Friday, September 30, 2016

Apropos of Appropriation

Hattie McDaniel and Shirley Temple, (Kodakotype by Pants)

The shit storm Lionel Shriver ignited with her keynote address to the Brisbane Writers Festival a couple of weeks ago is still generating aftershocks. Like this piece by Kaitlyn Greenidge in The New York Times and this one by Nisha Susan in The Hindu. I don't propose to rehash any of the argument here. I'm sure you've all read and considered the talking points to death by now. I will say that I feel most closely aligned with this assessment by Francine Prose* in The New York Review of Books. Particularly this bit,

'The topic is a complicated and sensitive one, and Shriver’s first mistake, I think, was to ignore that complexity and sensitivity by adopting a tone that ranged from jauntiness to mockery and contempt. I can think of only a few situations in which humor is entirely out of line, but a white woman (even one who describes herself as a “renowned iconoclast”) speaking to an ethnically diverse audience might have considered the ramifications of playing the touchy subjects of race and identity for easy laughs.'

That mostly covers it. There's a world of difference between some students freaking out when they find sushi in their canteen and, as Prose puts it,

'...the sorry spectacle of feather bonnets and fake turquoise jewelry for sale at Native American fairs staffed and attended solely by white people. White musicians who get rich performing the songs of black soul and blues singers who live and die in poverty. The fast-food chain Taco Bell, which purveys a bastardized form of Mexican cuisine while paying its workers (who, in the West and Southwest, are often Mexican-Americans) wages that average between eight and nine dollars an hour.'

Why is the difference between these things not blindingly obvious? Now that I find interesting. Prose suggests that there's some misdirecting going on by the elements of society that most benefit from the ongoing exploitation of all cultures subordinated by white patriarchy. I'd include the creative work of women in that. Another interesting element is that men have stayed largely out of this brouhaha, perhaps choosing to view it as a spat between women. Which conveniently makes the issues raised much easier to trivialise and/or ignore. There's one other thing that Shriver might have considered - you can say any number of oppressive things in Australia without unleashing conniptions, but cultural appropriation is an area in which there's a confident history of resistance. Then again, perhaps Shriver did know that.

I'd like to talk about this in the context of a few personal experiences. Recently, a friend here in my district decided to write a song cycle incorporating local history, to be performed at a public event. As you will no doubt be aware, there is by no means agreement on happenings in Australia since white settlement. In our particular corner of the world, there was extreme brutality deployed in the displacement of Indigenous people. And those wounds are far from being healed. The first draft my friend showed me was incendiary. Not because she meant to cause offence, but because she's not a very experienced writer and her initial effort was, shall we say, enthusiastic but quite crass. I urged my friend to tread very carefully, perhaps seek to collaborate with Indigenous writers and musicians and, at the very least to consult with elders. I also suggested she go in heavy on the metaphor and end the cycle with a reconciliation song as the narrative seemed to call for it. A community like ours can't ever have too many of those, and that's for sure. These projects are tricky but worthwhile to get right. My friend is both genuine and courageous and I very much want her to succeed.

Flash back fifteen years when I found myself in a not entirely dissimilar situation. I was living in London and had been for around twenty years. I'd written a novel. In it I'd related some stories that had been told to me by an Aboriginal elder in my callow youth. I remained largely ignorant of what is known in Australia as the culture wars, a long-overdue reassessment of the standard colonial view of our history. The trashing, suppression, exploitation and appropriation of Indigenous peoples' cultural traditions, languages, stories and objects became an important focal point in that contest. I'd inadvertently crossed that line by including material that wasn't rightly mine. I sent the manuscript to several agents and publishers in Australia and was quickly set straight. I should note that the gatekeepers were all white women. Not that it matters. They were correct. I accept that it's my mistake. Like my friend who's writing the song cycle, I'd erred in ignorance. For my part, I've shelved the book and plan to rewrite it as part of a series I'm working on at the moment. The elder who told the stories frequently invited young students to her home and shared these stories to give us some understanding of the history of our ancient homeland. She's no longer around to ask. I have two choices. I could omit those sections altogether, which would obviously be the easiest. Or - it may be possible to gain permission from the current custodians of this knowledge to include them. I'm still thinking about how I might go about that.

Like a lot of Australians of my vintage, I grew up spending rainy Saturday afternoons watching old Hollywood films on television. I was particularly fond of Shirley Temple films. The screen shot above is from The Little Colonel (1935), a sentimental favourite and one that I've based a couple of artworks on. The film, adapted from the novel by Annie Fellows Johnston is set immediately post Civil War in the American South. There are six prominent black characters in this film including parts played by Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar, (Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind). McDaniel suffered many indignities in her long and successful career, including being sat at a segregated table at the Academy Award ceremony the year she won. When criticized for accepting stereotypical roles and pressured to petition the studios for a better deal, she apparently responded,

'Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid. If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one.'

