ImpressionsNo 3-2023 September
At the launch of the novel at Ariel Bookstore in Paddington Sydney, in November ... A few words from the Director of Sydney School of Arts & Humanities, Dr Christine Williams, on the contemporary context for publication of this highly entertaining novel about AI, which touches all of our lives today:
"It’s true that in 2023 we live in interesting times … I might even hazard the opinion that everyone who has access to the internet is over-informed – and not necessarily in a nice way.
And what will it be like in just 12 years, 2035, the year in which Robert’s novel is set?
We can only imagine, as well as experience apprehension - even fear. Robert's imagination is well up to the job in creating a credible scenario in tune with what we already experience.
Gone are the days when a few select, highly intelligent and academic-minded individuals owned an Encyclopedia Brittanica (you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Microsoft Word immediately capitalised (n.b. 'capitalised' not spelt with a ‘z’ in Australia) those two words 'Encyclopedia Brittanica' for me – thank God because I wouldn’t have known how to do it myself). But I digress … so once upon a time a few families owned volumes of Encyclopedia Brittanica and some people would immerse themselves for hours - reading, turning pages - to understand the world and its geography and politics, as well as human drama, animal and planetary conditions, and even back in the ’70s, the climate change trajectory.
Now, most urbanised people – and many non-urbanised people in ‘First World’ and developing countries – have the information world at their feet. But do they understand the information they have access to? Is it even true? The lines between fact and faction (where real people or events are treated as if fictional) are disappearing under the false banner of the term ‘fake news’ thrown into debate to create doubts. I hope at least we can all still tell the difference between fact and formalised fiction such as a novel, acknowledged as a made up story.
To achieve this birth of his first novel, Robert has used his remarkable imagination to think up a scenario in Australia’s future, and use his practical get-down-to-it approach as well as an extraordinary enthusiastic personality and a rare ability to take advice, apply some of the advice to his manuscript, and come back for more. The result? A unique and playful storyline with realistic characters we like. It’s a look at how every one of us is caught up in an all-pervasive domination by the Cloud and we are already affected by Artificial Intelligence in our daily lives, yet we remain neanderthal in our emotional mire of hormones mixed with ego. Robert’s cheery outlook is that even in the face of being cut off from our greatest dependence in life, the internet, mostly things turn out for the best in relationships and true love. The wheel turns – and turns again.
I’ve been thinking that the last few weeks have set the perfect background for the launch of Robert’s novel, in the midst of large-scale internet glitches. Siri might be taking over answers to our slightest questions (one of my grandsons, for instance, told me that people who don’t use Siri are too old-fashioned i.e. his grandmother and even his father). But the convenience of Siri aside, bigger problems are on the rise'
1. The US actors’ strike which lasted for months and has been resolved at least for the moment – but who believes it’s a finally compatible fix? What are Australian actors planning, I wonder? Or Bollywood actors? How will they ensure their reputations and sources of income will be protected if their images can be used over and over again in scenes they might never imagine or consent to? Don’t worry – just leave it to Artificial Intelligence.
2. About a year ago Medibank was hacked and customers ' data was dumped on the dark web - whatever and wherever that is. Some of us know; most of us would never be unwise enough to venture there. This hack followed a serious security data breach by Optus – and it was serious, with 9.7 million customers’ names, birthdates, home addresses, phone numbers, email contacts, and passport and driving licence numbers hacked and a ransom of $1.5 million the bargaining figure … So after this outrage, Optus has now overseen a massive nationwide outage (no, no, not a hack, not the result of an update, we were told at first – just an outage, a technical failure, described by the CEO as ‘a very technical network engineering issue’) which lasted about 12 hours. That was a sufficient explanation, surely? Customers could just cop it – and, oh, we’ll give you a whole heap of extra data that you don’t want and won’t use anyway. Then the explanation of a ‘routine software update’ was given as the cause! And then came the resignation of the CEO. So all will be well? There's far from any guarantee about that. After having weathered the data breach last year, many customers may have thought, ‘Oh well, Optus will be at the top of their game from now on, so it would be silly to switch telcos,’ but it’s probably true that most of our ‘technical’ communication networks are on a perilous edge.
But hey, what would I know? I’m safe with my little business and my little cyber security systems – until I’m not. Which meant that a couple of years ago I had to employ ‘internet specialists’ (and there are so many to choose from these days especially those who’ll get you to the top of the Google listings), yes, even more specialists to recover what they could from my old website so that I could rebuild it on a different platform.
3. When came a crippling cyber-attack which shut down four of Australia’s biggest ports but without a ransom demand. So many people worried: 'Will our precious gifts currently on board a ship on the high seas or stored indefinitely on a Sydney wharf be in our hands in time for Christmas?' Pure melodrama ...
A fourth example - At the same time as the ports cyber shutdown, there was a major cyber ransom attack on a cryptocurrency in Melbourne. So, how many cyber attacks were reported in Australia in the year up until June 2023? The number of what are considered large-scale data breaches affecting over 5,000 Australians was 65.
And then, of course there are the thousands of small-scale businesses and individuals’ costly scam hits (eg 'I’ve lost my phone, Mum, and I’m using a friends’ so could you send me some money?') that are considered not worth reporting publicly but take a significant financial and emotional toll on individuals, even so.
Can you detect a pattern here? Uncharted territory, I say … but humans, being so greedy for the new, being so insatiably curious, will take Artificial Intelligence as far as it will go …
I acknowledge that the above summary might be considered a personal rave, a rant even, but this book being launched gives cause for celebration … because Robert’s novel does just that, it celebrates how a bunch of fictional Australian characters navigate their lives through the ‘horrors’ of life without the Cloud – for a time. His light-hearted approach to a serious global social issue – how we’re all going to adjust to the high-tech avalanche that has taken over our lives while keeping our sense of humanity and social cohesion. Our simple belief and actions in the spirit of camaraderie are the tonic we need in these days of illness. Not typhoid, or love-sickness, which the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about, but the coming illness, complete dependence on AI. Robert’s charming invention of love in a Cloudy and post-Cloudy world is heartening.
Artificial Intelligence – I fear it’s here to stay. Yes, we probably would be able to return to the past – say, the ’70s – but would we be satisfied?
In his novel, Robert asks the question: what would you do if your life became dependent on Artificial Intelligence, and then it vanished overnight?
Here’s a sneak preview summary of the storyline of Cloudless Love ... in the time of Artificial Intelligence: In 2035 in Sydney’s new city of Bradfield, two women set up a nightclub called Cloudless, where people leave their AI enabled devices and robots at the door. A singer-songwriter from Far North Queensland completes the love triangle. Then the world’s dominant AI platform pulls the plug without warning.
This is the story of three Australians travelling north at the end of the world as they’ve known it, who find love triumphs in complex and unpredictable ways.
Congratulations to Robert on the launch of his first, and best, novel so far. Cheers and good luck … and you can buy the book now .... just click through to Amazon Australia Books right here
ImpressionsNo 2-2023 August
SURRY HILLS INFERNO
by Stewart Adams
Mystery still surrounds the source of a major fire in May in a building in Randle Street, close to Sydney's Central Station, which was home for a number of homeless kids. In this story, firefighter Stew Adams recalls the urgency of the firies' response which saved countless lives and nearby properties, holding the fire in check until it was largely extinguished overnight.
Late in the afternoon, I sat blowing on the steaming cup of hot tea in my hand. Almost ten of us sat around the large coffee table at the City of Sydney fire station. A click sound, and the light box lit up. The bells followed a second later, indicating a fire call. Not wanting to scald my mouth, I mournfully put the tea down, knowing it would be stone cold when I got back. I sighed and headed for the nearest fire pole. Pushing open the door as the bells continued to ring, I slid down the pole, my feet landing on the cushioned flooring.
The volume of the bells continued to get louder as I pulled on my over-trousers and zipped up my boots. The bells cut off, and a voice came over the PA system.
'Flyer and Runner trucks, you are going to a building fire.'
I saw the Flyer engine bay was empty, meaning the truck must have been on the road when they received the call. Hard to say if our truck, the Runner, would get there first or not. I juggled the possibilities in my head. A building fire in the afternoon on a Thursday? Not likely. It was probably another large generator testing, with an exhaust simulating copious amounts of smoke.
Then the bells started again. The light box lit up, indicating the specialist appliances were also being called out. I raised my eyebrows at this news, as I pulled on my flash hood and protective coat. More people were sliding down the poles as I made my way to the Runner and pulled myself inside.
The boss, Sarah, was reading the printout, ready to give us more details, if any. The crew in the back, comprising Matthew, Brett and myself were pulling the straps of our breathing apparatus over our shoulders. Andy pulled himself into the driver’s seat, slamming the door to start the engine. It rumbled into life. The flashing lights illuminated the engine bay as the vehicle rolled out of the station. Our sirens wailed, echoing down the corridor of buildings on Castlereagh Street. Less than ten blocks down the road, near Central train station, an enormous plume of smoke was darkening the sky.
'Shit, it’s a goer!' Brett called out.
The air horn, loud enough to rattle glass, blared from the truck, scaring drivers and pedestrians alike. Andy weaved the truck between cars and buses, managing not to get bogged down in late afternoon Sydney traffic.
The radio crackled to life.
'Sydney Comms, Flyer One, red red red.'
'Flyer One, pass your message.'
All of us tuned in, ignoring the wail of the siren and the bellow of the horn.
'We’ve got a six story large abandoned building.' Some static and yelling could be heard in the background. 'No persons reported. We’re going defensive. Upgrade this to a fourth alarm. We also need police, ambulance …'
As the message continued, I felt a moment of anxious excitement. It meant at least a dozen trucks would soon be on their way. In less than half an hour, this would balloon out to over fifty trucks and over two hundred firefighters called to attendance.
Less than a minute after the Flyer, our truck pulled around a corner into Randle Street. Flame was billowing out of every single window on that second floor. It was picturesque but very dangerous, as though it had been lifted out of a Hollywood movie. As we piled out of the truck, the radiant heat struck us like a physical blow.
Andy quickly realised that while his parking was textbook for a normal fire, this was far from normal. He immediately put the Runner in reverse, to reposition it to a safer location. At the same time, Brett went looking for the nearest hydrant.
Sarah, our boss, stood back, calmly assessing the best ways to attack the flame. Her command presence had a calming effect on us all. As soon as the truck stopped, Matthew and I grabbed the largest handheld firehose the truck carried. The big 70 mm line with the stacked tip branch. I hooked it up to the back while Andy adjusted the pressure, sending water through the line like a live snake.
