Saturday, December 26, 2020



I recently created a book of this blog. I must confess part of my desire to do this was based on the assumption that it might be of interest to someone after I’ve gone. Or that it might have value as an historical document about the early days of the Internet and education – the raison d’etre for this blog for its first 15 years. And I thought too that if it exists in hard copy its contents will be less likely to disappear off the face of the earth. I realise now too that I want some evidence to survive me that might explain to others what I did with my life!

I watched the movie Troy yesterday and in it Achilles makes it clear that he leads the life he does because he intends to be remembered after his death. (And it worked!) I guess that would be nice – even if a tad irrelevant for the person who is now dead – but I do have a desire now to pass some things on. I have a feeling that many friends and family really don’t have much idea what I’ve done with large parts of my life, particularly in the e-space, so getting this blog printed goes some way to addressing that.

I doubt if many who know me are aware of the fact that I have written around 100 songs. Of varying quality certainly, and this next step might be a little indulgent, but I’m going to begin adding the lyrics to these songs to this blog.

The first song I wrote was in 1972. I was 18. I had clearly been hurt and was feeling a bit sorry for myself – I’m guessing it was about a girl – but I don’t actually remember. As far as lyrics go I don’t think it’s too bad for an 18 year old. It’s a bit dramatic but at least shows signs of some early ‘wisdom’ about how the world works. I’d clearly worked out that just because you know why you’re hurting doesn’t stop the pain!



To be hurt is to feel pain
To be hurt is to see rain
To be hurt is good for the pride
It brings you down to what you hide


Then why do I wonder
          why do I cry
          why can’t I smile
When I know the reason why?

To be hurt is to be nothing
To be hurt is to have nothing
To be hurt is to feel everything
Like you never felt it before


To be hurt is to shatter
All those dreams of perfection
To be hurt is a state of mind
That you never dreamed would happen


Copyright Michael Coghlan 1972




Thursday, December 24, 2020

Lit Up Inside - Selected Lyrics of Van Morrison

 (I have no idea if this review was ever published anywhere. Found it today in the archives so thought I'd put it on the record. Written early 2015.)

Lit Up Inside
Selected Lyrics of Van Morrison
Edited by Eamonn Hughes

(Faber & Faber, 2014, 208 pp, RRP $27.99

Van Morrison
I wasn’t sure why someone would want to publish a book of lyrics these days. Lyric sites abound on the net and you can turn up the lyrics of any song you care to name for free in a matter of seconds. And initially I wasn’t sure either why someone would publish a book of lyrics of Van Morrison songs in particular. I don’t think of Van Morrison primarily as a lyricist. He’s a singer, and one of the finest of his generation. He changed the sound of much contemporary music forever with his unique brand of white soul. But he’s an emotional singer that relies very much on painting moods, and these moods are painted with words.

Before I opened the cover of Lit Up Inside I randomly chose a few of my favourite Van Morrison songs to see if they were included – Moondance, Tupelo Honey, Into the Mystic, Brown Eyed Girl, Wavelength - they’re all there. In fact, one third of all the songs he’s ever written are included. I started to remember beautifully sung phrases:

“Well it’s a marvellous night for a moondance
A fantabulous night to make romance” (Moondance)

‘“You can take all the tea in China
Put it in a big brown bag for me” (Tupelo Honey)

And then they just kept coming:

“I want to go to another country that operates along completely different lines”

 “What you lose on the hobby horses you gain on the swings”

“Chopping wood; carry water
What’s the sound of one hand clapping?
Enlightenment – I don’t know what it is” (Enlightenment)

So I’m changing my mind now. I’d forgotten how many fine lyrical moments of his had permanently lodged in my memory and become part of my lexicon.

A foreward from Ian Rankin tells us that there were often ‘stories in the music’ of Van Morrison with characters and commentary, and many of his songs reveal a “search for the spiritual in the commonplace.” Indeed, you don’t listen to Van Morrison for very long before hearing evidence of his preoccupation of things spiritual. But it is not a religious preoccupation in the sense of having a set of beliefs he wants to share. It is more to do with exploring the uncertain nature of existence in the everyday. And he names those places of the everyday, and they are often in his hometown of Belfast. He was one of the first pop/rock writers to name local streets and bars and towns in song the way popular American songwriters have always done. He saw the value of his own place – “even somewhere as unpromising as industrial east Belfast…..can be offered as a place of potential spiritual wonder”. It didn’t need to be Chicago, or San Francisco, or Belfast for that matter. As Morrison sings of his life in Belfast I see and remember the streets and pubs and haunts here in my city that played the same role in my life. By naming parts of Belfast in his songs, he actually legitimised the local experience of people listening to his tales wherever they lived.

So the lyrics of Van Morrison can be studied. There are clear recurring themes – the metaphysical, the imagery associated with radio, rivers, and railways - and to trace the development of these themes it is handy to have them all in one place in a printed volume that can be held in the hand.

But putting rock or pop lyrics on a printed page devoid of their musical context has always been problematic. Lyrics become words stripped of some of their power. And repeated phrases like ‘ya radio, ya radio’ (at the end of Wavelength) written 12 times just doesn’t read well. And what to make of choruses like “Sha la la la la la” etc  from Brown Eyed Girl on the printed page? It helps to read the lyrics as streams of consciousness. You then get a sense of the connection between these lyrics and the poetry of the Beat Generation, and particularly with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl from 1955.

Van Morrison buffs will clearly appreciate this compendium of his lyrics, as will those who wish to study his contribution to rock writing. And it helped me understand why it is that I have enjoyed his music so much over the years. So I’m sold. On balance the words of his songs do have sufficient substance to justify being printed as a book.

“Rave on John Donne; rave on.”

(Photo courtesy of Tom Collins)



Sunday, December 20, 2020

Is it time to call an immediate halt to people returning from overseas unless they are quarantined outside metropolitan areas?


