Of Pokémon and pillows

With the world going to hell in a handbasket*, I walked out into the sunshine on Torch Street and headed for Milltown Park, the tiny scrap of green at the top of the street with some play equipment and a sign. Overnight, Milltown Park had become a Pokémon Stop, and I wanted to know a little more about it. I was delayed in getting there because about three houses down, my phone began to vibrate, announcing the presence of a crab-like creature on the road, a little virtual pocket monster. I had to stop and shoot it! I flicked the red ball at the bottom of my phone in the crab’s general direction. Ridiculously easily, my ball felled the creature and swallowed it up. The crab-thing was now mine.

IMG_1168 Today I’ve been gathering Pokémon and feathering my real-life nest with some cosy winter pillows and cushions. Other than the deliberate excursion to Milltown Park, I’ve been able to catch my Pokémon seamlessly, without going out of my way. In Bunnings, as Steve bought an aluminium set square and mulled over how he might custom-build some bookshelves in the middle room, I found a bat flapping about at head-height near a Bunnings customer service person. I was the only person aware of and reacting to this purple bat; it was like being the only person able to see a ghost. I flicked my red ball at it. It bounced fruitlessly down the concrete aisle and disappeared from view. I tried flicking my red ball in different ways, from different angles. I took a few steps backwards to get the angle right, taking care not to knock over the hardware stacked on a display stand behind me. It took a few more goes, but I got my bat. I pocketed my pocket monster.

As we went about our day, feathering our nest, Steve and I talked about how augmented reality could be a wonderful way to get to know local layers of meaning not visible to the naked eye: historical facts about a building; pictures of insects that live in a particular tree. Point your phone at things and find out more about them. That could be good.

Next stop Spotlight to buy some fabric for new cushions. As I walked across the vast expanse of asphalt that is the car park at this new bulky goods retail paradise, I whipped out my phone to see if there were any Pokémon hereabouts. Nothing. The carpark and all the world around it were Pokémon free. I looked up at the buildings, the cars, quietly sitting in the sun and realised I was already seeing the world in a new way: a space that was now somehow negative, because of the absence of something. The absence of something that didn’t actually (or yet) exist. And yet the absence itself felt kind of real.

Within a very short amount of time, the world has been blessed in some parts with Pokémon fairy dust and left languishing in Pokémon black spots in others. Why was the bat in Bunnings? Did Bunnings ask it in, as bait? If people come into your store hunting Pokémon, presumably their eyes might also be caught by the tangible objects available for sale. However these decisions are being made – or whatever algorithm is making decisions for us – for now, Bathurst Bunnings is a have, and Bathurst Spotlight is a have-not, in this brave new augmented world.

Yup, Brave New World. While developers and gamers have been tinkering with augmented reality for many years, there is something decisive about the release of Pokémon Go. Unlike earlier projects, this is fun for all the family. I suspect reality may never be quite the same again, just as it was never the same again after the telegraph, or radio, or television, or the Internet (or fire, or the wheel).

But in the meantime, glitches.

Later, with Steve, I took my old flesh-and-blood black Labrador to the Blayney Road Common for a gentle walk. Bertie ignored the kangaroos solemIMG_1177nly watching us in the golden light. I fired up my app. No Pokémon hereabouts, but I could see a Pokémon stop in the virtual distance. Ah. I tapped it and discovered that this PokeStop had attached itself to a real-world sign that says DANGER LIVE AMMUNITION IN USE – KEEP OUT. I was beginning to see how quickly this Pokémon Go thing could end up in tears. Having children shimmying the fence to get closer to the PokeStop in the middle of the local rifle range can’t be right. There is something eager and ignorant about Pokémon Go. It’s as oblivious to local sensitivities as the tourist who wanders into the Balinese Hindu temple in a bathing suit, tracking sand.

The game will either learn how to work this stuff out, or risk being banned like the clackers. The clackers were acrylic balls on the end of nylon string that you’d clack together. They were a fad that took over my primary school one year back in the early 1970s. The concrete corridors reverberated to the clacking sound. Kids were soon sporting great lumps on their foreheads where they’d been struck in the face by fast-moving hard plastic balls. The school banned them and suddenly they were gone.

