Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Tony Abbott's Lacklustre Legacy

I am always hesitant to discuss Australian politics in this blog because most readers within Australia care only the tiniest fraction more about Australian politics than readers outside Australia. But am I completely deluding myself in believing that on Monday night, when Tony Abbott was dumped as PM, there was a spontaneous sigh of relief across the nation? And did I not, perhaps, hear an echo of that sigh from some of our nearest neighbours?

While I should have been working I have been trawling the internet in search of anything positive that might have been written about Abbott’s legacy. I came up with nothing, zippo, nada. Admittedly, I have not tuned in to any Andrew Bolts or Alan Joneses, Abbott’s rightwing media worshippers. Are they still trying to argue, I wonder, that Tone was a good PM? One rightwing conservative commentator on the TV show Q&A (ABC Australia) on Monday night tried to do so, to an outbreak of derisive laughter. In contrast, when the news of Abbott’s demise was announced on that same show there was a spontaneous outbreak of applause that lasted quite some time. Thirty-nine percent of the audience were supporters of the conservative coalition government led by Abbott.

Those desperate to demonstrate what a good PM he was will no doubt continue to trumpet his three negative achievements: preventing boatloads of asylum seekers from reaching Australian shores, abolishing a tax on carbon and abolishing a tax on large mining corporations. That’s it, the litany we heard on Abbott’s lips from the first few months of his prime ministership to its last days. Only about a week ago Abbott was asked on another ABC current affairs show what he had done for the economy. ‘Well, Lee,’ he replied, ‘we stopped the boats ...’

Abbott’s legacy is laughable. It’s difficult to see how history can ever be re-written on this one.

I do not know how the new PM, Malcolm Turnbull, will turn out in the long run. There is a slight euphoria in the air at the moment. Perhaps it’s no more than the sense of relief you get when you stop hitting your head against the wall. However short-lived, I’ll enjoy it for the moment. Of course, there are some who have unkindly pointed out that a turnip would have made a better PM than Tony Abbott ever did. Tony Abbot was so bad that anyone after him must look good—for a while anyway.

There are many who say of Tony Abbott that he is a ‘nice man’ or a ‘good bloke’. I don’t know him personally, so I can’t say one way or the other. Maybe Robert Mugabe and Vladimir Putin—or a host of other dubious leaders—are also good blokes. Bashar al Assad might be a riot around the BBQ. Hitler loved his dog, Blondi. And before you trample me under foot I am not comparing Abbott to these people. I am merely pointing out that even the worst among us is not devoid of some redeeming qualities. In the end, being a good bloke is simply not good enough: what we need is a good leader. Whether our new PM turns out to be that leader only time will tell. As someone who does not support the conservative side of politics (surprised?) I sincerely hope so.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Not the 7.30 Report

Presenter: Welcome to the show, Prime Minister.
PM: Thanks for having me, Dee. Always a pleasure.
Presenter: Well, Prime Minister, the big news today, of course, is the ending, at last, of the Middle East crisis.
PM: Yes indeed, Dee, yes indeed. We’re very proud of our achievement. Very proud.
Presenter: It certainly was an inspired idea.
PM: Yes indeed, Dee. It was inspired. Inspired.
Presenter: And whose idea was it to construct a huge, impermeable dome above the whole Middle East and suck out all the air?
PM: Well, Dee, it was a team effort. We like to think, Dee, that, er, we played an important part in this, along with our allies, of course. We’re very proud to have made Australia—and the world, Dee, the world—a safer place. A safer place.
Presenter: But some of your critics will say that the people who actually lived there—many millions of innocent people—paid a terrible price for our safety. I think the opposition leader may have mumbled something to that effect.
PM: Yes, well, Dee, there will always be those ... We are tough on terrorism and evil-doers, Dee. If the opposition wants to be weak on terrorism, well ... We are tough on evil-doers, Dee. Tough. We’ve kept our promise to keep Australia safe.
Presenter: Prime Minister, now that the threat has been removed, I assume we will see some of the tougher laws on terrorism, and laws restricting our freedom—
PM: Well now, Dee. We can’t afford to be, er, we can’t afford to be complacent about these things. We can’t afford to be complacent.
Presenter: Does that mean that you won’t be winding back those laws?
PM: Well, er, Dee, we never know when or where the next threat might arise. We can’t afford to let down our guard.
Presenter: But, Prime Minister, where could such a threat possibly come from?
PM: Well, Dee, we are committed to injecting additional funding into our, er, national security agencies to find out just that, Dee.
Presenter: More money?
PM: Yes, Dee, it’s precisely at this point in time, at this point in time, that our national security needs boosting. We need to identify any potential threat and nip it in the bud, Dee, nip it in the bud.
Presenter: So—
PM: We will nip any potential threat in the bud, Dee.
Presenter: And have any potential threats been identified, Prime Minister?
PM: Well, Dee, you know, of course, that I’m not at liberty to discuss national security matters.
Presenter: So you will keep the existing legislation—
PM: In fact we have a whole raft of legislation, a whole raft of new legislation on the books, er, Dee.
Presenter: Like what, Prime Minister?
PM: Well, Dee, I can’t go into details at the moment, but suffice it to say, suffice it to say, that if we are going to be proactive, if we are going to nip potential threats in the bud, Dee, we need to introduce measures ...
Presenter: And when will we see these new measures?
PM: All in good time, Dee, all in good time. And we hope that the opposition will allow these measures through, allow them through, Dee, and not give succour to our potential enemies.
Presenter: And you can tell us nothing more specific about these threats or this legislation?
PM: Dee, we have a responsibility, a responsibility, to keep Australia safe. If we were to identify these potential threats, we would be warning them—warning those who wish Australia harm—that we were onto them, and giving them time to dig in. We can’t allow that. We can’t allow it.
Presenter: It’s difficult to see where such threats might come from, Prime Minister. Aren’t you just scaring people by talking up nebulous threats?
PM: Let me just say, Dee, let me just say, that it’s an awfully big universe out there, an awfully big universe, and we have to be prepared—prepared—for any eventuality.
Presenter: Thank you for your time, Prime Minister.
PM: Your welcome, Dee.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