And therein lies the folly of having a pop at someone for sticking her neck out and at least doing what can be done. If there hadn't been a Hattie McDaniel, would there have been an Oprah Winfrey? Yes, I know that these films were made for white folks and that there's always been Black Cinema, sometimes called Race Cinema, where the roles for actors were more diverse, but I'm talking about what I was able to see as a child in Australia on B&W television in the 1960s. And whilst these films don't represent the perfect model of equality that we have today (not!), I recall only positivity from the films I saw in childhood in which black and white characters interacted. I retain a lasting affection for Hal Roach's Our Gang series, in which black and white, boys and girls and even the odd fat kid were cast as equals and undertook adventures together. I'm grateful for those black pioneers of American cinema because they set the somewhere from which to start.

I'm not in any way apologising for past and present stereotyping and discrimination in Hollywood, or anywhere else for that matter, I'm just saying that I feel my childhood was enriched by seeing films  featuring Bill Robinson, The Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, Sidney Poitier among many. I'm saying that as an adult, I am capable of spotting and calling out racism, perhaps because of rather than in spite of my exposure to black folks on film, even in a subordinate cultural context. Just as I'm capable of appreciating Marilyn Monroe's immense contribution to the arts without obliging myself to dismiss her as a sex object. I believe we call that empathy.

I saw Gone With the Wind for the first time in about 1969, when it was shown in a cinema in Sydney. My mother and I went. She had seen the film but I hadn't. I'd read the Margaret Mitchell book. It was probably my first grown-up novel. I thought the film terrific then. I still think so now. I remember when it was first shown on television in Britain in the mid-eighties and the shock when arguments for and against slavery were advanced in the film and the black characters shown as fearful and reticent. Really? I thought. You think people raised in slavery are going to be confident and sassy? There's nothing to be gained by pretending the past is anything other than the ugly thing it so often was. The idea is to learn from it.

At the risk of casting out one more tangent than I can reasonably deal with here - there's also the layer of ownership and its definition to consider. My excuse is that Shriver based her argument on the proposition that stories are anyone's to tell. In a perfect world with level playing fields as far as the eye can see, I might agree with her. But we don't live in that world. The telling is not so much the problem. Profiting is the real problem. Capitalism has commodified human experience and lays down the law about who gets to benefit from its packaging and sale. It has no appreciation of cultures based on the ethic of community property, who can suddenly find themselves thrust into the foreign world of proof and claims. Who do we make the cheque out to?  No one in particular? Great, we'll just take what we want. Traditional custodians of culture are forced to either protect their heritage or watch as some entertainment behemoth poaches at will. That situation can make cross-cultural sharing fraught and risky. But what's the alternative? We all retreat to our cultural corners and eye each other suspiciously? No, the huge middle ground is collaboration. Not stealing but sharing. We all have an obligation to advance the human project by building understanding through cooperation. That project is not furthered by the kind of attack narrative proffered by Lionel Shriver. As plenty of people have pointed out, nothing is stopping her from writing whatever the fuck she likes. She just needs to understand that she's not the only one with the right to free speech.

*Isn't that just the best name for a writer ever?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Why the long face?

The Old Grey Mare (2016) assemblage by Pants 

10th Anniversary Post

Impossible as it is to believe, That's So Pants is ten today. I'm known for brief personal relationships and very long projects. Ten years is short by my standards of labouring. I'm working fairly consistently now on a toil that is into its twenty-fifth year. For most of that time it has languished, forgotten, in a box file on a bottom shelf. I'm not what you'd call a brilliant finisher but I get there in the end with most things. I have learned that it's fine to work slowly, as long as you live for a long time. Thankfully, I have.

TSP has spanned the move from Hackney, London to Larrikin's End in regional Victoria, Australia. I still use the same selfie profile picture I took in 2006. I'm older and fatter now. And unashamedly grey. I'm thinking of using the illustration above as my new profile picture. If I can be arsed to work out how to change it. Which isn't at all likely. Life is very different from what it was when I started this blog. Much of what I've done in the last then years has been documented in the 984 (including this one) posts on That's so Pants and Art of Pants. There are three novels and two musicals I haven't mentioned, in addition to the two novels I've floated via this blog. You haven't missed much, don't worry. Like I said, triumphant finishing is not my forte. I'm more the puttering on until the bitter end type.

