New Young Journalists Development Program - start date 1st May, 2019

This is a call for young writers, aged 17-22, interested in developing core writing/journalism skills who want to write on hip-hop/music and/or other subjects. Women especially encouraged to apply. Intended for a small group of two, or three people.

This program is designed for people who do not have access to such training at school or in their communities; people who might be interested in becoming journalists, but feel that it is closed to them for whatever reason. It is aimed for people who are not represented in mainstream media spaces, because of background/place of residence, who want to write about stories relating to their communities, thereby altering the current media bias towards white, middle-class voices.

The program could be a formal training program, or informal mentoring arrangement depending on the need and interest of the trainees. No previous experience or publications required - but preference will be given to applicants with no other opportunity for media/journalism training of this kind and members of under-represented groups.

If interested, or you have questions: contact me with a brief introduction to yourself and what you’d like to achieve at madeleinebyrne.writer@gmail.com Proposed program start date: May, 2019


Thoughts on terrorism and campaigns against police violence

Unsurprisingly the most persistent question following the series of terrorist attacks in France that killed 234 people over an 18-month period up until the Bastille Day assault in Nice last year, has been, ‘Why France?’ All kinds of answers have been put forward, most often with the answer given reflecting the political perspective of the person responding.

Social oppression, racism; the country’s policy of secularism (that banned the veil and all forms of religious identification in public schools), the country’s colonial past that continues to inform, or infect, policy in former colonies in West Africa, where France is fighting Islamist forces; its involvement in bombing campaigns in Syria.

Problem with this, though, is that the above suggests that there is a logically coherent argument motivating the mostly European-born jihadists committing these crimes. Knowledge of the men’s chaotic personal lives, shifting allegiances, and often sudden conversion to the cause undermines this premise. Family ties, for example having a close family member already involved in the jihad, alongside a criminal background seem to matter more. European-based jihadist groups closely resemble gangs, where men often with a history of crime or violence are recruited to the cause that is put forward as a path to salvation and renewal.  

Still, the question remains: why France? Those organising the attacks appear to believe that France (out of all the European countries) is vulnerable to the chaos it wants to unleash through its campaign of terror; the idea being that the country’s three million Muslims might be potential recruits, if/when the French State enacts repressive policies against them, and that the country is weak because of its sentimental self-image as the bastion of human rights.

Of interest, here, is the way the jihadists chose their target based on its perceived weaknesses. This is basic psychology writ large: the conman targets the vulnerable person based on how they think that person will react, while twisting the victim’s sense of a positive self-identity (the opportunist says that he loves a woman’s ‘sweet nature’ to get her to give him more, complimenting her and flattering her ego to exploit her).

Yesterday, a white police officer – Betty Shelby – was acquitted of a manslaughter charge of an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher who was shot when standing with his hands above his head in Oklahoma last September. The reactions as you would expect were furious, often focussing on the fact that the officer was a ‘white woman’. But despite all the political actions, the street marches and opinion pieces written, this is just another case where a police officer has avoided jail time (or avoided being charged, or having a case brought against them).

From an outsider’s perspective, despite all the activity – and media coverage – little seems to be changing in the US regarding police violence. There are strong community-based campaigns, calling for police to wear body cameras, for the institution of accountable civilian reviews and independent police liability insurance (see this national campaign that started in Minneapolis, Insure the Police), but people are still getting shot and police officers allowed to go free, or not even be charged.

Without sounding too extreme, I wonder, though if it might be time to think like the organisers of the European-based terrorist campaigns, not in terms of using violence, of course, but focussing more on the weaknesses/motivators of white racism that allows the cycle of police violence in the United States to continue unchecked.

For starters, to think of campaigns that could upset the dominant desire of the majority population to have a positive self-image (see the way various forms of historic forms of race-based oppression, most obvious in colonial/post-colonial contexts sought the veneer of respectability and benevolence, as they would say in Australia, the policies of protection and assimilation were ‘for their own good’). And secondly, to start thinking about money.