Earlier on in the year, when Adelaide and South Australia were enjoying a period of months without any COVID-19 infections, I was totally supportive of the idea of Australians overseas being allowed to come home. International flights came in regularly bringing people back home. I was shocked right from the start just how many of these flights seemed to have COVID positive passengers on board – it was an indication of how ubiquitous the virus was elsewhere in the world.

Then came the Melbourne outbreak. Then came the Adelaide outbreak. And now the Sydney outbreak. On each of these occasions the respective cities have been put into virtual lockdown – Melbourne for several months – and this means cancelled events, no travel, closed businesses and bankrupt companies. The economic impact of these sudden shutdowns is massive. And each time  they occur you are reminded that in today’s world nothing is certain. You can make plans but you can have no faith that they will come to fruition. Today I learned of a friend whose grandchildren had just arrived from Sydney to spend a few days with their grandma in Adelaide. She has been told that she and her 2 grandchildren now need to quarantine for 14 days at home because of the new and evolving cluster in Sydney’s northern beaches. Not a tragedy; just further evidence that you can’t rely on anything happening as you planned.

As someone who has travelled a lot, lived several years outside of Australia, and who has many friends overseas, some of whom want to come back right now, and who has often in the past had close family living overseas I find this hard to admit. But I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want any more expats returning to Australian unless they are quarantined outside of the major cities. Darwin has already done this. All the major COVID outbreaks in Australia have been linked to hotels where returning travellers are held in quarantine. As Shaun notes in the comments below, somehow the virus escapes. Catrina says that Singapore is also accepting returning residents via hotel quarantine and in Singapore housing these quarantine hotels outside a major population centre is not possible. Still, there have been no cases of the virus escaping into the community in Singapore. Bravo Singapore.

Singapore’s system may simply be better run, but the fact is that I, and I believe many other Australians, no longer have faith in the various state governments to do this properly. And as Gerry notes, there has been zero leadership from the federal government on this score. In a sense it’s a no brainer. Why on earth would you willingly house people with a highly infectious and potentially lethal virus in the middle of the most densely populated parts of the country? We found the resources to put refugees in facilities outside the of the metropolitan areas so the facilities for housing large numbers of incoming travellers do exist.

As Fred and Catriona illustrate there are many expats hurting – they’re enduring indefinite separation from friends and loved ones, and in Fred’s case in Canada, it’s actually getting scary as the virus runs rampant through America. As much as I would like to see these good friends be able to return to Australia, I believe there is a bigger issue at play here – the gradual erosion of the mental health of the entire Australian nation. This COVID storm is subtle and relentless and I know I am feeling more stressed than I ever have before . I am always aware of this persistent underlying low-level anxiety that never leaves you. Mental health practitioners have been predicting this for some time, and I think this is probably why I’ve changed my mind about the expat situation. Had Australia shut its doors in the same way as Western Australian shut its doors to the rest of the country, we would now be COVID free.

It’s not just economics. The mental health of 25 million people is at stake. It’s time to call an immediate halt to people returning from overseas until we have a system in place that allows for quarantine facilities and resources to be sited outside the major cities. No one is saying expatriate Australians can’t come home. It is their right. But housing quarantined people in the major cities will eventually just result in more of the same – sporadic outbreaks, bouts of lockdown, and ongoing uncertainty about everything.


Below is the commentary in response to the question I posed on Facebook: is anyone else in Australia feeling like it's time to call an immediate halt to people returning from overseas unless they are quarantined outside metropolitan areas? 

Shaun: Absolutely. Christmas Island for me

Catriona: Oh, that hurts! If I did need to get home for an emergency, I would have near zero chance of doing so. Firstly, the daily quota makes it impossible with tens of thousands of Australians stranded and still unable to get home. Secondly, the cost of a return ticket (for a 5 hour flight) and quarantine could cost anywhere between 14K and 20K for the two of us. That's all dependent on being able to get a flight and not have it cancelled multiple times. We have accepted that we're unlikely to get back any time soon and I pray that we are never in an awful situation where we can't be with loved ones when we need to the most. If there is a problem of imported cases spreading into the community, which I think is what you are referring to, then it is because the processes in handling this are uncoordinated and inadequate. Fix the real problem... and the problem is not the Australians trying to get home! Making them quarantine outside of the metro area won't solve a thing!

Michael: well it might if all service personnel (security etc) were isolated as well....I'd love you to be able come back but 'experts' are saying that the only reason we have the virus here is due to expats. And how long can businesses survive the sudden stopping and starting? Not to mention the persistent underlying anxiety of it all...

Catriona: actually, the only reason you have the virus is because of lack of safety protocols and complacency. Singapore too has returning citizens and pass holders. All are quarantined for 14 days in the city... there is no area outside of the urban area. All must have a test to come into the country. Some return a positive result during their quarantine but because safety protocols are strictly followed, there is no community spread as a result. Returning people are not a risk to the community as long as the procedures are followed. As I said... fix the real problem.

Michael: Perhaps Singapore would like to come down here and show us how it's done!

Catriona: I agree... perhaps the leaders of Australia need to start looking outside of their own country for examples of best practice!

Fredy (in Canada) Looks like I’m stuck here then!

Michael: No Fred - come. Just a couple weeks in a detention centre and you'll be fine. Govt kept telling us how good these facilities were when we put refugees in these places so gotta be good enough for returning expats. I hear Baxter is quite charming at this time of year. (Just a bit north of Port Augusta.)

Fredy: I'll take it!

Mary: Yet another medical expert commented that a number of returning Australians have non COVID medical issues that may or may not require treatment while in quarantine. This would be very difficult from remote locations like Christmas Island. Two years ago a family member was on Christmas Island for work purposes. What was a ten day stay became 5 weeks because of weather conditions flights cancelled. Maybe the Darwin setup is better? Regional locations near a good hospital? Although I doubt that would work in our region - even slightly complex emergency cases are air lifted to Melbourne hospitals.

Michael: Thanks Mary. Highlights just how complex this whole issue is.

Barbara: They should do the PCR test before they come.

