You know James has gone absolutely barking mad since he came back from the desert where profits, he thought, might come. Anyway he never got a far as the Pilbara; and taking a quick look at some of the emails coming in from his brokerage firm, he might have let his run a bit late. ‘Just my luck‘, he shrugs, in a very nonchalent and true-blue Aussie way.
So he has buried himself in the arcane theatre arts, as is his want when in need of spiritual (if not financial) renewal, having chalked up visits to almost a gig-a-night. Two shows up from the Melbourne International Festival, Khalifa Natour’s ‘interesting’ one-man show was mostly about the bad luck of being a Palestinian trying to fly into Israel from Paris on the anniversary of September 11. The other Melb Fest show James was The Book of Longing, Philip Glass’s nifty musical rendition of some engaging, if eccentric, poetry by Leonard Cohen about trying to get lucky with some woman.
He also got to see the Patti Smith concert. Being a cheapskate and currently on the run from the Australian Tax Office, he forked out a mere $40 to sit in the choir area of the Concert Hall - behind the stage. The whole tight-arse mob in that area were very lucky coz Patti is in a good mood at the moment and she chose to not only acknowledge their existence, but took time to clamber up around them, and James was lucky enough to get a chance to shake her hand – or brush his fingers with her finger to be more accurate.
Of course luck had nothing to do with it. Patti and I go back a long way, from the time we shared the same hallway at the Chelsea Hotel, NYC in the early 1970s. Between you and me, I made a few phone calls and Patti said “Okay Honey – For Old Times’ Sake!” Luck is a delusion. Most of the time. Except Bad Luck which is very real – and that’s what falls upon most people who try to push their luck too far.
Take Ned Kelly for example: he pushed his luck. And so did AFL star, Ben Cousins, who perhaps unwisely one drunken evening had Ned’s last words – Such Is Life - tattooed in large black Gothic lettering across his six-pack. Such is Life was also the title Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) gave, of course, to his excellent novel. Which begins I think with a sentence like: ‘Unemployed again’. Which is the sort of bad luck we might be hearing more about over the next couple of years.
It has just dawned on me that some of you possibly don’t now who I am. I am Ms Gayelean Guy, James’s PA, can-do confidente, mother of all secretaries, avatar, drinking partner – and ‘she who must be obeyed’. Not that James is easy to manage, he can be very recalcitrant and is a serial recidivist. James does have an occasional a soft side, though, and was kind enough to put up a little bio about me in an early post, A Very Special Friend (Go there if you want to find out more about my past life as an emerging actress and general career woman in UK and USA, with reference to some of the wonderful ‘lassies’ I met on the way.) As that post will tell you, James and I were very lucky to bump into each other late one night (early one morning?) at the Mansions Hotel in Kings Cross, Sydney. I have been carrying the can for him ever since.
James can be terribly impulsive and impetuous sometimes, and (as a man) sometimes he treats me like shit. The syntax of that previous sentence is as it should be, by the way – lol. Anyway, he flew passed my desk on his way to The Women of Troy (dir. Barrie Kosky at STC Wharf) the other evening and flung me a little book. “Chick Lit,” he bellowed: meaning it was for me to deal with as I saw fit.
The guy is a liteweight and does not know good art when he sees it. This gorgeous volume turns out to be a fabulous Little Book on a Big Idea by Anne Summers, titled On Luck. It is from the series being published by Melbourne University Press. James went to the party for the launch of the first four, which included Mr Kosky’s On Ecstasy and Germaine Greer – On Rage. If you have a thing for celebrity-hobnobbing, then perhaps take a look at that post because that was where Ms Greer took a precise phrenological measurement at the shape of James’s skull and declared him to be ‘Aboriginal’. He now identifies with the recently formed ‘Strawberry Hills mob’ which clusters around Belvoir Street Theatre
Let’s get down to the real action. I was stunned when I picked up this pretty little book and realised the essay inside had been penned by one of my favourite women in the know, the very savvy and also sassy, Dr Anne Summers, whom I worked for as an assistant on MS magazine in New York in the late 1980s. Those were the days. Anne was a prime mover and shaker in the establishment of Elsie, the first refuge for women in Sydney back in the 1970s; and is the author of Damned Whores and God’s Police: the Colonisation of Women in Australia, which had a big influence in my own personal journey to ‘liberation’ in my formative years. And been reprinted several times. She has always been one of my favourite journalists: her articles are always of interest and well written. She is also rare among our generation in never having stepped back from her original commitment to do what she can, through her actions, to effect social change – good changes, I mean.
