• 20 Oct 2008 /  Videos

    Word has it that either Sarah Palin or Tina Fey is the love child of Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries.  Or are Sarah and Tina identical twins separated at birth (by an axe). If all this is true, which one is the most evil? There is also this photo (it moves after a while – scary) of what President Palin would actually look like in the Oval Office, kindly sent to me by acteur, Mr Jonathan Hardy.

    Tags: , , ,

  • 15 Oct 2008 /  Articles

    My life has changed since Germaine Greer declared I was Aboriginal. Not necessarily coz she was right – though she always is! But because this was around the same time I was heading off to Ernabella – and all the good that has come to from that ‘sojourn on another planet’.

    The good from that trip is multi-faceted, but one of the main elements was the opportunity to allow the illness of ‘anxiety’, with which I suffer, to diminish from a big black hole in my heart to a much smaller black smear. Here I am putting my life in my readers’ hands, but – oh well – what are blogs for if not to blog all over. Only a few of you know that I fell off a cliff when I was in my twenties and drifted into a coma while on the operating theatre from which I did not emerge for, I think, something like twelve days. I had many operations, four on my left hip, including two in London – where I limped around for a year with an infection and a bandage from knee to groin for more than a year. It was a tough way to start my global career as a something. From which I returned unsuccessful and instead became a critic.

    Approximately 27 fractures to live with this day, mostly down my left side, so I get a bit of arthritis these days – oh and the blood I received in transfusion was infected with a virus I am still obliged to manage daily. But the only real price I paid for that accident was ‘nominal aphasia’ (aka ‘forgetting names’); and what has been diagnosed as ‘panic disorder’, perhaps better known as ‘shell-shock’. This might help explain to those who think they know me, why sometimes I have been known to ‘over-react’ to challenging or unpleasant situations I have sometimes found myself in.

    It got to a point in my 40s where this behavioural flaw seriously started to have a negative impact on my life at all levels, personal and professional – and I had to go seek help. The highlight of which was being accidentally locked in the toilet of my psychiatrist’s flash new premises, magazines being pushed under the door, while we had to wait a couple of hours for the builder to turn up and get me out.

    I was greatly comforted in that moment by two factors. One was the idea that I was in the middle of the ultimate Woody Allen joke; and the other was a cartoon hand-drawn on the toilet mirror by Leunig – which I really can’t explain here without tiring you out, but which was suitably philosophical to help me through the moment.

    It has taken a lot of hard work for me to feel confident that I could return to crowded buses or bars, though a boss only has to shout at me once for me to get up and exit a new job. It speaks to my love of the form, I guess, (how safe I feel) that I don’t at all mind a crowded theatre foyer.

    But I did let myself down on the drive from Alice Springs to Ernabella when, at a rare petrol station stop, a woman called me to wind my window down so she could pour abuse on me with great enthusiasm for an alleged driving  incident some several hundred kilometres earlier, when – as I tried to explain to her – I was not actually driving the car. In normal circumstances these days I would have done whatever I could to defuse the situation of this hard bush bitch barking obscenities at me with an apology and a soft smiling heart; but instead I fell into the old trap of answering back. All this is very small beer – except for the fact that, while I was chewing angrily on my ‘burger with lot’ (a very good one actually) from the garage diner, Big hART’s Scott Rankin came up and pressed his thumbs gently into my shoulder blades. In front of the rest of the somewhat-alarmed touring squad. It was a gesture of strategic healing and noteable compassion from, in effect, a stranger. And while this piece of writing is not about Scott Rankin, or the recent trip away, it was an action that – I believe now – goes to the heart of his work.

    What I do want to note however was the ‘Whiteness’ of the woman’s attack on me. It is not how I grew up. Something else not many of you would know: but I was born in 1955 in a tiny colonial hospital on the island of Sohano, which sits in the strait between Buka and Bougainville; islands themselves that for thousands of years belonged culturally to what we now identify as the Solomons, but were hived off at the stroke of  a pen and carelessly handed to the colonial powers (first German, then British, then Australian) holding sway over what we like to call New Guinea. Later down the time-line, of course, trouble has come from that.

