Sunday, November 27, 2016

Greens aren't driving voters to Pauline Hanson - but we must reach out to them

Crikey recently published an article by William Bourke, founder of the Sustainable Australia Party, claiming the elitism of the Greens and their disdain for the concerns of "ordinary" Australians is sending those ordinary Australians to vote for One Nation. It's a demonstrably false assertion - at the 2016 Federal election, the Greens gained slightly in their primary vote, alongside a large increase for the ALP - those switching their vote to One Nation were largely coming from the Liberal party, along with the Palmer United Party, touted as a new independent force in Australian politics following their gains in 2013, only to be wiped out in 2016, with their share of the national vote plummeting from 5.5% to zero.

Let's be honest. I'm sure there are Greens voters of long standing who, seeing one reference to fascism too many, have suddenly shifted their allegiance to One Nation - but they could probably all fit around the same table to discuss it.

And at the end of it all, One Nation's national primary vote stands at 1.3%, versus 10.2% of the Greens. In the face of the dull, inept Prime Ministership of Malcolm Turnbull and his banality of his evil ministers, the media is instead hyping the soundbite friendly Hanson and her team for all they're worth, ascribing to them power and momentum they do not have leading a populist movement which doesn't exist.

If labelling all those who veer to the right as Nazis is unfair, then it's certainly a bit shabby to call people who veer left as elitist. Unfortunately, it has long served the powers that be in the government and media to call us elites (usually along with the descriptor "inner city", not used in admiration). The so-called rise of right wing populist parties has done nothing to dissuade them; it suits the centre/centre-right to blame the shift to One Nation and independents on the Greens rather than do the necessary soul searching on why they themselves have failed these voters.

In labelling the Greens as elites distant from ordinary Australians though, this article and others liked it point to an underlying truth. The concerns of many disaffected and disengaged Australians are legitimate; but unlike the febrile rantings of leaders who blame Muslims, immigration and climate change conspiracies - but no workable solutions - the Greens offer a plan for Australia that will especially benefit those marginalised voters; sustainable solutions to issues of housing prices and job security. But we need to get much better at getting the message out, engaging with them.

Australia doesn't suffer from the massive blue state-red state/city rural economic divides that have been blamed for the ascension of President Donald Trump. (An aside - after the shock of David Bowie's unexpected death, for a couple months afterwards I'd suddenly find myself remembering and thinking "holy hell, David Bowie is dead". It's early days yet, but I suspect I'll be having "far canal, Donald Trump, really?" moments for months to come).

There are however huge problems affecting the lives of millions of Australians that we just don't hear enough about - cost of living and housing prices, underemployment and unstable employment, real rural and regional disadvantage - that didn't seem, to your average punter, as being such issues a generation or two ago. I won't bore you all with yet another of my treatises on economic rationalism, but the fact remains that the neoliberal model of profit, especially short term profit above all, espoused by Thatcher and Reagan and beloved by western democracies ever since, has destroyed the social contract, what would seem to one's birth right in a safe and prosperous nation - that if you work hard and are a good person, barring calamity you will have a comfortable life.

These concepts are difficult to sum up in a slogan or soundbite, though. And when your average voter struggling with a rental increase and that after years as a casual, subcontracted employee their company has just announced massive job cuts and they'll struggle to get another role looks around at the state of their life and nation, they don't see the influence of the Chicago School of Economics at work. They see immigration causing increased competition for jobs and housing, Then they get home and turn on the news and there's young Islamic men arrested on terrorism charges again - and a Greens spokesperson condemning government treatment of asylum seekers, seeming to care more about these unknowns whom they're sure are just country shoppers, than they do about ordinary Australians.

Who are they going to vote for - the party that has the good policies on their website, but the slogans about queer rights and asylum seekers - or parties that screech about Muslims, or for that matter promise to stop the boats they see as bringing the hordes of Muslim immigrants who are simultaneously taking all the jobs, bludging off welfare and plotting to blow us all up?

But the right-leaning parties don't have the solutions to the woes of the disaffected voter. The employment policies on the One Nation website are contradictory and vague and contain no concrete strategies for job creation. As for the current Liberal National government, their dismal record speaks for itself. Some point to the Liberals' support for new coal mines as evidence of their commitment to job creation. But the LNP's support of coal is not because they're looking out for the Aussie worker; it's because they know coal is a dying industry, and they are determined to get every last lump out of the ground whilst there's still a market for it. There's no planning for the day when coal is no longer a viable commodity.

A taste of what may be to come for coal miners when they no longer serve profit's purpose can be seen in the Federal Government's assistance package for the retrenched workers from Victoria's Hazelwood power station: a $3 million handout to private job agencies in the region, to "provide intensive career transitioning services" and "help reconnect with work as quickly as possible". In a region where unemployment is at 20% and there are more job agencies than supermarkets, this does nothing to create a single job (apart from maybe a job agency consultant or two), but simply gives more cash to the for-profit and resoundingly useless private employment agency rort, whose waste and incompetency would put a lifetime's worth of named and shamed dole bludging families on A Current Affair in the shade. If more proof is needed, just look what happened to Australia's steel and car manufacturing sectors, and the workers left behind, when they were no longer worth their keep.

By contrast, look fro example at the Greens policies on job creation in Mackay, an area in Central Queensland heavily dependent on coal mining. The Greens plans include investment in the infrastructure of a clean energy economy, with job creation in design and construction, along with protection for the tens of thousands of jobs reliant on tourism to the Great Barrier Reef. The Greens have the policies that will fundamentally improve the security and quality of life of ordinary Australians - worker protection, an end to the profit at all cost motive, investment in infrastructure and social housing, better regulation of the banking sector, diversification of the economy to ensure jobs now and in the future. We have the answers. Not all of them, we're not perfect or visionaries, but we offer a way forward that is a darn sight better for "ordinary Australians" that the (non-halal) tripe they're being asked to swallow right now.

