Saturday, 30 June 2012

Book review: King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild (1998)

Who said arts degrees are a waste of time? Ask anyone who has read this book. Adam Hochschild was born in 1942 and got his BA from Harvard in 1963 (the year after I was born) before going on to become active in the civil rights movement. He was a co-founder of Mother Jones. The book doesn't say when Hochschild began his research for this book, but it does say that the germ of the idea to write it was laid during a transcontinental flight in the US when he read a quotation by Mark Twain that mentioned the "worldwide movement against slave labour in the Congo, a practice that had taken eight to ten million lives". He was, he says in the introduction, "startled" by this snippet of text. But why should we care about an anti-slavery movement that took place during the first decade of last century? Hochschild says that it is because the ghost of the colonial tyrant - Leopold II of Belgium, who set off the European "scramble for Africa" in the late 19th Century, owned the Congo as a personal feif - still stalks the land.
"Those who are conquered," wrote the philosopher Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century, "always want to imitate the conqueror in his main characteristics - in his clothing, his crafts, and in all his distinctive traits and customs."
This is Hochschild toward the very end of this book, quoting from a source he had encountered during his research. The quote suggests that in order to understand the Congo today you must understand its colonial history. A fuller understanding of the evils that exist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today requires also knowing that US President Eisenhower ordered the assassination of the first elected Congolese prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961. The strongman who replaced Lumumba as leader of the DR Congo for the next 30 years, like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, had been a soldier, and Mobutu's reign was characterised by lavish spending, massive expropriation of sovereign wealth, and repressive rule. Leopold's ghost stalked the land then and today, of course, there is in the DR Congo a festering civil war involving a number of armed players, and many say that it is the mineral wealth of the country that encourages the fighting. The DR Congo is furthermore almost a no-go zone for journalists as a result of the continuing violence, and so we receive only sporadic notice of developments on the ground.

If that's not enough reason to read this book, you can remind yourself that Joseph Conrad, the Polish-English novelist who published Heart of Darkness in 1899, visited the Congo in 1890 and 1891. His book was, as is widely known, the wellspring out of the depths of which emerged Francis Ford Coppola's classic movie, Apocalypse Now (1979) about US involvement in Vietnam. For Sydneysiders of my generation this film stands as a cultural marker of great significance; how many of us during the 80s trekked up Glebe Point Road to the Valhalla Cinema to catch a screening on a Friday, or Saturday, or Wednesday night? Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando is not the only point of fascination in the movie, but Hochschild can point you to a number of models for Kurtz in his book.

The final chapter of the book is called 'The Great Forgetting', and it recounts how Leopold, before handing over his colony to Belgium, in 1908 incinerated masses of documents pertaining to his foreign rule. But some documents remained. This chapter recounts the story of Jules Marchal, a retired diplomat, who, in 1975, sought access to records produced by Leopold's Commission of Enquiry, which had operated in 1904 and 1905, and which had been assembled in response to the orchestrated campaign against injustices in the Congo that was led by the Englishman E.D. Morel. He was refused. When he retired in 1989 he worked full-time assembling material on the colony, and his work on the colonial adminstration was finally published in 1996. That's really an awful quantity of forgetting, right there, and it's the reason why Hochschild's book is so important and valuable for readers today. On top of this the book is entirely accessible. Hochschild continues today to work as a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. And he continues to write books. His next project will be on the Spanish Civil War.

Also worth mentioning is that this edition is the book's second edition, published in 2006, and it contains an afterword by the author dated 2005 bringing readers up to date with developments.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Book review: Nazi Literature in the Americas, Roberto Bolano (2008)

Written in the mid-90s and published in 1996 while the peripatetic Chilean Bolano was living in Spain, Nazi Literature in the Americas, like all of the author's books, only appeared in print in English after his death in 2003. Bolano's work is highly esteemed in literary circles within the Anglosphere and there are many people who rave about his novels, but he largely remains a point of concern for the elites in that milieu. While this novel is more than merely satisfying it is enough to say that it is, however, completely satisfying. It does a lot of things well. But it is unlikely alone and in itself to change the way the author is regarded in the English-speaking world.

The novel comprises a series of fictional mini-biographies dealing with authors who never existed during the 20th Century. The common theme linking their stories is their interest in Nazism. The book includes names, dates, publication dates, notices of the critical reception the fictional people's fictional books received, and details of their lives. It is a very clever and knowing expose of the hidden undercurrent of extreme right-wing politics in Latin America and North America that Bolano intuits from his experience and his readings of real-world literature. On the other hand, the book also serves to illustrate some of the frustrations that marginal authors experience, and that Bolano, who wrote poetry for a long time, experienced during his life before switching to the novel form in the 90s.

Because the novel suggests broader sympathy for Nazism within the mainstream than most people would readily admit, it makes for uncomfortable reading at times, and because it is so clever and knowing, also, it is unlikely to find ready favour within that broader community. 'They' are, to a certain extent, 'us'. If there has been such sympathy for extreme right-wing politics to the extent that many failed, marginal authors have been publishing such works throughout the world, then surely there must have been many other people with similar sympathies living in our very midst. So the oracle pointing routinely to one country and one period of time simply swivels on his podium, and turns his accusatory finger back to point it at us. The joke that furthermore underscores this truth is that creative people are often ignored by society; so the accusation is doubled. We can hardly be excused simply because we gave little attention to the works of these odd authors. The frequency with which they appeared implies a larger cohort of Nazi sympathisers among our ranks. We can imagine Bolano laughing heartily at his jokes, made at our expense. And so the book will likely remain neglected for many years yet.

Which is a shame because events in Europe show us how timely such a book could be. The growth of Nazi-inspired political parties, on top of the existence of special-interest groups dedicated to promoting Nazism, tells us that this particular shibboleth will continue to exist in a very real form in the West for a long time. In fact, the shame that for two generations has been associated with Nazism means that Germany is less likely to produce real manifestations of discontent with a Nazi flavour than, for example, a society such as Greece. The next question, of course, is, What is Nazism? Is it an ideology? Is it an aesthetic? Is it a set of particular cognates? Bolano's novel can help us answer this question, and so it is a good book to read for those who want to honestly and squarely face up to what is happening in the world today. It's also a lot of fun to read a completely original work that demonstrates intelligence and deep thinking. A book for the ages.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Labor is failing its progressive base on key issues

Where does 'true' lie for Labor?
Perfectly level or obviously Left?
Julian Assange has made the Australian government look pretty silly by applying to Ecuador for asylum. While Australian foreign minister Bob Carr has gone out of his way to proffer support for an Australian lawyer, Melinda Taylor, imprisoned by Libyan authorities recently, similar advocacy on behalf of Assange has been consistently lacking. Most recently, a letter received from Australia's attorney-general, Nicola Roxon, was characterised by Assange supporters as  a ''declaration of abandonment".
Ms Roxon wrote: ''Australia would not expect to be a party to any extradition discussions that may take place between the United States and the United Kingdom or the United States and Sweden, as extradition is a matter of bilateral law enforcement co-operation.''

She also took the opportunity to advise Ms Robinson that ''should Mr Assange be convicted of any offence in the United States and a sentence of imprisonment imposed, he may apply for an international prisoner transfer to Australia''.
The Labor government here is falling over itself in its desire to alienate its progressive supporters. The Assange thing is just the latest in a string of signal policy failures, including Gillard's reactionary stance on marriage equality and also Carr's department's silence on the troubles in West Papua.

