Archive for February, 2011

This is a short science fiction piece I wrote for my own amusement. I was exploring the possibility of expanding it into a novel, but can’t quite see the point as I’m not especially interested in genre fiction, more so in genuine speculative fiction. Still, I do rather like the character of Val Gism and reserve the right to resurrect him in future, pardon the alliteration…


Intrepid & Weathered

I set out for my regular run. It was a regime to which I stuck like clockwork. The buzzer went, I pulled on my shorts, warmed up with stretches and weights, took a few painkillers and left the house. I wasn’t about to be put off by the forecast of heavy thunderstorms. If anything, I thought it was sexy.

The horizon, jabbed by a thousand spheres and rectangles, shone with the silver light of storms. It was a bruised light, hiding a hairline fracture. Beside the glass-bricked canal, neon streaks from the underground transits urged me onwards. I worked up nicely, hot and loose, flushed with the soft-jarring pulse of rhythm. It was as I turned under the soaring ribbon road that the lightning began. One great snap, sharp and fizzling, then a hard rush of rain collapsing about me.

I ran on, thrilled and electric. Any prompting from elemental extremities always put me in a positive frame. On Alzaris I’d once run through a hailstorm that turned into a driving snow-shower, and with thighs tingling and cheeks aflame with sting, I’d come home sure I was a hero. This run was nothing on that one. There was no wind, and the rain fell straight and true. The air was warm and fecund – a good old summer drenching. I was bouncing from foot to foot, leaping high with each step, straight back and ears pinned, and that was exactly the way I looked when they caught me.


“Doctor Val Gism?” asked the Subcommander, with the emphasis on the Gism.

“Yes, that’s right,” I answered. “Just like it says on the card.”

“Did you find the towels satisfactory?”

“Yes, very fluffy. Still, I’m damp right through.”

“Do you not find the climate in here to your liking?”

“No, no, I guess it’s fine. I just don’t want to hang around here all night.”

“That would be counter-productive,” he said, smiling.

I still wasn’t sure what I was doing here. No one had said a word to me since they stuffed me in the transit. I figured it must be a case of mistaken identity, or something to do with tax – no one really understood how to fill in those forms. The man sitting opposite wasn’t exactly effusive. He’d only smiled at me once, and then in a way that suggested he would later retract it with interest. He had one of those chiseled faces; not unpleasant, but always tensed; the way my mother used to pout for photos, only, he wasn’t pouting. If anyone was going to pucker up in here, it was probably me.

“It appears, Doctor Gism, that you have an alarm clock which is set to go off at exactly 1800 every day and that at this time you depart to go running. Is that correct?”

“Yes, it is correct.”

“We know it is correct. We also have footage of you leaving the house for said run.”

“Is there a problem with running? A new law?”

“No, the legislation covering physical exercise remains much as it was. Our concern is otherwise.” He leaned forward with his hands remaining firmly flat on the cold desk. “It would appear that you left the house before the rain had started.”

“Are we not supposed to run in the rain?”

“That is not the problem, though for the sake of your health you are advised to refrain from doing so. This case is more specific. Let me put it this way. There would be no problem if you had gone running in the rain, once it had started.”

“I don’t get it. Can you please just tell me what’s going on?”

The man sat back and smiled again. The more he smiled, the more I feared him.

“His Divine Grace is recruiting. His orders were to arrest anyone seen running happily through the inclemency. He seeks those who are intrepid, weathered and doughty.”

“Ah, well,” I said, puffing up my chest, “that’d be me.”

“Not quite, I’m afraid, Doctor Gism,” said the Subcommander. Since he hadn’t bothered to introduce himself, I did not know his name.

“We know for a fact that you left the house before the rain had started. Not after.”

“So you said, but what’s the problem?”

“The problem is, Doctor Gism, that His Holiness is only interested in those who left after the rain had started.”

“Well, now, come on. I mean, okay, why’s that?”

“His Holiness does not need to explain the specifics of his orders. I imagine, all the same, that to set out when it is raining shows greater strength of character.”

“Yes, but I knew it was going to rain, didn’t I? That didn’t bother me in the slightest.”

“It is not I who sets the conditions, Doctor Gism.”

“Fair enough, but the fact remains that I knew it was going to rain. You think I’m afraid of a little rain? Or even a lot of it? You think I’m scared of the lightning?”

I leaned forward to send the words right into his eyes.

“I went running with full knowledge of an impending thunderstorm, wearing just a tank top and running shorts to boot. Does that not show me to be cut from a tougher cloth?”

“You cannot make a sow’s ear from a silk purse, Doctor Gism, and his Divine Grace needs sows’ ears to hear the murmurings of his enemies.”

“Well I’m no silk purse, let me tell you!”

“It is not you who are the judge of that, Doctor Gism. His Divine Grace allows no room for flexibility. Do you think you know better than The Emerald Majesty?”

“Of course not. Can’t you see how I wish to offer my service?”

“His Divine Grace accepts no offerings of service. Nothing unsolicited will be tolerated. He has called you in and you have been found wanting. It is pointless seeking redress through us. You will be returned to your domicile now and you will never mention this to anyone again, if you value your life.”

“Listen, pal,” I began, but then I thought better of it. The last thing I wanted was to prolong this inconvenient encounter, despite these slurs against my manhood.

“Yes?” asked the Subcommander. The lines in his face were deep and dark. I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly had weathered him.

“Nothing,” I replied. “Just take me home.”



Two men stepped in and grabbed my upper arms. They lifted me out of my chair and set me on my feet. I’d put all thoughts of resistance from my mind and, despite the roughness of their handling, did not protest. Once I was upright their grip slackened and I was frog marched into the pale corridor. The blue light and plate glass lent the place a deceptive chic – it was more like a club, or a gallery; reminiscent of the famous Rigel Transmat. I stepped along nice and quiet with the hired meat. How did they get the job? Swimming through lava? I didn’t feel conversational enough to find out.

My thoughts turned inward. Despite what I’d said to the Subcommander, I had no interest whatsoever in working for The Emerald Majesty. It could only spell trouble; a career of fawning service, of life-threatening investigations and infiltrations, of the very worst sorts of obligations. Everyone with half a brain knew he was a lunatic. A distant, whimsical, officious, megalomaniac; he had modeled himself on the furthest extremes of ancient earth opulence; a surrealist re-interpretation of east-Asian high cultural oddity. Like so many despots, he had made himself so uniquely peculiar that his position and occupation of it were considered inviolable. Who else would have the patience or dedication to such outré and mindnumbing ritual? His was a cautionary tale for the rational, though no one who valued their life dared speak against him. If they’d offered me the job, I would have had no choice but to accept, and once I was in, there was no out. It would have been years before I was trusted enough to have a chance at escape. Having come to his notice at all was frightening enough. I could only hope they’d forget about me nice and quick. I was already considering my options for moving off-world.

They walked me down to the transit and shoved me in the back. I knew they were taking orders from the way they nodded every so often. They were wired right up and their gestures transmitted – one of the rare expressions you ever saw with these silent goons. Not that you saw them that often. People were pretty law-abiding in this place. Anything to avoid encounters like the one I was having.

Outside the rain was still coming down; I watched it skip and stream on the tinted Diamond Synthex till we lifted and hit speed. Outside became a whirr of grey and white and neon lights. The engine hum was warming in the seamlessly sealed enclosure. Soon I felt the tilt of deceleration and the towers of Cheong-kung Bridge came into view; overlord of my habitat. We dropped down quiet on the yelling street, right outside my domicile.

The doors unbonded, sighed, unzipped, and outside in the pouring rain stood my grey-clad captors. They let me come to them this time, but as soon as I was on the street they took me by the upper arms and walked me to my door. It opened to my nod they let go of me, making sure I went inside. The long, rainy-season day was closing down now, close to midnight; the buzz and rush of traffic not diminished by the hour.

I turned behind to scan outside and look into the face of the men. They gave away nothing in their silent ushering, though I thought I caught a hint of a nod. Then they came towards me, walking robotically steady. I backed into my home and they came in after me. In a moment they stood inside the door. It closed behind and then I saw them reaching for their guns. They were so quick that I had no time to be afraid, let alone to duck or dive. They caught me halfway through a motion, slammed their blasts across my side and back and sent me sprawling. I skidded right along the tiles and smack into the wall. Then I heard another blast and that was the end of that.

And that’s how they killed me the first time; right there in my own home. I guess they wanted someone else to clean up all the mess.

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This is a very exciting time to be alive. I imagine all times are exciting to be alive in their own way, but the events that are unfolding in the Middle East are a rare happening. Not since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe has anything on this scale, and with such a potentially positive outcome taken place. Of course, far too many people have already died in the protests and revolutions sweeping across north Africa and into the heart of the Middle East, and any number of deaths, especially of peaceful protesters, is unacceptable. However, what is wonderful is that this time the people look like succeeding in bringing down the old regimes and taking their destiny into their hands.

For far too long much of the Middle East has been economically stagnant, socially backward and technologically retarded. Outside of the high-flying, modernised economies of the oil rich and less populous UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the bulk of the people in Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Syria, Jordan, Libya, Iran, Tunisia and Algeria have been denied development opportunities. In all but a few states they have also been denied access to information, freedom of expression and the right to elect their own leaders under a system of universal suffrage. In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2010 lists ZERO full democracies in the region. It’s a disgrace. Badly led by dictators or sham “democracies”, dominated by narrow political and religious ideologies, strategic pawns of the West, the status quo has been tolerated to varying degrees in accordance with their stance on Israel and Palestine, Iran, Iraq and WMD. These people deserve to have the chance to modernise, to read what they like, to say what they like, to do and to go where they like and to give a shit about what they like – simple freedoms we take for granted in the West. That they may at last take these things for themselves is nothing short of magnificent.

Yes, revolutions are violent and destabilising, yes they can have negative consequences, yes they don’t always succeed, but the fact that the people, en masse, have risen up to express themselves and show their contempt for the way they have been for so long mistreated fills me with hope that at last the long-awaited seismic shift the Middle East needed so badly has happened. It seems now to be inexorable. From the western perspective, the principal concerns have not been freedom and democracy, nor human rights, but merely the ability of these states to contain the spread of terrorism, islamic extremism, WMD and to agree to non-aggression with Israel. It is a disgrace how long this situation has been allowed to continue under the guise of stability. When the vast bulk of Egypt’s 80 million people are dirt poor and ruled by a military dictatorship, that is not stability, it is slavery. Democracy has its own problems and is no stranger to corruption, but for Egypt to move forward it must now take its chances with popularly elected governments.