Whether Pokémon Go is banned like the clackers or irons out its glitches to spread the fairy dust over the smartphone wielding world, one thing is certain: the way we inhabit physical space and tell stories about it is changing decisively. Robotic surgery means that surgeon and patient need not be in the same place, although at this point in evolution they still need to inhabit the same parcel of time (although even this could conceivably change, with a piece of surgery programmed in and the patient settling herself on the trolley at her own convenience to go under the knife). There was a woman on TV the other night with cerebral palsy who was playing a musical instrument just by moving her eyes.

At moments like these there’s a sense that the limitations of our human bodies are being swept away, allowing us to enter some sort of cyborg otherworld that is part flesh, part code.

I’m happy to catch some Pokémon on a Saturday morning, but I’m not sure I like where we’re going with all this, even if it’s bristling with benefits. I feel a bit like Rose R., the woman in Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, who didn’t really like the world of the 1960s, with its blathering radio and television sets. She preferred her earlier, simpler world of person-to-person connection. Sometimes I’m not sure I really want to take these next steps, whatever they are. To take those steps is to enter a world with an operating system incompatible with the one currently installed in my brain.

It’s friendly and fun but we’re also being colonised. My street, my town, the way I move about in space is being tracked and manipulated; layers of meaning are being added from some remote place (company headquarters are in San Francisco) by people who can’t tell a firing range from a park bench, because it’s all just coordinates to them (or their robots).

I have some pocket monsters in my smart phone. They exist in my mind, and they exist in this nebulous thing called the Internet. They’re sitting out there in Torch Street right now, nebulous creatures waiting for children to find them. But these pillows – you can touch them, you can rest your head on them. You can count on a pillow.

And when I go to sleep tonight, I must resist the urge to slip my phone under my pillow and wake at three am to check on my pocket monsters.

*A man driving a truck through a crowd watching the fireworks; attempted military coup in Turkey; others.


Trying to herd seagulls

Yesterday morning my international reader (Jane) and I were walking towards the bus stop iimagen Cheltenham when we heard the cry of a seagull. I looked up and there it was, wings outstretched against a momentarily blue sky. Chelt
enham is a long way from the sea, I said. Jane agreed the seagull was out of place. Cheltenham never used to have seagulls. But they’ve been coming over from Gloucester in large numbers. The people of Cheltenham, unnerved by this development, have been trying to get rid of them, poisoining any seagull eggs they find.

I’ve arrived in the UK in the midst of Brexit. I can’t help thinking the Brexiteers are trying to do something like what the people are Cheltenham are trying to do in relation to seagulls: get things back how they were. Impossible and I’ll-advised, especially for the seagulls.

Jane and I were in an Air BnB house in Oxford the night the Brexit vote was counted. I was still jetlagged from my flight across the planet. Jane couldn’t sleep; she stayed up listening to the radio. The news came through in the early hours and we were awake for it. Jane was devastated. I was very surprised. I’d assumed the vote would go the other way. I’d spent the day wandering around Oxford which was bristling with Remain posters.

Today I had tea at Paddington station in London with Sian, an Australian friend, and asked her if she’d been surprised. No, she said, because she’d just been in Wales, where every visible sign was for Leave.

By now the line-up in this divided nation is clear: London Remain, Wales Leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland Remain; the old white working class Leave; older people Leave; younger people Remain.

The mood as the day wore on was very grumpy, a bit jumpy. London (Remain) was pissed off and apalled with other parts of the country. People were all talking about it, everywhere you went, people were discussing it. I’ve never heard ordinary people talk about politics so much in my entire life. A young woman sitting in the seat in front of me on the bus on the way from Cheltenham to London was whispering to her companion that she’d voted Leave but now felt she couldn’t tell anyone what she’d done. She felt bad about it. Her friend told her not to be ashamed of her vote, to stand strong and not be apologetic.


At Victoria station I bought a couple of newspapers and the young man who served me asked if I could explain the difference between The Sun and the Daily Mail. I daid they were much of a muchness and asked how he felt about Brexit. For him, Brexit was a vote on immigration, pure and simple. He was an immigrant himself.

