Category Archives: Travel

Who’s afraid of the working class?

Where do they go, when the factories close? A few years ago I heard a podcast from Planet Money about what middle-aged American men did once they were laid off from their jobs. A large number, it seems, went on disability support.

As manufacturing moved out of the United States, its workers moved on to disability. They had back pain, high blood pressure, diabetes. They had enough misery in their lives to qualify for disability pensions. Which was fortunate, in a way, because they had precious little chance of ever finding work again.

Maybe a higher percentage than usual of these guys set down their remote controls the other day and hoisted themselves out of the house for the trip down to the local polling booth.

The revolt of the cast-offs of globalisation isn’t the only explanation for Trump – I think it was part of a perfect storm of other factors, which I’ll get into further down – but it’s the factor that so few pundits took into account prior to election day. This is strange, because Brexit should surely have been a warning.

I was in the UK as Brexit unfolded. I was hanging around inside my own echo chamber, visiting certain parts of London then Oxford and Cheltenham. There were Remain signs in windows. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the UK wouldn’t be so silly as to dump the EU. And then the morning after. What the hell happened? The thing that happened was well out sight – for us. The thing that happened was that people who were not doing so well out of globalised capitalism – people not so visible in public life – went out and voted. In the case of Brexit and Trump, it was a generalised flipping of the bird. It was an emotional reaction, a final had-enough-and-not-taking-it-any-more. Turkeys voting for Christmas? Perhaps. But these are people who feel that Christmas has already been and gone. Their gnawed bones are being scraped into the garbage bin. (Note: Feelings are not the same as facts; they might or might not be justified.)

And then the racism on the streets. People who had lived in the UK for decades or even generations being told to go “home”. All because the demagogues, given oxygen by Murdoch and other scurrilous press, held up a scapegoat for discontent: The Other.

So when my partner Steve said on Wednesday morning that Clinton would probably win, I said I’m not too sure. Remember Brexit. He said she was ahead in most of the polls. Still, I wasn’t too sure.

As Wednesday afternoon wore on, I kept taking a moment out of my video editing job (a weekend of celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Grenfell) to look at the latest news on ABC News 24. I saw a weird dial that said it was 80 per cent likely that Trump would win the presidency. And even I, who only that morning had said it was possible, was shocked. Here’s a candidate off the edge of the scale. Here’s a genuine fascist, no exaggeration necessary. What were the German fascists all about? Creating a simple scapegoat for complex problems. Promising to restore the country to former greatness. It was about a word I first learned in Mr Corson’s History class: autarky. Autarky means self-sufficiency. It means you don’t rely on the rest of the world for your essentials; you make them yourself. I remember learning by heart for my final exams a whole table showing the increase in pig iron production prior to the second world war. Trump has been telling people he’d stop free trade, support home-grown manufacturing, revive those rusting, weed-infested factories. Build a wall against Mexicans. Put women back where they belong. Laugh at climate change. Make America a man again.

How could people be so stupid?

I mean, how could we be stupid as to think that you can make people feel so miserable, insecure, powerless and overwhelmed by change without consequence? Why should they keep voting for business as usual? (And Hilary Clinton, despite being a woman, was clearly seen as business as usual.) The documentary maker Michael Moore has been trying to tell us about this for a long time. He was one of the few in public life that predicted Trump’s win.

So. I’m writing this from Bathurst, New South Wales, where we have a yearly celebration of working class culture in the V8 car races. We have a manufacturing industry but it’s in decline. This used to be a railway town. Until just a few years ago we even made our own bogies at Downer EDI. The last one rolled off the production line in 2013. Our friend Glen, who used to work in the EDI factory had seen it coming. For years he painstakingly worked through a teaching degree by distance education, working on essays into the night, bundying on at the factory early the next morning. After the factory closed, he was eventually able to find a job as tech teacher at the local high school. Glen managed to make the transition, but he had unusual foresight and adaptability. Where are his fellow workers, now? I would not be surprised to find a few on the disability pension.