So how do we tell them? How do we get the message across?

The Greens have something of an image problem. We're seen as obsessed with trendy causes like gay rights and asylum seekers, detached from (and disdainful of) "ordinary Australians". Is it all our fault? Absolutely not. But is it up to us to fix it? Yes. We need to get at the heart of what disaffected voters want, and respond. Not by changing our policies in any substantial way. Not by trying to convince voters of the legality of asylum seekers. We need to bring to them the message that we are the party that has the solutions to the quality of life issues that matter - sustainable employment and housing affordability.  We need to do better.

I say this not because I want the Greens to have power for its own sake, but because I think we offer a way to make things better, and I want to share it. I grew up just south of Newcastle. I was looking for my first jobs around the time BHP was closing. Several of my friends had parents involved with coal mining. I know the sort of people involved in industry and mining. They're good people and they don't deserve to be sold a lie by the Liberals or false promises and hot air by One Nation. I know what it's like to go to dozens of unsuccessful job interviews and feel hopeless about ever finding a gig. It sucks, it makes you feel terrible about yourself and your future, and I can see how it could drive people to look for easy if distasteful solutions. I want these people to understand that we're with them, not against them.

My very humble suggestion would be to make this a priority - engage with middle Australia directly on issues of housing and employment. Make it a portfolio - spokesperson for Australian Development or some such (I don't know, I'm good at the long winded explanations, not the snappy nomenclature). Talk about it. Yeah, phrases like "working families" and "Aussie Mums and Dads" can be a bit cliched, but we shouldn't be afraid to use them - it's how working families, and Aussie Mums and Dads, see themselves. Let them know that we understand the cost of living pressures, the stress. Particularly focus on insecure and underemployment; it's a massive issue and not one the major parties want to address. Let them know the age of big companies avoiding their tax burdens and exploiting workers are over, it's time for people to stand up.

I'm not a great one for slogans, but I'm sure we can get better ones. And use them. We can keep fighting for asylum seekers and protecting ecosystems - the party wouldn't be the Greens if it didn't, and I for one would quit my membership - but they're not what a voter is focused on when they rock up to the booth and see the coreflutes.

We don't have to compromise our values or sell out - indeed, we must not. But we need to share with people that we share the concerns of middle Australia and have the policies to help. The backlash in the media will be enormous. Keep going. We will get haters. And get more friends. Fringe party? Not any more. Let's get in the middle, not of the political spectrum, but the middle of the political discourse and the barbecue stoppers across Australia. When we can convince the recently unemployed worker in regional Australia that we care about his or her plight just as much as trans bathroom rights and endangered sea turtles, we'll be well on our way.

Photo: Greens Caravan of Courage

Friday, November 18, 2016

Forging a Feminist - Memoir Part Three


Trigger warning: this post contains references to sexual and physical abuse.

My identity as a feminist was forged pretty early on.

Despite that I was raised in a strongly respect your elders, children should be seen and not heard culture, I started questioning the notion of respecting adults pretty early on. The underlying premise of respect for adults, after all, was that they knew better; but from that time when my Year Two teacher incorrectly insisted against my better knowledge that Sydney's first farm was at Parramatta, I knew that adults were just wrong a great deal of the time. I read and read and read, from a very early age, whatever newspapers and non-fiction books I could get my hands on, and started to accumulate in my head a vast miscellany of facts which I could, and did, use to correct the inaccuracies of incorrect adults whenever they crossed my path. And they were incorrect a lot. Unfortunately this was at odds with the family rule of do not speak until spoken to, and I was told in to uncertain terms that I had to hold my tongue whenever adults held court and could not rudely interject with the facts. I fumed silently. It was like living in a Facebook comments thread where everyone is wrong, but you cannot respond or log off; like a world where Pauline Hanson's take on global warming was given the same deference as that of the CSIRO. You can surmise how much respect I, who valued knowledge above all else, had for these supposedly superior creatures, adults.

And you can just imagine how much credence I gave to any notion at all that boys were in any way superior to girls. Any suggestion that boys were different - better - to girls fundamentally rankled with me. If a teacher said "I need four strong boys to help carry stu-" I would immediately interject with "girls can be strong too!" (pre-puberty especially making such a distinction was kinda stupid). Interestingly, my Catholic early education wasn't too much of an impediment; at the time, the Sydney diocese allowed girls to be altar servers at Mass, so I eagerly signed up. When we later moved to Newcastle, and the the Maitland-Newcastle diocese did not allow girls to serve the role, unable to understand which of the tasks of altar server required use of a penis, I crossly made the large first of many decisive steps away from the Catholic Church.

(It later emerged that there were forces much darker than sexism at work regarding the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese's use of altar boys only. Along with Ballarat, Maitland-Newcastle would become known as Ground Zero for allegations of sexual assault in the Australian Catholic Church. Due to the investigative journalism of Joanne McCarthy - for which she would deservedly win Australia's highest journalism award- the Gold Walkley - and the bravery of survivors, the decades of horrific child sex abuse at Hunter Catholic churches and schools was brought to light, eventually leading to the still-ongoing Royal Commission into institutional responses into child sexual abuse. Now, I never personally saw or heard of any abuse. But our parish priest in Lake Macquarie - who laughingly told me no when I asked if girls could be altar servers, who with the bishop confirmed me, who baptised my youngest sister - was accused of multiple sexual offences against children, which were eventually the subject of a Church Investigation of which he was found guilty and criminal charges, which were withdrawn, showing the difficulties survivors face in the criminal justice system after so many years. That priest has since died, but not before the Church appointed him head of its Year of Grace - after the Church investigation. Meanwhile, many many years later and long after this whole mess was gaining public awareness, in a fit of guilt and depression I attended confession in the Diocesan cathedral. The priest who graciously absolved me of my many sins was himself directly involved in the cover up of child sexual abuse by his fellow priests.)