When I got to my hotel in Paddington, three men were checking in. One was wearing an extraordinary outfit of skinny jeans and a jacket and a pleated dress under the jacket that came down to the knees. Sort of exactly half male and half female attire. Another hotel guest stared openly at him, trying to work it out. They three were off to the gay pride march. I went to my room and switched the telly on. At the gay pride march, someone had taken phone footage of people shouting angrily at Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, for a bloodless, halfhearted campaign for Remain.

It’s clear Corbyn wasn’t comfortable with Remain, even though it was his party’s policy. Globalisation, of which the European Union is a part, has not divided its spoils evenly. The collapse of manufacturing in the UK, plus decades of neoliberalism, have thrown the traditional working class into the abyss. Some of us – like me – are flying around the world for our holidays. Others feel they have been consigned to the scrap heap. They’re quite right about that. But if that’s the problem, Brexit is hardly the solution.

I think of Lithgow coal miners. Lithgow is the next big town east of Bathurst, an old union town, a coal mining town. If Lithgow were in England, it would have voted Leave. If Lithgow had its druthers, it would mine coal forever. But that won’t happen, can’t happen, shouldn’t happen. The answer is not to go back, but to go out into unchartered, unknown territory.

Corbyn’s bloodless response is explained by his sense of solidarity with the English equivalents of the Lithgow coal miners. If they think Brexit is the solution, they’ve got it wrong. Corbyn has failed to explain that, to lead the way.

John Pilger, someone I’ve admired since my teenage years, has also got it all wrong about Brexit. He has just published a piece celebrating  the Leave vote as a carnival of democracy, a revolt against the silver tails. In my opinion it may be democracy at work, it may be a revolt against the silver tails, but that doesn’t make it right.

This is because there are real human beings on the receiving end of all this. Pilger and Corbyn may ascribe more noble principles – a defence of trade union rights, a cry for the safety net of the welfare state – but the real meaning of Brexit is powerless resentment parlayed into racism.

The world is a difficult place. Seagulls live in Cheltenham, men wear dresses. Slogans and symbols and a return to the past are not solutions.

What is England, this jewel, this sceptered isle (these words come back to me from Mrs de Beer’s English class)? In this hotel the breakfast room has some attractive crusty loaves in a basket. These are for display only. Next to the basket, the piles of pallid sliced bread that are actually for the eating. The Brexiteers are reaching for a fantasy, a basket of fake bread. And the immigrants, like the seagulls, are about to cop it.

Note: I’ve been writing this blog post with one finger, using my phone. This post is not quite what I had in mind but it’ll have to do for now. I’ve been having a wonderful time. Today I visited the William Morris gallery & enjoyed a couple of hours of pure arts and crafts love. I’ll save that for another post.



A crocheted cup of tea

Crocheted teacup: a work in progress.
Crocheted teacup: a work in progress.

Last night I made a cup of tea. I’ve almost finished it. There’s no chance it’ll go cold, because this is a warm, fuzzy, crocheted cup of tea. Have I mentioned that I have a mad desire to crochet everything? Like, everything? I walk down the street looking at trees and letterboxes and thinking about how one could render them in crochet. I know. I’ve got it BAD. Anyway, this cup of tea is to give to Mum because it’s coming up to three years since we said goodbye to Dad.

Steve and I happened to be visiting at the time, with Bertie the Lab. Deb and her family lived around the corner. So everyone was there, available, and it was pretty-well the ideal time for Dad to drop off the perch, as he’d been threatening to do so for some time. So once we were all in position, he made his exit. Steve and I changed our plans from a holiday up the coast to hanging around with Mum until the funeral. It was a profound time, throwing up the inevitable existential crisis – who am I now that one of the great overarching personalities of my life is no longer sharing this earth with me? -combined with the need to make a lot of odd choices, such as what does a person wear for their cremation? Mum got a full set of clothes ready, including underpants and socks and shoes, and put them in an ordinary shopping bag. For some reason dropping off this bag at the funeral director was far more disturbing than going to see Dad laid out in hospital a couple of nights before. Then, he’d looked perfectly peaceful, like someone sleeping. The nurses gave us a cup of tea. We sat companionably with him for a while, drinking our tea with him as we had done all our lives. That was quite nice, really. But dropping off that bag of clothes, the last clothes he’d ever wear – that was a much harder call.