Could boycotts, for example, be enacted that targeted cities with high-levels of police violence – allowing for some protections, or financial support for citizens living there who might be affected? Might international campaigns be set up to ‘shame’ cities in the United States - including a ban on tourism, just like the divestment campaigns against South Africa - until they guarantee basic levels of safety to the people living there?

Everything in politics comes back to financial interests; that’s all that matters. Groups are heard because they have financial interests that intersect with those who govern. For this reason, the current activism against police violence, with its emphasis on educating the wider community and peaceful marches, seems to be too reactive – and just a little too nice.

It is true that the police officers could be motivated by racism or commit these crimes because of poor training, but it’s more than likely that they are killing people because they know that there will be no significant consequences, personal/professional … or financial. As any journalist knows, you have got to follow the money: I wonder how things might change, if a similar kind of logic was applied to the activism trying to stop police violence; to cut off the income - so to speak - that allows the current status quo to continue as is, unimpeded.  

Paris Récit: Paying the rent

Before I go to the appointment in the 5th arrondissement, an area made up of specialist food shops and populated by well-heeled older people (my doctor says it’s a ‘student area’ as the Sorbonne is nearby) I think to myself, I’ll pay my rent. It will be easier that way.

On entering La Banque Postale here, on the other side of the river, I see that the form required for the transfer is readily available. This makes me happy. I won’t need to wait in line to receive a form, this will reduce the time this takes. My how I have changed to be grateful for something so small, I think to myself (this makes me smile more than anything else).

There is one person working in the bank section, he has a badge that says he is hearing-impaired. ‘This is incorrect,’ the man says pointing at the location I’d written on the form. I had written Château-Rouge, an area on the other side of Paris that is a largely West African immigrant area in the city’s north, and branch where I opened the account.

‘What should I write there? Paris?’ I ask. He doesn’t reply. He writes Paris. He has my passport, my La Banque Postale bank card. He accesses my account, on the screen, he can check the balance. The account has 200 euros above the amount needed to pay the rent.

‘I will let you transfer 800 euros,’ the man says. This is less than what is needed to pay the rent, less than the amount I had filled out on the transfer form.

Speaking as urgently as I can, I make an effort to convince him to help me out and make an exception from his stated rules for me. ‘I don’t understand,' I say, 'This is the first time I’ve had this problem; I’ve paid my rent this way all over Paris, in the 9th, in the 10th, in the 18th, the 17th (I made the last location up) and never had this issue before (this is true). I don’t understand. I have enough money to cover the required amount, you can see it in my account.’

Two other times La Banque Postale employees had refused to let me pay the rent. Once in the 9th, the woman said she could not process the payment that afternoon, I could fill out the form but would need to return the next day. (Immediately after this interaction I went to another bureau and did it there).

At Château-Rouge, I was told that the bank employees were on strike and this meant that there were no financial services that day. I asked the man working there if other banks/post offices nearby were also on strike, he didn’t know or wouldn’t tell me. He ended up doing the transaction for me, though, when his supervisor wasn’t looking.

The man in the La Banque Postale in the 5th repeated: ‘If you had opened this account at my branch it would be different, I will let you transfer 800 euros today – that is the limit.’

He told me that I should organise a direct debit from my account. To do this, though, you need to get permission from a bank employee in person. This can only be done via appointment and to avoid the wait at Château-Rouge you have to go there very early in the morning, I hadn't been able to find the time, but I will.   

On leaving the bank, disgruntled thoughts came to mind about the simplistic politics of oppression that are so popular these days, based as it is on a point system of fixed categories. How would this interaction play out : the man had a disability, but had the power to refuse me because of his job. He was perfectly nice to the French people behind me, was it because I spoke with an accent? Or that I had opened my account in a part of Paris he didn’t like.

A few hours later, I went to La Banque Postale at Goutte d’Or – the North African neighbourhood just near métro Barbès – Rochechouart where the young men congregate selling contraband cigarettes.

