Brimstone


We’ve had continuous bushfires in NSW since October. A huge swathe of land has been consumed by it. Over 600 homes have been destroyed, and three people dead, as well as countless numbers of wildlife. And, in Sydney, a pall of orange smoke hangs over the city. Ashes wash up on shore and birds are dying. The air quality is at levels seen in Delhi and Beijing, and people are struggling to breathe. There’s no signs of the fires abating despite the heroic efforts of the fire crews, and it may get worse as the weather gets warmer and the winds blow – a day forecast for today.

This is a national emergency, but do you think it’s been treated as one? No. The federal government does a bit of glad-handing, but have done little of practical value. The army hasn’t been called in. No handouts have been promised to the people cast out of their homes. The fire services – largely volunteer – go unsupported, to the point that they must crowd fund supplies to sustain the effort.

Why this isn’t front page news is both astounding and appalling. I can understand the government seeking to downplay it. They fear that if they make a formal comment that it will be taken as a tacit admission that climate change is a cause of these fires, which are unprecedented. By downplaying it they hope it will go away as an issue. It’s right out of Morrison’s playbook. Unfortunately, much of the media is compliant with these shenanigans, though I sense some outlets are becoming restless.

The other issue they wish to play down is the NSW government’s complicity in the bushfires. In a time where Berejiklian is tearing down stadiums and building new ones she’s also defunded the RFS and budget cuts have led to a fall in the number of park rangers employed. This in an age of extreme weather events and an unprecedented drought, though they’re not the sole cause of these firestorms.

Volunteer fire services around the country are true Aussie heroes, cliché that that is. Volunteers from interstate have flown or driven in to assist their NSW counterparts. Firies from overseas have flown in to help out, returning the favour from when our firies have helped out there. This is a selfless effort by a community of people who care enough to battle blaze and exhaustion, putting their lives on the line.

Our leaders, in the meantime, fail to provide the funding or the tools to do their work properly, and jump on their jet to fly from Canberra to Sydney (cost: $80,000) to attend plush Christmas parties held by the Murdoch’s. This is while firefighters work day and night, and can’t even get a decent feed out of the government. The priorities are despicable, as are so many of these people.

We live in ruinous times. It’s heartbreaking. This isn’t just a national emergency, it’s a disaster – and summer has only just begun.

The next Ned Kelly movie


Soon after it came out, I remember reading Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and being blown away by it. It was dark and mystical and had thematic overtones worthy of Shakespeare. It was lyrical too and gorgeous in parts when the language would gallop away in the eyes and words of one of the characters. As an Australian I was affected by this – it’s a very Australian story and, as Carey told it, something quintessential to the Australian experience way beyond the oft-told and fabled tale of a bushranger. There was something in this that was about us.

I remember getting into a discussion about the book, and the story of Ned Kelly, with some NYT readers in the book review comments. They were intrigued by the story and, carried away perhaps, I recall saying that as a settled nation, we had a short history, but this was like one of our sustaining myths. It’s a grand story too, the Jerilderie letter with its evocative language, and the boldness to seek insurrection by derailing a train and taking on the troopers. Then there’s his suit of armour, so iconic now that Nolan painted a whole series using it. Every Australian my age knows the story pretty much, but I wonder if it’s more vivid here in Victoria, where it all happened.

In the years since there’s been some revisionist accounting of what happened, pointing out that in fact, Ned Kelly was a cop killer. He was, but the story has though mythical elements that make it so much more than a simple crime story. And when Carey wrote his book, it was those elements he drew upon.

When I heard a while back that they were making a movie of the book, I was both excited and concerned. My concern was not so much that it wouldn’t live up to the book, but rather that it would be different from the book.

There was a Ned Kelly movie made earlier this century with Heath Ledger, based on the book by Robert Drewe, Our Sunshine. That’s a fine book too, and it draws the story of the Kelly gang exuberantly as if they were boys to men, possessed of bountiful talent and high spirits. The language shone with life and buoyancy, and the title was well made. Yet in my memory, the movie is gloomy and dirty and muddy and filled with a sense of doom – as if the story was adopted, but none of the sense around it. I won’t watch it again.

