Places of the spirit


Of course, there are things that run through my head all the time. Often I think I must write about that, but mostly I never get around to it. Until there’s such an application that taps directly into my mind that will be the case.

Today I want to specifically reference the fire that has consumed Notre Dame, in Paris. I feel for the French, and the Parisians particularly, for whom this must feel like a blow to the soul. It feels an unreal event, an affront to nature, something that could never happen and should never happen.

I first walked into Notre Dame about 21 years ago. I’ve been to many cathedrals in my time, but this has always been my favourite. I’m a history buff and knowing that so many momentous events had happened right here was a thrill in itself. There was a deeper, darker connection than that though. I remember standing beneath the high roof surrounded by the immense stone columns and peering at the beautiful stained glass windows and feeling humbled by the meaning of it all. It felt a great spiritual moment.

Places like Notre Dame are living reminders of the wonder and mystery of our existence. We live in the moment so much these days, but Notre Dame had stood for almost a millennia. It teemed with life and history. With luck, it might have gone on for another millennium, or more. I guess that’s true for many such buildings and there are dozens of others who have left me just as impressed – but not so spiritually engaged. Notre Dame felt like a living place to me, not just of history but of humanity as well. I think of only one other place off the top of the head I felt so moved, the Pantheon in Rome.

Notre Dame has not been completely destroyed they say, though the spire has fallen and no doubt the wondrous stained glass is gone – as well as the old, middle-aged wooden structure. It will be rebuilt, as it must, but will it be the same place?

Update: it appears that while the roof and spire have gone and much structural damage otherwise, the bulk of the stonework has been saved – in fact, photos from inside are almost eerie with the area around the altar a pile of blackened ruins tumbled from the roof, while most of the nave seems untouched. Most importantly – and almost miraculously – the famous, magnificent rose stained glass appears undamaged.

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The virtuous and the vicious


On Friday all over the world children skipped school to rally against the politics that have led to careening climate change. For many this was controversial. Politicians on the wrong side of that argument warned they should be kept at school. They were ridiculed as being too young to really understand, or as being puppets of the left. In truth, these accusers are the people the children are rallying against – the blind, the conservative, the corrupt and the inept. It’s come to the point that our children are protesting at what their parent’s generation failed to do.

It may be too late, but now there is such momentum that the naysayers are losing their influence. The organiser of this event, Greta Thunberg, is a formidable schoolgirl from Norway. She has managed to do what so many others well intended have not: she has electrified an issue and given it into the hands of those who will be most affected by its evil.

The tide has turned, I think, and it’s heartening to see such passion and commitment in those so young. There was a time when kids of that age would engage in the playful, mindless fun that comes easy when life is good. What need of passion or ideals if life is served warm to you on a plate? Times have changed and become more immediate. The pendulum returns, as it always must, having reached one extreme – the extreme being an era of poor, weak or corrupt leadership. It has led to the situation we find ourselves in now and our children roused, won’t have it anymore. If they survive the climate coming at least we can begin to hope our world might be in better hands.

For me, this was reason for hope and inspiration. But then came the other side of that.

I was at work Friday afternoon when the first reports of a shooting in Christchurch came through. Anyone who’s been in this situation knows how odd it seems. At first, you tend to think it’s probably nothing much. We have become inured to everyday violence, and there are so many nutters out there it comes as no great surprise. But then updated reports come through. Up to nine dead, you read. People begin to turn to each other. Have you heard what’s happening in Christchurch? And you go back, seeking more news, and it comes. It was a mosque that was attacked. Hospitals preparing for forty or fifty casualties, you read. Wow, you think. You catch eyes with someone. You start to feel it in your stomach: something awful is happening.

You go about your work nonetheless. Computers hum, phones ring, emails come and go, meetings are called. On Friday we had a late function. Going into it I saw the latest update – 29 confirmed dead, dozens feared to be. And you think: dozens?!

Finally, when I got home, I saw – 49 dead – and as I watched the full story unfolded, about how the gunman live-streamed his rampage to Facebook, about the garbled, racist manifesto he wrote, finally, that he was an Australian.

Such terrible events are hard to comprehend, but it was the news that the killer was an Australian from Grafton that gave it another edge. I felt fear and shame as well as sorrow and anger. I didn’t feel the surprise knowing he was an Australian that I did at the event itself.

Naturally, there’s an upwelling of grief and compassion across the globe at what has happened, mixed in with anger and despair. That’s been the case here too in Oz. New Zealand is our closest neighbour. We are cousins to each other. We know each other well, like family. But then one of ours has gone there and murdered so many of them and, unfortunately, it’s easy to see why.

