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Sunday, 31 October 2010

After three days on the road visiting Glen Innes, Inverell, Tenterfield and Armidale - four jewels of New England, the tablelands region of NSW - it's great to be back home, safe from driving on two-lane country roads and the multi-lane expressways that circle Brisbane and where urban commuters mix it with long-haul drivers like my mother and I. For her the trip was a challenge. She probably thought at times that the road would never end and, for sure, she was knackered by the time we reached our daily destination. So tired, in fact, that I would go out alone to eat and bring back a portion for her to have in the hotel room.

Brilliant weather for most of the time made driving easier. The only rain came on Friday as we negotiated the New England Highway near the Queensland-NSW border. But everywhere we went in the Aurion - a masterful auto on good roads and indifferent alike - it is now green on pasture and on wooded hillside, proving for real that the 10-year drought Australian farmers have endured has finally ended.

A highlight of the trip was the Sustainable Living Expo in Armidale where this photo of a Sydney Opera House-shaped chicken coop was taken. The show gave retailers a chance to engage with potential customers. It also allowed local residents to experience a number of different approaches to sustainable living, including demonstrations by Costa (the SBS TV personality) on how to build a chicken coop out of old, unused furniture and, this morning, how to build a no-dig garden using only hay, soil, compost and minerals. I spoke with Costa briefly and will write a couple of stories based on materials assembled during the expo.

Friday, 29 October 2010

I hope this is not an adverse sign delivered by the higher powers in the universe. Do bad things always happen in multiples? The thing is that my wireless card has stopped functioning. I called the internet provider earlier this morning and they said there are no problems in my area with connections. The modem manufacturer, who I called next, said the modem is functioning correctly (glad I had a long cable handy so that this check could be done). And the computer, an HP Pavilion p6020a, was purchased in July 2009, which means that it's out of warranty.

And I'm driving interstate today. Which makes me wish this mishap had happened either earlier or later. A jinx? We'll have to take it easy on the road today: keep within the speed limit, watch for morons overtaking on the stretches. I made a point of checking the tyres last night and found they're fine. Petrol is also at capacity in the tank. I furthermore washed the inside of the windscreen because there might be some night driving on the way back from New England.

In the final analysis there's no logical reason to worry but you cannot help feeling let down by the world in a case like this one. Additionally, the computer maker is not contactable by phone for this type of problem during hours convenient for me this morning so I will just have to knuckle down and make the best of it until I get back next Monday. Until then, enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Fancy abseiling down the side of an office tower in Frankfurt? How about dropping off the roof of a German building and swooping through a window shattered moments before by your point man across the glass canyon with his trusty mortar gun? Do you need to get your hands on a suitcase containing a set of US treasury plates that were stolen years before by a black-ops team in Iraq? Is this all just a bit over the top? A tad far-fetched? No, don't say so!

It's evidently not for director Joe Carnahan. His movie, The A-Team (2010) is a grade-A action thriller with a heavy dose of inter-agency rivalry added for extra intrigue. On the one hand the boys (Liam Neeson as Colonel Hannibal Smith, Bradley Cooper as Lt. 'Faceman' Peck, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson as B.A. Baracus and Sharlto Copley as the occasional mental patient and pilot-of-all-aircraft Captain H.M. Murdock) are always on the job. In their second appearance they nab the plates from a speeding semi-trailer as it rockets through the dark Baghdad streets. Then there's Pike (Brian Bloom) who heads up a rival special force under the command of Gen. Russell Morrison (Gerald McRaney) whose Humvee gets blasted just as the boys return to base with the truck full of banknotes and the plates. The third element in the headspace drama is Captain Charissa Sosa (Jessica Biel) who wants to find the plates and the people responsible for the apparent killing of Morrison. Finally there's Lynch (Patrick Wilson), the CIA dude with attitude who turns out to be as bent as Pike and Morrison.

Hmmm ... Treasury plates. Yup. I can see the appeal. There's also plenty of appeal for the average viewer in the expressions of distrust and limitless hatred that flare like burning phosphorous in the spaces between the agencies responsible for the action that takes place everywhere you turn.

For the moviegoer, there's unquestionable pleasure in watching the four undaunted and scrappy-mouthed members of the A-Team survive endless trials. In one, they parachute down over Germany having been shot out of the sky by armed supersonic drones. When the parachute the tank they're caught inside depends on gets shredded there's nothing left but to fire your shells into the breathless, rushing air and steer the hurtling contraption so that it falls into a convenient lake. Splash! It's a lot softer than the earth and you can also drive out of it inside the sturdy beast, head to Berlin where the plates are kept in a bank, and apply yourself to the task of retreiving them from the hands of the hated Pike. Lots of abseiling here and, victorious once again, our beloved quartet flees into the rain-drenched Teutonic countryside. It wouldn't be interesting if Lynch weren't able to bomb the hideaway at this point but the pyrotechnics truly only kick in once the team has docked at Los Angeles port onboard a container vessel. Their plans are almost unravelled when Pike turns a handy bazooka onto the stationery vessel. The containers rain down like dominoes at a New Year's celebration. As for Lynch, he will get his just deserts: to be spirited away in a black helicopter by a posse of faceless functionaries attached to noone knows which government agency.

The fugitives? They are granted a repreive when the slim, dreamy Sosa passes a key that will fit the handcuffs they are bound in during a lingering kiss on ex-lover Peck and ... POOF! ... they disappear once more into the mists shrouding the global village, truly a band of brothers as noble and deadly as a wild Sumatran tiger.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

There's a new film about "West Papua" - a nominal country that many hope, despite the media blackout imposed by the Indonesian government, would combine the Indonesian provinces of West Papua and Papua into a sovereign nation - has been screened in Melbourne, Sydney, The Netherlands, New Zealand and Tahiti. Charlie Hill-Smith's Strange Birds in Paradise is now due to screen in Canberra, Brisbane and San Fransisco as well, beginning with today's viewing scheduled to take place at the United Nations Association Film Festival in SF.

It's about the Papuan separatists who are resisting Indonesian claims of sovereignty and, to capture images of the Papuan freedom fighters, Hill-Smith visited Papua province via the Papua New Guinea-Indonesia border at Wutang on the north coast with a tourist visa, he told me in an email. The crew had to shoot secretly as journalists and film makers have been banned from entering either province for many years.

Footage includes material shot in Australia of Papuan songwriters and performers and old footage Hill-Smith shot during a tour of the country years prior to completing the more recent work.

In the coming days the film will be screened in Canberra at the Canberra International Film Festival and in Brisbane at the Brisbane International Film Festival.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

John Howard's ability to polarise Australia has not been mitigated by his retiring from federal politics, as we saw last night on the ABC's Q and A program, where an audience member, telling host Tony Jones to "Take this as a comment" - a now-humorous line that was made famous by the same host on the same program - stood up from his seat in the audience and threw his two shoes at the the former conservative government leader, who was the only guest on the panel. "That's for the Iraqi dead and this is for the Iraqi living," he shouted.

Howard's decision to follow George W Bush to war in Iraq in 2003 is the screaming subtext for the act, and more specifically an event that took place in Baghdad during a press conference in 2008. From Wikipedia:
During a December 14, 2008 press conference at the Prime Minister's Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, [Iraqi broadcast journalist Muntadhar] al-Zaidi threw both of his shoes at then-United States President George W. Bush. The throwing of shoes is an act of extreme disrespect in the Arab culture. "This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog," yelled al-Zaidi in Arabic as he threw his first shoe towards the U.S. president. "This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq," he shouted as he threw his second shoe.
In Sydney, where the most recent abuse of footwear took place, Tony Jones was deeply embarrassed by the disrespect shown to his guest, and stood with a hand raised as though to ward off injury as you can see in this screen-shot from the video which this morning has been posted on the websites of Australia's leading mastheads.


The shoe-thrower has been identifed as Peter Gray from Newcastle. It was reported last night that he asked ABC staff if he could retreive his shoes later. He was refused. A young woman accompanying him also left the auditorium, shouting "You've got blood on your hands!" The audience snarled at the two young people as they left the space.