This morning I read a preview of the new movie, and it sounds boldly made and cleverly put together, and by a director who seems to have understood the essence of the tale. I haven’t seen it, but I read that Peter Carey liked it and that’s a great vote of approval. I can’t wait to see it because I know it will make me think.

Stand up


I feel like I’ve done enough this week. It’s a bit after 2pm on Friday and I’m grinding to a halt.

It’s been a busy few weeks in general, and this week fractious on top of that. I’ve been holding the fort against the heathens in Sales. They’ve been battering at the ramparts demanding to get their way, but I resisted them because their way was chaos and, in this at least, I believe in and represent order. Ultimately I prevailed, but it was a bruising experience and it’s a good bet I’m not on their Christmas card list.

Doing my job properly meant for me to stand-up against them, though I don’t really have the authority or back-up. It was the right thing because it was the only way to ensure the integrity of our systems, and because there were others who felt the same as me but didn’t have the voice. It was right on principle also, because if processes are there to be subverted by bullies then you have anarchy.

All of that is true in itself and sufficient to have held firm, but there is another reason beyond that which is individual. I do a job, I represent a role and a set of duties, but I’m also a man with my own principles and standards. Never mind anything else, I won’t allow myself to be bullied and are contemptuous of those who would try. I represent myself ultimately, separately to my job title.

In my mind this is the right of every person. It doesn’t matter what job you do or where you are on the socio-economic ladder, we’re all entitled to respect and to stand up for our dignity. It seems to me that many lose sight of this. Your job is just a job. The amount of dollars in your wallet are a convenience or an inconvenience, but says nothing about your character. Where you fit in the hierarchy has bearing on what you do, but has nothing to do with your value as person. Your integrity, your beliefs, your standards, are personal to you and independent of everything else. Unfashionable as it is today, these are things that can’t really be bought and sold – though that’s up to the individual.

In my case I hold true to those values because they’re mine – the one thing that really is. Everyone has the same entitlement, and I wish more were more aware of that. You are yourself: be that person.

Staggering to the line


For the last two weeks plus I’ve been holding the fort while my manager went on holiday to Japan. There was a handover before he left when he instructed me in this and that and alerted me to things that might come up and people I might have to deal with. There were several things, he assured me that I wouldn’t need to worry about.

He flew out on Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, I went into work, and within half an hour, one of the things he told me I wouldn’t have to worry about was all I was worried about. A critical system component crashed, leaving swathes of the business without the tools they needed. I was there alone – the team generally come in from 9.30 onwards. I didn’t know what to do, and all I could say was to admit there was an issue, and we would be looking to resolve it urgently.

Fortunately, we were able to get it fixed within a couple of hours, but over the next two weeks, there was a succession of similar events causing disruption of one type or another. Not all of them were in our control – there was a Microsoft 365 problem for a few days, for example, when some the APIs behaved erratically. I learnt a lot over the fortnight, coordinating between teams and people and searching for answers on things I knew little about, and managing expectations across the board.

What it meant is that for the fortnight I was generally racing from one thing to another, while trying to manage teams onshore and offshore. There was little opportunity to go into depth or to develop anything. My time was spent touching lightly and quickly across many different areas and aspects, and in the end, it was fine.

To add to this, last week I butted heads again with Sales as they tried to railroad everyone else into letting them do what they wanted. I had to shut them down, and there were tense exchanges. From my perspective it’s pretty simple: if they want to come play in our environment then they have to be mindful of those already there, and that we can’t agree to anything until it’s been adequately tested and signed off. They don’t work that way, though. Everything’s a haphazard rush, without regard for either good business practice or the needs of others. They’re basically loud and obnoxious bullies who care for nothing than their own profit.

