Tag Archives: Creating Waves

Long live The Yartz

SIR LES Cultural attache and Minister for The Yartz.
SIR LES Cultural Attache and Minister for The Yartz.

A Writer’s first column.

WHEN Margo Kingston asked me to consider writing a regular arts column for No Fibs, I thought she was pulling my leg, simply because art and politics didn’t seem like a natural blend.

Aren’t artists a government’s greatest nightmare, grudgingly budgeted-for, the black sheep’s back on which Australia’s great nation couldn’t possibly be built?

The one time I was part of a policy discussion for a state election campaign, when we got around to considering the arts, someone reminded us of Sir Les Patterson, Cultural Attache and Minister for ‘The Yartz’.

We all had a laugh, and The Yartz got slotted under some other subheading, which is why I have come to the conclusion that the arts belongs on No Fibs somewhere between the black sheep and Sir Les. If you work out where that is, let me know.

Inspired by Margo, I’ve explored a 12-month plan of arty subject matter, and I’ll edit arts writing submitted by citizen journalists, which is what No Fibs is all about.

We’re calling the column ‘Creating Waves’, because we want it to push the envelope a bit, and I’m also looking forward to writing about the arts from an artist’s perspective.

I am an artist. There, I’ve said it. Roll the polemic, cue the manifesto.

Actually, this black sheep is not about to start bleating, he’s going to start dreaming. My only real beef is that artists have gotten into the habit of allowing others to speak for us, and in the social and new media, this stands to leave plenty of artists and their work behind.

“We are creating at a time when old media paradigms are shifting and reinventing themselves, which comes with plenty of economic pain and ego-bruising challenges.”

I have been a practising artist for three decades – an illustrator, designer, director, writer, producer, actor and now a journalist, because I believe there is an art to quality journalism.

Writing is probably my strongest suit, and it comes naturally, but for years I failed to get paid work as a writer. Waiting around led me into very strange country, primarily to shape corporate fantasies for big companies. Not art, not by a long shot.

In 2008, 21 years after I left a very expensive school which taught me little about being an artist, I finally learnt for myself that in order to be a writer, I just needed to start writing.

I figured that as an art form, writing was something nobody could stop me from doing. I just had to create great content. How it would get out there was a question I should no longer waste time answering. I had to trust that a pathway would become apparent as I was writing.

I started on a play and feature articles (some were picked-up by the mainstream print media), then added a novel to the mix, then another play, and landed a job as an editor required to write regular feature articles.

When that 2-year contract was not renewed due to a decline in advertising revenue, I started a blog, and committed to writing on it every week. The publish button has provided a great panacea for my need to be read, but I can’t help feeling there is a lot more to be had from online publishing.

We are creating at a time when old media paradigms are shifting and reinventing themselves, which comes with plenty of economic pain and ego-bruising challenges. Arts communities are making the same transitions, simply because audiences, readers and consumers are accessing art in an increasing number of platforms that traditional marketplaces cannot capitalise on unless they evolve.

When my first play went through the development process with a theatre company for more than three years, and it still didn’t make it onto the stage, I got frustrated enough to see if there was such a thing as YouTube for theatre.

Turns out there is, and it’s growing exponentially, using live streaming, a technique developed for corporate conferencing, but now distributing performing arts to the online community.

The real impact of this movement lies in the realisation that performing arts don’t need to be streamed from a traditional theatre venue.

Suddenly the world seemed a lot smaller; Australia’s theatre companies weren’t such powerful gatekeepers; the script-based content I’d been sweating over had a new platform; and an Australian playwright writing about foreign subject matter didn’t feel so isolated.

EBOOKS ANYONE? One of the greatest publishing revolutions.
EBOOKS ANYONE? One of the greatest publishing revolutions.

Within a few short years, E-books have gone from an industry laughing-stock to a viable means of pursuing a career as a published author. While I edit my novel, the possibility of self-publishing hangs temptingly in my consciousness.

Not long after I started tweeting I stumbled into writing for No Fibs, which has shown what political writing can achieve in the hands of voters, not politicians and their mainstream media mouthpieces.