Julie: No one will fly anywhere unless there is a flight crew. From what I know, the recent outbreak in Sydney could be because a few of them failed to self isolate. Now they will be locked down in a couple of hotels near the airport. In any case, they could not be put outside metro areas.

Taking a long time to get the return of Australian citizens right even in the face of dreadful consequences.

Irena: Yes they can - and we have Federal Government facilities in each State/Territory that can be used for this. When will Scumo finally accept this is his government’s responsibility by law. Why are Labor not holding him to this?

Fredy: They can send me to the Simpson Desert for a couple weeks or more...swag billy tea and the stars above!
Wouldn’t cost me $4000 to quarantine for starters!
One must understand that for many of us who are OS! Specially in Europe or North America! It’s getting F***ing scary over here!! Never mind that I live 300km from the southern border with the US!
I am suffering on certain days, of mental and emotional stress due to the fact of how complicated it get back to Australia and my family and friends.
If an expat returns with a negative Covid test...they should be able to quarantine with a family/friend member at their point of destination. What is the point of quarantine in a hotel with hundreds of other people? It’s a Covid cluster waiting to happen!
Enough said...if I had a spare 20k...I’d be on my way.

Shaun: I agree Freddy. The hotel quarantine system isn’t full proof and the virus keeps escaping. It’s time for a rethink. Expats do need to come home if they desire but need a couple of weeks quarantine away from highly populated areas. The continued on again off again (ie the economy, travel etc) scenarios we have been experiencing here really raises people’s anxiety. I acknowledge that it would be tougher for expats. I’d handle the Simpson desert if I just wanted to get home! I won’t even start on international flight crews....
Roll on the vaccine.

Sheila: Yes. Christmas Island

Gerry: Yep. Agree. But that would require leadership which at the Federal level is almost completely absent.





Sunday, December 06, 2020

The Chicago 7 (8)


I recently watched the Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix. This was the trial of a group of mostly young men who had been behind the organisation of a mass protest against the Vietnam war in Chicago in1968. The Chicago 7 were a group of unaffiliated persons who represented hippies and ‘Yippies’ (Youth International Party), the Black Panthers, student activists, and sundry anti-war groups.  Representing the Yippies were Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. I had read much of their writing when I was a much younger man and it was largely due to them that I decided that I would never visit America.



Leftist activists of the late 1960s in America used to refer to 'Amerika with a K' to highlight the fact that the Anerican ideal of peace and equality was a just a dream for many. They argued that many Americans lived in poverty and hardship, experienced daily racism and other forms of prejudice, and that the system perpetuated these inequalities. Whenever they spelt Amerika with a K it was to remind people of these injustices.

I remember though that I was not sure about Hoffman and Rubin's ideas. I couldn't decide  whether they were just drug crazed hippies, violent and unstable revolutionaries, or heroes. After watching the Chicago 7 it was clear that in this instance they were heroes.

When Trump was elected President many of us were in shock. Noam Chomsky wasn’t: “I’m surprised that it took us so long. This America has always been there and now we have a President that represents the very worst of America.” And seeing the ugly side of the law crush the protest in Chicago, and shaft these ‘ringleaders’ in a sham trial just reminded me that this foul underbelly of America has been around for a long time. Recent images of armed white vigilantes on American streets in support of Trump are just the most recent incarnation of this lawlessness and disregard for those who stand up against the ‘American way’.

I relented on my promise to myself never to go to America when I was invited to go there for work on a number of occasions from the mid-80s. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found the average American to be very friendly, genuine, and hospitable.

Would I choose to go there now? I have friends there I would like to see and Trump is about to depart the scene. For now. But the fact remains that 70 million Americans revealed their stupidity and selfishness by voting for this divisive character a second time.

Despite the fact that the average American may be a decent human being, four things loom as cancerous blots on the canvas of this nation:

  1. Racism
  2. Guns
  3. Lack of universal healthcare
  4. Homelessness

These are 4 pillars of a gutless society that refuses to step up to the plate and genuinely assist those citizens who suffer most, and move America more into line with Europe, Canada and Australia. And how Obama could be characterised as a devil for wanting to implement health care for those who have none is just beyond me.

Hilary Clinton was right to describe Trump devotees as deplorables. Her mistake was doing it in public. As I watched the Trial of the Chicago 7 come to its stirring conclusion I felt proud that I knew about Bobby Seale. Jerry Rubin, and Abbie Hoffman back then as an 18 year old. I felt my decision to keep away from America was vindicated – I had made the right decision.

That a country so deeply flawed in so many aspects of civil society has managed to parade itself as a leader among the free world, and a  beacon of democracy, is one of the greatest con jobs ever wrought on the planet.


Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Victorian Lockdown and the Politicisation of the Corona Virus

Dear Friend,

I’ve been thinking a lot about the conversation we had about the Corona virus when we last spoke.

You mentioned a letter that Melbourne doctors had written to Daniel Andrews. As soon as I got back to my car I looked it up on my phone. And there it was at the top of the list of search results – from The Australian. The Australian is Murdoch’s flagship and I stopped reading it many years ago because I don’t believe a word they say. In the Australian context one of their primary goals is to bring down Labor governments everywhere, and they don’t let facts get in the way.

The next one on the list with mention of the doctor’s letter was Quadrant – a known right wing, conservative outlet. Interesting I thought. The only other reference to it was in The Chronicle – another Murdoch paper based in Queensland.

Then I searched the three media outlets that I regularly use to get my news – starting with The Melbourne Age.  Independent. Always has been The Age’s mantra for decades – and no mention of the letter.

So I checked the ABC – nothing. Then I checked the Guardian. Nothing. I eventually found the letter via Twitter at

I thought the letter itself was quite reasonable, and I’m not going to quibble with doctors who are working in this field.

But what worried me was the fact that The Age, The ABC, and the Guardian all had no mention of it. (And still don’t today a week later.)

Why not?? Do they think it’s fake news? Not worth mentioning? They don’t want to rock the boat, and present an alternative view? If that’s the case that would make them just as guilty of bias as the Murdoch press.