Matthew took the handle of the branch and braced himself. The water came out at a blast, immediately sending him stumbling, but he got control of the jet stream and aimed it into the nearest window. The flame barely acknowledged the stream of water. While he did that, I put my mask on, tightened the straps and breathed in smoke free air. I pulled on my hood and gloves and redid the strap of the helmet, completing my protective clothing. I took the hose from Matthew so he could do the same.
Behind us, Brett and Andy were looking for the second closest hydrant, as the closest was well inside the collapse radius of the building.
As the water continued to flow out, I wondered how long our truck’s water supply could last. A few second later, the stream sagged, then disappeared completely. At the same time, Brett shouted that he’d found another hydrant. Andy was bowling out a hose line to connect it to the truck.
I stayed at the end of the hose, waiting for water to be resupplied, while Matthew went to get the ground monitor. It was our biggest firefighting tool, taking two 70 mm hoses to operate, combining the streams into a monster jet stream of water.
While Brett and Andy were working to get water flowing back into the truck and flowing into the hose, the flames inside the building continued to grow. They burnt through the ceiling of the second story, quickly ascending and engulfing the third story. The orange flame was licking across the top, with black smoke billowing, and carrying darkened bits of ash and debris with it.
I could see police, both plainclothes and uniform, yelling at bystanders to 'Get back,' as they crowded around like a flock of paparazzi, their phones out, trying to get the best angle.
'Water on!' Andy yelled.
Looking back, I could feel the 70 mm hose inflate and suddenly we were back on. The pressure of the water coming through the hose made me stumble, as I struggled to keep the water flowing onto the fire. By now the third floor ceiling was giving way, the flames pushing up into the fourth floor.
As the water from the jet stream had all the effect of a water pistol, I wondered if we could stop the fire from spreading. The neighbouring building had the same separation as a terrace house, which gave us almost nothing to work with. Too late, I thought, as I could already see the orange glow appear behind the windows of the next building.
Behind me, the uneven pitch of multiple sirens could be heard as more firetrucks pulled up. I wrapped the hose around on itself and sat on it. It wasn’t something in our SOGs but a well-known trick to allow us to maintain our endurance while holding the line. At the same time, crew got the ground monitor set up, a clunky metal contraption that almost takes a degree in engineering to set up. As they were connecting the hose, the heat suddenly intensified.
The fire had reached the top floor and whatever flimsy roofing the building had was gone. Even behind the jet stream of water and inside my protective clothing, I felt like I was wrapped in an electric blanket at max settings.
Glass splintered and shattered. The windows across the street had crumbled, glass showering the sidewalk. I looked up in disbelief. The window was at least thirty, maybe forty, metres away. As this happened, an enormous cloud of dark smoke puffed out of the main building, carrying up with it flaming debris and wood. It was like a vision from Dante’s 'Inferno'. As the debris separated from the updraft, these still-burning pieces floated back down to earth like flaming snowflakes.
'Get the water on that building, now!'
I didn’t hear who gave the order, but I could see their point. The leaves and debris in the gutter across the street had caught alight from the excessive, radiant heat. The main building was gone. We didn’t have the resource on scene to handle a fire on two fronts. I shifted my hose, the water spraying and striking the burning gutters. When the water hit some of the still intact windows, the sudden temperature change caused them to crack and break. I shifted the spray, hitting the sprouting fire all along the gutters, then returned the hose to the main building.
A gloved hand fell on my shoulder, and I saw Matthew and Brett had set up the ground monitor. Our truck didn’t have enough water flowing into it to handle a ground monitor as well as a separate line of 70. I stepped back, closing the branch on the 70. The ground monitor looked like a garden sprinkler on steroids. The effect of its water jet immediately dampened the flames. Matthew would use the rotate on the ground monitor, for the jet to dampen the fire all along the walls. Yet as he did, more windows shattered from the building across the street. The flames from the gutters were flaring up again.
Taking one of our smaller hoses, I started hitting it with water, knocking them down a second time. Just as I was finishing up, my low air whistle went off. Jesus, how had forty minutes passed already? I thought.
Two newcomers, their masks making them difficult to recognise, took our spots at the end of the ground monitor, and we made our way back to our truck. The drop in temperature as we stepped behind it was a welcome relief. Taking off our air sets, we each downed a bottle of water, changed our cylinders and were gearing back up. I approached the sector commander and told him of my concerns about the fire spreading into the building across the street. He tasked us to clear it.
Thankfully, the building alarm had triggered, allowing us to enter the normally locked doors and lift levels without the appropriate pass. The first floor was a wide open floor space with enough desks to fill several classrooms. Smoke hung heavy in the air. We completed a systematic search of the floor, looking for spot fires and casualties.
The second floor had a similar layout to the first, though it was more heavily smoke-logged. There was already water coming in through one of the broken windows. Near it were shattered glass bottles and burning boxes belonging to a wine delivery company. The water coming in the window had knocked most of the fire down, but some small fires still clung to life. Using the interior hose reels, we knocked out the small fire.
This approach continued until we cleared the building, finding no casualties and no spot fires but having a great vantage point for the fire. This information would later be used to set up a ground monitor on the upper floors, allowing a solid stream of water to strike at the flame from above, and separate from, the ladder platforms.
On the top floor, we could see the adjoining building was completely ablaze. The walls of both buildings were crumbling, so it was difficult to tell where the old building ended and the new one began. Yet there were close to a dozen streams of water hitting the fire now, having a visible effect on the inferno.
We headed back to the ground floor but while in the stairwell, the walls shook and we heard a muffled crash. I looked at Matthew, who shrugged. Neither of us knew what had happened, but as we rushed outside, we saw it. The main building had done what it had been threatening to do since we’d arrived. It had collapsed, spewing rubble all over the street. I couldn’t help but notice how close some bricks were to where I had held that line of 70 at the beginning.
More and more trucks had pulled up and there were more than enough firefighters to contain the blaze at the three major command points. At this realisation, I could feel a wave of exhaustion sweep over me. Whatever had been keeping me going had vanished. I suddenly felt an urgent need to lie down. Shaking off the feeling, knowing we had hours yet, the two of us went to the rehab area. Removed from the fire, we shed our protective clothing to cool down and rehydrate.
From this point on, my involvement in the fire was largely as a standby, and within a few hours, the fire had been knocked back. I knew - because of the instability of the two structures - it would be days before extinguishment was complete, but for now, the primary danger had passed.
Later, I would read the reports. We arrived there at roughly 4:00 pm, four minutes after receiving the call. We were relieved at around 10:30 pm and it was 11:30 pm before we had cleaned up the truck, bagged and tagged our contaminated gear, showered and eaten a decent meal.
Roughly twenty minutes later, the bells went off again.
Thankfully, that was a false alarm. We still had another 8 hours in our shift, and I wasn’t sure I wanted another monster fire like the one in Randle Street.
At least not tonight, I thought.
Investigations by Police Strike Force Strontium
continue but no further information is available
more than two months on.
Story: Stew Adams;
Images: supplied by
Fire and Rescue NSW media.
Impressions How safe is it to write
No 1 - 2023 March
ISSN 22093265 for publication?
And which genre is safest - life story or fiction?
Writing for publication can be a serious matter - especially since claims of truth or the publication being in the public interest are not necessarily adequate defences in any defamation action that might be taken against a writer and/or publisher.
It's one reason many writers use fiction as a veil to draw across some difficult episodes they've faced in life. Fiction covers a broad canvas of truths and half-truths in the name of entertainment or cultural value. Good fiction can release some precious personal experiences as well as offer valuable insights worth sharing with the reading public under a cover of inscrutability. Whereas, it's argued that memoir needs to be more honest to retain a reader's respect.
Which is your bent - and what liberties do you take in converting personal experience into storytelling?
Some Sydney School of Arts & Humanities writers offer their views about the hazards that may be encountered in trying to write as truthfully as possible ...
Harriet and the Diaries
My twenty-one-year-old niece, Harriet, was helping me in the shop during her summer holidays. We were sitting opposite each other in the office. The long slow balmy afternoon drifted on and on.
Harriet sighed, sat back in her chair, and looked at me over the top of her screen. ‘Do you always write the truth in your diaries?’
I sat up and looked at her for a few moments. ‘I always write my truth in my diary.’
I held her gaze and she pinched her lips, trying not to smile.
‘I found that big plastic box with all your diaries in it.’
I narrowed my eyes. ‘That big plastic box was stashed under several other plastic boxes at the back of the cupboard.’
A smile broke across her face. ‘I know. And I was still able to find it.’
I sighed. ‘So, did you start reading from the earliest or the latest?’
Harriet leant forward. ‘I picked the first one off the top and read how you spent the weekend with Larissa. But then drove to Melbourne and spent the week with Melissa.’
I pinched the bridge of my nose. ‘That can’t be news to you. You came to Melbourne with me.’
‘No. The Melissa part wasn’t news. The Larissa part was though.’
I leant forward. ‘There was a grey changeover period in our relationship. You understand?’
Harriet’s face was deadpan. ‘And how long did this grey changeover period go on for?’
‘A week. Maybe two.’
She looked at me for a few moments. ‘According to your diary, it’s still going on.’
I closed my eyes. ‘Harriet, stay out of my cupboard. Stop reading my diaries.’
Harriet leant back in her chair and narrowed her eyes. ‘Would you like me to stop posting the pages on Instagram as well?’
Writing vs. Safety?
Let there be no illusions - no matter what you write, you will never be safe.
Be it tomorrow or in five years or a hundred, your work will be denigrated if not desecrated by those who think they know better.
There are countless examples, only a few of which I list here: Salman Rushdie; Roald Dahl; Mark Twain; Jordan Peterson; Dr Seuss; J. K. Rowling; Margaret Atwood; Yeonmi Park; Enid Blyton.
I'm afraid that writing should be no different to speech, first in that it should be free, second in that it should not be free of criticism, and third in that much of that criticism will be banal drivel.
Worrying about safety, it seems to me, is a self-fulfilling trap where no matter how much caution is taken it will never be enough.
Instead, I hold in mind this: Write truthfully, and with diligence, and without conceit. That's the only meaningful armour against the arrows shot in words that will come.
How safe is it to write?
There is no safe harbour. Writers sail on an ocean of unfettered opinion, navigating squalls of fury unleashed by the digital revolution, knowing that at any moment, they may be dashed against the rocks of condemnation. Once familiar checks and balances, wielded by media moguls of old, have long since been washed away, and their tyranny replaced, not by democracy, but by a lawless mob.