I am what I write

I wonder if this is as true for you as it is for me.

Those of you who subject your writing to the scrutiny of others will know the anguish that can bubble in the belly as you await their verdict. So much of who I am is invested in my writing. That’s why criticism of it is so hard to take, even when well and truly justified.

Those who don’t experience this ... Well, I wonder how they manage it? Is writing a different kind of experience for them? Is it more of a business venture? Just a job? I suspect this applies much more widely than just to writing. There are those who invest themselves, heart and soul, into what they do, and those who approach the job in a more detached way: it’s just a task to be completed. When we do experience this intense involvement with our work, we know we have at last found something in which our emotional and spiritual energy is heavily invested. We are ‘going with the flow’. We can no longer separate what we do from who we are. I suppose this is what we mean when we differentiate between a job and a vocation. We are called from within, though, rather than from without. Through our work we project ourselves into the world. Ourselves.

I recently had one of my manuscripts assessed, and the assessor clearly liked my writing style. She had some very insightful suggestions to make about the structure and content. I didn’t mind her finding fault with those aspects of the manuscript, but I know that if she had criticised the words I used I would have felt considerable pain. I realised then how heavily invested I am in the words I write. So much more so than in the plot or the structure. Of course I realise objectively that these other things are important. I want to get them right. But they are not so much a part of me as the actual words I use.

It is becoming clear to me that this is simply non-negotiable. Of course I will use the wrong word here and there and build a clunky sentence. Of course some passages of my books are better written than others. But I will not—cannot—change the fundamental way that I use words and construct sentences and images. I won’t do that for any editor, any publisher, or any potential reader. I can no more do that than I can cease to be who I am.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Re-Visiting Asylum Seekers

How does the rest of the world perceive Australia’s response to asylum seekers (if the rest of the world notices at all)? Our current ‘liberal’ (for which read ‘ultra-conservative’ and ‘right wing’) government won the election based (or so they claim) on their determination to ‘stop the boats’. There seem to be only three elements to this government’s policy towards asylum seekers: (1) stop the boats; (2) process these ‘illegal’ asylum seekers off shore (in another country); and (3) never permit them to settle in Australia.

Let’s assume that stopping the boats was the best way to put an end to people smuggling (which I don’t concede—there were and are numerous other approaches); let’s assume, also, that the policy of turning back boats and off-shore processing has actually put an end to this illegal trade (both of which are contentious issues, if for no other reason than the secrecy in which the government shrouds all of this) ... Assuming both of these things for the sake of argument, surely this should only ever have been the starting point for developing a positive and constructive policy for dealing with the vast and catastrophic wave of migration that the current refugee crisis represents.

We in Australia, together with other western nations, have contributed significantly to the destabilisation of the Middle East which has resulted in this growing catastrophe. Surely as a nation we have a responsibility to do more to address this disaster than to demonise these refugees, make this someone else’s problem and add more bombs to the mix in the Middle East.

