In different voices

8

In the face of what the new Australian conservative government has been doing during its blitzkrieg attack (planned and directed by General Rupert Murdoch) on the country resistance seems absolutely futile. Writing a political blog like this one is like a little Dutch boy putting his finger in the dyke at precisely the moment a tsunami hits.

Tony Abbott makes Maggie Thatcher look like a kind-hearted little old lady who delivers milk to school children. Makes GW Bush look like Stephen Hawking without a wheelchair. Makes Robert Mugabe look like Nelson Mandela. Makes Augusto Pinochet look like Abraham Lincoln. Makes …. Oh well, you get the idea.

But are we downhearted at Watermelon? ….. I say, are we downhearted at Watermelon? Well, ok, yes, we are, so not going to try to singlehandedly take on Menzies House, News Ltd, and the IPA, but do something different.

Have been watching lately the very good tv series Inspector Salvo Montalbano, based on the excellent series of books by Andrea Camilleri. The Inspector works in Sicily, solving crime and doing good deeds.
…Read more

Chicks Lit

14

For this post something of a look behind the scenes, a slight lifting of the curtain, on the process of blog post writing at Watermelon.

Sometimes I use objets trouvee to prompt a thought, perhaps a memory. The other day I happened to see one of my old children’s annuals. Do they still exist? Perhaps in relation to pop stars or movie spin-offs, not sure. But once upon a time they were very big and popular with children. Reflecting in turn the popularity of children’s magazines. Not comics, though these of course have also long been popular, but junior magazines, part of a spectrum of publications which went up to adults and indeed to old people. Magazines still popular of course, but nothing like what they were in their heyday, and probably destined to die out as they are totally replaced by the internet.

Anyway the children’s magazines, as a way of cashing in on their popularity, almost all (or perhaps it was all) produced an “annual”, aimed at the easy-Xmas-present-for-desperate-relatives market, and, I guess, providing a welcome cash boost to the publishers. But they were also eagerly awaited by children, containing, as they did, new stories about favourite characters, interesting facts, puzzles, games and so on.

The spectrum began with the very young, and the oldest example I have is the “Chicks’ Own Annual” of 1950, sent by relatives in England for a Xmas present in December 1949, my name carefully filled in in the space provided on a frontispiece which said “This Jolly Book belongs to…”.

Anyway. I looked at this, and its familiar front cover of a sack race by the popular characters, triggered the kind of memories other authors seem to get from eating bits of cake soaked in wine on a spoon. And I was all set to write one of those remembrance of times past, remembrance of times passed, kind of memoir posts that regular readers know and love. But then I thought I’d have a look inside.

And was suddenly plunged, unexpectedly, on page 19, into a new subject for the post.

chicks

You probably can’t read the text of the little poem, and so to avoid you missing the full flavour of the humour, here it is (note that the hyphens to break up longer words into syllables is house style throughout the book, presumably making it easier for young readers):

“When eb-ber I am making tarts,
De nigs soon find it out,
Dey creeps in-to my kitch-en and
start monk-ey-ing a-bout.

Dey eat de jam, dey tease de cat,
Near drive me off my head,
De on-ly time it’s safe to cook
Is when dey’se all in bed.

‘Why don’t I chase dem out”‘ you say.
H’m! Just yo’ come and try!
While I am catch-ing hold ob one,
An-nud-der eats a pie!

De mis-chief dat dem boys can do
Is plain for all to see,
Dat wo-man who lib-bed in a shoe
Was be-ter off dan me!”

It’s hard to know where to start with this page of totally forgotten (by me) humour.

Remind yourself that this is an English magazine for very small children (I was four), not an American one. Remind yourself that this was written by a white man (or woman, but I’m guessing a man, there is no indication of editorial team or writers anywhere). Remind yourself that although there were a few people of Caribbean (and African) origin in England for several hundred years by this time, this poem was being written not long after the 1948 British Nationality Act gave British Citizenship, and full rights of entry and settlement in Britain, to all people living in Commonwealth countries, and that as a result the first ship (the MV Empire Windrush) carrying 492 Caribbean immigrants had arrived in London on 22 June 1948.

So the presence of this “funny cartoon” in 1949 is a bit strange. As is its form. These, I presume, are intended to be some kind of comic idea of American blacks. Based on what? Some memory of Hollywood movies or American comedians doing a parody black voice? Why was it thought suitable for four year old English (or Australian) kids in 1949? And was the use of the term “nigs” really seen as jolly good fun and not offensive in that year?