Right now, the situation in Libya is extremely tense. As I write this, reports are coming in of the airforce being used to bomb protesters. Alongside this are reports of pilots and diplomats defecting, of army commanders siding with the people, of mercenaries using mortars and other heavy weapons on protesters, of buildings burning in Tripoli, of the people celebrating driving the mercenaries out of Bhengazi and the defection of  a crack military division, of the borders being abandoned and opened and Egyptian medical aid waiting to enter. It is a confused and confusing situation, with few journalists on the ground to report and lines of communication cut. Nonetheless the reports all point in one direction: The downfall of Gaddafi’s regime. It couldn’t come a moment too soon.

First Tunisia, then Egypt, now, fingers crossed, Libya. Rarely has such regional change been witnessed outside of a more widespread conflict such as the world wars. The collapse of communism across Eastern Europe is the closest parallel, yet that was facilitated by the withdrawal of the Soviet armies and a significant change in policy and outlook at the heart of the Soviet Empire. Here, in the Middle East, the process has gotten underway with nothing more than the utter despair and frustration of people kept back and held down for so long.

Perhaps, if this tidal wave of democracy succeeds and sweeps on through Yemen, Oman, Jordan and Syria, then the Middle East, once one of the leading lights of the world technologically and intellectually, will have a chance to move forward and be great again. Seeing the determination of the people – not led by religion or factionalism, but simply crying out in the loudest, the bravest voices for freedom and dignity – I feel great confidence that they can succeed. This is not a time for the West to intervene, but the West must take a role in helping these countries to construct their democracies when the time is right. There is much advice and technical assistance that they will require, and the developed world must do everything to help these people take and shape their destiny, in a non-exploitative manner. This is not a time for cutting business deals, it is a time for altruism.


The dazzling skyline of Dubai is a powerful symbol of modernity. It is vibrant, first class hub of investment, trade and development. The United Arab Emirates boasts an economy which has sensibly avoided being a one-trick pony; recognising the long-term, strategic limitations of its energy resources, it has invested massively in its construction and financial sectors. The UAE has spared little in creating a positive environment to attract skilled workers, including strong investment in its domestic tertiary education sector.

However, when it comes to the clearest indicator of real innovation – patent filings – Israel is the only state in the region keeping pace with the front-runners of the developed world. The Middle East is far behind the pace. The 2008 report of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), based on 2006 statistics – the only currently available figures from this body, show an alarmingly low number of patent filings across the region.

In 2006, no less than 408, 674 patents were filed through patent offices in Japan, and just over 400,000 in South Korea. During the same period the total number of patents filed by Middle Eastern economies, including Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the UAE, but not including Israel, amounted to just over 2000; 1377 of which came from Egypt alone. Israel managed an impressive 7496 applications, almost all of which came from Israeli residents. Of these applications, the total number of patents granted in Israel in the year 2006 exceeds the total number of applications for the eleven other economies listed above.

Clearly, there are other factors that must be taken into account: –  the devastation of the Iraqi economy after long years of sanctions and war; the political isolation of Iran; the political turmoil in Lebanon and so on. Yet, irrespective of this, low levels of investment in the tertiary education sector and a lack of co-ordination between institutional research and industry, have resulted in what can only be described as a woeful record of technological innovation.

Take Syria, for example. The nation has a solid educational base – its primary and secondary system is based on the French model and, though monitored ideologically by the Baath Party, it’s tertiary sector is not exactly substandard. In 2006, however, on a per capita basis, Syria filed a mere 6 patents for every million citizens, whilst South Korea filed no less than 2591. It goes without saying that one cannot reasonably compare these two economies, but the gap is so vast as to be breath-taking.

In Egypt there are sound institutions and a swag of universities, yet they are overcrowded and underfunded. The real problem, however, and this is something that could be said to apply across the region, is that they do not foster an environment conducive to new research or innovation. Research is conducted primarily as a prerequisite to an academic career and posting. After this, however, the research output of Egyptian universities, and regional universities in general, is very poor in relation to faculty staff numbers. This shortfall in new ideas is then compounded by the absence of strong links between innovation and industry. Egypt’s innovators need an environment that offers them more incentives for new research and innovation, and which links these new ideas with industrial entrepreneurs.

Aside from the economic advantages of encouraging home-grown innovation, an expansion of the range of brands and products emerging from the Middle East can only help to improve perceptions of the region globally. Currently, aside from assorted financial services and highly reputable airlines, very few products and services that are notably Middle Eastern in origin are available in the West. The advantages in terms of positive reception and increased understanding can be seen by changing attitudes towards China, India and Korea, though positive gains can also be tempered by resentment. Clearly such a scale of output is unthinkable for most Middle Eastern economies. Yet if they can’t punch far above their weight, they must aim at least to punch according to their weight. R & D is languishing across most of the region and those with ideas and talent are looking elsewhere to get their ideas off the ground.

Egypt in particular has an impressive manpower resource which could be harnessed to more innovative local industries. Across the entire region there is a strong, intellectual tradition which, as has been proven in all successful developing countries, significantly shortens the journey towards prosperity. Of course, it goes without saying that responsible, green development is the better path to take, but this is by no means a barrier to more rapid development. Either way, the Middle East needs to learn not so much to work harder, but to work considerably smarter.

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Travelling Light

Finally got around to editing and posting this. It was written in the last weeks of my travels, in Varanasi, around the 7th of May 2010. I had sunk into a deep melancholy and disciplinary dissolution in woebegone anticipation of my epic journey’s drawing to a close and sought solace in reflection and hashish.


Travelling Light

For seven weeks now I’ve been on the road in India, and the only luggage I have with me is a shoulder bag. A large, deep and wide shoulder bag, little more than a voluminous day pack. I would hasten to dismiss your fears for me having made terrible sacrifices, and be quick to add that on only a very few occasions have I found myself wanting. Very few.

One great advantage of having very few things is that there is less to be lost, and less to worry about. I can unpack my bag every time I enter a new hotel room and fit everything on a chair or small table. It is far easier to find things and keep track of them. I haven’t managed to lose anything yet and I certainly hope not to do so in my final weeks. Packing is also very quick. I have done it so many times I’m like an assassin stripping a gun blindfolded. I can be ready in a very short time, unencumbered because everything is on my back in an unobtrusive, ten kilogram bundle, though I usually choose to carry my camera.

Travelling light is an interesting experience, philosophically; a situation that demands contemplation of one’s relationship with one’s possessions. How much do you actually need on a day-to-day basis? How many clothes do you really need? How many pairs of shoes? How many gadgets? These are fundamental questions we often fail to ask ourselves. Why do we really buy things? What are we trying to fulfill? Is it purely acquisitiveness? If so, is that a desire we ought really to satisfy?

The love of possessing things also faces practical obstacles whilst on the road. If one has no space in which to carry anything, can one really afford to buy something, on account of the inconvenience? If you travel with the idea firmly in mind that you will buy nothing whatsoever, then you will feel less troubled about refusing offers and missing opportunities to buy souvenirs. I tell everyone that I will buy nothing and I mean it, so I am not troubled by desire. I must appear sincere because they rarely press the case very far at all. I don’t really feel I’m missing out at all, and anyway, is not a collection of photographs sufficient?

Not only is the absence of things beneficial to understanding that they are not necessary, but also the presence of certain possessions establishes very special relationships with them. The things that you shepherd with you everyday; the things you must look out for every time you pack your bag; the things you must remember having and must occasionally check upon; the things you have with you always, for security; the things you use all day; the things that are of most importance – the passport; the whereabouts of which you must always be aware of. These are rare relationships with things, capable of breeding great sentimentality and care.

If one combines the respect for and appreciation of one’s useful belongings with awareness of the minimalism with which one is able to live happily and comfortably, then we would have a much more environmentally friendly planet, inhabited by people with a natural distaste for greed and excess.

When you consider how many clothes you have in your closet and how many of them are actually worn, then consider the energy, water, labour and resulting pollution that went into their manufacture and distribution, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that if everyone in the world bought half as many clothes, it would make a very significant impact on the environmental consequences of our overconsumption. I have very few clothes compared to most people I know, yet even still that extends to something like ten pairs of trousers and jeans combined, thirty-odd tee-shirts, twenty-odd collared shirts, perhaps ten pairs of shoes. Do I really, honestly, need that much? Most weeks I wear about three or four combinations at best, totalling around 12 staple items. Sure, keep something for a special occasion, but is the rest really necessary?

No one wants to live in a world, as predicted by so many awful old science fiction movies, where everyone wears the same type of robe. Yet we can still retain some individualism, look cool and own half as many clothes. The problem is that there is no sensible understanding of quotas or limits. How would one determine where to draw the line? I guess a simple rule of don’t buy it unless you actually need it might be a good starting point.

I have come to take great pride in all my possessions and look out for them at all times. The trusty notebook PC, the ever-reliable camcorder, the digital SLR, the clothes, the diary, the toothbrush, the guidebook, the heavy, A4 day-to-a-page diary. Some of these things I have come to know so intimately they have nicknames. My five tee-shirts have already been dubbed “The heroes” for enduring so many long, sweaty wears and being misshapen by my backpack. Two pairs of my already fatigued boxer shorts lost their elasticity, so I finally had the chance to make use of my miniature sewing kit. I folded the elasticated waist into a pleat and triple-stitched it to ensure it was sturdy. They have thus found a second life and I have obviated the need for replacing something on the road. A needless expense, and also, a needless early disposal of something still perfectly useful.

I know that travelling light is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s certainly easier in hotter climates. I have one pair of shoes – a cheap pair of durable, Chinese flip-flops. I have one pair of long, light cotton pants and a short-sleeved collared shirt in case I have to look at least slightly less ragged. I can’t really hit the high end of town, but then, I didn’t come here for that and couldn’t afford it anyway. Whilst in the mountains, in Darjeeling, McLeod Ganj and Manali, I did at times feel cold and long for a warmer top – still, I was able to avoid discomfort by wearing three tee-shirts. Layers are the next best thing, but of course this wouldn’t suffice in wintry conditions.