Further west, in Cowra, there used to be a fruit and vegetable processing factory. I filmed it for a client-based video called What Employers Want. At that factory there were toolmakers who knew how to create the machines and tweak the production lines that filled and sealed the cans of peas and asparagus. It was an old factory, with parts of it looking like something out of a 1950s film set, but there was also a shiny new addition glinting in the sun, the result of a life-saving government grant. But it died anyway. Where are those blokes, now, the ones who knew how to tweak the machines? What about the young apprentice in the video? Has he been able to find other work?

I’m not saying this is the only explanation for Trump. No doubt misogyny and racism are real and powerful all by themselves. With the collapse of traditional media people are retreating to their own silos, occupying parallel universes in the same geographical spaces. Reality television means people can get to know and like provocateurs like Trump (and Pauline Hanson over here), giving them 100 per cent brand recognition that can be easily parlayed into electoral success.  And the chickens are coming in to roost on dog whistle politics, to mix my farmyard metaphors.

It’s been a perfect storm, but not one that hasn’t been brewing for a long time. It’s a storm made of a backlash against feminism, LBQTI rights and rainbow politics, the rise of the evangelical Christian right (which mobilised for Trump), a domineering foreign policy answered by terrorism followed by war followed by body bags and a disinclination to support Clinton’s promise of continued hawkishness, a backlash against the bankers who caused and then were bailed out of the global financial crisis,  the decline of the old colonial powers of the English speaking world and Europe and the rise of Asia, a preference for a Norman Rockwell past over an apocalyptic, climate-changed future and, perhaps most of all,  simple refusal. Half of eligible voters didn’t vote. They didn’t have the heart. They didn’t think it was worth it.

I’m writing this partly because the US is inherently interesting to me – we’re permanently saturated in American culture so it’s hard not to get interested  –  but also because the parallels with our own situation here are obvious. Whatever storms are brewing there are brewing here, too.

How do we deal with it?

On Thursday morning, once it was definite that Trump was the Leader of the Free World, I was struck by a thorough-going ennui. I’ve been politically active, one way or another, for most of my adult life. But on Thursday I toyed with not bothering any more. I’ve been ill. I could retire to my PhD and spring garden. But I also had to write this week’s BCCAN column and in writing it, I wrote myself back into my tiny bit-part in political life. People have fought fascism before; they’ll do it again. By the afternoon, anti-Trump high school students in California had taken to the streets.

So I will continue on as President of BCCAN, a thing I can do on my own territory that is at odds with all Trump stands for. In campaigning for action on climate change, I’m ever-conscious of the Lithgow coal miners (and ex-coal miners) just half an hour down the road. Many hate “greenies” with a passion, blaming us for the winding down of coal and the loss not just of their livelihoods but of the story of who they are. I don’t know quite what to do about these miners, but I do know they’re important. They can’t be left out of account. Somehow we need to form an alliance, or try to at least. We need to try to do what alliances have always done, which is: accept that we don’t agree on everything. Accept that perhaps we don’t agree on much at all. But if we agree on something, and that something is important enough to fight for (jobs in renewables?), then let’s see what we can do together.

It’s not easy, though. I recall a movie I saw recently. Actually I saw it with my friend Larissa in Newtown after getting back from the UK (yup, burned carbon all the way there and back). It was Pride (2014) about the alliance between striking Welsh coal miners and lesbian and gay activists (the BTQI part wasn’t such a thing in the early 1980s) from the time when Thatcher tried to close down the pits (climate change wasn’t such a thing then, either). The gay and lesbian activists insisted on supporting the striking miners, despite comical differences in lifestyles and attitudes. The last scene depicts a historic  gay pride march held in London in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Impossibly, incredibly, it was led by a band of Welsh coalminers: they were supporting their allies at a time of need.

It’s a beautiful piece of history. It shows what can be done. But then I thought about the thirty years since then. There is still hatred for LBGTI people. But marriage equality exists in the UK, and LBGTI people have made many gains over the past three decades. The Welsh miners? They lost. And they voted Brexit.

 

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.