Writers should not expect consistency. Stereotypes that are celebrated on Netflix, television and in advertising may escape the wrath of commentators who, when confronted with the written word, wield the sword of cancellation, knowing that the cancelled will be robbed of their voices and cast into the wilderness.
The aspiration of non-fiction is to tell true stories, but the subjective nature of reality and the notion that a writer cannot legitimately tell the story of another makes the genre a lightning rod for well-intentioned criticism. Fiction writers, too, will draw the ire of those who unreasonably expect the acknowledgement of culture in the absence of any stereotype.
We do not live in a liberal age. Modern-day book burners, now dubbed ‘sensitivity readers’ scour the published canon with a narrow moral lens and with scant regard for the context of time, call for that which falls outside its field of view, to be cast onto the pyre.
Yet the kaleidoscope of language is within our grasp, and our stories must be told, 'tall tales and true', so writers must have the courage to write and publishers, too, must be strong, for I repeat my certainty that there is no safe harbour.
When writing a life story how safe can a writer be?
Safe professionally from being sued, or safe personally from experiencing PTSD by picking at the scabs of past emotional wounds?
To write an engaging life story demands emotional truth from the writer. Penning a successful life story requires juggling the skills of a novelist, the story telling abilities of a journalist with the factual accuracy of an historian, and rather than tying oneself in knots trying to fulfill all these functions, just sticking to the truth can be the most effective but the most confronting task.
Truth comprises those emotions which are not mere window dressing designed to make the writer an appealing character, but those believable, often socially unacceptable, reactions such as jealousy, revenge, anger and hatred. The not so 'nice' emotions felt by all human beings at some time. Warts and all.
Not all well-known novelists can look unsparingly in the mirror and write their truth. Well-known English novelist Martin Amis’ 'Inside Story' is a case in point. Rather than examining his own life, he offers up a girlfriend’s sad story and the dying days of his great mate the renowned author and essayist, Christopher Hitchens, and for good measure throws in some gratuitous tips on effective writing. All such detours are a deflection from examining his own life. An inside story it is not.
The dangers with truth telling can be the unwitting hurt caused to people named or their descendants, should they be viewed in a critical light, even if the events occurred in the way they are recounted. In legal eyes, the truth is often no defence.
The danger of defamation is ever present, particularly if the person cited is famous and/or has bottomless pockets for a court case. Many writers prefer the seemingly safe course of a novel and supposedly 'made up' characters but even here the disclaimer about not being based on real people can be a fig leaf. Good novels have been pulped because someone with those deep pockets and/or influence with the publisher decided the depiction of a character was too close to home.
Whatever form you choose to write in, it is best to heed the words of the noted crime writer, Dervla McTernan, 'If you only write with your head then the reader will hear nothing.'
Roslyn Lawson is currently working on a memoir for publication mid-year 2024.
Copyright applies to texts from the authors cited above; photos: Wix & mfsprout.
This Sydney School of Arts & Humanities 'Impressions' e-journal is published
to showcase the work of emerging writers who meet weekly to workshop their stories.
No 4 December 31, 2022
Who would have thought?
Contemporary culture / social unease
Give me any subject, and before you know it there's division and dissent. Postcodes may have been controversial when they were first introduced - 'What a bother having to find a suburb or town's postcode just to send a letter to a mate or reply to business mail!' was how many people reacted at first. Others wondered out loud how the Post Office (as it was called back then) had ever delivered mail to the correct address before a number was required for sorting by posties. The rhetorical question was usually accompanied by a smirk.
Since the inconvenience sometimes associated with the need to find the correct postcode has now been accepted as one of the small travails of life, other issues have arisen. Most people have bypassed this traditional method of maintaining contact with friends completely, preferring instantaneous txting or slowcoach emails. I mean, who sends Christmas and New Year cards by post these days? A few emojis - smiley faces, balloons and a red rose or two (or even a pulsing pink heart) will do the trick.
But many people miss at least some controversy, so the humble postcode has been revived as a symbol of community pride - and sometimes hate. Westies vs Eastern Suburbs, The Inner West distinctly itself, Northern Beaches' surf culture or The Shire's ocean views, South West Sydney's bushland abutting The Illawarra's escarpments and open skies. Residents of the eucalypt-hazed Blue Mountains and laid-back Central Coast, then reaching up to the 'metropolis' of Newcastle - or 'Newie' - are also vocal in citing the advantages of their locales.
In some places the pride has reached violent proportions. As an ABC News documentary, 'The Postcode Wars', broadcast in late-2022 showed, gang warfare has sprung up between some adjoining postcode areas in Western Sydney, over a combination of street gangs, drugs and organised crime.
According to the documentary makers, 'There's a feud on the streets of Sydney and the battle lines are drawn between postcodes.' One street fighter interviewed explains: 'You fight for your area and as dumb as that sounds to most people, for us out here, it's something to die for.'*
Several of SSOA's emerging writers have applied their minds to the significance of current 'Postcode Pride' - from some dangerous aspects to the inane ...
Matt Jackson writes succinctly: The battle lines drawn by Postcode Pride are all too similar to the other wars raging through our culture. Business and the environment; slut and incel [an involuntary celibate]; carnivore and vegan; protestor and police officer; left and right; east and west.
These are divides that stop us from seeing each other as human.
Worse: though there are some who feed those flames, to whom it’s convenient, the reality is we do this to ourselves. The low hanging fruit of easy satisfaction is too tempting to resist.
And so we don’t. And so we wonder why our world is the way it is.
Of course, I expect anyone reading this will already be rushing to agree. Yes! We are all equal!
Yet it’s a well known fact that some of us are more equal than others. For all the righteousness, I see no melting pot, and no unity.
CA's lighter tongue-in-cheek response: Webster’s dictionary defines postcode pride as 'the inability to recognise merit in any other postcode'. It also defines a 'postcode proud' person as 'someone who identifies as feeling strongly about their postcode'.
It is a well-observed phenomenon in the likes of Sydney’s Inner West, the Northern Beaches and Eastern Suburbs.
Postcode pride may lead to ignorance of what’s on offer in other postcodes, leaving the postcode proud isolated in a bubble of like-minded neighbours.
The postcode proud rarely hide their identity so you can identify them in conversation through phrases such as 'I don’t need to get out of Marrickville to find good restaurants, so why would I?' or 'Is it true there are fresh food markets outside of Bondi?'
Whoever the postcode proud person you are conversing with is, you should never indicate there is a better service beyond their postcode, as they will stare at you in horror and say, 'Well, I never need to leave my area for anything'. Yes, the postcode proud in Sydney are in many ways isolationist and unable to recognise what the rest of the city has to offer.
They are a satisfied bunch, and some might even say too satisfied, steeped in their deep comfort zone. There are those who will try to convince you, at any cost, to move to their postcode. As annoying as it may be, you could take it as a compliment, as the postcode proud would rather have you close so they never have to dislocate. But they're willing to open their doors to a kind of insidious inner circle of which they would like to control the membership.
Robert Carrick takes a gently nostalgic approach: Postcode pride is always on display in Sydney. So much so that that every postcode has its own dress code. Basic blacks, boardshorts and bikinis, Armani suits and flannelette shirts all have their place, and as I am a postcode-proud Sydneysider who has spent a lifetime moving across the cultural spectrum of the city, I know exactly where to look.
Growing up in the ‘70s in Lindfield (postcode 2070) on the city’s north shore, it seemed that many of the residents regarded the area as an outpost of the British Empire. The women dressed in conservative pastel skirts and dresses, while the men, in pursuit of a kind of golf club chic, got about in navy double-breasted jackets, slacks and jumpers. I recall when one of the Eastern Suburbs' mothers turned up at a school football match in skin-tight leather pants, a revealing silk blouse and gold chains. She seemed to be from another world.
I married and chased a dream that life could be an endless summer holiday by moving to Avalon (postcode 2107). Our fibro shack on the peninsular was bookended by the bleach-blonde grommets on the surfside and the yachties of Pittwater, accompanied by a smattering of actors, authors and reclusive entrepreneurs, resplendent in their resort wear and deck shoes.
Post the traumatic experience of divorce, I embarked on a brief sojourn in Double Bay, postcode 2028 - where the locals tried their best to look like they belonged on Rodeo Drive or the streets of Monaco - before I settled in Paddington (postcode 2021). Paddington is full of refugees from the North Shore who are drawn to the area because of the bygone days of the New Edition Bookshop and Folkways Music, which were symbolic of a counter-culture that, today, can only be found in the Inner West.
Although I have never lived in Newtown (postcode 2042) my long association with the Inner West indie rock band VICTA and the many gigs I played with them at a bar called the Mosh Pit at the St Peters (postcode 2044) end of King Street immersed me in that seemingly subterranean world. The Mosh Pit is itself a metaphor for the Inner West as, despite its gritty post-punk facade, the would-be proletariat clientele sip on Pinot Noir and craft beer.
I presently reside in Potts Point (postcode 2011). When I sit and admire the art deco architecture through the fine mist of the El Alamein fountain, the place resembles a Parisian boulevard or a New York avenue more than the lawless pre-lockout Kings Cross of old, run by the gangster Abe Saffron and 'Bikies' - but then Sydney is always changing.
A train trip on the western line from Central peels back the layers of time. Victorian terraces give way to Federation semis, Art Deco apartment blocks and Post-war bungalows before dissipating into the urban sprawl of the Western Suburbs.
I have never strayed far from the coast, but I do believe the great cities of the world are defined by the diversity and history that lies at their heart, which in Sydney, I am proud to say, is Postcode 2000.
* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQcqdBwAjR0 'The Postcode Wars: Street gangs, drugs and organised crime' | Four Corners ABC News in-depth.
Copyright: texts cv williams (Intro), Matt Jackson, CA, Robert Carrick; photos cv williams, Wix. Impressions, an issn ejournal, is published by Sydney School of Arts & Humanities ssoa.com.au
Impressions CHRISTMAS CHEER
No 3 December 2022
A Christmas Wish
Greg put the green shopping bag of Christmas decorations on the floor in the lounge room, thinking that if he placed it there in the middle of the room it would remind him to lop a branch off the old pine tree out the front. The pine tree was a bit wayward now - a great, big hulking thing with limbs like arms extending randomly from its central trunk. Greg lopped the wiliest limbs off when December came around – one for a Christmas tree, the others for firewood the following winter.
Sandy walked into the lounge room looking for her glasses. She had circled through twice already without luck. She saw the green bag and peered inside.