Still, in any climate, I highly recommend travelling with as little as possible. I took the very same bag on many trips around Europe in winter, with an equally small number of possessions. Only once when a freak cold spell caught me in Belgium, did I suffer for lack of a sturdier coat. Even then, however, buying a new coat did not require changing the size or portability of my luggage. If everything can be fit into a carry-on sized bag, especially one you can carry on your back, then there are significant advantages. It never needs to be checked for flights and thus is never lost – you can march straight out of the airport and be on your way. It never needs to go in the belly of the bus, thus alleviating anxiety over its being stolen by another passenger when the bus unloads somewhere along the route. You can move unencumbered. You can walk all day with your baggage with relatively little discomfort. You can take your baggage to the bathroom if you are travelling alone and never need to leave it anywhere – on a train; in a restaurant; in a bar – it will always be with you, and, wherever you are, you will always be ready to get back on the road, where you belong.

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The following is another chapter from volume 1 of my autobiography entitled Sex With a Sunburnt Penis. Written on the crest of a wave of binge-drinking, it was a process of autobiography as therapy conducted between July and November of 1997. The title, Sex With a Sunburnt Penis (hereafter SWASP) is a metaphor highlighting the consequences of mounting pleasure upon pleasure. It posited that, in a country as wealthy as Australia, those born without any significant disadvantage are so well placed in life that it is really up to them to screw it up. I did so, royally, on many occasions, but regret is a wasted, pointless, indulgent emotion unless it fuels change and action. We must get back up on the bicycle so to speak, or otherwise, seek Rough Solace, a character who appears in the story as a personification of the frank good advice we can give ourselves if any wisdom dwells within. SWASP was initially intended as a one-off, but a couple of years after having written it, I envisaged a trilogy to complete the picture. Volume 2, still in the pipeline and sketched to some degree, bears the working title Loitering with Scholastic Intent. My good friend Chris recommended the title A Blow Job too Far for volume 3, though, whilst it sounds magnificent, I’m not entirely sure it will turn out to be appropriate.

The following passage, entitled Entropy, contains in its entirety my first attempt at writing a short film script. It is hopelessly inept, incongruous and contradictory, but we were very happy with it at the time and that’s good enough for me.  Too many cones indeed, and apologies for the formatting. WordPress does not seem to accommodate pre-formatted screenplays when cutting and pasting, unless I am missing something. Enjoy it, ja!


I met Tyrone Books early in 1992 at my friend Mike’s place. As Tyrone had a certain suave, philosophical nonchalance about him and a much-coveted girlfriend, it was my plan to appear formidably impressive during our initial encounter. He found me with a bong in one hand, a glass of wine in the other and about three litres of cardboard Claret already in my stomach. When, after a good hour’s conversation about the influence of jazz and classical on certain Scandinavian metal bands, I looked down to find my No-Names bolognaise floating in a sea of wine on Mike’s polished-cork kitchen floor, I thought I had blown it. It so happened, however, that this was a defining moment of a different kind. For, as he was to confess many years later, what impressed Tyrone most of all was my insistence on continuing the conversation between apologies, cleaning, and further evacuations into the kitchen sink.

While the Barcelona Olympics were on, my old friend Gustav and I were given the opportunity to house-sit in a bungalow in Newtown. It seemed short-sighted to waste the opportunity of living in such a marvellous house by going to lectures, so instead I spent every last penny on weed, speed and acid and holed up for the games. During the second week of events I invited Books to visit one evening. We smoked hashish on hot knives, fashioned a bong out of a pen and shampoo bottle, then hosed the back yard and sat listening to it drip for a good hour.

“Gustav and I listen to the garden every night,” I explained. “The sound of the dripping is hypnotic, I highly recommend that you get right into it.”

“It’s pretty good, man,” said Books. I could tell that he was impressed.

Our conversation stretched well into the wee hours and Books finally departed as I began my shift at the Olympics. The following night he got in touch and came around for more of the same. By the end of the week we were best friends.

Books, who had just moved into Arundel Street in Glebe, soon found himself in the difficult situation of having to find new housemates. Within three weeks of moving into the house, through no fault of his own, all the other tenants moved out. He was fortunate in finding three replacements with extraordinary speed, one of whom was an enthusiastic wannabe film maker and communications student by the name of Saul Godly. Keen to get away from home and hang out with my new friend, I began to use Books’ house as an outpost at which to base myself after a long day dodging lectures. Soon Tyrone, Saul and I were as thick as thieves, and it was only natural that such a blessed triumvirate should be granted ambitious revelations.

One evening the three of us dropped acid and walked from Paddington to Glebe on an all-night epic. During that journey we declaimed, with great affectation, our dreams and visions for the future.

“I’m going to make it rich as a psychologist,” said Books, “then spend my money making movies. I’m going to be a director and an inventor, but most of all, I’m going to be a scientist and computer expert like Avon in Blake’s 7, or Davros in the Genesis of the Daleks.”

“I’m going to make films too,” said Saul. “But I don’t just want to be behind the camera, I want to be in front of it as well. Plus, I’m gonna write the damned things. I’m going to be an artiste, an auteur, an actor!”

“And I’m going to be a writer!” I shouted, beating my fist into the copy of Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, which I happened to be carrying. “I’m gunna write novels like a demon – novels, films, plays, short stories, poems – the lot. I’m going to be a writer!”

After some lines of speed at Arundel street, we spent the morning photographing each other in front of the railway viaduct at Glebe Point. It was a day to remember, and we wanted to preserve that glow of determined youth for eternity. Saul and I went further and made a pact. Within a year we were to produce a major work. He would write a film script, and I would write a book – either a novel or collection of short stories. At last I felt I had found a definite direction in which to steer myself.

Four months later, I hadn’t written a thing. I had, at least, begun to teach myself to touch type, but in a world without e-mail or the internet, and too lazy even to write my essays, let alone type them, it was difficult to motivate myself to stay in front of a keyboard. University was sliding away from me again. My absenteeism in first semester had ruled out any chance of passing in Fine Arts and Linguistics and now, having moved deep into second semester, I faced the prospect of failing the lot. Hanging thus by a thread, I could not justify such slackness unless I began to produce extra-curricular results. If I was going to be a writer, I had better start soon.

It was, therefore, without a moment’s hesitation that I accepted my first commission. As Saul was nearing the end of his first year, the deadline for his short film project was approaching. He had already signed Books up to the task but they had, as yet, failed to come up with any script ideas. So it was that Saul asked me, “the writer”, if I would be willing to help him out.

“For fucking sure, Saul,” I said. “That’d be untold!”

This was it. This was the chance. We were going to make a film!

It was a great excuse to get drunk and stoned, take some speed and drop a trip, and we did so by way of a script moot. The following morning found us drawing and painting on the walls of Tyrone’s bedroom and it was when I asked Tyrone what he was going to say to his landlord that the story finally took shape. It would be about an artist, played by Saul, painting his walls in praise of the sun and not caring for the concerns of the Proprietor, whom he considered an obstacle to art. The painter would live with a writer, (myself) and both of these characters would be plagued by the naggings of Books, the Joker.

“The story is about the tension between chaos, anarchy, vandalism,” said Books, “and order, society and structure. The proprietor is Society incarnate and his interest is to keep the walls white, for this is tradition. The proprietor wants to maintain conservative values, while the painter and writer want to express their subversive ideas in their pictures and writing. It’s about the problem of being forced to be a part of the society into which you are born.”

“Like wanting to be a hermit,” said Saul, “but needing to work to live.”

“Exactly,” said Books, “or sort of, at least. Now, the position we wish to support in the play is that the expression of individuality and the freedom of that expression is good and should not be hindered by conservatism, but that one needs to respect society and its component structures.”

“Okay,” I said, impressed by the perspicacity of Books’ reasoning. “So what is the Joker’s role?”

“Ah,” said Books, “the Joker symbolises anarchy – he is diametrically opposed to the proprietor, yet he cannot escape from the room – society – and he has no power over him. Why? Because he is not real but ethereal; not a person, but a concept – an energy, something which can be activated and used, as both the Writer and Painter do in their art. In the end the Painter uses the Joker’s energy to kill the Proprietor. The painter, you see, is the simple idealist – he is all passion, and refuses to be a sheep, helplessly passing his time in the grasslands away.”

“Nice quote.”

“I thought you’d like it. So the story ends with the death of the Proprietor and the walls painted – the Painter triumphant, but a murderer. The Joker is free, and so, in a sense is the Writer – yet the writer now wonders whether or not he will miss the Proprietor, with whom he occasionally liked to converse, being more able to walk the median strip of life. The final scene ought to take place in a field, outside of the room. For with the Proprietor dead, society is gone, and society was, after all, the room. In effect, this film is about the end of society.”


Over the next two weeks I struggled with pen and paper, having next to no knowledge of how to write a screenplay. My only experience on this front was a script written in my first year of high school as an English project called A hand for the Chopper, which was shot in exactly forty-three minutes one Thursday lunch break. My father had written film scripts and done a lot of writing for television, but rather than consulting him, I figured I could just wing it. I was sure of myself. I had talent, didn’t I? All my University friends and Newtown acquaintances thought of me as an ideas man, a creative conversationalist, someone with the gift of the gab. All I had to do was put a little of that into the project and we’d be right as rain.

Inspiration struck one Tuesday night with nothing much to do. I got stoned and went up to the Courthouse Hotel with an exercise book in which to begin my scribbling. I was soon on a roll. I poured schooners down my neck and stabbed away at the paper, hoping girls would notice me being so obviously bohemian. The few girls present ignored me completely, so I just kept writing and writing, unwilling to abandon hope. After about two hours, I put down my pen, smoked my twentieth cigarette and felt proud. I had written a masterpiece. This, I knew, would one day be remembered as the moment that Benjamin David Philip Cornford first thrust himself onto the scene as a writer.


