitor handsomely.

A wide-angle snapshot, the exhibition selection covers a range of eras starting in the mid 18th century. If charting the development of a native artistic legacy for America is your purpose - and why wouldn't it be? - then of course you have to wait until the mid 20th century to see anything specifically different-to-Europe as well as native-to-America. You think of names like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Your next step therefore might be to work out differences in what came before this watershed to what was produced in Australia, and it's here within the figurative tradition that we can see something interesting happening especially in terms of subject matter and style.

Compare for example these two paintings. The first is an American, Thomas Waterman Wood's The Yankee pedlar of 1872, and the second is Frederick McCubbin's Down on His Luck of 1889. The two paintings show a different relationship between the individual and society, and between the individual and capital. For me, they represent something inherently different in the way the two societies view labour and the nexus between labour and the individual worker. There's another painting in this exhibition, The young mechanic of 1848 by Allen Smith Jr, which serves to illustrate the same point especially if it's compared to a painting like Tom Robert's Shearing the Rams of 1890. In the first painting, the American one, it's an employee shown - as it is in the second - but the relationship between the individual depicted and his employer is markedly different than in the second one. We remember that the Australian Labor Party emerged in Queensland out of shearers organising to achieve better conditions of employment.

The other thing that struck me viewing the exhibition was the relationship between the individual and the land. To get to the nub of the matter, compare Winslow Homer's A huntsman and dogs of 1891 with Russell Drysdale's The Drover's Wife of 1945. There are plenty of landscapes also in the exhibition. What they show is a landscape very similar to Europe's, and it's one that gave up plenty to sustain the settler, as we see in the Homer painting. By contrast, what we see in many Australian paintings is a harsh, alien landscape where the individual appears to be out of place.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Book Review: City Boy, Edmund White (2009)

When I look back at my younger self, at those days at university as an undergraduate and, subsequently, at times after that when I grappled with the challenges of different jobs, I feel a deep sense of affection and regard, and Edmund White's early novels played counterpoint to those days to a degree that made it only natural for me to pick up this memoir when I saw it sitting on a sale table in Brisbane at a bookshop.

Back in the day it was about experimentation for me, about learning who I was and what I could do. There's nothing remarkable about this of course. We all do it. But for me gay culture was something that I had a particular curiosity about and this curiosity led me into a few situations that are possibly outside the norm: episodes of gay sex. White was part of that process there's no doubt.

This book performed multiple tasks for me, one of which was describing a life, but it also told me about what kind of person White is, how he shapes the world, how he formulates narratives to give shape to the past - the place we study endlessly for clues about the future (that grey curtain that flaps menacingly and desultorily in the background of our forward vision).

Writing from a place of settled maturity enables White to focus with a certain wry knowingness on places, times and events past, including the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 that marked a turning point in the struggle within the gay community for recognition and social acceptance. White was active in that community in that place at that time, and he passes on that knowledge to us with a nuanced, balanced and sober attitude. There is no grandstanding or self-promotion here.

This easy, companionable delivery is everywhere in the book and this, I think, constitutes one of its charms. White also chronicles his relationships and his jobs. In the latter case there is food for thought since, as a man who wanted to be a writer from a young age, it is clear that White worked hard throughout his early years to find work suited to his talents and aspirations. And that is not always easy. As for the relationships, there is also a lot here to think about as White describes the important people in his life, their special characteristics and their shortcomings. The story has the facility of a lunchtime conversation: amusing anecdotes are fused into the narrative along with the names of the famous and the memorable people the writer came across during a long life. Some people might minimise the importance of the later parts of the book as gossip but White is often able to generalise from particulars which saves the book from the class of mere pillow talk and scandal-mongering, though no doubt he settles some specific points that some people may have wondered about.