I was originally thinking of ending the blog today. Readership isn't what it was in the old days. And then I thought, actually, that's a reason to keep going.What do I care? And, everything is still pretty much pants. Even more so. For the past year, Larrikin's End has been on a time-reversal trajectory, retreating from the wind-up internet that I'd just about gotten used to to the hardly-at-all internet. This is progress Aussie-style. There is a mythical beast that supposedly lives underground called En-bee-en*. At some point in the far reaches of space time, this beast will surface at a preordained spot a few streets away. Rather like a summoning from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. From there it will, apparently, guide me towards a goal of digital connectedness the like of which I took for granted back at the turn of the Millennium. My London flat had cable broadband. I now exist on a strict data diet and borrowed WLAN.

So, I have been spending hours in the Larrikin's End Municipal Library, waiting for Windows updates to swipe right for me. In anticipation of the arrival of the fixed broadband system, I've been struggling on with the old dongle. It has served me well in the past. Now, with the perfect storm of the drop-in-drop-out mobile signal and Microsoft's adversarial attitude to customer service, I've had to turn off the automatic updater. It tries and fails until it uses up all my data allowance. Positively medieval. So, it's over to the library's mean-but-just-about-effective wi-fi for downloads these days. It works about one in five times for Windows 7. Meanwhile, whilst wondering whether I could, theoretically, survive a transfer to Linux - I have seen The Martian - I've been downloading and saving old TSP posts while Windows does or doesn't do its thing. I'm definitely in an archiving phase.

In the beginning, and for quite a long time, I wrote a blog post a day. Where did I get the energy? I was probably a good deal more hooked in to what was happening in the wide world ten years ago. I lived in the wide world ten years ago. Being in Australia is like being in one of those sensory deprivation chambers. But mostly in a good way. I have enough self-generated sensory stimulus to keep me going and the lack of external distraction has been a boon to some of my decades-long projects. Real progress has been made. There's a perpetually almost-finished musical, (the 25-year project previously mentioned), and a couple of new novels - with sloppy first drafts completed. I don't know what will happen to these. Apart from them continuing to be works-in-progress for the forseeable future. And, at last, I'm not at all bothered. The making of any kind of art at all is a gift to the world, even if the recipient is none the wiser.

Last week's story of the Italian couple found weeping in their small apartment in Rome almost prompted a blog post. Jole (89) and husband Michele (94) had fallen into despair out of loneliness and distress at seeing television reports of children being abused. The police attending made them a pasta supper. We can't know for sure, but the reports that sparked this grief spiral very likely came from Australia where cases of child abuse have dominated our media for weeks. Indigenous children have been beaten, gassed, shackled and isolated in a youth detention centre. Perhaps Jole and Michele witnessed that shocking footage. Or maybe they saw coverage of copious reports of sexual assaults on and mental distress of refugee children held in our offshore indefinite-detention camps. And the furious denials of the ogres who put them there. Or it could be that they were learning of allegations of sexual assault against children by one of their church's most senior clerics, back in his home country. Australia. 

There is something profound about an elderly couple anguished at the state of the world. They'd come through Fascism and a world war - on the losing side. Yet everything must seem so much worse now. Because no one cares about the children. I get that. And here is a different and deeper take on loneliness. It's possible to feel lonely even if you aren't physically alone. Perhaps Jole and Michele were sensing and responding to the alienating perversion that is globalisation. A force that challenges cooperation, the foundation of our humanity. They were perhaps expressing a global social bereftness. Well, I think that's worth having a bit of a sob about. I won't do it loudly. In Australia, you'd be more likely to get a knuckle sandwich from the police if they caught you blubbing about children who had the temerity to be vulnerable.

I thought of taking the opportunity to kill off Barney. Lord knows the little devil deserves it. But he has his uses. Right now, he's a mole in Camp Trump. He'd be digging the dirt for us if he wasn't completely buried in it. Sadly, he's been taken in by some Trump 'promises', specifically, the proposal to introduce 'extreme vetting'. Barney seems to think this is a kind of deluxe Obamacare for domestic pets. And there's no dissuading him. Perhaps 'uses' wasn't the right word. TQW and I are living off his criminal earnings so it's probably better we keep him alive, at least until we can claim the OAP. At a date which advances further into the future whenever we get close to it. Like a mirage in the desert. So, for the moment we will carry on, in every sense of the phrase.

I'm having a Georgia O'Keeffe moment, in more ways than one. Consider this wonderful thing that she said,

'I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life - and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.'