As far as my politics, though, whilst it would be many years before I realised I was a socialist, I had a name for my feminism at an early age. In 1990, reading that glossy staple for Australian girls in a pre-internet age, Dolly magazine - not a place one expects to get woke, especially since no one would use the word in that context for another quarter century - I read an article by the cartoonist and author Kaz Cooke, all about feminism: what it was, why it mattered, why every girl should be a feminist, and why it was fun. It made sense to me. People still thought boys were stronger and smarter than girls, able to do important things girls were excluded from.

I sure couldn't see any evidence they were.

~~~~~

By the time I started high school, our family had been rounded out by my youngest sister, Cheese, who brought much joy to an otherwise difficult time. Home was still not happy and getting worse. Affection, hugs, treats, fun were in extremely short supply. Instead the prevailing ethos seemed to be that any request we made had to be met with a "no", on principle, so we didn't get spoiled; any tendency towards vanity or conceit had to be curbed with constant put downs. Obedience was demanded, discipline constant. There was little need for punishment - you didn't dare transgress the rules and there was little in the way of fun or enjoyment to be taken away, anyway.

Somewhere along the line it was decided I'd be attending the regional selective high school. This was not the wisest choice. It meant a bus journey of nearly ninety minutes each way, usually involving a transfer or two. Worse, I was already younger than my classmates in primary school, having been skipped ahead a year; at the selective high school the kids were even older than average for the cohort, as no one really seemed to care if kids were held back to increase their chances of gaining admission. I was two years younger than some of the kids in my year. Much worse was that my parents treated me as being even more as a child than I was: I wanted to go see Pretty Woman for my birthday (the only time in the year I might get to go to the movies), but we went to see The Little Mermaid; everyone would be talking in class about the latest block buster mini series that had aired on TV the night before, I'd been sent to bed before it was on. And then there was the fact of my own naivety and disconnection from the world, despite reading Dolly magazine. Let me put it this way: I thought a Hard Rock Cafe T Shirt, Levis red tabs and a pair of Reeboks, all of which my father purchased on a business trip to Hong Kong, was a cool outfit to wear on out-of-uniform days. Of course, this was a sight better than a couple of years previously, when I tried to dress like Claudia from the Baby Sitters Club: This might involve a polka dot skirt over striped bicycle pants, a fluorescent shirt upon which I'd pin every "cool" brooch I could find, my denim jacket, the largest earrings I could find (I was particularly fond of my enormous wooden parrot for one ear and parrot in a cage for the other), any other costume jewellery, hair in a top knot teased to look like a demented palm tree sprouting from my head, and the best shiny black plastic flats K Mart had to offer.

(It's actually a shame I wasn't born 15 years later; I could have been a great Scene Queen, if only I'd dressed a little worse).

But for the early 90s especially, I was in no way ready for a cut throat high school, where I was thrown in the deep end with smart kids much older than me (and mostly from privileged backgrounds to boot), and the results were predictable; I was bullied relentlessly. I've seen people express surprise that bullying would go on at selective schools; perhaps they picture a collegiate atmosphere where kids sit around tables at lunch earnestly discussing philosophy and entries for Odyssey of the Mind. Well, no. Kids are kids, smart kids included, and despite our societal misapprehension that intelligence must confer other virtues. Smart people have come up with some of history's cruellest and most inhumane plans for other people; and smart kids are able to come up with particularly clever ways of being little shits to other kids. Some of the bullying was your bog standard, run of the mill stuff - my school bag being put in the boys' toilets, hats thrown out the window and so on. But some of it was a lot more crushing, like when I fancied a boy in my class, and unsurprisingly given my poor abilities to hide my adoring gaze, he somehow realised. A practical joke was set up, whereby I was told that he and another boy I liked, if somewhat less, would have a fight over me in the playground at lunch time. How exciting and romantic! I showed up at the appointed time and place, only to face the inevitable laughter from assembled classmates.

(One of the boys thus involved grew up to be a fairly well known TV personality; oddly enough, I didn't realise it was him until he'd already been in the public eye for several years. Who knows, I'd blocked out great chunks of those years until I had to remember, to write this memoir. His public persona is that of a really nice, genuine Aussie bloke type, which sits very uneasily with my memory of what he did to a harmless, very sad, not-quite-comprehending kid. So if you ever read this, fuck you. No - I actually don't really care anymore, but it was still a really shitty thing to do).

One of the most irritating things about being treated like a child by my parents was that I couldn't see the logic in it; I'd already decided I was smarter than most adults. What friends I had at school were what passed, at that joint, for a bad crowd. One of the biggest, and most difficult to solve, problems with selective schools is that not everyone can top the class, and a lot of kids who would have shone at their local comprehensive high school end up on the bottom half of the grading curve; some motivated to do better, many others disillusioned, depressed, no longer bothering. We were on the fringes, and on the fringe of that group was a slightly older guy who went to some of the same few parties I was allowed to attend. I wasn't even slightly interested in him as a crush, and one day he showed interest in me, and for who knows what reasons, convinced me through some mockery, some persuasion, maybe a little coercion, to have sex with him. I can't call it anything else, really; there was no sleep in our fumbling daytime encounters, and it sure as hell wasn't love. So why did I do it? There's a reason there's an age of consent; when thirteen year olds do anything it's usually for a bad reason. I already felt bad, so why not do what bad girls do? I kind of enjoyed my nasty little secret; when my parents told me this or that was too old for me, I'd look back and think to myself, you have no idea what I've already done, and the insults came to mean something. We never dated, no one ever knew what was going on, and although I knew he had done this to several other girls in our  grade, I didn't much care. I liked the illicit thrill, and it was sore and fun, and I'd meet him for several more encounters in the remainder of my time at that horrid school.

