The day Tony Abbott became prime minister we were in Lauterbrunnen, a town in the Swiss Alps, the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. For the second night, we were eating at a restaurant run by an Australian. He was jubilant about the result. I was quiet, melancholic, and suddenly unhappy to be in his restaurant, sitting outside in the dusk. He was going on about the mess the ALP had made of things and I couldn’t possibly be sorry to see that over. I was sorry, sorry it hadn’t worked out better, sorry for the tragedy set off by Rudd’s character flaws. But the ALP wasn’t my party and I made no more than a cryptic suggestion to him that it was complicated for us; if he thought Abbott was a good idea, there was no point telling him how far left we’d voted. We went to a different restaurant the last night in Lauterbrunnen, even though his food had been good. Continue reading
Autobiography is an impossible genre. Memoir is easier – the writer is allowed to present an aspect of their life, to create a story out of one of its strands or seasons. Autobiography has to try to include them all. The desire to remember and record names, dates, and places is in the tension with the need to craft a narrative. And different phases of life require quite different types of writing which might not go together. The problems of autobiography are on show in Justina Williams’ Anger and Love (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993), but it’s an important, fascinating text. Continue reading
To my dear member of parliament,
I am very concerned by your government’s move to drug testing for welfare recipients. In 2003 when I graduated from university, I was on Newstart allowance for six months while I looked for work and I found dealing with Centrelink alienating and dehumanising. The attitude of the system toward welfare recipients already feels so harsh. I wasn’t on any drugs but the addition of testing would have increased my sense of disillusionment with a state which treated me with suspicion and heavy-handedness.
I can’t believe this measure comes the same week Tony Abbott admits to being too drunk to vote in a crucial bill. It feels to me that your government risks seeming hypocritical. I’m not convinced this measure is actually concerned with helping people with addiction problems – if this is your real concern, increase funding for addiction services.
Yours sincerely, Nathan Hobby.
I didn’t remind my MP of the fact that he was caught drink-driving without a licence two years ago. I don’t know why this testing measure bothers me so much, but it seems just a little fascist and also yet another move of a government which despises the underclass. There are no jobs for people to be getting at the moment. There are actually so many activities / classes of people who receive subsidies or concessions from the government – as someone tweeted, why aren’t the negative gearers being tested for drugs?
Like many biographers, I have a list of possible future subjects. One of my ten names has been Australia’s second prime-minister, Alfred Deakin (1856-1919). While researching his interactions with Katharine Susannah Prichard, I found him a fascinating character. I was surprised that the only comprehensive biography appeared fifty years ago. But I’ve removed Deakin from my list because Judith Brett has written a superb account of his life in The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, out this month.
Brett begins her biography with a comparison to a more famous Victorian born two years earlier, Ned Kelly:
Deakin is remembered too, but not so vividly, more as a bearded worthy than a national icon. He was Australia’s most important prime minister in its first ten years after federation, but he sits uneasily as a representative Australian figure. He is too intellectual, too respectable, for the larrikin masculinity of the Australian legend… Deakin was never a mate. He didn’t swear and rarely drank. He didn’t play organised sport nor fight in the Great War…. In short, he was middle-class, well-educated, urbane and supremely self-confident, like the city and the colony in which he grew to manhood. (3)
Australia needs more heroes like this, and Brett lays out a strong case for his significance and his achievements, while always alert to the ambivalence which marks him and his legacy. Continue reading
There’s hope yet. The surge in the Labour Party vote under Jeremy Corbyn in the British election shows it. He had much of the parliamentary wing of his own party against him, sold on the idea that Labour should accept the gospel of neo-liberalism. He had against him all the money and power of Rupert Murdoch and the corporations that have pushed the Western world into a nasty society of privatisation, insecure employment, and inequality. The Sun newspaper, one of the most read tabloids in Britain, has a picture of him in a garbage bin:
Only a vote for the Conservatives — not Ukip, or any other — will help keep Corbyn and his sinister Marxist gang away from power… The result would be economic collapse and soaring unemployment, inflation, interest rates and home repossessions.
On Twitter, the ABC’s Media Watch host, Paul Barry, called Corbyn the Cory Bernardi of the left a couple of days ago. Routinely, “moderate” commentators equate any politicians who reject neo-liberalism – like Bernie Sanders in the US and the Greens in Australia – as extremists, a symptom of a world gone mad as disturbing as Trump. But it is neo-liberalism that has created the troubles we now find ourselves in. It has promised wealth for everyone but it has only privatised everything and widened inequality. In the name of “efficiency” it’s told so many lies to line the pockets of the few. Neo-liberalism has messed up our economy and our society. Now it’s crumbling. The only hope is that in the ruins, social democracy prevails over right-wing populism.
I’ve just found a remarkable passage about the USA in a letter from the Australian playwright Louis Essson during his stay in New York to Vance Palmer (both friends of Katharine Susannah Prichard) dated February 16th 1917:
The country is not a democracy at all, but a plutocracy. The president has the power of a Kaiser, and all diplomacy is secret. The people haven’t a say in anything. Politically America is far behind Australia and in reality behind Britain or Germany. If a strong President arose, a Caesar or Cromwell, he could simply keep his position and make himself perpetual dictator. Labour has no strength here. At a recent strike at Bayonne the men were simply shot down, the authorities assisting Rockefeller.