I go there because I think it will be quieter than the post office/bank at Château-Rouge at this time, where it’s always chaotic, with too many people and long queues and often people losing their cool and yelling. It can be tiring sometimes.

When I arrive at La Banque Postale at Goutte d’Or I see a line of about 12-15 people waiting in the banking queue. I am the only non-black, or non-North African person there. Another white woman uses a machine to buy a stamp and then leaves. There is one employee, a woman, working in the bank section and one woman working in the post office. Two people on a Friday afternoon: when there are around 40 people waiting to be served in the two lines.

Later another woman comes and sits in the bank section, she turns on her computer and looks at the screen, she doesn’t help customers.

I wait for more than 15, or maybe 20 minutes, I don’t check the time.

‘It must be hard for you,’ I say to the woman as she processes the rent payment, I say this to try and make light conversation. ‘Working alone like this, when there are so many people waiting.’

‘No, not really. Most of them could do what they need to do at home, online. They don’t need to come here.’

‘Maybe they don’t have the Internet at home?’

The woman laughs at me, to say, unlikely. ‘They don’t need to come here,’ she says. ‘This is a post office in the end, not a bank.’

Celebrating ‘small magazines’ - Meanjin (in a minor key cont.)

One of the Internet’s negative aspects is also its greatest strength; everyone and anyone can be published, with no intermediary: it’s DIY in excelsis. No-one could argue against this, but it has also weakened the status of print publications, such as literary magazines (and newspapers, of course).

In this era of vast mass publishing, there is a constant hum of content where high/low jostle for attention. Readers skim, scan, jump & start up again, go to the comments, make comments. It’s a totally new process of reading. Lost here, though, is any feeling that you are entering a private space. Choosing to read something, over an extended period of time – just like choosing to listen to a record over an extended period of time … - is personal. The fact that you have made that choice makes it more intimate.

My father sent me two books for Christmas: Ten ways not to commit suicide the memoir by Darryl McDaniels – aka DMC (from the legendary 80s hip-hop group, Run-DMC) and the most recent issue of Meanjin, a literary magazine that has been in existence since 1940. I’m reading both in bits and pieces as a break from my reading/writing on the (terrorist) ‘brothers’ and haven’t finished either. Reading Meanjin again, however, reminds me of the value of small literary magazines and independent publishers …

As we all navigate our way in a more venal and frankly stupid political world, which includes the primary-school antics of El Bizarro in the US (how could he think that having Putin as ‘a fan’ is a compliment?) I think it’s time to go ‘elitist’, niche as way of affirming an alternative community. In the words of one of our wise men:

We brave in the heart, playin a part, amazingly smart
Razor sharp, futuristic raps, state of the art

Refusing the norms imposed by tabloid jesters, affirming something completely apart, can also be political and an act of transgression. 

In a literary magazine, such as Meanjin there is no effort to contort the writers, or the pieces they have written to fit into some kind of house style; the mix and diversity is what counts. Having said that you can also feel the imprint of the editorial team in a way that is unimaginable within the vast store-room of a newspaper or many online news & entertainment sources (unless they are self-consciously esoteric). And then small magazines support the eco-sytem of writers, those starting out and established, forging points of connection between disparate voices that could not, or would not fit elsewhere.

It’s hard to imagine a newspaper, or magazine showing any interest in publishing those long essays on Borges, or Houellebecq, for example: Heat edited by the understated, but crucial figure in the Australian literary world, Ivor Indyk was their obvious home. (The essay on Lou Reed appeared in an earlier issue of Meanjin).

Only part way through Meanjin I’m already been impressed by the range: Alexis Wright’s essay on Aboriginal (literary/political) dispossession, ‘What happens when you tell somebody else’s story?’ followed by Ben Wilkie’s piece on a ‘seven-metre obelisk of grey granite’ that was put up by white colonists to mark the burial place of Wombeetch Puyuun/Oombete Poonyan, who was thought the be the last surviving Djargurd wurrung person.