Sun streams through open French doors onto a white stretch of wall. Standing, studying the wall is the PAINTER. A WRITER sits at his desk, writing with a pencil. PAINTER approaches wall and runs hands over it, scratches his chin, steps back, kneels, frames scene between joined hands.


I can see it all in my wall. Should my hands confess in paint the sights they wish to shape? Such bland boundaries, faded but never kissed by the light. Reduced by a sun intolerant of their lack of welcome. I must impress with colour that yellow god and look back so he knows I admire his daily ablutions.

We close to the WRITER, who leers up from his work. Music softly sounds his theme intuitive.


An eye. Am eye to watch the sun and not squint, but occasionally wink in friendly approval. What colours should I use?

PAINTER begins to sharpen his pencil with a knife and begins to draw on wall.

This is my wall, I’ll do as I will. As I must. For it is my wall.

Enter JOKER, grinning, from the doorway. WRITER watches him but says nothing as JOKER sneaks up from behind and takes the knife from the PAINTER. PAINTER backs away, disarmed, frightened, apprehensive.

In praise of a fool you would commit this sin? For surely the sun is a fool. Your talent is a lie, your art a falsity. Dear painter, bathe yourself in guilty blood for the works you have made incite the punishment of the lawful. Does the sun care for your work? Is he not truly beautiful? Your work is a mockery of his golden pain, your guilt and your pain are as one with his, his sins are far greater. So burn in the heart you feel is true, end this childish game. Look painter, but not to the sun.

But, but you see (plaintive) I must paint. I must, I, I…

So many I’s in so short a space makes for a rather egotistical young fool. The sun’s eyes bleed, he cannot see past his face. He grumbles that fools like you live and revel in his painful light.

JOKER approaches WRITER who instantly takes the knife from his hand and begins to clean his nails. The JOKER smiles at the WRITER’s wit.

Aha!, you play well, writer, and yet do you write well? Is not the painter a fool, is not the painter going to pay for his indulgence? But you know of his kind, free with his art, licensed to vandalise and insult.

Is his art a sin? Do you label and lay claim to his heart? What price do you place on his defence? If his belief is true, you won’t stay his hand. His work is good, it is no stain.

And yet you write words by the thousand – his art is slow. His pictures tell a thousand words, but is this evidence of a quick mind or that of a simpleton challenged to form sentences in description of his own ridiculous plight!

My work is long

You work well, while he lays his foundations.

Slash his wrist and he’ll paint till the blood runs free. I’d write his epitaph, but fill it full of praise.

And I’d paint his headstone in praise of the sun. Cajole and provoke, but I wouldn’t take his life. See how he frustrates at his wall.

He frustrates for he is like the sun trapped within his youthful form. His blazing light runs rivulets through his limbs, coursing through his torso, abdomen, head. Yet he cannot burn now to let it all out at once in a flash. Can one convict him of a sin when he has no choice?

Yet in time his spirit will change. Better he realise now than when red-faced and fifty. He’ll live for twenty years and die for fifty more, die now or become now what no illusions can prevent him from being.

Cut to the PAINTER whose thoughts we hear as voice-over while he paints.

How will he know? How should he find my work? Soon I’ll be away and leave my work behind. Yet it will then be elsewhere. Cannot he see that it beautifies the room? Why does my very conscience nag me so? Why should I not do what is right to be done? I’ll paint, damn it. That eye will have sight and that fool’s attempt to subvert my goal – damn him, he won’t sway me.

JOKER moves back over to PAINTER and prods him with his finger.

Ahh, I see it’s the sort of stain that spreads. And what will you do when he sees it? Shall you apologise, try to explain? The writer asks what price your defence. I’d place the price high for the work would be hard, and of course, unfulfilling, for how can you expect a pardon? Don’t you know you cannot win? Yet, I tire of this provocation.

Then obstruct me no more!

Why should I indulge myself, your mind is so full of obstacles. Look at the writer, he pauses, thinks, his hand is smooth. Stop-start it is with that dirty brush – you have no style, no flow, you silly orang-utan. I see only one fully evolved individual in this room – he reads what is written and writes what is not.

Confound it! I cannot concentrate.

You never concentrate, have you tried? You stare but your drive is anger – are your emotions so malformed? You’re worried and aware of the consequences of your desecration. Have some regard. Play not games with life, when your soul is unfit for competition!

But it bothers me not what is in the mind of the Proprietor. How painful can his punishment be? As painful as a life without freedom? Should he stand in my way I’ll sweep him aside as in a brush stroke and paint him with blood. Better than to burn slowly to death. Now leave me, I must work!

I haven’t quite finished. Ignore me and I expect I’ll go away, but oh, you’ll listen now that slaying is on your mind. Do you think I don’t want the both of you dead? Your youthful fire extinguished, to hear the sun laugh to win in your game and to laugh at the sins on that fool’s wall?

Leave me!

I shall.

JOKER steps back and stands by himself. We close in on the WRITER who sits and thinks.

(Voice over)
I wonder how great his anger will be, how furious that landlord. Now the Painter’s veins run with anger. Is the need so great that no compromise is reached? Should not one live in cohesion with others. It is the painter’s will that the world will bend to his ways. He does not wish to rule, but to run free – push through every blockade – ignore all orders to halt or slow. It shall be his undoing. We shall soon see what the sun thinks.

The WRITER continues to write. The JOKER comes over to the WRITER’s table and picks up the knife. He crosses to the PAINTER and hands the knife to him.

I believe you need this to sharpen your pencils, or perhaps your will. See if I care where you stick it!

I’ll stick you with it if you aren’t careful! Why this constant harassment? Can’t you see I want to be left alone? I’m too busy to have time for your trouble-making. Now leave me!

There is a knock at the door. Close up of PAINTER. The JOKER smiles as he opens the door to admit the PROPRIETOR.

I never made it any further. My hand was spent, my lungs were heavy, my eyes were reeling drunk. Yet, I was terrifically excited. Coming close to finishing anything was an achievement in itself. I took myself off home and passed out in a stupor. The next morning I gave the beer-stained, dog-eared script to Saul on my way to university, before lying on the grass of campus to rest my weary, hung-over mind. The shoot was to take place the following night in the colon of the University of Technology. I would need to gather my strength. Things were moving forward apace!

When I arrived at UTS the next evening, Tyrone and Saul were overrun with excitement.

“Cornford, this is classic,” said Tyrone.

“It’s a gem,” said Saul, “just what I was after.”

“It’s so incongruous,” continued Tyrone, “and there’s a lot of it we can’t even read, let alone fathom, but there are some great lines in here. We’ve decided to call it Entropy.”

Saul had enlisted the assistance of two stunning women whom I failed utterly to impress, but who did an admirable, if unsubtle job of making me look older and uglier. Since there was no time for rehearsals, the Painter and Joker had prepared a series of idiot boards, leaving frequent gaps where my handwriting proved impenetrable. I enlightened them where possible and we got stuck straight into the shoot. It was finished in about four hours, with only one or two takes for most scenes. The studio was hot and bright, the girls lounged about languidly. I could see they had no confidence in me – I was far too overexcited to appear at all cool. My make-up ran in the heat, and my powdered brow glistened in dabs and clumps.

When it was all over we felt triumphant. I returned home buzzing with a sense of achievement I’d not felt in years. At last my life seemed to have obtained some momentum. If only I could sustain it! I lay in bed, closed my eyes, and remembered the English essay I’d forgotten to write.

Saul and Tyrone took care of finishing and editing the film. The Proprietor, ably played by their other housemate, Jen-Ming, wound up with a knife in his back on the grass of Glebe Point and with him died society. A week later, Saul submitted his work and a screening of the class’s films soon followed.

On the night of the screening Tyrone and Saul sat on the steps in the tiny cinema to play guitar and bass for the soundtrack. I lay back in my chair like a lord, ready to sip away at glory, enjoying the other projects. When Entropy finally began to roll my heart was thrust into my throat. Here we were on the big screen – all ladies present please take note!

Unfortunately, despite the quality of Tyrone and Saul’s light, funky riffing, nothing could disguise the sheer incongruity of the script, nor the abundant continuity errors. The Joker’s coat was on and off like a strobe in a melange of leering close-ups, and the words that had made so much sense to me whilst drunk and stoned at the Courthouse now seemed confusing and contradictory. To begin with the audience had no idea what to make of it, but after a couple of minutes, they decided it was a comedy and laughed along with the more amusing facial expressions. Ours was one of the last films shown, and when it was over, another rolled straight on in. Entropy passed by like a ship in the night in a thick fog on the sullen expanse of a dark, moonless ocean, and with it went all hope of having anything to be proud of. Two weeks later I passed the point of no return and my second first year at university became an unmitigated failure. I was close to passing one subject, but when I turned up for my English exam, I discovered I had gotten the date wrong. I shrugged, turned away and went to get stoned again.

Nineteen ninety-two was a complete and utter flop.

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Like many other observers, I have been mesmerised by the events unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond. As a strong advocate of accountable, liberal democracy, it is especially gratifying to see the grass-roots nature of the unrest that has emerged so suddenly, and, it would seem, to the surprise of many. These revolutions and protests are neither politically nor religiously driven, but are rather the spontaneous response of a broad spectrum of the population expressing their discontent. What has made such a popular upwelling of outspokenness possible, in a region where politics have been dominated for so long by religious or political cliques?

These recent events themselves may seem sudden, yet the causes are firmly rooted in the longue durée. The discontent itself is nothing new; what is new is its widespread and open expression. There are several important factors in all this: access to information, the price and availability of food, low wages and unemployment. The impact of improved access to information cannot be underestimated via Mobile phones, Satellite TV, The Internet, Al-Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter in particular. As the spread of technology has progressed in the region, so has public awareness of the geopolitical context in which the Middle Eastern states have been so narrowly aligned. The people of the region have become cognisant of the complexities of global politics, their relative backwardness economically and socially, the scale of their problems compared to those in developed countries, their lack of political freedom, and also the misleadingly narrow nature of their own leaders’ rhetoric. Greater understanding of their internal situation has emerged in parallel with a more sophisticated understanding of life outside the region.