To generalise in a related way it became clear to me that, for White, people around him form solid points of reference by way of which he is able to create a sense of reality that can carry him forward from day to day. This reliance on specific people - you may call them "familiars" - is something that certainly struck me as interesting, especially when I contrast it with the way I, for my part, construct my own reality (and the way that I constructed reality back in the days I read White's novels). This habit might be labelled with a word something like "collective" or "amassing", as if the accretion of known individuals somehow serves to enable the young man to stabilise the world within manageable boundaries. It seems that friends, for White, had a value possibly like that of totems, religious points of reference that gave meaning to the world. In an alternative culture you can see how this would be a logical behaviour, and in fact we see it also in society more broadly today as the comfortable certitudes of the past are chipped away by new and complex realities, and the shelves in the bookshops dedicated to biographies become volminously replete as we try to work out who we are and how we can move beyond today into the uncertain future that awaits us all.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Kerry Stokes should bequeath his Modernist collection to Western Australia

It's a bit presumptuous to go giving unasked-for advice to businessmen but having spent 30 minutes in the Art Gallery of Western Australia this morning admiring a part of the Modernist collection of Kerry Stokes, I can come to no other conclusion. In one room you have an assortment of paintings to rival the holdings of any public gallery in Australia. The detail shown here of a gem by proto-Modernist painter Gustave Courbet - Low tide, the beach at Trouville (1865) - gives you a tiny taste of what's on offer in Perth until March; Courbet is known now as the direct forebear of the Impressionists and it's extremely rare to see a painting of his in this country.

What made me most emotional, however, was Claude Monet's The Pointe de L'Ailly, low tide (1882). It's a medium-sized painting with a brilliant colour effect present as the sun sets behind clouds. The lavender cliffs to the left are offset by the lemon colour in the water. You can almost hear the water lapping on the beach.

Next to the Monet on the wall is a work by a lesser-known artist: Shoreline: Sainte Addresse at dusk (1890). It's a striking contrast because both paintings use a similar palette. What emerged most forcefully for me is the strength of Monet's vision when it is compared to the work of a more academic practitioner. You can only see this kind of thing when you see two paintings hung together on the wall. Putting this show together must have been a joy for curators.

Also notable in the exhibition is a tiny canvas by Henri Matisse, Notre Dame (1904), where the sky behind the building is pink and the river has been evoked with a few fat strokes of blue paint. Compare this painting with those produced a bit over a decade earlier, such as the one by Paul Serusier, Mother and child in Breton landscape (1890) in which the traditional demands of beauty compete with the Modernist demand for immediacy. You can also go further back in terms of tradition and artistic evolution if you look at the painting by Alfred Stevens, A stormy night (1892). Step back and glance quickly at the last of these, then check out the Serusier again, and finally let your gaze return to the Matisse: here in a couple of seconds you can see an entire artistic moment that played out in Europe within the span of a couple of decades.

If you want to see how this moment played out in 20th century Australia, just pop over the hall to the neighbouring gallery containing a hard-to beat collection of antipodean Modernism. Here are the great names - Cossington-Smith and Rees, for example - but there's also not a few of the wonderfully odd paintings of Englishman Paul Nash. This is a fresh collection - for someone who grew up in Sydney - and well worth a relaxing 30 minutes spent getting to know old favourites again, while meeting a few new names as well.

Western Australians are lucky they get to see those wonderful Modernist paintings of Kerry Stokes but it would be such a shame to see the collection merely sold off to make a profit. That's why I urge Mr Stokes to talk to his lawyer and make sure that there's a clause in his Will to make sure the people of Perth - and of the whole country - can enjoy the incomparable delights of his paintings for generations to come. What a lovely, generous gesture that would be, and how the people of Australia would thank him for doing something truly public-spirited.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

It's up to men to stop violence against women

It was the mass public response to the death of Nelson Mandela yesterday that got me thinking about violence against women because of the extremely high incidence of rape in South Africa. Aligned with this thought was a video I saw of a young man doing a spoken word performance in which he talks about his response to the issue.

The video is particularly striking because it is a young man who has gone out of the way to talk about an issue that has especial relevance for his demographic. I think it's time for all men to say "I have never hurt a woman" or if they cannot honestly say that then they need to say "I will never hurt a woman again". I applaud the young man who made the performance video. It's for men to make the change, and it's such a large issue that it seems to me at least dishonest, if not hypocritical, for commentators in the media to go on talking about this political event or that economic issue, while ignoring the elephant in the room.