I liked the way the two pieces of writing – different in style and voice and sensibility and perspective, necessarily – were side by side; reading the two together was valuable, as this desire to ‘mark the passing’ of the First Nations people (the monument included the dates, 1840-1883, which Wilkie says marked the period when the local Aborigines were ‘displaced’ - his word) is, of course, problematic.

It is also rare. In Australia, as with the United States, or any country where there is a history of long-term race-based, or colonial, violence, it’s almost unthinkable for those who claim victory to keep a public record of their brutality. Wilkie ends his essay this way, in part:

As one Australian novelist put it recently, memory is a wilful dog; it visits when it’s hungry, not when you are. Maybe this is why we entrust some memories to stone but hide them away in cemeteries, away from the war memorials and pioneer monuments that take pride of place in our country towns (…)

There’s still much more besides in this issue of Meanjin – a wonderful memoir of a Polish Jewish actress who survived, Sonia Lizaron by Arnold Zable and a really strong poetry, fiction selection as well. The story by John Kinsella, ‘Sisters’ included this description of the wastrel junkie who came to stay that appealed to me: ‘He was high maintenance, but he was hardcore’.

No need to smooth any of the rough edges in any of this, the value is to be found in the clash and intersection of radically different voices; this is what gives it its spark. And again, is something unique about small independent magazines – and publishers – who are not so taken with the notion of branding themselves to compete.

Commentators offering advice on how to survive the next four years, let’s hope the Weird One loses interest in the low-energy nature of daily 'intelligence' and returns to his playground, so high up in the clouds, before then, have repeated the importance of supporting independent media, I can only endorse this.

Subscribe to small magazines, if that’s of interest, and/or support the big newspapers as they are the only vehicles with the heft and capacity to cause damage, if that is something that appeals to you.

To find out more about Meanjin, including the most recent issue's contents, go here.   

Paris Récit: Le Sweet Fast Food; Dubbing Brothers; Miss Glamour (Aubervilliers)


Commune in France

Aubervilliers is a French commune in the Seine-Saint-Denis department in the Île-de-France region in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, France. The inhabitants of the commune are known as Albertivillariens or Albertivillariennes. 

Area5.76 km²

Weather-3°C, Wind S at 5 km/h, 89% Humidity

Local timeSaturday 6:36 PM

ArrondissementSaint-Denis, Seine-Saint-Denis

TeamFCM Aubervilliers

Line 12: To my left there is a woman with her black hair pulled tight against her scalp in cornrows, in her hands she holds the open packaging for the book she has just collected from the FNAC superstore at Saint-Lazare. She has a very serious expression on her face; enormous glasses with black-rims and is dressed in dark colours, various shades of brown and black.

She looks down at the torn cardboard at the book before she puts it into her bag: Les aventures d’Alice dans le pays des merveilles (Alice in Wonderland).

A beggar gets on and starts his speech. Since arriving in Paris, I have noticed how complex the speeches of the beggars on the trains are and their distinct stages; the men – and sometimes women – begin by excusing themselves for disturbing us on our journey; they speak of their current situation and their past (often mentioning the years that they had spent working for a company, past and present illnesses and their family), they refer to us politely as Mesdames et Messieurs; the language tumbling out of their mouths in formal cadences.

This man, his grey hair sticking up from his head in grey corkscrews, then speaks of what he would like: some change, some coins for a coffee, a ticket restaurant so he can get a ‘sandwich grec’ - a kebab, he starts to describe it in detail: ‘with tomatoes, you know, and lettuce and maybe a sauce, Algerian or another, perhaps some fries.’

I get off at station Front Populaire – opened in 2012 and named after the Left-wing government that ruled France from 1936-1938. This is an area in transition, it seems, there are some housing complexes, a restaurant or two, a park and a supermarket. It’s so cold. The first bus I see has the direction: Rosa Parks.