This is a problem all over the world, divisive extremities, not just in Oz. Here though, as in some places, it has been leveraged for political purposes. It started with John Howard here, may he burn in hell, the first man to politicise asylum seekers and turn it into an election issue. He changed the conversation, and in so doing changed Australia. We went from being an open, warm society to a society protective of its good fortune and closed to the sorrows of others. That’s been exploited since by Abbott and Morrison, and throughout, by Dutton, aided and abetted by a media either complicit to the point of cheerleading (Murdoch) or being too weak or cowardly to properly stand up against the cold-hearted values being espoused.

When that becomes the language, when human life has been devalued to that of a statistic, when those poor folk caught in the crossfire and seeking a better life are demonised as either terrorists or opportunists, then it is easy to dismiss the woes of others. In a world where everything has become polarised everyone who is perceived as being not ‘us’ must, therefore, be against us. Multicultural as we are in Australia, in the eyes of the bigoted it means every one of colour, everyone not Christian, becomes suspect at least. And so in the demented minds of a few the events on Friday loom as a crusade against so-called enemies.

There’s no point saying not all Australians, just as there was no point proclaiming not all men. Most Australians aren’t like that, are horrified by what happened – but this lives within our society, and has been encouraged and been allowed to thrive when it should have been stillborn. We all have to take responsibility for that.

When the news came out Friday the deplorable Fraser Anning came out effectively blaming the victims for being Muslim, guilty of their own murder. Yesterday he attended a right-wing function only a few kilometres from where I live. Famously – now – a 17-year-old kid smashed a raw egg into the back of his head. It’s a moment that will go down in folklore, and ‘eggboy’ has been hailed since all over the world.

It’s an instructive moment. Here was Anning with his white supremacist cronies, swathed in swastikas, swaggering and pitched towards violence. These are dysfunctional, damaged members of society, drawn towards a toxic ideology because of a lack in themselves (if only being intelligence). They’re the sort of men who commit violence against women and others weaker than themselves. That’s the disaffected breeding ground for those who one day will resort to violence on a broader scale.

Then there’s the kid, perhaps a kid who marched on Friday, a kid who believes in an inclusive world and better selves, a kid engaged in what it means to be a part of a true society. Some of decried what he did as some sort of violence, but what I see is a kid who has made a mockery of Anning in this silly act, and revealed Anning for what he truly is. Anning turned and attacked the kid before his cronies piled on top of him and got him in a choker hold. The kid lost consciousness – he’s okay – and what the world saw was the gleeful violence so easily adopted.

We saw it too, in Australia. I’m always hopeful, even after such a terrible thing. This is our moment to be properly ‘woke’. They’re not just a ratbag few. They’re among us, and can’t be tolerated any longer. I reckon fully 95% of Australians are horrified by these people and are now just waking up to the danger they represent. It’s a harsh lesson, but the actions on Friday I think will rebound on the supremacists. We want to say, as the Kiwis have, this is not who we are.

I should add that I think it’s pulled the teeth from the government ahead of the election as well. Before this – sad to say – they’d have sought to exploit the divisions between us and them, lead by those good Christians Morrison and Dutton. They can’t do that now. Hopefully, no-one ever can again.

It’s a hard thing to say after fifty people are dead, but I think the pendulum is shifting back. I think the act on Friday was a sign of that, evil as it was. That’s poor comfort for the families of those murdered, but a small thing the rest of us can hold onto and hope is true. Better times will come.

Lost voices


In the last week two giant names in Australian journalism have passed away.

The first of these was Mike Willesee, possibly the finest interviewer of the last fifty years. Back in a time when political interviewing was an artform (a time, sadly, long past) Willesee was king. He would appear every night on our TV screens, mostly on A Current Affair (when it wasn’t a tabloid program), probing and interrogating a range of politicians and hucksters and very often bringing them undone. He was highly intelligent and very well researched and had a composed, patient, insistent manner. When he was on your tail you knew it you were in trouble – most famously John Hewson, caught out ahead of the ’93 election when questioned about the GST on a cake.

Growing up dad would watch the program every night, and over time so did I. Truth mattered then and our officials were held to account daily. I don’t think that’s been the case in Australia since Willesee’s successor, Jana Wendt. I think there’s a distinct connection between the decline in journalistic rigour and the knowledge and active engagement of the electorate, and democracy is the loser.