Whatever the reason it really worries me. In Australia now we are being fed news that is incredibly biased towards one side or another. If I read only the Age, the ABC and the Guardian I don’t even hear about this letter to Daniel Andrews. If I read the Murdoch press and watch commercial news or Skye news I am bombarded with it as part of their usual anti-Labor propaganda. And this is an example of how the whole COVID-19 issue has been politicised. Indeed just about every issue in Australia gets politicised in this same way. Unless you are making a conscious effort to consume news from a range of media outlets you risk being subject to propaganda and I think Australia is in real trouble here.

And of course filling in the gaps is the uninformed and opinionated morass of social media to further muddy the waters ….

Something else you said at our last meeting seemed to suggest that you didn’t think the reports of mass graves of people dying from COVID-19 or mobile freezers in NY being used to help out collecting the mounting number of dead bodies were true.  This quite stunned me. 

For the record, media outlets from all sides of politics provide lots of references to what happened in NYC:

NY Bodies

And similarly there are countless stories on mass graves for COVID victims from all sides of the political spectrum. I started searching stories about Brazil, but then found reference to similar situations in Bolivia, Iran and even the UK.





I mentioned an article from NZ that I found useful. It helped me realise that as a lay person my opinion on all of this is not worth much. It is just that – an opinion. And an unqualified one at that! The article, from a Professor of Epidemiology, is here if you’re interested.

The original letter from the 13 Victorian doctors has now garnered in excess of 500 signatures supporting their position. But I do wonder what the other 30,000 plus Victorian doctors think …

For all our sakes let’s hope that Victoria is soon through this nightmare.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Aging and Sadness


I’ve been looking at old photographs and have been quite moved by the fact that everyone looks so much younger – my wife and I, our children, friends, even our parents – everyone! Everyone looks so beautifully youthful. And there’s a tinge of sadness as I contemplate all the years that have passed and I’m trying to work out why.

It’s not as if those years have been filled with tragedy – quite the opposite in fact. There have been sad times but overall life for me has been full of joy and wonder. So the sadness is not rooted in any disappointment about the past. It seems to revolve squarely around the fact that

I am not young anymore.

Why is there inherent sadness in this fact? I am not sick, or about to die. In all likelihood I have many years of health left to enjoy the time ahead. But I have less time than I used to. Is that it? That I can longer pretend that the end is far off in a distant future?

Is the quality of ‘young’ intrinsically better than oldness? Is it somehow better to look young and youthful than it is to look old and a little weathered? And if so, why? Looking older of course is a constant reminder that you’re time is limited, or that you have been around for many years. There’s a sense of loss in there – a loss of a feeling of invincibility; loss of that feeling that there is lots of time left to enjoy people and places.

One could see this as positive – I enjoy my life. I have no reason to want it to end. I want it to go on for as long as possible. I could count my blessings. (I do.) But still the sadness of aging lingers. Is it because I don’t look young? That I feel a little irrelevant to the generation before me? That I am adjudged to be in some sense passed it?

You do however sometimes hear people my age talk about the advantages of being over 60. And I totally subscribe to this. There is something really pleasurable about knowing who you are; knowing what you think; having fewer doubts; knowing that you can express opinions better than ever before. And maybe even that you think more clearly than you ever did. But would I rather be younger with the accompanying angst that comes with it? Probably. Why? Because that would mean I had more time.

So it’s the shorter timeframe thing again. I look back on those photographs and am reminded that I probably won’t have another 30 years of memories. But who can tell? I may well. There may be decades of memories left to create and in 30 years I could be looking back at photos I took today. And what – feeling even sadder because I’ll be even older?

And in the background Gordon Lightfoot coincidentally sings:

It’s cold on the shoulder; and you know that we get a little older every day!

When I was 23 I returned home from 14 months travelling overseas. A family aunt asked my on my return, “Apart from feeling a little wiser and a little sadder, how was your journey?” I asked why she assumed I would be sadder and she said no one ever came home from that kind of journey without being sadder. In her view it was as if having such an out of the ordinary experience was ipso facto  going to result in a degree of sadness. In time I came to agree with her.

Over the years I have learned too that sadness is quite a precious emotional state and is closely related to a sense of beauty and appreciating the things we care about. So I’m not disheartened by the idea of being sad when looking at my past, or because I’m so much older now. I think there is a sadness attached to growing older but it doesn’t have to be debilitating. I’m just trying to disentangle the roots of that sadness. But in the meantime, as Don Henley and Merle Haggard sang:

Wear it like a royal crown when you get old and grey.
It’s the cost of living, and everyone pays.




Thursday, July 09, 2020

The Role of Culture

In another COVID foray into forgotten drawers and corners, in amongst another pile of papers, a letter written by someone called Joyce tumbled out - a letter written to my Dad. I vaguely remember Mum and Dad having a friend called Joyce but I never met her.

In this letter to Dad Joyce had written, "thank you so much for sharing your son's memoir with us. I would now very much like to meet this 'cultural chameleon' son of yours."

I was a little bamboozled by this.  I knew I had written a memoir for a university assignment some decades back, but I have no memory of giving it to my parents to read.

Anyway, I eventually found a copy of it on an old floppy disc. It’s kind of like the story of the first part of my life through the lens of culture. I've put it up on the web and amongst other things it offers a great explanation of why I like to travel so much.

I wrote it in 1991 so an upgrade is needed that includes the last three decades.

My professor at the time was one Jerzy Smolicz, a Polish- born sociologist and educationalist acknowledged widely as a major contributor to cultural understanding in Australia. He really liked this memoir and I’m proud of what he wrote:

Michael – I was pleased to read your long and illuminating essay – and I can see that you are only halfway there! Portugal still to describe; Ireland still to visit. I think that you have described very sensitively the array and variety of cultures that have influenced you – while you continue to maintain a strong Australian identity, but of the kind which permits you to adjust your personal cultural system through interaction. A very perceptive memoir.