What Esson didn’t foresee was that exactly a century later it hasn’t taken a Caesar or Cromwell but a reality TV star – the PT Barnum of our day – to take the country into apocalyptic times.
Dispelling any smugness I might have about the superior insights of the Australian left in 1917, Esson then veers into appalling racism, quite typical of the time: “Some terrible thing will happen here, which I hope will be spared Australia. I feel sure Australia must be kept white and have severe immigration laws.”
Dear Mr Irons,
We’re writing to you as our representative in parliament. The biggest issue for us is climate change, and we are so upset by the path your government is taking. We don’t feel that you’re committed to taking real action to reduce emissions. Coal is the worst possible energy source to be investing in at the moment. As new parents with a young son, we are deeply offended by Scott Morrison’s stunt with a lump of coal in parliament as Australia faces more extreme weather. Please, for the sake of our toddler and all of our futures, take some courageous action on climate change. We would welcome an emissions trading scheme and more renewables. We want to be proud of Australia leading the way for the world.
Yours sincerely, Nathan and Nicole Hobby
The ABC understands one of the boys was questioned two years ago by New South Wales Police and the Australian Federal Police over an incident at his school.
It is understood that incident involved him refusing to stand for the national anthem at the morning assembly of his school — East Hills Boys High School – in June 2014 when the boy was 14.
When questioned why he would not stand for the national anthem, the boy said “he only stands for God”, “does not respect this country” and “this country sends troops to Afghanistan to kill our men and rape our women”.
The news of sixteen-year-olds plotting terrorism is frightening. But just as frightening, buried in today’s story of the arrests, is the report that police were called to a school two years ago because one of the suspects would not stand for the national anthem. I cannot imagine a better way to radicalise a fourteen-year-old. It’s disturbing that he doesn’t respect Australia, the country he lives in, although it’s unsurprising that he’s upset about Australia’s involvement in disastrous wars overseas. It’s disruptive when people won’t stand for the national anthem. And this boy has gone on to plan violence. But however we regard it, refusing to stand for the national anthem itself must never be a police matter. When it becomes one, we are living in a dystopia. In the “war on terror” we are losing the very freedom we are meant to be fighting for.
Lying in bed half asleep, the radio news from the crash site washing over me, I thought of this passage from Updike’s Rabbit at Rest, a novel soaked in death. Is part of the preoccupation with MH17 the unimaginable horror of dying in the air?
Just as the Lockerbie air disaster is the backdrop to late 1988 in literature, mid-2014 will have MH17, stirring memories in future years of those amateur militia, the fields strewn with luggage, the reporters with their noses covered outside the horror-trains full of bodies in the heat.
As the candy settles in his stomach a sense of doom regrows its claws around his heart: little prongs like those that hold fast a diamond solitaire. There has been a lot of death in the newspapers lately. Before Christmas that Pan Am Flight 103 ripping open like a rotten melon five miles above Scotland and dropping all these bodies and flaming wreckage all over the golf course and the streets of this little town like Glockamorra, what was its real name, Lockerbie. Imagine sitting there in your seat being lulled by the hum of the big Rolls Royce engines and the stewardesses bringing the clinking drinks caddy and the feeling of having caught the plane and nothing to do now but relax and then with a roar and giant ripping noise and shattered screams this whole cosy world dropping away and nothing under you but black space and your chest squeezed by the terrible unbreathable cold, that cold you can scarcely believe is there but that you sometimes actually still feel packed into your suitcases, stored in the unpressurized hold, when you unpack your clothes, the dirty underwear and beach towels with the merciless chill of death from outer space still in them.
– John Updike, Rabbit at Rest 8
At eighty-four, he was confident the earthly verdict upon him had already been delivered. If there was a Last Judgment, surely it was the other side of death. Earthly life was secure.
But instead, judgment comes now. He is cast into a kind of pre-humous hell. Others will visit him; news of the living will reach him; but there will be little to hope for.
What can he do, sent home on bail, awaiting sentencing? This house he will not return to? This freedom he will not taste again? There’s so many things he could do; the email and the letterbox bursting with both hate and those few hanging on loyally, defenders to be thanked and share commiserations with. Oh, the letters can wait until prison.
But going out to dinner to his favourite restaurant on the Thames is unthinkable. The disdain of the waitstaff, the stares of the other diners. The journalists turning up. The food would stick in his throat; this world has already passed.
There is nowhere he can go, nowhere he can escape. He won’t see Perth again, certainly won’t be cheered into Bassendean with the keys to the town. Because he made himself ubiquitous (remember that sketch from The Goodies where the Rolfs take over the countryside?) his shame is ubiquitous, he wears the mark of Cain wherever he goes.
How would this story have panned out with the same beginning, the same middle, but a different end? How many repentant celebrity offenders have we ever known? What would the world do with an offender who saw clearly, who repented, who humbly confessed?
In truth, there could be a little grace, a little forgiveness – with some people – but not a great deal. He has crossed some threshold. The drug cheat, the alcoholic, even the adulterer are redeemable; but not the sex offender.