I go the other way, and catch the bus to the Town Hall. On the way we pass a large building with the name Dubbing Brothers, and then Le Sweet Fast Food (Burgers, Tacos etc), but mainly it’s open empty blocks, some housing, it looks like there is going to be a new university campus opening there soon. Later I see a shop selling fancy, sparkly dresses called Miss Glamour. There is a small village like area with shops that have displays of bright green detergent in the window and a bookshop called ‘Sagesse d’Orient’ (Wisdom of the Orient).

At the Town Hall, it’s much more active with lots of people lining up to catch buses – the métro will be extended there soon, the stop just before the Town Hall will be named after Aimé Césaire (born in Martinique in 1913) and well-known for his 1955 paper ‘Discourse on Colonialism’ here is the start of the essay …

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization. The fact is that the so-called European civilization – “Western” civilization - as it has been shaped by two centuries of bourgeois rule, is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem; that Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of “reason” or before the bar of “conscience”; and that, increasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy which is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive.

Europe is indefensible. Apparently that is what the American strategists are whispering to each other. That in itself is not serious. What is serious is that “Europe” is morally, spiritually indefensible. And today the indictment is brought against it not by the European masses alone, but on a world scale, by tens and tens of millions of men who, from the depths of slavery, set themselves up as judges. The colonialists may kill in Indochina, torture in Madagascar, imprison in Black Africa, crackdown in the West Indies. Henceforth, the colonized know that they have an advantage over them. They know that their temporary, “masters” are lying ...

On the Town Hall there is a plaque that remembers a man who died defending Paris during the Second World War, in French, that reads:

Here Ali BRAHIM fell on the 19th August, 1944.
Foundry worker, aged 32 years-old. Dead for France.
You who pass, remember him.

Near the Town Hall, there is a large library, cultural centres, a cinema: the State is investing and has invested in this area, as it is part of the 93, one of the poorest in France. A poster reads: ‘Capitalism and borders divide us. Solidarity to all those, the men and women, who are exploited.’

A quick Google of the neighbourhood afterwards only brings up extremely negative comments from residents and others, with people commenting on the dirtiness of the place, the ‘insecurity’ and drug-deals …

Aubervilliers has more than 77,000 inhabitants, with an almost 25 % unemployment rate. The official info makes reference to a church on the historic register, Notre-Dame-des-Vertus, the fact that its theatre, La Commune, is known world-wide and the famous French poet Jacques Prévert had dedicated a poem to the town, ‘Aubervilliers’. 

The Memorial for Peace and Justice (National lynching memorial) Montgomery, Alabama

Yesterday I learnt about a proposed memorial, where the more than 4,000 Black Americans who were lynched in the United States, from 1877 to 1950 will be remembered in a striking space that will represent the bodies of those murdered, but also the horror of the experience, via the claustrophobic, disorienting display. Watch the video to see what I'm trying to express here, it's extremely powerful.

I was particularly moved by the idea of having duplicates of the stones in a 'temporary' graveyard beside the memorial that, it is hoped, will be emptied as the various counties place the marker in the site where the lynching took place. As you will see from the video, it is as if the stones are taken up into the heavens and somehow given release.

Here is some information on the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based in Montgomery Alabama that provides legal services, advice and also conducts research. The description of the organisation reads: Racial Justice; Children in Prisons; Mass Incarceration; Death Penalty and Just Mercy (the book by Bryan Stevenson, EJI founder and executive director, a book that Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu said was 'as if America's soul has been put on trial').   

And have a look at this recent interview on CBS with Stevenson where Stevenson likens the mass lynchings across the South as a form of terrorism that is frequently overlooked within the standard histories of the era. This violence, he says, was a key driver behind The Great Migration, where 5 million Black Americans left the South between 1915-1960. People were often fleeing, scared for their lives.   

Here is some more information on the project that will include a museum; you can donate to the Memorial for Peace and Justice via the EJI website.