    Even though my parents were not a great match for marriage, and trouble unfolded in later years; growing up on those islands, and other outposts around New Guinea and Papua (Saidor, Madang, Kerema, Daru, less so Port Moresby in the later years) was characterized by a peacefulness – an absence of ‘anxiety’ – that I have missed since moving to Sydney for boarding school in 1967. ‘Alienation’ is not given its due as one of the structural posts of late capitalism’s consumerist society. “We grieve therefore we shop.” “We grieve therefore we shoplift.” “We grieve therefore we yell at that other customer in the queue.” We grieve therefore we stab the late-night migrant worker before making off with a packet of cigarettes.”

    It was not until I read Patrick White’s Riders In the Chariot and Tree of Man (syllabus texts) in my late teenage years that I found some help in understanding the weird underpinning of gratuitous cruelty that appears to characterize the Australian culture. However ‘low tech’ they might have been, the towns had grown up in across PNG seemed infinitely more civilized.

    I am not talking about some kind of hifaluting colonial pomposity, of the sort indulged in by the British in India. Life in PNG in those post-WWII years was ‘survival’ based, and even if almost all the European households had ‘staff’, there was a great camaraderie and mutual respect between colonizer and colonized – by and large. Mum would babysit the housegirl’s kids if need be. And kids from the nearby village would be rounded up to flesh out attendance at our birthday parties – where such luxuries as lamingtons, meringues and fairy bread appeared as nutritionally mad, if delicious, to the locals, as they actually are.mMy mother used to say she knew we would always be safe on Bougainville, all three of us little children, however far we wandered. That PNG is no longer such a safe place is an indictment of Australia’s mismanagement of it’s obligations as a colonial power: but that is a story for another time.

    It was profoundly tragic to revisit the place of my birth in 1988 – in the midst of a civil war. Bougainville  PNG. All over a goddam copper mine. I found the tiny hospital I was born in abandoned by staff and taken over by a colony abandoned lepers. It was a confrontation as shocking as it was succinct. I had come to find a lost part of myself: and I did so in the form of one young man who would appear from behind trees and bushes, shouting mad things at me with great enthusiasm as he limped along the track behind me – in the belief I was his long lost brother. Jimi! Jimi! Jimi! Well perhaps I was!

    This dislocation in my sense of self is something I have had to learn to live with. And, apart from the occasional fall from good grace, I have done so. More or less. But it does not take away the sadness; nor does it diminish the suspicion in my eye as I gaze across what is brightly described as Western Culture.

    So you can see why my journey to Ernabella with the Ngapartji Ngapartji mob was such a positive experience for me. In the first instance, there is the Big hART working model, which requires all participants to put their egos in their pockets and work as one. As someone who must still be very careful about how much time I spend in the company of large groups, living close to the ground – 24/7 – in so-called ‘primitive conditions’ – with between twenty and forty people was a great test of my susceptibility to ‘illness’. And for 99.99% of the time, the experience was incredibly positive. I fact I have emerged from the adventure with a much stronger and more secure sense of worth and self. And a more secure sense of calm.

    More significant was the experience of being Ernabella itself, which is so like the towns I grew up in. If dryer. Or quite likely similar to what most of these towns would be like if I visited them today. So many memories came flooding back of living in a ‘bi-cultural’ world. And how comfortable I felt with that. I remembered writing in my diary from Rabaul in 1988: “I feel like a frog put back in his pond”; and there was a touch of the same sensation being in Ernabella too. Though I am not making light of the profound cultural differences between indigenous PNG cultures and those of central Australia.

    Dear me: all the above was intended to be no more than of pre-amble to the ‘subject of the day’ – subjet du jour! Which is meant to be what I made of the Deadly Awards in particular but, in the same week, two other trips to the Sydney Opera House. And another tonight to see/hear Pattie Smith. But, in fact, as the week has unfolded, all these ‘live’ experiences survive in the shadow now of the most significant cultural event since my return. That being the opening two episodes of SBS’s bone-shaking series, The First Australians.

    Are you watching it!

    Since few of us these days have very long attention spans, and there are no pretty pictures to go with this post (sorry kids) I am going to stop here. Leave you hanging, as it were; and I will pick up where I am leaving off tomorrow.