Finally the big question. Was this sort of thing common in children’s comics, magazines, annuals of the day, and did it affect the racism of the public later? Caribbean migration began in 1948. Race riots and attacks built up in the 1950s. Twenty years later came Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, perhaps the most offensive words ever to come from a British politician. Were these public attitudes at least partly built on the playful pages of Chick’s Own and others like it? Many families try to restrict their children from playing with toy guns, concerned about the effect on their attitudes in later life. Should they also have been concerned about those harmless looking children’s annuals stuffed innocently into Xmas stockings?

Anyway, I thought I should check out the rest of this Annual, see if page 19 was just the tip of the iceberg, see if my young mind had been unknowingly but permanently warped by subliminal racism and turned me into the adult racist I so famously became (just as my cap-firing cowboy gun, proudly blasting away at about the same time, turned me into a gun fanatic blasting kangaroos in national parks with an AK 47).

And there we had it. Straight away on page 2 we have “Nigger” the black chick (one of the jolly chick chums of the title of the Annual) and later “Golli” the golliwog and “Golly” the golliwog, who seems to be a different character. All appear in several different stories. On page 26 “Neddy and Nellie Nigger” appear asking “some jolly riddles”. They are also cartoonish, but more humanised than the “Naughty Nigs”.

At one moment you think this is all quite innocent, reading too much into a long-ago children’s book. But then you think, just a moment. Why is the black chicken called “Nigger”? What’s with the golliwogs? Why is it “Neddy and Nellie Nigger ” who are asking “jolly riddles”? And, looming overall are those “Naughty Nigs” (note that, as if to underline connections, a golliwog appears in the scene, as one does on the front cover, falling over, and therefore coming last, in the sack race), as offensive, in retrospect, as caricatures of Jewish people would have been before the war.

But did any of it have an effect on me and my contemporaries, make us predisposed to be racists? I don’t know. It is just one of tens of thousands of influences on you as you grow up (and another time I will have a look at Lion Annual 1957 for what was going on in the big boy equivalent of Chick’s Own), and who knows what results in one prevailing over another.

It is worth noting the reverse though. That this kind of content was thought absolutely appropriate in a magazine for young children (remember that this Annual reflected content produced week after week, year after year) in an office in London in 1949. And by inference, by at least a good proportion of the population of England at the time. And that, this one little lone Annual of mine representing a very small tip of an iceberg, this kind of unconscious/conscious racism in publications must have been widespread in society. Therefore creating, in its representation of black people as definitely “other”, as not quite human even, fertile ground for the violent racism that was to come.

All Greek to me

6

Hardly a week, hardly a day goes by without examples of police brutality being reported somewhere in the world. Mounted police charging into peaceful demonstrators, suspects tasered to death, handcuffed prisoners shot dead, people in custody beaten up in watch houses, arrested and restrained people sprayed in face with capsicum spray, people dragged behind police cars, people in police trucks left to die from the heat on hot days, you name it, it’s happened somewhere yesterday, happening today, will happen tomorrow.

All par for the course when armed, uniformed men, with absolute authority, are given power over the powerless. Much the same happens in prisons. Or in wartime. But I didn’t want to talk about the actual brutality so much, as about what follows.

Generally nothing.

As soon as an accusation is made, or CCTV or mobile phone footage comes to light, the police force swings into action. Counter accusations will be made against brutalised victims, calls for consideration of “context” of the event, demands that it be recognised what a difficult job police have. Leading politicians, high-ranking police chiefs by their side, will, grim-faced, support their thin blue line. Internal enquiries will be promised. Things will be got to the bottom of.

Police union heavies will hold press conferences, appear on shock jock radio, calling for sympathy and understanding for the traumatised policemen involved, demand that no action be taken, criticise even the suggestion of a totally secret internal investigation.

What there will not be, from any policeman or policewoman, is any hint of sympathy for the victims of the police action, or any hint of criticism of the police concerned. Call that solidarity, this is solidarity. The thin blue line is suddenly very thick indeed, guarding the bridge against the barbarians. The barbarians being the 99.9% of the population who are not members of the police force.

The other occupation, apart from police, derived from the Greek word “polis” meaning both city-state and body of citizens (who created and governed the city-state) is politician. Hardly a week, hardly a day goes by without examples of politicians making sexist and racist remarks, using refugees as political footballs, talking garbage about climate change, favouring the very rich while pretending at principled action, and so on. You think of a piece of wrong-headed, stupid, nasty and vicious comment that could be made, and it was yesterday, is being made today, will be made tomorrow.

Bad enough that we have people in politics with minds like gutters, sewers even, but it gets worse. No sooner is the comment made than leaders of the political party concerned, fellow members, will be blitzing tv, radio, newspapers, to defend the obnoxious remarks, spin them, soften them. Shock jocks will join in to make it seem that this new level of gutter politics is perfectly reasonable, honest, accurate, is now, in fact, the new norm.