Julia Gillard told the Labor Party earlier this year that a conscience vote would be permitted on gay marriage. But because the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has not reciprocated with the same offer to his MPs any division in Parliament on tabled laws covering the matter would certainly fail. It is time for Gillard to reverse her policy and cause Labor to take a definitive position on marriage equality.

As for West Papua, notable in the public sphere in Australia was a recent segment broadcast by Sky News in which Professor Peter King, an academic from Sydney University, Greens senator Richard Di Natale, and a West Papuan activist resident in Melbourne, Ronny Kareni, participated. It's the longest segment on West Papua that has been aired in Australia to date, and Helen Dalley, the Sky News presenter, evinced a noticeable level of scepticism about the nature of the conflict in the two Indonesian provinces in question, where ethnic Melanesians have been oppressed by the Indonesian army for decades.

Indonesia's media ban in West Papua is working. Unlike for Syria, unlike previously for Libya, there is no public consensus here on the failure of Indonesia's rule and so the onus rests on people who object to it to make their case in the international arena. An Australian government position on West Papua would quickly reverse this dynamic, but that looks unlikely at this point in time. More people will have to die, and activists will have to manage to smuggle out more video footage showing criminal behaviour by the Indonesian army, in order to convince middle Australia of the justice of their cause.

Truly, Labor is caught between two worlds. As the manufacturing sector diminishes in Australia, Labor's traditional heartland shrinks. By trying to shift to the Right to capture sufficient votes within Australia's political Centre, Labor is giving up ground to the Greens on a daily basis. The more errors they make in the eyes of progressives, the less sincere they appear, and so they risk sparking a total collapse in their support base.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Movie review: J. Edgar, dir Clint Eastwood (2011)

Judi Dench, who plays Hoover's mother,
alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover.
In its beginnings, this film promises much. It employs a complex structure involving scenes from the "present" (at the time of the Kennedys) at which time a very mature J. Edgar Hoover engages a young FBI agent to take down his memoirs, along with scenes from the "past" which show bits from the story of Hoover's life with the FBI as they play out. It even cuts back at one point to Hoover's childhood, when he was a young boy. This complexity screams "authentic" to the movie watcher, as do those scenes that focus on Hoover's problematic sexuality, which appears to be a primary point of interest for the director. It's probably a point of high importance for American cinemagoers, too. It appears pretty certain that Hoover was gay, but so what. I'm sure there are a lot more honest and explicit sources that the filmmakers could have drawn on to demonstrate the fact in place of trying to nimbly suggest, using scenes involving Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer), Hoover's "special friend", the real nature of Hoover's confliction and so attract our sympathy to him. Poor man, it was the times he lived in. That sort of thing. Put simply, Hoover's sexual orientation is just not that important, unless the community for which the film is made considers homosexuality to be something aberrant and unwholesome, as Hoover's mother (Judi Dench) clearly does.

A lot of the film is shot in dark tones that also imply authenticity; cinemagoers are used to this unadorned feel for movies dealing with the 20s and 30s, probably because everything that is available that was made in those years was shot in black-and-white. The plain, honest, wholesome feel of the scenes from this period in the movie have a Norman Rockwell-like normalcy about them that is misleading because it implies that those times were, indeed, plain, honest and wholesome. Eastwood similarly treats the terrorist attacks that dot the film's early scenes. The FBI was established at the close of WWI and its investigations of anarchists and terrorists in the period were not always handled well; it was early days in the agency. But Eastwood firstly makes the reason for establishing the FBI unproblematic by ignoring the reasons for the unrest and secondly draws heavily and unashamedly on our modern fear of terrorism in the wake of the Twin Towers tragedy to add shine to Hoover's patriotism, and justify what the FBI did in those years when it was still finding its legs. The fact that the FBI actually blanketed thousands of people in its raids, many of whom had nothing to do with bombings and who were merely politically motivated to organise, is glossed over in the movie.

The movie spends a lot of time looking at the Lindberg kidnapping, where we see Hoover fighting for federal laws and for use of fingerprinting to identify potential criminals. Here's Hoover doing something good, we're told. Here's a policeman who wants to use science and good administration to combat illegality. And on the other hand the filmmakers seem to take on Hoover's unorthodox ideas. So occasionally we get glimpses of the darker side of Hoover, where the inner psychopath strides out on the warpath in pursuit of Communists. There's the scene where Hoover sits opposite Bobby Kennedy and they clash over Hoover's personal bugbear. But the scenes where Hoover colludes personally with numerous presidents to justify the use of clandestine robberies and, especially, telephone taps, are missing from the film. Phone taps were one of Hoover's main instruments in his crusade against largely imagined enemies but there was no law in the United States that could justify them; Hoover operated under the radar for decades, amassing a staggering amount of information illegally and in real life he justified these activities by telling himself and others that the president had told him it was ok to go ahead.

By reading a book such as Tim Weiner's 2012 Enemies: A History of the FBI you can know that this collusive and secret behaviour touched on presidents in power from the time of Roosevelt, including Roosevelt himself. There was no congressional imprimatur or oversight because Hoover went out of his way to keep his activities hidden from politicians who might not share his personal obsessions. It was much easier to have a quiet word with the president, he calculated, than to open up his strategies and tactics for debate on the floor of the House and the Senate. But there is nothing so explicit in the film. Yes, we see Bobby Kennedy trying to get Hoover to focus the FBI's attention on the Mob while Hoover is shown trying to get approval to keep following Commies. But Hoover disobeyed more attorneys general than this one in his unrelenting quest to stigmatise people who held beliefs different from his own, including homosexuals. For decades Hoover was, in reality, a rogue operator using illegal methods to persecute people who he merely suspected of criminality.

This staggering fact is not touched on in the film except obliquely, as if this aspect of Hoover was a regrettable foible in a man who otherwise merits our esteem. But it was Hoover's surreptitious working methods that led directly to the biggest political scandal of the 20th Century. The methods used by Nixon's personal spy unit were the same methods the FBI had long used, and the unit was in fact an offshoot of the FBI. Methods Nixon's spies used to undermine his political opponents, and that so scandalised America, were so routine within Hoover's FBI that to list them would require a fat book like Weiner's.

There are other fat books that merit our attention, just as other big, long movies would need to be made to adequately describe a person of such gross immorality as Hoover. You'd need a better actor than DiCaprio to show the swollen ego and ingrained corruption of Hoover as an old man, something along the lines of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, who was played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's far superior portrait of human monstrosity, Apocaplypse Now (1979). Eastwood's movie elaborately pretties up a corpse, in fact, and not very convincingly. The retro authenticity gets in the way. The focus on Hoover's sexuality diverts our attention from bigger fish. And so this film stands as an apologia for Hoover and the organisation he was so deeply involved in building, and that crashed with a sickening thud to earth when the reality of its activities was finally revealed to the world in the mid-70s. In this way the film seems to me to be a complete failure, and an expensive one.

