Category Archives: journalism

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 special birthday

Keith_Dawn_May_2016_webThis weekend, I’ve been celebrating the 90th birthday of Keith McEwan, father of my dear friend Dawn. We gathered in the community hall at his retirement village in Canberra to toast the life of this veteran campaigner for social justice. Keith grew up in the shadow of Pentridge Prison in Melbourne. He loved reading and thinking and in other circumstances might have had a career in any number of fields. But his family was dirt-poor – his childhood coincided with the Great Depression, and his father was unemployed from 1930 to 1941.
Keith had to give up school early to help contribute to household income.  From the age of 14 he worked in a sheet metal factory and a series of other unskilled jobs. He gravitated to left wing politics and joined the  Communist Party at the age of 21.

His work in the party took him into the heart of union and cold war political struggles of the 1950s. He was a committed comrade for many years, before his sincerity and desire for genuine democracy within the party saw him leave in disillusionment.

Afterwards, eventually, he became a real estate agent and settled into life as father, grandfather and, more recently, great-grandfather. While he left party politics behind, he never stopped supporting progressive causes or quietly supporting those about him who were struggling.  He visited prisoners, supported land rights, campaigned for the rights of the Stolen Generation, civil liberties, marriage equality and voluntary euthanasia. He is well-known in Canberra for his letters to the editor of the Canberra Times on all of these issues and many others.

So, on Saturday, family and friends from all over the country gathered in the hall and toasted Keith. Keith mostly sat in his motorised wheelchair, but stood up from time to time, very tall, and received all his well-wishers with his customary wit and warmth. Afterwards, we went back to Dawn’s place to continue the celebrations without Keith, because by now he was pretty tired and needed an early night. The evening turned into a good old fashioned soiree, with banjo playing, magic tricks and people reading from a giant book of the poetry and short stories of Henry Lawson.  As I listened to a reading of The Loaded Dog, I felt a direct connection to an all-but-vanished Australia, the Australia of mateship, solidarity and tall-tales hilarity that really did exist before it was refashioned to fit the empty, ignorant jingoism of more recent years.

But it hasn’t entirely vanished. Keith is still with us, and there are still people working towards the sort of world that Keith was thinking about all those years ago in the sheet metal factory before the second world war: a world of equality and respect for all.

In October 2012, I recorded a long interview with Keith at his home in Castlemaine, Victoria. His life is quite well documented, both through his own writing (including the book, Once a Jolly Comrade) and through other projects, such as an oral history kept by the National Library but I had always wanted to get some of the stories down on video. We got Keith talking for about three hours, almost non-stop, and even then we were just scratching the surface of the stories of this long and interesting life. After that, editing the footage properly became and outstanding item on my To Do list. Now that Keith has turned 90, I’ve decided to simply upload a chunk of the interview to YouTube as is, without any editing, because it’s material that is better going out into the world than sitting in a drawer in my study waiting for me to get a moment. It’s a big file (it’s only 6% loaded at this point) but eventually it should be available for viewing at this link:

On failures of communication




If you’re following along on this blog, you’ll know that last week I went to a function in town, got the shits with one small aspect of it, and wrote this blog post. The innocent victims of this then fought back in the comments. In the grand scheme of things this was all very tiny, but it was my teacup, my storm. I went on about it to my partner and friends. What did it all mean? Was I being mean? Were they being mean?

I kept trying to say, “I’m looking for the meaning, I’m not trying to be mean,” and they kept saying, “You’ve got the wrong meaning, and you are being mean.” Communication failure!

We live in a world of intentional and unintentional meanings. On one level, I have been a racist person today. I have not left the house; I’ve barely spoken to anyone. So how can I be racist? Well, I’m in a house on a plot of land that my partner and I own. We’ve got the key to the door. If a stranger wanders in off the street I have every right to shout at them or call the cops. All this is normal and ordinary. This natural ordinariness is the sort of truth I need to live in, today, for practical reasons.

But there’s another truth about what I’m doing here, on this bit of land. A couple of hundred years ago this block belonged to the Wiradyuri nation, or, to put it the way they often put it – they belonged to this piece of land. Today, there are Wiradyuri people who live in rented houses in Kelso; some are homeless. But because of our racist history I’m the one who owns this block, not them. I get to say who comes in and out. I didn’t personally create this situation. I’m also not going to give up my privilege. I’m going to keep living here, keep locking the door, keeping treating the place as if I own it.