What there will not be is any hint that the politician was wrong in what they said about refugees, Aborigines, climate change, single parents, lesbians and gays, environmentalists, the poor. The thin blue line of conservative politicians will be there to hold the line against the outraged politically correct 90% of the public who do not share those views.

Look I get it, really I do. Football players will rally around someone who has stamped on an opponent’s head, soldiers around those who have shot civilians, doctors around those who have damaged patients, lawyers around those who fail clients in court. Defend your fellow workers when they are in trouble and they will defend you when you are. But even without that reciprocity element, the compulsion to look after your own is very strong, perhaps hard-wired back to when the first band of early humans dashed across the savannah pursued by lions. Even on a much larger scale, the concept of “my country right or wrong” “love it or leave it” seems to be a common feature of countries which differ in everything else.

Poor young Bradley Manning has recently completed 1000 days of solitary confinement in very nasty conditions, not even actually charged, let alone convicted. He was a whistleblower, but those responsible for the nastiness he helped expose (for example the helicopter crew massacring Iraqi civilians in Baghdad), remain unpunished, uncriticised even, while he has been subject to the acrimony of a whole nation.

The American government seems determined to ensure that Manning’s treatment will be a warning to others, that no one will ever again break ranks and reveal wrong doing. That the interests of the state and those of its citizens are no longer inextricably linked as the Greeks had envisaged.

Police and politicians seem to have never believed they were. I don’t get it.

It’s all Greek to me.

Mirror Mirror

4

The other day there was one of those nice little stories about a group of American school friends who, on a camp as teenagers, decided to take a group photo of themselves. So far so trivial, millions of such photos have been taken over the years, billions perhaps. What made this one special was that they decided to take another one five years later in exactly the same place, positions and poses. And another five years later and so on. I forget how many they had taken but they are well into middle age now.

There was a similar story a few months ago. A young married couple posed for a photo. Again, same position 5 years later with couple of small children. Five years on, children grown plus another baby. And so on and so on until, the original couple getting middle-aged, their children appeared with partners, then their own children, and so on.

Both these sequences are the kind of thing that makes you ask yourself, plaintively, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The kind of thing that makes you want to pay a Ghost-of-Xmas-Future visit to your 14-year-old self and whisper in his ear, as he sleeps, “Write in your diary. Yes, it’s boring. Yes of course you will remember every detail of your life 50 years from now. But, just in case, by some mischance, you don’t, WRITE IN YOUR DIARY EVERY DAY NOW”. Not sure that Time Travel is going to be invented quite soon enough for me to do that and see my almost empty 1959 diary magically fill up with detailed daily records, but fingers crossed.

Perhaps a magic mirror might help. I have a very old bathroom mirror. Nothing special, just a plain but rather heavy wooden frame. Began life in my family at least 100 years ago in my newly wedded grandparent’s house in England. But may well have been earlier than that, passed down from one or two previous generations. People did in those days, hand on pieces of furniture to get a new young couple started in life. These days no one wants hand-me-down furniture, preferring cheap new rubbish from a chain store. But I digress.

The mirror is a little worse for wear, the frame bruised, scratched, stained, the silvering breaking up a little. But it has done a lot of work, covered a lot of ground – from a mining town in the north of England, to an outback shack in southern Western Australia, to several houses in Perth, then over other side of continent to several houses. Getting old and tired after all that travelling. As am I. But I digress, again.

Wherever it was the mirror was seeing an ever-changing passing parade of different faces. The coal stained faced of a miner home after a day underground, the same face later with a soldier’s cap on. A young woman holding her son up to see his face, her’s already careworn. Later another baby, chortling happy as he sees himself once but never again. Then a little girl, standing on tip toes to brush her hair. Then a big boy combing his hair, or not bothering, thinking, like The Fonz, it was already perfect, off to a dance.

Later the same faces but the mirror reflecting a different scene with a harsher light, hanging outside a shack in an alien landscape, faces tired and dirty from farming in the dust, or the smoke of bushfires. Then into somewhat more civilised surroundings, a bath reflected in it for the first time, also a small water heater, warmed by wood chips and old newspapers to produce sooty water. Same faces continue, all growing older, then a new one arrives. At first in work clothes, his face sunburnt, then in the slouch hat of the Australian Army in World War two Later another mother is holding up another baby to see his own reflection, and eventually he is big enough, standing on tip toes to comb his own hair in imitation of Elvis Presley. And so on.

The magic? Well, I’d have liked (I think!) a magic mirror that took a snapshot every time someone looked into it over the last 100 years. Then turned it into a movie that you could run to see your family story unfold before your eyes. Would provide the backbone, the spine, on which to hang all the other photos and letters and documents. Sand running through an hourglass, or a centuryglass, doesn’t just move fast, but ieaves little for you to get hold of, runs through the fingers like it did on an idle day at the beach, in, say, 1911, or 1931, or 1951, or 1971. The more you try to hold on to it the faster it disappears. A magic mirror could fix those days of our lives into a permanent record.