'Shit,' she muttered, and took the bag into the spare room, slid it across the floor where it wedged itself under a pile of junk in the corner of the room, and closed the door. Greg might forget if they weren’t under his nose.
She didn’t want to be reminded. She wished Christmas would just go away. All those festive scenes in TV commercials of decorated tables packed with ham and prawns and pavlova! There was one commercial where the tables went on and on forever – hundreds of people all being merry.
What a load of shit, she thought. It gave her a headache even thinking about it.
'Oh, but the children love it,' Sandy's workmate Lydia, her reindeer antlers wobbling, would remind her. Sandy thought the antlers were ridiculous, but her workmates loved them. Their office was swathed in tinsel – you could hardly move without knocking your head on a Xmas bauble.
'All the pretty lights and decorations and things,' Lydia said, tossing a bit of tinsel over the Christmas tree. Sandy thought she might like to choke Lydia with the tinsel. She rolled her eyes and walked away, grumbling 'Grinch' under her breath.
Sandy knew a fellow who lived up the road, an odd guy with a funny-shaped head who lived by himself. His name was Ernest and, sitting out the front of his place, he would call out to Sandy whenever she went past – which was every day because the bus she caught to work was two houses up from Ernest’s place. She had to leave for work early to factor in a conversation with him. Sometimes she found it hard to follow the gist of the conversation, but she knew it had meaning for Ernest and would nod as if she understood.
This morning when Sandy walked past, she noticed Ernest was wearing a Christmas hat. It dangled off to one side a bit, because of his funny-shaped head. She puffed her cheeks and blew out the air and waved a limp hello. Ernest jumped up, spluttering something about a duck, and raced inside his house. She thought she heard him say a duck was stealing his muesli bars. She stood at the front of his place, unsure if he had meant for her to wait.
Sandy could hear clattering from inside the house. After a little while, Ernest came back outside, his hands tightly cupped together. He navigated the garden path with utmost concentration, and when he reached Sandy, held out his hands to her. Sandy came closer and Ernest slowly opened his hands to reveal a duck made from muesli bar wrappers. The wrappers had been rolled up tightly and woven together, roughly formed into the shape of the duck. Old telephone wire had been plaited to create its beak and webbed feet, and two glass beads sewn on for eyes. On its head was a tiny Christmas hat just like the one Ernest was wearing.
Sandy’s heart stirred; she felt a little overcome. Ernest moved towards her, offering for her to take the little duck. Sandy took it gently into her hands and thanked Ernest for the beautiful gift. He grinned widely and wished her a Happy Christmas.
When Sandy got to work, she placed the little duck on her desk, smiling to herself.
A Reflection on Christmas
A train set was all I ever wanted for Christmas. As a child, I was besotted with trains, so much so that I would pester my father until he took me to Central Station to watch the last of the lumbering black steam engines whoomph and wail in the smoky haze of the shunting yards beyond the platforms of the country trains.
As I grew up, I could never quite bring myself to let the trains go. For me, there was always magic in the idea of setting off to some predestined destination that I could only imagine. All stops to Byron Bay on the North Coast Mail.
We are oblivious to the passing of time in the hubbub of our daily lives, but come Christmas, we collectively pause to reflect on how far down the track we truly are.
Over the years, I have known people who have jumped from relationship trains and career trains, hoping for a soft landing and an easy ride. If only I could be so brave. When I see trouble ahead, I tend to wait for the next station, preferring to change tracks in an orderly fashion. Then the whistle blows, and by chance or choice, once again I ride onward into the night.
As youth fades, the past emerges. I often recall a Christmas in my mid-thirties when it dawned on me that I had a past, and that the fabric of it was fraying at the edges. David Bowie used to speak to me about the future, but the time had come to discover my own personal journalism. I spent decades pouring memories, ideas and dreams into song lyrics until I realised that only I knew their meaning. I self-published a book to decode them for friends and family, after which I found myself at another junction, with a line in my head that would lead to a novel.
I bought a ticket to ride with Sydney School of Arts and Humanities from the director, Dr Christine Williams, who suggested I take a seat in the carriages of the Tuesday night and Saturday afternoon writing groups. I was delighted to find that my fellow travellers shared a common purpose, although they had individual motivations for getting on board, which ranged from memoir, historical fiction, fantasy and horror, to romance.
Happiness is a big ask at Christmas, as the ideals of the festive season so often amplify the loneliness, loss and despair felt by so many across the globe. But if you are lucky and you find yourself having a laugh over a drink with close friends, your partner or family, you can be 'merry', and this we can all wish for.
My ride with the SSOA this year has been the trip of a lifetime. I know there will be junctions up ahead and decisions to be made about which track to take, but I’m not ready for another train set just yet. There is still much to write about.
I wish SSOA Director, Christine, and all my colleagues from the Tuesday and Saturday SSOA writing groups a Merry Christmas, and may we all find the inspiration and opportunity to write profusely in the New Year.
SSOA would also like to thank all its emerging writers whose enthusiasm and commitment to good writing is evident in the work they produce each week - stimulating readers with originality of thought and entertaining us, because we all need to keep our spirits up in the face of life's challenges.
See you next year with a treasury of treats from our writers' select scribblings.
No 2 November 2022
Presence of a Recent Passing
A perception remains
One of the last times I saw Vic, he was totally focused on his effort to simply stay alive. He lay on his bed softly panting under a colourful, patchwork knitted blanket, his mouth slightly open. He was serene and detached, as he had much more important things to care about than us.
Now and then the door of his room would open and a nurse would enter to check him out, another nurse to offer him the lunch menu-of-the-day written in gigantic italic font. But even the magic word 'Lunch!' that day could not revamp Vic’s energy. My father-in-law half-opened one eye. 'Not hungry,' he whispered, then went back to his vital affair.
Out of a drawer, my husband and I took one of the many large albums with photos of Vic’s travels around the world. He had been everywhere. When he'd moved into this unusually jolly nursing home in Laurieton, we put all his photo albums into the sideboard we'd transferred from home to his room to make it 'feel more homely'. That was seven years before. Vic was 99 now. He'd never cared for all those albums.
We were flicking through one of them, a cruise in Alaska and Canada, when George, the Greek manager of the home arrived. He'd migrated to Australia from Kos when he was two and never went back to Greece, not once.
'Vic is okay,' he told us. And very gracefully, speaking generally about hoarding, he suggested we start taking things away. 'Vic never opens those drawers,' he said. So while Dad was asleep, we selected the photos we wanted to keep and the rest ended up in the bin. We had not expected to do it that very day.
On Vic's one hundredth birthday a few months later, he was wide awake and blew out the big candle on his cake straight away. Always larger than life, he told us about the war and his six brothers, and that he fought at El Alamein and was still a fighter.
'I want to reach 106 now,' he laughed, cheeky. His card from HMTQ lay next to him. He passed the very day Queen Elizabeth died, just a few hours before her. I smiled to think that she could not live without him.
When a beloved leaves us, we know that they also stay with us; it’s just the form of their presence that changes. According to the Tibetan teachings of the Bardo, the period between death and rebirth, on the very day of their departing and for the following 49 days, they float around in a liminal state, in a new kind of light density, before rebirth. It’s a special time when things happen. You feel presences. Connections between different worlds activate.
During those couple of months after Vic's birthday, my husband and I were in an Italian village called Framura, on the Ligurian coast. Every morning at my usual little kiosk cafè, unavoidably the staff played Italian ‘70s pop. They had done for years. One day I arrived around 10.30 am and the sound of Turandot, Vic’s favourite opera, filled the salty air. ‘We’ve decided today is a special day!’ was their simple explanation. I stayed there listening to Puccini for over a hour, until the end of Nessun Dorma, Vic’s most loved composition, the sea getting rougher and rougher, waves shining in the sun, following Puccini’s drama in crescendo. Emotions, tears, beauty. Oh, Vic, are you leaving us this very moment? He was.
A month or so later, we are back in Laurieton to scatter Vic’s ashes from North Brother Mount, according to his will.
Before I left Italy the editor of Sirene, an Italian ocean-loving indie magazine that I write for, gave me an envelope.
‘Someone in Australia ordered one of our whale T-shirts. Could you post it from Sydney?’ she asked.
I checked the address: 1 Haven Circuit, Laurieton. Oh, Vic!
Now we sit in a cafè by the water in Laurieton, where we used to come with Dad. It’s early morning, and a dolphin swims closer, then makes a jump and a splash. Wow, we’ve never seen a dolphin here before.
Haven Circuit is just around the corner and the front door of the home where we’ll deliver the envelope from Sirene is open. We knock. Dale! The woman who ordered the T-shirt is the nurse who had been caring for Dad for seven years. We all hug. I hand over the envelope and stutter a few words: 'I am a swimmer. I write for Sirene about swimming and the Pacific.' She goes inside and returns with her collection of Sirene magazines.
‘I love the ocean. I’m a swimmer too, so it’s my magazine,’ she explains. Oh, come on, Vic!
We’re laughing and crying. We talk about the ocean and Dale. About Dad. Swimming. Love. Magic.
Story: Rossella Venturi
Photos: Rosella Venturi & mfsprout
No 1 April 2022
The UN estimates nearly 400,000 people have been killed during the war in Yemen, which has lasted 7 years up until the start of the current 2-month truce.
An estimated 377,000 people have died of direct and indirect causes of which over 150,000, including tens of thousands of civilians, have been killed in fighting. Many millions of dollars have been spent on arms in the conflict between Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran, and the Yemeni government backed by the combined states of Saudi Arabia, nine countries from West Asia and North Africa, and the United States. The US has been selling arms to the coalition states to aid Saudi air bombing of Yemen. About 60 per cent of the population has died from hunger, lack of healthcare and unsafe water.
A shocking war – but very little media coverage of these atrocities in Australia. We’ve hardly heard of the plight of the people of Yemen night after night on television news. Are there grades in the valuing of human beings, moving downward from light-skinned European to dark-skinned African? Am I too naïve and idealistic or are some others too gullible?
Let’s hear the full story of warfare instead of the continual propaganda of some, mostly male, politicians and generals of the first world. Maybe then we can all try to ‘give peace a chance’.
It’s hard to know what to do as an individual to stimulate major change to reduce the prevalence of brutality and war.
Christine (CV) Williams
What is the relative value of a human life?
If only we could ask the 400,000 dead Yemenis, and the 30 odd million who remain besieged by Saudi Arabia?