I didn't watch the program and instead took, again, to reading Gautam Malkani's Londonstani, a 2006 novel about young South Asian men living on the outskirts of London. The book is written entirely in a patois based on the ideosynchratic way the young men have of speaking and on the vocabulary of text messages. Despite this encumbrance it's an engaging and entertaining book that paints a picture of dislocation and resentment among an important component of the community. On the one hand, the kids take every opportunity to get back at white Londoners out of a sense of grievance at the racial discrimination they perceive everywhere. On the other hand they are embarrassed by their upwardly-mobile first-generation parents, with their strange accents and strict rules of propriety. It's the story of a potentially lost generation of youths with tremendous potential for societal contribution who feel alienated by the community and who draw their own rulebook for conduct that appears likely to set them on a collision course with normative social standards.

Monday, 25 October 2010

On Friday my mother and I will drive out of Queensland and up into the ranges heading for New England to attend a public meeting at the memorial hall - a jaunty little timber structure with two rooms and the lavatory block out the back next to an overgrown tennis court - near the Myall Creek Memorial site. It's a seven-hour drive and my mother says she will be able to handle it. I don't doubt it despite the fact that she has been slowing down a bit over the past couple of weeks and the nana naps are getting longer and arriving earlier. She thinks it might be psychosomatic because the antibiotics the doctors prescribed for her had no effect.

She hasn't been to Glen Innes before. I planned to stay at the New England Motor Lodge on the main street opposite the incredible heritage-listed former Catholic convent building that was sold, I believe, to private interests about a year ago. But they're not answering their phone and there's a sign on the website saying it's up for sale. So I booked in elsewhere. There are plenty of restaurants in the vicinity where dinner can be purchased at a reasonable cost.

The reason for the public meeting at this time is to enable discussions surrounding the planned educational and cultural centre at Myall Creek. The memorial rock was built in 2000 but the committee in charge of the now heritage-listed site have harboured more sophisticated plans for several years. The building they're looking at constructing now on the south east corner of the intersection of the Whitlow and Bingara/Delungra Roads will be permanently staffed and contain facilities suitable to accommodate tourist groups.
The Centre will be equipped with the latest interactive technology to portray visually and aurally the history of contact between Aboriginal people and early settlers across Australia. It is also intended to house artifacts and other cultural materials of local Aboriginal people, and provide space where groups of students and other visitors may watch video materials, hear presentations and participate in discussions. The plans include a manager’s residence, a kiosk, and large parking area capable of accommodating tourist coaches.
The meeting was called because the committee is "keen to learn the views of the local community". This consultative approach has characterised proceedings from the beginning, even before the memorial site was developed, starting with meetings held in late 1998 that were advertised locally and attended by people from both black and white communities.

So we two will take in the views while driving south, stay Friday night in Glen Innes and then get to the memorial hall on Saturday, mid-morning. These meetings usually take a few hours only and we are likely to be eating lunch on the road back home.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Review, The Global Soul, Pico Iyer (2001)

In the beginning of this book the strange - protean, chameleonic - cultural outcast who is writing it attempts to find something to redeem the situation that faces the mixed-race citizen, the purposefully displaced economic refugee, the expatriate consultant with hundreds of thousands of air-miles to his credit, the child of the diaspora (such as himself) whether raised in comfort or in penury. But wherever he looks and whatever he writes, the exercise always makes him look further, as though the lack of an immediately obvious explanation for the kind of life he's examining just spurs him to find a more satisfying analogue among the other non-standard options available at the margins of the comfortable, settled existence that is the province of the mainstream.

He seeks out the alternate mainstream of the marginal individual (the Global Soul) and, like a child sorting through stamps in preparation for the major task of inserting them into an album - those that belong in the same series are put together, the triangular ones go together, the ones showing artworks are placed together - he carefully examines the narrative and subject-matter options he has taken in during his travels throughout the world. At the end of the day, the child will have to close the album and place it on a shelf out of harm's way. Iyer's problem is that, having assembled so many stories of transient, displaced, non-standard lifestyles in a single location he doesn't seem to know what to do with them.

Of course, he's aware of the problem. "Philosophy is really homesickness: the wish to be everywhere at home," writes Friedrich Nietzsche in the quote plucked out of Iyer's (no doubt) extensive library for use at the head of the first chapter. It's as though, reading the book, you were faced with the work of an over-stimulated bower-bird: everything must have a place in the cosmic plan that is the book to be written. Nothing can be left out. Something will be omitted, of course, but the dazzling array of examples Iyer conjures up from his memory (there must have been a plan for this book long before he started writing it, you think) manifests itself in a surfeit of stories. And the emotionally positive ones that appear in the first chapter, tellingly, do not last.

This is because Iyer is a thoughtful person. The tone soon becomes scratchy and critical as when Iyer writes about Los Angeles Airport (LAX) or in the best parts of the book: those that deal with the Atlanta Olympics of 1996.

The writing is good but not outstanding, and the long sentences frequently collapse, exhausted, into commonplaces that would not appear out-of-place in any journalistic feature story. There's a good reason for the occasional mediocrities and the flat lines. It's because that's what Iyer is: a journalist. The imagery and structure sometimes allows novel ideas to poke through the array of his ideas, such as when he considers that new forms of extreme nationalism have appeared in response to the homogenisation of cultural and economic experience in an increasingly globalised world. But these good bits are not followed up. What usually follows is another "case" (he's ever the journalist) as the author trots about the globe racking up air-miles while on the payroll of a major American news organisation.

The eye sees and, being Iyer, the eye is assisted by being placed in locations and at times that will provide views of things that are not normally subject to scrutiny. The eye sees the way Coca-Cola, for example, places itself in close proximity to the International Olympic Committee. The eye is taken on a drive through the gaudy, or run-down, or crassly-consumeristic streets of Atlanta and the hand dutifully writes what has been observed. It's not hard. It takes time (and therefore money) and a modicum of stylistic competence. Iyer is a writer. That's what he does. You can feel that he enjoys it. And he's pretty good at it, too.

But to reach beyond the surfaces that Iyer intently concentrates his gaze on you would need more information about politics, or economics, or you would need some stories told in detail (not just by a fellow walking around an airport terminal at all hours of the day and night) of how people got themselves in the situation they find themselves in. You need investigative skills that Iyer, I believe, does not excel at. You would need a book about Philippina maids working in Hong Kong (one of the topics he touches on briefly), or one about how global corporations do business (he writes about a friend who travels a lot on business).

The book ends with a meditation on quotidian life: Iyer's own life in a small town near Nara, the ancient capital the Americans agreed not to bomb to smithereens when they were busy destroying three other Japanese cities while ending WWII. By cataloguing his daily life and the points of contact between himself and his adopted society, Iyer manages, in his own, pacific and resolution-seeking way, to put away the album he started making with the description of the events of the day his house in California burnt down 200 pages earlier. Ultimately, Iyer is writing about himself, trying to find a sense of community among people whose situations resemble his, or who are, like him, removed from a solid community of belonging. He does this, finally, by recounting a dream he had one night in Japan.

He has a sense of being at home in the dream. But as a writer, he is probably going to be doomed to living on the outside of regular places, such as suburbs that are filled with people going about their business behind closed doors, or cities with the same people busy engaging with one another on the street. Ultimately, he seeks out himself, and fashions stories out of his experiences. It's the place where he feels most comfortable. There are fewer modalities for conflict there. On a critical plane, Iyer the writer shows himself to be a dedicated observer and an adept chronicler of a world too busy to stop moving.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

US soldiers operating in Iraq were told, from 2004 according to Al Jazeera's report released on the website today, not to intervene when they saw torture or evidence of torture committed by the Iraqi military or police. The broadcast shows, to telling effect, a Pentagon press conference in which a US senior military officer says that US soldiers have an obligation to stop inhumane treatment when it is observed but he is immediately corrected by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who says that a soldier does not have an obligation to "physically stop it" but rather to merely "report it".

Al Jazeera's broadcast dramatises incidents of torture and also provides definitions of the official orders passed down the chain of command to soldiers operating in Iraq - Frago 242 and Frago 039 - which detail the obligations incumbent upon US military personnel regarding such events.

A number of media outlets globally have published material based on the Wikileaks "War Logs" the broadcast draws on for the bulk of its content, but Australian outlets so far have neglected to cover the document release with the notable exception of the ABC, which has reported reactions to it from the Pentagon.