Oh and it would prevent, perhaps, days, as “The Zen of Genealogy” (Beth Uyhar) describes, of lying down, banging your head on the floor calling out, in a loud plaintive wail “Why didn’t I ask Grandma when I had the chance?!? Why? WHY?!?”

Making your brown eyes blue

8

When my mother, aged 85, had a fall and was taken to hospital, it quickly became clear that she would not be able, any longer, to manage living by herself, but would need to go into a nursing home and receive, for quite some time, if not indefinitely, extensive nursing care. So I had to try to arrange that, and it meant finding a Home with a room available, and one in which she could receive nursing care. Not easy, but I eventually found one with a vacant appropriate room in the total care area. The next step was to quickly (before the room was taken by someone else) get approval from the government Department of Aged Care, or Health, or Community Services or something, I forget. That is I had to fill in a form setting out her medical condition and so on to request that she get a total care package, and this had to be witnessed. Witnessed, easy. Her regular doctor (visiting her regularly in hospital as her GP) was required as one signatory, and there had to be a second witness of my signature. Second one? Well, let’s make sure there will be no question, get the Senior Nurse Manager, responsible for her care in the ward she was in to add her signature. Had to wait to catch both of them while visiting/on duty, but eventually, done and dusted. Off I set in my car for the some 2 hour drive to the head office of the Department concerned with nursing homes. Found it, walked confidently up to counter, stood in queue, anxious to get back before end of business hours in order to register at the Nursing Home. And reached the counter to find … well, let’s call him Mr B. B for …. let’s say Bureaucrat.

There were several reasons why Mr B was the boss of me now. First he was behind the counter in his familiar space with his gang, and I was outside. Rather like storming a castle really. Second, I had already had a couple of weeks of desperately trying to sort out my mother’s affairs, while staying on the other side of the continent from my own family. I was tired, anxious, and had driven two hours to get to these battlements, sorry, counter, desperate to get the nursing home arranged. He was warm, rested, well fed, at home, and had absolutely no emotional capital invested in my form or mother at all. And, finally, and most importantly, he had absolute power over me. I had to get his approval in order to move my mother into the nursing home. There was no other pathway, no other bridge over the ravine, and he was guarding the bridge. The power balance was really unbalance – he was all-powerful, I was vulnerable and totally dependent on him.

So he took my pitiful little form almost as if he was handling it with tongs and cast a gloomy eye over it. Page 1 ok, it seemed, his face gloomier, page 2 yeees, probably, page 3 and we were on the home straight, nothing could go wrong now, only page 4 with our signatures to go. And that was where he got me. ‘Ah, doctor, yes, but who is this other one?” Then he picked up his guide book, found the page, and began going through the list. All sorts of people were on there, all kinds of occupations, and if I had found, for example, a real estate agent who didn’t know my mother or anything about her but did have a pen I would have been home free. “No, he said, no ‘Senior Nurse Manager'”. “You are kidding” I said, “what do you mean?” “That isn’t one of the approved occupations for signing this form to witness your signature and your mother’s condition”. I went into the routine, told him the situation, begged him to reconsider. Big mistake, I was even more vulnerable now, and showing it. He went through his list again, his finger pausing at each one, saying the title, like a person who is not able to read very well. “No, ‘Senior Nurse Manager’ not there, can’t accept this form”, he said triumphantly, handing it back to me, “Next”.

And that was that. I drove back the two hours arriving too late to do anything else. Next morning got another copy of form, filled it in again, got the doctor to sign it again, and managed to find someone else on the approved list (a Pharmacist, if I remember correctly, who had no idea who any of us were). Headed back on the two hour drive, stood in queue, reached the counter, handed form to the same fellow, now triumphant and showing it. Thought of saying something but could see no point, and feared that he might find another t uncrossed, an i undotted. Back in car, his signature on the approval form, back two hours to the nursing home that had the vacancy the previous day. Rushed through door, waving form to the chap in charge. “Oh”, he said, “sorry, that vacancy has been filled, what a pity you didn’t come in yesterday.”

A couple of days later there was an unexpected vacancy at another, much less appealing home, and I got her in. She was very unhappy to be in this less attractive place with a not very good room, but I was helpless. It was what it was, we were where we were. Six months later she had died, suddenly, of pneumonia. Cause and effect? Who knows.