The other to have died, just yesterday, was Les Carlyon. Off the top of my head I can’t think of another Australian journalist anywhere near as good a pure writer than him. Everything he wrote was evocative. I read a lot of his stuff over the years – his books on WW1, both wonderful, plus his general journalism, particularly his heartfelt appreciation of great horses – and often times I would pause reading to truly appreciate his prose, and to reflect on the insights he shared with us.

He was a grand writer, but he had a way of seeing that told of his journalistic background. He was editor of The Age at 33, so he had more than just a way with words. That’s what made him so memorable – a wonderful writer paired with insight and sensitivity. I reckon he saw beneath the surfaces and touched upon the human truths which really are the basis of every good story. You read his stuff on the big race days or our abiding affection for the racehorses of folklore and what he understands is the essential meaning of these things, a meaning held deep inside which is something close to love. We want to believe. We want to belong. We want to love and share and celebrate.

His histories have that, too. He was a humane, incisive commentator who valued the uniqueness of experience.

He was 76. Sadly this means there’s no more of his writing to look for, but grateful for what we have.

Enough with the heat


I’ll tell you what I’m sick of: hot weather. Today is actually reasonable, 24 or something, but it’s been bloody hot more often than not.I read this morning that January was the hottest month on record in Oz, following on from the hottest December on record. Personally, I can’t remember a hotter January in Melbourne.

It’s funny how such fierce weather can be so pretty. January was a beautiful month. There was hardly any rain, though there was a picturesque thunderstorm on Wednesday, few clouds, and the sky has been that very Australian blue. We need rain though, as always, and too many hot days lead to exhaustion and ill temper.

I find it trying, but I can live with it. My heart really goes out to all those beasties who have to endure this without the comforts of home. On those really hot days, I close the back door with Rigby inside and leave the aircon running for him. It also means I come home to a relatively comfortable environment, and it’s easier keeping the place cool than making it so.

January we had two days of about 44 degrees Celsius, a couple more in the low forties, and probably eight or nine days in the thirties. For most of the month, I had only the bedroom aircon working. The main aircon actually conked out on the first of the 44 degree days. I was able to sleep okay with the aircon in the bedroom but I’m never completely comfortable sleeping with it on. It dries out the air and makes for a lighter sleep and most days I would wake up weary. Tack a few days on end like that – and mine is a hot home – then it begins to add up. And it’s the same for pretty well everyone.

I managed to get the aircon fixed last week (on the same day I had a specialist appointment costing me $380; got my car aircon regassed; and had my bathroom taps replaced – on a 38-degree day). This weekend we have another 35 and a 39 forecast.

This sort of weather is made for staying indoors where it’s cool, or socialising out in the sunshine. I spent Sunday afternoon wading up to my knees at Hampton beach before having a few beers, some wine, and some take-away fish and chips with some friends on the foreshore.

This is what summer should be, only there’s too much of it. This is all over Australia and it’s hard not to think climate change and global warming, and be fearful. I wonder what those born today will have to endure in years to come. There’s no real reason to believe the small-minded politicians all over the world will ever wake up to the fact and actually cooperate in doing something to prevent this. By the time they do it’ll be too late. Hands up who disagrees? Barring some technological miracle, I figure that in a thousand years’ time we’ll be pretty well wiped out. All our doing, too.

The myth of Bundy


I finished watching a short series on Ted Bundy on Netflix last night. He’s a fascinating figure in history, but I found my perspective to him shift as I watched.

Bundy is close to being the most famous of serial killers, and surely the most romanticised. His alleged good looks, charm and intelligence enough to elevate him beyond the common rank of psychopaths. I think much of the mystique comes from the fact that such a ruthless killer could also appear like ‘one of us’. I think he seduced and fooled many people like that, but the rest of his mystique comes down to his good looks.

That’s the background, and that was my general perception of him leading into this program. I can say after watching all four episodes that he was a supreme narcissist who thrived on attention and personal engagement. I thought his good looks overrated, and his ‘charm’ creepy and contrived. I’m viewing him in retrospect, aware of the full scale of his crimes, but I still don’t understand how so many so readily fell for him.

Watching him closely he seemed to me full of tics and twitches in the form of great smiles, greetings, and winks. He was someone who craved recognition and sought a response. Observing him it felt like a performance, though heartfelt, and by that I mean while it wasn’t authentically born the reaction he sought was vital to his sense of self and wellbeing. Deny him that reaction and I imagine he would appear the monster he was in actual fact. To me, an Australian, much of his behaviour came across as smarmy.