Other films warrant making, such as one that could look at the history of violence in America, which should include some analysis of the type of anarchist attacks that appear at the opening of J. Edgar. Such attacks predate WWI by a long way but today most people are unaware of the circumstances within which they existed even if they know they happened. Which is unlikely. But to make such a film you would have to put a number of important people and institutions under the lens of scrutiny. You would have to, in fact, talk about the real consequences of unbridled capitalism, income inequality, and the true motivations of people holding progressive political views. In today's America, such analysis seems unlikely to get a run. It would cut too close to the bone for comfort. Better to entertain the mob with salacious rumours about gay sex than inquire into the real forces that drive America forward into its troubled future.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The eventual flowering of the real Mr Bloom

Ettore Schmitz, 1861 - 1928, published
novels under the pen name Italo Svevo.
Modernism. Ha! Yes, it can be difficult. And also there's an element of a Cinderella complex operating within it. Such as celebrations of Bloomsday, 16 June, the day James Joyce's character Leopold Bloom steps out of his front door to flaner the streets in Dublin. Lit geeks are getting together to applaud a man who kept his mortal coil together during his life by teaching English to foreigners in the foreign cities he resided in, while writing novels at night or on days off. The misunderstood peripatetic genius, now vindicated! Enthusiasm! It's a modernism thing. Pushing stylistic boundaries to get closer to the truth of existence, the way people really are. Rejecting as outdated the old forms of expression that you learned so well as a youth, and finding new ways to tell the human story. Ways that reveal the actual mechanisms of life lying behind the sad tropes and clumsy lexical gestures of famous writers, no matter how loved or celebrated they were. You are unforgiving and critical because immortality awaits you despite the fact that you hate your job and nobody cares about your abstruse literary lucubrations. You fool.

At the turn of the 20th Century there were only so many options available for young, intelligent and intellectual wannabees. So we see Joyce teaching English, Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon translating business letters, and Ettore Schmitz clerking at a Triestine bank. It was a double life, the life these aesthetically-inclined fin-de-siecle misfits and losers dedicated to the austere and demanding muse of Modernity. Occasionally - just once in a blue moon! - two such individuals might bump together to enthuse over Shakespeare or rip the living guts out of Walter Scott, while enjoying a bottle of wine in a comfortable bourgeois drawing room in the late afternoon. The consolations of misanthropy were rare indeed.

In 1907, while living in Trieste (1905 to 1915) Joyce took on Schmitz as a student and I like to think the two men occasionally drank together while having a discussion about the things they really loved, and knew a lot about, after class finished in the afternoon. I also assume that the bond the two men formed during these tetes-a-tete led to Joyce modelling Bloom on Schmitz during the composition of Ulysses, which took place from 1914 to 1921. Because I, too, fell in love with Schmitz, during my undergrad days at uni in the 80s, and I even wrote my thesis on him. It wasn't a very good thesis but it passed, and maybe that's the point.

As if life were a novel, Joyce fully returned the favour of having been understood. Not only did he use Schmitz in his outline of Bloom but he championed Schmitz's novels in Paris, where he next ventured, securing a French translation of Schmitz's 1923 novel La Coscienza di Zeno, and this influence - yes, there were people who appreciated Joyce during his lifetime, but not that many - led to Eugenio Montale, an Italian poet (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in that same year of 1925), pushing for acceptance of Schmitz - who wrote under the pen name Italo Svevo - in his native Italy.

Cinderella strikes again, folks. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's vindication time once more. Svevo's novels had all been self-published beginning with Una vita (1892) and then Senilita (1898). The gap separating these two early novels from his final big work in 1923 is explained by the pain the lack of critical recognition for his work had caused Svevo. He had married in 1896 and after the critical failure of his second novel decided to put his energies into the business of his wife's father, eventually taking over the firm. It was a successful business making coatings used on ships to repel marine accretions using a secret chemical formula. Work led to travel around Europe. The fact that Svevo returned to writing novels at the age of 60 is an indication both of how much he loved literature, and of how disenchanted he had been with being ignored in the mainstream. It may also have been that exposure to Joyce reignited the old spark. He died from complications resulting from a car accident, aged 66.

Not many people outside Italy now read Svevo, unlike Joyce, who is globally admired and whose difficult Ulysses remains a contentious matter for many. (We won't even mention Finnegan's Wake, thank you.) But I see Svevo walking down the street in Trieste alongside his good friend, the painter Umberto Veruda, talking about books. Talking about psychoanalysis, the poems of Schiller, the writings of Marx. Shooting the breeze while all around him the perplexing machinery of industry and commerce rattled on like a restless merry-go-round. Veruda died in 1904, and in 1907 Svevo met Joyce. In the noughties before the Great War. The end of the extraordinary 19th Century, which had been a time of cultural refinement and fantastic economic growth. It was now the beginning of a new era of motorised speed, long-distance telephone calls, brilliant electrification of Europe's streets and houses. Modernity for all meant new ways of talking about the world. A few men and women - just a few - set about finding out how to write the future. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we remember them, lest the world forgets.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

There's been a lot of talk about vaginas

Painting of a flower by Georgia O'Keeffe,
American artist, 1887 - 1986.
Use of the word vagina in the media and popular culture has been more frequent in the last year or so than it was in the past, and women are often the people using it. Yesterday on Twitter a number of women participated in a hashtag, using the word in movie titles substituted for another word. It's a provocative and politically-laden gesture that points to debates around reproductive rights, especially those that are happening in the United States where religion continues to heavily inform public discourse in a striking way. Over 50 percent of Americans go to church weekly. In Australia the figure is about eight percent. In the matter of reproductive rights these figures say a lot.

What's happening in legislatures in the US often appears to us to be overly prurient, out-of-date and politically incorrect. The latest surprising event occurred in the State of Michigan:
In a debate on a bill that would restrict abortion in a number of ways, state representative Lisa Brown finished her opposition speech with: "Finally, Mr Speaker, I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but no means no." She was subsequently banned from taking part in a debate on the school employee retirement bill.
This sort of thing is unlikely to happen in Australia because there is nowhere near as much attention given here to human reproduction in our legislatures. But it could happen. If it did, I very much doubt that an elected representative would be censured to the extent we see in Michigan.

American conservatives have a particular interest in how human reproduction is handled by the laws of the land. Now that the Republican candidate for November's presidential election has been chosen we are no longer daily witness to the types of debates around reproduction that often go on in the US but are not normally reported in overseas media. But American women, or at least a lot of them, have strong views on such debates. A surprising video spoof, 'Republicans, Get In My Vagina', appeared online earlier this year showing well-known American actors getting involved in a debate that, for people in much of the developed world, seems surreal, extraordinary, and depressing by turns. Pundits speculating about the outcome in November's election have appeared on our TVs predicting that American women would overwhelmingly vote Democrat in view of the opinions expressed by candidates during the Republican primaries.

So women are taking back the words that are used for anatomical elements they alone possess. And why not? Reproduction is a characteristic human activity. You could (if you wanted) say that we are born to reproduce, to ensure the continuance of the species. Mammals appeared about 210 million years ago, we're told. Among mammals, the placentals are those species in which a placenta is employed to provide nutrients to the foetus, and to remove waste from it while it lives in the womb. Some mammals do not use this method of gestation, and are found only in Australia; we immediately recognise the echidna and the platypus, although when first examined by Europeans such animals appeared freakish. So in most of the world's species you have a reproductive system that relies on a number of female anatomical elements, including the womb, the ovaries, the placenta, the vagina, and the vulva.

Flowering plants, we're told, first appeared 140 million years ago. The flower is the reproductive part of the plant that has it. The flower is designed to appeal visually to insects, especially bees, and its reproductive mechanism evolved in the same way in different parts of the world that were separated by oceans. So native bees and flowers in Australia interact in the same way as the European honeybee and European flowers, even though the tectonic shifts that moved these continents apart happened before the emergence of these lifeforms. This means that certain organic forms are unproblematic, evolutionally speaking. They evolved in the same way on different continents because that was the most efficient way for evolution to solve the problem the species had to overcome in order to succeed in the world.