    PS: for those of you who love my site exclusively for Brett’s pictures, I assure you, more are on the way. He had to do a wedding on the weekend (yep you know the movie – The Wedding Photographer). But he is back processing images from Outback-DownUnder as you read this

    ….if you got this far (lol).

    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • 01 Sep 2008 /  Articles

    I meet up with a mate in showbusiness and we head off to the Museum of Contemporary Art where Melbourne University Press (MUP) is launching its new series – Little Books on Big Themes. A  small but fairly illustrious gathering, including one ex-Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, and one ex-NSW Premier, Bob Carr; and some of us possibly hived off from MUP’s invite list for the launch of Jim’s Sharman’s autobiography, Blood and Tinsel, from a week before.

    MUP Get's It's Two Bob's Worth: Photo by William Yang

    MUP Gets Its Two Bob's Worth: Photo by William Yang

    I had already purchased and read Barrie Kosky’s little book On Ecstasy, and yet again been impressed by the passionate imagination that drives this artist’s work. The other books in the opening series are Blanche d’Albuget On Longing, David Malouf On Experience and Germaine Greer On Rage.

    Almost all the talk since that night has been about Greer’s ‘polemic’, as Bob Carr described it, recommending it as vital reading to ‘every Australian’. I will come back to Greer’s book. But something should be said of the enterprise of M UP’s head honcho, Louise Adler who, with Elisa Berg working more closely on th project, has brought into being this series of beautifully made, easy to read, intellectually stimulating books. There are already four more in the production pipeline.

    Four Authors on Big Themes: Photo William Yang

    Four Authors on Big Themes: Photo William Yang

    It’s one of those luxurious and rare publishing moments where the bottom line is not everything. Yet so tantalizing are these little books, and so compelling their contents, there’s every chance of a commercial hit as well!

    Barrie Kosky On Ecstasy

    Clearly, Mr Kosky does not need illicit or pharmaceutical drugs to get high. From his earliest years, the world has been a fulsome empire of smells and tastes, and sights and sounds. Here we have an whirling mini-autobiography via the bodily senses – from home-made chicken soup, the Melbourne Grammar sports change room, racks of fur coats, onto discovering Mahler and directing Wagner.

    I am not ashamed to say I did all I could in my time at the Sydney Morning Herald to make Kosky feel welcome, when he arrived in this city with a series of bold productions for theatre and opera. It was more than declaring an admiration for the work, but also acknowledging that Kosky was adding new life to the town. His was a profoundly ‘fecund’ imagination and I wanted to pay tribute to that in itself.

    We did once have a moment of conflict when I could not get him on the phone in Vienna for a story I was writing. Was he putting his own art ahead my journalism? Surely not? I ended up calling him an arrogant  %)(&&%$##$%)))_*&#, or words to that effect; and the next time we saw each other in the street we snubbed each other like all good prima donnas in conflict do. Then came The Lost Echo, all 64 hours of it, and this time I bumped into Barrie outside the theatre. I was in a state of ecstasy! I Barrie asked if I could get down and kiss his feet. He said it was okay, I didn’t have to……kind of forcing my to my knees anyway (just kidding).

    The envious low-life media hack in me was of course hoping On Ecstasy would bring Kosky back to earth. I could wave it around at dinner parties shouting: ‘See he is just like the rest of us!’ How off the mark were my evil fantasies. The book is as virtuosic as it is joyful. Scribbled off in hand, we discovered at the launch, and faxed off to Eliza in ‘fecund’ clumps. I keep using that word’ fecund’ as it was the one used by Adler in her speech to describe what she considered the chief characteristic of Kosky’s mind. Not to be confused with feckin (Irish); though I reckon, if we were to sum up Barrie Kosky’s output so far, we could call it “feckin fecund”…don’t you think?

    Meanwhile, a reading by an author from their own book is a performance in its own right. While Kosky’s reading was hilarious and daring, Blanche D’Albuget’s was mesmerizing.

    Blanche d’Albuget On Longing

    I am yet to read d’Albuget’s book through, but her own reading of the opening paragraphs at the launch was one of the evening’s highlights. I have never read d’Albuget’s biography of Bob Hawke. But I am glad to hear it is being republished (updated) by MUP. Simply on the impact of these few paragraphs below, how could one not be interested in any writing by this woman?