Al-Jazeera has arguably had the biggest impact in all this. An Arab voice and thus a trusted voice, the news network has been operating since 1996, providing a service that was practically non-existent in the region; open discussion of Middle Eastern affairs and politics. For a region dominated by monarchies, dictatorships and oligarchies, in which little real political debate has been allowed to take place, the cumulative effect of witnessing such open discussion from different political perspectives is only now coming to fruition.

We cannot underestimate the power of such a thing. During the June 2009 Iranian elections, televised debates were allowed between the presidential candidates, with each candidate facing the others once. The surprising openness of the political discussion has been cited as pivotal in mobilising the public’s willingness to take to the streets when it became clear in the aftermath of the election that there were many inconsistencies; that the elections had, in effect, been rigged. The open and often very frank, even libellous statements made during the debates inspired thousands of Iranians to discuss their situation more openly on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

Socrates famously said that true wisdom is knowing you know nothing. In the Middle East now people at least know how much they don’t know. As they learn more and more about the reality of their situation, economically and politically, they will come increasingly to resent what has been held back from them for so long: the truth. This growing anger at having been duped for so long has now reached a tipping point. It is a remarkable tipping point; a 100% bona fide popular revolution over simple, basic everyday grievances; freedom, food and inequality.

Whilst access to information has spread awareness and discontent, and fuelled a great desire for change and reform, there is little question that the most important mobilising factor is food. The price of food globally has risen dramatically in the last five years. From 2006 onwards there has been a sharp spike in the cost of cereals in particular, driven by droughts and poor harvests in Canada, Australia and other significant grain-producers, and the increased demand for food from the growing Asian middle class. Another important factor has been the use of food-producing land for biofuels and other cash crops. The political consequences have been widespread. There have been riots in Bangladesh, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Senegal, and Yemen to name a few. Many other countries have been forced to ban or reduce exports, and protests have been widespread, even in developed economies such as Italy where strikes and protests followed a 40% increase in the price of pasta in 2007.

The situation in Egypt was particularly dire. The riots in Mahalla in 2008 occurred after the price of food soared by 40%. The government was forced to hand out bonuses to workers, also protesting their low wages, and to massively subsidise the price of wheat, in effect, creating a sort of bread dole. The long queues to collect this vital ration often result in scuffles and occasional violence. The problem is further compounded when we consider the Egyptian dependence on bread. The country is the largest per capita consumer of bread in the world, largely owing to an inability to access or afford alternative foodstuffs. Each Egyptian consumes on average 400 grams of bread per day, which is nearly triple that of some developed nations, for example, France, which consumes on average 130g per day.

It has been said that any society is only three meals from revolution and anxiety over food is perhaps the most potent form of anxiety. The Middle East is a net importer of food and is not currently, nor will it be able to produce enough food to feed its populations. Eighteen out of twenty-two Arab states are classified as water poor by the United Nations. The population of the region is set to double by 2030. Where is the food going to come from? What will the consequences be when drought inevitably returns to Australia, when Canada’s harvest fails again, when a burning Russia again ceases all exports? What will happen when China and India have tapped the last of their aquifers? Even now China is gripped with a terrible drought – the impending need to import food will ensure further spikes in the price of food in the very near future. There is immense potential for further development of agricultural land in Africa, and improved agricultural methods, particularly water retention and the use of drought resistant, GM seeds will take up some of the slack in the future. But while food availability and affordability remain uncertain across the Middle East, no political or religious ideology, no secret police, no martial law will trump the popular demand for bread.

In the longer term there is little certainty that democracy will improve the lives of people in countries like Egypt, beyond giving them a better chance to make the bed they lie in. If a more open consumerist economy emerges, replete with a new middle class, this may only lead to further price increases and the more extreme marginalisation of the poor. One can only hope that, in a best case scenario, wealth distribution is conducted on a far more even footing than it has been in recent decades.

Another significant long term factor in the Middle East is unemployment, and especially youth unemployment. Throughout Africa and the Middle East, unemployment amongst 15-24 year olds averages 25%. In Egypt the figure is 34% whilst it Tunisia it is 31%. These are significant statistics in themselves, but when you consider that across the Middle East two thirds of the population is below the age of 25, the vast scale of the problem becomes truly apparent. In parallel with this development, educational opportunities have expanded significantly; tertiary enrolments in Egypt have double from 14% to 28% in the last twenty years. This means, in effect, that there is a huge cohort of young people, right across the Middle East, many of whom have university educations, but remain unemployed, whilst being aware of and connected to the sort employment and income opportunities throughout the developed world.

Rarely has there been a situation more ripe for potent popular revolution, and there isn’t much that can stop the process now it is underway. It will be several years before the full impact of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are seen, but as protests increase in Iran, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Jordan, there is little question that popular political expression has gained an inexorable momentum. There will be pauses, disappointments and no doubt many tragic incidents, but right across the Middle East the people have at last begun to empower themselves. They know more than ever now, that for too long they have been held hostage by bullies. For too long they have been pawns in a game that positioned them on account of their attitude to Israel. Does a hungry Egyptian really care whether his government is for or against peace with Israel? For or against an independent Palestinian state? In many cases yes, but they have far more pressing priorities and these must be dealt with first. Their personal needs are far more urgent than the ideological, religious, strategic, or tactical prerogatives of their non-representative governments. The people are speaking and they will continue to speak and nothing and no one is going to stop them now.

Long live the revolution! Long live the people!

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Oft Rejected Poems

These are poems I have no intention of shopping further to lit mags. I agree with those who rejected them that they are flawed, though let’s face it, there’s some pretty second-rate poetry out there which does get published. They do display a tendency towards a baroque melancholy and a somewhat self-indulgent, at times too exclamatory, melodramatic self-abnegation and analysis, but there you go. Sometimes you just have to hold forth in such a fashion. Oh, and yes, I really did see the Sistine Chapel on ecstasy…


To the Sistine Chapel on ecstasy with Beethoven


Joy, fair light of the Gods,

daughter of Elysium,

drunk on your fire, goddess,

we enter your shrine!

– Schiller, recitative, Beethoven’ s Symphony # 9 in D minor, Op. 125.


Three of us had come to see,

though two of us had taken E

and popped a second pill in case

the miracles were hard to trace.

I wondered if they knew the look,

yet who would ever think we’d dare

to reach such heights in Christ’s own lair?

Nervously, we shuffled into bliss.


I thought I had seen everything

in those museums; treasures

of Etruria, Egypt, Persia;

Rameses’ throne, the Lacoön,

a room of beasts in creamy stone,

a gallery of emperors struck

with frozen, clement gestures.

Helmets, tridents, golden spears,

torsos pecked by savage years,

such rooms, such rooms, so on it went

and all but an aperitif.


Through passages adorned with maps

of harbour, hill and river towns

from both sides of the Apennines,

we came upon a hundred yards

of tapestries to cheer us through

a high, overhanging loggia.


An allegory now caught my eyes

a ceiling, stark and glaring with

the aspect of an ancient chamber

(mosaic floor and marble bold)

where, on an anvil plinth, a strident cross

replaced the shattered breast

of ancient pride in bodies blest,

then Justin pressed a hand to mine

and said, “therein’s the paradigm.”


Before the Milvian Bridge I sat

upon a hard, historic bench

to drink the frescoed slaughter spiked

with hot and bloody battle’s sweep

with surging, stabbing man and beast

and in my kettle stomach felt

anew the rush of singing blood

leaping in all streams from out

my thumping summer heart.


My mouth was dry, my eyes were wide,

my pupils wider still!

my feet swam in my socks below

my groin’s delighted thrill!

We pressed ahead with gaping jaws;

geared for love and geared for war.

About us people thronged and gasped

and, as my comrades hands I clasped,

they pitched us down the corridor

straight through the Sistine Chapel’s door.


At first I saw the crowd alone,

not looking yet above my brows,

but then I turned behind to see

the Judgement that had made popes weep.

There, swollen in the cobalt blue,

the Eschaton before me grew

from instant recognition’s spark

into a rampant, blazing thing.


Christ loomed, well-muscled,

no more at the reckoning

was he the pain-wracked, horrid corpse hanging.

Enthroned, emboldened, granted

all the power of his sacrifice

he dished out fate with one hand raised,

and sent me down below.


Yuki squeezed my trembling hand

and Justin, seeing I was scared,

gave me music of a kind

to set my mood anew at once.

So, steering me away from Christ,

(Christ, that oh-so muscly Christ!)

they pointed to the heights and said

“Now this is what we came here for.”


Only then did I look to the ceiling above

to run like a fountain with waters of love:

first Cosmos, Creation, then Eden, then Adam,

then woman, then wisdom, then exile encumbered

with guilt that would taint all the centuries thereafter

– how pithy these myths and how bright were the colours!


I followed the panels, then reversed the order,

and went back and forth through the Testament hoping

to lend my belief to the love flushing through me,

to see something truthful beyond Michelangelo.

Beethoven urged me to fall deep within this,

to swim in the gaudiness blooming above me,

to drown in the firmament, give myself wholly,

as song sent me on into joy everlasting.


Freude, schöner Götterfunken,

Tochter aus Elysium

wir betreten feuertrunken

himmlische, dein Heiligthum!

And yet, still fearful of the Judge,

my eyes locked to the first idea,

through tears that sluiced my cheeks and blurred

creation spread pristine above,

I, but a seed that floated on

an ocean lapping shores untrod,

the current flooded me away

and, safe upon its gentle lull,

it beached me with a heart that sang

upon the birth of the world.





Since the accident I’ve not

been able to stay

on the one thing for long,

let alone two things, nor any

of the things that I did so well:

those lists of daily tasks

and chores and even now

I’m slipping into distraction.

Here, writing, first time

for days and not committed;

sloping somehow,

dwindling and forgetting

to believe and losing

the sharpness of a heart

once fuelled with passion.

So, rather,

it is as though

it is

as though that rogue, Fischerle,

false friend of a hunchback

were selling all my books.



Brothers of bluff


It was almost time for me to leave.

We flicked through channels

like letters of resignation; poised, defensive

with looks of expectation.

My brother, as always, with faraway precision

stocking supplies for divisions

drawn up against nurture.

By nature, the stoic one; he was dour tonight;

raised on as many squabbles as love,

shouting inside to be only the warmth,

fighting to shake off the need

of bravado and distance,

while being, with eyes ever elsewhere

halfway to the moon.


