Australia

Definition/Development/Other: writing on, listening to hip-hop instrumentals

Of interest is that moment where the person seeking out new music stops, that moment when a song quells the impatience, or desire to discover one more track, one more hit. The music that interrupts the “digging,” if you prefer, across genres, eras, associated with labels, musicians, whatever the self-imposed limits might be. The music that stops the person zoning out and gives them pause, as it’s here in that moment that we can see the grain of personality.

As someone afflicted by music-compulsion-fixation, or to put it more positively, someone who listens to an enormous amount of music daily because of my restless essence and “for work,” a typical day – no correct that, a typical morning/early afternoon - might move from gospel to dub, House, disco, 80s Australian indie (if feeling homesick/sentimental) to end on classical music or jazz albums (to instil order, help me focus when I sit down to write, or provide the soundtrack for cooking dinner, folding clothes, throwing out papers, whatever the activity might be).

Always in the midst of this there will be a mix of some hip-hop instrumentals.

Some of them will be YouTube recommendations, but mostly they’ll be my choices, music to echo energy, or connect with something that interests me and I want to understand better. Often my search will be for something “simple” - music clear in its intention that doesn’t require too much thought – but equally it could be music that derives from obligation, the perceived need to listen to this artist, that release because it’s new or said to be important.

Hip-hop instrumentals then. It surprises me that their appeal has been so constant, since picking up the genre again; why aren’t I more taken by MC-led tracks, especially since I’m so “wordy” walking around the streets, doing my stuff, with all those sentences taking shape in my head? Of course I have written on a fair number of MCs, still. A large part of it is curiosity about sample-based production and admiration for its essential conceit. There is still something magical about this process of reconstruction for me, where music is created from the scraps from another’s imagination/creativity. Political too, when it’s remembered who is making this music – for the most part – and the circumstances in which it’s done.

Each story of a twelve year-old boy (and it is still a boy, unfortunately) starting out – despite all and everything - and then their total dedication to learning their craft impresses me. Geto Boys’ DJ Ready Red who recently passed away, for example, shares memories of his grandmother coming in to find his teenage self asleep with “headphones wrapped all around (him)” because he’d be “sleeping with the drum machine, or be asleep at the turntables” in Lance Scott Walker’s Houston Rap Tapes, published this year.

READ MORE

Related article: "In a melancholy mood: writing on hip-hop quiet (instrumentals from the 90s)" version one & version two

In praise of: ‘Manifesto,’ dir. Julian Rosefeldt, starring Cate Blanchett (2017)

‘Nothing is original (okay?)’/‘So you can steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration and fuels your imagination (okay)?’

Cate Blanchett, ‘Cinema’ Manifesto, playing the part of an Australian primary school teacher

'Manifesto  is a 2015 Australian-German multi-screen film installation written, produced and directed by Julian Rosefeldt. It features Cate Blanchett in 13 different roles performing various manifestos. The film was shot over 12 days in December 2014 in locations in and around Berlin. The film premiered and screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from December 9, 2015 to March 14, 2016. The installation was also shown in Berlin at the Museum für Gegenwart (at Hamburger Bahnhof), from February 10 to July 10, 2016, and the Park Avenue Armory in New York City from December 7, 2016, to January 8, 2017.

A 90-minute feature version premièred at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017

The film integrates various types of artist manifestos from different time periods with contemporary scenarios. Manifestos are depicted by 13 different characters, among them a school teacher, factory worker, choreographer, punk, newsreader, scientist, puppeteer, widow, and a homeless man. The film consists of 13 segments, each 10:30 minutes long.' 

Six people in the cinema, including me, it’s around lunch-time at the Cinéma des Cinéastes (Place de Clichy is just outside, the location written about by Henry Miller in books I thought about re-writing, or at least parts of them, from the point of view of the absent women). All very appropriate when watching Cate Blanchett feminise, embody, the great texts I studied as a much younger woman at high school and university. 

Listening to her intone the pop-sensibility of Claes Oldenburg as if it were a prayer, when saying grace to her own family (eyes closed, to their sudden laughter at one point) or declare the Dada manifesto at a funeral, spitting out the words with spite, at times. Here is an extract from one of the many manifestos written by Tristan Tzara, this is from 1918.

Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada; a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action: Dada; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners:

DADA; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create:

DADA; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets:

DADA: every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight:

DADA; abolition of memory: Dada; abolition of archaeology: DADA; abolition of prophets: DADA; abolition of the future:

DADA; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity:

DADA; elegant and unprejudiced leap from a harmony to the other sphere; trajectory of a word tossed like a screeching phonograph record; to respect all individuals in their folly of the moment: whether it be serious, fearful, timid, ardent, vigorous, determined, enthusiastic; to divest one’s church of eve ry useless cumbersome accessory; to spit out disagreeable or amorous ideas like a luminous waterfall, or coddle them—with the extreme satisfaction that it doesn’t matter in the least - with the same intensity in the thicket of core’s soul pure of insects for blood well-born, and gilded with bodies of archangels. Freedom:

DADA DADA DADA, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies …

Originally created as an art installation with all the texts being heard at the same time, here they are transformed into ‘readings’ - as in readings for an audition, we are always aware that they are being performed because of Blanchett’s technique (see, for instance, that striking scene where she is a ‘tattooed punk’ inhaling smoke on the word ‘incandescence’ as if mocking the pretentious nature of the word and language itself. When checking this scene after writing that sentence, I realised this is my imagination, the inhalation of smoke follows the words, it does not frame them).  

I like the way the characters are named, this in itself is poetic: 'Burning flame; homeless man; broker; worker in an incineration plant; CEO at a private party; tattooed punk, scientist; funeral speaker; puppeteer; conservative mother with family; choreographer; newsreader and reporter; teacher.'

Watching this film with its emphasis on foregrounds and still scenes (or aerial shots in the dramatic opening sequence) makes you think more about how cinema is something that is constructed. With this in mind the sequence with the mother leaving her sleeping child is particularly touching (and honest, I was grateful that there was no last-minute close-up of the mother embracing her child).

Outside as the dishevelled woman goes to her motorbike in an environment that echoes her face, etched with neglect, the scene reminded me of the great artist Chantal Akerman’s portraits of women and women’s lives. (Minutes earlier the character has the most remarkable language, poetry and politics fill her mind, as she wearily gets ready to go to work). 

Here are links to all the texts and the scenes and this music makes up the soundtrack:

'I wanna be black’ (Lou Reed cover, sung by Eva - Annalisa Eva Paolucci)

I wanna be black
I wanna be a Panther
Have a girlfriend named Samantha

This cover of the Lou Reed ironic-jab, first released on his masterwork Street Hassle (1978) is re-imagined here by the (black) singer/songwriter from Rome, Eva (Annalisa Eva Paolucci). Eva stamps it with a swampy groove, hissing the final ‘s’ on Jews and cuts it down to one minute in duration. She sharply pronounces the ‘t’ unlike Lou Reed, being so careful about her articulation; the way she pronounces the words (in a foreign language, a language not her own).

                ‘So, what do you write about?’ 

                I hesitate a bit, ‘Mainly music, black music – hip-hop and jazz, dub sometimes – politics, race and um, terrorism in France, that kind of thing. Films.’

                ‘You write about Black Lives Matter?’

                ‘Ah not exactly,’ I reply and then launch into an un-needed explanation as to why. Women often talk about the imposter syndrome where they get to a point of success, or prominence in their career and feel that it’s somehow undeserved as if they are just about to be married and a voice from the back calls out some objection, some mention of their unworthiness. Without wanting to embody a ‘white person cliché’ (exhibit no. 1) explaining, explaining presence, motivations, seeking absolution from a faceless mass, making questions about identity central to what they do, sometimes I pinch myself when thinking about my presence in this hip-hop world. I have never lived it and never will.

I don’t understand much of what is being said a lot of the time – I ask my friends in the US to help out with translations - I take notes when listening to the music, read about it in libraries, and think about it a lot when I’m walking around, mapping out paragraphs, but as I said in this piece on Donny Hathaway’s ‘Giving Up’ I’m listening in here; I’m visiting.

Outside of this fish out water situation – too pale, too female, too justified & ancient - which can lead to some pretty funny situations at times, if I’m being completely honest, it feels natural to me. I mean, just thinking about genres, there is no real competition is there, in terms of what is happening now? What else is there to write about as a music writer - rock music? Folk music, oh no, please help me. Polka? Brass bands? Jazz? Dub? I’m decades too late for both of those. Electronic music, if you want to speak about patterns of male domination, well … even if there is a whole array of amazing women who DJ in the DnB scene, it’s true.