I tell this story at some length because it seems to me, in a microcosm, symptomatic of a much larger problem. Everywhere we look around the world, and throughout recorded history, we have tens of thousands of events which seem, at first sight, unconnected. Trials proceed in the Hague of people responsible for cruel massacres in Bosnia and Ruanda; in Australia the child victims, stolen from their parents, of terrible treatment in children’s homes (both government and religious based) demand and get apologies from governments and church groups; Abu Ghraib prison, a place once used for torture by Saddam Hussein, is used for torture by Americans; in South America, military coups see men and boys shot, or flung alive from helicopters into the ocean, babies stolen from women; in Africa hands and arms are chopped off innocent civilians of the wrong tribal group; the Gestapo torture and kill Resistance prisoners; the Catholic church (and some other churches) try to cover up pedophile priests who have been raping altar boys for decades; private security firms guarding asylum seekers in mandatory detention in Australia inflict all sorts of major and minor cruelties; in various countries police are captured on CCTV tasering or pepper-spraying restrained prisoners over and over, or beating them to death in prison cells; and so it goes – the Stasi, the Khmer Rouge, the Romans, the British (in India, Northern Ireland, Kenya etc), Aztecs, Indonesians, South Africans, Soviet Union, America (native Americans, Vietnamese, Filipinos and so on), China (harvesting organs from executed prisoners, Tiananmen Square), Japanese, Spanish Inquisition, Israel (Palestinians), Burmese, they, and many others, have been at it in various ways for thousands of years. In Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East, supposedly civilised European countries like France, Spain, Portugal, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy, have all treated native populations with unspeakable cruelty in hearts of darkness.

Usually each incident is treated as quite separate, explained by particular circumstances, or particular national characteristics, or explained by some particularly vicious leader. But whether they are the small scale cruel treatment of girls in a children’s home, or large scale atrocities of thousands of men working the Burmese railway, or shot in Bosnian fields, or sent off to die in Gulag Archipelagos, the cause it seems to me is the same, and all comes back to my Mr B. For some reason, buried evolutionarily deep, I suspect, within our psyche (if the behaviour of say rams towards a wounded ram, or birds towards a sickly member of a flock are an indication that its origins lie well back in evolutionary time), is a psychological switch that turns on when another human being is within our power to some degree.

We actually have psychological experiments on this human flaw. The two famous (and so devastating in their effects that they were and are still controversial) experiments were the Brown eyes/Blue eyes in the classroom one, and the press button to inflict pain one. Jane Elliott was the teacher who, to give children some idea of what racism was about, following the Martin Luther King assassination, divided her class into blue eyed and brown eyed groups and gave the latter absolute power over the former, then later reversed the power status of the two groups. The effects on the subordinate group were devastating, as was the astonishing willingness of the group arbitrarily given superior status to treat their classmates very badly. The related Milgram experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram, had students giving what they thought were greater and greater electric shocks, to the sound of screams, to another person who they were told had to be punished in order to learn some words. When told to go ahead by the instructor, students were willing generally to inflict more and more “pain” on the other person. You can read the details of both experiments on Wikipedia, but essentially both demonstrate that people are willing to treat people in their power with great cruelty, and are willing to be more and more cruel if told to be so by someone in authority over them.

It is not really, as Elliott and Milgram have shown us, really very far from my nasty little Mr B, to the bully in the school playground, to the Matron in the girl’s “reform school”, to the policeman with the taser, to the fellow who opens fire with an automatic rifle on a crowded cinema, to the Serbian general, to the commandant of Belsen. That is not to say we should just shrug our shoulders and say “human nature eh, what can you do?” It is to say that in establishing procedures, structures, hierarchies of power, we must do so with as many checks and balances as we can find, and then a few more (perhaps you lot could suggest some). No one should have absolute power, for it does indeed corrupt absolutely.

Twenty years a-growing

4

When I left home, aged 20, circumstances didn’t allow me to take anything more than a suitcase of my clothes. My bedroom, mine since birth, was like one of those shells which crabs decorate as they carry them around. It was full of my life so far, books, drawings, train sets, sports gear, things my father had brought back from war, old school stuff. But I walked out, shed my shell, without a backward glance. I was eager for adventure, for life outside these four walls, this house, this family, eager to see what the world had in store for me. Adulthood was beckoning, imperiously, and I had to go.

Half a century on, I feel very differently of course. Want to have stern words with that young whippersnapper. It wasn’t the things so much that were important but the whole structure of family life I was leaving behind. And the psychological and emotional effects of twenty years a-growing (title of a book about an Irish childhood I’d been given). Without a backward glance, totally unaware that my much older self would look back with regret on what I was leaving behind – the comfort of familiar voices, shared history, common values, comfortable chairs, surroundings I could navigate with eyes shut. A stability which was going to be absent for quite a while as I tried to find my way bravely in a new world, where nothing was familiar. Oh, it hadn’t all been great, back home, we were a family with problems, and ups and downs like any other, but it was home, and it would take a while to find a new one.