For me, I have never hurt a woman. I cannot say I have never made a woman feel nervous because people get scared for unaccountable reasons. In the empty town streets around where I live you never see women walking alone at night. You might occasionally see a woman walking alone at the time of the dusk, but it is rare. Even in the daytime women walk fast around these streets, and many women joggers go accompanied by a dog.

Just over two decades ago my daughter was born in a Sydney hospital that now no longer exists. My daughter has been subject to violence from a man; I know because she told me. Remembering the event makes her angry and resentful. Violence erodes the quantum of trust in society and leaves people vulnerable to other evils like poverty and mental illness. It corrodes the links that in a healthy society bind people together in fellowship and good feeling. The social organism can become brittle, fragile, easily breakable and ugly. Men have to start talking - like the wonderful young man in the video - about how to make all people feel safe and secure in the streets and in the homes we live in.

It's not just a social issue, violence against women. It's a matter that all men must face and then say "Women need and want my respect".

Friday, 6 December 2013

Acceptance by Southerly is strong encouragement

Wherever you are on Australia's east coast it's hard to ignore the Great Dividing Range, a geological formation that reaches 3500km along the edge of the landmass pretty close to the water the whole way, so it's always close to the cities and their populations. In early November 2010 I was thinking about a trip I'd made to New England in New South Wales, where I'd attended the Myall Creek massacre ceremony, an event that takes place in June each year. While I was thinking the words "botanic paws" came into my mind and that worked to form the skeleton, or the embryo, of a sonnet I wrote on 4 November and which has just been accepted by the literary journal Southerly, published out of the University of Sydney, my alma mater.

This is a big endorsement for me. I started writing sonnets on 13 December 2007 on the day after I met someone, so my formalist urge began within the realm of love poetry but it also branched out into what I call "concept" poems, like 'On the way to New England', the sonnet that has just been accepted for publication. It's a major fillip especially since I have perhaps stubbornly stuck to formalism despite contrary urgings from various quarters, but as my Myers-Briggs assessment says of me illogically cleaving to an apparently counter-intuitive position is natural. The Elizabethan sonnet form is exploited loosely though. Though the model is over 400 years old there are concessions made in order to avoid excessively unnatural diction. The rollicking "weak-strong" rhythm has been jettisoned as unworkable although there are always 10 syllables in each line and although the rhyming quatrains (abab cdcd) are observed.

It occurs to me that merely needing to explain these arcane details indicates how perverse my fixation is.

The acceptance by Southerly is also a strong form of encouragement. I now have thousands of lines of poetry written and a mere 14 will be published. Many of those lines of work are, furthermore, parts of what I call "sequences", so all those love poems written between December 2007 and October 2013 belong to a sequence of 39 sonnets that form a single narrative chronicling a relationship. Another sequence chronicles the wet season at the beginning of this year, and spans January to March. A further sequence of poetry is in the heroic stanza form (the sonnet rhyming scheme but without the 14-line sonnet length; these chapters can go on for pages) and chronicles my amatory education. This last work has almost 1700 lines of quatrains and took two months to complete.

How marginalised the writer of formalist poetry is can be best understood if you consider that it's something of a miracle that any poetry is published in Australian journals these days. That observation can, if you like, be qualified when you think of all the rhyming lyrics that writers of popular music make every year in Australia. Elsewhere in our big cities there are spoken word events where poetry designed uniquely to be recited aloud can be listened to.

My poems are designed to be read on the page. Talking here about the project I began in December 2007 makes me remember telling a coworker a half-decade ago that I considered poetry to be the acme of literature, a mode of expression situated above the novel or drama. But if my endeavour smacks of hubris take comfort from the fact that the next acceptance from a journal might lie years in the future. For me it's just tremendous fun. Like writing a blog, writing poetry enables me to actualise parts of myself that otherwise lie dormant. So it's a felt need rather than a mere conceit.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Career planning means understanding the past better

Today I completed a series of written assessments, for the benefit of a career development consultant who works for a firm I have contracted to help me reorient my career. It sounds a bit formidable, I know, but in actual fact the performance of this task - answering all the detailed questions - has helped me to understand why certain things have happened in the past in the roles I have been employed to perform, in two organisations.