It's not surprising, then, that flowers have things in common with female reproductive organs. Nobody who grew up in the West can mistake the provenance of the painting used with this blog post, for example. Talking about her art, Georgia O'Keeffe said:
I have but one desire as a painter – that is to paint what I see, as I see it, in my own way, without regard for the desires or taste of the professional dealer or the professional collector.
The striking and ambiguous images O'Keeffe produced during her long life, starting in the 1920s (about the time American women got the vote), point to the incontrovertible fact that organic forms resemble one another. US lawmakers do not vote in their legislatures to ban orchids, so it's just strange that a legislative member could be censured for using the correct anatomical term for a part of the human reproductive system. Most reproduction uses a mechanism whereby dissimilar information is combined to produce a unique and novel code, and in order to achieve this feat the species requires physical organs that are compatible. Another of the vagina's functions is to express the developed foetus from the womb at term and it is a remarkable, and remarkably strong, organ. Anyone who has seen a child being born will know that the woman involved has no control over the events unfolding. The apparatus operates and the woman, herself, submits to the process, which can be prolonged and physically damaging. Like a car crash, they say.

It's good that women are taking back the word used for this incredible organ. The birth canal expresses and we are its utterance. In earlier civilisations the vagina was an object of worship. It is at least part of a reproductive system that permits humans to possess a large brain, the thing which distinguishes us from most other mammals. The weird thing is the complex system of signifiers humans have adopted to avoid being aware of it, not the thing itself. What is unaccountable is the sense of shame we attach to the vagina, and not its own specific appearance or its function.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Women on the cutting edge show us the way

Blink and you'll miss it, Deborah Smith's less-than-400-word story on Australian Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, who discovered telomerase, an enzyme that looks after the ends of chromosomes. Here's a short explanation of telomerase from the Journal of Cell Biology:
Without telomerase, our chromosomes would shorten incrementally with each cell division, thereby putting telomere-adjacent genes at risk of being gradually eroded.
So it's sort of a built-in repair mechanism for those marginal areas of the DNA that are still crucial for the faithful copying of chemistry's human blueprint. Blackburn won the Nobel in 2009 but she's hardly a household name here unlike Kylie Minogue, another successful Aussie export. It's an old story. Or, rather, it's not a story. Good stories infrequently get told, regardless of how important they are. The kids who met Blackburn during her recent trip to Australia thought she was worth spending time with, though. Maybe it's also an old problem that affects women especially. Last night's screening of the documentary Utopia Girls shows us that the most important individuals can get lost in the mainstream historical imagination because of the way the public sphere works. Nobody in Australia doesn't know who Ned Kelly was, but what about Mary Lee? Surely suffragettes are more worthy of our attention than bank robbers. Surely we should be celebrating the sacrifices that such women made for ideas that, today, we take for granted.

It's not every country that becomes the first to give the vote to women. The first sovereign nation, at least. As for firsts, it was New Zealand - another settler society - that first gave women the vote. But it was still a colony in 1893, whereas Australia in 1901 became a sovereign nation. The risks were greater here.

And it's not every day that someone wins a Nobel. Scientists have a lot of things to worry about. For Blackburn, additionally, there is the fact that she is a mother. But what struck me most forcibly about Blackburn's interview with Smith was her understanding of the value of the humanities. We often see science as something as distant from the study of human culture as the two terrestrial poles. But Blackburn said that "the humanity subjects like poetry and history also stood her in good stead" during her time researching the ends of chromosomes.

We readily, now, forget that the sciences actually grew directly out of the humanities, in the beginning of what we call "science" nowadays. If we go back to the point of departure for science, in the days of Elizabeth I, we find men who spent most of their time talking and writing about the world. They were reflecting the major shift in thinking in Europe from placing attention on God to focusing it squarely on mankind. It was a time of change (but what era is not?) and alongside Francis Bacon, the English author, we must also consider the discoveries of Michel de Montaigne, who lived in France at the same time as Bacon. The outer, physical world and the inner, personal world of the individual. We started to talk in detail about these two - apparently dissimilar - things at the same point in human history.

So when do women start taking up the pen in order to describe the world in their own words? In essence, this happened about 150 years after Bacon and Montaigne, in England during the 18th Century. Nowadays we celebrate endlessly the discoveries of Jane Austen - and for good reason - but perhaps we forget that she published her books in volumes without her own name. She was just "A lady". And many earlier books, by other novelists, had been published in the same guise. Austen was also by no means the first of her tribe to excel at novelising. What is most noteworthy, I think, is that it was English women who pushed forward the novel, which in those days was really a cutting-edge literary form, the app of the age. Not only did women read novels en masse, but they were often responsible for what they contained. Later, in the 19th Century, as the novel won a more solid reputation as a valid form of literature, men began to embrace it more enthusiastically, and take over the form as their own chosen mode of expression. So then we have Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy where before we had had Fanny Burney and Hannah More.

Some people complain that feminism has lost some of its power of moral suasion in the public sphere. I think that it doesn't matter if you are a woman or a man, you can still be a feminist. We should take advantage of the writings of the many talented women who publish books and other stories because their takes on the world will enrich our understanding of what the future should look like. And if we treat the discoveries of such women as Blackburn as stories, then we will be in a better position to move forward in a constructive manner, and fashion a future that truly answers the needs of all of us. We are seven billion. Half of us are women. All of us must now have our say in deciding the shape of the future.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Is the tall-poppy syndrome about lack of vision?

Matt Barrie of has much to say
about technology entrepreneurship in Australia.
Matt Barrie of has a lot to say about technology entrepreneurship in Australia. Given his deep experience in start-ups as well as his success in founding an online company, he's worth listening to. Asher Moses, technology editor at the Sydney Morning Herald has been running a series of stories in the past few weeks, titled 'Digital Dreamers', and Barrie has featured in several. The most recent story in the series looks at an IT plan being put together by the New South Wales government.

The story itself is revealing as to what governments should and should not be doing, but it is the video attached to the story that is most worth viewing.

Barrie addresses the question of what a government can do to spark new businesses in the technology sector in Australia. In an earlier video, Moses went to San Francisco to talk with Australians who have relocated Stateside to further their dreams. People I have talked to, talk about the rich ecosphere that Silicon Valley offers entrepreneurs. One man I spoke with likened it to a rainforest. The fact is that over 70 Australians with good ideas for starting new businesses have moved to San Fran in recent years simply because the place offers them opportunities that are unavailable in Australia. Australians are also popping up more often than before in Hollywood movies. We are making an impression over there. So what can government do?

It's probably not something that an American would ask, they being, in general, a bit more sceptical about the role of government in business, than we are here. Barrie talks in the video linked to from this post about offering entrepreneurs sums of money to set up operations in which many individuals can participate, thus laying the groundwork for the type of ecosphere that Silicon Valley has offered digital dreamers for decades.

This might work, but I think the problem is one of our understanding of risk, and our tolerance for it. Being able to see the potential of a good idea, or of any idea, is something that they do well in California. We do not do it well. Here, the immediate response to an inventive plan is, generally, "Is there an immediate financial reward that I can see?" rather than "How would that work?" We focus too much on latching onto established business where we can estimate a realistic financial return in the short term. Long-term planning for future financial reward is a casualty of this unenterprising attitude.