Overseas, The Guardian, The New York Times and Al Jazeera have led the pack in English.

The Guardian says that the documents show there were an additional (so far unreported) 15,000 Iraqi civilian deaths in the country as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the military operation launched in March 2003 that then resulted in the Iraqi War which is now officially over.
More than 15,000 civilians died in previously unknown incidents. US and UK officials have insisted that no official record of civilian casualties exists but the logs record 66,081 non-combatant deaths out of a total of 109,000 fatalities.
Most civilian deaths were caused by other Iraqis, reports The New York Times, with December 2006 being the deadliest month for non-combatants. But there were also cases where Iraqi civilians were killed by the US military.
The documents also reveal many previously unreported instances in which American soldiers killed civilians — at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. Such killings are a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country, a situation that is now being repeated in Afghanistan.
The newspaper also reports that the Iranian military was active in Iraq endeavouring to destabilise the government by training insurgents and by providing weapons for use in targeting Iraqi forces and politicians and Coalition forces.

Proof that the US military turned a blind eye to the torture of Iraqis over a period of, say, seven years will add to bad feeling among communities especially in the Muslim world. Added to evidence of torture by US soldiers at Abu Graibh prison, which was released in 2004, the Wikileaks "War Logs" promise to spark new moves by US authorities to shut down the operation, a task which has so far proven difficult to achieve, despite several attempts. The most recent of these, reported this month, took the form of a block placed on the transaction service Wikileaks relied on to generate revenues.
Moneybookers, a British-registered internet payment company that collects WikiLeaks donations, emailed the organisation to say it had closed down its account because it had been put on an official US watchlist and on an Australian government blacklist.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Biodiversity talks currently underway in Nagoya, Japan, are garnering more and more media coverage as results are produced by committees - or not produced, which seems the more common outcome. Commentators discuss the long hours delegates are putting in with a view to achieving consensus ahead of the arrival, in the next few days, of government ministers from the 193 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Major issues are protection of natural environments, such as marine areas, forests, and wetlands, and access and benefits sharing (ABS). ABS sees drug companies, for example in the developed world, compensating native peoples for the knowledge they possess about substances occurring in their territories that are subsequently converted into profitable medicines.

Both of these two major issues are proving hard to resolve in economic and policy terms. Australia, for example, has apparently resisted pressure to ban fishing on certain parts of the high seas due to economic reasons.

The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP10 as it's referred to normally, is a meeting of enormous scale. The implications of decisions made in Nagoya are far-reaching. Placing an economic value on the natural environment is one idea that is being discussed, and I talked yesterday about a well-researched paper that TEEB, a unit of UNEP, has produced.

With the world's population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, and per-capita incomes expected to rise, demand for food will increase. But we've only got one planet. If food production continues to deplete wild regions of their mass the number of species under threat of extinction or already extinct will also increase. Biodiversity is not just the province of fauna, however. Plants also perform essential services to replenish the biosphere and make it fit to inhabit. The soil in wetlands, for example, is packed with fauna that helps to purify water and the forests are filled with trees and other plants that help to extract carbon dioxide from the air producing life-giving oxygen.

The talks are already becoming polarised along lines familiar to watchers of the Copenhagen climate talks. Developed world corporate interests on the one hand are ranked against developing world minority interests on the other. But citizens of developing countries will lose out more through deforestation and overfishing than people living in the developed world, who will be able to afford alternative sources of protein and fresh vegetables. Poor people living next to forests or the ocean will simply starve.

The talks are also bleeding into climate action because of the effects of climate change on forests and the oceans. The former are suffering due to lower rainfall and higher temperatures. And the latter are suffering due to runoff of polluted water from over-fertilised agricultural operations on the shore, and from higher concentrations of CO2 in the water. A price will have to be attached to ecological resources. For this reason, everybody should be closely watching decisions as they are made by delegates and, more especially, by ministers as they arrive in Naogya. The media is doing a better job now in covering the convention than in the past week or so, but the volume of stories being produced in some countries, particularly Australia, is very disappointing.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

I'm reading through a 39-page report produced by TEEB, a unit of UNEP, the United Nations Environmental Program, about how to incorporate the value of ecological resources into public policy. It's a bit rough-going due to a plethora of novel concepts and the (sigh) PDF's twin-column layout which makes reading online difficult (why can't these organisations design their PDFs for use on a computer rather than in print?). But it's interesting conceptually and, for those interested in social progress, as a blueprint for future public conflict along the lines mapped out by the legendary Stern Review.

To understand the public reaction the report from TEEB (which stands for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) is likely to generate it's salutory to remember that the Stern Review on climate change appeared in 2006. It's 2010 (almost 2011, in fact) and national governments are still struggling to bring into play the legislation required to tip the balance of the carbon equation in favour of renewable energy sources. Things are just now (five years on) poised for change in Australia due to the recent federal election result, which made the major parties deadlocked, and then made the victorious Labor Party reliant for support on three independent MPs and the first Greens MP ever elected to the Lower House. From July 2011, furthermore, the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Upper House - the house of review.

The TEEB report, Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature, talks about threshholds and ecosystem services, natural capital and biodiversity management, market signals and incentives, demonstrating value and market-based solutions. Although it is mercifully shorter than Nicholas Stern's 700-page report, TEEB still manages to pack a lot of novelty into 'Mainstreaming' and while the language is not excessively obtuse it yet contains a whole lot of passive sentence construction and nominalisation - the twin bugbears of effective journalism. It's now up to journalists, think-tank staffers, commentators and representatives of special-interest groups to massage the concepts it contains into forms that are more suitable for consumption by the world's largely (still) unsuspecting public.

Because this report is designed to promote change on a grand scale.

The idea of placing value on intangibles is, in itself, not new. In the non-profit sector, valuing intangibles is becoming regular practice (although some sectors are more advanced on this count than others). In the case of the 'Mainstreaming' report, what is being valued are the services provided by ecosystems. These are things - like fresh air, pollination done by wild bees, the effluent reduction performed by wetlands, the natural acquatic bounty provided by coral reefs - that we pretty much take for granted. But the rate of extinction within the biosphere tells us that current practices are unsustainable.

Here's a short video that was released recently by Earth-Touch, a South African multimedia company (that "brings matters of the Earth (including wildlife and the environment) into the offices, homes and daily lives of people around the world"), in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Globe International, a London-based organisation with membership among lawmakers from the US, Europe, Russia and Japan. The production goes some way toward illustrating the drivers behind the 'Mainstreaming' report, and provides some powerful numbers to back it all up.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

It was a disappointing process finding a decent book to read last night, and it reminded me of how rare a thing actual good writing is. It took a while for me to find something decent to snuggle up with. The disappointment started with a book I had been happily reading until then, Adam Shand's King of Thieves, which is a non-fiction book about Australian robbers operating in London in the 1960s: the Kangaroo Gang. I had been going well with this for a week, but then I hit a problem I've encountered with Shand's other books: it's too easy to lose track of the subjects he's writing about. One nom-de-crime blends in with another until the tale starts to gel in a solid lump with no specific focus. I'm pretty convinced that this failing is the result of lack of care, and that if Shand had spent more time on the book it would not have occurred.

So I put it down and opted for Michael Lewis' The Blind Side, another non-fiction book. I have read several books by Lewis and usually find him an excellent companion. He's not just an entertining writer, he's also a thorough one, with an eye for telling detail that enables the reader to follow a complex story without getting confused. But the subject matter here turned out to be too technical for me to follow. It's hard to work through a book about American football if you don't know what a running back or a wide receiver is. So this one, too, went by the way and I reached for a new diversion.

I chose Karen Armstrong's Muhammad, a biography of the prophet of Islam, a religion that has become cause for renewed interest from the wider community following events going back, now, almost a decade. In fact, Armstrong - who writes often about religion and is generally well-respected - says in the introduction that she rewrote the book, which had been published originally in 1990, as a result of the September 2001 events in New York and the public outcry that ensued. But I found it a bit dry and under-written. Armstrong knows her facts but is not the kind of writer to dress them up in elegance.