Not one single thing, Georgia? Well, we know what she means. In the grand scheme of things, she appears to have done pretty much as she pleased. And the results were magnificent. It's an argument for, as much as it galls me to say it, 'feeling the fear and doing it anyway'. I'm not sure that's what I do. All I know is that I have developed the capability of satisfying my own creativity above all other demands. If something more interesting comes along to care about in any given moment, I have no hesitation in giving it my full and semi-divided attention. I'm not an obsessive, after all. Let's just say that I've got index cards dotted around the house and, at my age, fleeting thoughts need to be captured before they, er, fleet for good. It may be necessary for me to excuse myself from the general gaiety of our enviable lifestyle and make notes from time to time.

Lifestyle is a word you hear a lot in relation to Australia. Believe me, it doesn't mean what you think it does. There is no inherent 'style' in Australian 'life'. If you want it, you have to invent it yourself. It's a challenge worth mastering because mostly living here is simple and predictable. And no one will bother you if you take the precaution of avoiding any and all  trouble. I've pretty much got the tedious admin tasks pared back to the unavoidable. Apart from the idiotic internet problems, that is. The Larrikin's End library is not a terrible place to be. Earphones help. I make a habit of listening to soothing music while I'm battling the techno-demons. Debussy is particularly comforting and effective at blocking the cackling that accompanies any and every transaction in this country. Even in a library. There's more than a little Clair de Lune in me. I can't explain it, but at some point, I ceased to be able to work effectively listening to UK garage.

Another transitional anomaly is that I suddenly became a talk-radio person when I repatriated to this country. (I mean 'talk' apropos Lord Reith as opposed to shock-jocks.) I began to listen to ABC Radio National. I'd never been a Radio 4 person all the time I lived in Britain. Even after I turned 40. Not even after I turned 50. I podcast BBC now. I can only take so much of the no-shit-Sherlock ABC 'talks'. I was listening to one the other day. Earnest academic researchers came up with the astonishing revelation that walking in the woods is good for one's body and soul. These Aussies. World class or what? With typical clairvoyant skill, I'd been doing this for years. Not realising that it was beneficial. Isn't intuition the most spectacularly marvellous thing? The fresh air. The movement of limbs. The opportunity to experience the sounds and smells of nature. Who would've thunk? So glad we have copious Sociology PhDs sweating away on putting two and two together for us.

On a walk along Lake Larrikin a couple of weeks ago, I happened upon a large piece of driftwood that looked exactly like a horse's head. I pick up any driftwood that suggests an animal. It's spooky how often I come across those. I knew as soon as I saw this fragment exactly what I would make. I pictured the square timber frame I had in the shed. It had housed a particularly vile little print of a cartoon cat. It would be perfect. I found an old leatherette strap in a charity shop throw-out bin. The strip of cord had previously been the frame's hanging fixture. The Old Grey Mare came together.

It was surprisingly difficult to separate the hideous cat picture from its support. It had been cemented onto backing board with the kind of manic super-efficiency of which I can only dream. And secured onto mounting board mitred to perfection.  With the kind of double-sided tape that comes with a life-time guarantee. A Gal├ípagos tortoise's life. So often in discarded artworks, the framing outclasses the main attraction. People go to an awful lot of trouble for rubbish prints. Most of what I make is so atrociously constructed that loving framing would seem a subversion too far - even for me. I'm always suspicious of an artwork that is improved by framing in any case.

However, I can attest to the robustness of this piece. Having not yet replaced the hanging fastenings, because I'd reoriented the frame to operate diagonally, I judged that I could drape it over an existing hook for photographing. I was wrong. As I lined up the Kodak, the masterpiece bolted. Fell five feet to the floor. Then bounced down thirteen hardwood steps. And landed, face-up, on the timber floor below. Yeats was wrong on this occasion. Gee up Nelly. On to the fair. 

Cut to several days later and The Old Grey Mare is now securely fastened and proudly displayed at Seat of Pants. Making things brings me enormous joy. Not least of all because I never know that I will succeed until I've tried. And that, in itself, is a reason to stick at anything. And so I will. See you in September, if not before...

* NBN or National Broadband Network.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

C U Anon

Still From a Riot, Kodakotype by Pants

I had intended to write about an assemblage I've been making but it stubbornly refuses to come together. The assemblage, I mean. On reflection, I think now that the piece will be more suited as an illustration to my

Tenth Anniversary Post on August 17th.

Don't miss that. I may even have solved my current design problems by then. Meanwhile, if you're itching for some Pants art, you will find last week's effort here. Or you could just scratch.

In lieu, please find this hastily thrown-together post on the subject of anonymity. A year or so ago, I discovered quite accidentally, that some of my early writing had ended up on line. This is going back nearly forty years to the days when I wrote record and concert reviews for my university paper. Even then, I used a pseudonym. There was no reason to disguise my identity. Neither is there now. It's just so enticing to be someone else for a while. It was interesting to read some of those old articles again. I was astonished to note that my writing style has changed little. Not sure if that's a good or bad thing.