Now we have an opportunity to see what arts writing can achieve in the hands of artists.

I will be covering topics on all art forms – nothing is off the table. If you want to review plays, movies, exhibitions, or write about your own arts practice, check out the citizen journalism training drop-down menu for No Fibs submission guidelines, and please submit.

You’ll also need to be on Twitter, which is how you’ll contact me if you’ve written something you’d like No Fibs to consider publishing. Find me @burgewords

Arts practice, policy, access, and innovation are the main areas I’ll be covering.

Practice, because artists need to create art, no excuses (no fibs!).

Policy, to discover what the Abbott Government has in store for artists, since we designed the campaigns, but didn’t make it into any three-word slogans.

Access, because all artists want to be where the action is.

And innovation, because it’s already shaping the artists’ new world faster than you imagine.

This article first appeared in No Fibs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.


I have a man here who won’t take off his hat

HATS OFF or else, in some parts of the world.
HATS OFF or else, in some parts of the world.

A Writer’s encounter with the Catholic faith.

FROM the shade of Bodhi yum-cha restaurant we could see the steeples of St Mary’s Cathedral rising above the bustling lunchtime streets of Sydney.

It was Richard’s birthday, so it was up to him where we spent our city day trip. He’d expressed an interest in going to the Australian Museum, just along the road, but the thought of the cool air inside the cathedral beckoned us both.

I’d also wanted to show Richard the reproduction marble of Michelangelo’s heartfelt Pietà sculpture of Mary and the dead Jesus in her lap, which I’d last seen on a school excursion.

That idea sealed the deal, so we paid for our meal and ascended the steps in the heat of a late summer Sydney day.

“I slid onto the cool marble floor and put my hands together.”

I spotted the ‘no photography’ sign at the last-minute, and the memory of numerous cathedral visits in Europe made me think of removing my hat. But there was no sign, and a flock of tourists in hats beyond the threshold, so I shrugged and left my cap on.

The darkness and temperature drop was immediate, as was the sense of calm away from the traffic and crowds. Richard disappeared towards a set of stunning brass gates, as we started our respectful, slow search for the sculpture.

We were soon separated by another crowd of tourists, and I waited in the half-dark by the gates until they passed.

By a door on the eastern side of the nave, I saw a sad sight: an old man, slumped pitifully against a pew, wisps of hair lifted by the breeze. A homeless man, perhaps, or someone so down on his luck that only time in this place of worship could restore him?

His demeanour was so compelling that I turned away, because looking seemed an imposition.

But as I went to move, a sudden jabbing drove into my shoulder from behind.

I turned in shock as a security guard said to me, breaking the calm: “Remove your hat!”

CATHOLIC GROUND Interior of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney.
CATHOLIC GROUND Interior of St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.

In a bit of shock, I paused, looked at the tourists near me, some of whom had heard the guard, and said: “I will, in a moment,” and turned to find my husband.

“You will remove it now,” the guard said, loudly, “hats are not allowed in the cathedral!”

I turned, looked at the be-hatted tourists, and said: “I will remove my hat, when you ask them to remove theirs.”

I moved off quickly and heard him muttering at my heels. Adrenalin rushed through me, the result of the sudden physical attack on my shoulder, and something about the guard’s attitude towards me in particular.

When I caught up with Richard, his hat in his hand, I ascertained that the original request had been made to him. The guard caught up with us and repeated his demand.

I refused, and repeated my request for hat-removal equality in the cathedral, adding that I would be more than happy to remove my head covering when the same demand had been made of all the visitors.

“Women are allowed,” he snapped, thinking he’d snookered me.

I looked at the group again. Women and men, many of both, wearing hats, a point which I assertively made to the guard, before I turned away and determined to find the Michelangelo reproduction.

His unmistakable footsteps came after me, so I did the first thing that came into my head. Inspired by George Emerson in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, who, when harassed in Santa Croce, slumped to his knees in a position of prayer, I slid onto the cool marble floor and put my hands together.

Richard chortled.

The guard stopped, tutted, and waited. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. We were in a waiting game I’d need to play to its end if I was going to stay prone, so I took my time, finished my ‘prayer’ and stood, before calmly resuming my search.

