Stroke of brilliance behind Aussie crawl

“There are not enough great international novels about failure. This is one of them.”

A Writer’s review of Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda.

AN Australian book tackling the mask of bravado worn by the successful Aussie sportsman was well overdue by the time Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda was published in 2013.

The author could have chosen from a multitude of codes and team pursuits, but focussing on competitive swimming was an exquisite selection. An individual pastime that traps the practitioner in a world broken down into opposing elemental forces – wet and dry, fast and slow, breath and suffocation, diving in and getting out – it also polarises the story’s hero into a gripping battle between himself and others.

barracudaYoung Danny’s wilful ascent to the pinnacle, assisted by the affirmation of a scholarship to a sports-connected Melbourne private school, is told with relentless energy. While he is an outwardly defiant creature who carries important secrets, Danny’s inner voice reveals truths he cannot escape from. Tsiolkas lets us see him within and without, a technique that breaks all the rules yet rounds-out his hero’s lies and hidden pain so effectively.

With his quick, sharp stabs, Tsiolkas is a writer who gets under the skin, but his blade is just in this ripping tale of ambition and competition and their devastating impact on families.

The way the author toys with time challenges the reader’s sense of hope for Danny. Swapping between future, past and present events always gave me hope – too much of it – that somehow Danny would find redemption in his climb to the heights of Olympic fame.

But Tsiolkas’ montage style does a lot more than that. His frenzied, fast-moving juxtapositions underpin the speed at which I was able to read this work. I have not felt so enlivened by a book since Tim Winton’s page-turning, problematic work of genius, The Riders.

In the late 1990s, when Tsiolkas’ first book Loaded was filmed as Head On, I read an interview with Tsiolkas in which he challenged the very idea of the ‘Aussie Battler’, and my life being what it was at that time – in a process of great upheaval as I was coming out – I could do nothing but cheer for his indictment of old-fashioned notions of what constitutes an Australian family.

Barracuda is a deeper exploration of similar territory, although since Head On, Tsiolkas’ work has become far more expansive, taking more prisoners along the way.

In The Slap he was accused of padding out a powerful if repetitive story, but Barracuda pulls off this style in a more life-enlarging way, as Danny’s journey plays out unexpectedly well beyond school and the swimming pool.

His journey back from the brink charts classic recovery territory, but it also breaks new ground.

BIG FISH Australian author Christos Tsiolkas.
BIG FISH Australian author Christos Tsiolkas.

Danny is another of Tsiolkas’ living, breathing gay protagonists, and the choices he faces about loving relationships are written with a resounding ring of truth. The visceral sex scenes, underpinned by gripping descriptions of the desires behind the mechanics, speak to much more than the act itself. They go to the heart of identity, just another tool in Danny’s arsenal of choices, like winning races, remaining his family’s hero, and the role of men in society.

In the dénouement, I wondered whether the amount of expression Danny and his family achieve was realistic – it’s the kind of resolution many yearn for in real life, particularly those who have not lived up to the expectations they’ve put on themselves, or had placed on them by others.

But Tsiolkas’ fractured style allows us to see the untruths and the emotional shortcomings his protagonist does not see in himself. In some ways this puts us, and Danny, back at square one, but it feels apt.

With Danny’s second chance, Tsiolkas is asking the reader to wonder if life is possible without some degree of lying to oneself.

There are not enough great international novels about failure. This is one of them.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

 

 

We need to talk about Pauline

“One Nation sends mixed messages, and its followers are able to live with policy blind spots, just like other Australians.”

WITH no result on election night, it wasn’t too surprising when people came up to our market stall at Cleveland in South East Queensland on Sunday morning asking who’d won. We weren’t selling anything, but petitioning voters in the federal electorate of Bowman about marriage equality. Recognising the rainbow flag and the symbol of national lobby group Australian Marriage Equality, many assumed we were a good bet to talk politics.

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I did an eye roll after I mentioned to a punter that one thing was sure: Pauline Hanson had been elected to a Queensland Senate spot. This shopper jumped in with a couple of perceived positives about Pauline. “Not many people really take the time to find these things out,” she said. A bit chastened, I back-pedalled behind my concerns about how Hanson will vote on marriage equality.