After Berlin, December 2016 (& Marianne Faithfull)

Coming back home from Montparnasse today, the large hall with the long walk-ways leading to line 4 and 12 was closed down, with police guarding the barrier: four soldiers in camouflage, rifles across their chests were doing that fast walk, not quite running, as they made their way through the empty tunnels, in the far distance to whatever the threat was.

‘Is line 4 closed?’

‘For the moment, yes,’the SNCF attendant said, in his understated French way.

At Liège I got off, one stop before my destination, as a rangy man with slicked-down black hair and a tracksuit jerkily looked around, reached down for something in his pockets, looked around the carriage once more. He started talking to another man sitting down, a man whose eyes were red; he then quickly left the carriage to go to the next.

The newspaper headline, following the Berlin attack in another passenger's newspaper: ‘Terrorism knows no borders.’

Could have come through anytime
Cold lonely, puritan
What are you fighting for?
It’s not my security …

Paris is empty now, one week before Christmas. Now this may mean very little - ‘French people’ often leave the capital en masse, most notably in August where the boulevards are so wide, and so hot and dry, swept free of a human presence, you can walk and walk and walk and feel like you are the only person alive in this barren metropolis, with all these fine, well-preserved buildings looking down on you.

Perhaps it is simply that the Parisians have left to spend time with their families in the countryside. (As my little one told me: ‘Christmas is important for French people’).

Or maybe they have left to avoid the tense atmosphere of a city bracing itself for the possibility of further terrorist violence during the holiday period. In November, police disrupted a Daesh-affiliated group that was planning an attack at Disneyland and the Christmas markets on the Champs-Élysées. The police said that they had stopped 17 planned terrorist attacks this year in France, with Paris as the preferred target.

(Now after what has happened in Berlin, should we cancel his train journey – with Junior & Cie - I can go with him to Tours like last year … I think it will be okay, after November they have increased security. Try not to worry).

Trauma upsets notions of distance, in that after being hurt, or experiencing violence you feel like you can become a victim at any time, you have no protection and since potential danger is everywhere; you need to be alert, all the time. But being constantly alert damages you, makes you tired from the diffuse nature of the threat that is ever-present, but at the same time not real, or immediate. Sometimes I feel like my skin is similar to a wafer, or parchment. 

Living in a city that is coming to terms with terrorism, there is a further point of tension, as we are ‘taught’ via posters found everywhere, in libraries, in doctor’s offices, in schools what to do in the event of an attack. We hear repeated advisories about levels of risk put out by foreign governments, by the French state and an ongoing State of Emergency, but what is confusing is that amidst all of this we continue to lead ordinary lives, as if nothing has happened. 

All this might also reflect my current work: I have been reading, endlessly (and writing) about the perpetrators of the terrorist violence in Paris in November and elsewhere, for the book I’m developing. And reading the same story over and over again of ordinary men, leading banal lives that revolved around petty crime (drug-dealing, trafficking false documents, with some more serious charges, such as armed robbery) PlayStation, ‘beer,-hash-girls’ with the call to jihad as part of the mix.

There is nothing heroic here, and no logic behind it, even though this is something that victims and the perpetrators crave more than anything else; an argument, a cause, a logic behind the violence. We and they want it to have meant something.

But as Marianne Faithfull perceptively understood in ‘Broken English’ from 1979 – just listen to the way the bass-line overwhelms her vocals - terrorism, and perhaps all violence, is not about the brain, it operates on the level of the gut.

It is all about the machinery and currency of fear. And no matter what people like to believe (the victim, or the perpetrator) terrorist violence reflects the desire to dominate others, the pleasure of sadistic control that comes from slitting somebody’s throat as he cowers beneath you, no more than an animal.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this research has been discovering how shallow the nature of the men’s commitment is. They are not highly politicised intellectuals, or angry men avenging some profound slight, or feeling of humiliation. Of course they speak of their motivation, often using the same words or same ideas, they speak of their desire to inflict pain and suffering – and indeed ‘terror’ - on the crusaders, those living in the lands of the unbelievers, but more often than not it sounds like they are reading from a script. There is no depth there.

