Monday, September 30, 2019

Myall Creek

Myall Creek Memorial

I started to tear up from about 20 kilometres out. I started looking at the landscape as it may have been in 1838; tried to imagine how it might have looked then. I tried to imagine Aboriginal people wandering the land as it was and was just overcome with the realisation that it was THEIR land. In a way I had never really grasped before. And it has been taken from them. So I was already filled with a deep sadness before I arrived at the Myall Creek memorial.
Happily (for me) there was no one else there. Just a dusty carpark with a sign pointing down a winding track. I reached the monument and just let it all wash over me …..
Off and on over the years I had heard tales of Aboriginal massacres. Like many Australians I imagine I just somehow pushed the information aside with thoughts like ‘it was a long time ago’ or ‘it wouldn’t  have been that many people’ or ‘it was just the same as what happened in many places where the New World met ancient cultures’. An inevitable consequence of progress or something. It didn’t really have much impact on me.
But I have now read Henry Reynolds’ work. (The Other Side of the Frontier, This Whispering in Our Hearts). Reynolds lays bare a tale that has been ignored for more than 200 years. And the most recent research reveals that at least 6,000 and up to possibly 70,000 Aboriginal people were killed during the first decades of white settlement. We will never arrive at a finalaccurate figure; suffice to say it was in the thousands.

What sets Myall Creek apart is not the fact that a group of Aboriginal people were killed there in cold blood. That, it turns out, routinely happened all over the land – but in this case witnesses came forward and at least some of the perpetrators were tried, convicted, and hanged. So while the simple monument at Myall Creek was created to honour the memory of the 28 people who were killed there, in the shameful absence of memorials for the other tens of thousands who suffered a similar fate, it also stands as a de facto monument for all of them, and is a stark reminder of the fact that white Australia has yet to fully reconcile its past.


The fact that white Australia has yet to confront and accept this part of our past is sickly ironic in the light of our obsession with the “Lest We Forget’ mantra for soldiers who fell in wars.
As far back as I can remember I heard about ‘the Aboriginal problem.’ As I grew older and lived longer I came to understand the complexity and depth of this ‘problem.’ I don’t know the answer but I still see evidence of an ongoing, persistent trauma that has reverberated down through the generations. As Stan Grant says in his recent documentary, TheAustralian Dream, it’s hard not to inherit the DNA of trauma, and as long as that trauma persists there will be cultural breakdown.
And I have a longing to quieten the whispering in our hearts that Henry Reynolds speaks of. To once and for all reconcile our past with our present, and publicly acknowledge what we did to indigenous Australians. Perhaps this kind of meaningful reconciliation just might act as a circuit breaker and lead to Aboriginal Australians once again feeling like they belong in their own land. Feel as if they are respected. Valued.
Right now I suspect many of them don’t feel any of these things.
Australians need to talk about this stuff. We need to know the truth of our past. I taught Australian history in schools in the 80s and found no reference to the events that Reynolds writes about. These materials – letters, newspaper articles, public notices, church correspondence, reports to the British government, all documenting decades of atrocities, have lain hidden and ignored for two centuries.

Gradually I experienced the central truth of Aboriginal religion: that it is not a thing by itself but an inseparable part of a whole that encompasses every aspect of daily life, every individual, and every time – past, present, and future. It is nothing less than the theme of existence, and as such constitutes one of the most sophisticated and unique religious and philosophical systems known to man. (Richard Gould, American archaeologist, quoted in Deep Time Dreaming.)



Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Eclipse of Liberalism - Australia 2019