“I’d impersonated a devout catholic, so fair cop that he did his best impersonation of what he thought I was.”

My tactic got him off my back, although he kept his distance and tried a new one of his own. He reached for his mobile phone and punched numbers into it as clumsily and implausibly as a comedian would, and said: “Hello? Is that the police? Yes, I have a man here who won’t take off his hat!”

Suppressing laughter, I told him I’d give him a Logie for that performance, and we did a dance of barely controlled energy all the way back to where Richard and I had arrived, my hat firmly in place all the way.

As I left, I turned and saw the guard attempt a dreadful impersonation of a poof. Limp wrist, hand on hip, and a lisped farewell: “Bye-bye, see you laytaaa!”

I laughed. I’d impersonated a devout catholic, so fair cop that he did his best impersonation of what he thought I was, but when I told my husband outside, Richard stormed back in and demanded the guy’s name.

Holding his hand over his badge, he began a tirade that did not end until we were both ejected through the door onto the steps, the place where thousands, perhaps millions of those in need had sought help from the church: at their door.

Adding to the surrealism of the moment, the poor soul I’d taken pity on by the eastern door came over and joined in the very loud rant about respect, hats, and who gets to wear one and who doesn’t on hallowed catholic ground, saying we could do what we liked in the world, but in the cathedral, it’s their rules. All of it avoided the reality that surrounded us: many men with covered heads, going into the church unmolested.

We were spat out, rejected and thoroughly repelled, but none of it was really about my hat.

As we descended the steps, the Museum in our sights, I asked Richard if he still wanted to go there.

“No, I’ve had enough of antiquities for one day.”


We went shopping instead, and within minutes I’d worked out why the incident had happened.

Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which has taken place annually on the doorstep of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney’s gay heartland – Darlinghurst – was in its final days.

I’d read years before that LGBTIQ catholics from around the world make a point of visiting the cathedral and visibly asking for confession and communion as a form of protest.

Thus the security guards, who, I hasten to add, have very delicate gaydar sensor settings indeed. Richard and I had not held hands or been in remotely close proximity while in the cathedral, but, like most gay men, we have a kind of ‘uniform’ when it comes to clothing.

CREATING WAVESWe wear hats because we’re both rather bald, but the classic baseball cap (as opposed to the truckers’) is probably a bit of a giveaway for security in a Darlinghurst cathedral.

I’ve never been so quickly labelled as gay without opening my mouth.

And I’ve never so mistakenly labelled a soul in ‘need’.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics

The desecration of story

WE'RE WATCHING but we're sick of waiting. Smaug's eye from The Desolation of Smaug.
WE’RE WATCHING but we’re sick of waiting. Smaug’s eye from The Desolation of Smaug.

MASTER storytellers don’t come along very often. You’d think by now we’d have learnt to respect their work.

Mess with the canon of any of these literary icons, and you’ll spark a reaction of such magnitude that it could, in at least one case, cause a war. You see them at the top of the ‘Most Popular Books of All Time’ lists – Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, the various authors of The Bible, Homer, Agatha Christie, and, usually scoring two spots for his seminal fantasy titles – John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973).

Yet all of these writers’ works have been the subject of translations, adaptations, mash-ups, and spurious references in Doctor Who. It seems there is no end to re-imagining plots that have already proven themselves popular with readers.

The latest on our screens is Peter Jackson’s production of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the 1937 children’s fantasy which spawned one of the most beloved literary cycles of the 20th century – The Lord of the Rings (1954-55).

Like countless others, I devoured these works in my childhood, so it was strange when I found myself dragging my feet to see The Desolation of Smaug at the cinema.

But that wonderful shot of Smaug, unfurling his great wings, the hapless Lake Town in his sights far below, was every inch the Tolkien moment I was seeking.

Yet before we could ride the crest of the roller coaster, the credits rolled, and, with news that we’d have to wait until Boxing Day a year hence for the third instalment, I heaved a sigh of annoyance.

This was not storytelling. This was commercially delayed gratification.

Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies will never escape the criticism of taking a simple childrens’ tale and padding it into a three-part prequel to The Lord of the Rings.