A storm would

have sorted us out that night,

yet we had instead to discharge the friction

ourselves in hardy love;

brothers of bluff, men unwilling

to admit to their obvious sadness.

I could not stay, did not want to stay,

but I did not want to go

unless to a limbo spread either side

of this present. I burned

for a once when my brother and I

lived in the same house, free to kill

time without remorse

for the steel press of adult life.

We drove to get some pizza and hire

a film we did not watch,

and I did not talk about Europe

because I was going and he was not.



The obsolescence of things


All things find their place within an age

and lend themselves into another soon;

so swiftly goes the passage of its use,

an object’s fellows dwindle out of view

until once common things are reckoned rare

and seen as quaint for tasks no longer there.


In photographs the “modern” distant grows;

the buildings, vehicles, businesses and clothes.

Where are those artefacts once starkly new?

Interred beneath the futures we accrue.

These worlds whose innovation caused a fuss

now seem just far-off habitats of dust.



The lake


Night portents

have silenced this sunset lake;

set loose the threads of lapping,

unfurled in the chiming moon.



Be with me…


Be with me now when you can,

you songs, you singers;

be with me now as I push

up this hill that won’t shy

in the glut of despair.

Be with me now, you words

you springs, you heroes;

be with me now as I fuel this journey

on which I’m ashamed again

to be lost.

Be with me now, you scourge,

you nine-tails, be with me now

as I face what dawns I have left,

one eye on the ones that I missed,

on those nights when my failure was urgent.

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The Odyssey

The Odyssean Lifestyle

I recently came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, entitled “Odyssean lifestyle makes a comeback”. I liked the title and was immediately curious, partly because, being a Sydney newspaper, my first thought was that its author was in fact the very David Brooks who had been one of my profs at The University of Sydney. It was not so – the article, which had first appeared in the New York Times, was written by an altogether different David Brooks.

Brooks writes:

There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the additions, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.”

The odyssean lifestyle is aided by new workplace flexibility, social media, easier and broader access to tertiary education, vastly changed perceptions of roles and status according to sex, gender, race and cultural background, ease and affordability of travel, more flexible social mores, online dating, the list goes on. The world has never been so full of choice and possibility, or, for that matter, such a variety of role-models. Personal development now includes a far richer range of experiences and opportunities, and the naturally curious human species is exploiting this to the full where possible.

Brooks is likely correct in suggesting the odyssean stage of ones life typically spans a single decade, yet there is, arguably, no limit to how long this may run. I myself have been on an odyssey since I left high school twenty years ago and, let’s face it, I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing with myself. It’s fair to say, however, that despite having three degrees, including a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Technology, Sydney, I haven’t exactly been successful.

It has also become increasingly difficult as I age to justify my lack of assets and financial security. Most would consider the odyssean phase to be one in which one tried ones hand at various things, ultimately with the aim of finding a suitable situation, career, partner and place to settle down at the end of the odyssey. Rather than merely accepting the old paradigm of finding a career either immediately after high school or university, many now prefer to try a variety of options until their tastes mature sufficiently to make a more satisfying choice of lifestyle. My problem, however, is that the paths I have chosen have so far proven to be dead-ends or have not been satisfying. I also suffer from a rather short attention span, or, conversely, an almost pathologically intense period of focus which, after some years, leaves me totally and utterly sick of whatever it was I was doing. Just like Zorba the Greek, who, as a child, loved cherries so much that he ate them until he was sick, I too tend to overdo things until they no longer give me pleasure. The law of diminishing returns is one of the few laws to which I subscribe without hesitation.

I have already experienced this sudden, plummeting loss of interest in the study of history and writing novels, though I’m still hitting the keys, as is here evident. Perhaps it is merely lack of success in these fields that has left a bitter taste in my mouth, but also a quite incurable restlessness finds me dreaming of further career possibilities at the age of 38 – architecture, photography, archaeology, biology, environmental management and planning… the list goes on.

The job for which I yearn most of all, however, is that of a holiday package tester. Yes, people do do this for a living – going on a package tour and rating the quality of the holiday experience. Many people I know do not like flying, become frustrated upon entering an airport, and are unhappy to have a schedule that is regularly disrupted by travel and jetlag. I, however, love these things dearly and feel most comfortable when constantly confronted by new stimuli – be it a crappy hotel room or second-rate buffet breakfast. Anything novel is, well, novel, for better or for worse, which is, I suppose, part of the reason for my clinging to the odyssean phase of my life for as long as possible.

One interesting upshot of the Odyssey is a loss of any coherent understanding of how or where I am supposed to be at any given stage of my life. There are clear signs all about; many of my friends are breeding, married and have successful careers, yet this process has had almost no impact on me whatsoever, other than to confirm my worst suspicions that it looks more complicated than desirable. Having always disregarded social convention, initially for the sake of rebellion and later through a philosophical rejection of materialism, careerism and acquisitiveness, I still believed that eventually I would, to some degree, fall into line.

This future point in my life, possibly involving marriage, the production of children and permanent, professional employment, combined with an attempt to latch onto the lower rungs of the property ladder, was always, from the age of around twenty-eight onwards, five years away. Nothing has changed, it is still five years away, and I believe I have at last begun to understand just why this is so. It is not so much a question of the necessary elements being in place, but rather one of the absence of any desire to set this process in motion. I quite simply don’t want to own anything or anyone, nor have to make life-decisions that depend on someone else’s say-so.

The unsettled, curiosity-driven, admittedly aimless, wandering lifestyle has become so integral for me as to be the only lifestyle I am capable of imagining. I have been through several mental exercises, imagining myself in the role of father and husband, or father and partner, or as permanently co-habiting childless, home-owner, or even, simply, home owner, but it all seems so farfetched. I have begun to wonder, does the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, come into play so far as lifestyle is concerned? Is it possible that I have become so detached from and spent so long avoiding exposure to these more settled lifestyles, that I am not actually capable of living such a life? Am I too set in my ways to adapt to it without suffering from crippling wanderlust and eternal, dispiriting restlessness?

The unwillingness to commit is often derided as a flaw; yet, I feel this attitude is out of touch with modern reality. Certainly there can be advantages to commitment, but without a sufficient level of in-built flexibility, anyone already well-used to freedom of movement is inevitably going to feel significantly restricted. Ultimately it comes down to a question of what is more important and what compromises we are willing to make, yet an unwillingness to compromise and a failure to rate permanence as highly as impermanence, should by no means be derided.

Perhaps it was my father’s work as a foreign and war correspondent that made me so attached to the idea of travel. Of course I was never actually doing any of the travelling, but remained transfixed by his tales of adventure. This no doubt helped to fuel my early and ongoing obsession with fantasy role-playing games. I had an intrinsic idolisation of characters who went off adventuring by themselves or with others. I spent my childhood pretending to be an “adventurer” and of all the literature I encountered, it was more often than not quest narratives that held the greatest attraction.

These particular influences and preferences are personal rather than broadly social or generational. Yet, finding myself in a global society marked by  the rise of flexibility and mobility in all things from work, education, relationships and gender and with rapidly rising narcissistic individualism, I have been perfectly primed to embark upon and sustain an Odyssean lifestyle. Quicker than I could decide what my own chosen norms were, the norms have changed.

There has only been a slight shift in self perception. A growing awareness that I am ageing – greying hair, lower back pain, longer warm up times when running – yet I still consider myself to be young. In fact, I rarely consider myself to be an adult, but a young man. My latest theory is that so long as I have hair, I am young. And, yes, I still have plenty of hair still on my head!

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This short story was a third and final chapter in the life of Oliver, a semi-autobiographical character whose misfortunes I greatly enjoyed charting in a variety of circumstances. Indecisive, snobbish and self-important, Oliver also has the more positive qualities of being intelligent and romantic, if in an all-too autistic fashion. The story needs to be fleshed out more and is more of a sketch than anything else. It is also dependent, to some degree, on being united with its predecessors. I have, however, other plans for the fate of this character, thus making this installment redundant.


The Benefits of a Broad Education

Oliver’s thoughts were on Wordsworth as he sat in the box office, for he had just finished reading Lyrical Ballads. The poems had left him with a feeling both beautiful and sad, and he was pleased in the late afternoon that business was quiet. It was a perfect prelude to the busy evening to come, when customers would arrive in droves to collect their tickets for the night’s performance.

At around seven two young couples, whom Oliver guessed to be just out of school, approached the counter. While taking an order from one of the girls, he could not help overhearing the loud and slightly inebriated conversation of the other three.

“So what’s Greg doing at university?” asked the other girl.

“He’s doing history,” said one of the young men.

“Like, why?” said the girl, with such astonishment that Oliver felt a stab in the breast.

“Hell knows,” said the young man. “He’s always been into that sort of stuff.”

“Yeah, but like why?” said the girl. “What’s the point of doing history? What’s he supposed to do with that?”

“I don’t know,” replied the young man. “It’s like Arts full stop, what’s that going to get you? It’s a total waste of time.”

Oliver kept his cool. He was sorely tempted to speak in defence of the arts, yet was tired now and did not feel sufficiently articulate. In fact he was sorely tempted to bash them all over the head and drag them off somewhere to be quietly gassed. So often in his life he had come across people with the same attitude and he had wanted to murder every single one of them. They were clearly beyond redemption as human beings, if indeed, they were human to begin with. His ire was rising and his neck was reddening, but he caught himself just in time. No, no, he cautioned internally, heart pumping fast, he was being unfair. They were ignorant and naïve, they had been brainwashed by materialism and acquisitiveness. It was re-education that they required, not extermination.

Following on from this caveat to himself, and in spite of the burning hostility in his breast, Oliver’s thoughts took on a more charitable aspect. He longed to tell them of the benefits, both to the individual and society, of a broad and specific education in the arts. Yet, as such words hovered, not so much on the tip of his tongue as at the back of his throat, it struck him that were he to mention having a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge, and add to that the observation that he found the study of history both fulfilling and worthwhile, they would have immediately pointed out to him that he was working in the box office of a theatre. Perhaps they had a point after all.