But it bugged me. The petition I have been championing since April across the region I’ve lived in for almost four years has led me to feel I have a place in this community, whereas my sudden education about Pauline Hanson’s popularity reminded me with a thud that the place I am living is Queensland, One Nation’s spiritual home.

Screen shot 2016-07-05 at 10.27.27 AMWith nothing new to report on vote counting, the media flocked to Pauline Hanson’s press conference on Monday. Twitter exploded. The mainstream media followed. News Corp’s was the first lead story I saw, with the headline: “What Pauline Hanson thinks”.

As a former sub-editor, I thought it was either a lazy header or one dripping with irony. The story behind it proved to be no story at all, just a list of direct quotes from Hanson’s presser (sourced from Australian Associated Press) interspersed with capitalised sub-headings. The only journalistic intervention was filtering out the clearest quotes from the Hanson press conference and packaging them in easy-to-consume bites.

I scanned through the list to find meaning. It was in the last two lines: “ON MEDIA TREATMENT ‘Don’t take me out of context what I’m saying here at all’.”

Irony, then. One way to capture Pauline, unfiltered.

Not quite believing what I was reading, I sought a recent precedent for what I saw as a dumbed-down approach to reporting Hanson. Buzzfeed wasn’t as stripped-back as NewsCorp, but in late 2015 it ran with what looks like dialogue in a screenplay when seeking more information on James Ashby’s role on Hanson’s staff. Their reason: Hanson Redux is big on the legal threats.

Twitter storm

No Fibs’ editor-in-chief Margo Kingston took to Twitter Monday afternoon with her eyewitness accounts of Hanson from the late 1990s:-

She also linked One Nation to the growing popularity of offshore processing of asylum seekers:-

Margo followed this up with an opinion piece in The Guardian – her debut on that news source – in which she appealed to Australians to “have the conversation” with Pauline.

da16197630f4974d2bc7fad3b990db88Despite Margo’s experience in the Hanson space (she wrote the definitive book about Hanson – Off The Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip) her suggestions garnered Kingston a lambasting on social media.

Somewhere between Hanson’s second chance in parliament and Kingston’s experience of the real woman, is there a way to understand what One Nation wants without getting labelled a Hanson apologist or a sneer?

An education

Overnight, a German friend posted Pauline Hanson’s infamous “Please Explain” 60 Minutes video on Facebook, which I had never seen in full. When it was first broadcast I was living in the United Kingdom, unaware, as so many were, that the seeds of Brexit were already growing in the widespread dissatisfaction of the post-Thatcher years.

I watched it Tuesday morning with great interest, Margo’s appeal in my mind, seeking any evidence of commentators or others giving Hanson the chance for a dialogue.

I found it in the last third of the clip (after 22’00”). To her credit, Hanson visited Palm Island in 1996 as the independent Member for Oxley after Charles Perkins (deputy chairperson of the now defunct ATSIC – The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) challenged her to see the region in addition to having such strong opinions about it.

Hanson met a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) women, perhaps community elders. One addressed Hanson calmly and said: “You are a very young person. You’ve quoted your age as 42, that is still very young. Not so much in age, I’m not talking about years, but knowledge. What I would like you see you do, Pauline, is get educated.”

This was before the international media’s presence at the Sydney Olympics raised Australians’ level of awareness about ATSI language groups. The concept of Aboriginal Knowledge (that which you seek from community Elders) was not widely known enough for the journalist – or Hanson – to realise how uninitiated we all were in the way ATSI communities operate.

Hanson’s immediate reaction was not recorded in that interview, but by the time she was back on the couch answering Tracey Curro’s quite calmly-delivered question about xenophobia, Hanson was not about to admit she was proposing simple solutions to complex problems.

“Those people are there because they want to be there, and it is causing problems, because they want to live there,” she said of the generations of Palm Island residents, descendants of the penal colony created there.

“Where would you suggest they go?” Curro asked, neutrally.