The memoir is OVER HERE ;)

Saturday, July 04, 2020

COVID-19 Continues

I wrote below about my concern that the Black Lives Matter marches may precipitate another round of COVID-19 infections. I am really happy to say my fears were misplaced. There have been a couple of cases around the country where people have caught the virus after the marches. But they did not get or spread the virus at the marches. Photographs and aerial footage of the events show that most people were really disciplined in keeping the appropriate social distance and wearing masks. So kudos to all involved.
In most of the country the Corona virus has become a low level background irritation. In Victoria there has been a resurgence of the virus and many suburbs, and apartment towers, have been put under total lockdown – similar to the kinds of conditions people in places like Rome and Madrid had to endure.
This all seems to have come about for a number of reasons, but principally due to poor training of security staff supervising those in hotel quarantine, and poor messaging about the pandemic in languages other than English. And a few cases of unbelievably stupid and selfish behaviour by a few individuals who mixed in their communities when they knew they were COVID positive.
I think we should try the very simple and effective tack taken by the Vietnamese government:  lots of slogans and posters to the tune of
·         If you love your country you will stay home
·         If you care for your community you will stay home
Get the message through that this is not about you and your rights as an individual, but about the collective – something that Asian cultures would grasp more readily than more self-centred Western cultures.
So this menace is far from over. Acoustic Tull have at least started practising again. We have a gig on July 26th. After July 20th I would be allowed to travel interstate again (ie fly) but I’m unlikely to do that before September. So for a while yet it’s stay local, live for the minute, and don’t look too far ahead

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Bits of Life

I’ve always written. From the age of 7 I kept a daily diary. Admittedly my first entries at that age were fairly scant on detail. Whole days could be summed up thus: “Got up. Went to school. Played football when I got home. Went to bed.” Marvellous economy with words 😊
Fast forward 25 years to life on the inside - a Dutch winter on the third floor circa 1986. I was struggling with feeling captive – I had to live in a Dutch winter to realise how much of an outdoors person I was. In desperation I took to writing my life story to pass the time. And I think I did a reasonable job of writing about my life from birth till the time I left school.
Browsing through long forgotten corners as one does in this time of COVID I came across a copy of it. What struck me was how much detail it contained that I have completely forgotten. So here’s a tip – don’t leave writing about your life till too late. You DO forget things as time passes.

Two snippets:


We moved back to Adelaide and went to live in a house that none of us liked very much. It’s only real asset was its proximity to the school Shaun and I would go to, and Celine’s college. The house was a small insignificant affair where we were to live for just a few months. Leaving the country had been a hard decision for my parents to take, and was made even harder by Damien’s departure for life in a monastery at the ripe old of age of sixteen. He would be living in Sydney, some 900 miles away. Now Damien and I had had little to do with each other over the years, save for times when I hassled him enough for him to lose his temper with me. And yet the strangest thing happened on the day he left for his new life far away. He departed from Adelaide airport and I don’t remember saying goodbye to him. However I do remember very clearly this overwhelming feeling of sadness coming over me as I gazed out at the plane he was sitting in before it drew away from the terminal. I withdrew from the crowd of people who’d come to say goodbye, climbed up on a small wall and stood looking at the plane and cried silently and secretly to myself. Maybe I had just picked up the obviously heavy emotional vibes that were floating around (my mother was distraught), but it’s almost as if I knew that day that there was an exceptional bond between us that I’d only just discovered, and that I’d miss him very much. It was a turning point in my relationship with my big brother; from that day on I felt closer to him than any other member of our family.


CC image: Lawrence Jones
We would as a matter of course heap shit upon our parents for being too strict, or not letting us do what we wanted when and where we wanted. These parent slagging sessions were important for gaining respect within the group - it showed that you were a rebel. Teachers too of course were prime targets for this kind of shit slinging. Things came to a head at school one day when this thin pale looking character wearing a darker suit than normal joined our class in the middle of a Science lesson. He turned out to be a recently arrived English immigrant who was as it happened a little more advanced than the rest of us along the road to rebellion. He was right into pop music, played guitar and wrote his own songs and poetry, and was willing to speak his mind in class. He made a great impression on all of us. His style of rebellion was bolder, more direct, and came with intelligence. It wasn't long before we all clamoured to be his friend and were proud to be seen to be his friend. The school’s response to this new figurehead was to try and isolate him from potential disciples. Any group that was hanging around him in the playground was split up by the teacher on yard duty. In fact the teachers seemed to have isolated a potential core of troublemakers that counted about 10 kids with the English lad, Michael D, at our head. We were not allowed to mingle in the school ground in groups of more than two or three and at least my parents were warned to discourage any close friendship with this new disturbing influence. It was silly really. We were already on our teenage rampage before he came along. All he did was give it focus.

Michael and I became close friends. Basically it was a friendship forged through hours of listening to and talking about pop music. We spent hours on  sunny afternoons in darkened rooms listening to Cream, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Vanilla Fudge et al and extolling the virtues of these our new idols. I remember telling Michael one day on the bus to school that I had bought my first ever record: Love Is All Around by The Troggs. He was suitably impressed. He had seen The Troggs perform in England - or so he said. It was always a point of discussion just how true were the many wonderful stories he used to tell. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Culture and Racism

My previous post generated some interesting discussion elsewhere about being disconnected from culture and racism. My response:

In an interview with Leonard Cohen not long before he died the interviewer was trying to get Cohen to state which side of the fence he was on in relation to a number of issues but Cohen would not be drawn. He said that he had learned for people to outline their points of view and present them as an alternative and better option wasn’t very helpful. Better he said to learn what we have in common and enquire of the other how they’re feeling about things!
When I was a teacher at Marymount an invited Aboriginal speaker looked out the window of the school hall and told the kids, “See that tree out there? That tree and me are the same thing. There is  no difference between that tree and me. I am that tree.”  We all thought he was quaintly mad of course. But I have heard similar sentiments from and about Aboriginal people many times since over the years and I have learnt to accept that I can and never will understand the deep spiritual connection Aboriginal people have with land. Their own patch of land. Remove an Aboriginal person from that land and you remove that person’s reason for existence.
But we as non-Aboriginal people just have to accept that we cannot and never will understand this. Our culture and world view is just too different.
When I studied Aboriginal culture as part of my Masters years ago Stephen Harris, an Australian researcher into Aboriginal culture, said that if  you searched the world for 2 groups of people who were the most different from each other you would choose white and black Australians. He thought it was a cruel irony that two peoples so different from each other ended up having to share the same piece of land!
As for racism, I’ve come to believe that my opinions about racism as a privileged white person are largely irrelevant. Only the opinions of people on the receiving end of racism count.