America already has Trump. Australia has Scott the evangelist Morrison, and Britain has just chosen Boris Johnson as their PM. Scott Morrison belongs to a church that believes that personal wealth is a sign that God is shining on you for God’s sake!!!! The fact that such characters have risen to be heads of nations bothers me for many reasons, and I grapple with the idea that the contemporary world has made such choices.
I wrote elsewhere about how I felt about the Trump triumph, and that feeling of being on the sidelines grows stronger. My brother suggested I read up on ‘the eclipse of liberalism’ to try and put these feelings into some kind of context and I’ve begun that process.
It’s strange for someone like me to accept that my views and values are liberal. So called small ‘l’ liberal. In Australia the Liberal Party is of the right, and when someone is referred to as ‘a Liberal’ it is usually to denote someone that has conservative views and more likely leans towards the political right, and vote for the Liberal Party.
I have learned that there is an optimistic tradition within Western democracies which holds that the world is on an inevitable trajectory towards a more moral and ethical future; that we as a species would continue to evolve and come to see a kind of collective enlightenment where people are cared for, and mutual understanding of human differences would flourish. That certainly sums up how I had seen my world until recently, and that’s why Trump’s victory came as such a shock. It has been surprising to learn that me and my kind (small ‘l’ liberals in a democratic nation) are merely a type peculiar to a certain set of circumstances and that many in the world don’t see existence as an inevitable path to a collective moral and ethical betterment.  Trump voters are clearly in this camp.
To flesh this out a little more I want to list some of the issues that might illustrate what I’m talking about:
Mental health care: funding for treatment and care of those with mental health needs has been progressively cut over the last decade. The result: a health system bogged down by people with mental health needs seeking treatment and taking up hospital beds because there is nowhere else for them to go. Ditto for the prison system. It is estimated that upwards of 40% of prisoners have mental health issues and would be better treated in more appropriate facilities and not jailed. (For the record Holland has closed more than 20 prisons since 2013.)
Detention of refugees: Australia has imprisoned several hundred refugees on offshore islands for 6 years now. In the 70s and 80s Australia had a bipartisan approach that used a system of offshore refugee camps to methodically process applications for asylum and refugee status. There was an orderly and continuous flow of migrants from war zones that was humane and of practical advantage to an Australian economy that always depends on a level of migration to help it grow. The present charismatic governor of South Australia, Hieu Van Le, and comedian/painter Anh Do are two who found our shores via this enlightened bipartisan approach. Now we just round boat people up, dump them on an offshore island under insufferable and (secret) conditions and leave them there.   
Levels of welfare: Australia has not increased the Newstart allowance, the primary source of income for unemployed people for 25 years!!!
Privatisation: bit by bit, little by little, our governments of all political persuasions surrender provision of basic services to the private sector. Here in South Australia we have been hit particularly hard by extreme increases in the price of gas, water, and electricity – all since privatisation. And soon our trains will go the same way. And health services. Bit by bit basic services are sold to the private sector who of course run them as businesses to make a profit and gouge the consumer accordingly.
Climate change; when over 90% of the world’s scientific community believe that, based on all the available evidence, climate change is a fact and that it is at least in part man made, the refusal of conservative governments to accept and confront these facts with proactive solutions is just monumental stupidity. The world’s leading naturalist, David Attenborough, is surprised and dismayed that Australia is governed by those who continue to deny the science behind climate change.
The Planet: nothing else matters. And yet we continue to plunder – coal. Dump plastic in the oceans. Sell our water to wealthy agriculturalists and shrug as tens of thousands of fish die in our national river system. Do nothing as foreign seals devour native species in the Coorong. Australia has the highest rate of animal extinctions on the planet by a golden mile. And we would rather open another coal mine and further endanger one of the world’s greatest natural resources, our Great Barrier Reef. And don’t believe the nay-sayers - Australia can run on sun and wind and hydro energy. Germany has committed to closing all coal plants by 2030, and nuclear power plants by 2022.
Freedom of the press: recently ABC journalists had their computers and files confiscated by Federal police because they dared investigate a story about alleged appalling behaviour of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. And now they want to finger-print these same journalists. There is an organisation called the Institution of Public Affairs (IPA) that is closely aligned with conservative forces and whose avowed agenda is to ‘privatise’ (read shut down) the ABC. These attempts to curtail a free press are the tip of an iceberg. They are coupled with a series of incremental incursions on the rights to privacy of average Australians – all in response to an undue obsession with terrorism – and are part of a slippery slope to an authoritarian state.
There are many other issues I could add but this will do for a start. I have probably conflated a number of issues here but according to my liberal values levels of public spending on education, health, and welfare should never be cut. They should be indexed against the cost of living and never become the focus of political wrangling. A humane and decent society has at its core a desire and willingness to assist and reach out to those in need. Australia’s foreign aid budget is the least generous it has ever been. We refuse to pay the unemployed a decent minimum dole, we lock up people who need proper mental health care, and we maroon people seeking asylum in offshore hell holes for years on end. Australia was not like this once. When did we get so mean? Where is our heart?
I feel as if the wheel has turned quite honestly. I feel like these small ‘l’ liberal values are no longer what drives us. I don’t see a society that cares about its weakest and most vulnerable citizens anymore. I don’t see any sense of an ethical or social responsibility that might guide how we treat the underdog and show compassion as a society. Of course there are individuals doing good deeds out there every day, but as a nation I believe Australia has lost its soul. Liberalism has indeed been eclipsed.
There are pockets of hope, and they seem to be mostly in Europe. I have already mentioned Holland and Germany; Finland is achieving remarkable things in education and is enjoying all time low recidivism rates by making prison cells more like hotel rooms – the focus is on rehabilitation not punishment. But we here in Australia have just voted for a government that eschews such liberalism and panders to some ‘quiet Australians’ who just want to ‘get on’ – whatever that means. I think it’s code for ‘bugger you Jack. I’m OK’; a government that seems stuck in past paradigms without any of the kindnesses of previous eras. And now we can sit back and watch the incompetent wrecking ball that is Boris Johnson, cheered on by his mate Donald, before he wines and dines Scomo.
It simply beggars belief, but a significant part of the English speaking world has lurched to the right.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Bordertown