When the young customers had departed and the strange mix of rage and shame had settled down in him, Oliver was left soul searching. What was he doing with his life? What was his story? He wasn’t by any means useless; indeed, he regarded himself as rather versatile, having majored in Literature as well. But still, what was his story? What was he doing? If there was one thing the study of literature had taught him, it was that from start to finish a story must demonstrate a process of transformation in the main character; bringing them to a new understanding of themselves or their circumstances. There had to be a trajectory of sorts – the character arc – for surely that is the nature of a story; to start one place and finish somewhere else.

Yet what, Oliver asked himself, was his own character arc? He had been through many emotional ups and downs and seen significant changes to his circumstances, yet had he changed at all or was he more than ever himself? If the latter, could that be considered change? He had resigned himself to a fate of diminishing returns, yet was that progress or change of emphasis? He had to grab at things faster and faster, his relationships grew shorter and shorter and he had less time for making amends when things were not working. Yet was that change or acceleration?

Oliver had always been a man of phases and, in reflection, it seemed to him that for the last few years he had merely switched between old and understood phases with varying degrees of intensity; work, play, obsession, mission, lust and asexuality. His life was not an arc, but a dial. It was a turntable. Nothing really changed him, but the disc kept spinning. It wasn’t a lack of experience, but rather a consequence of having experience. Indeed, Oliver felt so saturated by experience that he did not see how anything could change him without being extremely traumatic.

What was to be done? What might shake him from his torpor?

Oliver sat at his desk, furiously tapping his leg up and down. He felt a great, energetic, vigorous disappointment. Soon, however, the stream of customers had him on his feet again; twirling, stretching, fetching their tickets from the bench upon which they were arranged. He smiled and exuded good cheer, yet behind the helpful eyes his displeasure was paramount.

How angry that girl’s comments had made him! If she and her friends lacked the foresight to see just what one might do with a mind geared for lateral thinking, for query and inquisition, then it was time someone got up and showed them.


In Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth he makes the point that ten to fifteen years from now there will be no more snows of Kilimanjaro. How is it possible that things could have come to such a pass? Will nature one day be merely a subject for nostalgia?

William Wordsworth had just an inkling of what we were doing. He knew the way things were going when he walked through the smog and stink of industrial London. He’d seen the hellish fires across France as well, seen the towers of smoke and plume. It was clear to him that industry had entered a phase of expansion and intensification that was liable to be ongoing and, if left unchecked, potentially devastating.

In itself, industry on a large scale was nothing new. The Romans had built factories too; huge industrial workshops for beating out thousands upon thousands of swords and shields; great mints for smelting metals and clinking out coins; foundries, tanners, whole hillsides of waterwheels for the mass production of flour. Yet, the scale of Roman industry was hampered by the comparatively primitive nature of their mining and exploration. Most don’t realise that the curious pocks hacked into the masonry of ancient buildings were caused by thieves seeking scrap; the lead-coated braces of iron that secured the stone blocks. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and tin, though plentiful in China, was extremely rare in the west. By the sixth century, the classical world had run significantly short of metal.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, new sources of raw materials sprang up like mushrooms after imperial rain and Wordsworth found himself choking. He saw what monstrous tumours were growing in the hearts of the towns and called upon his contemporaries to return to the earth. He saw just how greatly the conditions and consequences of industry were degrading the human condition and he exhorted people to fill their lives with natural beauty.

His poems, therefore, as much as they were a genuinely heartfelt celebration of the wonders of nature, were a reaction against the industrial revolution. For many years his contemporaries laughed him off as childish and unrealistic; coy and “namby pamby”. His poetry was roundly dismissed as so much dreamy claptrap, just as, until very recently, the greens were so often dismissed as a bunch of unrealistic lunatics.

Yet, whilst Wordsworth rebelled against the destruction of the human soul and the turning of people into termites; while he recoiled from the blight of the towns and the smog and the slurry, unlike the green movement he could never have imagined that whole natural vistas could actually turn to deserts; that once snow-capped mountains, whose thaws fed vital rivers, might be snow-capped no more and the rivers vanish. Nature was surely too great, too powerful, to be affected this way. Could mankind truly create a wasteland? For Wordsworth the more obvious and immediate concern was the wasteland of the soul. We might have divorced ourselves from nature, but surely we could not destroy it altogether.

“Oh, Nature,” thought Oliver, channelling Wordsworth as he sat out the end of his shift staring at the cover of Lyrical Ballads with its watercolour of the Lakes District, “how often have our spirits turned from thee!”



It was to prove a fateful evening for Oliver. As they were about to close the doors of the box office, a tall, tanned, middle-aged man walked in, wishing to purchase tickets for a concert the following week. While Oliver took care of the transaction, the customer stood examining the large, colour photograph of the interior of the venue, displayed beside the counter.

“So, for a standing show,” asked the man, “all the seating comes out downstairs, is that correct?”

“Spot on,” said Oliver, looking up from his monitor.

“And the only seating for this show is on the balcony?”

“That’s right.”

“So, how does it work? Do you mean that every time you have a standing show, someone has to take all of those seats out and put them back in the next day?”

“Pretty much. They often go from standing to seating and back again on consecutive nights. It can go on like that for weeks, until we get a longer running show.”

“My god,” said the man, “that’s gotta be a hell of a job, to have to do that every day.”

“Yeah,” said Oliver. “Strange, but I never really thought of it like that.”

He leaned back in his chair.

“It’s a hell of a job,” the man said again.

“It does seem like a hell of a job,” said Oliver, “but then, the world is full of awful jobs, isn’t it? I mean, some people cut the heads off fish for a living, others shovel manure, some have to patrol war zones; in the scale of things, it’s not so bad.”

“I suppose not. Though that all depends on how much you get paid for it.”

“Not a lot, I imagine,” said Oliver. “And anyway, that’s not necessarily any consolation. I think it was Aristotle who said that all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.”

“Well, you wouldn’t catch me doing it.”

“No,” said Oliver, “I guess not.”



Cycling through the streets of Cambridge on the way home that evening, Oliver pondered the spiritual penury of his circumstances. He was a nobody who was doing nothing to save a dying world; a nobody whose education ought to cut him out for greater things; a person whose wisdom should find a more practical application. He saw himself as a wasted resource, an untapped vein, and if it wasn’t his wisdom or education they needed, then hell, surely someone, somewhere, working for a good cause must need a spare pair of hands?

Oliver was a man who had played a lot of role-playing games in his thirty-two years on the planet and, almost invariably, he played a bard or minstrel character. The ultimate jack of all trades and master of none, bards were the show-ponies of the adventuring world; all lyrics and no action, they added more colour than punch. It was no great leap of the imagination for Oliver to see the parallel between himself and his avatars, and though this occasionally made him feel effete and useless, he did at times remind himself of the true greatness of bards: not only did they significantly boost morale, they were famed for their knowledge of lore and could try their hand at anything.

Perhaps, he wondered, it was really his context that was at fault. For the last two years he had been unable to find any work in his field, and outside of it, nothing that was morally, ethically, or intellectually stimulating. This had, admittedly, a good deal to do with his over-qualification, his lack of practical experience, and a certain unwillingness to compromise by committing himself to anything distastefully serious. Yet he found himself increasingly blaming not merely the particular city in which he dwelt, but the entire country.

Perhaps, he reasoned, in some troubled land, the absence of properly qualified people might allow for their substitution with intelligent, lateral thinkers. Must he now go in search of such a land? Must he join a team of adventurers who were off on some vital quest to save a people, a nation, or indeed, the entire planet? The planet was dying, people were dying. He had heard and ignored the call of the trumpet all his life and now the trumpet was blowing louder than ever! Yes, thought Oliver, pushing his way through the cool, thin evening, balancing the ideas and emotions that had assailed him that day, it was time to take up the reins of adventure.

He stopped a moment to chide himself. Was it right to make vital decisions such as this whilst examining his life through the prism of fantasy role-playing? Wasn’t he the first person to criticise misguided, foolhardy, romantic adventurism? Had he not just recently argued that the real reason Tony Blair went to war in Iraq was because his favourite novel is Ivanhoe?

“The imperial romance,” said Oliver aloud, “the fairytale of the damsel in distress. Huh! But these people run the world. Well, the hell with them,” he muttered, wheeling his bike across the footbridge over the lock, “if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. Why can’t I have a crack at rescuing the world as well?”

His voice went unheard; lost in the winds that swept the empty dark of Jesus Green.



When the ice-shelf gave way, Oliver knew instantly that it was all over. Curiosity had caught him out, trying to take a photograph he should never have attempted. Still, how was he to know when his luck would run out?

Tumbling head-first into the crevasse, he emitted a piercing cry. This time, his voice did not go unheard, though his colleagues from the Scott Polar Research Institute were in no position to help him. They had told him not to go, told him that it was risky, and still he went, though he was not a reckless person; not normally anyway. Perhaps, given time, he might have become one. The mission would have to end now, and soon his colleagues would all leave Greenland. Had he survived the fall, he might have wondered at how, in the end, he had come only to hamper the efforts of the true. So much for volunteering to make a difference! So much for the dabblers of this world! How often fate can be cruel to them; how often it turns out that they are, after all, just in the way of everyone else.

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This is a chapter from Volume I of my autobiography entitled Sex with a Sunburnt Penis. The chapter was in fact removed from the second draft as part of a lengthy culling process and re-organisation of the material. Sex with a Suburnt Penis (hereafter, SWASP) was written between July and November of 1997 after a particularly bad break-up of a relationship that had lasted four and a half years. It goes without saying that I brought it all upon myself through repeated misdemeanours, but still was genuinely devastated when the shit hit the fan. It set me off on a particularly introspective  period of binge-drinking and autobiographical writing, inspired by Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Ernest Hemingway to name a few. My habit of diary-keeping – still have not missed a day since 1986 – made this process considerably easier as I had a wealth of material to mine, alongside my then more vivid recollections of the events.  Whilst not in evidence here, I still consider some of the the stronger passages of SWASP to be my most visceral and honest writing to date.



One afternoon when I was sixteen years old, whilst helping my dad to paint the lounge-room, he asked me a question out of the blue.

“Mate, do you smoke marijuana?”

“Ummm, no,” I replied.