Next I took down from the shelf Chris Masters' Jonestown, the 2006 biography of the now-retired radio announcer and Sydney personality ('colourful' would apply but I don't like to stoop to convention). Reading the introduction, I found that the book was the cause of rancour between the author, a journalist, and Alan Jones even before its publication. I braced myself for intrigue but all I got was a dizzyingly-confusing story about Jones' grandfather and his children. Genealogical writing is hard at the best of times but, I'm convinced, it doesn't have to be this difficult to follow. Down it went, on the floor.

I strolled into the library and picked another book off the shelf: Pico Iyer's The Global Soul. Published in 2000, it predates the big event of the following year already alluded to. It's well written but it's also a curious book because those momentous events, had they taken place before he finished it, must surely have made him write it differently. As they had not yet occurred, we find ourselves in a sort of parallel universe of multiculturalism without the overarching paranoia. So far, for me, the aesthetic prognosis is good, and we'll see how long this one keeps my attention.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP10, has kicked off with "more than 10,000 government officials--including delegations from 193 parties to the convention--members of nongovernmental organizations, business leaders and citizens" attending, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun story. And there are special factions on the ground, too, with their own special interests to promote. One is the Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries, a bloc that includes Brasil, India, China, Mexico and Kenya. Another is the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Program, which involves "mining developer Rio Tinto, oil giant Shell, the United Nations Environment Program, and Conservation International, a U.S.-based environmental nongovernmental organization". There are also local special-interest groups such as the Japan Business Initiative for Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity, which involves only Japanese companies.

With so many bureaucrats representing so many sovereign interests, it's likely that acronyms will start to proliferate. They've started already. One new concept that people everywhere will need to get acquainted with is the International Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): "The envisioned organization would act on those issues just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) works to assess climate change." But what will it try to regulate or, more exactly, what will it try to convince national governments to regulate, as they must do independently?

The COP10 convention has three objectives:
  • Conservation of biological diversity.
  • Sustainable use of its components.
  • Fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.
As usually happens when something complex needs explaining to a Japanese audience, an expert is trundled in for an interview to touch on salient points and make them digestible (they love their food in Japan). Doing the honours this time is Asahi Shimbun, which found Naoki Adachi, executive director of the Japan Business Initiative for Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity.

Adachi explains what it's all about by starting off to clarify what hasn't happened among businesses in the past. Businesses have not taken biological diversity into account when making decisions.
To date, humankind has just been cashing in on the ecosystem. For example, we have borne the costs for labor and transportation when we cut down trees. But we have not paid compensation when natural disasters occur after the trees have been felled.
The economic value of ecosystem services is estimated to be at least in the tens of trillions of dollars (annually). The world economy rests upon these benefits.
He says most businesses "are thinking along the lines of just making a small contribution to afforestation or something similar. Their thinking has stalled at the stage of simply protecting nature."

One body present at the conference with such interests to protect is the Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation). It has "expressed concern that the discussions might spawn regulations" and "warned against creating a market for tradable credits for offset programs", according to an Asahi Shimbun story. More bizarrely:
It said that the introduction of compensation measures such as buying credits could lead to an acceleration of biodiversity destruction.
The Keidanren is running interference on the sidelines. The loud noises it is making are similar to those we became familiar with when business bodies took to the airwaves to slam IPCC claims and policy measures as they were articulated by national and local governments. It's a predictable behaviour, funded and abetted by businesses, aimed at making sure legislative measures enacted in national parliaments are as mild and unrestrictive as possible.

The COP10 goals are broad-ranging and aimed at securing support from both developed and developing countries, and it's very early days yet. Think the Kyoto Protocol in embryo. As we saw in the case of the more-recent Copenhagen climate change talks, there will be significant disagreement between countries and blocs of countries when it comes to nailing the details in place.

A country like Japan will find itself conflicted by the talks. On the one hand its corporations use, say, genetic resources that are sourced in tropical rainforests, or send their fishing vessels to exploit fish stocks found around small island states. In both cases, the biological resource belongs to other countries and Japan will need to take the concerns of those countries into consideration when it conducts commercial activities in their territories. Compensation will be requested, if COP10 has its way, and paid.

On the other hand, Japan loves big talk-fests like this that possess international cachet. Such events bolster national pride because they are seen to enhance its international standing. Unfortunately, international media have so far completely ignored the COP10 convention, so with part of that equation so far not pulling its weight for the Japanese, the poor buggers seem to be set to lose a lot (access to biological resources) without gaining much (prestige).

Monday, 18 October 2010

Review: The World Beneath, Cate Kennedy (2009)

Sandy's peace is shattered when she learns that Sophie, her 15-year-old daughter, wants to go on a walking tour of Tasmania's wilderness with her estranged father. Sophie is adamant. The first time Sandy has seen Rich in years takes place at Melbourne airport and she leaves him in no doubt about how she feels about this development. Rich and Sophie trot off to catch the plane and Sandy trips away to refresh herself at a new-age retreat and to forget about how much she hates Rich. The walk the two adventurers take over the bare heath goes well until, when they are almost finished, Rich decides he wants some better photos to take back with him to civilisation, photos with no people in them. Despite the swollen blister on his heel, he encourages Sophie to venture into the wild. Then they get lost, fog comes in, and they miss the ferry to the flight back home. Sandy is left waiting fruitlessly at the airport and, back home, she calls the police. The wait is on.

There's a scene near this point where Sandy contemplates a worn step. It is so well-used there is a concavity in it, the result of years and years of people stepping on it, so that it has become curved out of shape. It's a scene that captured, in concrete form, the sense of frustration I felt during the wait the reader is made to experience as Sophie and Rich sit in their thin tent, shoulder to shoulder with each other and just beyond the reach of the cold wind rushing past outside. There's no relief from the other's obsessions. For the reader, there's no relief from the author's.

Annoyed, I flipped through the pages until I got to the end.

Kennedy wore my patience thin in an attempt to maintain the suspense she had tried to build over recent pages. A number of things could have happened at this point in the novel, of course. The options are clumsily employed to focus our attention on the dilemma the father and daughter face. Rich and Sophie could die of exposure. Sandy could take Rich to court for kidnap. Rich could die and Sophie could survive. Sophie could destroy the photos of the Thylacine Rich thinks he has caught on his camera. Instead, nothing happens except that we are regaled - again and again - with evidence of the smoldering animosity that so effectively animated the novel in its earlier parts. Rich and Sandy cannot stand each other. Sophie is irritated by her mother's ineffectualness. Sandy's mother Janet is a carping petty tyrant with no imagination or empathy for her daughter's feelings. Rich's father is a cold Australian father-figure with all of the failings attached to that stereotype.

There are a hundred points of conflict in the novel and Kennedy makes good use of them when she is able to work directly on interpersonal relationships. But when it comes to a point where these grating clashes must lose their force in the face of a larger threat - there is a real risk the two will not emerge from their ordeal unscathed - Kennedy is unable to find a focal point upon which to turn the narrative so that it moves in synch with the subject matter. She relies on interpersonal conflict for the forward thrust of the story, and it dies when the wars stop. In the absence of interpersonal conflict, Kennedy flounders and the novel flags. Highly descriptive passages at this point that might otherwise serve to inject some poetry into the scenario merely serve to annoy the reader.

Kennedy might have thought more deeply about some other elements of the novel, too. Sandy, for example, is just a little too ditzy. Her drop-out-get-stoned it's-all-too-hard-don't-bother-me attitude is frankly tiresome and you begin to sympathise with Rich for dipping out of the relationship when he did. Sure, Janet is a grade-A pain in the arse, but surely Sandy can work out that her daughter is anorexic. Rich comes out of the novel a tad more successfully but, here again, it was possible to make him slightly less vain and self-obsessed. Surely a father on the first trip he's ever had with his daughter would be less concerned about how she thought of his stamina and more interested in her as a person. There are minimum levels of politness, I venture.

Sophie is the point of interest, of course. Young women so often are in literature. She emerges from the drama with renewed resolve and some idea of what she wants to do with her life, at least for the forseeable future. This is good. But her neurotic doubts about Rich when they are stranded in the Labyrinth struck me as too immature for a girl who showed the moral fibre she did.