That school where jokes about girls being sluts or prudes were prevalent, and boys felt free to grope girls at will using what they called frigidity tests, and the verdict was that I was a frigid prude, and I was glad my secret was safe, and feel like I had one over on my classmates as well as my parents. What a time to grow up in! That even in a school with many intelligent girls - some who would grow up to be activist women - this was never called out! Marginalised people at universities today can have their triggers and micro aggressions, women can have their safe spaces, they can talk and talk about these things, to call out and end the sort of toxic culture that we were expected t just fucking put up with. And because I'd had sex did not give the other boys permission to grope me. Or anyone else. Not then, not ever.

Many years later, I'd read The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti, and want to fist-pump the air. I wished like hell that the book had been around fifteen years earlier, and someone had given me a copy. I was a good person, and having sex did not change that in any way; being a good person depends on being a good person, nor whether you had sex or not. I'd recover some self esteem eventually, but it was a long and painful road, but whether I was or wasn't a virgin in my teens had no effect on my worth. I'd recommend the book to anyone, especially young women pressured to believe that virginity means something, because men's penises are so important they can change who you are, forever.

There was a formative experience around this time that did change me forever, for the better, for everything, and would set a pattern for my life that continues to this day, a quarter century later.

As long as I could remember, I'd had an obsession with trains. It wasn't with the engines as much as the lines and the stations; the sight from a car window of train tracks, gleaming in the sun as they snaked off into the distance, set my imagination in a spin. Of course, I wanted to ride trains, travel on new lines and visit new stations, but family outings were in short supply and my interest in trains certainly couldn't be indulged; if we took a train trip to make me happy, I'd turn into a spoiled brat and by the age of 16 be snorting coke, demanding a BMW and sleeping with one of my father's business associates.

Or so the logic ran, I guess.

Anyway. in we didn't live anywhere near a train line in either Sydney or Newcastle, so I'd only ridden on trains a handful of times in my life when it was announced in year eight that my class was going on an excursion to Sydney and we were going on THE TRAIN. I had seen the Sydney-Newcastle train line from the car on our many F3 trips, envying those who got to travel in the sleek silver carriages as the train slipped majestically along the waterfront and swooped through the bush and in tunnels under the road, so I was understandably excited to make the trip.

The train trip was as wonderful as I expected. From the strip ads on the stairs, the waiting room at Broadmeadow station, the strange burning smell, the tickets, the announcements - it all pleased me mightily. But even then, I wasn't quite prepared for what came next. Amid the chatter and books and music, at one point we swapped cassette radios around. One of my vaguely friends handed me her cassette player and told me I might enjoy the tape.

It was Nirvana's Nevermind.

I hadn't heard it before. I hadn't heard anything like it before. In my naive ignorance I'd imagined, and dismissed, all such music as mindless screaming. And here I was being initiated into a new world. I'd never heard anything like this before, music that seemed to speak to my awakening psyche, of depression and frustration and hope and possibility too, of ambiguity in its original sense, of confusion and not knowing what to do with yourself, and saying here we are and this is our time. As the train wound along the Hawkesbury and through Kuringai to Sydney, and I heard In Bloom, Come As You Are, Lithium, I knew things would never be the same again and neither would I. The 80s were over, that music belonged to our parents, this was for us. It was my birthday a few days later, I asked for and received the cassette of Nevermind for myself, and listened to it over and over and over until...well it never actually wore out. Neither did I. I tried playing it for my parents. They hated it. It turned out this was a common reaction for the parents of my generation, the latest of the Gen X kids. It didn't matter. It made it better. This was ours.

And the train. Bloody hell though. What role the Sydney-Newcastle train would play in my life, my life that has been a tale of two cities, with two train tracks in between, connecting the two parts of my life. I would come to make hundreds - who knows, perhaps thousands - of trips on the train which would later become known, with perhaps a little affection, as the Shitkansen; that journey which somehow takes longer, as I type this in 2016, than it did not just when I first made it in 1992, but under steam back in the 1930s. I would make the trip for shopping and clubs, in sorrow and joy, to see people in various directions as I moved back and forth. I would read thousands upon thousands of words, preferably Stephen King and Bill Bryson paperbacks in the pre-ebook days, and listen to thousands and thousands of songs, first cassettes, then thrillingly MP3s on that first player which cost me $89 and had 512MB storage, then eventually on the lush gigabytes of storage available on my phone. Fooling around was done. I made the trip all dressed up as a Gothic princess to go to a club in Sydney, and a little girl told me I looked very beautiful and I was thrilled. I took my husband to be on his first trip to Newcastle and we listened to love songs. We learned Mister G would be a mister and not a little miss on the Shitkansen as it was between Berowra and Cowan. I would take him, as Baby G, on his first trips to Newcastle. He would sleep, grow, then roam the carriages. It would barely contain my heartbreak as I separated from my family and lived, for odd reasons, on the Central Coast for a year and made the daily commute. Recently G and I made the trip up to attend Sister J's wedding, and I was astonished at this kid maturely reading comics, the occasional snack all that was needed to keep him in his seat and content.

But all that was to come. All I can say is that new worlds opened up that day. And exploring them was ahead.

Monday, November 7, 2016

To the North (Memoir Part Two)

(Part One)