Is it the tall-poppy syndrome? (You cut down the tall poppy to make it fit with the rest.) Possibly. But it's more to do with vision. Forward-looking businesspeople might take a short-term hit, say, by spending time talking about an idea even before there is any expectation of a financial reward. It's important to be sceptical, to be sure. We don't want to waste time on unviable enterprises. But more important is allowing ideas to run. Ideas need encouragement to find their legs. Once they have taken root in enough individual minds there is more likelihood that they will begin to germinate, leading to profitability and cashflow.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Thank you, Ray Bradbury, again

Gratitude. That's what I feel when I read Margaret Atwood's piece in the Guardian on Ray Bradbury. It's sort of provoking, too, to read the thoughts of a writer of your mature age on a writer of your youth, which Bradbury most definitely was for me. You pay attention, looking to see whether the things that remain with you from those days of voracious reading are the same things that remain for her. In this case they're not. Atwood focuses on the dark elements of Bradbury's oeuvre, the doubles, the lurking evil. What remain for me are the elements of sheer, unadulterated beauty, like the echoing plains of Mars, lonely and eerie, elegant and forgotten, somehow blue and green. And endless.

This is the second time I have written to say "thank you" to Bradbury. The first time, when I was a youth, I wrote a letter and Bradbury replied, saying (I remember it accurately) that my letter was "one of the best of its kind" he had received. It came with a signed photo and the photo was not unlike the one used with this post. It was a smiling, friendly face. I was ecstatic when I got the letter. I don't know where his letter of reply is now, nor where the photo is. They are lost along with so many things, and so many memories. After all, I will be 50 this year and I "inhaled" (Atwood's word) Bradbury when I was about 14.

I should also thank my brother, of course, who introduced me to science fiction. I came late to reading, while he was a very early starter. He is also two years my senior. Before the age of 12 I was more interested in sport, and I also played the violin, which I stopped doing at around this time. I was also a compulsive drawer. But my brother gave me books by Philip Jose Farmer, whose tales of the labyrinthine ziggurat-world of the Amerindians entranced me. There were others, too. So many others. And these books provide a sort of bedrock for my morality, some sort of substrate laid down at a time when you are starting to make up your mind about what sort of person you are going to be. They are an element of your psyche that is laid down deep. Atwood talks about this in her piece. Many others who have written about Bradbury talk in a similar way about their early obsession with this smiling man.

The other two writers I read eagerly, whose books I actively sought out, during those years were Gavin Maxwell and Gerald Durrell. Maxwell wrote books about otters because he had an interest in the natural world. Durrell was also a naturalist, and wrote books about his adventures in foreign countries collecting animals for a menagerie. Then, a bit later, there was Tolkien. Oh, the aching happy-sadness when I finally finished reading The Hobbit, and wished that I could start again, not knowing what would transpire! I wanted to repeat the experience one more time, as if I had never had it. It was a selfish desire, but a natural one.

I dabbled with the counter-culture first through music, as I neared physical maturity. But it would be the counter-culture that would entice me as I transferred my attention to the larger world around the age of 18. The visual arts served as another mode of access to this world. Art and music first, then literature. Atwood says that Bradbury read Edgar Allen Poe when he was eight years old. My introduction to this American author would come a lot later in life. Initially, in my case, it was French symbolist poetry. After I began to study for an arts degree majoring in modern languages at university it was Henry Miller who accompanied me on my moral journey into the unknown world that lay beyond the confines of family and high school. First Bradbury, Maxwell and Durrell. Then Farmer, McCaffrey, Adams and Tolkein. And then Miller, Rimbaud, Montale and Garcia Marquez. And finally Nabokov. Oh, the joys! Oh, the memories!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Movie review: Safe House, dir Daniel Espinosa (2012)

Ryan Reynolds plays rookie CIA agent Matt Weston
opposite rogue operative Tobin Frost, played by
Denzel Washington, in Safe House.
Setting the film in South Africa gives the filmmakers the chance to explore for the benefit of American audiences a number of popular memes associated with that country. It's a country with a shameful past and an uncertain future, so it is suitable as a setting for this story.

There's the delapidated township at one point where the main players end up fighting the bad guys, but the writers really don't take advantage of the feral reputation such places possess. Downtown Johannesburg itself looks like a cross between any large US metropolis and Mexico City, a place where modern skyscrapers sit alongside street markets selling food to a mixed-race populace. There's the huge, new soccer stadium with happy fans tooting vuvuzelas outside on the crowded concourse. There are the long, dusty, lonely roads of the arid countryside as well as plenty of modern, metro expressways: ideal settings for car chases. There's the lonely country house with its armed occupant. There's also the cosmopolitan aspect, with Weston's French girlfriend, Ana Moreau (Nora Arnezeder), to say goodbye to in a dim subway station. But all of these things are simply window dressing to the main plot, which is about corruption within the secret world of spies.

Director Daniel Espinosa is a competent guide for the action. He's also a fairly new director in the realm of major releases. It's fitting, then, that Ryan Reynolds plays rookie CIA agent Matt Weston alongside rogue operative Tobin Frost, played by Denzel Washington. Washington fits easily into the grey-bordered cosmopolitanism of South Africa but I found the reliance on red wine as an indicator of sophistication - the prop appears at two points in the story - a bit gauche. Nevertheless Washington's loose demeanour and mobile face lend him a mercurial aspect that suits his character's rep; Frost is an ex-CIA agent who has made betraying the service his way of life.

The film starts with Weston bored with looking after a CIA safe house in Johannesberg. Then one day a group of colleagues bring Frost there and interrogate him using waterboarding techniques. We had already seen Frost being chased by a group of thugs with powerful SUVs and guns, but the CIA treats him like the enemy. So there are three sets of players in the game. When the safe house is attacked by the thugs, Weston flees with Frost, who he must protect but who he must also treat as the enemy. In the logic of such narratives a bond of friendship must develop between Frost and Weston, and sure enough this happens as the two negotiate urban and rural landscapes. Along the way, Frost and Weston talk: the experienced operative to the new player, knowledge to innocence, tainted to pure. The fact that the crew of thugs is able to track the two so closely is cause for alarm for Weston, and his confusion pushes him closer to his charge.

Watching the drama unfold, from the secure confines of Langley, Virginia, the CIA's headquarters, are a number of other players, who include a suitably hoary and experienced operative in David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson). Barlow's exchanges with Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) expose to the audience the possibility of a shadow game being orchestrated by people within the CIA itself. Who is to be trusted? Why do the thugs always know where Weston and Frost are located? What are the contents of the mysterious files that Frost has received from the MI6 agent in Johannesberg? To spare those who have not seen the film any disappointment, I suggest that they stop reading now as there are spoilers ahead.

Frost seems to know why the thugs are so adept at trailing him around the countryside, but Weston doesn't. The files turn out to be documents that, if released to the public, would discredit a number of intelligence organisations around the world, including the CIA. They would also ruin careers. But whose? When Barlow shoots Linklater it becomes clear to the viewer that he is one person who is trying to minimise damage by locating and destroying the files before they can be made public. He has something to lose, and something to be ashamed of. But Weston keeps his own counsel, thereby benefiting from Frost's insights, and when he returns to Langley to face the chief, Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepherd), he keeps his cards close to his chest and denies any knowledge of the files. As the film draws to a close Weston is seen uploading the files to the media on his mobile phone as he stalks purposefully out of the glass lobby of CIA HQ dressed in a grey, unbuttoned suit.