When I think back it is often with dismay. On two separate occasions separated by a decade I have lost my immediate manager and I have wondered fruitlessly over many years what, if anything, had been my part in the desertion, because in both cases what followed their leaving turned out to be less than optimal from the point of view of my career. What could I have done differently to ameliorate the situation, firstly by making sure that the manager did not leave the role and, failing that, to make sure that my own prospects after the organisational change were healthy and positive?

The assessment documents I completed today function to help you zero in on details and to think productively on what kind of issues were involved in past events. They also ask you to list things that you might want to consider doing to rectify shortcomings identified by reconstructing the past. I can't include all the questions here because the documents are the intellectual property of the firm that supplied them. What I can say, however, is that I have decided that in the past my fault was not to have behaved stupidly (per se) but, rather, the fault lay in the fact that I did not (1) stand up for my own interests strongly enough and (2) communicate well enough in spoken form. So it wasn't because I'm a dumbass. It was because I didn't know how to engage effectively in work situations. So many problems could have been fixed before they became problems if I had been more assertive, I have now, after so many years, decided.

This could be why the online environment appeals to me. Online you have time to pause and reflect before committing to an utterance. You are also removed from the physical presence of those with whom you are communicating, which means you don't have to deal with body language. This remoteness from those aspects of personality and communication has its upsides, I've concluded, especially for physical cowards (!) like me. Rather than having to think on your feet, online you can think through your fingers. You can go back and rephrase, you can hesitate without showing that you are doing so, you can fudge and reword at leisure because there is noone standing in front of you with their time-sensitive demands. You have space, and time, to reflect, and this can work well for a certain type of personality. That's what I think anyway.

But it's not enough, when you're considering reshaping your career, to merely rely on the distance that the virtual world enables. Having completed the assessment tools it is now time to make an appointment with the career consultant in order to talk over matters arising from the material submitted. Is there anything left incomplete? Are the conclusions really accurate? (I mean, how accurate can you be when you are self-assessing at the quiet of your own desk?) A frank conversation can narrow in on the answers to these questions, and it can also lead to the formation of ideas about what steps should be taken to address issues the self-assessment has raised.

Completing the documents is part of a longer process with the ultimate goal of gaining employment in a chosen field. Work? It should be fun and rewarding in ways that are both financial and personal. I strongly believe that the best days lie ahead in terms of my career. Sometimes you just need a little help to work out how to make them happen.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Tory loons attack Aunty, again

Serial loon.
As a journalist it is almost impossible to describe the level of frustration you feel when you see the prime minister, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the communications minister joining in a chorus with the more routine type of serial loon (Cory Bernardi, pictured) to lambast the ABC for publishing stories based on material sourced from security agencies by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It is as though politicians on the Right have decided, en masse, to drink the Kool Aid mixed up for their benefit by conservative media players (yes, that's anyone employed by Rupert Murdoch) and participate in a naked hula session on the roof of Parliament, in the moonlight, accompanied by a barbershop choir of giant rainbow-hued geckos with fluorescent eyeballs.

In the UK, the Guardian's Alan Rusbridger has today been questioned by a parliamentary committee about his media organisation's reporting on the Snowden leaks, so the madness is evidently not restricted to antipodean climes; clearly said geckos are able to engage in international air travel and acclimatise themselves adequately to the severe low temperatures that characterise a Northern Hemisphere winter.

Rusbridger did make one point that is worth detailing when he said that once media outlets stop publishing material provided to them by whistleblowers and leakers those people will simply cut out the middleman and publish the material they possess directly to the internet. I think it's pretty safe to say that even the most egregious serial loon would prefer to see a sober and responsible journalist (which, by the bye, rules out all of Australia's commercial media outlets with the exception of Fairfax) oversee the publication of controversial information, including proper redactions, than to see a whole cache of sensitive government documents thrust, pulsating, down the throat of an unsuspecting public.

But the reaction of the Tory loons in Australia has something especially creepy about it, a sort of Pavlov's-dog, knee-jerk quality like when a group of dumb animals fly off squawking when you wave your arms at them so they don't shit on your nice, clean car. I suspect that the smelliest pile of shit would derive from the arse of Bernardi but I hesitate to delve to deeply into the mysteries of his colonic effluent lest he offer to show me. Bad boy, Cory!