My intention for today is to hang out inside the house, working from home. But another, extra layer of meaning (out of many) is that I’m living the privilege of a white person in Australia. Perhaps it’s a bit much to say I’m “being racist” but I think it’s true to say that I’m benefiting from, and perhaps in some way perpetuating, the racism in our culture.

The British decided to declare the land terra nullius – belonging to no-one – so that they could seize land without feeling like criminals.  If “nobody” owned it, then it was there for the taking. Finders keepers. The downside of this is that Aboriginal people were made to feel like nobodies. Racism comes in to support the threadbare logic of occupation and theft.

It’s not nice to think about this. It’s much easier to forget about history and just live in each day as it comes. But Aboriginal people – just by being here, just by walking down the street, passing me as I do my shopping – remind me that there are other layers of meaning embedded in my ordinary day. And they’re not just trivial layers of meaning. They’re about who we are and what we are striving to be. This is what I was trying to say about the marital arts demonstration. There’s intention, and there’s meaning. They’re different things. There are always lots of possible meanings, depending on your perspective.

After a day agonising over my martial arts storm in a tea cup, I decided to forget the lot of it and just watch Brad Pitt’s zombie film, World War Z. But my brain wouldn’t shut down that easily. Brad says goodbye to his family when he goes off to fight the zombies. He cuddles the little girl and says words along the lines of she’s a precious thing. He high-fives the little boy and says, “Look after the women.” This includes the adult woman who is twice the boy’s size. He’s nine, but he’s the man of the house! Arrgh! Somebody please EAT MY BRAINS.

Culture chases me wherever I go. I can’t not see. I’m constantly mulling over how we are all part of a culture that perpetuates racism and sexism and environmental destruction – even when we’re just doing our thing, even when we’re just trying to fight the zombies or spend the day in the house. We perpetuate racism and sexism not because we’re bad, or because we mean to, but because we’re caught up in history and culture. By becoming more aware of this, we might be able to change how we do things in the future. That’s my hope, anyway.

So, back to communication, to failures of communication. My commenters thought I was being unjustly mean; I felt they were failing to get my point. It was a disagreement about the meaning of an event and we all had feelings about it. I can’t “unfeel” what I felt at the time; they can’t “unfeel” their response to my feeling.

This brings me to the interesting question of audience.

Who is this blog for? Who is reading it? My audience is mostly family and friends – people who know me personally. (Average readership is in the dozens.) But it’s not a secret or protected blog; it’s public. In its own way, it’s also part of “the media”. With that, comes all sorts of other responsibilities. When I wrote my post last week, I was not imagining – or perhaps I was forgetting – that the young people in the demonstration might also read it. If I’d been addressing them directly, I might have expressed myself differently. Instead, I was addressing my “usual” audience …  which is what, exactly? You. You reading this, whoever you are. Sometimes I think I know you; sometimes you’re a mystery.

As the host of this blog, I can go under the hood and have a look at my statistics. I can see how many subscribers I’ve got, how many people read a particular post. I can see which posts get read over and over again and which barely get a look-in. I can see the search terms people use before they stumble upon my blog (I love this one, for example: “what to do with galah when it has tumour in its bottom”). I know who some of you are but many of you are a complete mystery.

That’s how this Internet and social media thing works. Something can go from a semi-private discussion to global controversy in two seconds flat. Context goes out the window. It’s like sitting in a booth in a cafe having a deep and meaningful conversation, forgetting that the people at the next table can hear everything you say. And might be tweeting it.

Was my blog post capable of doing actual harm to a group of teenagers innocently doing their thing? Are hurt feelings harm? In the end, I decided not to delete my post. It was a review of a public performance; it was not a positive review, but that’s in the nature of review. I reviewed it from my own perspective, which was not the same as their perspective. But they had space to reply to me and to defend themselves in the comments. So I decided to let it all stand: my original post, my update after a personal discussion over the phone; the comments. People can make of it what they will.

Perhaps it’s not about failure of communication so much as about what happens when different types of communication bump up against each other. It’s sometimes frustrating, sometimes painful, but always enlightening.