Whitford had offered Weston a responsible role within the CIA where he could exercise his hidden talents. We don't know if Weston took up this offer but it seems clear that he has managed to remain outside suspicion in the matter of the data release. Naturally enough, he ends up in Paris, where he has located Ana, and it is with a sly, secretive glance from her that the film ends. It's a nice touch to complete a work that contains much to enjoy for the enthusiast of espionage and action. This is a really good film, and I look forward to seeing Espinosa's next piece of work.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Gas prices will rise. Is this important to you?

This view from Mt Larcom facing south-east shows
the building site of LNG plants on Curtis Island,
opposite Gladstone, central Queensland.
Every morning and several times throughout each day I check the major Australian news websites. I'm looking for a story. I'm looking for a story about my story on gas prices in Australia's eastern states market. But the result of my search is always the same. Since my story was published on the website, The Global Mail, there has been no response from within Australia's mainstream media so I am still waiting.

Gas prices are going to go up due to the forces of international markets, but it seems noone cares, because it's not going to happen for several years. There are about 3.5 million Australian households and companies in the eastern states market - comprising Queensland, NSW, Victoria, the ACT, Tasmania and South Australia - that use gas. Households use gas for cooking, heating and hot water. The rise in gas prices will be biggest in those places where people rely most heavily on gas because of long winters. If you live in Brisbane you might only turn on the electric wall-mounted split unit for a couple of days a year. But if you live in Melbourne you will probably be using a ducted gas heating system with a boiler in your house and you'll keep the heat on for months at a time.

Why are gas prices going up? Well, it will help if you read the story. The story began in March when I was working on another story, about shale gas in Australia, for a different magazine. As I did my research it appeared to me that there was another story to be told, so I excerpted that material from the first story and set it aside. Then I contacted The Global Mail. I chose them because they run longer pieces. Because it's a website there's also less likelihood of cuts to the story. I first contacted the editor at the beginning of April and then submitted the story later that month. There was a change in editing roles so with a bit of delay I began to talk with a new person and we worked together to complete the story, which grew a bit with new material she asked for. The final version weighs in at 3200 words and comes with a nice diagram the magazine produced. There are good photos as well. It's a professional package.

As to when gas prices will start rising, that depends mainly on when the contracts that are periodically signed between gas producers and gas retailers, expire. When they expire new contracts will need to be drawn up and signed by the involved companies. In two states - NSW and South Australia - there is also a regulatory body that is involved in establishing prices (although it's not clear at this point if the price of gas for consumers in NSW will continue to be regulated next year). Those supply contracts signed between big companies that produce and deliver gas will in effect determine the price of gas households pay.

The story is so long partly because it was difficult to get definitive answers to the questions I asked. The peak bodies that serve the eastern states gas market are shy of media exposure and tend to rely for their communications purposes on periodic statements issued when research has been completed. As for the federal government, it is always hard to elicit information for stories from government departments.

But the fact remains that there are a lot of well-informed people working in this area who would have known some time back that price rises were going to happen for people living in the eastern states market once the liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants that were approved for construction by the Queensland government at Gladstone, came online. Again, that's a future event. The first LNG plant is expected to start operating in 2014. But the anticipation of higher gas prices in the eastern states market is already impacting on the long-term contracts signed bewteen gas producers and industrial gas users.

In the story I look to Western Australia and the experience there, where LNG has been produced and exported for over 20 years from the North West Shelf project. To write my story I also made a phone call to a couple of industry experts in the US but I did not include that information because the dynamics within the North American market are different from those that determine prices in Australia.

I guess the main problem, apart from the fact that the things I'm writing about are to happen some time down the track, is that the gas business is incredibly complex. It simply takes a fair amount of time to explain all the ins and outs. Some people will not have the patience. Knowing this, I struck out all the material I had written about overseas gas production and overseas gas demand. But in short, urbanisation and economic development in Asia is pushing governments there, especially in China, to look for cheap, clean sources of energy. Gas is their choice. And while low domestic prices in North America have led to government approval for the construction of gas export terminals in the US and Canada, the expectation is that soaring Asian demand will continue to keep prices in the Asian gas market high.

It is our upcoming linkage, via the Gladstone LNG export terminals, to that market that will lead to higher gas prices inside Australia, where we have traditionally had very low retail prices.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Poverty leads to identity crisis for Australia's newspapers

The crisis in the news business is of course news. For the past week, Australian newspapers have been reporting on this crisis, a crisis that has been exacerbated by the Eurozone crisis which is pulling down the share price of companies across the market. I assume that newspapers do not like it when they become news, as when Fairfax journalists walked off the job to protest management shifting subediting services across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. And a larger story is the one that involves the push by Fairfax shareholder Gina Rinehart for a seat, or seats, on the board of the company. Fairfax managers have been making efforts to send the message - to Rinehart as well as to readers - that the company's editorial independence would be maintained. But as the share price continues to slide and as time passes the matter will reemerge again.

It did today, with Rinehart adviser Jack Cowin appearing in a news story on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald. Cowin is the man behind the fast-food restaurant chain Hungry Jacks. Spruiking financial success as an excuse, Cowin clearly delineates the Rinehart position vis-z-vis editorial influence.
Asked about whether Mrs Rinehart would interfere with editorial policy at The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Cowin cited a recent article saying: ''It would be like Qantas not allowing its directors to talk about airplanes - because editorial policy - that is the product.
''What Fairfax is trying to achieve is directors, who have a financial interest in the company, don't phone up journalists and try to influence them. However, the purpose of a company is to try to make a profits and if the editorial policy … is not optimising the opportunity then it's the role of the directors to try to change the direction,'' he said.
He also said that maybe having a few more Andrew Bolts on staff at Fairfax broadsheets would "balance the message that's being communicated to the community". And, yes, Cowin said, ''Gina Rinehart would have a stronger right-wing view than probably the average liberal journalist.''

Over at The Australian, which is itself set to be subject to a new round of organisational adjustment in the next few weeks, media editor Stephen Brook ran a piece analysing an internal communications video Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood rolled out recently. In the video, Hywood is said to have criticised "silos" within the larger company, and "Dysfunctional behaviour". Brook wrote:
Hywood was right to state that newspaper businesses must tear down their silos. Staff at The Sydney Morning Herald can no longer regard The Age as inferior competition, and vice versa. Print journalists can no longer regard web reporters as churnalists of wire copy, nor digital journalists see their print colleagues as lazy dinosaurs. Daily newspaper staff can no longer battle with their Sunday newspaper colleagues.
These stories illustrate something of the anxiety that is currently plaguing newspapers in Australia. It's not a uniquely Australian situation, of course. Newspapers throughout the developed world are struggling to find ways to monetise their content now that the days of steady streams of lucrative classified advertising income have passed forever. This economic crisis is translating into a crisis of identity, as Michael Gawenda points out in his contribution to The Australian of 4 June.

Both the piece by Brook and the one by Gawenda are paywalled, by the way. Readers who would like to remain in the loop are advised to set up a subscription to The Australian. Think of it as if you were doing a public service. If you subscribe you are helping contribute to the public good, even though you may object to some elements of the newspaper's editorial policy or to the reputation of its ultimate owner.