Monday, June 08, 2020

All Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement has spread with a vengeance to Australia. Given the appalling record of treatment of Aboriginal people by policing authorities here over several decades this is hardly surprising. Australians were quick to show their solidarity with black Americans and capitalise on the worldwide outcry over the murder of George Floyd and large Black Lives Matter (BLM) rallies were organised for every Australian capital. Admirable and understandable, but the timing is tragically wrong. Still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic the Prime Minister and chief medical officer urged people not to take part. Large public gatherings of this kind are notorious for allowing viruses to spread, but people turned out in their thousands.
 In another time with no pandemic hovering over us I’d have been there too. But this was a time when something bigger is at stake. It’s not about me. It’s not about people of colour. It’s about the entire community. History provides examples of how such large public gatherings enabled pandemic viruses to launch a second wave (Spanish Flu 1918).
To their credit BLM organisers urged everyone to wear masks and practice social distancing. In QLD police actually handed out masks to those who needed them. And from all reports crowds in all states did for the most part practice social distancing. But it’s the 10% who didn’t who are the problem. They may have infected those around them and tracing those they have been in contact with could be a nightmare – even with the COVID-19 Tracing App.
The night before the demonstrations arch government conservative Matthias Cormann went on TV to say that he thought BLM protesters were being selfish. Normally when this man speaks I cringe and revile at his manner and opinions. On this occasion I found myself quietly, embarrassingly, thinking, ‘I agree with him’. BLM protesters put the legitimate concerns of a section of the community above the needs of the whole community. In 10-14 days’ time we’ll find out if we are to be punished for that selfishness. It may be the virus is so scarce in Australia that these mass demonstrations won’t make any difference to the number of cases. If so, that would be miraculous.    
In the meantime BLM organisers and the AMA are asking all who took part to self-isolate for 14 days. I wonder how many will. Right now I’m angry about it. I feel the BLM marches have jeopardised the health of the entire community and acted to ensure that the economic recovery required for all those who’ve lost their jobs will be put back several weeks – if not months. And more people could die unnecessarily. But I really hope I’m wrong. Check back with me 2 weeks from now ……

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Living in the Time of COVID 19

COVID 19 they’re calling it – 19 for the year it first raised its ugly head. But this virus has all but destroyed 2020 – the first half of it at least. Or has it?

As the world practices self-isolation and social distancing there are stories of people in Wuhan, we’re it all began, saying that they enjoy being at home with friends and family and would prefer not to go back to the normal routine of work and busyness. They say the skies over China haven’t been this blue for years. An online colleague posted photographs of an unusually smog free Haifa - Israel's main port. A friend in Berlin is enjoying a comparatively pressure free life with no work commitments and is riding his bike through forests and doing yoga and feeling physically and spiritually more whole.
Me? I was watching something on the UK on television and was immediately conscious of the fact that I couldn't just go there if I wanted to. All my adult life I've had this strange definition of freedom. I think sometime in my early 20s I realised that all you needed was about $3000 in the bank and you could get to anywhere on the planet at a moment’s notice.  I have consequently always had that 3G in the bank! Now obviously I haven't spent my whole life travelling, but knowing that I could get to any point on the planet anytime was an integral aspect of how I felt about being alive. Now for the first time in my adult life that freedom has been taken away. As some wise person noted, many of us are for the first time feeling the kind of oppression that many endure every day of their life. Can’t leave town? Go interstate? First World problems. Situation normal for millions…..
I’ve decided to adopt the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra of ‘one day at a time’ for as long as this period of societal shutdown lasts. I do miss getting out of town, jumping on planes, seeing grandchildren and playing live music together, but there’s no point dwelling on what cannot be. It is indeed a time to reflect, write, clean the bookshelves, and live a slower life. Make it a daily quest to recognise something beautiful – easily done if you live near nature.  
On the macro level it's already a cliché that this pandemic will change the world forever, and it is highly likely that some things will change forever, and that will be fascinating to track as we re-emerge back into something like normal life. Will we shake hands less? Will less people fly? Will there be fewer airlines? Will the forced switch to online education realise some unexpected advantages that will be preserved in a post-Corona world? Will many more people work remotely? Will the standard work meeting go online forever? Will we as a species simply spend less time together socially out of fear of further infection?

Right now I feel fine. Like a good little frog adjusting to the gradual increase in temperature I have found a new daily routine that occasionally has me smiling as I realise that I’m quite enjoying myself. But I’m fortunate to live in a house with a garden; I have a car and can drive to any number of beautiful places and go for my 'government sanctioned daily walk'; for many years I have sought out interesting places for photo walks  where there are few people - social distancing in public has been part of my daily life for a long time. Walking on spacious beaches, expansive parks, riverside tracks and even empty industrial vistas are all within easy reach.
Myponga, Moonta, and Mumbai can all wait – they’ll all still be there when this is all over. I just hope I will be as well.  