Monday, 2 December 2013

Literature is the thing that best prepares you for life

It has long been my belief that reading good books fosters empathy: the ability to appreciate how others feel. I don't know why I got this idea but it has long seemed logical that exposing the mind to a wide variety of disparate situations in this area of erzatz (though rich) experience would make people better able to feel how others feel. Empathy is a particularly important asset in a modern, pluralistic society that functions in a globalised world because it is crucial to be able to make good choices periodically - for example within the political cycle - that accurately reflect the individual's best interests. So it's a very practical thing. Yes, it can make your son or daughter a better friend. But it also makes them better citizens, and this, in the collective, is a crucial element of their lives well beyond the time that they will regularly come to you to help them solve their problems.

The thing that I want to point out here is that I was right all along. A study undertaken by researchers at the New School for Social Research in New York, and published in the journal Science in September, found "that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence."

These are "skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking".
The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.
We know from other studies that reading activates the same parts of the brain as when a thing is experienced directly, so that a rich metaphor that exploits a physical sensation lights up those parts of the brain usually used to reflect the actual sensation itself, for example touch or feeling cold. In a real sense, then, reading literature enables our brains to directly experience what is described in the words on the page. The study merely shows that literary fiction provides a richer experience for the brain because it tends to challenge the reader to infer conclusions about situations, while other forms of writing are less ambiguous. We can go a step further and claim that this ambiguity inherent in literature helps the reader to become a better person, because it forces him or her to make up his or her own mind in any given situation. That ability to make good decisions is the crucial thing when it comes to being a good citizen. Not only that, but it is also important to be able to cope with complexity, to hold multiple ideas in the mind simultaneously.

In the digital era new experiments are being devised to help us to understand how reading actually functions, such as this one involving a Dutch writer based in New York who is writing a book while wired up to measure brain activity. Once he has finished writing the book, researchers will wire up a group of readers, whose responses will also be gauged while reading the same book. A comparison can then be made between brain activity for the writer and brain activity for the reader, at exactly the same points in the narrative-to-be.

It is exciting times for those interested in the soft arts. These areas of endeavour are often overlooked when it comes to addressing social issues but it should be remembered that everything comes from the arts. In writing, in creating new ideas, in nominalising - making a whole sentence be represented by a single word, which has happened time and time again throughout recorded history, for example with the word "selfie" - lie the roots of every science we participate in today. And writing remains a central part of every science project, not just in order to further it on a technical level but also to communicate it to the broader community. And that is a key ingredient of the work of all scientists, as they will readily tell you if you ask.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

I seek to give my dreams a second run

In my dream there were no doors to knock on because every house had a secret method of gaining access. So I was escorted everywhere. After crossing a railway bridge on the rotten boards I feared I would not keep up with my hosts and, as they disappeared into the distance, I realised I would end up alone, with nowhere to go, and no way to communicate with anyone. Even the serpent that had bit me benignly in greeting, and which looked like a big, green cat, had disappeared. I was a dependent but I had my own agenda, so I was an anomaly without any solution except to wake up.

It would be easy to interpret this dream as a metaphor for death, a very elaborate and intricate one, to be sure, but the transition could be made without stretching the boundaries of understanding too far. This kind of interpretation is the stuff of ancient texts, texts rescued from the ravages of time by scribes or archaeologists. It is because in us there is a built-in need to find meaning, and if religion is the answer to questions posed by dead generations, then reasoned critique of religion now arises from the same font.

If I don't understand the religious impulse it might of course be because I haven't examined myself adequately. What do I rely on in times of trouble, and what inspires me? I am more equable in the face of the questions that come out of my own reason - which discerns patterns among the random phenomena of existence - and which has served me so well for so long. So in a sense I am being more honest, and more adventurous than the religious individual for instead of relying on the wisdom of the ancients I am creating my identity anew each day that I wake from my dreams.

But yet I ask: what was the green cat that mumbled softly on my arm, and whose back I stroked so affectionately? We may stand aside from ruminations like this and assert that dreams are the mind's way of cleansing itself, as well as the body's way of telling us how healthy - or otherwise - it is. Even if we do, however, there will always be moments when we regret that our waking mind cannot see as clearly as our dreaming consciousness. We are all dreamers at heart.