How about we ask the 2 million Uyghurs held in Chinese internment camps or the over 900,000 Rohingyas suffering homelessness in Bangladeshi refugee camps, having fled the brutality of Myanmar's military government?
How about we ask the 26 million North Korean's under a dictatorship our Western media does little but joke about and caricature?
How about we ask the 14 million Afghani children currently starving, among 23 million of the general population? We didn't pay attention to that one for long. Oops.
How about we ask the 270 million poor who were returned to starvation via the economic impact of global Covid-lockdowns? That's according to the World Food Program no less. We can't ask the 30 million who it's believed actually died, after all.
Who can stand to hear so much blunt reality without dropping their heads? Hit by it again and again. How many can bear the depth of that shame?
Yet the pain relief given can hardly be better than the poison. When I check any major reporting outlet or any TV news broadcast, most of what jumps out screaming for attention is meant only to get as much grift as possible into everything we see. The serious stuff can be sorted out in a single stuffy paragraph or less, not able to make any noise because everyone understands that truly tragic events demand to be heard without a show.
Which, perhaps, makes us culpable in our own tiny ways. It's exciting to think the whole wide wild world can collapse into a simple explanation that extrapolates to everything, Left or Right, pick your flag. A sober analysis of complex histories and socioeconomic trade doesn't really do it ... the same way paying 3, or 4, or 5, or 10 dollars a litre for petrol doesn't really do it.
Incidentally, it's an odd time for the steady stream of restrictions on free speech and anti-protest laws to seep their way through our institutions. What could possibly go wrong with that?
So repeatedly, a question must be asked: what would change if we acted as if in the final accounting of all things, the finger would be pointed at you and me? Could we speak honestly? Would we pay attention and clean up our own actions? Or would our eyes skitter off in search of another small lie?
Again we ask - What is the relative value of a human life?
You watched as we ran frantically towards Kabul airport. A deluge of women, children, men, the elderly; with suitcases, walking sticks, cloth bundles, back packs anything that could hold what was left of our lives.
They were coming. We could sense them close on our heels; feel their hot breath on the backs of our necks, and we were terrified. We could smell their sense of approaching victory pungent in our nostrils. Twenty long years of waiting … fighting, waiting, waning, and then again growing …. burgeoning in numbers, in self- confidence, in self- assertion. They knew this day would come just as this day had always come through millennia for the Greeks, the Persians, the British, the Russians. Now the Americans. It was no different.
I know we had your sympathy for a time as you watched us, the great amorphous throng pushing and shoving its way towards survival. But there were too many of us. There are always too many of us. Too many for the American soldiers to control. And we yelled and jostled, screamed in desperation at your cameras like brutish barbarians, in scenes which are so foreign to you. And the dust and the heat were everywhere. There were photos of people gunned down and left to die in sewage canals; dramatic scenes of men falling from the wings of an aircraft lifting into the air. Yes, it was awful - just awful - but what can one expect from this part of the world? You watched for a few weeks more as Afghanistan predictably declined into chaos, famine, hunger, and starvation. There are only so many starving infants one can watch with mewing cries and feeble brown limbs struggling against the injustice of their birth. This is such a foreign image for you as well, is it not?
But now I see that we are all but forgotten. There is a new catastrophe unfolding. And it is taking place in Europe, the centre of the world as you know it. The people on your screens fleeing Mariupol, Kharkiv and Kyiv are not an amorphous mass like us in Kabul. They are individuals, divided families with heart-breaking stories. They have brown and blond hair, blue and green eyes, and many can tell you in English how terrifying their situation is. A young couple shot dead in front of their six-year-old son. Elderly men and women surviving the world war only to face this in their fading years. The injustice, their despair. But all this happened in Afghanistan too, and for decades.
The Ukrainians flee in cars, buses, and trains like civilised people from once grand modern cities, not mud brick hovels in dust blown deserts. They dress like you in jeans, jumpers, puffer jackets and scarves. How much easier it must be for you to relate to them! To feel great pity for them and their suffering. But look past our hijabs, the kurta pyjamas, our dusty sandalled feet, and past the overgrown black beards, our mud- brick homes and rough streets if you can. In our Pashto and Dari, with our terrified screams, we were trying to tell you we are just like them … But I sense you are no longer listening.
The relative value of human lives - all living in our own bubbles
Bubbles can be fun and beautiful in the sunlight - but also fragile. They have an inside and an outside separated by a thin film of surface tension and this tension holds a fascination for us.
Our fascination with bubbles is understandable because, in a way, we all live in one. Each of us has the trials and tribulations of our daily lives to contend with, so it's understandable that we live in our own bubbles with scant regard for conflicts such as the seven-year war in Yemen taking place in what seem to be bubbles beyond our own. But the reality is that events, decisions and actions taken in other bubbles can impact us.
Policies set down inside the Canberra bubble, stock market bubbles, house price bubbles, and bio-security bubbles can have far-reaching implications for our daily lives and well-being.
Refugees from the dot-com bubble now live in a social media bubble. It is possible that Vladimir Putin, sitting at the head of a long table in his Kremlin bubble, is concerned only with his aspirations for the return of Russia to the world stage as a superpower. How is it conceivable that he pays no mind to the fate of Ukrainian civilians brutally mowed down by his armies? The answer may lie in the nature of the bubble itself.
Bubbles are a barrier to that most sophisticated of human feelings, empathy. Toddlers have no empathy and many humans in their dotage do not have much of it left either. Empathy is an emotion understood best by adults, and it's crucial to the survival of the species as it guards against self-destruction through self-interest.
The thin skin of a bubble is easily ruptured by knowledge and education. Only when the bubble is burst can we truly empathise with others. Time and again we tell ourselves that we are isolated by necessity, like the boy in a bubble.
It is imperative that we burst our own bubbles from within before pestilence, war, famine and death by climate change burst our common bubble of humanity before our very eyes.
Finally, what is the relative value of a human life?
Everyone prefers love over hate, but we accept hate as inevitable.
All human life has the same value. It’s as tragic to kill a Yemeni as it is a Ukrainian or a Palestinian or an Afghani or an Indian or a Russian or … the list is as long as there are nationalities.
We detest the senseless murders of war that we are aware of, and are thankful not to be aware of more. We don’t like the killing but we invest heavily in training people to kill; with machine guns and hypersonic missiles and nuclear submarines and jet fighters and …
We should stop making killing machines, get rid of borders and share the wealth of the world.
Let’s make love inevitable.
texts - CV Williams, Matt Jackson, Fiona D'Souza, Robert Carrick, Jim Piotrowski
photos - ABC News, Guardian, Wix.
Relative Value of a Human Life
Questions directed at the West
Monuments, Memorials, Markings
Almost as 'a stranger in a strange land'*, renowned novelist Christina Stead returned to her homeland, Australia, and her hometown, Sydney, in 1974 with most of her country's men and women unaware of her talents.
The literary elite were certainly aware of her. She had written ten novels by then, published in the United States, Britain and Australia, along with their many translations, her best known works being The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone. She was elected to honorary membership of the highly-esteemed American Academy of Arts. Soon after, another two of her novels would be published in the United States. And Patrick White chose her as the first recipient of the Patrick White Award set up from his Nobel Prize for Literature funds. It was little enough he could do to acknowledge her international contribution to writing.
Stead's lack of notability today raises the question: How should we honour our most brilliant and deserving? Not necessarily those who have attracted much attention during their lifetimes, but those whose striking intellect, dedication to their craft, persistent hard work and valuable contributions to society have had lasting impact?
There are many fine statues in the image of great men. Whereas Christina Stead has been acknowledged with 2 plaques on the ground - one embedded in the footpath along the Writers' Walk at Circular Quay, another on the footpath outside her childhood home in Watson's Bay. Plus there's the NSW Christina Stead Prize for Fiction named in her honour. But is it enough? Is it the recognition she deserves?
Long may her literary legacy last in the form of words that she shaped into great fiction.
'In the night, waking, she found for him a terrible human passion of pity and love, such as she had never felt for any man or woman on earth. She said to herself: 'This is my husband. I know it for sure ...'
'When she understood this, that there was something on the citied plain for all of them, the thousands like thin famished fire that wavered and throve around her, pressing on, she knew why she continued restless and why the men, having so much in the hollow of their hands, kept on striving.' (For Love Alone, 1944)
* 'a stranger in a strange land' - Book of Exodus 2:22
Christine (CV) Williams
Another original view from Fiona D'Souza on how we record history:
There has been contention around the world about historical plaques and monuments highlighting the deeds of dead white men, often their prominence built on the back of practices we consider nefarious today. On television we have seen statues of former slave traders and Confederate generals being pulled down by angry crowds because of what they represent.
A plaque to Christina Stead is a welcome shift in that it marks the remembrance of a dead white woman. I recently learned that the author, Pamela Lyndon Travers, of Mary Poppins fame lived for a time in my local suburb. Her presence again marked by a small plaque. The plaques to dead white women, however, do not feature as prominently or voluminously as monuments to dead white men, save for those of Queen Victoria.
Outside the State Library of NSW, Matthew Flinders who first used the name ‘Australia’ and circumnavigated the continent, stands triumphant on his plinth with sextant in hand, looking forward to a future where Enlightenment ideals will one day reign in this land. Behind Flinders is a tiny statue of his rat-catching cat, Trim, who sailed with him on the Investigator. But, however long you search you will not find a statue honouring Bungaree, the man who accompanied Flinders and acted as guide, negotiator, and diplomat as they interacted with Indigenous clans on their voyage around Australia.
The Royal Sydney Golf Course at Rose Bay is situated on an Aboriginal burial ground and sacred meeting place. Bungaree and his wife Matora are believed to be buried there in unmarked graves. At one time the importance of this land was marked by scarred trees, monuments of another culture and another time, which were torn down in the name of progress and development.
Woollahra, the land of the Cadigal and Birrabirrigal people, means ‘meeting place’, and there have always been remnants and whisperings of a forgotten history. This forgotten or neglected history is why crowds are demanding the demolition of statues which represent ideas and practices which we find repugnant today.
However, I cannot condone the tearing down of statues or the desecration of monuments. They represent a philosophy and mind set of a past which will always remain for us a ‘foreign land’, a place which we would barely recognise or scarcely understand. Rather, I believe we must imbue representations of the past with new insights we have gleaned since then. After all, this is the work of history.
More recently our councils, artists, writers, and historians have been trying to repopulate our history and heritage with those who have been eclipsed in the shadows of dead white men. As a result, our history has become richer, more complex, and incredibly nuanced.