I hadn’t rediscovered crochet at that time. It would have been a perfect companion through those strange days, but I didn’t think of it. The crochet obsession kicked in about six months later. Anyway, I’ve been going round the house looking for bits of wool to finish this cup of tea. I found some gold metallic yarn to suggest the gilt rim on saucer and cup; I’ll stitch a frog motif on the side of the cup because one of his nicknames was Frog. I’ll curve a bobbly length of crochet into a handle. Anyway, I’m glad there’s always cups of tea and I’m glad there’s always crochet.

Time to fly the flag, Carnarvon

Tracy_Deb_Jetty_early_70sFor me, the word Carnarvon is a sensation with a myriad elements: the smell of crackling desert dawn, the roar of the Indian Ocean, stars hanging low in the sky. It’s a billy boiling on glowing coals, fish sizzling in a pan, my young parents endlessly outdoors in a world of water, spray, sand and dust. It’s a quality of light and air that exists only there, only in that place. I wasn’t born there, but I got there early enough for it to take hold of my soul. I will not be five, six, or seven years old anywhere else on earth. Or fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. Carnarvon has all of those years.

But Carnarvon is also the place I was desperate to leave when I was a teenager serving buckets of hot chips at Delmonica’s Deli next door to the book exchange. Life was elsewhere, and I couldn’t wait to go find it. For quite a few years I barely looked back. And then, the undercurrent, pulling me back.

In recent years I’ve been a member of a Facebook group called I Grew Up in Carnarvon, a virtual town in cyberspace. People will post announcements of deaths and funerals, or pictures of what places in Carnarvon look like now. Both current residents and those of us long gone live companionably there. We are united online by the things we knew intimately offline: the dry crunch of the Gascoyne River, the creaking of the boards of the One Mile Jetty, the smell of prawns and mangos, the palm trees dotting a seawall known as The Fascine, the giant dish of the radio telescope looking over the town from its perch on a red sand dune. If you’re on Facebook, a certain bittersweet nostalgia is never more than a couple of clicks away.

But then a few days ago, blasting into the middle of this nostalgic idyll, an urgent posting:

OMFG can you be serious!!!!!! I’m listening to the ABC news and the Shire of Carnarvon is refusing to fly the Aboriginal Flag during NAIDOC week!!!!!! Shame on you Carnarvon Shire!

And then it was on. The comments rolled on and on.  “Disgrace!” “Shame!” and so on.

For my international reader*, a bit of background: NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. During NAIDOC Week, held in the first week of July, most local government offices fly the striking black, red and yellow Aboriginal flag. It symbolises respect for, and celebration of, the oldest living culture on earth. For forty thousand years (some say sixty thousand) before invasion and settlement by European powers, Aboriginal people had been sitting by firelight under low-hanging stars, listening to the crashing of the Indian Ocean or the buzzing of insects on the red earth inland from the coast, singing the songs and telling the stories of the place we know now as Carnarvon.

But the shire of Carnarvon has just decided that it will not fly the Aboriginal flag for NAIDOC week in July.  The shire president insists that the Australian flag – the Union Jack plus the stars of the Southern Cross – represents all residents of Carnarvon equally, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. But local Aboriginal people are feeling it as a personal snub. For a radio interview this morning, I called someone who’d been in my sister’s class at school and asked what local Aboriginal people were feeling. Rage and despair, she said.

Why is it so hard for some Australians to look history squarely in the face? The land was wrested from Aboriginal people against their will. Dispossession was a long, drawn out and often bloody process. It stands to reason, then, that our the national flag carries traces of these meanings. It does not represent the whole story of this country; it represents a part of it. In recent years, as a nation, we have begun to recognise this and to reach out to the country’s first peoples. Sadly, Carnarvon shire appears determined to stick to a 1950s vision, one that is wilfully blind to the history and lived experience of many of its residents.

Carnarvon is an extraordinary place in an ancient and beautiful landscape. It deserves an Aboriginal flag flying freely over the Shire chambers. Let’s hope the shire councillors change their minds before NAIDOC week in July.


Tracy Sorensen – documentary maker, journalist, creative writer