Not unique? Of course not. We all go through this transition from youth to adult, one way and another. We all leave stuff behind. But looking around me now it seems far too many of us leave all behind. Every day there is news of bad behaviour by politicians, business leaders, unionists, sportsmen, of a kind that makes you want to have stern words, say “what would your parents think about this behaviour?”, “what would your grandparents think?”, “where did you leave the values you grew up with?”

But more than that. The country, Australia, I grew up in all those years ago, has itself changed immeasurably. The young Australia seems to have packed its bags, walked out the door of the old Australia (200 years a-growing), grabbing at a brave new world, leaving behind the baggage of fairness, equality, caring, mateship, anti-authoritarianism, mutual respect, honesty. Of course it hadn’t been perfect in the past, the treatment of women, indigenous people, migrants and the environment, were nothing to write home about. But we have lost more than we have gained. Think again, old country, look homeward.

Note – have told much of my story under “Dream” tab above. My family stuff starts about half way (say at “Leaving from Liverpool”).

Boo

7

Every day commercial tv finds new ways to scare its viewers – bacteria in kitchens, exploding tables (yes, really), food poisoning, internet fraud, faulty electrical wiring, incurable diseases, end of world “prophecies” (yes, really), and so on and on and on. The reasons are simple, a belief that many readers will think “thank goodness that wasn’t me”, and a certainty that people will watch every day in case the next deadly threat has their number on it. Of all these potential sources of doom, the most regular and sure to succeed in raising fear levels is “home invasion” with the two related sub-categories “drive-by shooting” and “car ploughs into house”. No matter how rare these events are, no matter that the first two are almost 100% related to drug or gang conflicts, they can be guaranteed to scare people witless – our home is our castle and we must feel safe in it.

A slight variation of this scare has been successful in Australian politics since 2001 – “protect our borders” “illegals” “turn back the boats” “we will decide” and so on. This is “home invasion” where the “home” is Australia. And is just as much a nonsense – number of people arriving by boat is a tiny percentage of total immigrants in a year, and an even tinier percentage of those arriving by plane “legally” and over-staying visas. Non-Aboriginal Australia since 1788 has been built almost entirely on people arriving having escaped intolerable conditions of one kind or another – English, Irish, Chinese, South Sea Islanders, Jewish people, eastern Europeans, southern Europeans, Vietnamese and Cambodians, South Africans and Zimbabweans, Somalis and Sudanese. It isn’t clear to me why you would say that the arrival of Iraqis and Afghans and Sri Lankans was different, especially when, in the first two cases, we helped cause the conditions they are fleeing. Nor can I see why you would think this latest group of people seeking safety would make any less good citizens than all those who preceded them.

I hope they will stop getting on boats too, but if it was me, and I saw it was the only way to try to protect my family, I would get on a boat. Wouldn’t you? Maybe a regional processing centre in Malaysia or Indonesia would make a difference (certainly Nauru won’t) along with an increased refugee intake, I hope it will. But as long as there are wars, and dictatorships, the refugees will keep heading in all directions including here. And as climate change gets worse the numbers are going to increase. It would be nice to treat them as we would want to be treated if we were refugees.

Meantime ignore the political and media scare campaigns on “invasions”. The media who use them want you to watch their channel, politicians who use them want you to vote for them.

You’re all too smart to fall for this.

Now, exploding tables, that’s a BIG worry.

Flashman in the pulpit

2

Use of the human body (and illness) as metaphor isn’t new. Probably dates back to the moment when the first proto-hominid jumped out of a tree on the edge of the savannah, landed in the grass and said “That was one giant leap for mankind”.

Still, at the risk of seeming even more of a valetudinarian than I do already, I think there will be a lot more mining of medical metaphors on the old Watermelon blog before we extract the cannula and give them a rest.

Occurred to me that having what I have and receiving the treatment I am receiving is like being bullied. The old lymph cells have been bullying my body and now the nasty chemical cocktail I sit down to imbibe every 3 weeks is bullying me too. The latter though with the best possible intentions, rather in the way that a boy receiving a caning would be told that it was hurting the headmaster more than it did him.

Lot of bullying about these days. Bob Brown called the Press on bullying the Greens the other day, and immediately the other journalists all began bullying him even more for daring to suggest they were bullies. The radio and print shock jocks are of course nothing but a pack of bullies roaming at will. Heard one of them on a breakfast TV show the other day bullying Rob Oakeshott (not to his face of course) outraged, still, that the independents had supported, continued to support, in spite of all the shock jock bullying, the Trotskyite government led by Gillard. Shock jock-style bullies infest opinion threads on blogs everywhere, bullying the rest of us to ensure the planet warms up by at least 6 degrees.