It is this impulse which has sometimes cast Anne in the role of naysayer, when she senses that some aspect of our society might be moving in the wrong direction. This is certainly the impulse you feel at work behind On Luck which looks at Australia’s grotesque addiction to gambling. As if holding a bizarre object up to the light, Ms Summers examines her subject from a range of angles. We get ‘history’: how the population of Australia doubled between 1850 and 1860 as the discovery of gold brought speculators to Victoria and NSW from all over the world. We get statistics: in 1999, while most Australians gamble, around 290,000 or 2.1 percent of the Australian population lost $3.5 billion between them in various forms of punting. We get cultural analysis: in the form of a discussion of Donald Horne’s wildly misinterpreted catch-phrase ‘the Lucky Country’. We get a case study: of Renea Hughes who fraudulently obtained $630,000 from her employer, NSW’s then-named RailCorp, to feed her pokie habit. Little wonder there’s no money to keep the trains clean, much less run on time. The extent to which our addiction to ‘luck’ extends deep into our government mindsets (State and federal) is exposed in the amount of revenue drawn from the ‘gaming’ machines, casino taxes, etc. And on it goes. in essence, gambling is the ugly face of our addiction ‘materialism’ .
James may well be a shameless gambler in the love stakes (the biggest loser, I might add). But I know, if he read this book, he would agree that something is terribly wrong with our culture. In fact, apart from his risk-taking in the romance department, James can’t even bring himself to buy a Scratchie for his birthday. Queuing up to buy a new biro at the newsagent sends him into a spirally depression, when all he see’s ahead him are a mile of shuffling pensioners holding on to their walking frames with hand and their lotto drawcards in the other. As Ms Summers begins her book: all in the firm belief, as did her father, that one day, ‘their ship will come in’.
Oh goodness: James just got in from The Trojan Women - jabering in a Cassandra-like manner about the cursed luck of….
I stop him there and say: “Read this, Jimmy boy. It explains everything.” He has reluctantly agreed to take the book to bed with him. “Me and On Luck can get into some Pillow Talk.”
POST SCRIPT – NEXT MORNING
Hi there readers, James here. Gayelean is right as per usual. On Luck is a terrific book. You know the Trojans were very unlucky to have been fooled by that wooden horse. But there was in ancient Greek culture also a concept called hubris (trans: ‘what goes up must come down‘); and some would argue that the Trojans had it coming to them. The really unlucky people in Euripides’ play are not the men who made all the stupid decisions that led to the carnage, but the women – who had no power, had not been involved in the crook decision making, and yet suffered hugely and immensely.
People’s luck, thinks moi, depends on the culture into which they are born. None of us has much control over that. It’s what with we do with our lives from birth onwards that counts. A person may well be lucky enough to be born into a just and coherent society, with leaders who genuinely commit to the well-being of ‘all its members’. While all of us must try to help ourselves along the way, it is a lot easier if we are all working from ‘a flat platform’: relatively equal opportunity.
What was shocking about Episode Three of the First Australians, if I may digress, which screened last Sunday night, was the realisation that belonging to a caring community, led by a highly intelligent and principled person, may not be be enough. Not against the forces of self interest and bigotry that slop around the globe, certainly around the rich and selfish city that was Melbourne in the mid- to late 1900s.
Here is the story of a very great leader, William Barak, who founds a wonderful settlement for his people at a place outside Melbourne called Coranderrk. A tiny pocket of the vast lands his people used to call their own. Everything could have been great, and the entire history of Aboriginal people in Victoria – and of Australia – could have taken a completely different path. If only…
Can I suggest you visit the site of a fellow bloggian, Andrew Sullivan, whose response to the episode is very like mine. For all Barak’s efforts to protect his people, he had no luck in persuading those in power (least of all the so-called Aboriginal Protection Board) that his people were capable of making a good life for themselves – in the European manner if need be – if only they could be given half a chance. If you have not been following the series, you still can. The SBS site for the series, the First Australians, is fantastic. You can catch up with all the episodes so far, and much more. We are all ‘very lucky’ that at last this series has been made, and that it is so good. Every Australian should see it – especially Philip Ruddock and John Howard – lol. It is hugely sobering.
The truth is, we live in a very sick society with new and old infections popping out all over our shared skin. In many ways, On Luck is a study of illness as described in Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor. For those who wish to stay well, or improve on their condition, On Luck is a MUST READ!
If you want to know more about Anne Summers and her writing, go to this link – the transcript of an excellent interview with Mr George Negus; and/or dip into some of Anne’s other wonderful writing, which can be found at her website: www.annesummers.com.au
Palya – it’s All Good