Do we really think that this government’s policies have ‘saved lives’ (or were ever intended to)? Even if this were the case, it is only a (very poor) beginning.

It’s time that this government stepped up to the plate and did much more to help address this worldwide crisis. I fear that it lacks both the capacity and the will to do so.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Eagles and Chickens

The Eagle Who Thought He Was a Chicken:
A baby eagle became orphaned when something happened to his parents. He glided down to the ground from his nest but was not yet able to fly. A man picked him up. The man took him to a farmer and said, “This is a special kind of barnyard chicken that will grow up big.” The farmer said, “Don’t look like no barnyard chicken to me.” “Oh yes, it is. You will be glad to own it.” The farmer took the baby eagle and placed it with his chickens.
The baby eagle learned to imitate the chickens. He could scratch the ground for grubs and worms too. He grew up thinking he was a chicken.
Then one day an eagle flew over the barnyard. The eagle looked up and wondered, “What kind of animal is that? How graceful, powerful, and free it is.” Then he asked another chicken, “What is that?” The chicken replied, “Oh, that is an eagle. But don’t worry yourself about that. You will never be able to fly like that.”
And the eagle went back to scratching the ground. He continued to behave like the chicken he thought he was. Finally he died, never knowing the grand life that could have been his.
I don’t know who the author of the above website is. There are many versions of this story. In some versions the eagle eventually recognises his true nature and soars up into the heavens.

I suppose that’s all great if you actually are an eagle who mistakenly thinks it’s a chicken. The trouble is ... I suspect most of us are chickens who think we’re eagles. And therein lies the source of so many of our difficulties. The ever-present guilt so many of us feel arises from the fact that we constantly fail to do those things that an eagle can do, but a chicken cannot. Of course we constantly fail, because we are chickens, not eagles. And what’s wrong with being a chicken? Nothing at all.

Perhaps our lives would be far less stressful (and the world a better place) if all us chickens stopped trying to be eagles.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Review: 'Celestial Blue Skies' by Maggie Collins

What do I know about the life of white people, black people and ‘high yellers’ in Louisiana in 1985? Not a great deal. Here in this book I find myself involved in the life of a community and a family in Belle Place, Louisiana, a sugar-cane-growing region.

There is Grandmother Maymay, T-man, her husband, Mother Tut, their daughter and T-red, their son, married to Bumblebee. Finally there is Celeste, the eldest of Mother Tut’s children, twelve years old at the opening of the novel.

Mother Tut and Celeste are ‘high yellers’ who could almost pass for white.

Tut was very young when she had her children, so young that really Maymay acts as their mother, with assistance from Bumblebee. Mother Tut is almost childlike—perhaps a little ‘simple’. She is irresistible to men, has little resistance to their approaches, and is regarded as a slut by the community. She has, however, an endearing, naive quality. This, along with her physical beauty, is perhaps what makes her so attractive to men.

Celeste, by contrast, is much older than her years and very intelligent. She is blessed—or perhaps cursed—with her mother’s good looks. She struggles to avoid her mother’s fate.

In many ways this is a coming of age story. Celeste is the central character, and much of the narrative is related from her first person perspective. However, at times the first person narration is taken up by others, most often Tut. Celeste at the beginning of the novel is twelve years old, but by the end is perhaps sixteen or seventeen. Along the way she is strongly attracted to a young Rastafarian boy called Vashan.

Mother Tut has the opportunity to escape her life in Belle Place when she is taken away to another town by a worker in the cane fields known as ‘Black’. Will she be able to break out of the behaviour and lifestyle in which she is trapped? Will Celeste be able to reach her potential? These are the central elements of the plot here.

Among the themes which I found fascinating was the exploration of intra-racial prejudice between the various ‘degrees’ of blackness within this community. As a white man it is difficult to know how to discuss this without unintentionally offending someone or straying from political correctness. Suffice it to say that the seemingly infinite capacity of the human species to divide itself into ‘us and them’ is alive and well in Belle Place, Louisiana. Or, at least, it was in the 1980s.

The strength of this novel was in its characterisation, particularly that of Mother Tut and Celeste. Despite their flaws these characters were mostly likeable, and certainly understandable. Although they sometimes behaved badly, there was never a sense that this was the only thing to say about them. I did think from time to time that the author was resorting to African-American stereotypes; but perhaps these stereotypes have their origins somewhere/somewhen in the real-life experience of the author. I’ve met a few stereotypes myself over the years.