Holden Street Theatres – The Studio, Fri 5 Apr.
Bordertown is a convenient half way marker on road trips between Adelaide and Melbourne. Apparently Bob Hawke was also born there. He spent most of his childhood in Perth but a trip back to the town as an adult and a chance visit to a local hairdresser was enough to generate the urban myth that Bob’s silver bodgie hairstyle was born in Bordertown.
This is important to Patricia Barnes, the local hairdresser. In fact hair in general is important. It has to be or she has nothing. She complements her empty life with the inane trivia of celebrities because they matter. They’re successful. And she decides that her daughter must escape to Hollywood where people find success.
Chris Asimos as Emilio Sanchez bursts on to the stage and regales us with his charisma and de rigeur larger than life star behaviour. He’s funny, and genuine, and he falls completely for that girl from somewhere near the border. The scene where he and Felicity (Kim Fox) flirt with each other on first meeting is beautifully choreographed and exudes romantic chemistry.
Dennis the taxi driver doesn’t really go for this celebrity stuff. Although he has a tendency to fall under the thumb of the women in his life, in his own yokel way he’s become his own man. His quirky manner provides a glimpse of the Australian psyche that provides a telling contrast to the Hollywood way. It’s a lovely and endearing performance from Brendan Cooney.
Bordertown is an entertaining and funny show, with strong and convincing performances all round. Katie O’Reilly’s portrayal of Patricia is wonderful. But beneath the humour is the sad fact that many of us seem to need this link with the lives of celebrities to make our own lives more palatable. People’s lives become more important if they’ve had a chance meeting with a celebrity, or they know someone who is a cousin of a famous actor, etc etc. It’s really quite pathetic.
But that is Patricia’s reality. You have to find that connection with fame, and it matters not if it’s true or otherwise. What matters is that people believe it happened, that you’ll be remembered and talked about for years after, because you knew someone famous. And you cared about your hair!

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

What then, are our responsibilities, as elders, in this world which carries the scent and spoor of our youthful enthusiasms?


A colleague on the TALO email list (yes there are some still) posed this question in regard to our collective role in promoting use of the internet before it all went wrong. I felt compelled to answer: 

I don’t know if this was a serious question but I’m going to assume it was. Because this has been on my mind. Where the Internet and social media has led us has me worried. And when Tim Berners-Lee says much the same I feel my concerns are well founded.
I’m trying to reconcile my own part in all of this. Like many on this list I was an enthusiastic advocate for teaching and learning online. I don’t know if I was an advocate of the Internet in particular. I was certainly fascinated by its potential, and what it might do to our lives. But I don’t think I was an advocate per se in the way that people like Mark Pesce may have been. I remember Pesce boasting unashamedly that ‘the Internet is coming and I am a pusher!”
I still stand by the Internet’s potential to improve education, in the hands of experienced and wise facilitators. But there are still so few of them. But after 22 years of watching its impact I am worried about what the internet and mobile technologies have done to our lives.
I am feeling a sense of professional embarrassment. How can I/we not have seen this coming? For me it’s connected with the election of Trump. That stunned me. I was one of those who thought it would never happen. Don’t laugh, but I thought humanity was evolving to a point where trogladytes like Trump would be left behind.  It was as if his election snapped me out of a na├»ve dream.
Similarly I knew the potential of social media to spread evil, but like all good fairytales I thought good would prevail. And it still might. But with all the good it has done, it has connected all those with a message of hate and division. It fosters unrest based on lies and misinformation in Ukraine, genocide in Myanmar, subverts democratic processes, and provides a platform for murderers, racists and child pornographers to peddle their wares.
And I do think it’s time to call a spade a spade and declare as T Bone Burnett has done that it is stealing our culture on the basis of some flimsy pretext like ‘all knowledge wants to be free’.
So I do feel like making a public apology quite honestly, where I can admit that I was naive about a lot of things. That may absolve my conscience but do I/we who were at the vanguard of the changes have a responsibility to try now and fix up the mess and redress some of the mistakes?

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Laraaji


RCC Fringe – Elder Hall, Sun 17 Mar.