All good things must come to an end before they get stale. Ask fans of the Big Bang Theory, or go to a concert by any music icon and watch the rush for the bathroom when they announce "and here's one from my new album".  The fun times of the 1980s dragged on a little too long, and dragged Australia into recession; as interest rates soared, my parents decided this was the perfect time to leave our crowded Northern Beaches apartment and buy a house. This interesting timing put Sydney property beyond reach, so we all piled into the car - air conditioned and smoke free by now, we were moving up in the world - and headed up the newly completed F3 freeway towards the Central Coast, looking for a home. 

This was just the first of many such drives; the Proclaimers had recently released their only hit song, the iconic "500 Miles" (and whatever happened to them? They seemed destined for such a promising future). Sister J and I would sing along, imagining that despite the fact that our journey was some 440 miles short of 500 - I obsessively counted the kilometres off the road distance signs - that the song was about our journey, us.

My parents settled, and set their hearts on, a newly built house at a place on the northern half of the Coast with the implausibly exotic name of Budgewoi, and we picked out our bedrooms and where we would play, and, high on a rich diet of Enid Blyton, I imagined that somehow the scraggy Eucalypt in the yard would furnish a lavish, multilevel tree house, where myself and the friends I was sure to make would catch thieves and find hidden treasure troves, have adventures with fairies, and be whisked off to distant lands in a flying chair. I may have been a designated a "gifted and talented" student, but one of my gifts was not a firm grip on reality. I won't tell you how old I was when I learned Santa wasn't real, because you're looking at a screen right now and I don't want you to snort coffee out your nose. 

But somewhere along the line, despite handshakes and deposits, the house fell through, and we were back to square one. It was decided we'd try a bit further north. And then, driving on the Pacific Highway up the east coast of Lake Macquarie, my mother saw the entrance to the lake at the Swansea channel - all white sand and green mangroves against the turquoise water. We pulled into a real estate agency right there, and the agent recommended to my parents a nice little house in a place a bit further up the lake, towards Newcastle. So we went and looked, at the white weatherboard cottage. It was in a quiet street, safe, where we us city kids could ride our bikes. The house needed work, sure, but my parents assured each other it was cosmetic work. (We all would have laughed about this in years to come if we'd been laughing about anything by then). And the little suburb the house was in had an even lovelier and more exotic name - Valentine. The house became ours, and that is how I became a Novocastrian. 

(Now, I'm sure there are a few of you right now saying "wait! Valentine is in Lake Macquarie, not Newcastle!". If your not from Newcastle or Lake Macquarie - however they are defined - please feel free to skip this bit. Anyway, debates over who is Jewish or whether the Simpsons is worth watching after Season Ten pale in significance and emotion compared to the arguments - nearly always by residents of Lake Mac council area - over what constitutes Newcastle and what constitutes Lake Macquarie. Can we be sensible here? Lake Macquarie is a lake, as those of you who are feeling particularly sharp today will have no doubt already ascertained; it's also a local government area. 

What it is not is any sort of actual town or city; there is no town centre, no CBD, no focus. And so naturally, those especially living in the northern reaches of the lake turn to Newcastle, just to the north, as that focus. Growing up, we considered ourselves Novocastrians; Newcastle was "town", where we went into town, where we shopped and went out at night. Yes, for the far-flung southern parts of the lake, such as Morriset, claiming a Novocastrian identity is sort of ridiculous. But to claim that Charlestown - the region's commercial and medical service hub - is not part of Newcastle is akin to saying Chatswood isn't in Sydney. Let's take it case by case, not insist that anywhere that falls under the lake council area is no part of Newcastle and never was. Okay, back to the story. I'm starting to see why David Foster Wallace was so damn keen on using footnotes). 

Valentine was a pretty quiet sort of a place. Emphasis on pretty, and very heavy emphasis on quiet. It was, and still is I imagine, the kind of place you'd describe as a great place to raise your kids - which often translates as the last place on Earth many kids, especially older ones, want to be. It was on the lake, surrounded on three sides by bush, with only one road in and out at the time. The nearest supermarket and library were at Belmont, four unwalkable kilometres away along a narrow winding road; the closest cinema and large shopping centre at Charlestown, ten kilometres to the north. We'd gone from busy, built up Dee Why, to quiet and isolation. I was at a funny, in between age at the time. I enjoyed the opportunities to ride my mountain bike over the dirt tracks, to climb, to wade in the lake and fish with a hand line; but I was also on the cusp of adolescence and longing for shops, activities, movies, the city. 

It was around this time I began to notice that my parents were unhappy; with themselves, with each other, and with me. When you're a small child, especially one as emotionally clueless as me, you don't really notice if your parents are happy or not; they're all you know, and everything seems normal, until it isn't. I began to be aware that other kids weren't as afraid as we were, weren't always walking on eggshell, weren't always on alert for the next minefield, that trigger beneath the surface that could blow up at any time.

It wasn't an easy time for anyone. My mother had never learned to drive, which wasn't too much of an issue in a busy part of Sydney, but was a big problem in an isolated hamlet surrounded by bush with a handful of small shops and only a few buses out a day. She felt lonely, bored, trapped and miserable, and received little solace from my father, who hadn't been quite cut out for marriage and parenthood in the first place and osciallated between overbearing and absent. I was no less awkward than I'd ever been, and a new school didn't help matters. Poor J was simply lost in the noise. The outings we'd at least enjoyed in Sydney came to an end. Around this time, I began to retreat from the dull and difficult real world to the world inside my head; not a world of magic and fantasy, but a world of potential and analysis of how things could be better. I would spend much of the rest of my time there whenever things got hard.