 

 

Another year

Wicket_cardAnother year down, and all is well! I’m still here and my numbers are still nice and low – 12 last time we looked. For this, I thank modern medicine and the wizardry of my two surgeons. I’m happy but never entirely out of the woods. I walk in the wooded valley of the shadow of the Rainbow Bridge. People think the Rainbow Bridge is just for pets but it’s not; it takes bookings from anyone. Actually none of us ever gets out of the woods. There’s always more woods. And woods are beautiful places, buzzing with life…

Anyway, I’m getting carried away by my own metaphors, so let’s move on.

While last year was all about taxol, carboplatin and long stretches of time on the couch, this year was a bit of whirl as I got back into Life at 100km an hour. Teaching was weird. I’m probably a bit like Samson, taking strength from my hair. I felt I didn’t have quite enough hair to stand in front of a room of 19 year olds and hold my own.  Meanwhile, I was sewing three giant turquoise dresses and learning my steps for the Invisible Body performance in May, where three of us did nifty moves on stage while someone else read out our personal accounts of living in bodies. We did this twice and then on the last day of the Bathurst outpost of the Sydney Writer’s Festival I got to be on a little panel of bloggers talking about our blogs. I said I blogged every Thursday, no matter what. This commitment has now begun to unravel, as you may have noticed.

What else went on this year? Check the photos on the computer. Oh, a LOT! There was a little campaign to save the Tremain silos in Keppel Street (saved!); Tracey Carpenter’s campaign for the state seat of Bathurst (retained by Paul Toole); the giant Diffenbacchia pot plant reached the level of the ceiling fan and then FELL OVER. I cut it off to its stump, leaving its two daughter plants to replace their mother (they are going very well); we had an Afternoon Teal to raise money for ovarian cancer at which Deb and Bernie, Max and Joey auctioned small items and we made lots of money (and Larissa baked cakes using the neighbour’s stove because ours was on the blink); there was the trip to Kandos to help Karen Golland poke pom poms into the ground, and then a day at Cementa; a school hols visit including nephews and a random kid they brought along; a trip to Shelley beach with Bertie and his cousin Wicket; painting ring-pulls for this year’s Waste to Art exhibition; an attempt to make sauerkraut (it looked the part but we never ate it); making Nicole Welch’s promotional video; getting more hair; going to TASMANIA (Maria Island and Hobart and a bit of the east coast) with Ranger Steve; experiencing a day of snow in the streets of Bathurst; experiencing, with all of Bathurst, the shock of the murder-suicide of cafe proprietor Elie Issa and beautiful real estate agent Nadia Cameron; more hair; following along as Mum constructed a separate wing at the back of Deb’s place to move in to; and then the grand flurry of the 200 Plants and Animals exhibition in the Bathurst CBD, followed by a battle to stop a gold mine sucking water out of the Macquarie River. Steve’s sudden obsession with kayaks. Whoa! No wonder I’m tired! And that’s not to mention the first steps into a PhD and the most amazing thing I haven’t mentioned yet but will mention now.

Over the last half of this year, I was mentored by the totally amazing and brilliant Charlotte Wood, author of The Submerged Cathedral and The Natural Way of Things as I made one last charge up over the trench and into the enemy lines of Finishing This Wretched Novel for Once and For All. (I’d finished it before, a couple of times, but not really. It still had essential problems, problems I was hoping some editor, somewhere, would help me fix.) Charlotte gave me some big guns. Howitzers. These will be handy in future battles. So as 2015 comes to a close The Lucky Galah, the novel I’ve been working on forever, is now really, truly, ruly finished, except for some typos and tiny touch-ups. And I’m so glad I didn’t settle for faulty earlier drafts. This novel is not quite the perfect thing I had in mind, but it is as good as it’s ever going to get, so that’s that. Done. Line ruled under. All over.

Meanwhile, out in the bigger picture, I just want to take a moment to savour the moment Tony Abbot was ousted. I know all the stuff about Malcolm carrying on most of the same policies, only in a more smooth-talking way, but I tell you what, that moment of waking up the next day was pure bliss. It was like a weight dropping off the shoulders of the nation.

Finally, little Wicket the long-haired dog really did step over the Rainbow Bridge recently. Vale Wicket. And Vonnie, my sister’s Mother in Law, with whom I spent many Christmas days. And thinking of Dad, too, who is sitting on a chair on a deck somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge, with his big white Maremma dog at his feet, looking through his binoculars at all the native Australian birds in the tree canopies.