A contemporary tribute to Bungaree by Woollahra Council is Bungaree Reserve at Rose Bay. It was set aside in 2010 to honour the man – a late recognition of the significant role he played in the early history of the nation.
The display at the Australian Maritime Museum of the circumnavigation of Australia signifies both Bungaree and Flinders as joint circumnavigators. Bungaree, in fact, was the first Australian to circumnavigate the continent. Today we even have a Sydney ferry named after him because, like Bass, Flinders and Phillip, this man was a sailor and went on numerous sea voyages with governors, whalers and explorers alike.
Even more notable was his role as a diplomat and astute negotiator for his people at a time when their world was being turned upside down. This recognition has come slowly but it is gaining momentum.
No 5 December 2021
Bungaree as depicted by Englishman Augustus Earle (1826)
texts CV Williams & Fiona D'Souza;
photos CV Williams & Wiki.
A quarterly journal published by Sydney School of Arts & Humanities
No 4 September 2021
What is courage?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way for Jenny
No 3 July 2021
BURMA-MYANMAR MARTYRS’ DAY
by Sao Khemawadee Mangrai
It has always been a pleasure to go to the markets in Sydney. My husband, Sao Hso Hom - or Hom for short – drives me and two of our daughters every fortnight to feast our eyes on beautiful fresh flowers and equally beautiful fruits and vegetables. Especially those vegetables which the Shans and Burmese like to cook, such as the tender shoots of pumpkin, choko and mustard.
Hom parks the car on the rooftop of the shopping centre and we go by lift towards the sounds of sales assistants beckoning buyers and the sight of vegetables, fruits, meat, and cakes for sale. We literally elbow our way out of the thickening crowd and go straight to where the food shops and restaurants are situated. Asian food is served hot, and we often choose a favourite, rice noodles, before we part ways to do our shopping. I usually buy fish, meat and groceries, and in July, in anticipation of Martyrs’ Day, I buy double the amount of pork, chicken and vegetables to cook for our gathering in honour of those who have lost their lives in military coups in Burma.
Martyrs' Day is especially significant in our family. In 1947, when Hom was a boy, his father, Sao Sam Htun, was shot in a meeting, as he sat alongside General Aung San who was assassinated in a military coup. (* Fn) General Aung San died immediately and Hom’s father, who was wounded in the stomach, died from loss of blood in hospital the following day. So, although Martyrs’ Day falls on 19th July, we hold our gathering on 20th July. But this year, due to the pandemic lockdown, there’ll be no larger community gathering for us, just offerings in the sharing of merits before our altar at home.
19th July was designated as Martyrs’ Day when the Burmese Government proclaimed it a national holiday. The official ceremony is held at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum with the laying of wreaths at the respective martyrs’ tombs by their families whose names are given to those responsible, a month ahead of the day.
After laying wreaths, sharing merits and paying respects, the families and the representatives of previous ruling governments would proceed to the Town Hall in Rangoon, now called Yangon, where several monks would be invited to partake of some food and share merits with the living and the dead.
This commemoration has been reverently and respectfully carried out every year since 1947 when General Aung San, and others including Sao Sam Htun, Minister for the Frontier Areas, were gunned down. Sao Sam Htun’s body was transported back to his state, Mong Pawn, and his ashes were later taken down to Rangoon to be entombed.
In 1983, North Korean-backed suicide bombers arrived in Rangoon in anticipation of the South Korean President’s visit to Myanmar, it was reported after the event. The terrorists were dropped off in the delta and they swam across the Pazundaung Creek, and North Korean embassy hid them in the precinct. One assassin was stationed on the hill overlooking the Mausoleum, the hill that proudly held the world famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda.
It is customary whenever foreign delegates visit Myanmar that the agenda includes a visit to the Martyrs’ Mausoleum. That morning the South Korean President and his wife had attended a tea ceremony at the Japanese embassy and some tea had spilt on his wife’s dress. So, they had to be chauffeured back to their embassy to change her dress before proceeding to the Mausoleum.
Hom’s brother, Kai, who was editor-in-chief of the government news program, was assigned to follow the South Korean President’s entourage. The motorcade was led by the ambassador whose car had the South Korean flag flying. When an assassin saw the car with the flag close to the Mausoleum, he detonated a bomb which brought the building down, killing a number of South Korean cabinet ministers. Since the President was late in arriving, he escaped. The Burmese dignitaries also escaped as they had walked out of the building to greet the South Korean President. Hom’s brother Kai escaped, as well.
The government rebuilt the Mausoleum in preparation for Martyrs’ Day ceremonies but it’s hard to know who is being paid respect as the remains were replaced in new tombs, and presumably mixed up. Hom’s brother has kept attending the ceremony every year in the absence of Hom. Sometimes in his absence, others in the family have attended as well.
The officials who plan the yearly ceremonial attendances may have forgotten the eldest son, Hom, as the years have gone by. It is now over 70 years since the ceremony first took place. At times when the ceremony has been televised, we have seen photograph captions which mistakenly show the Chief of Mong Pawn as Sao Khun Myat, instead of Sao Sam Htun, and his eldest son’s name, Sao Hso Hom, left out, as if he does not exist.
Have the Burmese forgotten the history? Or have they intentionally rewritten the history of how General Aung San fought against the Japanese and British to gain Burma independence? How he endeavoured to bring eight different ethnic groups to unite and to form the Union of Burma? There are actually 135 ethnic groups, and Sao Sam Htun represented the frontier areas. As for his son, my husband Sao Hso Hom, he was kept in custody for five years – with no leniency shown him out of respect for who his father was – before he was released, after which time we were able to make our way as a family, first to Fiji and then to Australia to live.
I don’t know any longer what Hom feels about all these atrocities against the Burmese, Shan and other ethnic people, against himself, and about his father’s assassination. I watch him sometimes just to try to comprehend what memories he’s held in his mind. What does he feel when he remembers suddenly becoming an orphan as a boy? Does he feel sorry for himself? Does he miss the moments when he had to sit beside his father at the State meeting? Did he yearn for fatherly advice or comfort?
This year, as usual, we will offer food, pray for his father, and share merits with all living beings and the dead, on 20th July. But due to lockdown we will do it quietly at home.
In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the military is now back in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency. It seized control on 1st February this year, following a general election which General Aung San’s daughter, Ms Suu Kyi's NLD party had won by a landslide.
The military atrocities continue, the people remain oppressed. I pray every day, ‘What can be done to relieve their suffering?’
Martyrs' Mausoleum, Yangon
*Fn Wiki: Bogyoke Aung San (13 February 1915 – 19 July 1947) was a Burmese politician, independence activist and revolutionary. General Aung San was the founder of the Myanmar Armed Forces, and is considered the ‘Father of the Nation’ of modern-day Myanmar. He was instrumental in Burma's independence from British rule, but was assassinated just six months before his goal was realised.
Copyright: text Sao Khemawadee Mangrai; photos Wiki.
Sao Khemawadee's life memoir 'BURMA MY MOTHER' is available on Amazon Books.
No 2 May 2021
Jenny Sheldon might have rarely asked the question
once but now she knows the answer better than most.
Courage is writ large in I Will, her inspirational memoir
penned with the help of writer and friend, Sharon
Jenny was in her mid-40s and teaching Drama at Lismore High School in June 2007 when she experienced spasms in her right hand.
She was taken to hospital, where doctors found she'd
had a minor stroke. Jenny was kept in for observation
and was looking forward to going home the next day.
But then ...
'It happened overnight. I had a massive stroke. I
almost died. Now I couldn't move on the right side
of my body and I couldn't speak. I didn't know where I was. I was muddled and frightened.'
Many will not know Jenny’s fear of being trapped inside their body, a dark tunnel with no way out.
But little by little for Jenny something would stir deep from within the darkness. As she sought to rebuild her life – to move, to write, to drive, to speak – she would tell herself 'I will'.
Because for Jenny, where there is a will, there’s a way.
She had help from Jean, her favourite nurse, who came to her one night when she was teary and depressed and, '…held my hand … an angel [who] watched me throughout the night'.
Pivotally, there would be her singing. Her former choir Voices in the Roar brought it back into her life. It became the 'spoonful of sugar' that kept her going, she says.
Always there’d be her loving family and a band of devoted friends. They would all help Jenny go into battle.
For Jenny, her lance was an iron will, her 'plume of feathers', the singing, the family and friends, and the angels in her life.
It was fear versus courage. Which would win?
Jenny will tell you the story in beautiful prose. You don’t so much read the words as glide along with them in all their crests and troughs.
It holds lessons for all, about health, about relationships, about the things we might take for granted.
For where there’s a 'will' for Jenny, there’s a way for us too.
Sydney School of Arts & Humanities would like to thank Catholic Voice for permission to republish this article by Don Smith published earlier this year. Jenny Sheldon continues to give presentations at community functions and her memoir is available on Amazon Books https://www.amazon.com.au/s?k=I+Will+jenny+sheldon&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss
LODGE OF SPIES
A short story by Robert Carrick
The Lodge seemed a dull place, innocuous. A blond brick assisted-living facility, it was wedged between a sprawling nursing home and the first line of independent living villas perched on hillside steppes above a bushland reserve on Sydney’s lower north shore. Aptly named, it existed for the sole purpose of providing residency for the thirty-seven living souls who called it home. All those who lived there knew deep down, that they were in transit. Some came and went within a month, some lived there for years, but, eventually, everyone moved along the road from independent life to dependency. It was just a matter of time.
My later life has indeed, been a triumph and I must not lose sight of that, Florence told herself as she looked in the mirror, pinning her ruby-studded silver brooch carefully to her yellow cardigan. The mirror was positioned at wheelchair height in the small lobby of her ground floor unit, No. 10.
She wheeled herself to her front door, turning the handle to open the door ajar. Then she picked up a rope attached to the handle and backed the wheelchair up until there was enough clearance to open the door, before thrusting herself into the hallway. Once through, she pulled the rope on the handle on the other side to close the door before setting the wheels in motion towards the dining room.
Although it was only 5 o’clock, Bob Taylor and Jim Reece were waiting for her at their regular table. As always, Bob was wearing a crisp white shirt, a navy blue yachting jacket and a red cravat. Jim by contrast was decked out in a gaudy yellow and green Hawaiian shirt that somehow seemed to match his grey moustache and the remnants of his Brylcreemed hair.
‘Evening, Florence,’ they chimed as she rolled into the room.
‘Hello boys, did I keep you waiting?’