That first Christmas after the big move, we travelled back to Sydney to spend the holiday with family friends, a custom that developed during my parents' early years in Australia with no extended family. Our first morning back was one of those warm and sunny mornings during that quiet time between Christmans and New Year when nothing much gets done. J and I were playing pop-o-matic Trouble in our bedroom when suddenly the house gave a huge, sickening lurch from on side to the other and back again with a horrible crunching noise; our toys tumbled off the shelves, the walls and floor shook as though shaken by a malevolent giant. Without any frame of reference for what's going on, your mind just goes blank, until I found my voice and started to scream, and as the shaking stopped I ran to find my mother, J at my heels. Everyone in the neighbourhood, as bewildered as us, headed outside, to much speculation as to what happened - mine subsidence? Gas explosion? Someone turned on local radio, who at first were as puzzled as the rest of us as to what had happened, until within a few hours it transpired what had actually happened. Earthquake.

Along with the closure of BHP and the opening of the 24 hour drive through at King St Maccas, the 1989 Earthquake is probably the seminal event in the history of modern Newcastle; it destroyed significant parts of the inner city, and Newcastle was never the same again. The shock of the event was heightened by the fact that despite that the original inhabitants of the region, the Awabakal people, had an oral history of spirits that made the ground shake, the European arrivals paid little heed, and a history of earth tremors was largely unknown in the area. The death toll of 13 is horrifying enough, but it could be seen in some ways that someone was looking out for Newcastle that day. The quake occurred at 10.27 am on December 28, when schools and businesses are shut and everyone is on holidays. Given the many office and school buildings which were destroyed, if the quake had struck six weeks later on a weekday when school was in session, the consequences could have been catastrophic. Or consider that the largest number of fatalities occurred at the Newcastle Worker's club, which collapsed during the earthquake. Despite the Christmas holidays, the club would normally have expected a reasonable attendance for the morning's games of Housie. But that day there happened to be a bus strike on (a television interview with a transport official at the local bus depot regarding the strike happened to catch the quake live on camera), so the club was almost empty. That night, a concert featuring Split Enz and Crowded House, with many hundreds in attendance, was due to take place in the club auditorium on the first floor; the auditorium collapsed and was completely destroyed in the earthquake, empty except for a single roadie setting up for the night's events, who tragically was one of those killed.

Having only lived in Newcastle for a few months at the time and still being a child, I didn't appreciate at the time the full impact of what was lost in the quake. Visit any of the Facebook pages devoted to reminiscences of the city and you will see it lamented that the earthquake destroyed Newcastle as it was. But I'm not so sure about that. People had already abandoned going into town to shop in favour of air-conditioned suburban shopping centres (and abandoned the public transport necessary to support high street shopping strips) before the earthquake, not just in Newcastle but across the consumerist world. And there is still a very impressive stock of heritage buildings in the CBD, particularly as you get towards the beach. The efforts in redeveloping Newcastle after the earthquake may in fact have saved us from less desirable large scale commercial redevelopment in the following years (unfortunately, this kind of unattractive large scale projects, with little regard for heritage, character, height limits or community concerns are starting to spring up over the last few years).  So yes the earthquake was very sad and a terrible tragedy for those who were injured and the loved ones of those who lost their lives, but it also marked opportunity, and above all forged together the Newcastle community, the Newcastle spirit of being tough and unified. I appreciated this; in the years to come, we'd all need it.


Writer's Note: This is the second of what is planned as a ten part series on my life, such as it is. All recollections are based on my somewhat wobbly memory. Names of those who are not public figures will be changed. New updates posted every Monday afternoon, Australian Eastern Daylight Time. Hope you enjoy, and please leave feedback below. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

How Scott Adams went nuts (and I'm sorry and it wasn't my fault and I won't let it happen again)

False modesty aside, there are things I know I'm good at - cooking, writing essays, figuring out maps and timetables. Then there are things I am not so good at - driving, wrapping presents, following along in exercise classes (basically anything that requires a sense of spatial awareness). And I am not - to disastrous effect - a good judge of character.

It might be from lack of ability to interpret facial and vocal cues, or an inability to read people combined with a naive tendency to take people at their word. How bad is it? Well, when Bill Clinton said, way back in 1998, "now you listen to me, I did not have sexual relations with that woman", I believed him. I know better now than to trust any politician lying about sex, but I've still been taken in and trusted people who turned out to be not what they seemed - or worse, exactly what they seemed, but I ignored the warning signs and thought the shitty things they did to other people, they wouldn't do to me, until they did.

And then there's Dilbert creator, writer self proclaimed genius and latter day Trump supporting constant commentator Scott Adams. Adams, who has in recent months declared that the nomination of a woman for president represents for men "a celebration that your role in society is permanently diminished"; that if there are no terrorist attacks before election day, it's because ISIS prefers Clinton; that the firebombing of an African American Church was a false flag operation;  that the polls were fraudulent in showing Clinton ahead, but had to pivot to reality to preserve credibility; that Hilary Clinton is a drunk; and - of course - that if Clinton wins, it's because Russia. He's also deflected all criticism of himself by stating that if anyone disagrees with him, it's cause their puny little minds are too feeble to understand.

And I cannot help but feel like I'm in some way responsible for all this. You see, I used to be a Scott Adams fan. And I don't just mean I'd have a laugh when I saw Dilbert in the newspaper (or in later years, looked it up from time to time online). I mean I've read every last one of his books, bought more than a few of them, and greatly admired many of his ideas, even if a few - an actual proposal for a donut shaped universe, although my memory on this is a little hazy - I didn't quite understand. And Dilbert! I loved Dilbert, both the comic and the character. I'm a survivor of a decade in the cube trenches, and Dilbert provided solace, comic relief and (in Wally's blase attitude) inspiration.