“I’m not saying they up and leave, but they’ve got to accept it, that they are away from mainstream Australia,” Hanson relied.

A telling precursor to former prime minister Tony Abbott’s 2015 description of ATSI communities as a “lifestyle choice” two decades later.

For many progressives, that’s the end of the conversation.

Let’s talk

In the past two days, I’ve been trying to find a primary source for the positives that the punter at Cleveland used to convince herself that a vote for Pauline Hanson was justified, and I just cannot find one. They’re an urban myth that wouldn’t bear publishing here.

trudeI could have asked her why she voted for Hanson – ‘had the conversation’ with her – but on reflection she was defensive, and so was I. What would I have said if I found her misquoting incomplete half truths? What would she have done if I’d pressed her to come up with proof?

When pressed to give answers in 1996, Pauline Hanson retreated into an old saying about having to be cruel to be kind when it came to Palm Island, and perhaps nothing has changed in two decades.

The divide between ‘ordinary’ and ‘privileged’ Australians observed so effectively in Kath & Kim served as a more palatable way to have the conservation in the wake of One Nation’s demise, but it’s disappeared from our screens in time for Pauline’s return.

Hanson Redux is moving at pace, although it is fluid. On Tuesday’s ABC Radio National morning radio news, One Nation supporters distanced themselves from the racist and anti-Muslim elements of Pauline Hanson’s Monday press conference.

Labelling such differences as hypocrisy isn’t helpful. Like all political parties, One Nation sends mixed messages, and its followers are able to live with policy blind spots, just like other Australians. Labor’s policy match with the Liberal’s on offshore detention of refugees comes to mind.

But I am not so sure about having the conversation.

Perhaps conversations are not on Pauline’s agenda this time? During a hung parliament, do conversations revolve around listening and understanding, or do opposites simply thrash out the horse trading in the pursuit for power, legislation by legislation?

Talk is cheap, and if we were brave enough, we’d admit we just don’t like having conversations with other ideologies. We leave that to those we elect, Pauline Hanson included.

If we cannot live with what the politicians are saying to one another, we do something, like petitioning in public, or creating new political parties… hey, did I just find common ground with One Nation through nothing more than a conversation with myself?

This article also appears on No Fibs

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Go beyond the like button (you know you want to)

“Westerners have lost touch with one of our strongest power bases: we are consumers.”

PROGRESSIVES internationally are being hit with some hard facts, from the reality of the United Kingdom’s vote to end its politico-economic links with the European Union (EU); through the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican United States presidential candidate; to Australia’s problem catching up with both nations on the human rights inherent in Marriage Equality.

It’s become impossible to participate on social media without also being hit with online petitions.

“But is it realistic?” I saw one concerned Remain voter ask her Facebook friends, of yet another public vote attempting to reverse the Brexit result.

It could be, I wanted to reply, if only you’d just sign it.

But I didn’t write that response (I just said “sign them all, in only takes a few minutes”) because we keyboard warriors and slacktivists get very sensitive about doing much more than ‘liking’ stuff.

Liking is good. It’s a show of hands sweeping through our Facebook feed, but let’s be real for a minute: Liking really achieves nothing. No-one has to show up. At best, it’s little more than virtual loyalty over morning coffee.

I was reminded this week (by another Facebook post) of the principles of the civil rights movement, and the way it continues to define change in Western nations where politicians and corporates have stymied communities and left us feeling speechless and disenfranchised.

Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus on December 21, 1956, the day Montgomery's public transportation system was legally integrated.
BACK SEAT BOYCOTT Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus on December 21, 1956, the day Montgomery’s public transportation system was legally integrated.

I also reminded myself of some fundamental tenets of most democracies, proven long before the social media came along. People generally have the right of assembly, demonstration and petition – that is, we should not fear meeting, protesting with and canvassing other members of the public for common views.

From the Montgomery Bus Boycott triggered when African-America Rosa Parks refused to give her seat up for an Anglo-American passenger in 1955; to the Sudanese Civil War Sex Strike, when Samira Ahmed encouraged wives to abandon sexual relations with their husbands until the second Sudanese Civil War ended, people have been taking relatively peaceful, simple stands to enact lasting change.