‘I always hope you’ll be running late and then we won’t have to eat so early. Whoever thought we would be eating dinner at 5 pm?’ Jim complained as the catering staff plonked down the meal trays, knowing that the meal service was all that stood between them and knockoff time.
‘It’s not that the food is all that bad, it’s just not too bloody good either,’ Bob said as he sawed his way through a rubbery minute steak that was submerged in an ocean of barbeque sauce. ‘It’s like hospital food. It sounds all very Michelin Star on the menu but in reality is more Harry’s Cafe De Wheels.’
‘With a touch of nursing home for good measure,’ added Jim.
Bob had been at The Lodge for just over a year. Florence figured Bob was in his late eighties and mentally he had his good and bad days.
‘I was a senior executive in the Attorney General’s Department in Canberra, you know,’ he said.
‘I know,’ said Florence and Jim together.
‘How do you know that?’ Bob asked. ‘That’s classified information.’
‘Well, that would be because you told us yesterday,’ Jim said.
And the day before that, thought Florence.
‘Well, I’m telling you both this for a reason. In my time I was the head of ASIO.’
Jim’s moustache inverted momentarily before declaring, ‘Well, Bob, I guess you know a spy when you see one!’
‘Precisely, Jim. I’m telling you both this because we have a spy in our midst.’
‘Jim, you are a dark horse. You were here long before me. I’ve been here for three years and I thought I knew everything about you. Are you a secret agent?’ Florence asked with a smile.
‘No, not Jim, don’t be ridiculous. I’m talking about our new resident next to me in No. 12.’
‘Really? Who is this person and when did they move in, and why are they not here for dinner?’ Florence was keen to know more.
‘I know it’s a woman because I can hear her through the wall, on the phone, making conference calls at 3 am,’ Bob explained.
‘3 am! Bob, you are being unnecessarily suspicious. Maybe she has relatives overseas,’ Florence suggested.
‘Or reporting into her handler more like it. I may be old but I’m not paranoid and I know a spy when I see one. I was the head of ASIO …’
‘We know!’ said Florence and Jim together.
Florence changed the subject and entertained them with a story about painting in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park with her friend Dorothy, and before long they were done with the coffee and mints and it was time to retire to their rooms for the evening.
‘Good night boys. And Bob, keep our new resident under surveillance. I want a full report tomorrow evening,’ Florence said as she turned away.
She wheeled herself back to her room and pushed the buzzer to summon the night nurse to help her get ready for bed.
She managed to shimmy out of her skirt and top and into her nightie before Hashem arrived to lift her onto her bed. She knew Hashem was a sweetie, but it irked her that she now required his help. It hadn’t always been so.
In her eighties, both of her legs had been amputated above the knee due to poor circulation. Despite this horrific setback, to the astonishment of her family, friends and health professionals, the experience ignited a steely resolve within Florence to return to independent living. She arranged to have her unit modified so that she could access everything she needed from her wheelchair. In one of her rehabilitation sessions, the occupational therapist produced a short timber board with tapered ends and covered in smooth high-gloss varnish. Florence was quick to realise its potential and soon mastered the technique of using the board to slide out of her wheelchair and into her lounge chair, in and out of cars, her commode and, ultimately, her electric scooter. She felt as liberated as a teenager. She had her ‘surfboard’, her wheels, her dignity and, ultimately, her freedom. She remained fiercely independent for over a decade and used her time to visit the residents of the centre and nursing home. Her view was that despite her disability, there were others that were worse off. Her later life had indeed been a triumph, was the third-person description of herself she carried into the outside world.
Hashem gently helped her to wriggle along with the board and onto the bed and pulled up her sheets and blankets.
‘Radio tonight, Florence?’ he asked.
‘Thanks, Hashem, Talkback on 2GB, please. I have to keep up with what the cab drivers are getting fired up about. It helps me to stay in touch.’
Hashem turned on the radio for her and disappeared, leaving her in the thrall of the talkback radio host and a throng of cab drivers who were all fired up about climate change.
I could get fired up about climate change, she thought as she switched off the radio. In the silence, her mind wandered back to Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and soon she was walking along a narrow bush track with Dorothy, before arriving at a rocky outcrop of sandstone where they set up their easels. She drifted off beside Dorothy and her paintbrushes as they began colour matching the tones of the Australian bush from their vantage point above the sparkling emerald blue waters of Cowan Creek.
The nurses during the day were always more businesslike than Hashem who, during the evenings, seemed to have all the time in the world. Nurse Emily had Florence up, showered and dressed before 9 am and left her with her breakfast on her verandah at the rear of her apartment. Out of nowhere a large brush turkey appeared, looking rather menacing with its angry red head, yellow collar and jet-black feathers.
‘Shoo!’ Florence told him. It was difficult not to feel jealous of the bird as it took off. What I would give to be able to run off like that, she thought. Then she remembered that she could still run about, if not with legs, at least with wheels. Florence took her empty breakfast bowl to the sink then wheeled herself out through the building entry to the scooter storage area. With a little assistance from the nurse in reception, she was soon trundling off to the village cafe to join the small group of regulars who came to sit and chat in the morning sun.
‘Morning, Florence, your usual?’ Joe the barista asked.
‘Just black English Breakfast tea for me today Joe, and one of those little orange and almond cakes too, please.’
‘Pure decadence,’ Joe said with a smile.
Florence drank her tea and chatted with the usual suspects before heading off to do the rounds of the site’s landscaped garden. Then she pulled up and chatted with a young male nurse who helped her to wriggle across her board and into her wheelchair. She did her best not to think too much about the future and, instead, concentrated on connecting with the people she knew, even if some of them no longer seemed to know her. Having eaten the cake, she skipped lunch and stayed in the common room until it was time to scooter back to her apartment to get ready for dinner. She brushed her hair, put on a little foundation and some rouge and applied some red lipstick. Not bad for an old girl of ninety-five, she thought as she pulled on her cardigan and pinned on her brooch. Florence wheeled herself into the dining room right on 5 pm.
‘Evening, Florence,’ said Bob and Jim. She was about to reply when she noticed an elderly woman seated at a table in the far corner of the dining room.
‘Just a minute, boys,’ she said, before wheeling off to meet the new resident.
The woman was possibly eighty-something, bespectacled and smartly dressed in a grey pleated skirt and a tweed jacket. Florence couldn’t help but think that she looked very English.
‘Hello, I’m Florence. I heard we had a new resident and I am guessing that it’s you. Welcome to The Lodge!’
‘Thank you, my dear, very kind. My name is Denise Jensen and, yes, I'm in room No. 12.’
'Well, don’t be shy. Come and join us for dinner - we don’t bite,’ Florence said, hoping that Bob was going to behave himself.
‘Thank you for the invitation. Are you sure? I don’t want to intrude.’
‘You’re more than welcome to sit with us. Come on.’
Florence wheeled herself back to the table and Denise sat beside her.
‘This is Bob Taylor and Jim Reece. Boys, meet Denise Jensen, our new neighbour.’
‘Nice to finally meet you, Denise,’ Bob said. ‘Look, sorry to intrude, but before we start, I would like to clear something up.’ Florence had a sinking feeling that Bob was going to ask an inappropriate question, and he didn’t disappoint. 'I just need to ask … are you a spy?’
The question seemed to hang in the air for an eternity before Denise laughed.
‘Bob, you are half right. In the war, I worked with British intelligence as an analyst, you know, cyphers and codes, that sort of thing.’
‘Vindication! I know a spy when I see one. I used to be an executive in the Attorney General’s Department in Canberra, the head of ASIO, you know!
‘We know,’ said Florence and Jim together.
‘How do you know? That’s classified …’
Florence cut him off and changed the subject and soon the four of them were chatting about taxi drivers and climate change over the remains of a very average mixed grill.
‘I’ll push you back to your room,’ said Denise, at the conclusion of the meal.
‘That would be nice.’
When they arrived back at the door of Florence’s apartment, she took Denise’s hand. ‘I’m sorry about Bob, he’s a lovely man but he’s losing it,’ she explained.
‘No harm done at all - we’re all old. It’s lovely to meet you. How about tomorrow night you come over to my room for a pre-dinner drink? They don’t allow alcohol in the dining room, I’ve been told, but I have a nice bottle of single malt scotch whisky stashed in my top drawer.
‘That sounds delightful, Denise. I’ll need to come over about 4:30 pm though so we can be at dinner at 5. The hours here take a bit of getting used to.
‘Wonderful. I’ll see you then.’
Florence retired to her room and found herself watching a sitcom on TV. I just wish I understood the damn jokes, she thought as she buzzed for Hashem to help her to bed.
Shortly after, Hashem was tucking her in, then left her in the company of the talkback radio host, who was on a rant about gender equality.
I could fire up about gender equality, she thought, as she dozed off to the sound of railing taxi drivers.
Nurse Emily woke her up with start at 8 am. Florence wriggled along the board and into the chair and, aided by Emily, did the rounds of her ablutions before ending up in her easy chair with a view of the back garden. It was a wet day and thunder grumbled in the distance, quickly followed by the sizzle of raindrops as they danced on the corrugated perspex roof of her verandah. After the harried pace of the previous day, she lapped up the opportunity to settle in to read the Sydney Morning Herald from front to back as the rain came down. She decided to skip lunch and, instead, wheeled herself into the common area lounge to watch a rerun of Roman Holiday. As soon as Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn graced the Spanish Steps, she dozed off and only regained consciousness in time to see the last of the credits dissolve into advertising.
‘What time is it?’ she asked one of her fellow movie buffs.
‘Three o’clock, dear.’
‘Thanks.’ Time to get ready for drinks with Denise, she thought.
Florence wheeled her way back into her unit where she shook herself out of her skirt and into her favourite green linen dress. She buzzed for Hashem, who popped in to zip her up at the back. She then pulled on her yellow cardigan, pinned on her brooch, wheeled her way around to the door of No.12, and knocked.
‘Coming, Florence …’
Denise opened the door and stood aside as Florence wheeled her way in, before she bent over and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
‘You look a picture, my dear. So, how do you take your whiskey?’
‘Straight with just a little ice,’ said Florence as she looked around the room. The units at The Lodge were so small there was no space for more than a small number of the most personal effects. The only item apart from a crystal vase on the desk which held a variety of orchids was a monochrome photograph of a young soldier, positioned on the wall between the television and the doorway.
Denise poured Florence a stiff drink and added some ice which she retrieved from her little bar fridge before pouring herself what appeared to be a double shot with no ice.
‘Your husband?’ Florence enquired, absorbing the portrait while sipping the whiskey.