In the final analysis, the book does not sustain itself, failing near the end at the point of greatest interest. The depictions it contains of relations between individuals are worthy of the author's earlier short stories. The novel never attains the level of sophistication and authorial judgement that they do, however.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

I didn't watch the first movie in the Iron Man franchise so I cannot make any comment about the message it delivered, although going by Iron Man 2 (dir Jon Favreau, 2010), which I watched last night, it must have been aimed squarely at young men because this one ... Boy, oh boy does it feature some dreamy hardware! The crazy volume of ersatz killing that takes place amid an ethos of violent problem-solving in this film is enough to make nice little Timmy from across the street dive off the roof of the family home out of sheer excitement. The film does no favours for Timmy's older cousins, either, because by crikey it was easy for the screenwriters and the director to conjure up in imagination a world that is led by a power-hungry ruling class that takes its profits from the manufacture and marketing of merchandise designed to kill.

For Timmy's father there is plenty to admire, also. We're transported into a world of exalted material privilege and brutal financial cachet. In this A-list world of exotic pleasures you can decide to visit Monaco for the Grand Prix and, once there, disdain the overtures of a reporter from Vanity Fair, the ritzy New York magazine, for the preferred option: the driver's seat of an F1 car. Or select, on a whim, the most desirable table in the most central location of the town where the motor race takes place. And since power corrupts, too, it's a world where the vengeance-fuelled evil-doer (Mickey Rourke is fabulous as the sinister Ivan Vanko, our hero's nemesis, a man of such questionable values that he makes do with clapped-out boots while dreamily coveting a sulphur-crested cockatoo for company) can be "rendered" out of prison by the main competition so that it can secure a technological advantage in the race for lucrative government weapons contracts.

For Timmy's college-educated cousin there are plenty of options to quizzically savour in the orgy of greed and one-upmanship as billionaire Tony Stark (Iron Man unmasked, played by Robert Downey Jr) refuses to bow to congressional pressure to hand over his Iron Man suit, and then proceeds to invent, under the aegis of a shadowy federal law agency (represented by Nick Fury, who is played by Samuel L Jackson), an even more lethal power source for his already-deadly armour in an effort to counter the gizmotic advances achieved in a seedy Mascow apartment by Vanko.

And Timmy's mum? Well, there's a choice. On one hand there's the plain-but-capable Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) who Stark whimsically chooses one day as his replacement at the helm of the company, selecting her to take over day-to-day control of Stark Enterprises, the technology empire founded by Tony's dad and the source of his fabulous wealth. And then there's Natalie Rushman (or Natasha Romanov in her life as a secret-agent, played by Scarlett Johanssen), an enigmatic, sassy and powerful over-achiever who has the svelte body and dreamy mandibular pout of a screen siren but the ivy-league training of a true blue-stocking (she speaks Latin!).

But where is the goodness in this fever-fuelled world of sensational product releases, Rolls Royce prestige, sleazy realpolitik and Lear Jet convenience? It's within the opulent mansion Stark has built on a penninsula overlooking the ocean. Here, safely ensconced away from danger and distraction, the ideosynchratic tech baron can play with a whole gamut of expensive toys and invent - over the weekend, it seems - a rare fuel by following plans ingeniously encoded in a marketing display of a futuristic town by his wise father, Howard (John Slattery). By employing his powerful virtual reality tools, Stark finds that the panorama holds secrets that only he could be privy to and, burning the midnight oil, he erects a jury-rigged particle accelerator in his basement. Then with a wrench and a grunt of satisfaction the inventor deploys a light beam so that the sensational power he has generated can be captured in a small, glowing triangle that he proceeds to insert in the fatal cavity sunk in his chest. He is ready to face the hordes of drones Vanko produced with the help of competitor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

Cue epic battle with dozens of menacing, faceless drones controlled by Vanko at his computer keyboard. There he sits, tapping away with intense focus aimed at obliterating the last traces of Iron Man and the goodness he represents: free enterprise, individual endeavour and quirky humanity.

Cut to Iron Man swooping down to snatch Pepper Potts from the jaws of death, spiriting her away to an isolated rooftop and safety where they can, finally, seal the long-time romance they have come to embody with a passionate kiss as the defeated drones self-destruct with splashes of light all over the town.

Scene: a frosy bunker furnished only with a table, two chairs, and Rushman's report on Stark's performance throughout the drama that has unfolded. Verdict? Stark is not to be trusted with the nation's safety, although he can be taken on as a consultant providing high-tech nous to those more suited to teamwork and the earnest demands of national security.

Then it's over to the award ceremony where the venal senator is compelled to pin a medal of honour on Stark's well-tailoured lapel as a grateful nation applauds its odd-ball saviour.

This predictable film offers much to admire in terms of its visuals, but finally I have to say that it's an exploitative wash-job. Sure, rogue nations and rogue inventors can be bad for us when they enjoy success. But the West's "system" of wealth and power is also a threat, and it's never challenged here. It's a force that the movie brings into some sort of focus, but ultimately the film forgives Capital as the lesser of two evils. And that's the main message little Timmy's hard-working and tax-paying extended family must take away from this production. A production which is, as a joint venture of Marvel Comics and Paramount Pictures, just as much a part of whatever "system" of self-justifying profit-seeking the screenwriters have chosen to portray.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

I'm pretty excited about the new website design that's being prepared right now, and which you can see in more detail by clicking on the thumbnail below.

The people doing it are called b-side and they're based in Annandale, in Sydney's inner west. I had met one of the duo while working at the job I held prior to starting out as a freelance journalist, so there was already something like a connection to develop ideas around. More importantly, she had already met me, which would give her an idea of my personality and work style.



My brief was pretty simple and in return they gave me two alternatives, and I immediately saw the potential in this one, which I asked them to convert into HTML. What you see above is not yet written in HTML, so it's still just a flat design at this stage. The finished web page should be ready before the end of next week, or so I'm hoping. I'm already preparing for delivery and today spent some time organising the 'About this website' pages on the site so that those, at least, would be finished prior to the day.

From my point of view there's a lot of work still to do before I'd consider the website complete, especially in terms of the timeline. My plan is to engage more deeply with those pages. Currently, they're just almost simple lists of events and objects, mostly photographs, drawings and other artwork, and poetry. The idea is to flesh them out with more structure in a narrative sense, so that there are themes which can help the viewer to understand my life, and the lives of my forbears.

The timeline extends back in time to the Renaissance, which is the point at which my earliest documented forbear, Thomas Caldicott, was born and lived. So the timeline is fat and detailed at one end (near the present) and thins out and becomes more schematic as you retreat in time.

I'm not sure how to handle, say, the 17th and 18th centuries. From about 1850 things get easier because that's when most of these people arrived by ship in Australia. The number of linked pages increases significantly in the decades starting with Federation, which makes it easier to construct a meaningful story for those years out of the scraps that remain today.

Of course, there's no rush. The immediate concern in my mind is to establish a credible web presence. For this reason a profesionally designed and built home page is necessary. I hope you can find a moment to give me your comments.

Friday, 15 October 2010

It's very rare to discover an obvious policy conflict in Japanese public life that doesn't stem from the governing administration. Even there, it's rare, like the visits once-PM Junichiro Koizumi made to Yasukuni Shrine. But that case, like others, depend on foreign countries' protests to qualify for inclusion in this category of events that spark public dissent. The anti-whaling movement is like this. Although last month two Japanese Greenpeace activists hit the newsstands in the West when they were handed a fine instead of a prison sentence by a court for stealing (what they termed) "stolen" whale meat sourced from "scientific" whaling vessels.

But on Monday, in Aichi, central Japan, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will start under the banner 'Life in harmony, into the future'.  

There was a conspicuous lack of harmony in Miami yesterday when protesters gathered outside the Japanese embassy to raise the issue of the annual dolphin slaughter in the coastal town of Taiji. The town is not far from Nagoya, where the COP10 meeting will take place. But, then, nothing's far from anything else in Japan. 

'Harmony' is a loaded term in Japan, where it's seen as essential for stable social relations, and is enforced at all levels of society by studiously avoiding signs of difference, and by pointing out those that exist regardless of the cost to the individual. It's essentially a way to prevent things from changing, which is a happenstance the Japanese are temperamentally allergic to. So to use it in this context suggests that such events as the Taiji slaughter will not make it onto the agenda. 