It was a pamphlet distributed by community leader Jo Ann Robinson that reminded African-Americans of a mathematical reality – that they were the majority of Montgomery’s bus ticket-buying marketplace – and they reacted with courage. Bus travel was out, replaced by car-pooling and other simple efforts actioned by individuals, and by 1956 the Montgomery racial segregation laws were ruled unconstitutional.

It’s never completely simple, it’s never totally peaceful, yet withholding what a large number of people want has proven to move mountains, particularly when what they want is our money.

“International corporate and individual brands are already making such decisions easier for consumers.”

Perhaps it’s the weight of all our first-world problems, but Westerners have lost touch with one of our strongest power bases: we are consumers with an array of choices when it comes to everything from the weekly groceries, to clothing, entertainment and countless other products and services.

Nationalistic movements like Brexit, populist candidates such as Trump, and human rights outcomes linked to a nation’s economy (Malcolm Turnbull’s commitment to spend $160 million on an unnecessary plebiscite on Marriage Equality) leave themselves wide open to economic boycotts.

The internet makes it relatively easy to find where products originate and which corporates support or political candidates and movements. Some are politically savvy and hedge their bets, but most are not.

In just a few clicks, you can choose between banks, department stores, communications companies, financiers and even restaurants that support causes you’re aligned with.

In just a few well-directed emails, you can ensure other companies know why you’re making the choice to spend your money with their competition.

Although sites are cropping up that make it very easy, there’s no need for blanket bans on buying British or American products – remember, not everyone in the United Kingdom wanted to leave the EU and not everyone in America is voting for Trump.

Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling went public on Brexit.
HARRY’S WAY Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling went public on Brexit.

But one of the most powerful things you can do is to ask a simple question of the management in these companies. Are you supporting Trump? Do you want to leave the EU?

They’ll be affronted, no doubt. They might not even give you a clear answer, but it’s your money, right? You get to choose where you spend it.

International corporate and individual brands are already making such decisions easier for consumers. Richard Branson came out early as a Remain supporter in the Brexit fallout on behalf of Virgin Group. British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver likewise made his Remain stance crystal clear for his followers.

One of Britain’s most lucrative (and nationalistic) cultural exports of the past two decades is the Harry Potter brand, yet Harry Potter wants to stay in the EU! Author J.K. Rowling is one of the highest-profile Remain advocates in the unfolding Brexit landscape.

Silicon Valley CEOs went public earlier this year about their concerns over Donald Trump’s presidential nomination. Large US retailers, media outlets and sporting and cultural events led the way a year ago.

A snapshot of Australian corporates that support Marriage Equality.
CORPORATE BACKING A snapshot of Australian corporates that support Marriage Equality.

National Lobby Group Australian Marriage Equality has published a growing list of more than 1000 corporate entities that support changing Australia’s Marriage Act to allow equal access to same-sex couples. I’ve been using it for more than a year to make high-street choices that sit better with my equality activism.

Consumer boycotting often gets negative attention, amid suggestions that it’s ineffective, or a form of trade protectionism; whereas in actual fact, it’s already proven itself to have deep impact at the highest corporate level in Australia.

Australian telecommunications giant Telstra wavered on its public expression of its support for Marriage Equality in April this year, reportedly under pressure from Christian organisations threatening a boycott of Telstra services across Catholic organisations.

But the consumer backlash was fast and profound, and Telstra was forced to reassert its public support for legal reform of Australia’s Marriage Act.

There’s a whole world of consumer boycotting going on – check out the site that claims to be: “The most comprehensive English language list of progressive boycotts”.

There isn’t a ‘dislike’ button on the majority of social media platforms. Facebook has no plans for one. If there was, social media shareholders might lose their grip on this lucrative new wave of media – and millions in advertising revenue – when participants grow sick of their thoughts and opinions garnering the type of protests that a thumbs-down would attract.

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Perhaps that leaves some hope for progressive politics? With no way to give the thumbs-down at the keyboard, the only thing left – if you’re still frustrated – is to do something.

This article also appears on No Fibs

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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