I find these confrontations exhausting. I suspect I’m positioned to take the brunt of them because management figure I’m a safe pair of hands and won’t be intimidated. The problem – as always – is that while they’ve entrusted me with that responsibility, they haven’t given that level of authority. I’m butting heads with the head of sales, who must be earning more than double what I am. I won’t shift, but it’s hard work and takes it out of you. It’d be so much easier if I didn’t have to work so hard to be civil – that’s what drains you.

When I walked out of the door on Friday, I knew that come Monday I could relax a little because my manager would return. We had our Christmas party that night, but I felt so weary and generally exhausted I wouldn’t have gone except that people were expecting me. I think something deflated in me when I knew I’d endured the worse. The adrenalin that’d been pumping through me ebbed, leaving me aching and old.

I went to the party on Friday and it was an okay night, but I was home by midnight. I was terribly weary again yesterday and happy to keep a low profile – but then I’d arranged to catch up with a couple of mates leading into Christmas. We had dinner in Richmond and drinks afterwards at the Corner Hotel and it was a lot of fun. I was okay, except I felt I had no reserves left in me. I got home at around 12.30.

Today should be a lazy day because I haven’t the energy for anything more than that. It surprises me how tired I am. I could barely keep my eyes open yesterday, and it’s the same again today. I feel really run down again, but I think likely it’s more psychological than physical. It’s coming towards the end of a long year, and I’m on leave in three weeks time. I can almost taste it, and maybe there’s a subtle relaxation of mind that’s compounded by the knowledge that I can hand over the tough stuff to the manager tomorrow. In comparison to the last few weeks, I can put my feet up a little.

And though I’ve been going strong, it’s been such a long time since I had a real holiday. I must be tired in body as well as in mind, but you power through it. Maybe I’m not powering through it as well as before this close to the line.

 

The marvellous Clive James


Very sad, though not surprised, to hear of the death of Clive James overnight. I thought he was marvellous.

It was a scruffy package, but what an incisive mind he had, matched with a wonderful way with words. He was a great communicator. Engaging as a personality, he had that rare ability to make high art and concepts approachable to the guy in the street. It was as if he shared with us his distinctive view of things, allowing us to share in the wonder he felt.

He was a great mind, but he was just as good with the everyday muck that is our media, seeing the absurdity in it and presenting back to us in such a way that we could all see it too. He was such a genial, affable character, the sort you can directly relate to because he wore his flaws so openly, and took such open visceral pleasure in popular culture, and the things that were common to us. I’d have loved to have met him*. I couldn’t imagine better company for a night out on the town – erudite, witty, intelligent and earthy.

For me, and probably for many thousands of others, I felt a connection to him merely by his presence through so many years of my life. He was always there, on TV, a beaming, bright presence sitting back in a lounge chair with a laugh in his voice as he colourfully highlighted some absurdity. And if he wasn’t there on TV, he was in the media commenting on this or that. Then there were his books. I started off with his Unreliable Memoirs many years ago, but I loved his essays also, which I think greatly underrated. Then there’s his Cultural Amnesia, both highly learned and entertaining, a great read. Even his poetry, some of which is sublime.

As an Australian, there’s another layer of connection. Though he lived in London throughout his adult life, there was something ineffably Australian about him – the irreverence perhaps, the larrikin tilting at windmills. He remained a proud Aussie throughout his life, and I was proud to have him as one of ours.

For me, there’s one final link – he’s the generation of my father. My dad had his 79th birthday a couple of weeks ago (I had lunch with him last week), a year younger than James. The world that James recalls in his memoirs is the world of my father (and mother, too). It’s a generation slowly thinning and, regardless of the disdain epitomised by the insult ‘hey, boomer’, there are many great members of it – and it’s a world slipping away. James would have a comment on that, though I suspect he would shrug his shoulders, accepting that’s the way of things and it’s somebody else’s turn now.