There are bullies roaming school playgrounds, corporations bully their workers, mining companies and tobacco companies bully the government, police bully demonstrators, agnostics bully atheists, politicians bully refugees, creationists bully evolutionists, game show hosts bully contestants, gun owners bully non-gun owners, monarchists bully republicans, bloggers bully other bloggers, libertarians bully everybody.

Terrorists are the ultimate bullies with bombs. The IRA were at it again the other day – c’mon guys, really? – but there seem to be mad bombers everywhere determined to use terror to bully their way towards making the rest of the world agree with whatever it is they think they think. Using a wide definition indeed of “think”.

Which brings me naturally to religion. Natural home for bullies it seems. You join a religion and it comes with a kind of bully pulpit, a bully pass which not only allows, no encourages, you to bully anyone who isn’t religious, but all those who don’t belong to whatever splinter group of whatever religious myth you follow. If you can’t bully everyone else into doing what you think they should be doing you can at least bully them into not doing things you don’t want to do and don’t want them to do either. Especially women.

The other day, end of the world as it happened, some madman, with media echo chamber in tow, was bullying his followers so that they gave up jobs, gave him money, got rid of possessions, slaughtered pets, in some cases apparently tried to suicide and kill children, bullied them into believing that whatever madness was going on in his brain was real.

There are politicians too who seem determined to bully the real world into shape (Barnaby, Nick, looking at you). Bully the scientists first, especially climate scientists, taking a big stick the other day to Flannery and Steffen who had once again apparently failed to come up with the correct answer for how the real world works (c’mon guys, how many times does it take till we make you understand that the planet isn’t waming and if it was who cares). Some cardinal adopts the same approach. Apparently if you speak loud enough, carry a big enough sick, the conservative politicians, and their friends in high corporate places, believe, you can force the world to do your bidding. CO2 will stop being a greenhouse gas, the ice caps will cease to melt, the storms will turn into gentle breezes. But all the conservative politicians (on both “sides”of the mainstream political fence), adopt a bullying tone and manner towards any aspect of modern life with which they disagree. Poor people, schools, hospitals, refugees, workers, women, Aborigines are all bullied these days. No discussion of issues, just a hectoring of anyone who holds a contrary view on anything.

Which brings us, inevitably, to that Flashman-in-chief Rupert Murdoch. Story the other day, alongside ones about the Pope being a catholic, swallows flying south, and Queen Anne being dead, that “Rupert Murdoch has let it be known within his organisation that Australia needs change in Canberra and his editors were simply doing his bidding”. So all 21 million of us are going to be bullied by one man until we do what he wants and vote for Tony Abbott. Perhaps just enthrone him in a secret News Limited conclave, white smoke announcing that the new PM has been chosen. America has also been well and truly bullied by Murdoch and his Fox bully boys, which gave us George W Bush and the Iraq war, and, of course, no action on climate change. We were bullied into John Howard (himself a very able deputy bullier) and bullied into keeping him there for 100 years until Kevin Rudd dropped in on Flashman in New York in 2007 and handed over his lunch money, no argument.

They say that if you stand up to bullies they eventually see the error of their ways, take off the headlock, and hand back your lunch money with interest. Only, I think, if you have a current affairs camera team and bullying reporter in tow. Quite how you stop someone who owns 70% of the media outlets in a country bullying us all into submission I don’t know. All together now.

Crying in the wilderness

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After narrowly failing to win a seat in the NSW election, Pauline Hanson* said “People want an honest voice on the floor of Parliament”, suggesting that the “people” had been denied this all-too-natural desire by an electoral system deliberately biased against her and by the connivance of the “major parties”.

It is a familiar claim and complaint from populist politicians who find themselves in the inexplicable position of being (they think) loved by the public, but not getting enough votes to get elected. And what a curious claim it is – “People want an honest voice on the floor of Parliament” – well yes, I suppose they do. But what kind of inflated ego allows you to claim that out of the hundreds of people putting themselves forward at any election you are the uniquely “honest” one?

And “honest” in what possible sense of the word? The only interpretation you could put on the claim is that Hanson’s particular brand of far right ideology, and her defence of it, somehow qualifies as “honest” speaking, whereas all the other candidates from all kinds of different parties – Left, Right, and off the planet – are all somehow speaking words that they don’t think are true. Really? I mean, I give way to no man (or woman) in my cynicism about politicians, but I somehow doubt that all or indeed any of them are consciously lying. Though, in some cases at least, they may be attempting to present truth as they see it (which of course is what Hanson is doing) however untrue the rest of us see that truth as being.