Gawenda has a ton of experience in newspapers, having served as the editor-in-chief of The Age, a Fairfax broadsheet. He now teaches. In his piece, Gawenda asks what the solution to the current crisis in the newspaper business would be. He outlines what a revitalised newspaper would do and what it would not do. Here is an excerpt:
Its core business would be news, business and sport. What is news must be redefined. No story based on a news conference, a press release or an announcement would make this paper.
This paper would tell stories rich in detail, based on painstaking reporting. There would be no attempt to cover breaking news.
Great writing would be mandatory. Narrative storytelling would be encouraged. Editors would ask themselves these questions: Is this story compelling? Is it unique? Is it well written? News for a newspaper can no longer be just about what an editor decides happened yesterday.
All the so-called lifestyle sections would be migrated to online or dropped altogether. This does not mean food, entertainment and the arts would receive no coverage in this reinvented newspaper.
The future of newspapers lies not in more commentary and analysis. Papers must not become what The Independent in Britain has become, in the phrase of one of its editors - a "viewspaper". The internet is awash with commentary and analysis. More and better reporting should be the goal.
Newspapers need to build on their strengths, above all, a sense that what the newspaper is offering its readers can't be found anywhere else. Do we have the talent in Australia to produce a newspaper half the size of those we currently produce, with maybe half the staff, but full of great reporting? I think so.
I expect to see more and more pieces like this that analyse what a newspaper should be. Gawenda's contribution involves completely reimagining the role of the newspaper, along lines already established by, for example, The Global Mail, a philanthropically-funded website that exclusively runs longer features. But "no attempt to cover breaking news"? The Global Mail has already had its first identity crisis, last month, when founding editor Monica Attard left. The change came on the back of visitor statistics that were apparently less than exciting. It appears that editors are now trying to tie their stories closer to the news cycle, even though the original vision made a point of separating editorial policy from topicality. Maybe "taking a step back from the breathless, 24/7 news cycle" does not mean cutting yourself off completely from current issues.

If I was to give an opinion it would be that Gawenda is right, and that newspapers must concentrate their efforts on "what the newspaper is offering its readers [that] can't be found anywhere else". If news is important (for the functioning of democracy), and if the current model is not working, then it's probably necessary to hunker down mentally and ask yourself what is unique and truly valuable about journalism. There are plenty of opinion sites that will be happy to run self-interested pieces from organisations, companies, and think tanks. There might turn out to be even more of these websites if newspapers decide to turn away from running minimally-edited press releases, and instead focus their effort on producing really good, well-researched and strong journalism that can work to change the paradigm in whichever sphere of interest it focuses on. That, to me, is journalism at its best.

And if Fairfax managers are really concerned about editorial influence by a mining magnate, that tells me they too are concerned about reputation, gravitas, and influence. If independence is the cornerstone of influence, and influence is the key to financial success, then the way forward is clearer. It's just a matter of how long managers will allow the business to shrink before they take the plunge, and institute a new vision that will translate into a new formulation for the newspapers themselves.

It would be good if more journalists, including freelancers, were to weigh in on this debate about the nature of news. Such stories will continue to crop up as long as the share prices of media companies remain subdued. And we await news of the changes that Kim Williams, the CEO of News Limited, has in mind for the newspapers under his control.

Monday, 4 June 2012

My first YouTube video

Robert Herrick, poet, 1591 - 1674.
Every day people load hundreds or thousands of hours of video to YouTube but despite having joined with an account in February 2007 I only loaded my first video to the site yesterday. It wasn't planned, it's just that I had time and I was tired of reading all the usual stuff in the news. You can skip this written intro and go down to the embedded video to watch it if you prefer, but in it I talk about the reason for doing the video, at the beginning. It's a bit of a ramble, this video. The structure was determined at the outset, I guess. After lunch I just turned on the voice recorder and started talking about Robert Herrick, and specifically about a book of Herrick's poems I had purchased some ten years ago, and which I had mailed to my father to read when he was still alive. So the narrative divagates somewhat. It's like this blog; there's no specific aim or goal. It's not an investigative piece. It just serves to illustrate the way I like to talk about poetry.

To get to such a point you need more than knowledge, though. There's the issue of production and that was covered about six months ago when I bought a copy of the Sony Vegas video editing software program. My intention at the time was to do a video about Jane Austen. I had grand plans. Naturally, as happens often in such situations, real life intrudes and scuppers the dream. So I'd never used the Vegas software before yesterday, when I found it surprisingly easy to manipulate. Assembling the images for the video was not hard, just time-consuming, and this took the form of rapid Google image searches as I moved along the timeline filling up the space; the audio recording is about 18 minutes long. The quality is not great, with lots of bonks and sighs to irritate the viewer, but it is fit-for-purpose. Once the timeline has been filled up with images you need to make the video, and rendering it took about 90 minutes. After that, loading the video to YouTube took another 30 minutes.

As always with these kinds of things - with a blog post or with a video - the idea is to provoke discussion and to contribute to the stock of knowledge available online. Some people might call it 'engagement', which is a bit of a catchphrase nowadays in the era of social media. There are errors, of course. At one point I talk about Shakespeare's Macbeth being performed in the 1590s, which is not true. But it's almost true. It would be a pity if a viewer picked up on that one fact and made that the sole target of his or her comment. But then, at least you'd know someone had watched the whole thing. You'd also know that someone knew the truth. I guess if people find things to disagree with and make a comment to that effect you find yourself engaged in a debate, and I think that is the main thing.

What else is important? There would be two sets of people who might be interested in my video. One is people who like Herrick. These people will appreciate the fact that someone in my country has taken a shine to a fairly obscure poet. That someone likes his poetry for its own sake, and finds things in it to enjoy. The other set of people who might appreciate my video is those who like reading history and literature from ages past. For these people, the video contains quite a lot of my ideas on changing styles in literature over the centuries. And then there's the personal dimension, when I talk about the fact that I sent the book of Herrick's poems to my father, who died just over a year ago. The video also talks, therefore, about me and my past life, in an oblique but not a difficult way.

Alas, poor Herrick. I knew him not, but I have come to know something about him. The only reason this is possible is because he published poems. As with the ancient Egyptians, who built with stone that has lasted down the millennia, our dead poets endure in their work and in ancillary writings such as history, biography, and criticism. If there is a Dead Poets Society, perhaps I should join. But perhaps I will just continue making rambling digressions on our shared cultural inheritance.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Let's hope Charles III keeps his head

Top: "Ouch!"; middle: "Erk"; bottom: "Um..."
Lots of people are paying attention to the British royals again starting this weekend because of the Diamond Jubilee for Elizabeth II.

The what?

I didn't know either so I called my mother to ask. "The Queen has been on the throne for 60 years," she told me. Oh, OK.

News of this sort, once affirmed in this way, automatically gets one thinking of what's going to happen when Elizabeth II starts thinking about handing over the reins to her successor, which will be her son, Charles. For anyone who has a basic understanding of history this conjures up some interesting images (see right). It has been 327 years since we had a Charles on the throne, after all. And the British monarch is Australia's head of state. So we should give a bit of an expletive. Not too much, but a bit.

Before we get to the Charles thing it's worth noting that British queens tend to reign for a long time. During the Renaissance Elizabeth I held the reins for 46 years and during the 19th Century Victoria held them for 63 years. So maybe Elizabeth II is waiting for the right moment to hand over the controls to her son, namely when she gets past Queen Victoria in the endurance stakes. Just a thought. Or it may be a cultural thing. The most significant thing about Elizabeth I was that she was on the throne when William Shakespeare was active, and Victoria had Charles Dickens working while she was alive. Both men were Very Good Writers and enjoy an extraordinary quantum of esteem among people who read books. Elizabeth II had Anthony Burgess and Salman Rushdie to adorn her reign, which is not quite the same thing I guess. With changing times other, lesser-known British authors might lift their stakes in the collective consciousness and eclipse both of these men. Who knows? Maybe the Queen is waiting for definitive signs of this nature before she steps down and goes off to feed her dogs in quiet tranquillity.