I’m sorry I’ll never see his jovial dial on TV anymore, or his amused voice. I’ll miss him as a character and icon, another one gone, and sad that nothing more will flow from that grand mind of his to share in.

*P.S. When I was in London a few years ago I imagined I would bump into Clive James and he would invite me back to his place where he’d have fascinating conversations over a bottle of red – that’s how much he meant to me. I knew by then that he would never return to Australia, which seemed desperately sad because he could no longer travel. Unfortunately, that encounter never happened, and never will now.

P.P.S. Not that many will know him necessarily, but another member of the fraternity coming out of English universities of the sixties died not long after James: Jonathan Miller. He had many successes, but I’ll always remember him for a fascinating series called The Body in Question. He was mates with Dudley and Moore as well if I remember right.

Too much civilisation


I live in a suburb where the people are generally well off and decent types. They’re well educated and engaged. For some reason, there’s a fair number of expats here too, and they’re much the same. Walking down the street, you’ll often get a smile and, occasionally, will be wished you a good morning, or somesuch. I’ve always thought that a pre-condition of living here was ownership of a bike and a dog. I have both, though only one of them gets any work.

I’ve been for a walk this morning with Rigby, and along the way, we found other couples – man and dog – out on this sunny Sunday morning. Yesterday, I caught up with Cheeseboy for a coffee. We sat there as people went by with their dogs tugging them along, occasionally pausing to get acquainted with Bailey, the Cheese’s labradoodle.

As I walked to the supermarket yesterday after coffee, I encountered more than a dozen dogs out for a walk or sitting at the feet of their owners taking in the sun while mum and dad had breakfast. I looked at every dog. Some, as I went by, I made that little sound in my throat that dogs know. A couple of times, I stopped to pat a dog tied up outside a shop waiting for its owner, some patiently, some keening with worry. Each time I felt myself powerfully moved by these dear creatures, which I love with all my heart. And a feel a kinship with their owners, as if we are a part of a brotherhood.

I’ve always loved dogs, but it’s true also that as I get older, I’m becoming more soft-hearted when it comes to animals in general. It troubles me how often they are exploited and abused. There must be a better term for it, but peering into an animal’s eyes, I can sense their innate ‘humanity.’ I can recognise each of them has a life. They have feelings, have fears and affection. That’s the sort of view likely to have you accused of anthropomorphism, which means to see – or treat – animals as human beings.

Let me make it clear. I don’t equate the two – broadly speaking, my feelings towards animals are untainted, whereas I have serious doubts about humankind. In some ways, my affection for animals is little different for what I feel for children. They have an innocence that is worth cherishing, but both are subject to exploitation by the less innocent, and generally are unable to defend themselves against it. To stand by and watch that exploitation seems against nature. It certainly doesn’t fit right with me, and less so every day.

I don’t know if I see things differently now that I’m older, or if it’s just become more exposed. What is clear to me now – a wiser man perhaps than I was before – is that exploitation of this type is an embodiment of hubris.

For centuries, human culture has viewed nature in all its variety as something to serve our appetites and ambition. It is a resource to be consumed, for profit like as not. Animals are expendable as beasts of burden and sustenance, and mother earth despoiled. That’s the chicken that’s finally come home to roost, and I need not expound on that further. It seems a very human thing.

I’m no purist – I like a good steak (though I eat less and less) – but I can’t accept that it’s destiny that makes us the pre-eminent species on earth. We may be the most intelligent of species and possess uniquely – so they say – ‘consciousness’ (I’m a skeptic), but it’s absurd to suggest it means anything more than a fluke of biology. The earth hasn’t been placed here for our benefit, and no amount of misguided destiny justifies abuse and cruelty.

I’m at the stage of life when I want no part of that, and it makes sense to me that we return to nature. It’s about respect. It’s in short supply all round, these days. Respect for each other, and respect for the world around us, too, and every critter a part of it. If there’s anything we need now, it’s humility – but even the well-intentioned seem to lack that.