I enjoyed the language, which included elements of Creole and French as well as the colourful version of English spoken in those parts. The voices sounded authentic to me. On the other hand, what do I know about that time and place?

The novel is perhaps weakest when it comes to plot. I did not sense any great movement or development in the plot until near the end, when there are real moments of suspense and tension. I thought a few more moments of tension and conflict along the way would have given the narrative a more interesting contour. Character is very much the dominant element here.

There is one very interesting development towards the end, which would not generally be expected in a novel that is narrated in the first person. I will say no more about that, except to say that it was very effective.

The editing let the author down a little here and there, particular in the latter third of the novel, when there were an increasing number of typos. I suspect the author had at some stage switched from a third person to a first person narrative, and some of the pronoun changes were overlooked (‘them’ instead of ‘us’, for instance).

While I loved the characterisation here, because the plot was not as strong or as contoured as it might have been, I am inclined to give this three and a half stars, but rounding this up to four where necessary.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Magical Thinking

Most of us, when considering this issue seriously and with our grown-up hats on, would probably say we don’t believe in magic (of the Harry Potter variety, at least). Spells and potions ... That’s the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy. It is astonishing, however, how easily even intelligent adults can slip back into ‘magical thinking’.

By this I mean those times when we think that somehow, in some mysterious and unspecified way, our thoughts and wishes can influence the world around us. How many times have you heard someone say (or said yourself) something like this: ‘Whenever I go into a busy car park I just say to myself, over and over, “I will find a spot, I will find a spot”—and, wouldn’t you know, just at that moment someone pulls out and leaves one free!’ Some people ‘wish’ for this, some people ‘pray’ for it, and some people just clench their teeth and try to will it to happen. I can hear many of you saying even as I write this, ‘But it’s true!’

Well, guess what. It isn’t. I also go into crowded car parks, and I find a car park without doing any of that. At least, I try not to do it. However, we are so egocentric that despite all our efforts to remain rational, we persist in the belief that we are the centre of the universe and that we can bend it to our will, or we can bend God to our will so that he will bend the universe to accommodate our wishes. Wishes which are, for the most part, pretty trivial.

I certainly do it at other times and in other circumstances. For example, that lotto ticket I bought the other night ... Do I go to bed and ‘wish’—‘pretty please, pretty please’—to win? Of course I do. And when I win a little prize I say, ‘See, it works’ ... and conveniently forget the previous ten, twenty, thirty times prior to that when it didn’t work. Our mind is strange. We notice and remember the occasions when our wishes happen to coincide with the reality that unfolds, and conveniently forget the rest. Finding patterns is something our mind does very well. Many times this is really useful. This actually requires us to filter out extraneous noise. Unfortunately we can easily fool ourselves, too, into seeing patterns and relationships that aren’t there. In particular, we easily see causality where there is none.

There was a time when different models of cars used to look quite different from each other. Now they all look pretty much the same; or certain categories of cars do, anyway: hatchbacks, four-wheel drives or whatever. Who can tell which model or brand is which? But I remember a time when I would buy a car that had some distinguishing features and, all of a sudden, I would see this particular model of car everywhere. ‘Wow! Spooky! Isn’t it strange how I now keep seeing ****s everywhere!’ Our magical thinking imagines that the world has changed in some mysterious way since I bought the car; that somehow the universe is suddenly bringing more ****s into my sphere of reality. Of course, what has changed is my perception. Before I didn’t notice ****s; now I do.

I am as prone to magical thinking as anyone. It seems to be hardwired, linked to our ability to detect patterns and to generalise from specifics. These are very useful capacities. However, I like to think that I can step back a little from that, apply a little rationality and logic to the situation.

It’s not always necessary to do this. What’s wrong with a little magic, after all? Nothing really, except that it can lead to certain individual and societal disorders. What is an obsessive compulsive disorder if not an extreme form of magical thinking? ‘I have to turn the light on and off five times or something bad is going to happen.’ How easily magical thinking can lead to guilt when it fails. ‘It’s my fault. I didn’t wish [or believe or pray] hard enough.’ If we falsely believe that we have that kind of power over the universe, then I guess it’s our fault when it doesn’t work. A healthy, mature mind recognises that some things (and, indeed, a great many things) are actually beyond our control.

A little magical thinking is harmless. But it does contain within it the seeds of individual neurosis and collective neurosis. A great deal of the expression of religion is just that. I happen to think the world is quite beautiful and mysterious enough, without having to introduce mystery that isn’t really there.