So who was Charles I?

This king had his head chopped off in public in London in 1649. Ouch! From his point of view this was not a Good Thing but lots of people were happy about it. What happened? It's complex of course, but basically Elizabeth I had handled the sectarian struggles in England quite well, and she also got along with Parliament in a constructive manner but Charles I annoyed both these sets of constituents with the result that he came to declare war against Parliament, lost the war, and was killed. Ostensibly it was about taxes. Charles I made it a habit to shut down Parliament because he thought its members were a bit uppity, asking for things he didn't like, and so when it came to raising money for his undertakings he decided to levy taxes without parliamentary fiat. Shades of 1776 here, right? Englishmen hated being asked to pay money to their rulers without being asked via Parliament. He lost the war because of Oliver Cromwell, a soldier who developed novel ways of fighting and who was the first Army general to use remote-controlled drones against an enemy combatant.

The people wanted to make Cromwell king but he said, "No." He was styled Lord Protector instead. When he died, aged 59, his son lasted nine months in the role his father had held before being forced to quit and then Charles II came across from France where he had been living during the Commonwealth. Apart from instituting a new form of government in the British Isles, Cromwell is now notable for having had John Milton writing during this period. Milton, as is now known, invented moving pictures, Dolby Surround Sound and the Moog synthesiser. But nobody reads him now outside universities, which is a pity.

Charles II liked girls and also lived at a time when British scientists were doing some pretty cool stuff. He was not a geek, however, although he established the Royal Society. There is nothing else of interest associated with the reign of Charles II because apart from John Dryden, who cleaned up the language, nobody wrote anything interesting during these years apart from the minor poet Robert Herrick, who wrote pretty verses about girls.

As for Charles III, the only thing we need to know is that he went to high school in Australia and married the Wrong Woman. He is also quite outspoken and has a reputation for saying controversial things. He wrote a children's book and then married the Right Woman. He has two sons, one of whom once wore a Nazi costume to a party. The other one will be king and he will be styled William V.

Just quickly on the Williams. William I was the guy who, in 1066, brought horses and soldiers from northern France across the English Channel and took over the country. The most critical result of this event was that English school children find it easy to learn French because there are so many French-based words in the English language. And nobody now can read Chaucer in the original. Nobody knows anything about William II so I'll pass quickly to William III, a Dutchman who was invited by Parliament to invade England with horses and soldiers in 1688. This event is known as the 'Glorious Revolution' because it resulted in the rise of the middle class in England, and the winners always get to write the history. The event was about stopping a Catholic from becoming king. Yay.

As for William IV, he ruled just before Victoria did and was in charge when a number of major reforms to English law were pushed through Parliament. These things are worth reading about so go to Wikipedia and then maybe go out and buy some books so that you can learn more about them. Possibly it's also worth mentioning that by the time of William IV the transfer of real power in England from the king to Parliament was pretty much a done deal. The next William has no children yet but at least he's married, and he's apparently married to the Right Woman, which is a Good Thing.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Journalism aspiration matrix

This is just a doodle I drew a couple of weeks ago when I was thinking about what it means to be a journalist. It conveys ideas about the effort required to do a story and the importance of that story in the larger scheme of things. If you have any comments to add to a discussion, please add them at the end of this post.

The diagram above takes as its point of departure the work that a journalist does. You need to find sources who can talk on the record about a topic, and you need to angle your topic so that it either fits snugly into the current news landscape or else angle it so that it is more future-facing. In either case there will be some sort of topical hook, which usually comes at the start of the story. The diagram above is designed to illustrate the nature of work involved in producing news stories. The diagram below, from a person on Twitter, is looking at how public information can be schematised to include all of its forms.

This is a view of public information that incorporates fiction as well as news. There are of course some examples of fiction that are based on fact, such as All That I Am by Anna Funder. But in general fiction can only be plausible even though it might contain some elements of truth, even though they may be very accurate ones. This person is working through her own ideas about the nature of public information which are very different from mine. In my view, the horizontal axis shown in the diagram here would be labelled 'plausible' (on the right) and 'true' (on the left). Fiction essentially flatters the reader by flirting around the edges of what is commonly known. If you go too fast you lose the reader's interest. If you go too slow you also lose the reader's interest because he or she gets bored. News stories operate in the same way but they also remain grounded in fact where fiction can improvise in a plausible manner to achieve its goals. The truism in journalism school is that journalism is the first draft of history. Whether fact can ever be based on fiction is a question that psychologists and statisticians would have to answer. It is not for me to say.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Marriage equality ripe to get the nod

From film Ciao by Malaysian director Yen Tan.
Things change. In politics and the public sphere, which holds such an enduring fascination for the general public, events alter the balance for or against. For or against what? Well, regarding gay marriage the US president's recent announcement that we would run in November on a platform favouring marriage equality has altered the debate materially. In the UK, the Conservative party is set to legalise gay marriage, according to the Guardian. In Australia, the NSW Upper House has now passed a motion in favour of gay marriage by a significant margin after the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, allowed MPs to vote on their consciences. And whether or not he thinks or says that the result will not put pressure on the federal Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, to back gay marriage, the fact is that the fact remains.

Abbott is looking a bit shakier this week after having dominated in both the leadership poll and the party poll for a number of months. But then there's Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who doesn't back gay marriage but who would allow MPs to vote on their consciences. Abbott would not.

Liberals in the US have been populating the internet with comparisons between anti-marriage equality views and outdated racist views from the 50s and 60s, when it was illegal in many US states for a black person and a white person to marry. With material like this circulating, Gillard and Abbott are looking distinctly antedeluvian in their views on gay marriage. It seems as though the tide is turning forcefully in favour of marriage equality. Finally. It's taken decades to get this far but the politicians who could determine the outcome one way or another continue to dither and prevaricate, and continue to function as magnets for public feeling, which has turned very much in favour of marriage equality.

Let's say that Abbott wins the next federal election, in 2013. As a practicing Catholic he's not going to let gay marriage get through on his watch. But then it's just a matter of time, again, before the next Labor government appears. When that happens, marriage equality will most definitely get through. There's absolutely no doubt about it at all. It will be that administration's 'Sorry' moment, and the Australian population will breathe a long-restrained sigh of collective relief. But let's say that Gillard wins in 2013. If this happens, I predict that marriage equality will get through then as well, just that it will happen about six years earlier than if the Coalition wins in 2013.

In a sense, the death-knell sounded for the view that marriage should remain exclusively a right for heterosexuals when Bob Katter's party launched its attack on marriage equality. Katter represents a particularly unpleasant, xenophobic, and narrow-minded slice of whichever electorate he seeks to represent. He achieved about eight percent of the vote in the recent Queensland election. But even if you triple that number you're only looking at about one quarter of the electorate nationally that strongly opposes gay marriage. This red-neck minority is not the base that most Australians want shaping our collective image.

We want to be viewed as inclusive, pluralist, and tolerant. It's a matter of the way we see ourselves. In a real sense, gay pride and gay rights are a matter of national pride. The way we treat our minorities reflects on the way others view us. Our federal major party leaders are turning Australia into a global embarassment. Now, I'm not gay but I have been following this debate for a very long time. It's time. Really it is time for a change.