Why do some of us desire a cloak of invisibility for our creative pursuits? Ted Gioia explores the subject in this recent piece for The Daily Beast. He discusses the careers of Banksy, Elena Ferrante and Daft Punk, among others, and wonders why anyone would shun fame like that. Banksy's publicity shyness has an obvious basis in the certainty that he would fairly frequently get arrested for vandalism. I've read all of Ferrante's Neapolitan series and I wonder if her identity obfuscation may be precautionary as well. The portraits of the mafia Solara family are not particularly flattering. As Gioia points out, plenty of people have disdained the more onerous trappings of fame - like being asked the same stupid questions over and over again. No one would welcome that.

What about those of us for whom boring old celebrity was never likely to be a problem? Why does someone like me decide to slip on the balaclava before picking up the pen or paintbrush? My on-line anonymity turned out to be most useful a few years back when I ended up working for a bunch of arseholes who would have loved any excuse to get rid of me. The redundancy payout was almost worth the pain. They could easily have found me had they gone looking. But they were stupid as well as nasty.

The growing culture of cuntishness just about everywhere is another good reason to keep mum if you're planning on doing or saying anything controversial - and for the record, just being a woman, or gay or black is controversial in these intellectually straitened and progress-challenged times. Just look at what happened to Leslie Jones for daring to be black, funny and a woman in a film franchise where only white guys are allowed to be funny. It may be my instinct as a woman, not to mention my gift for premonition, that has led me to err on the side of caution. I've never been trolled and am never likely to be. Why would anyone bother? Trolls seek notoriety. I'm not on Facebook - I'd need an actual face for that - nor Twidda. I don't even allow comments on my blogs. That's as belt'n'braces as it's possible to be.

I don't discount as motivation my tendency to be subversive either. I'd rather not follow the crowd, thank you very much. If everyone else is seeking attention, well, that's the last thing I'd want. Gioia has this to say,

'In an age in which engagement with artistic works has been displaced by gossiping about celebrity artists, the anonymous innovators have forced us to return our gaze to the creative product. That can’t be a bad thing, and we would be wrong to consider it as a mere trend or passing fad. Maybe we should adhere to that same way of contemplating art even when we know the artist’s identity.'

That would seem obvious. To truly enjoy art, it's helpful to be able to form your own opinions. Anonymity is not the discretion of the viewer or consumer, it's the act of the maker. It's the assumption of control of one's exposure. I'm not convinced that this choice is made primarily as an avoidance strategy. If so, it's not effective. Banksy and Elena Ferrante aren't exactly anonymous. It's just that we don't know their real names. They're just as culturally visible as any famous person whose real name is public knowledge. They're still targets for criticism. If the public doesn't like their work, they'll get to hear about it soon enough. They just won't have to deal with aggressive media interrogation and being photographed in sleazy bars looking tired and emotional. And Ferrante will have to ask the judges to FedEx that Nobel Prize.

I've written before about 'not caring' being the most potent power a woman can exercise. Caring too much about what others say can be debilitating and you certainly don't want that. I like what Agnes Martin had to say,

'To live truly and effectively, [as an artist], the idea of achievement must be given up.'

And that means doing what you do without seeking the approval of others, and especially not the vast, arbitrary ratings system that comprises the virtual world.

So long for now. Don't call me. I'll call you...

Monday, June 27, 2016

Blimey Blighty, what have you gone and done?

Brexit (assemblage and photo by Pants)

Well, that was quite a leaving do. I remember a similar one when I finished secondary school. My best friend and I got stonking on cardboard claret and the father of the boy who was having the party had to drive us home. I couldn't get my key in the front door, I was that plastered. Ma Pants opened the door, face like fury (let's call her France). She was disgusted at the state of my white jeans and halter top, which were claret red, grass green and mud brown. Lucky no one asked us to vote on our futures that night. I doubt we would have been starting university the following year - we probably would have voted to abolish higher education. Yes, we'd drunk that much cheap wine.

Now to your adolescent rebellion, dear old alma mater UK. Welcome to your cardboard-claret  hangover. In an exuberant seventeen-year-old, it's forgiveable, if not exactly charming. In a nation with power and responsibilities, such naivety won't go unpunished. Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't they call a huge battle where everyone loses a zero-sum  game? I say everyone, but there were possibly some hedge fund managers who cleaned up.

We know now that the Remain campaigners' predictions of chaos were bang on the money. The pound immediately plummeted and continues to fall. The markets went into food-fight mode and the Bank of England had to pay for the damage. Oh, and there's the political turmoil which no one saw coming - strange as that seems now. 