I'm writing this because I know many want terrorist violence to mean something to operate as an extension of racialised injustice, the shame some might feel growing up Black or North African in France, or Belgium, even if vast numbers of recruits to the jihadist cause are white converts; or that they are fighting old wars ...

This is background noise, providing a context and justification. One of the first things you notice is how international the contemporary terrorist violence is, operating across borders with multi-national perpetrators (the 'masterminds' of the November 13 atrocity in Paris were Belgian, as were many of the assailants, alongside Iraqis).

Despite the rhetoric and staged videos, these men act like gang members,  or ‘soldiers for hire’ inflicting cruelty in the same way as thugs brutalising populations after a vote in some half-forgotten country; or suicide bombers exploding in a market, at a wedding, a school, or religious service do. Only this time they are speaking in French …

It’ just an old war
Not even a cold war
Don’t say it in Russian
Don’t say it in German
Say it in broken English
Say it in broken English

Lose your father, your husband
Your mother, your children
What are you dying for?
It’s not my reality

To change the mood: I liked this extract from a 2011 interview from AV Club - AVC -  with Faithfull where she talks about Broken English, the record that marked an extraordinary return and reinvention of her career and musical style.

(The album includes the phenomenal 'Why'd ya do it?' - lyrics by Heathcote Williams, who had originally hoped that Tina Turner might record it. An amazing song that, as others have noticed, Grace Jones must have been inspired by, as it provides the template for her signature style; the soft reggae-inflected lilt and snarl).        

AVC: Speaking of your more atmospheric, Broken English was a huge break from what you’d done before.

MF: It was a wonderful record.

AVC: It’s hard to imagine the impact that sound would have had at the time.

MF: Straight from the streets. Straight from being a drug addict. It was pretty radical. And it was true. That’s always interesting. It couldn’t go on like that. I didn’t want to be angry, twisted and bitter all my life, so I had to change. And I did. Maybe it wasn’t quite as exciting and knife-edge.

AVC: What drew you to writing about the Red Army Faction’s Ulrike Meinhof on the title track?

MF: I read a book about it, so that interested me. Before Broken English, even, I was touring with that band, and we’d gone to look at the [Berlin] Wall, me and Barry [Reynolds], and it made a deep impression on me. I think I understood it, actually, the repressed Protestant thing, and very cold, and very lonely. So I read this book about the Baader-Meinhof gang, and then I was watching something on the television. I don’t remember really what it was about, but it had subtitles, and they came on and they said, “Broken English, spoken English.” I immediately wrote that down, and then I wrote the song. 

AVC: There’s a degree of empathy in the song, but you’re also addressing her: “What are you fighting for?”

MF: Yeah, it was like that in the beginning. Of course now, “Broken English,” the whole thing has widened, and it’s different. I even say, “What are we fighting for?” now. I take it more personally. 

AVC: The title could almost have referred to you at the time: broken, English.

MF: What I’m really doing, I can tell you exactly—what I recognized is that there are a certain kind of neurosis that could express itself in terrorism, and anger out. One thing is sure, to be a drug addict, the anger is all going in. You’re hurting yourself. But with a terrorist like Ulrike Meinhof, she’s hurting other people, and that interested me. I could feel “There but for the grace of God….” I was very glad I wasn’t a terrorist. I wasn’t that happy to be a drug addict, but anyway, I got over it.

Armistice Day, 2016

He was different from the other older journalists as he had down-shifted to a video journalist position after having been employed in a senior managerial role at the TV station. A lanky man, with a simple enthusiasm for his craft, he let me shadow him one afternoon when he interviewed a union official about a scandal involving the local Labor Party at Newcastle, a mid-sized town south of Sydney. 

White-hot sun hit the windscreen, the ocean was a striking blue, as he informally shared what he’d learnt over the years about being a journalist. One comment stayed with me and comes back to me now. Our role, he said, is to be alert to all forms of injustice, or oppression, no matter who it affects. There was no hierarchy of value in terms of stories we do, he said, and no hierarchy of victims.  