Much was made of his intelligence also but again, I thought him very cunning, but not nearly as smart as he thought he was – which was much of his downfall.

It was fascinating as so many of these stories are. We’re forever drawn to the lurid, and nothing is as lurid as a serial killer. It’s an interesting story to when you consider his repeated escapes from the law. At the end of it though I found that the aura he had was much diminished in my mind. He was murderer who just happened to have a face and manner that some people found attractive. It was a squalid tale of a squalid personality.

That’s my take, but clearly then – and it appears now – found something more in Bundy than that. Most of them appear to be women and I suspect a lot of it is sexual – here is the ‘acceptable’, even handsome face of murder. It’s dangerous and illicit and thrilling, evidenced by the breathless girls and women who attended his trials and sought to meet him. That too is a lurid fantasy, though it didn’t stop him from fathering a child by one such devotee.

Now there is a movie coming out starring Zac Efron. I guess there’s a story there, but I fear what Hollywood will do with it.

Rotting fish


Cricket Australia released its report into the culture of the Australian cricket team yesterday. It was scathing, not just of the culture within the team, but of the ethics and culture of cricket administration in general. It was welcome news.

What’s not so welcome is how CA have effectively siloed responsibility. We have three high profile cricketers banned from playing international or local domestic cricket for 12 months – a penalty that much exceeds what the statutes recommended. The penalties were widely accepted by an Australian public shocked and horrified by the events of South Africa, and in general, wearied by the petulant behaviour of the national team. I was one of those.

It’s no surprise to find that the actions of a few players on-field were in character with the general ethos of the administration in general. To be clear, I’m not suggesting CA condones cheating or abuse, but in the quest to be number one I doubt there was any clear distinction and much that was blurred. Certainly, there appeared much that was accepted, if only by omission.

The problem now is that while the players have been vilified and penalised much of the administration has got off scot free. True, the coach left of his own volition, and Pat Howard, the performance manager, is going also (as he should), but the higher echelons of CA are unscathed. This imbalance was highlighted by the fact that the chairman was reinstated (upon his insistence) before the report was sighted. If nothing else this is a perversion of due process, but very much aligns with the criticisms outlined in the report. It doesn’t inspire one with confidence.

If only for the optics, there should have been a root and branch review of positions, and I would have hoped that key figures would have accepted it was time for them to step aside, as James Sutherland did. Instead, we have a situation where the administration, by and large, survives – despite explicit criticism – while the penalised players carry the can. Now that’s un-Australian.

Everyone has an opinion on something like this. They talk about culture and so on, and yeah, that’s valid, but it comes down to leadership in my book. This situation would never have occurred had there been strong, just leadership. Unfortunately – as in many industries – CA has fallen into the habit in recent years of promoting people to roles they’re not fully capable of.

Let’s start with Steve Smith, a great batsman and, on the strength of that, made captain, as so often is the case, as if the ability to wield the willow automatically equates to superior leadership qualities. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I’ve been saying this for years, Smith never had the innate authority required to do the role effectively. To be a leader you need to stand for something, you need to be strong in your principles and character, and you must compel those who follow. Smith lacked all of those qualities. It was unreasonable and unfair to put someone like that in that role, and we paid the consequences.

Then there was Boof Lehmann. Nice guy by all accounts, and probably a handy (but limited) coach. He’s also a bit of an old-fashioned yobbo very much out of step with the mores of society today. Smith allowed things to develop out of weakness, and Lehmann because he never took them seriously enough.

Then you’ve got the chairman, who took an adversarial approach in the pay negotiations last year, and who has a history in adversarial industrial relations when he was at Rio Tinto. It’s the wrong character set and wrong approach all down the line, and we see how it’s played out.

I think this report is good and some of the steps taken thus far are appropriate – Tim Paine, for example, epitomises the sort of leadership we should be aspiring to. That’s not enough though. Changes have been made within the test team, but at the top end, nothing has changed. I don’t think there are many who would disagree when I suggest that Peever should have stepped down, and still should. Until that happens there cannot be complete confidence in this board, or in the steps they take to rectify the sins of the past.

PS Peever resigned as Chairman a couple of days after I wrote this, as he should have from the start. The whole thing poorly managed. In a situation like this doing the right thing and being seen as doing the right thing are almost equally important. They got the optics wrong – more evidence, unfortunately, of how out of touch and arrogant they are. Hopefully the new chairman, whoever he is, will make a difference.