Big international events like COP10 are highly-valued by the Japanese, who deem it an indication of their cultural maturity and global standing to be chosen to host them. Heaven forbid, though, that anything embarrassing should evolve out of discussions in Nagoya, which so far have been ignored by the international media. That seems likely to continue.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Former editor-in-chief of Melbourne's Herald-Sun newspaper, Bruce Guthrie, was interviewed by Kerry O'Brien for the ABC's 7.30 Report a couple of days ago and I thought it would be worthwhile capturing here some of Guthrie's thoughts on the way managers at the tabloid operate. Guthrie left the paper under a cloud and then sued in court for unfair treatment, and won the case. While you thus should take what he says with a grain of salt due to the tenor of the split, it's still useful to hear an insider's view of how the paper - and presumably other Murdoch-owned papers, too - operates. More is available for the curious by buying Guthrie's book, Man Bites Murdoch (Melbourne University Press), which has just been released in Australia.

When asked "what went wrong" at the paper that caused those above him in the hierarchy to show him the door, Guthrie had this to say:
Well, I think within News Ltd there is - and I'm talking about the internal politics - at News Ltd the almost instinctive reaction to everything is 'What will Rupert think?' It doesn't matter whether you're an editor or a commercial manager or a section head, you put all the news through this kind of filter: 'What will Rupert think?' 'What will the Murdoch family think?' 'What will the corporate partners think?' 'Is this in the business interests?'
And so what you end up with, if you're not careful, is a kind of homogenised, pasteurised form of journalism comes out in the papers and online. And I wouldn't do that. And I think that, probably, I was in a sense still thinking like a journalist first and a News Ltd manager second. And probably if I'd been doing it the other way around I'd still be there.
So much for editorial independence at Murdoch mastheads, if this ethos can be understood to extend to elsewhere in that vast media empire. But of course Guthrie's very public split with Murdoch could be seen to infect everything he says about the company. He goes on later in the broadcast to talk about how corporate interests have come, in recent decades, to colour editorial decisions. It's pretty damning stuff and I'm a bit surprised that this interview has not been broadly discussed by bloggers, by journalists working at other companies, or in academia.

The interview was viewed on the ABC's iView service, where normally broadcasts are loaded for viewing for a period of time, and then removed to make way for more recent items. But the recording has also been loaded to the ABC News website from where it will be removed on 10 January 2011.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

A dose of hot Chile. When the first Chilean miner emerged from the capsule that had carried him over 600 metres from the place underground where he had been trapped with his coworkers for 96 days, he was wearing a red-white-and-blue-painted helmet. The Chilean flag depicted on the headgear was matched by graphic art adorning the capsule itself. Flags fluttered nearby. After embracing his family, Florencio met the country's president, who later took to the podium to address the nation - and the world. It's called grandstanding.

@profsarahj tweeted: "This is the ultimate TV story. TV strikes back against new media." And then, a few minutes later, @julie_posetti tweeted from her media class, which had gathered to watch the spectacle on a shared TV: "Another comments 'It's like listening to a horse race...like it's a sports story'. Astute observation. The atmospheric sound is drowned out."

Astute indeed. About the time I heard the roar of the spectators who ringed the mine shaft, dug for the purpose of removing the trapped miners from their stony prison, Australia's premier horse race, the Melbourne Cup, which is run on the first Tuesday of November every year, suddenly came to mind. As people on Twitter riffed over the topic - one suggested a pair of disliked radio personalities should be sent down the shaft to replace the miners, another quipped that we were watching the world's most elaborate drug importation in action - you got a sense of community. It's not a bad feeling, and it's underscored by the jocular tweets coming out of the ether like clapping hands flying across a computer screen.

But the rescue was actually all about technology, not politics. President Pinera's orotund proclamations about worker safety and the respect workers in Chile deserve had a brittle, post-facto feel about them. He will fade into oblivion as far as the internet is concerned, and he won't have far to go. More compelling were the tears of Florencio's young son as he gave up his father's embrace, the miner proceeding to lie down on a gurney for his scheduled medical examination. More compelling, perhaps. But not so engaging that the topic will continue to trend on Twitter tomorrow. In the end the gear will be packed away, the miners bathed and soothed, and the show will go on as it has done forever. 

But at least we had the chance to see the rescue. It's a lesson China could learn to its ultimate benefit: media control may serve short-term interests, but letting people see the reality on the ground can finally deliver the much-desired fellow-feeling the world keeps to itself when its needs are ignored.
It's a set of contrasts, truly. In China, Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Lui Xiaobo languishes in Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning Province, hundreds of kilometres from his wife, Liu Xia, who suffers under house arrest. In Sydney, a $32 million house has been bought by Zeng Wei, the son of Party powerbroker Zeng Qinghong, and his beautiful wife Jiang Mei. They want to demolish the Point Piper house and build a new, $5 million palazzo in its place. Trouble is, the local authorities are denying them their wish.

It reminds me of England's "first Prime Minister" Robert Walpole's literary son, Horace, whose home - called Strawberry Hill - at Twickenham was built grandly and in the modish Gothic style in a series of stages following the purchase in 1748. Immensely rich as a result of his position, Robert passed to his stylish and talented son more than just the style of the Earl of Orford. There were millions of pounds sterling included in the transaction, and Horace took advantage of his father's "success" by creating a home out of all proportion to his diminutive frame.

There is no doubt that England in the 18th century was as corrupt as China is now. Then, politics offered more than just social stature and influence ('influence' involved the ability to favour family and associates with material advantage, either in the form of lucrative jobs or valuable contracts for services to the government). It also involved securing toward one's personal account as much pork as one could.

A similar story is told in the diary of Samuel Pepys, the Navy Board functionary of the preceeding century. Pepys attached himself to a powerful man and rose through a number of profitable posts beginning in the 1660s. A reader of the diary notes with some satisfaction the author's pleasure as each step on the ladder of opportunity is accomplished; many of them are marked by expressions of personal gratification. Pepys would have understood intimately the feelings of frustration that Zeng and Jiang no doubt feel at being denied what they seek from Woolahra Council.

Xiaobo is another sort of character entirely. He's been compared to Nelson Mandela recently. But he more closely resembles someone like John Horne Tooke of the London Corresponding Society who was put in gaol on the charge of treason in 1794. The LCS was a moderate radical organisation established in the wake of the French Revolution, which served as a catalyst for repressive reaction to liberal activities such as those Horne Tooke participated in. Like Xiaobo, Horne Tooke had a literary background. He was acquitted the same year.

Xiaobo will wait in vain for such a short stay behind bars. China is engaged in an ideological war that instead of military action demands a barrage of words. As a man of letters, Xiaobo is doomed to suffer the consequences of speaking too well about a subject the consequences of which the Party understands excellently. In England, in the 1790s, many people were vocal in support of liberalisation. The administration came down hard on dissenters, a tactic it had centuries of practice in. But the faceless men in positions of power are now forgotten, while we remember the radicals and the poets. Coleridge and Wordsworth came into the public sphere in these years and, animated by the Revolution, they would go on to catalyze a generation of men and women who would give the 19th century in England the reforming character it still retains in our collective memory.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Review: The Language of Passion, Mario Vargas Llosa (2003)

With commendable consistency and unfailing predictability this collection of journalism contains columns Vargas Llosa wrote for the Madrid daily newspaper, El Pais, between 1992 and 2000. At the beginning of the book we're in 1992 and we proceed, year after year, until the final installment - the writer's column was called 'Touchstone' - in the year 2000.

It's a good thing that the editors chose to order the pieces in this concrete and reliable manner, for two reasons. The first is because, as the datelines show, the author travelled a lot. From Alexandria where he files a piece on the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, to London where he writes with sensitivity and humour about the reading room in the British Museum: geographically the book is a challenge because we are at once introduced to the cabinet of a peripatetic author, someone who is accustomed to travel and adventure, if most often of a sedate and cultivated - rather than a physically challenging - kind.

Which brings me to the other reason to rejoice in the lack of excess displayed by the book's humdrum but no doubt highly-skilled editors. There is a huge variety of subject-matter for the reader to traverse.

Surprisingly, Vargas Llosa's least successful moments seem to arrive when he is discussing art and literature. The title piece, for example, is a dry one about the Mexican writer Octavio Paz. There's also an inept piece on the 20th Century Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Vargas Llosa on Monet? Please. And his attempt to capture the magic of Modernism in a number of the pieces? Uninspiring.