    On Longing begins thus:

    “One fine day a horseman dressed in white, a man whose bulk made him look to heavy to ride, cantered away from a group of other men on horses. Abruptly his rhythm in the saddle broke – as if the ground were shaking, or maybe he was about to collide with something massive but invisible. Heart racing, he rushed on. The unseen thing grabbed him, its shadow eclipsing all that was known.

    “Darkness engulfed the rider.

    “His mount slowed, stopped, and stood still. It seemed concerned not to disturb the human-equine being into which it had transformed, its man-half slumped, life-less arms still clasped round its neck.

    “Across the field all hell broke loose. People screaming; horses galloping, riders shouting and frantic; and ambulance careening towards the stricken centaur.

    “But for the man who had collided with Death there was neither sound nor silence, light nor dark, no hope and no despair. There was Nothing.

    “For six minutes (or seven, since accounts of that day vary) he was ‘clinically dead’. He had suffered pain like a javelin thrust through his chest and iron bands wound so tight round his ribs his lungs could not move….”

    An amazing evocation of a scene!  The ‘centaur’ is Kerry Packer, of course. I am yet to discover where d’Albuget takes us after dropping Packer’s revived body off at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst. But by introducing her essay with Shakespeare’s “I have immortal longings in me” (Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene 2), one gets a sense of what lies ahead. Antony and Cleopatra was not only my first Shakespeare, but whole swathes of its voluptious verse came alive to me like nothing I had read before. That particular line has stuck with me through the years.

    Unlike Barrie K, I did not go to Melbourne Grammar. Where I went to school, if you didn’t graduate to pro-Rugby League you most likely went on to become a (corrupt?) copper. But A&C was on the syllabus in fifth form (back then) and it set my mind on fire. Those longings I had lying on my dorm bunk at night were possibly ‘immortal’. And I’m not referring to the guy above (they were just longings); rather, this noton of ‘immortal longings’ conjured up the ‘rest of the world’ I could glimpse as a vista from the top of the main building’s bell tower.

    I have come to believe much theatre is also about ‘immortal longings’, and soothing them.

    I am taking my time with this particular book also because of the way in which it was encouraged into being. D’Albuget stopped writing fifteen years ago, never expecting to pick up a pen again. It was the feisty Louise Adler who guided this wonderful Australian writer back to her desk, and d’Albuget expressed sincere thanks for that. My point being, we could do with more of this – some encourgement. Theatre people included….lol.

    Germaine Greer On Rage

    While it was disconcerting to observe Bob Carr, an avid reader, pass over Kosky’s book On Ecstasy a little too lightly, Carr is to be congratulated for his passionate praise for Greer’s challenging and insightful ‘polemic’ On Rage. Namely the rage she observes eating out the hearts and minds of Aboriginal men.

    Seer Greer: Photo by William Yang

    Seer Greer: Photo by William Yang

    What I want to comment on here is the tsunami of negative responses the book was receiving within 24 hours of its release. Greer anticipated this. What I noticed, with some dismay, was a posse of senior white female journalists who appeared to unite as a vanguard, in unseemly haste, in an effort to bring the book and its writer undone. Writers at The Australian led the way, but there was also a highly tendentious response - ‘Greer’s Latest Rage More Glib Than Lib’ - from Tracee Hutchison in Melbourne’s The Age.

    Below is my riposte, which I publish here since it failed to make it into The Age’s Letters page.

    Dear Editor,

    Why have so many journalists, mostly white women, responded with such viciousness to On Rage, Germaine Greer’s latest attempt to raise an important topic for public debate?

    Especially disturbing are comments by Tracee Hutchison’s in this paper (Greer’s Latest Rage More Glib than Lib, August 16). Her response is to some random remarks made by Greer in a brief television appearance (ABC’s Q&A), hardly a controlled environment for the dissemination of complex ideas.

    What becomes increasingly alarming as one reads through Hutchison’s attack, is the likelihood that she has not yet read Greer’s book before choosing to respond to its content. In an altogether unrelated spray at the end of the article, this is what Hutchison accuses Greer of doing over a previous storm in a teacup over a play by Melbourne writer Joanna Murray-Smith. Surely Hutchison cannot have it both ways?