We cannot blame Tolkien, of course, but it is worth noting that he created many of his early stories for his children. Imagine what the kids would have thought had Dad told the tale in three episodes, a year between each: they would have lost interest, thought their father a very mean and boring man for withholding, and revolted!

SCRIPT SPOILERS Gandalf and Radgast in search of Sauron.
SCRIPT SPOILERS Gandalf and Radagast in search of Sauron.

About half way through The Desolation of Smaug, with Gandalf off tomb raiding, my sister, not a Tolkien reader, turned to me and asked whether the disembodied shadow of Sauron was actually ‘in’ Smaug the dragon?

It was a good question, considering Gandalf and Radagast were looking for something that Bilbo already seemed to have found.

Tolkien knew how to construct a plot, and he took his time doing it. Not for him the publishing schedule of Harry Potter.

There was a very good reason why Sauron does not appear in The Hobbit: because when Tolkien wrote that childrens’ book, he was unaware how far his mythology would evolve in its sequel.

Tolkien’s collected letters reveal that at the behest of his publishers, the rise of Sauron (known as ‘The Necromancer’ in The Hobbit) was only published in an interesting appendix in The Return of the King.

Writing to a reader of The Lord of the Rings in 1964, Tolkien revealed how he connected the two books with the One Ring.

“The magic ring was the one obvious thing in The Hobbit that could be connected with my mythology. To be the burden of a large story it had to be of supreme importance. I then linked it with the (originally) quite casual reference to the Necromancer [in The Hobbit], end of Chapter. vii and Ch. xix, whose function was hardly more than to provide a reason for Gandalf going away and leaving Bilbo and the Dwarves to fend for themselves, which was necessary for the tale.”

Mythology, which runs through the works of all the writers mentioned, is the archetypal source for all tale-telling. Twist mythological rules, and everything from The Odyssey to Pride and Prejudice is at risk of being deemed, well, boring.

When Jackson and his writing team were coerced by the distributors into three Hobbit films, they needed to pad-out Tolkien’s mythology with endless sequences of Legolas slaying orcs; extensions of famous scenes, such as the dwarves’ escape from the Elven King in barrels down a river; and Gandalf the Grey sniffing his way around graves and towers with Elrond and Galadriel in search of Sauron.

DRAGON VISION Tolkien's own depiction of Bilbo's comversation with Smaug.
DRAGON VISION Tolkien’s own depiction of Bilbo’s comversation with Smaug.

I can accept Legolas, a character who never appeared in The Hobbit, and I can even buy his love interest Tauriel, a totally new creation re-addressing Tolkien’s inherent plot-misogyny, because Jackson and his writers are doing what Shakespeare did with great stories: shaking them around to find stronger, fresher ideas to engage new audiences.

But two master villains – Sauron and Smaug – in the same story is akin to having Moses and Jesus in the same telling of Exodus, or Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio. It’s too crowded to pack a real punch.

ONE RING TWO STORIES Tolkien's One Ring as it appeared in Peter Jackson's films.
ONE RING, TWO STORIES Tolkien’s One Ring as it appeared in Peter Jackson’s films.

Audiences who watch the six-movie Lord of the Rings cycle consecutively will be denied the great tension which Tolkien builds up in The Fellowship of the Ring.

They’ll miss a storyteller’s masterstroke, the linkage of Bilbo’s journey with Frodo’s through the secretion of Middle Earth’s most powerful implement, that plot device of “supreme importance” – in a place no one, not even Gandalf, ever thought to look.

To know the power and significance of the ring above being a handy trick for a hobbit engaged as a burglar, and to know the extent of Bilbo’s real enemy long before he does, is a terrible case of spoilers.

Money people don’t trust writers. They never have, and they probably never will, which is one reason why none of the Lord of the Rings movies ranks anywhere near the top of the Favourite Movies of All Time list, whereas Tolkien’s books rank second only to the stories we rely on to explain our own world’s creation.


Messing with Middle Earth might not spark a war, but it’s testament to the power of Tolkien’s writing that audiences will pay to see the butchering of his work at the hands of New Line Cinema and Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.