Let's tot up those political own goals. The Prime Minister immediately resigns, apparently quipping, 'why should I do the hard shit?' Understandable, really. Then HM Opposition implodes - just the thing when political advantage beckons. Bit of scenario planning might be a good idea in the future? Just a thought. I have met Jeremy Corbyn. He's a nice and very decent man and could be useful if 1972 ever comes back.

Now to the ashen-faced victor in all this. Boris, have you seen The Producers? Sometimes shit hits. Not only that, you might have to do some actual work for a change. FYI - getting your photo taken in front of a bus whilst fiddling with your hair does not qualify as 'work'. And now you're saying only the bad things will go and all the good things about being 'European' will stay? Good luck with magical thinking in the brave new world you've created, old bean.

Many years ago I was driving my BMW quite swiftly through one of London's so-called 'rat runs' on my east-west morning commute. I rounded a corner behind Highbury and Islington Station and came across a large man in a suit with a corn-hewed thatch of unruly hair. He was idly executing figure-eights on a bicycle in the middle of the road. I stopped to let him amble away and I thought, 'fuck me, that's Boris Johnson.' It was long before he became the force of nature that he is now. I missed my opportunity to save the world. May it forgive me.

Congratulations to everyone who got what they asked for - especially those who voted for one thing, presuming they'd get another.  A word to the wise, next time turn the lights on before making your choice. I know what it feels like to take a Jean-Claude Van Damme home after a wild party and wake up in the morning with a Jean-Claude Juncker. And I know what it's like to have a boyfriend (let's call him Scotland), want to break up with you after you've done something particularly foolish and potentially self-destructive.

One thing we've learned - if people are pissed off enough, they'll choose a promise based on lies over a truth that has nothing to offer them. What's that old saying? Hope is bread to a poor man. The biggest surprise is that the disenfranchised still seem to believe that voting will make a difference. Unhappily, on this occasion, it did.

So, to the morning-after pill. The most popular post on The Financial Times website this morning carried the title Can Brexit Be Stopped? A petition calling for another crack at this referendum thingy has attracted 3.5 million signatures at the time of writing. What's more, it's now being reported that the petition was started by a Leave voter when he thought his side was going to lose. He's now bitching that it's been 'hijacked' by the Remain cause. Not really how petitions work. Not really how democracy's supposed to work either but I have a feeling the re-imagining is only just beginning.

Oh, and good luck with the dream job, Boris. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Blooming on Bloomsday

Pants Patch - Photo by Pants

Happy Bloomsday, fellow citizens.

I thought I had a pencil portrait of James Joyce to put up but it turns out that I don't. So, please accept a tangential take on blooming by way of an illustration. I present instead a snap of my allotment beds, captured today just before I harvested some of that mizuna, rocket and cos lettuce for tonight's supper. I stopped in there on the way back from the Larrikin's End sawmill where I loaded a huge pile of frozen offcuts into the Pantibago.

A nightly roaring fire is necessary at this time of year. Not only is it charmingly atmospheric, it keeps my fingers from falling off. The nights are cold but the days glorious, as you can see from the sun dancing on those broad beans in front. Back home at Seat of Pants, I dumped the load of hardwood bits onto the asphalt drive so that they could thaw out in the afternoon blaze. They dutifully did so while I stripped down to one layer of clothing and basked on the sun deck to read Ulysses for a couple of hours.

This year, I looked for and quickly found, a section to fit today's mood. I was thinking about my Uncle Bob who died in 2011. We did Bloom's walk together in 2003 - but not on Bloomsday. It was on an extended-family holiday with three generations of paternal Pantses crammed into a Toyota something-or-other for three weeks. Actually, it was a lot of fun. I was somewhat surprised when Uncle Bob chose the Joyce pilgrimage with me over a visit to the Guinness brewery with the other family members on one of our Dublin days.

I knew that Uncle Bob had been an editor of school books. His literary tastes, at that point, were not a matter of record. He knew, of course, that you can get a decent Guinness anywhere in Dublin. I guessed that he did want to spend time alone with me - as I did with him. My father had been dead a long time and Uncle Bob was the image of him - except older, smaller and gentler. I'd lived in England for twenty years and we hadn't seen a lot of each other.

We began the day with a visit to The James Joyce Centre where we picked up a map for the walk. As we browsed the exhibits, Uncle Bob spotted a familiar edition of Finnegans Wake in a glass case. He told me that, as a young soldier in World War 2, his unit had received a copy in a Red Cross package. Not only that - it was popular with the boys, and they were boys. Uncle Bob would have been twenty.