Who do I think I am?

It was the night before the flight to Tasmania. I still had a pile of marking to get through. I was procrastinating by trawling through the ancestor-hunting Ancestry.com.au. I’d trawled before, but always signed out before they got my credit card. Now, I’d finally succumbed. Once I had, I wished I’d signed up earlier*. So here it was, the full story on my computer screen:

Dawes
Dawes Who Rode

During the American Revolution, my ancestor, William Dawes, had teamed up with Paul Revere to ride through the night and across rivers and streams, warning, “The British are coming!” This ancestor is now known as Dawes Who Rode. A few begats down the line and we arrive at a John Pomeroy Dawes who sailed for Australia on the Golden West in 1858, aged 23. He begat Sidney Dawes, father of my Nana, Doris May Dawes. She married Francis Sorensen and had Dad, and Dad had Deb and me, and Deb had Max and Joe. There are two interesting middle names that appear through the family tree: Pomeroy for boys and May for girls. Both are the maiden surnames of the wives of earlier Dawes.

Growing up, we knew none of this, and nor did Dad – at that time. He found out in the early 2000s when a friend of my sister Deb began trawling Ancestry.com. It would appear that even Dad’s mother, Doris, was ignorant of her family’s past. If she’d known about the outstanding historical personage in her family tree, she might have made something of it. Or perhaps not. Was there any cachet, in a still very British nineteenth Australia, in saying your ancestors had fought the British? Instead of passing on facts, Nana appears to have made stuff up. She apparently liked to say the snake skeletons on the ground where she grew up were so big that you had to jump over them on your way to school. She said the kangaroos where she grew up were so tall that they could look over the tops of train carriages. The generations of Boston Dawes appear to have been well-to-do, establishment families. By Dad’s generation, there was no hint of that. He knew his family on his mother’s side as Queensland timber-getters. His father, Francis Sorensen, was a carpenter. Dad left school at 14 to become an apprentice suitcase-maker (a project that didn’t last long). When we went to sprinkle Dad’s ashes around Moreton Bay, we caught up with our cousin Sandra. Sandra, unlike us, had grown up around Nana. She said there’d been a point in late childhood at which she’d stopped believing Nana’s stories. Dad never got on with his mother. Perhaps that’s why we grew up on the other side of Australia, in Carnarvon, as far away as you could get from Brisbane without actually leaving the country. I remember Nana sitting on my bed during a visit to Carnarvon when she’d tried to talk Dad into going back to Brisbane. She’d come with her other son, our Uncle Frank, and his girlfriend Lorrie. I looked at the vertical lines on Nana’s top lip. She spoke vigorously, emphatically. I noticed she said “orf” instead of “off”. That’s the last I saw of her.

I do have a couple of earlier memories of her. In one I’m lying on what might have been a window seat in what must have been her house at Ormiston. I can only be about three years old;  it’s before we left Brisbane. Across the room, a black and white television is on. I’m going in and out of sleep. I have a strong, eerie sense of deja vu or perhaps premonition. I dream that a pipe or cylinder will rise up out of the ground and there will be an old, admonishing man in it, waggling his finger at me, and this will be terrifying. This is exactly what happens, on the TV.

SnapdragonAnd then, a few years later, on a trip back to Brisbane from Carnarvon – it must have been the trip where we drove across the continent to see Pop, Dad’s father, in hospital – Nana is showing me her snap dragons. She’s growing carnations and snapdragons at commercial scale on the property at Ormiston, or nearby. She squeezes the snapdragon to show how it opens its dragon mouth.

But Dad didn’t get on with her. He got on with his Dad. They’d worked together on Stradbroke Island, working for the sand mining company, making functional asbestos buildings. Pop died at 64 of something wrong with his lungs. Dad died at 72, held together by modern medicine, also of lung disease. They were both heavy smokers, but maybe asbestos filaments were also part of the story. Dad never had a biopsy, only X-rays that showed the creeping fibrosis. I typed Dad’s details into Ancestry.com. It killed me to add the end date, now known: June 18, 2013.