An essentially polemical and political writer, Vargas Llosa won his Nobel Literature Prize on the back of that kind of writing (which most would agree would include his novels).
The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat".
Vargas Llosa's strength is his passionate rejection of the elements of Latin American society that have held the continent back, and that cause thousands of Latinos to attempt to escape from its crumbling statelets every month, indeed every week. The writer sees the endless flood of humanity exiting the south in favour of the capitalist north and wonders: Why? It's a sign of the compassion he maintains for his fellow human being that he concludes that those footloose individuals are in fact making the right choice for themselves, and not turning traitor to a greater cause. What greater cause than individual happiness?

A person said to me a day or so ago that Vargas Llosa is a "libertarian looney". In some sense, she was on the button. Vargas Llosa'a contemptuous rejection of postmodernist methodology reflects flabby conservatism. It shows a lack of imagination that you find in magazines of the Right such as Australia's Quadrant. But you also get in his writing a matching humanistic tendency to want to lend courage to the oppressed, such as African women who are forced to undergo genital mutilation, in the face of what he would consider cowardly relativism from some sectors of the progressive West that base their own strong opinions on such ideas as multiculturalism or on post-colonialism.

Just as he supports the indigent of the south who forge a path on a well-trod northward trajectory, Vargas Llosa rejects the caudillos - the military strongmen who sieze power with promises of prosperity they can never fulfil and then attempt to cement it by undermining civil society and state institutions - and the Church. He sees centralised, undemocratic control as a technique most often used for venal and often criminal purposes. He regards state-owned enterprises as bloated instruments of corruption or, at the very least, inefficiency. These are the types of institutions he thinks Latin America needs to wean itself off, and he considers the Church at fault for trying to slow down that process at every opportunity.

It is natural that a novelist should take pity on the lone survivor, such as the young Gambian girl forced to throw herself out of a window when the building she was sleeping in was torched by racist Spanish thugs. Likewise, it is natural for the novelist to focus his well-honed senses on an event such as the Carnevale in Brazil, to try to comprehend its meaning in the context of social cohesion and the psychological well-being of the individual.

It's hard to blame Vargas Llosa for being a bad critic when he's such an entertaining writer, at least to go by the evidence presented in this volume. I remember being unimpressed with his novels, which I read at least 25 years ago at the same time I was impressed by the dauntingly-good novels of his nemesis, Garcia Marquez. And having read this collection of essays, it's easy to understand why one would become a "libertarian looney" when the alternative is not a mealy-mouthed hypocrite such as we contend with on the (so-called) Left in Australia, but a human rights-busting tyrant such as Hugo Chavez or Augusto Pinochet.

And it's kind of nice when the winner of such an august literature prize turns out to be such an accessible writer, and such a mediocre (albeit passionate) thinker. Let Baudrillard and Barthes rest easy with their greater laurels. Vargas Llosa is not of your ilk. He's a compassionate observer and a talented prose stylist who cares deeply about the individual, a species he watches with an eagle eye. And one often with a tear in its corner, ready to drop.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The rain angles down aloft the driving southerly wind that pushes it across the landscape and drives it into the soggy ground where pools form and the scrounging ibis treads and shakes its sodden wings. The rain sounds like falling sugar. It comes in waves of hushing sound: be quiet, be quiet and rest ... for this day belongs to the Water God and we applaud him. The rain sounds like applause but the performance of the Water Sprites never finishes, it goes on and on.

It has been raining for three days now and the expectation is that it will continue. No dry days good for washing to be hung out on the lines stretched tight across the metal racks out the back. No bright sunlight to crowd out the clouds. No energy, just this endless shoosh, shoosh as the falling sheets of water wash out the gutters and turn the parks into freezing quagmires.

On top of this it's Sunday, day of rest, day of recuperation. But who can really rest with this endless, teeming rain? You rug up and lie down and pick up a good book left over from the day before and the day before that. As the rain never ends, the book never gets finished. You close your eyes but all you hear is the surf crashing against the wind-blown sand dunes out across the shore. No rest with this rain. No use reading. Better to work on a Sunday than to sacrifice a day to the Water God, heaven defeat him.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Flowers outside the door. "OK," I thought. "Nobody's home right now. Maybe they'll see them when they get in and pick them up."

This is not a picture of the door to the apartment next door to mine, but I saw flowers outside there a couple of weeks ago, and that's just what I thought. Then a few days ago the removalists came and emptied the apartment. Everything went into the truck, which was parked on the street next to the building's driveway. The guys shifting stuff out of the building were quick and efficient and clean and quiet. It all got taken away in a day. "Funny," I thought. "They only arrived a short while ago."

I had seen a gentleman, about ten years older than me, unpacking boxes one day during the cold season just ended. I had known the apartment was for sale, so it didn't surprise me much to see him there. Then, after the move, everything went quiet. I didn't spare a thought for the people (I thought it was the man and his wife) living there. Then I saw the flowers. They were plunked down in a black plastic pail just outside the apartment door, near the lift where I passed every day on errands or when I went to visit my mother, who lives just down the street from me in an apartment by herself.

I never gave the flowers another thought. Why would I? Although it seemed strange, as the building has a number of locked doors from the street to reach home. There's the gate on the street. Then there's the front door, which is also locked. The lift, which is inside the front door, also needs a key to access the floor of the apartment. So who had left the flowers there? And why flowers?

Apparently a woman moved into the apartment alone. Then she died. That explains the flowers. The other strange thing was the smell of musk, like a strong perfume sprayed after the removalists left. I wondered about it a little but assumed it was simply a gesture by the removalists, having completed their labour.

I never met the woman who lived next door to me.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Review: Lights Out in Wonderland, DBC Pierre (2010)

Determined to extricate himself from the institution he has been committed to after a failed suicide attempt, Gabriel Brockwell flees into the night of an alien county and makes his way back through the uninviting, fluoro-lit no-man's-land of semi-urban England to his share house in familiar London. Here, his momentum impels him to further anti-social exploits and, having appropriated funds from a special-interest group he is involved with that stakes its reputation on the success of protests launched against Capital, he veers off in the direction of Heathrow Airport en route to Tokyo where lives his pal Nelson Smuts.

Once safely ensconced inside Japan's throbbing capital city, Brockwell scuttles up to the fugu restaurant where Smuts works and begins to formulate his plans for an ultimate debauch. The money won't last forever but, thinks Brockwell, I don't want to either. A final fling in company with the Lord of the Grape is a fitting epitaph to a life led in direct psychic contrast to the mediocre mainstream. It's in the restaurant that Pierre's predeliction for rare olfactory treats begins to take shape. Brockwell witnesses a bizarre encounter between a clique of gangsters and the most violently poisonous elements of the deadly fugu, which results in Smuts being arrested and thrown in jail. Brockwell heads once more for the airport, sure that he can pull some strings with the authorities via the good offices of providor-to-the-super-rich Didier Le Basque.

In Berlin, he has access to old family friends - it is where he spent some time as a child. More importantly, he has the freedom Smuts lacks to scope out potential pleasure domes, which he proceeds to do with dogged enthusiasm. On the way to reaching his goal of freeing Smuts and maneuvring his existence into one last, over-the-top gustatory experience, he meets the mysterious organiser of earthly dreams, Thomas. Thomas indulges Brockwell's appetite for excess but our hero is drawn to the down-to-earth daughter of his father's old friend Gerd Specht, doyen of the fabled Pego Club. This establishment eventually and disappointingly (for Brockwell) turns out to be a snack bar inside the Templehof Airport building, which Brockwell then singles out as an appropriate venue for the big bash.

And here the synopsis ends because I didn't finish the novel, terminating my reading of it at page 253 (out of a total of 315 pages). The reason for this failure of will is that while Pierre can be very good when he is good, when he is otherwise he can be deadly dull. In the novel, that unhappy state applies with increasing frequency beginning with scenes in the fugu restaurant in Tokyo.