Our walk did not strictly adhere to the map. Uncle Bob was over eighty and the Pantses aren't known for following rules, so we skipped bits and changed other bits. We lunched in Davy Byrne's pub. Of course we did. Uncle Bob had a steak and kidney pie, which was far and away his favourite dish for his whole life as far as I can tell. The pub no longer did a glass of Burgundy and a Gorgonzola sandwich, more was the pity. We were there in August, one of the four months of the year where one can't get oysters. Damn. I had the fish'n'chips and a glass of house wine. Uncle Bob had a half of Guinness.

Here's a passage from my Bloomsday reading,

- There he is, says I, in his gloryhole, with his cruiskeen lawn and his load of papers, working for the cause.
   The bloody mongrel let a grouse out of him would give you the creeps. Be a corporal work of mercy if someone would take the life of the bloody dog. I'm told for a fact that he ate a good part of the breeches off a constabulary man in Santry that came round one time with a blue paper about a licence.
- Stand and deliver, says he.
- That's all right, citizen, says Joe. Friends here.
- Pass, friends, says he.
  Then he rubs his hand in his eye and says he:
- What's your opinion of the times?
   Doing the rapparee and Rory of the hill. But, begob, Joe was equal to the occasion.
- I think the markets are on the rise, says he, sliding his hand down his fork.
  So begob the citizen claps his paw on his knee and he says:
- Foreign wars is the cause of it.
  And says Joe, sticking his thumb in his pocket:
- It's the Russians wish to tyrannise.
- Arrah, give over your bloody codding, Joe, says I, I've a thirst on me I wouldn't sell for half a crown.
- Give it a name, citizen, says Joe.
- Wine of the country, says he.
- What's yours, says Joe.
- Ditto MacAnaspey, says I.
- Three pints, Terry, says Joe. And how's the old heart, citizen? says he.

Ulysses, Penguin Modern Classics (1971 edition pp 293-294)

I first read Ulysses as a university text. I was twenty. The copy I read from today is that same crumbling paperback. It's travelled far with me and is as dog-eared as I am. I liked the book a lot when I was called upon to study it and I wrote a credible essay about it, apparently. But I never actually got it until I'd spent a couple of evenings in a proper Irish pub, and by that I mean being allowed to stay after the lock-in, lots of times. Then, and only then, did I begin to understand what a grand and marvellous piss-take this book is.

In memory of Uncle Bob and in deference to James Joyce I give you a paraphrase from Finnegans Wake,

We live. We laugh. We love. We leave.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The milk of human blindness

WW2 Poster - Kodakotype by Pants

I'm just in from the allotment. Yes, I have an allotment now. I've joined the Larrikin's End Green Fingers Club and, for the grand sum of $50 per year, I get two (soon to be three) large garden plots and all the water and organic nutrients I need. By Larrikin's End standards, it's fantastically well run. A woman is in charge.

Having spent most of the last thirty-five years living in a flat, I'm fairly new to gardening and the tuition is most welcome, as is the generosity of my fellow gardeners. Happily, I've been able to reciprocate as my salad crops have yielded well beyond my expectations and consumption needs. It thrills me to collect a big bag of lettuce, mizuna, rocket, coriander and spring onion three times a week. The only independent green grocery in Larrikin's End closed down a couple of years ago so we have a choice of one of the giants that rips off farmers and charges close to the price of gold for salad leaves or a small local franchise with fare so limp you feel sorry for it - but not quite enough to hand over cash. There's a farmers' market once a month, but I always forget when it's on. The allotment is the perfect solution.

Ma Pants grew up on a dairy farm. I've recently transcribed the commentary she made for a family slide show we put together a couple of years ago. She disclosed that during the Second World War, her family supplied neighbours with milk and butter. 'We did quite well,' she recalls. I come from a family of black marketeers, or - in the parlance of neoliberalism - enterprising self-starters. Of course they also kept chooks and grew vegetables, so food rationing really wasn't much of an issue. While we're on the subject of milk - to a typically Aussie problem. The baffling conundrum of what to do when the cost of production exceeds the sale price has proved more tricky to solve than Fermat's Last Theorem - which did eventually get sorted. 

We wicked consumers apparently refuse to cough up the full value of a litre of milk. This situation dates back a couple of years when two corporate giants started a price war. Price wars are what capitalism invents when it has nothing better to do - which is often. And it would all be fine if we were talking about chocolate buttons or pineapple jelly but this is milk - an important food that comes from lovely sentient mammals. At least around these parts the dairy cows are fit, healthy and happy. I, for one, would like them to stay that way.