Back then, I was heavily involved in activism against Australia’s immigration detention system. Regular contact with asylum seekers locked up in Baxter gave me a knowledge that I often wished I didn’t have, of baton assaults by guards and police, military-style charges, the use of tear gas and water cannon and solitary confinement and various petty forms of humiliation metered out with glee by the low-paid guards, working 12-hour shifts with little job security. Indeed, I nearly lost my job at the national broadcaster after I offered to help with a campaign and foolishly mentioned the name of my employer in the online posting. 

Post-Trump’s election I recall this journalist’s comment as if we – those on the Left – are to learn anything from this upset, which follows Brexit and may pre-date Marine Le Pen’s presidential election next year in France, we need to think critically of our past political actions, as surely the success of these populist movements reflects, to a certain degree, our own negligence.

The motivation behind my activism against the immigration detention system reflected my belief, which remains unchanged, that it was the greatest injustice in Australia at that time (not the only one, but certainly the most extreme). Having said that, I also can see that in some ways it was easier to focus on this issue than other ones, in that the oppressor and the oppressed were clearly defined, and it was separate to me and my immediate experience (or sense of self as someone with a racial identity, or as someone who was part of a broader community).   

In my journalism I wrote about the staff working in the detention centres, who were without exception white, and had done previous activist work within largely white communities, but still I conceived my work as a fight against the State and an abstraction, structural racism and in so doing, I didn't spend much time trying to understand the frustration felt by 'poor whites' - and other whites across all social classes - who supported the country's hard-line approach to boat people.

Such frustration rapidly coalesces into feelings of victim-hood, as we are now seeing. This is something Trump and Marine Le Pen in France know all too well. Listen to Trump’s standard speeches: two themes dominate the idea of ‘winning’ (he is winning, everywhere all over the place, winning the polls, winning in his business, therefore you will too) and his expressions of affection for his audience. Whenever he says how miners in West Virginia are good guys it’s easy to dismiss it as ridiculous, coming from a man who embodies economic privilege, but his supporters clearly felt otherwise. 

All this is good politics – a clear simple message of belonging, of being one and the same people. Marine Le Pen’s National Front understands this as well, of course, with the party’s slogan ‘On est chez nous’ which can be translated as ‘we’re at home’ (but also has the suggestion of ‘this is our place’). Where are similar politicians on the Left who can express similar sentiments, or seem sincere while doing so?

Far too often, it seems to me, all the oxygen among commentators and Left politicians is spent on expressions of feeling – of shock and outrage and judgement  - and an obsession about what is said, rather than done. As one commentator said recently Trump’s supporters took him ‘seriously, but not literally’ while his opponents took him ‘literally not seriously’.  

Sometimes though I also wonder if the appeal of defending those who are different to us (perhaps this is most obvious in a racial sense, I saw a white English columnist after Trump’s win refer to his/our need to stand beside ‘our black brothers and sisters’ what does that even mean?) reflects a radical chic, or virtue signalling and we do it because it easier. Like a classic black and white photograph the two 'sides' of the image are so clearly defined. 

Might the US election outcome have been different if all that energy spent denouncing Trump’s racism/sexism/xenophobia had been directed towards humble development work in ordinary, low-income communities across the United States whose residents saw themselves represented in his message of reinvention and rejuvenation?  

It pains me to write this, but in the end, our words are just that: words. They do not equal social change brought about by court judgments or elections. We need to remember that, as otherwise it’s going to be a painful winter and new year.   

(About a week has passed since I wrote this post above and I think I might be wrong about the expression of victim-hood etcetera displayed in the Trump vote; am feeling a bit despondent seeing the happy-face expressions of white racism since the election. The worst was a 'joke' cough where students at a high school in Florida put up the Jim Crow era signs, 'Whites only' and 'Colored' over a water fountain. Hil-ar-i-ous).