The delightfully insightful plaints to the detriment of Capital that pepper the novel's beginning morph into paeans to debauchery as Brockwell's plans firm up and his vision of total sensory indulgence start to dominate the textual psyche. Brockwell as fin-de-millennial-everyman stumbles groggily from one snort of coke to the next, and from one sublime quaff of the essence of the vernal grape to the one that - inexorably - follows. The high point - or low point, depending on your tastes - in this seemingly-random series of lurches toward the pit comes one night when Thomas escorts Brockwell into a fertile urban wasteland behind the fence of an abandoned complex of Nazi buildings. There, their senses ablaze with narcotics and orchestral music, Brockwell and Thomas are visited during the dim hours by two willing madchen and Bacchus can be heard applauding the result. In the morning there's nothing left but a hangover and a set of abandoned feminine underwear.

It's difficult to avoid the impression that Pierre rather too deeply admires this kind of tawdry exploit.

Rare, rich, perfect. Brockwell scrambles to attain the type of experience readily available to those who truly profit from the inequitable and therefore potentially doomed system of modern Capital. Whether he succeeds or fails, I for one will never know. The dead-eyed prosodic filler Pierre has used to occupy the spaces between occasionally better-written scenes made me yawn mightily and more and more often. Perhaps if he had spent more time in writing this book, it would have been a better one. But perhaps his attachment to the central premis wasn't strong enough to engage his intellect for that long. Perhaps he was running out of money and financial need propelled him to the presses prematurely. Whatever the reason, the book is often bad, despite sometimes being excellent. I think Pierre just ran out of puff on this one and hopefully the next one will be better.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Review: The Changeling, Kenzaburo Oe (2010)

When Goro Hanawa, the famous Japanese filmmaker, kills himself by falling from the top of a building, the event touches the lives of many, but most especially those of his brother-in-law Kogito Choko and his sister Chikashi, Kogito's wife. As well as drawing the famous author and his wife to Goro's house to attend the funeral, on a psychological level the death - which had occurred soon after Goro had been viciously attacked by a pair of yakuza thugs in his garage as he got out of his Bentley - has aftershocks the couple struggle to deal with.

You would have thought that the effect on Chikashi would have been the greater, but what happens to Kogito is possibly even more unpleasant, and it impinges on the rest of his family, too. Some time before he died, Goro had given Kogito a set of cassette tapes and a curious, slightly antiquated cassette player the writer dubs 'Tagame' because it resembles a particular type of beetle that could be found near his family home in his ancestral town near the Shikoku city of Matsuyama, where he had got to know Goro and Chikashi in his youth.

(It's no accident that the name Kogito resembles Descarte's famous dictum, "Cogito ergo sum." Kogito's father was a community leader who chose the name because of this resemblance. Likewise, Oe's choosing 'Tagame' to refer to the fateful instrument constitutes a knowing gesture; it resembles the English nonsense phrase 'tape game.')

Goro and Kogito are fictional names but their stories are based, at least in part, on those of real people. Goro resembles Itami Juzo, whose ideosynchratic comedies, such as 1985's Tampopo and 1987's A Taxing Woman, are legendary for devotees of arthouse cinema. Juzo also adapted Oe's book A Quiet Life for the cinema, in 1995. He died in 1997. Kogito is based on Oe himself.

In their youth the two precocious students carefully read such European literature as the poetry of Rimbaud, and these tender exchanges are documented in the novel as Oe takes the reader back in time to a part of their shared lives of particular importance. There was something that happened to them at that time, over a period of two days when they accepted the invitation of an American cultural attache named Peter to visit a remote community run by a band of radicals who held Kogito's dead father in great esteem. The period in question was just after Japan's surrender to the Allies, who then moved their forces into Japan to complete the country's transformation from oligarchy to democracy. Some people, including the radical sect, deeply resented the defeat and planned retaliatory strikes. In their case, they wanted Peter to supply them with guns - albeit inoperable ones - so that they could storm an Army base nearby.

A shadowy, sinister figure, Peter has sexual designs on Goro and his invitation to the secluded farm is part of the grooming process. How far it develops cannot be understood by Kogito because he had, at a point of tension during the visit, quit the community in alarm and returned to his parents' home. Goro followed but by the time he arrived at the house many hours had passed. It is not clear to Kogito if Peter has been massacred by the young radicals, or what, exactly, Goro has experienced.

In his connubial residence, decades later, Kogito thinks about past events as he listens to Goro's voice speak to him from the tapes being played in Tagame. Because he has taken to playing them late into the night, disturbing his family's rest, he decides at some point to take a break. With this in mind, he accepts a teaching position from the Free University of Berlin, where it is winter. The voyage brings him closer to Goro, however, because his old friend had been in the city not long before, in his capacity as filmmaker.

When Kogito returns to Tokyo, he has gained some of the equilibrium news of the death cost him. In his luggage he has brought back a number of books, and one, in particular, interests Chikashi. It is a slim illustrated children's book by the American author Maurice Sendak and it is about a changeling and the efforts the child's sister expends in order to return the child to her home.

One day, a young woman named Ura Shima telephones the house and Chikashi answers the phone. She is surprised to hear from the woman, as Ura had featured in part of the Tagame tapes Kogito had passed to Chikashi to listen to. Those sections chronicled a powerful, enriching erotic experience Goro had enjoyed during a Berlin sojourn shortly before his fall and death. Ura is now in trouble and the child she carries in her womb, although it's other parent is not Goro, becomes a means by which Chikashi can adopt the role of the sister in the Sendak book: saving the child, the changeling, from the ogres who had taken it away, leaving an ice facsimile in its place. By helping to pay for an apartment in Berlin for Ura, Chikashi believes she can in some fashion help to bring back some part of Goro's person. It is a small price to pay for her spiritual peace.

As with Oe's novels generally, the autobiographical element, while explicitly present, is in no way irksome. Also like his work overall, The Changeling promotes a thoughtful state in the reader's mind, and this is why I enjoy reading his books so much.

Oe's prose is meticulous with specific effects achieved in an incremental and unhurried fashion that yet avoids ever being ponderous or frustrating the reader. It is a prose of such commanding purpose yet it seems to be quite ordinary by nature. There is, simply, nothing like it in the world of letters apart from that which is found in other Oe novels. The danger for the reviewer in recommending a book like The Changeling is that one risks appropriating part of the author's glamour by the mere act of giving such advice, and that very act feels somewhat presumptuous. However, I will recommend the book to those who take pleasure in their literature, and who enjoy feeling the irreplicable frisson that textual pleasure alone, it seems, can produce not only in the mind but also in the body itself.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Admittedly this is not what you'd normally bring to mind when asked to imagine "bread money", but it's redolent with associations. Food prices are set to rise by 45 percent over the next decade, we're told. It should not surprise us. The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, a federal government body, says that food prices have risen by 75 percent since 2000. The Courier-Mail story tells us that it's not just people living in developing economies who will face hunger in the coming years, but "even more Australians will be unable to afford a steady supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, turning instead to processed meals and junk food".

It should be no surprise to governments in Australia, though. In a 2007 study undertaken by the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC), in collaboration with NSWHealth and other health bodies, "Some socio-economically disadvantaged suburbs in [Greater Western Sydney] are effective 'food deserts' with no local food outlets such as supermarkets, food co-operatives or fruit and vegetable shops." Overweight results from restricted access to affordable, healthy food, which the study says is a "basic human right".

But Sydney's peri-urban regions, which could supply a lot of the fresh food its residents require, is a contested area. 50 percent of the farms by number - and 30 percent by volume of produce - producing vegetables in the Sydney basin, are located in the two growth centres on the city fringe. These agricultural precincts are slated for development according to the NSW Department of Planning. When I asked the department for comment, they told me that they "had my details".

The 2007 study notes that a rural lands review to document agricultural land in growth centres was a "current NSW government commitment" but one of the study's authors tells me that it "went nowhere". A "ground truthing" study conducted by a researcher at the Department of Primary Industries documents the state of agriculture in the Sydney basin in 2008. It says that only 12 percent of Sydney's fresh vegetables are grown in the basin. For some produce, such as mushrooms, the local content of what is consumed in Sydney is high. For others, such as celery, about 98 percent of what is consumed in Sydney is produced elsewhere. It seems that people living in areas underprovided with fresh-food outlets will continue to be forced to rely on unhealthy options such as fast food in order to satisfy their nutritional requirements.