Saturday, March 14, 2020


 Company Archibald Caramantran 

Day 3

I began my Womad day 3 later in the day with a reprise of Spanish medieval music from the masterful Artefactum. Such a pleasure to hear once more, and observe them having fun with each other as they attempted to translate their jokes into English. As a fellow reviewer from another publication said, “they just make medieval music so accessible.”
The Kids Zone was at its busiest this afternoon with an incredible array of activities – face painting, dancing, dress-up parades, craft activities, building huts – the place was packed with active children and content looking parents.
I was tempted to stop by a larger stage when I heard the female mariachi tones of Flor de Toloache from Mexico resonating from  Stage 2 but headed for a smaller stage to hear Tami Neilson from NZ. This may have been a rare programming logistics error. She was way too popular for the small Moreton Bay stage – it was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen there. She was just a speck in the distance but she sounded wonderful. She has a loud and soulful voice that belted out a mix of soul and country with ease. Commercial, but really catchy, slick and solid. As Simon Hackett, one of Womad’s founders said in a recent interview, “One of the joys of this event is … walking up to a random stage and being blown away by some artist you’ve never heard of.”
I was curious to see if the Woshop still just sold CDs of performing artists. It’s getting harder and harder to play CDs as CD players disappear from computers and car stereo systems. The vast majority of the music available was only in CD format. Just one artist had a digital version available. It kind of hurts to say this it but it’s time for Womad artists to sell their music in digital format.

KermesK a L’est

Day 4

Pakistan’s Ustad Saami called his 2019 album, God is Not a Terrorist. He is clearly on a mission to promote the music of his region as an instrument of piece. His performance with his 4 sons consisted of one 75 minute meditative piece. Based on the twin drones of harmonium and tanpura, it built ever so slowly to a fully vocalised musical conversation between him and his sons and we the audience. I’m sure many were expecting it to eventually reach the frenetic heights of another Pakistani singer, the legendary Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan but this music is much less theatrical. Though, like other forms of Pakistani devotional music (Qawwali, Sufi) much is expressed using the hands as they dance and weave with the vocals to convey extra meaning. This piece was dedicated to the lapsing of summer into autumn and with plenty of grey cloud in the sky it felt appropriate.
As daylight faded down by stage 3, a group of mad Belgians took the stage. Looking like punks and ratbags, KermesK a L’est filed on stage through a back curtain and launched into a strange and infectious brand of brass based Balkan music. With no one band member having a fixed on stage position they wandered around constantly – even their two drummers were forever on parade around the stage.  A great sound and a totally original presentation. The giant puppets from Company Archibald Caramantran enjoyed it too and enthralled the crowd with their giant dance steps.
France seems particularly blessed with a range of these bizarre and lovable festival acts. For several years now Womad has featured a quirky French act as part of the roaming program, and they add as much value to the whole spectacle as the music.
I spent 10 minutes or so in the Taste the World tent enjoying the laughs associated with cooking in public from Gelareh Pour and friends, before spending my last musical moments listening to some dreamy slow dance tunes from local act Oisima. They followed me as I slipped away through the Frome gate back into the real world.
It was a great decision to just focus on the small stages this year. It took the pressure off feeling like you had to see everything. I think there has been a welcome change in the program direction. Maybe it was because I only attended the small stage events but without counting up and comparing with recent years there did seem to be fewer big bands based around big percussion and the ubiquitous and overused concept of ‘fusion’. A majority of the acts were quieter and stayed closer to their ethnic roots, and in the process Womad reclaimed something of its original identity and purpose.


Artefactum (Spain)

Day 1

Womadelaide’s small stages have always hosted the more niche like acts. They’re more intimate, quieter, and tend to feature more ethnically pure music of the kind that was much more prevalent in Womad's early days.
So I spent my first evening going from Ghana (Moreton Bay stage) to Reunion (stage 7) to Rumania (Frome Park Pavilion), and finally to medieval Spain (back at the Moreton Bay stage).
King Ayisoba and his band hail from Ghana. The band is a 6 piece and 5 of them play percussion – draw your own conclusions! The only non-percussive instrument, which King himself plays is the kologo, has just 2 strings and is played mostly as a percussive instrument as well so the primary effect is rhythmic.
King has a growling and gruff vocal style that at times feels quite intimidating but the rhythms are strong and the crowd is up dancing and there is mercifully no electronica interfering with the traditional rhythms.
Down the other end of the park on stage 7 Destyn Maloya from Reunion was offering a more varied repertoire of melody and rhythm.  Reunion is not far from Madagascar and Womadelaide has previously hosted the beautiful polyphonic melodies of Justin Vali, and some of their material had that similar feel. But like so many African groups their happy place is rhythm based and Destyn Maloya soon had the malleable crowd jumping like rabbits and joining in a Conga line.
Nearby in one of Womadelaide’s newer venues an Australian based group who play Romanian music and who curiously call themselves SuperRats gathered around their featured instrument, the cimbalom. The cimbalom is large dulcimer with 145 strings and sounds like a cross between a piano and a xylophone. Apparently the pronunciation of the words Super Rats sounds like ‘the irritated ones’ in the Romanian language. This music is relatively low brow in its original context – played in bars and cafes where people drink and do shady deals - but in the context of a Womadelaide performance there is nothing shady about this music. The pieces are tight, rhythmically complex and driven by a dominant double bass. Accordion and fiddle are great accompaniment for the cimbalom in these entertaining traditional dance tunes.
So then back in time to the Middle Ages. Artefactum (pictured above) play Spanish music from the 12th -14th centuries and it is exquisite. Led by the drone like sounds of one of the strangest instruments ever made, the hurdy-gurdy, this music is full of delicate melodies and intricate vocal harmonies. Music from Medieval times has such a beautiful melodious quality. It’s almost as if music was breaking free from the confines of a restricted past and celebrating a wondrous joy,

A perfect end to the day. It seems there may have been a drift away from the ubiquitous ‘global funk’ that has tended to dominate the Womadelaide program in the last few years, but it’s early days….