What appeals to me in all this, outside my obsession with hip-hop as an idea, as a practice is the opportunity to learn, while making connections with people different to me. My fantasy is one day for me to discover a writer-me, a fan-me in reverse, say a black American (or anyone who is noticeably different etcetera) who is intrigued by something I have lived, or know about personally: just imagine the scene, a chance encounter where they start to riff on The Australian New Wave …

(A girl, a boy, a school …)

Or sandy-as noise bands from the 70s on, someone who likes and gets the genius of The Go-Betweens or whatever it might be. Someone who doesn't talk to me about cuddly Australian animals as first subject upon meeting. Sadly, this never happens: all I get is condemnation about how backward/racist Australia is, something I’m more than happy to expand upon – though this has happened more in Paris, if I’m honest (Americans in my experience, are far too polite to raise their views about my non-kosher ethnic origins in professional contexts, see, for example, their ma’am-reflexes, something I still can’t get used to, even though I’m trying).

I remember seeing a (black) American friend comment on how in his experience, there is no community more ‘welcoming’ than the black American one; major generalisation, I know, but still. This has been my experience as a writer working on topics linked to black music and issues relating to race-based violence and has carried me along over the years. I have been deeply touched by the way people have allowed for me to find my own little niche here, and in so doing helped me find my voice again (after years in the metaphorical wilderness). These personal connections may, in fact, be the reason for much of my fretting, my concern to do the right thing.

I understand the very justified concerns about cultural appropriation and the deep pain and loss that lies behind it. This again makes me careful, being very aware of the stereotypes about ‘white women’ that are so prevalent in the U.S. On one end of the equation, ‘white women’ are superficial and far too fond of Starbucks, on the other end they are rapacious vampires, cf Get Out, or all lachrymose as a way of bringing the attention back to them, in the wake of yet another atrocity. (On a related note: my greatest fear, or one of them as cultural interloper is that in all of this I’ll come across as some kind of intello-Kardashian, even if my dominant reaction to all these rappers and their work is more mum-affectionate than anything else: they are all so young! There are so many boy-wonders in this genre it’s hard to keep track; girl-stars are there as well, but less recognised maybe. There is less oxygen allowed them).

To return to the cover at the start of this missive then of Lou Reed’s deeply ironic take on white Americans – and others too perhaps – feeling the temptation to Dolezal, chopped back here by a heavily-accented black Italian singer called Annalisa Eva Paolucci. My hope is that this work of mine, this project to connect with others, written from a distance/another continent will make space, hopefully for other women – come on, now most rap’s not that macho – and also encourage others to cross over into not so familiar worlds.

Nothing better than starting a journey without a map, or arriving at a station late at night, no hotel reservation made. (Hope that doesn’t sound like I’m trying to convert anyone here ...)  

At Merricks Beach

That enveloping darkness of the night, as if it were black material punctured by stars. She says to me, ‘Come here now, don’t be afraid; I’m here with you.’ We walk down to the beach, the modest bay beach where no houses, or developments can be seen, the sand is grey with dark-brown flecks of wooden twigs, the gnarled roots of the shrubby bushland is all around us.

‘Come on,’ she says to me, walking ahead of me, avoiding the low-hanging branches of the ti-tree, the branches with shaggy bark falling off at all kinds of angles,

‘Come on, now,’ she walks onto the empty beach. The air is warm; it is late summer. In the far distance we can see the island, lights blinking intemperate.

‘Just get a taxi, come over whenever you want.’

That night the guys from the local pub most probably came over, from the neighbourhood of Greek shoe-repair shops, Lebanese take-aways and the Italian show-rooms of shiny white furniture, ‘Come over whenever, I’ll be awake – catch a cab, I’ll pay.’

Maybe that night in that rented house without central heating, the oven was left open to provide some heat, maybe the guys were still awake – eyes bleary from the beer – talking with my sister in the kitchen, as I slept on the floor of the corridor wrapped in one of her boyfriend’s woollen jumpers, tied around my body like a swaddled baby. Maybe I fell asleep to the sounds of her laughing with her mates in the kitchen, as the morning light came.