Milk was once considered so vital to the development of healthy Australian children, that we were force-fed it at school, an event that still gives me regular nightmares. These days, an endorsement on my school record that read 'lactose intolerant' would have solved that problem and, in any case, the days of free school milk are long past. I wasn't ever lactose intolerant. I just did not like to drink warm, unflavoured milk straight from a bottle. Ma Pants tried to solve the problem in a number of ways. We tried flavoured straws and little sachets of Milo. More often than not, I was refused permission to take these out with me for elevenses and was made to drink the tepid milk while a sadistic teacher supervised. Eventually, Ma Pants reached an agreement with the school principal that she would provide a note every term requesting that I be excused from the 'milk parade' on the grounds that milk tended to make me 'bilious'. What a fantastic word that is. I've never forgotten it as it was my passport to a settled stomach.

Back to the puzzle at hand - a standoff between capitalism and common sense. At least that's the way it seems to me. Commentators express outrage that milk costs less than bottled water and soft drinks. I want milk to cost less so that children drink it instead of Coke. And if people are idiot enough to drink bottled water when we have perfectly potable tap water, let them waste their money. So, what to do if we want children with strong bones and healthy teeth and contented cows frolicking in green fields - preferably not simultaneously, that could be dangerous. One or two of our crazy socialist types have suggested setting a floor price for milk. Imagine! Going back to those mad days of pesky rules and regulations designed to prevent rampant capitalism from doing what it appears to do best - rampaging? Hell, yeah. Let's do that.

What's that you say? We can't because of world markets and shareholders' profits and all that terribly sophisticated economic stuff that makes so little sense to ordinary folk. Murray Goulburn, the company that lowered the milk price retrospectively, still calls itself a 'co-operative'. It's nothing of the sort, obviously. The name is historic, from the days when we used to have co-operatives that, er, co-operated rather than embarked on murder/suicide sprees by attempting to put their suppliers out of business. That's the thing with capitalism - it works fine until it doesn't and then it turns into Hannibal Lecter.

The 'co-op' appears to interpret its duty to protect rather like the Ndrangheta does. Except the mafia has the sense to realise that killing all the geese at one stroke will result in the drying up of golden eggs. Having recently posted a profit of $40 million, Murray Goulburn might embark on a rethink you suggest? Well that would just be too sensible, not mention sort of socialist. The market must be left to do its thing - even if that thing involves driving off a cliff.

Here's an equation for you:

Price of milk = cost of excellent animal husbandry + cost of decent living for folk who are public-spirited enough to weather climate challenges and global free markets to provide us with quality nourishment - cost of supermarkets and milk middlemen gambling with our future food security for personal gain ÷ amount of money the poorest families can afford.

And if that doesn't produce a viable dairying industry, then perhaps we can pop back in time and ask the Mesopotamians how they managed to square the circle. 

That global market prices even factor in the discussion about how much we pay for milk is astonishing to me. We're a high-wealth nation with high wages and production costs and fairly decent social security. We willingly pay much more than everyone else on the planet for books, software and episodes of Game of Thrones (except the bad people who pirate, obviously). Exactly why a 50c differential (if that) on the cost of milk has turned into such a potential catastrophe is beyond me.

Am I the only one who's stunned at the concept of reducing a contract price retrospectively? Because that appears to be what has happened. Murray Goulburn has sent its farmers large bills for milk already supplied. That's a bit like Miele sending me a letter saying, 'you know that new dishwasher and washing machine you bought a while back? Well, we think we charged you too little for those. Here's a bill for $1,000 and, fyi, if you don't pay up, we'll take your house. You have a nice day now.'

The social media-led campaign urging consumers to buy so-called 'branded milk', i.e. the same stuff in fancy packaging, is short-term and misses the point spectacularly. It will last a few weeks at best and risks shaming the poor, who will quite sensibly continue to buy the cheapest milk available. Ditto for taking up collections for farmers. Token gestures of solidarity are not going to solve the systemic problems. When will we realise that random acts of protest and charity are not a substitute for a fair and responsible attitude to commerce? We can't be putting our hands in our pockets every time some maniacs take a notion to run amok with our essential food supplies, now can we?

Let's have a national subsidy or levy, whatever you want to call it, so that we can have cheap milk and contented cows and viable farms. And it might be timely to reacquaint the corporate sector with the maxim that they own the risks associated with business as well as the profits. And we could remind ourselves that growing healthy teeth and bones in the young saves plenty in health costs further down the line. We also might want to consider the cost to society of threatening and stressing the farming families who provide this essential product. I may have shunned warm school milk in the dim and distant past but I make up for it now in cheese and yoghurt.

Thank goodness for the allotment. At least there won't be a potato famine at Seat of Pants.