Like many, I was introduced to the concept of ambient music via Brian Eno’s Music For Airports in the late ‘70s. LARAAJI was ‘discovered’ by Eno around that time. Ambient music is about space and silence as much as it is about sound. LARAAJI’s single composition 90 minute concert began slowly with lots of space and silence. Gradually the sonic voids are filled as he builds a wall of soothing sounds using an array of instruments (zither, kalimba – the African thumb piano, gong, brushes, bells and other assorted percussion) and boxes of effects with sounds of nature and multiple looping possibilities.
Musical events like these tend to challenge preconceptions and can lead to fascinating ‘what is music?’ discussions. It’s interesting that in the contemporary and related unsound movement the performer(s) is barely even visible at live events, and there was a similar sense of that here too. It’s meditative music where the agent or performer is of less consequence than normally is the case but it was intriguing to see the orange clad LARAAJI play the various parts of musician, composer, technician, and percussionist. The ‘kid in a candy shop’ analogy came to mind!
It was largely instrumental with some occasional spoken sounds of affirmation – ‘light is everywhere,’ ‘I am consciousness,’ ‘pulsation’ – and vocalised effects that were looped back into mesmerising chants.
Ambient music has the potential to bore or exhilarate – it’s your state of mind that dictates how you receive it. After a period of adjustment I settled in and just let it all wash over me. A unique experience – literally. I’m sure LARAAJI’s live compositions are never played the same way twice.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Ukulele Death Squad – “Fifty Shades of Uke”

Regal Theatre, Sat, March 16th
Arriving on stage looking like the Blues Brothers’ ukulele cousins the Ukulele Death Squad don’t waste any time launching into their peculiar brand of musical freneticism. Three ukes and a saxophone is the line up as they attack their original songs with a dramatic and physical style that exudes and creates energy.
The three ukulele players may be playing little instruments that look like ukes, but such is contemporary sound technology that much of the time they sound equivalent to the standard bass, rhythm and lead guitar line-up of many groups. They do play songs where they actually sound like they’re playing ukulele, but often they occupy this curious space that crosses the lines of many musical boundaries – think Dan Hicks, or Pokey LaFarge. It’s a blend of jazz, swing, gypsy, flamenco and a fast paced shuffle. But whatever it is they’re playing they play it really well. Julian Ferguson on baritone and Ben Roberts are almost in the virtuoso class such is the speed of their playing – all the while hamming it up with comic movement like Split Enz used to do. It’s no mean feat, compelling to watch, and must be totally exhausting to play.
Lots of comic banter spills out between songs – Eamonn Burke on bass and Reuben Legge on sax seems to cop most of it, but they also give plenty of it back. A deliberately out of key sax solo played with great feeling was a really funny moment. Everyone shares responsibility for vocals and many songs feature all four voices in harmony.
The Ukulele Death Squad has created something special and the big crowd was testament to their appeal. They’ve cannily exploited the incredible recent rise in popularity of the ukulele. Someone wrote that the Death Squad may just make the ukulele cool again. Well it’s mission accomplished! I think I might just go and buy one.

(This review also published in The Clothesline.)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Ralph McTell - Church Of The Trinity (14 March, 2019)

Streets Of London is 50 years old this year, and both the song and its composer are aging gracefully.
Ralph McTell is a Londoner born and bred but learned to play guitar by listening to black American blues and ragtime players like Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Blake, so there’s a lot more in his musical repertoire than just standard folk. Indeed, the breadth and scope of his original material covering several decades is just awesome.
In a wonderful concert he played songs about his childhood (Barges, Mr Connaughton), a mate he met on a building site (the beautiful From Clare To Here), his affinity for Australia – a song written for Billy Connolly (In The Dreamtime), a paean to the poetry of Dylan Thomas, and a dedication to the black musicians he is indebted to in what was my favourite of the night – The Ghost of Robert Johnson. Inevitably there was reference to those who have gone, and After Rain was dedicated to his old friend and musical collaborator Maartin Alcock (ex-Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull). McTell suggests “tears refresh the soul.”
Every song comes with an interesting tale – told many times I’m sure – but still told again with sincerity and enthusiasm for us as if he were telling it for the first time. And the music aside, that has always been one of McTell’s strengths as a performer. He just has that knack of effortlessly bringing you into his world – two hours of chat and songs just flew by.
I could be picky and say I noticed a few occasions where he didn’t quite hit the melody as purely as he might have decades back, but his voice is still strong, deep and rich. His songs are also rich in metaphor (Peppers And Tomatoes), and frequently come with a tinge of melancholy but it’s more the pensive type of melancholy that comes from an acceptance of what life brings rather than sadness. An evening with Ralph McTell is in fact quite life affirming. He certainly refreshed my soul.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)