Steve came and stood next to the computer, looking over my shoulder at what I was doing. I was brooding over the births and deaths. Not marking. Not getting ready for Tasmania.

The next morning, I did finally get ready. We spent two rich weeks in Tasmania.

And now we’re back. Today, I have bedraggled, frost-bitten snapdragons out the front of my house. I’m dragging away the remains of last summer’s veges and herbs and masses of nasturtiums from the garden just out of the back door. It’s cold here, just as Tasmania was cold. We’ll be adding chook manure to the garden and digging it in, ready for Spring.

* This is not a sponsored post for Ancestry.com!

Living in a tiny house

It was dark and I was lying flat on my back on a mattress in a moving van. Out of the window, all I could see was the dark sky, and power lines and the tops of trees. The van was a camper van and we were being transported through the streets of Melbourne to an address in Coburg. It was mysterious and tiny. It was a capsule for living in, going camping in, sleeping in.

cabin
Cabin No. 4 at the holiday park in Port Campbell, Victoria.

Steve and I got back from our two-week holiday along the Great Ocean Road on Sunday. Until the last three nights in Melbourne, where we had urban experiences, we were camping in a tent and living in holiday cabins. All tiny houses. Tiny houses are, like kale and beards, a Thing. You can see them in hipster corners of the Internet in all their Tiny stylishness. Really, they’re just another riff on cubby house or caravan, but now they’re being promoted as a way to live lightly on this earth, not taking up too much space. Instead of a giant McMansion that you have to burn truckloads of coal to heat and cool, you can live in a mini-home that you can heat with a candle and cool with an icy pole.

As a short person, I love them.

If you take your eyes off it, it grows.
If you take your eyes off it, it grows.

I love the way everything in a caravan or holiday cabin is in easy reach. Here, in my own house, I have to get up on a stepladder to reach the blender. The sink and kitchen benches are just a tiny bit too high, making me feel like a toddler at a hand basin. My face is at the very bottom of the bathroom mirror. Even my pot plant, getting in on the act, has gone for giantism, nearly reaching the extra-high ceiling that everyone admires (they admire both the ceiling and the pot-plant, although some find the plant a bit scary). When we book into holiday parks, I’m usually hoping they’ve got a small ’70s caravan out the back that we can have, preferably complete with orange and brown curtains. When I was five we lived our first months in Carnarvon at Baxter’s caravan park. Mum set up her sewing machine in that tiny space. Everyone had an annexe. A lot of people lived there permanently.

As I walked along the beach at Blanket Bay in the Great Otway National Park on the Great Ocean Road, I crunched over some tiny homes. They were tiny grey shells, the shape of a soft-serve ice cream, with tiny snails in them. They inhabited shallow pools of sea water on the rocks. They moved slowly from here to there, sucking at the sand on the bottom, creating beautiful patterned trails, some ended forever by my Goretex boot. Crunch. Sorry.

As I walked along the beach, I scribbled cosmic thoughts on a scrap of lined paper:

The universe unravels and knits something else.

Too, too, too beautiful! I almost don’t want to see it. I’m not alone. I’m not homeless. I’m held in the universe.

The ocean is working as hard as it ever was. I’m Alive. This moment is life. There’s no break between rock and limpet.

There are just outbreaks of energy. “Just.” Stars explode. Just another outbreak of energy. There is no illness, no death. Just a suck back, like a wave, breathing out, crashing against the shore.

Later, back in the tent, I was reading my iPhone 4 (reception was surprisingly good) and came across an article about the work of young physicist Jeremy England, who has come up with a theory about the origin of life being in the dissipation of energy, and how the theory of dissipation applies to living and non-living things. The important thing is not “life” as such, but how systems cope with energy. As usual, I had that fabulous feeling of almost-but-not-quiteness I get around ideas that feel right but about which I know next to nothing.

But I do think that we “have” this planet earth in the same way as the blue periwinkle “has” its tiny shell home. The periwinkle both has a home and is its home, made of stuff that is living and non-living. And it is fragile. Just like our planet, a tiny home in a vast universe.