Iberi (Georgia)

Day 2

Day 2 dawned sunny and gentle. The Planet Talks venue has gratefully moved into a larger location – a tent called the Frome Park pavilion. The first session for the day focused on the Wreck of Tech and was insightful and depressing. All 3 speakers, Julia Powles, Peter Lewis, and Robert Elliott Smith, have written books or papers questioning the role and authority of the tech giants in our daily lives, and there was fairly solid agreement that they have not made our lives better. They reflected on the fact that rather than bring us together the new technologies have collapsed any notion of collective or commons where we might come together to solve problems. Google and Facebook’s business models serving personal echo chambers have actually driven us apart. I left the session close to tears.
L Subramaniam gets the tag ‘the Paganini of Indian classical music'. After some short information about the structure of the music they were about to play Subramaniam and his group, together with the help of some very audible bats (it was good to see they survived the summer heat) launched into what he called a ‘short’ raga – a beautiful slow building piece of musical meditation that was 30 minutes long!
Gelareh Pour is an Iranian now living in Australia. Her high-pitched dreamy vocals (it was hard not to think of Kate Bush) floated towards you as you approached the Zoo stage. Accompanied by traditional instruments (Iranian versions of fiddle and lute, plus more conventional drums and electric guitar) her songs had a plaintively beautiful tone and slowly pulsating beats that were quite alluring.
One of Luisa Sobral’s songs won Eurovision in 2017. In my view that does not nothing for your musical credibility but this Portuguese singer-composer is something special.  Her singing is classy and smooth as silk, and her original songs are full of passion and sophisticated melodies. Unlike many Womad performers from lands where English is not the first language, she chatted away confidently about her life and how she was not going to let the Corona virus stop her from achieving her lifelong goal of coming to Australia. The arrangements of her material matched the quality of her songwriting. She was accompanied on guitar by her ‘Portuguese musician’, and a trio of fine local musicians on cello, woodwind and brass. Just gorgeous music and as great original music so often is – very hard to categorise.
Iberi (see above) are from Georgia in the former Soviet Union, and appeared in monk-like costumes with daggers. Their music now apparently drifts around in space on board Voyager 2 as an example of the beauty of the human voice.  Their material is mostly acapella, and sounds quite monastic. Intricate harmonies and a stylised vocal style from old Georgian folk tunes may make this music an acquired taste for some. I was reminded of the deep resonant tones of the Sardinian Tenors many Womads back.
Every Womad festival has a Celtic group to lead the fiddle and pipe charge and this year the responsibility falls to Rura from Scotland. Their frantic and frenetic start drew the flock like Celtic lemmings to front of stage but I stuck to my guns and went to the next offering on the smaller stages – Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita down on stage 7.
It was only a matter of time before a kora (or chora) player hooked up with a traditional harpist, and it has happened in this wonderful partnership between Senegal and Wales. Kora music has  enchanted Womad audiences from the very early days and that has not changed. Seckou Keita is a griot, someone who has inherited his musical tradition through his family, and he plays with flare and joy. It’s a little harder to be physically engaged when you’re stuck behind a harp but Catrin Finch does a lot of smiling at Seckou’s antics and the wonderful sounds these 2 multiple stringed instruments make together. It’s a perfect harmonic blend with some entertaining rhythmic interplay between the two musical cultures they represent.  Again the bats, just waking up now after a day hanging around upside down, joined in and it seemed entirely appropriate.
Such is Womadelaide 😊                                     

Monday, March 02, 2020

Scraping Photos

Dog and Fisherman

I’m writing this because I received this curious email from a stranger:
I am writing to inform you that your image "Dog and Fishermen" was used as part of the public COCO image dataset. I found it here: COCO is a collection of 328,000 images scraped from Flickr without the knowledge or consent of the photographers such as yourself. This dataset was originally created by Microsoft and is commonly used to build algorithms and computer programs that can detect objects and people, to be used for surveillance cameras and other detection purposes. I thought it was important that you know your image was used in these efforts.

Now that you are aware of this, I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about the photo. Where and why did you take it? What was the context for it being taken? If there is any backstory, I’d love to hear it.

Additionally, I would love to know your opinions on your image being used in this regards, without your knowledge or consent.”

Further enquiries revealed that this person is working on a thesis which “looks at image datasets and the ways they are created, organized, and implemented. I am specifically looking at the COCO dataset which uses hundreds of thousands of images scraped from flickr without the knowledge or consent of the image owners, such as yourself. I'm interested in re-contextualizing these images in their original contexts and juxtaposing that with the labels and organizational aspects that the COCO researchers assigned to each image.’


This photo was taken at dusk on my local beach in Adelaide, South Australia. It’s in April so getting cooler in the southern hemisphere. One of the two fishermen is completely covered, but it can’t be too cold because the other is wearing shorts.
Adelaide faces west so we routinely get magnificent sunsets. This photo is taken on an evening with pastel skies – an extra treat when atmospheric conditions are just right.
I walk along this stretch of beach several times a month, always with camera in hand. I don’t know how fruitful it is to do this kind of shore fishing – most people locally choose to fish from the nearby jetty - but in non-swimming seasons it is not an uncommon sight to see people from the shore.
I often take photographs of shore fishermen at this time of the day because they and their rods and lines often present intriguing silhouettes in the fading light.
The dog is a bonus here. As it says in the comments beneath the photo:
What was funny when I took this photo was the fact that this dog decided to stop and look like he was with 2 guys fishing. He actually belonged to someone else and wandered off to them after I took the pic!”
The sea, as is often the case here In Adelaide, is dead calm. Adelaide is on a gulf so does not face open ocean and never gets what you’d call ‘surf’.

How do I feel about my photos being used like this?

As all my photos have the least restrictive Creative Commons license I accept that they can end up almost anywhere. Really the only condition is that however and wherever my photos are used there should be some visible attribution/acknowledgement of me as the creator of the image somewhere. There is no obligation on the part of the end user to notify the owner of the image, nor ask for permission to use it, though many people do so out of courtesy – something I always appreciate. I would receive at least one email per fortnight asking permission to use a photo of mine in a book, website, newsletter, etc
I guess it would be nice if the people behind the dataset at did notify Flickr users that their photos were being used in this way, but ultimately I’m more intrigued than annoyed that one of my images has turned up on this site


  I recently created a book of this blog. I must confess part of my desire to do this was based on the assumption that it might be of intere...