‘Yes, Bryce. He was killed in Central America helping the Americans in the 1950s. Were
‘Yes, my husband Edward was an accountant. I was his second wife and I ended up being the mother for all of his children although not all of them were mine. He died before I lost my legs, thank God. He would have been so upset to see me now.’
‘Nonsense! He would have been immensely proud of your fortitude, Cheers! Drink up - to us!
‘To us!’ Florence took another swig.
‘Do you smoke?’
‘No, well, I used to years ago but, no, and they won’t let you smoke in here.’
‘Bugger the lot of them, I say.’ Denise produced a packet of Dunhill and a matchbook from her drawer. Florence smiled, thinking, That’s something my sister Kate would have said.
Denise pulled out a cigarette and lit up, drawing the smoke back deep in her lungs, withholding it as she walked to the open screen door where she exhaled and watched the smoke as it vaped away through the grille. She held her wrist at an elegant angle, turned, and made direct eye contact with Florence. Only then did Florence realise that Denise had dark grey-blue eyes, and she felt as if they were boring a hole in the back of her skull.
‘Sooty Shearwaters migrate from Norway to the Falkland Islands in the northern winter,’ Denise said, without flinching.
Those words sent a shiver through Florence that started from the base of her spine and evaporated through the hair follicles on her scalp. Beads of sweat broke out on her brow as she drained her glass, ice and all, leaving nothing but a chill in the pit of her stomach. Regaining her composure, and with a deep breath, Florence responded.
‘Bullers Albatrosses lay eggs in the Snares Islands in the summer. I’ve been waiting half a lifetime to say those words.’
‘Do you have it?’ asked Denise.
‘Yes.’ Florence unpinned her brooch and passed it to Denise. ‘What you are asking for is tucked inside the cavity at the back of the brooch. I always assumed it was some kind of microdot. Do you know what it is?’
‘I can’t tell you and you don’t need to know. However, the time may soon come when you can find out more under the Freedom of Information Act.’ Denise examined the brooch momentarily before slipping it into a leather briefcase on the floor under her bedside table. ‘If Bob really was the head of ASIO I’m surprised he didn’t know about you. I admire your spycraft,’ Denise said.
‘He would only know me as an asset, not as a person. Bob would only recognise my alias.’
‘Which is what, exactly?’
‘Blue Bandicoot. And yours?’
‘Deliciously British as mine is quintessentially Australian. Let’s have another dram and toast the Commonwealth.’
Denise poured another two doubles and they laughed as they clinked their glasses together and threw back their drinks.
‘It’s time for me to get out,’ Florence announced.
‘I’m sure that the Australian Government, if they could acknowledge your existence, would thank you for your service.’
‘Will you be staying long?’
‘Everyone here at The Lodge is in transit. Some stay for years or months and some, like me, just a few days.’
‘It’s been a pleasure to meet you. Good evening, Spotted Mallard.’
‘Goodbye and good luck, my dear Blue Bandicoot,’ Denise said, opening the door for Florence to wheel herself out into the hallway.
My later life has indeed, been a triumph, Florence thought, as the door clicked behind her. And with that, she pointed her wheels towards the dining room and pushed off to go to dinner with the boys.
Copyright: text Robert Carrick & Sydney School of Arts & Humanities; photos Wix.
No 1 January 2021
THE TIDE’S IN
Our first feature for the new year offers a whole new perspective on appreciation of our planet, thanks to guest contributor,
Rossella Venturi. Here she brings a fresh approach to the subject of what we can learn from the sea.
Six months ago, leading up to Sydney’s winter, I plunged back into the immense joy of swimming, my passion coinciding with the end of a COVID lockdown and the reopening of ‘Swim & Go’ measures at several beaches and pools. Soon after, I had a very aquatic conversation with a famous New York City swimming academic whom the Italian independent magazine Sirene (meaning ‘mermaids’ in Italian) had commissioned me to interview.
Professor Steve Mentz , 53, is a very welcoming, very simpatico American ‘aquademic’ who lectures on enticingly liquid subjects such as ‘Blue Humanities’ and ‘Watery Thinking’.
The ocean was freezing here in Sydney, especially so for me. Yes, I have been a swimmer all my life, but I grew up in Italy and I am used to swimming in the warm Med! Swimming in open ocean in winter? No, thanks very much.
Yet 2020 was the first year I felt an absolute necessity to keep swimming, even in winter, even in the freezing Pacific – along with having dozens of other so called ‘unprecedented’ experiences that year. I bought my first wet suit ever and splashed into the water. Bliss, brrr.
It was only after talking with Professor Mentz that I better understood why my urge to swim became so intense in the period of immense general uncertainty due, above all, to the pandemic but not just that.
The above conversation, adapted for publication here, courtesy of SireneJournal.
As we are Facetiming, Professor Steve Mentz in New York and I in Sydney, his words begin to reveal to me why I’m getting keener and keener to immerse myself in the ocean. Every day, every minute, for as long as I can.
‘Today we need swimmers more than warriors,’ he says. ‘We need people who feel at home in the water, in between the fluid instability of the waves and the currents.’
We are looking at each other on our laptop screens, he from the Atlantic and I from the Pacific, my hair still a little wet from diving into the waves at Coogee Beach early that morning. We confess to each other that for us as swimmers, the social distancing and the domestic confinement during the pandemic lockdown have been hard but not as hard to bear as the dryness, the distance from the salty sea.
Steve lives in Branford, Connecticut. His home overlooks a bay. ‘I usually swim every day from May to November,’ he tells me. ‘My personal and academic passion is everything that is vast, blue, and saline.’
A Shakespearean scholar, he has also poured the immensity of the ocean into St. John’s University in New York where he teaches literary theory, the history of the sea, and ‘Blue Cultural Studies’. This is a subject that, as soon as he pronounced it, I’d immediately decided I’d like to be there already studying. Particularly in these uncertain days, as we all try to trace new routes.
Steve wrote At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean, trawling every drop of the sea from The Tempest to Othello. He organized exhibitions on ancient navigational instruments from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries, from nautical charts to sailors’ prayers. He travelled the world delivering lectures about 'Oceanic Thinking' and 'Swimming into the Blue Humanities'. And he recently published Ocean (Bloomsbury Academic), a delightful book which is a jazzy and erudite history of our planet, for once seen exclusively from the sea water. It blends the origins of the oceans, the aquatic visions of Emily Dickinson, cyborgs and why New Yorkers today are rediscovering the sea in their vertical city. It looks as though everywhere, these days, people are discovering the joy of open water swimming.
For Steve, swimming and thinking are roughly the same thing. He discovered it as a child while counting laps in the pool every day as he trained in chlorinated water. He rediscovered it some ten years ago when he started to take one stroke after another in the Atlantic. Today he is convinced that long swims in the open sea are the most formidable meditation for us humans, to ponder the challenges of environmental crises.
‘Meditation and water are married forever,’ Melville wrote in Moby Dick.
But to Steve, swimming is also a practice of resilience. ‘Immersed in an element that is constantly moving, quite a fragile condition to be in, we learn to reach a relative equilibrium among the waves, the winds, the currents, knowing it won’t last.
‘Our planet is becoming increasingly unstable and less and less safe,’ he continues. ‘The glaciers are melting; the oceans are rising and lashing the coastlines. We humans must adapt to this growing impermanence and re-imagine how to live in the critical era we call the Anthropocene’.
That’s why Steve thinks that today, more than ever, we need people who can float, sail, trace routes in precarious situations, and repair the boat on which we are sailing.
‘We need sailors and swimmers more than soldiers and emperors, Ulysses more than Achilles. Maritime literature is the greatest archive of stories for surviving and heading forth in the storm.
‘Sailors know that continents are just transitory intrusions upon the liquid surface, and this planet, seventy per cent of which is made of water – more or less similar to our bodies – should be called “Ocean” not “Earth”.’
Professor Steve Mentz knows Sydney well. The last time he visited was in pre-COVID October 2019. After lecturing at the University of Sydney, he headed off to Shelley Beach, Manly, with a small group of colleagues and students, and had his first close encounter ever with a giant Australian cuttlefish.
‘Half a metre long, it floated over a prairie of seaweed, its body similar to a baguette – and it advanced by swinging imperceptibly, moving like a Halloween ghost. For a few minutes it let me swim with it. Until it stopped and, instead of turning around, it went backwards starboard, its tail now where its head was before. Then it disappeared among the sandstone rocks.
‘But as I watched, mesmerised, it swam in a sort of K-shape movement, and I thought: “I lay my hope in a humanity that can imitate the cuttlefish’s enigmatic and fluctuating way of redirecting itself.”’
Steve Mentz also reminds me that when we are down there underwater, we are both intruders and witnesses.
‘Being in the presence of a creature that is not like me is one of the ways I teach myself to live better in this world. To engage generously and kindly and not destructively. To experience and collaborate with a different point of view.’
Swimming is also crucial for Steve’s writing. He says he wrote Ocean in between freestyle strokes. He would throw himself into the water and each time he’d emerge with an idea for the next chapter. ‘Because when you’re in the water, following the rhythm of your breath, your mind takes you to places you don’t expect. You start to perceive everything from an offshore perspective.’
It’s the Blue Humanities approach. ‘We are a swimmer-speculative community,’ Steve explains. ‘Historians, nautical engineers, writers, navigators, artists and poets investigating the relationship between us humans and the ocean.
‘Few things in the world are as inebriating as becoming one with the rhythm of your strokes through breathing, to “feel the water”, to use an expression I have learnt from the great Murray Rose,’ he tells me as we say goodbye to each other.
Facetime off, I reach the Murray Rose Pool near Double Bay and dive into harbour water protected by shark nets. And yes, to put it in the words of the title of Murray Rose’s autobiography, now more than ever Life is Worth Swimming.
Copyright Rossella Venturi
Photos - Rossella Venturi & Graeme McGlone (beaches & ocean);
- Abyss Scuba Diving (giant cuttlefish)
Arts & Humanities Degrees -
Essential to Education
Fiction by David Benn
It wasn’t Harrison’s vocal level that made me go to the old bookshelf in the small dark office at the front of our terrace house. Rather, it was the tone of his voice.
COVID-19 Shakespearean Book Launch
St. Thomas's College, Kerala
I was invited to a very special book launch in India this month, one which chronicled the tragedy of our times while also raising hope for the future. The book's theme was two-fold - the effects of coronavirus and Shakespeare's approach to such pestilence.
© 2020 SSOA.