    Nor, I presume, was Hutchison at the book launch (in Sydney) that took place immediately prior to Greer’s appearance on Q&A. If she had been, Hutchison would not be able to attack Greer for allegedly raising the subject for debate from ‘the comfort of her English garden’. I was at the launch, and Greer not only delivered a most informed and passionate summary of the content of her book, Greer also revealed she has made many visits to the outback communities she is talking about, going back to the 1970s through to quite recently; she has read voluminously across the topic – including many major public documents (see the index to her book); and she has also talked one-to-one with many Aboriginal men and women.

    I have since read the book in horrified gulps at the truths Greer lays down – in black and white (yes literally).

    To paraphrase just one example: ‘there would have been no Stolen Generation had white men kept their hands off Aboriginal women, or taken responsibility for the progeny’. Any arguments with that? An observation surely worth pondering for a minute or two? Classic Greer? No? Yet, our gut reaction – among female peers in particular – is to spit on Greer. I remember when this happened to Helen Garner over The First Stone; and they were equally high-ranking women journalists who led the hysterical, and later disproved, attack on Lindy Chamberlain.

    To sneer over whether what Greer calls ‘rage’ is better described as ‘grief’ is as productive as correcting someone for calling ‘silver beet’ ‘spinach’. It’s the feelings of Aboriginal men (alongside those of the women and children) Greer is asking for us to stop and consider. And at no point in her launch speech or in the book does she excuse the violence Aboriginal men have inflicted on the women and children in their lives. Quite the opposite. She is merely attempting to add more data and fresh perspectives to the issues, in the hope that we may all work more effectively towards solutions.

    James Waites

    A few days later I dropped a copy of the letter into a blog created for smart groovy women who meet up online on a Friday night and throw ideas around. Wow, I got eaten alive. Even Helen Garner, it turns out, still hasn’t been forgiven. I don’t know how Greer survives it, day in day out, year after year. Or Garner, when it’s been her turn for a thorough tar-and-feathering from her activist ’sisters’.

    Discovering My Dark Side

    It was a little bit strange and daunting to ask Germaine Greer to sign my copy of On Rage. I rarely bother with the signature thing, but I had already asked for Barrie Kosky’s and so, in a flush of enthusiasm, I rushed around and got all of the first four books in the series signed. I informed Greer that I have my own special interest in matters Aboriginal, especially right now, as I prepare for a trip out to a small town called Ernabella, 400k’s south-west of Alice Springs, to witness Big hArt’s Ngapartji Ngapartji rehearsals. A swag and billy tea, lots of digital equipment and a night sky full of stars, here we come. I am travelling with my old mate photographer Brett Monaghan.

    As Germaine Greer looked up at me with interest, she offered a little sage advice. And then, on closer examination of my visage, announced I must surely have Aboriginal blood in me! For all Greer’s intellectual brilliance and sheer guts, many think there is a slightly mad side. If there is, so what! It’s like asking Judy Davis to stay calm at all times, and still expect her to go on stage and play Hedda Gabler as well as she did!

    From Greer the phrenologist, thus insight into my ancestry was nonetheless a curved ball. How long had my family been in Australia? she enquired. On my mother’s side… since 1789, I think, I stammered. For Greer, that was QED. Plenty of time for one of the men in that long ancestral line to fiddle with one of the lubras. Who would dare argue with the great Seer Germaine! Perhaps from the comfort of a website. But when she is sitting there before you? Smiling up at you! Well I wasn’t about to. If there is any truth to Greer’s declaration, it’s connected to a skeleton buried way to the back of the family closet. After some consideration, I have chosen to take Greer’s declaration another way: as a call to arms. That in tendency, with regard to respect for country and yearning to belong, there is, I admit, a ‘spirit of Aboriginality’ to which I aspire.

    I Have A Dream!

    I woke up the morning after the Little Books launch straight out of a dream: a scene where Louise Adler – whom I met for the first time that previous night - had taken me aside at the function and was offering me some sage advice. Pennies from Heaven.  ’Okay, okay, I’m ready. Do I need to sit down or something?’ I asked nervously. Patting my shoulder like a primary school teacher, or gold medal Olympic diving coach, might, she whispered: “Keep in simple.” Okay, I promise Louise, I will do my best to do so. Thanks heaps for the tip!

    Tags: , , , , , , ,