There is another claim that populist politicians often make in these circumstances. That they were attempting to represent some group of “ordinary” people otherwise unrepresented in parliament. That with their exclusion from the ranks of grinning winners this group of their people will remain without anyone to look after their interests.

Not wanting to be a killjoy (oh, ok, yes, I do) I am puzzled as to what group in this case remains unrepresented because of the failure of Hanson to convince enough people to vote for her. Given that the parliaments of Australia already include a hugely varied mix of politicians based on sex, age, family status, ethnic background, education, experience, interests and party affiliation (or independent), and already include a number of people from the far right of the political spectrum such as religion-based groups and those with an unhealthy interest in guns, it is hard to imagine the kind of person who wasn’t represented in some way.

I am probably about as far removed from Hanson politically as it is possible to be while remaining in the same species. Am I unrepresented because there is (quite possibly) no one in parliament who precisely reflects my set of views and interests? It is a nonsense proposition. Given that politics works by compromising as best as possible between all of the different interests of the electorate as a whole, there will never be representation of every single viewpoint (unless all 5 million people in NSW were to be elected to parliament). And given that there are limited seats there are going to be people who don’t get elected, each of whom had at least a few people who thought they were ok (I doubt any candidate has ever receved zero votes), there will always be, in some sense, some “unrepresented” people.

All of this stuff represents a view of politics not as a contest of ideas and philosophies, where winners and losers ebb and flow over time, but as a crusade. A process in which a Joan of Arc dons her armour, mounts her horse, and rides off, followed by a peasant army, to do god’s work. No vote involved, just a self-elected prophet with local honour leading her people through a wilderness of politics and government to a promised land where right (and Right) will prevail. What spoil-sports the voters are to put up a road block!

*Note to my American friends – think of those four horsewomen of the apocalypse Palin, Bachmann, Angle and O’Donnell, and then think of Hanson as being a fifth horsewoman with a broad Australian accent. Oh and red hair.

Little house on the prairie

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I was reminded the other day by a television programme not only repeated but revisited and rewound of the architect Walter Segal and his “self-build” homes. In one of those moments of serendipity, I read, the day after the NSW election, the following “Mr O’Farrell says the state’s population is set to reach nine million in 25 years and he will fix the population pressures on Sydney by growing regional New South Wales. “Instead of Sydney, which is currently home to two thirds of this state’s population becoming home to three quarters, we are going to engage in whole of state growth,” he said “We are going to engage in a regional development act to decentralisation, to ease Sydney’s growth pains and offer to people in this state … the services that they have in the cities.”” Let us leave aside the moment the idea that we should just sit idly by as passive observers as more and more people are packed into the state, and accept the proposition that there are inevitably, whatever the exact figure, going to be more people. I am not sure how he is going to find the money to do so much regional development of services in the light of the other things he wants to spend money on like rail links within Sydney, but it seems to me that you might well attract people to regional centres by the prospect of decent but very affordable housing.

Which takes us back to Walter Segal. He designed a house that could be not only built cheaply from cheap materials, but that could be built by amateurs (with some level of supervision) who had never even used a hammer before. So ideal for a cooperative arrangement where families don’t have sufficient capital to buy a house but can compensate for that by donating their own labour. The houses have other advantages: the design means that the internal arrangements are very flexible so families can customise the arrangement of internal walls to suit their needs; the designs incorporate energy saving features in windows and roof; the cooperative approach to building (people work on each other’s houses as well as their own) means that a community is being established well before people move in; building your own house and those of your neighbours means there is little chance of people damaging or vandalising their own work later; people in the scheme are learning many skills which can potentially help with finding jobs later; the individual houses on pieces of land are much better for children and families than the giant tower blocks which are commonly used to provide community housing.

I don’t know that the Segal house, specifically designed for England, is exactly what we want here. For one thing it would need to be modified significantly to allow for bushfire protection, and to be even better equipped to save energy and water. I also think that the particular cooperative scheme featured on Grand Designs wasn’t perfect. The people involved took an awful long time, working a few hours per week in between paid employment, to finish their houses, and when they did they didn’t own them but simply rented them from the Coop. All of that could be improved with more professional help, and with a purchase not a rental scheme at the end. So a job for Australian architects to design an Australian easy-build house, and for economists to work out an equitable scheme for low income earners to be able to pay off the houses they build.

But in general the introduction of such ideas into the affordable housing question in NSW, and its adoption in country towns such as Yass as a way of attracting people from Sydney and giving them the chance to build a new stake in a community, would be well worth the new government looking into, rather than just following the well worn paths of the past. Paths littered with failures. In addition, as well as other low income earners, such schemes would be a way of attracting new migrants to regional areas, and helping them settle in and learn new skills.

Over to you Mr O’Farrell, time for a new start in public housing in the country?