Some of my well-read collection

I'm sure Mr Adams has made more money from the worldwide syndication for Dilbert than he has from his books. But by buying the books, I and many others have enabled him not to stick to drawing comics, monkey brain, but to expound on his esoteric brand of libertarianism. And somewhere along the line, the line became an edge he tumbled off. What I'm left wondering is how I missed the signs. Were they there all along, and I missed them due to my problems assessing people, or is he in some downward spiral of recent years? It was delightful when back in 1997, Mr Adams posed as a management consultant to see just how meaningless a nonsense company mission statement he could get an executive committee to agree to. But it's a long, long way from such satire to creating sockpuppet internet accounts to anonymously tell forums what a genius you are - let alone to thinking reality warps back and forth, controlled by a drunk, ill, incompetent, genius mastermind Hilary Clinton.

I'm not altogether sure how much impact Mr Adams has had upon the election; whether or not he is a prominent voice or a sideshow to the alt-right media, and god knows I am not going for a dip in that chilly, fetid swamp. Either way though, I'm a little bit sad. I'll never be able to take seriously anything Mr Adams says again. I still want to buy Dilbert 2.0, but I don't feel good about it. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Exordium (Memoir Part One).

You sometimes hear older folks lamenting Australia's multicultural immigration policies and their effect on ethnic diversity: "I feel like a stranger in my own country". Whilst I deplore their racism - if nothing else, do they want us to go back to eating boiled mutton? - I envy the nostalgia of security. I have always felt like a stranger, in my own country and my own skin.
I was born overdue and in distress; worn out by the exhausting three day labour, as soon as I was out I promptly defecated. Squalling, red and pooping; I sure did start as I would go on. 

Ireland in the 1970s, whilst shaken by terrorism, was still an extremely conservative Catholic country. My mother was required to quit work when she married. In the hospital where I was born, the nursing staff, mostly nuns, were stingy with the pain relief; labour pains, after all, were to atone for original sin, as well as the dire sin of sex that led to getting pregnant in the first place (and never mind if, as my mother was, you were married at the time of conception and birth). So my mother laboured in agony for days, and I almost didn't make it out, and by the time I arrived she was exhausted and fed up, and struggled to bond with this screaming red shit machine. She and I got off on the wrong foot somewhat.  

My parents were still pretty young - it is a shock to me to realise that I am now older than they were when I was into my teens, when my kid hasn't even started school yet (as a child, I always imagined I would also marry and have children young, lots of them; it didn't happen for reasons we'll get to way later). My father worked at a large car rental company's Dublin office; my mother, as required by law, stayed home with me. But it was still very much the era of mass migration from Ireland, my parents were two of the thousands enticed by the lure of sunshine and opportunity, and after a year of applications, vetting, checks and guarantees, they landed in Sydney in 1981. That amazes me know, looking back. Here they were, two twenty somethings with a toddler, flying to the other side of the world to a country they knew nothing about and knew no one. I lost my freaking mind when I moved from Newcastle to Sydney at a similar age, and I was three hours from home and moving in with friends. 

My parents had no real idea what Australia was like. My father had a job lined up at the Sydney offices of the car rental firm he'd worked for in Dublin; it was located on the Pacific Highway, and my mother imagined a winding coastal road where people admired spectacular ocean views from their shiny convertibles, rather than the congested suburban thoroughfare lined with car dealerships and private schools it is. Anyway, we settled on the North Shore before shifting to the Northern Beaches, and apart from a brief stint in Canberra I can barely remember, that is where I spent most of the first decade of my life.

Naturally, my parents threw themselves in to their new life in Australia. We went to the beach. We went to the beach. Then we went to the beach some more. It was a great novelty to my parents, and we went pretty much every weekend. In the 1980s, the concept of sun protection amounted to "sunburn is pretty sore, you might want to put some cream on" and I got burnt to a crisp every weekend. I've not had any dangerous moles yet; I hope I've balanced things out by only going outside twice since I turned twenty. There were long trip across in Sydney in un-airconditioned cars, INXS and Dire Straits on the radio, blistered skin sticking to unupholstered seats. It was an era when smoking with kids in the back of the car was not considered child abuse, and given the combination of smoky hot air and the stop start of Sydney traffic, there is scarcely a street in  Sydney my parents didn't have to pull over on so I could deposit the contents of my stomach (usually white bread and cordial) on the footpath; luckily this happened most often travelling through Kings Cross, so no one noticed. Incidentally it came to my great surprise when I was older and no one smoked in cars any more to realise I am not, in fact, prone to motion sickness; it was just the toxic combination of traffic, cigarette smoke, and 1983.

The smoke eased somewhat in 1984, when my younger sister was born. We couldn't have been more different. I am ruddy pale, fair haired, awkward and tending to plump; she is dark, thin and always beautiful. I'm loud and confident on the surface but a great mass of jelly on the inside; she seems quiet and reserved, but with a will of steel underneath. We share, though, a sense of humour and laugh, a weird quirk about creams and lotions in jars, and a sense of spatial awareness that leaves a lot to be desired.

 Still, I'd later come to look back on those car trips as something of a golden era. At least we got to listen to music. As the 1980s progressed, my father got rather a taste for talkback radio. Specifically the self-styled kings of Sydney talkback radio; Alan Jones and John Laws. It is a puzzlement why a large chunk of the residents of Sydney - which likes to think of itself as a fair, open minded, tolerant place - has such a penchant for radio hosts somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan. Even at age right I could tell these people were craven idiots. And whilst INXS retains fond memories for me and I continued to like the band, the sound of John Laws' voice, and his political views, are for me inexorably linked with that hot smoky car, and car sickness; even to this day, if I hear someone complaining about all the special benefits Aboriginal people get, I feel like I'm going to throw up.