This is the symptom of my times: I’ve lost faith in humanity. As individuals, as people who share smiles and good wishes and walk our dogs, there is little to complain of. But as a collective, we have become dire.

If there were a vote tomorrow about who should go on, people or dogs, then I’d vote dogs because they are by far the more pure being. That’s where I’m at.

Running the race


The truth is that I’ve been in such an existential fog these last few years that I’m continually defining and redefining what I feel and what I want. Even what I mean. And it changes all the time because I change, and because for all my peering I can’t see clearly. I’m in a state of flux according to mood and circumstance, but whereas once I was firmly rooted in a sense of self, much of what I do and feel these days feels precarious. I can’t help but search for purpose or meaning regardless, that – at least – is a part of who I am, but there is little constancy in what I find. One day I think this. The next day the opposite. I proclaim what I want, what I need even, but the conviction waxes and wanes. It’s fortunate that I remain pragmatically competent. Otherwise I’d be totally lost.

I’m of the type that I think if I can figure things out, then I’ll be right. I like information. I like to understand things. If I lack for information or understanding, I go searching for it, even though little of it seems to add to my knowledge. The search is a meaning in itself. But then it needs to come to a point also. If this is the case, then what can I do? But it shifts all the time because that tenuous part inside me shifts all the time.

I’m a writer, and I can’t help but by thinking in metaphors often. I have a new one.

I feel like a former athlete who back in the day was top notch before injury struck. I’m over the injury now and to my surprise find I can run just as quick as I did before. I still like the sense of running fast. I even enjoy the odd competitive outing. I like the adrenalin, and proving I’ve still got it.

What I’ve lost is any joy or interest in the hard work that goes with it, the training and diet, etc. The idea of being organised into competitive events is anathema to me. I don’t mind racing, but on my terms, my whim almost. The joy I take is in the experience, not the outcome. I don’t have the appetite for anything else.

What complicates it is that I still like to win. I can choose to compete less, but when I do I expect to come out in front. In the meantime, I watch others, cocky with their achievements, but never as quick as me, take the kudos that were mine once.

When I choose to extend myself, they get their noses out of joint, but I enjoy reminding them of what’s what. It doesn’t mean anything, though. It’s an indulgence. Ego. It adds up to nothing because while I show up occasionally, they’re busy racing on the circuit.

This is the truth of my professional situation, at least. Sometimes I think I want to compete at a higher level, but I know it in my stomach it’s not something I can apply myself to. I’m lucky I’m still quick. I have small wins, I find a measure of respect, but I shirk the big races because I don’t think I want what victory brings me. But I still want to win.

There’s something frail in me these days which upsets mightily that macho sense of self. It’s new to me. I’ve always been sensitive, but I was always robust (and, you know, most people who know me would claim I still am – they just don’t know the full picture). I was brought up to take challenges head-on. I never shirked anything. That made me hard and strong and honed my skills. I’m not that man now, or hardly. I understand in a way, and wonder even if it might not be for the best – but it’s a hard thing to concede.

I was browsing Twitter last night and encountered the latest faux outrage about something someone has said or done. As always, the reaction is totally disproportionate to the incident, and the tone and language violent and over the top. I’ve seen this so many times, but last night I quietly went about unfollowing people I couldn’t abide anymore, while something fell away in me. My grip on things then was very tenuous. I felt emotional. It upset me that I was so upset. This is who I’ve become now, though. Imagine that.

Then a movie came on an I started watching that, an old classic from the forties: A Matter of Life and Death. It’s a Michael Powell movie and very well crafted and entertaining, but what really got to me was the humanity of it. This was made just after WW2, and maybe some of the euphoria of victory infected it a little, but it was a horrible event – and yet here was a movie positive and hopeful and full of simple wisdom and belief in common people. It served as an antidote to what I’d been feeling, but I also wondered why we’re not like that anymore? What have we lost, and can it be regained? And I thought, next book I write, let’s make it positive.

That’s the state of the nation today.