Thighs and emotions

Jonathon Thurston

Victor – Thurston (image embedded from ABC online news – click image to go to page)

I’m not the best person to turn to in a discussion about rugby league. I get the general idea – these guys want to get the ball down that end so they can kick a goal*, and the others want to do the same thing down their own end. The game goes in staccato bursts where someone breaks free with the ball for a few seconds and then everyone piles on. Every now and then the ball sails magnificently through the goal posts.

In my newspaper days, I dreaded two things: being assigned a death knock, and being assigned a sports story. I managed to get out of the former but I did occasionally  have to come up with the latter. (A lot of sweat and quick research would get me over the line, there.)

I’m not the most knowledgeable or even the most interested person, but I thought I’d have a go at sporting commentary today because of the thighs and the emotions. It’s the first thing I see when watching a game of rugby league. Those giant, meaty thighs. So many of them, all piled on top of each other. A Dionysian tableau.

Steve and I watched last night’s showdown between the Broncos and Cowboys as we ate our meat-three-veg dinner (he cooked) with Bertie the black Lab at our feet. Bertie was facing not the television screen but our plates. After dinner, I took up my stitching, glancing up every now and then to another smorgasbord of thighs.

I found myself captured by two personalities: the wiry, wonderful Johnathan Thurston of North Queensland, whose thighs are not as big but more than made up for by tons of zip, and the beautiful, devastated Ben Hunt of Brisbane. By the time he cried on field after a series of mistakes I’d long abandoned the stitching and was watching, transfixed.

Ben Hunt

Defeated – Hunt (image embedded from ABC online news – click image to go to page)

All I could think about was how he’d be awake at 3am – just as I’m often awake at 3am – thinking, thinking. I hope not. I hope he slept okay. Everyone felt for him, nobody was going to rub it in, because all of his efforts were honorable, even though they ultimately failed. Badly.

Afterwards, Thurston kissed his wife and daughter, and the daughter was carrying a dark-skinned doll wearing a Cowboys outfit to match her Indigenous father and his team. It was gorgeous.

I still don’t really get the game, but I do get the celebration of body and feeling.


* Steve has just got home from work & has confirmed I don’t know much about rugby league. The object of the game is to “ground the ball over the goal line, not just kick goals”.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a –

yr_12_ex_book_cover.jpgAn archaeologist. That was the first thing I remember saying I wanted to be, when the teacher asked the primary school class what we’d like to be. Other ideas around the class were air hostess and astronaut. Interesting … I’ve just noticed that all these coveted careers start with the letter A.

But by the time I was nine, I wanted to be a writer. It was then that I wrote a long – I would say impressively long – story about going right out the back, away from the house, as far as the second levee bank, and finding a lump of wood. I lifted this lump and there was a hole. I went down the hole (could have been inspired by Alice) and came out in another dimension. Somehow I was suddenly in outer space. I had a few adventures out there, came back out of the hole, repositioned the lump of wood, and thence home.

I started keeping a journal when I was eleven. I wrote it in a school exercise book. When I filled it, I started another. I now have cardboard boxes full of exercise books full of bleating. (When I talk to myself, I tend to bleat.)

In high school I intuited that I might be seen as a wanker if I said I wanted to be a writer, so I went for something nearby, which was journalism. Which is basically what I ended up doing, once I realised I needed a proper job. That, and community arts, which was also nearby in the sense that it was creative and it involved a lot of writing (of grant applications). And video script writing. That kind of flowed out of the community arts stuff. And making videos. That flowed out of the script writing. All of which paid some bills but was never the thing I got so excited about at nine, when I wrote myself into outer space and got myself home safely in time for dinner.

And then, last year, I got extremely ill and thought drat, I never really pursued that writing thing. Not properly.

But then I got better. So now I’m doing it. I’m writing and writing and writing and writing. To make me write, I’ve got myself a personal bootcamp instructor, Charlotte Wood. She is a magician! Woo!

Okay, that’s the end of this blog post. Thanks to Twitter followers @RoseyChang and @Lynsm7 for suggesting this topic. I Tweeted that I needed a suggestion for my blog post tonight, and they tweeted “When I was growing up, I wanted to be a …” and “there’s a book in everyone” respectively.