Maybe I fell asleep with that acrid smell of damp and cigarettes that always seemed to hang to the walls, or with one of the many cats she’d adopted, or found on the street somewhere nuzzling up against my body. This sister of mine born two days after Christmas, named after a saint whose face was illuminated in the darkness by candles, whose face was – as my mother used to say – like a pane of glass with all the various emotions passing over it like water. 

O my heart, o my heart, shies from the sorrow

Last night as I tried to sleep, my heart pounded in my chest, as if the space there were being hollowed out by the movements of a blunt knife. My sister turns to me, before we get to the beach, a lit cigarette in her hand is orange like embers,

‘Come on now,’ she says. ‘Do not be afraid. I’m with you.'

Here I am, here I am/Waiting to hold you

Groundlessness (Pema Chödrön's 'When things fall apart') & Tim Buckley's 'Hallucinations'

Even though I’m challenging myself to think differently about my life, why highlight one moment over another, I ask myself; why hold onto one experience as being transformative, rather than another especially if this way of thinking encourages a certain narrative.

Earlier tonight, when listening to music and feeling moved by the music, I had a sensation somehow connected to diffuse memories of something I couldn’t recognise, perhaps something related to Australia. I wanted to hold onto the feeling, locate it, but was unable to and this inability to do so made me feel sad. I wanted to take hold of this feeling, and my longing for this place, or something related to one of my earlier lives (I wanted to remember the enormous skies, where the sunset paints the world above you in ridiculous extravagant hues – shards of pink, orange at times and darker colours too - and the aberrant wildness of the ocean beaches; that sensation of space, even in the cities where most of the people live).

That sensation – of sensing something and it remaining outside your grasp, inherently elusive – says something of what it is to be alive, to be human; it’s something we all share. It reminds me of an idea that I really loved when I first encountered it, carrying it around with me as if it were a charm, a rabbit’s foot on a key-chain perhaps (during one of those troubled times, if not the most troubled time). ‘Groundlessness’ in Buddhism refers to the fact that nothing is fixed, in life – in our experiences – but also in ourselves, we are constantly changing, shifting. Nothing is fixed. So it is too for our thoughts, our desires, our fixations.  

The first book by the North American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön that I bought, When things fall apart is small, the size of my hand, with a white cover that is creased, with pen marks (perhaps written by a child).

Immediately I fell in love with Chödrön’s writing and her perspective. Many people have this view of Buddhism as a happy-clappy (smiley-face) singing-thing where all the sins of the world are forgiven by people sliding through their lives with beatific smiles, well, that’s not quite accurate, let’s say. Buddhism, in its purest form, is tough and centred on discipline, while sustained by compassion for ourselves and others and the desire not to cause harm, or add to the harm that already exists. But it’s also about being honest with who we are and the nature of our lives; many, if not most, of the teachings tell of flawed protagonists bewitched by various ‘vices’ and the teachers themselves admit their own failings. It’s not as if you get to a point where you see the light and suddenly transform into some kind of angel.  

Within the covers of this book, with its subtitle, ‘heart advice for difficult times’ I found something perfectly suited to my temperament and where I was at that moment (overwhelmed by fear and feelings of being lacking, inadequate unworthy for the task facing me). The tone of the work was playful at times, but straight. What resonated with me was the idea that we needed to be still, simply be there with what faced us, not to try and escape it in diversions and distractions (even though this tendency is something we, or I, will never fully be free of: I’m always trying to escape).

We just needed to be still, there with the experience. I loved the austere tone of this, non-judgmental, but reminding us that we need to face what we fear the most (and in various forms of the traditional teachings suggesting that we speak politely to our fear and be grateful for its presence in our lives).

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
— 'Intimacy with Fear', When Things Fall Apart

Coda:  

Tim Buckley: ‘Hallucinations’ (Goodbye and Hello, Elektra, 1967)  

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.   

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). 

From the archive: 'Tales from the desert camps'

When in Australia last month thousands of documents were published in The Guardian detailing various human rights abuses and crimes committed against detained asylum seekers in the country's offshore 'camps' at Nauru (a previous Australian protectorate, the tiny island nation, now largely bankrupt after the excessive mining of phosphate - the island's only natural resource that made the country extremely rich for a period of time).