Random perspectives


There’s been a bunch of things happen in the last ten days which have exercised my mind but which I haven’t commented on. More often than not I’ll never comment because I won’t get around to it, but today I reckon I’ll set my thoughts down to the lot of them and be done with it.

One of the big issues last week was the Mark Knight cartoon referencing the Serena Williams eruption at the US Open. As soon as I saw it I thought, uh oh. Very clearly it features a racist caricature of Williams, and anyone who doesn’t recognise it is either terribly ignorant or deeply racist. I can’t see any ambiguity in it, though Knight himself reckons it was drawn without racist intent.

There’s a couple of problems with that. To start with, Knight has history. Not long ago he depicted black gang members in very broad and offensive terms also. On that occasion, he drew the figures in scurrilous detail, while perpetuating a false stereotype of black youth gangs over-running Melbourne – which, as anyone sensible living here will tell you, is utter nonsense. He has drawn similar cartoons in the past, and though cartoonists are permitted some artistic licence – much of what they do, after all, is exaggerated and made a caricature – there must be sensitive to culture and history, which is where the second problem emerges.

I remember about ten years ago there was a huge outcry when a local TV program had a talent show in which some contestants got up in blackface. It took me a long time to get my head around that. Unlike North America, blackface has not the same resonant and racist overtones, and the contestants themselves likely did it as a bit of fun, rather than looking to perpetuate a stereotype. That was my view then, but it has evolved since as I, and we, have become better informed. It’s safe to say we’re much better educated on these matters now, which is why I knew it was racist the moment I saw the cartoon. Knight pleads innocence in this matter (and has since doubled down), but that no longer washes in this day and age, though I believe there are still many uneducated who are effectively ignorantly racist.

It wasn’t a particularly clever cartoon in any case. He’s a fine draughtsman, but he has none of the wit or insight of a Rowe or Pope or even a Wilcox.

There was a great outcry also over Steve Bannon being interviewed for 4 Corners. 4 Corners is a venerable ABC program. I’ll watch it most weeks, and it’s record of breaking news and catalysing change is unequalled in Australian television.

On this occasion, it was the left that felt by giving a voice to Bannon the ABC was condoning his views.

My instinct on this is almost the opposite. I recognise there are limits, people unworthy of airtime, or who are so dreadful that any exposure is poisonous. We don’t need to see them on TV. But otherwise, in the spirit of free speech and equal opportunity, as well as in the hope of being educated, my strong belief is that we shouldn’t be shutting down the voices we don’t agree with. That amounts to censorship.

I’m of the left myself, though I’d call myself a moderate liberal. I don’t believe in the extremes on either side, where it tends to get rabid, and I’m a great advocate for the democratic principles our society is founded on. That means allowing for a broad range of voices to be heard. Speaking for myself, I like to understand. I’ll often read opinions I disagree with or find offensive, but it’s useful for me to understand what their arguments are and how they think.

In the case of Bannon, I think that applies very neatly. He was the guiding philosophy behind the current American president, and his broad manifesto has many advocates around the world, including in Australia. I think that makes him a relevant opinion, even if toxic. So, on the one hand, I believe he was a worthy subject for the program, but unfortunately, that required a more rigorous interview than what occurred. Bannon, a savvy player, manipulated the interview to his advantage. I’m a great admirer of Sarah Ferguson, but in this instance, she didn’t hold Bannon to account.

The ABC, being the national broadcaster, has a responsibility to present a range of views and opinions. They get unfairly criticised by the right for being partisan to the left. Here they present a right-wing view and get pilloried by the left. Somewhere in this democratic principles are lost, which is one of my great fears these days.

As I’ve noted before, we live in a binary age when everything is either black or white, right or wrong, left or right. Our public discourse has become unsophisticated and hostile. There’s little nuance and often no acceptance of contrary views. This is true of both sides. It’s dispiriting observing the battles between the rival views, and though I’m inclined to a left perspective I find myself dismayed still reading intractable and inflammatory views in support of that.

Let me make this clear. I’m not going to tell anyone how they should lead their life. As a general rule, I’m not going to abuse someone who disagrees with me, exceptions possibly being rabid bigots and fascists. If possible I’ll sit and listen and then unpick contrary arguments – I’d rather debate than pronounce. I believe in individuality and fear that if we get our way we might end up with a society of drones. I believe in difference, which is where creativity springs from. And, regardless of my personal ideology, I’ll attempt to approach every issue with a rational mindset. Finally, I don’t believe anything is one thing or another – we live in a world of degrees, imperfect and flawed but amazingly diverse. Any other notion is nonsense.