One of the places my parents particularly liked to drive to was the exclusive Palm Beach, on the very tip of Sydney's northern beaches. I'm not sure why we went - there was very little there to entertain children - but then, children's entertainment was not a primary concern. But my parents were fond of looking enviously at the oceanside mansions there, frequently remarking on how the other half lived and wouldn't it be nice, before we returned to our third floor walk up two bedroom apartment.

I was confused. The way to get nice things was hard work, wasn't it? My father was always at work. He worked long days, went away for weeks on end for work, worked second and even third jobs on the weekend, but we didn't have a nice big house. Wasn't hard work enough? What if you needed something else - something you couldn't work to get? How could that be fair? Shouldn't you get things based on how hard you worked?

And that violation of what seemed to me the principles of basic decency (combined of course, with my distaste for right wing talk back jocks) turned me in to a socialist at about age six, long before I knew what a socialist was. We were a very apolitical family - my parents didn't become citizens until I was well into my teens, so I was deprived the childhood experience of lining up to vote with my parents, the how to votes, bunting, hand-shaking candidates and democracy sausage. My father would occasionally approvingly repeat something Laws or Jones had said, and my mother would usually agree, and that was about it. But I seemed to have an innate interest in politics. I remember feeling bitterly disappointed when George Bush beat Michael Dukakis to the U.S. Presidency in 1988, even though I couldn't for the life of me have told you why. (Who knows, maybe I could sense evil).

Childhood wasn't all the fun of car sickness and political games, though. Eventually I had to be enrolled in school. I say eventually because my mother tried to enrol me in the local Catholic primary school at 4, only to be told I was too young. When I eventually popped into the classroom at age five, there was some malarkey about me being gifted. Tests and assessments were carried out, and I was skipped ahead a grade. Unfortunately the support ended there. I don't want to drag up some pretty painful stuff this early on, so let me just say it was another time, in terms of recognising difference in children. I had some...quirks. Chewing, hand twirling, unusual speech patterns and above all, almost no sense of what constituted socially acceptable behaviour. There were some issues. Feelings hurt.

Anyway, I didn't like school. At all. I had a passion for learning, but we didn't, as far as I could tell, learn anything in school. My Disney's Wonderful World of Knowledge books were full of interesting information, but at school all we did was rote spelling, mentals and lining up (plus a hefty dose of Catholicism) until I was bored to tears. Things got worse when I realised teachers could be wrong; my year four teacher asked where Sydney's first farm was located. Farm Cove, I answered when I was called upon. Wrong! I was told. The first farm was at Parramatta. I was right, but my attempts to redeem my injured vanity in front of the class were rebuffed, and I retreated from classwork into my own world of books, a stance which was to doom the rest of my compulsory education.

The Catholicism permeated the day, not always for the good. I wasn't aware of any sexual abuse, but there were still a few disturbing incidents. The one which stands clearest in my mind is when one of the little girls in my group drew some explicit pornographic pictures, which were left on the playground and found by a teacher. My classroom teacher decided I had drawn the pictures, and instead of sensitively asking where I had seen such things and why I drew them, she called me out in front of the class to tell me off for being a dirty minded little girl. Then, aged 9, I was humiliated and indignant merely for being incorrectly identified as the artist; now, looking back, it is my fervent hope that the little girl who drew the pictures had simply accidentally stumbled across a parental stash of Penthouse and was copying what she saw. I hope I hope I hope it was nothing more sinister than that.

Amidst all this, everyone was gearing up to celebrate Australia's Bicentennial. Well - almost everyone. I was too young at the time to realise what an enormous insult the concept of the Bicentennial was to Aboriginal Australians, symbolising as it did the invasion and destruction of their lands, celebrating all that they had been robbed of. I didn't know then, except my father echoing the words of John Laws and Alan Jones that Aboriginal people marking the day as Invasion Day should just get over it, that the Midnight Oils song Beds are Burning was a load of black armband rubbish; although I thought if John Laws was against it, it must have something going for it.

I have to admit that as a child devoid of context, the Bicentennial was kind of neat. There were tall ships on Sydney Harbour, fireworks, the former industrial precinct Darling Harbour reopened in a blaze of gleaming aqua perspex and aluminium as an entertainment precinct, complete with a monorail, that seemed to me to be the last word in sophistication and excitement; there were exhibitions and events, and school excursions and family trips into the city on the Manly ferry. Sydney seemed gleaming and fresh and dazzling, and it was a good time, really, to be a child attracted by glister and novelty.

The good times couldn't last. as the 1980s drew to a close, the economy began to tank, and interest rates hit 17% just at the time my parents realised they couldn't put off upgrading from our long-outgrown apartment any longer. Not wanting to contemplate the more affordable Western Suburbs, they decided to leave Sydney altogether to pursue the great Australian dream of home ownership.

There's an internet joke that the history of Russia can be summed up in one sentence: "And then, things got worse". I've sometimes, jokingly, said the line could sum up my life; at any rate, leaving Sydney was the first of the many times things would take a downward turn. My life was about to change beyond imagining; the happy family outings were at an end, as puberty and the discovery of decent music changed everything, for better and for worse.

Writer's Note: This is the first of what is planned to be a ten part series on my life, such as it is. All recollections are based on my somewhat wobbly memory. Names of those who are not public figures will be changed. New updates posted every Monday afternoon, Australian Eastern Daylight Time. Hope you enjoy, and please leave feedback below.