Nauru became self-governing in January 1966. On 31 January 1968, following a two-year constitutional convention, Nauru became the world’s smallest independent republic. It was led by founding president Hammer DeRoburt. In 1967, the people of Nauru purchased the assets of the British Phosphate Commissioners, and in June 1970, control passed to the locally owned Nauru Phosphate Corporation. Money gained from the exploitation of phosphate was put into the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust and gave Nauruans the second highest GDP Per Capita (second only to the United Arab Emirates) and one of the highest standards of living in the Third World.
— Wik https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Nauru

I was thinking of this history which includes Nauru taking Australia to the ICJ in 1989 over what it claimed to be Australia's 'actions during its administration of Nauru' and 'failure to remedy the environmental damage' caused by excessive mining. I was thinking of this today, crouched fully clothed by the swimming-pool (on my way to the beach) here on holiday listening to a man from Ivory Coast tell me about his country's recent history and thinking about how the countries may change, but the relationships remain the same.

GETTING WORK IN Australian detention centres was once surprisingly easy. First, you sent your CV to Australasian Correctional Management’s head office in Sydney and within a couple of days you got a call asking when you could start. No formal interview, just questions about how soon you could leave.

’Alarm bells should have been ringing, says psychologist Lyn Bender about her recruitment in March 2002, ‘but I wasn’t picking it because ACM was a great employer.’ The recruitment officer gave her the phone number of a woman who’d recently returned. ‘Call her,’ he said, ‘if you want to know what it’s like.’ Looking back now, Bender describes the phone call as bizarre. The woman talked endlessly about the uniforms, which sounded hideous, and food that sounded worse. She made no mention of the asylum seekers or ethical issues connected to their internment.

In her dimly lit consultancy rooms lined with impressionist reproductions, Bender’s voice is so quiet sometimes I struggle to hear her words. A former Lifeline manager with experience working at the maximum-security Port Phillip Prison, Bender says her interest in working with refugees was pre-conscious. ‘I had a sense it was a bit like volunteering for overseas service, overseas aid abroad. I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant, but ...’

Few friends or family showed much interest in her new job at Woomera. Perhaps because Bender had always been a bit of a loner and, at that stage, largely estranged from her conservative Jewish family. ‘I always felt like an outsider. When I went to university I joined the Rationalist Society. It wasn’t bagging religion; it was the only way I could express my despair at being dominated by the Holocaust.’

During the Second World War, Bender’s Polish father had no idea what was happening in his homeland. It was only when the survivors from Lowicz, his home town south of Warsaw, came to Australia that he found out that his family had been taken to the forest and shot soon after the invasion. ‘My father then shut himself away for several days; locked himself in his room,’ Bender says. He never recovered.

One of her clients challenged her about the new job, calling it immoral and asked how she could work in such a place. ‘I was going to see what I could do,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t going to support the system.’ Ultimately, though, she didn’t have much time to think. She left Melbourne within the week.

On her arrival at Olympic Downs, Bender was already having second thoughts. Maybe it was something to do with the airport’s oppressive atmosphere, crowded with mine workers. Driving through the desert, Bender kept seeking more information. The officer who met her flight would only say, ‘Oh, you’ll find out. It was like I’d landed in a movie in some kind of redneck town.’
— 'Tales from the desert camps' Griffith Review, 2005

'Tales from the desert camps' is probably still my favourite piece of long-form journalism published to date; taking as it does an early look at the experiences of those working in Australia's immigration detention system that in that era saw the mass detention of all arrivals in remote prison-like centres set up in former military bases in the Australian desert.

My interest then, as now was how these Australians felt about their experience of working in places where children routinely (then as now) cut the word 'freedom' into their bodies; where extreme violence was seen on a daily basis - harsh physical restraints, beatings; during riots, the use of water cannon and tear gas; the repeated use of isolation - and roles within families shifted, as parents progressively became unable to care for or protect those they loved. I was interested to hear how these Australian staff members understood their role within this system and how they managed their feelings of guilt and complicity.

Woomera, water cannon and guards near perimeter fence used in 2001 - I was there during the few days this 'incident' occurred, watching the women and children among the groups of people being pushed by the full force of the water cannon, with all the other protesters (and so-called 'refugee people') who had travelled from Australia's major cities and regional areas.

Woomera, water cannon and guards near perimeter fence used in 2001 - I was there during the few days this 'incident' occurred, watching the women and children among the groups of people being pushed by the full force of the water cannon, with all the other protesters (and so-called 'refugee people') who had travelled from Australia's major cities and regional areas.