“Look,” he said, “I used to smoke it a bit myself, and I’m not against it. But I still think you’re a bit young to be getting into it.”

I nodded and said, without making eye contact, “Well, I haven’t tried it.”

“Well, look, mate,” said my dad, squaring up, “if you ever take anything, for whatever reason, and you get into any trouble, I want you to know that you can always call your dad. Just get straight on the phone and I’ll come and get you, wherever you are. Don’t be afraid of being in trouble – the first priority is to make sure you’re alright.”

He was looking at me so intently that I felt embarrassed. I was glad to have the roller in my hand.

“You’re my son,” he said, “and I don’t want you to do anything stupid, obviously. But we all make mistakes. Don’t be afraid of calling your dad if you need any help.”

“Umm, I won’t. Thanks.”

He turned back to the wall and smiled to himself.

“I tell you what,” he said, “smoking dope used to make me as hungry as buggery.”

The truth, of course, was that I had started smoking dope the year previous, though I never seemed to get properly stoned. I rather wondered what all the fuss was about, for none of my friends seemed to get stoned either. My closest friend, Jason, tried his best to prove otherwise one truant afternoon by hiding in the cupboard and pretending to be linen, but it didn’t exactly wash. I felt sure he was faking it, and so did everyone else, yet our doubts were mixed with the envious fear that he was actually stoned. It seemed churlish to challenge him so I just pretended I was stoned as well. We all did.

Such pretending certainly had its precedents, for, earlier that year, Jason and I had spent many hours practising with tea-leaves. One terribly immature evening we donned some paisley head-scarves, ordered a pizza and rolled up a savage, nine-skin, Earl Grey and Russian Caravan Tea joint. After a heavy dose of bergamot we upped the ante with a few lines of sherbet, put on The Tracks of my Tears and re-enacted the scene from Platoon in which Charlie Sheen smokes through a gun-barrel, albeit with Irish Breakfast and a plastic tube. It was a farcical charade of retro cool, but at fifteen we longed for a taste of counter culture so badly that even mere pretence had the tang of rebellion.

Well versed as I was on the subject of tea, when it came to marijuana I was entirely ignorant of the varieties and in all likelihood we were only smoking leaf. No wonder we never got stoned, but then, getting hold of any stuff, let alone good stuff, was a serious obstacle. In my third year of high school Jason and I had tried to buy our first “foil” from a classmate called Duke. A few days later in maths he handed our twenty dollars back. No luck. It was to become a familiar story and our hopes were regularly dashed in this fashion.

By the time we were sixteen, marijuana began to show up at parties. I puffed away on the rare and holy joints of empty leaf, but so little effect did it have beyond inducing an overexcited and ultimately frustrated musing on its workings, that I entrusted my evenings to the siege engines of tequila. Not having been properly stoned made it difficult to know what to recognise when it finally happened. Yet, when I did find out, the contrast was immediately apparent and set a benchmark I was unlikely ever to forget.

Like so many pivotal moments in life, fortune smiled from the unmapped realm of the random. One Friday night, a mere week after my father’s enquiry, I walked into the Paddington Green hotel to see if anyone was about. This pub was notorious for turning a blind eye to underage drinkers and was a favourite haunt of the more game amongst my high school peers. “Game” was a tag to which I keenly aspired.

In the front room I spotted two friends, James and Rowena, who were playing the card machines. They seemed happy to see me, so I bought a beer and pulled up a stool.

“I’m having shit luck,” said James. “Why don’t you have a crack?”

“Okey dokes, though I haven’t the faintest…”

They showed me what to do and I doubled up a few hands; a fifty-fifty choice between red or black cards. I can only assume that it was a brilliant spate of beginner’s luck, but within five minutes I had won them forty dollars. It was no piddling amount for a teenager back then.

“Fucking excellent,” said James. “What a champion. We should go and get smashed!”

Both he and Rowena were keen as mustard to get hammered and it was plain they knew how to make it happen. I was scared of their capability; James and Rowena were united in rebellion against school and convention and were known to indulge in harder things than booze and pot. Despite being curious and adventurous, I retained much childhood timidity.

“Maybe we could get some speed as well,” said James, confirming all of my worst fears.

“Oh, no,” I protested nervously, “I don’t want to get involved with anything like that.”

“Nah, well, don’t worry, man,” said James, “we wouldn’t want to do make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

I was pleased with how quickly they ruled it out. I felt completely reassured and my spirits rose again. They were going to look after me! I was excited by the prospect of heading into a world with a harder edge; nothing too dramatic, and hardly a patch on what was to come only a year later, yet it had all the gravity of anticipated significance.

Before long we were on the ever-reliable 380 bus to Bondi. The long bus swung and dipped its winding way to the Royal Hotel, where James said a quick score was certain. “We’ll get some hash, man. Have you ever smoked hash?”

“Nah,” I said, swallowing my resurrected uncertainty.

“It’s just like dope, man. It’s the same stuff. But different. Better.”

Rowena smiled. She was beautiful, Italian, wearing a little too much foundation.

“I love hash,” she said.

It sure seemed sexy now.

The pub terrified me. I’d never seen a place with so many rough blokes in it and there was none bigger and rougher than the bloke whom James approached and disappeared with into the toilets. I waited outside on the street with my nerves crippling my conversation. I liked Rowena, but she was so grown up for a girl her age that I felt like a child beside her. I stood dumb, expecting something awful to happen; that somehow we would all be the victims of violence. The real world could be frightening, exposing the thinness of my bravado. It was vast and I felt small. It struck me that out on the edge there was less room to run.

When James emerged a couple of minutes later I couldn’t wait to get moving. “It’s sweet, man,” he said, “I got a hell-good deal.”

The humid air was full of spring blossom and the sea. We hurried off into the night, all of us with an extra spring in our step.

“Have a look, man,” said James, offering me a stick of hash. I had no preconception of what hashish might look like and was surprised to find a slightly sticky, malleable brown lump in my hand. It was like the chocolate Spacefood bars I’d eaten in primary school and similarly moulded into a rectangle. I gave it a light squeeze and took a sniff. It was nutty, pungent and dusky. I smiled and handed it back to James.

Away from the main strip I was able to relax. Since being harassed by Nazi punks only a year before, I was wary of everyone and felt more at ease away from the main strip. In the side streets I could hide in the shadows, but Bondi Road swarmed with fired up, drunk young men and it was anyone’s guess as to who or what they might not like.

Before long we arrived at James’ house. It was a modern, red-brick semi which mirrored the one adjacent; set back from the road down a fragrant path.

“My mum’s home downstairs,” he said, “so we have to be real quiet.”

We tip-toed along a hall and into the front room; James held his finger to his lips. This was much more familiar territory; a game I knew only too well. I was adept at being stealthy and had a whisper so low it might be mistaken for the brush of silk.

We settled against bookshelves, sitting cross-legged. “I’ll be back,” said James, and snuck off into the hall. Rowena and I remained silent, smiling and raising eyebrows. I wondered what she saw in James. He might be cool and know a thing or two, but he was jug-eared and acned. It must have been his street cred, his dedication to the dark side that gave him the upper hand.

He returned just two minutes later with a bowl, a bong and a packet of biscuits.

“Are you mixing?” James asked, handing the bowl to Rowena to confirm this demarcation.

She took the hash from him and squeezed it into a ball. In the bowl was an unfolded, blackened paperclip. Using the paperclip as a prong, she stuck the round ball of hash on the spike, then placed it beside her. Without a word she removed a cigarette from the packet and began toasting it with the lighter; running flame up and down its length. The paper browned and blackened in spots and soon, satisfied, she put down the lighter and rubbed the cigarette between her fingers. The now drier and more brittle tobacco spilled out into the bowl. Next she took the paperclip in her fingers and held the lighter under the ball of hash. She turned this over and over in the flames, flicking it in and out and being careful not to set it alight. Sweet and heady smoke arose to mix with the toasted tobacco smell, and then, in a quick move, she pinched the hash from the end between thumb and forefinger, plunged it into the tobacco and began to work the mix with her fingers. In no time she had transformed the contents of the bowl into a dark, finely ground powder. I’d never seen anything like it and had watched the whole process in silent awe. Marijuana was marijuana, but this looked more like drugs. Perhaps it was really Rowena who had all the cred, and it was James who was along for the ride.

I still did not say a word; partly in honour of the request to remain silent, and partly out of a desire not to reveal my ignorance by asking naïve questions. James just sat smiling, saying nothing either. Rowena now packed this powder into the cone of the bong and handed it to me with a lighter.

“You go first,” she said, with a polite smile.

“Are you sure?” I whispered?

“Yeah, go on.”

I put the bong to my lips, put my thumb across the air hole and fired up the cone. The smoke tasted as rich as it smelled; it was a brown and heavy flavour, dusty and woody, and within seconds of tasting it I felt my head reeling. I leaned back against the bookshelf and didn’t move or say a word. I knew it was regarded as unmanly not to “punch” a cone, to finish it in one hit, but I took it slowly through several breaths. By the time I placed the bong on the floor and nodded silent thanks, I was well on my way to a new sensation.

James and Rowena smiled and turned their focus back to the business of packing and smoking their own cones. I sat silently, feeling myself accelerate and slow simultaneously. I guessed that this must be it, that I must be becoming stoned! Time slowed down further and my heart began pounding in my chest; the few words uttered by James and Rowena reverberated in my ears. The quiet, almost inaudible sounds of the room became echoes in what seemed a vast soundscape. I shuddered with the sounds; I shuddered in myself; I heard a sliding, throbbing noise and listened to the blood coursing through my veins. I pressed myself close against the bookshelf and watched the other two going through the motions of smoking. I had absolutely nothing to say. I was afraid of hearing my voice.

I felt both fearful and elated; and rose and dipped rapidly between the two. James and Rowena were smiling. “Excellent,” said James. “Excellent hash,” and I found myself laughing, having never heard anything so funny before in my life. It was the release I needed, but it was not enough. A moment later I felt the shelves against my spine and began to reason my way through this.

“Okay,” I thought, “this must be it. So, I’m stoned at last – tick – but what the hell do I do now? What happens next?” It was almost unbearable being forced to sit here so quietly, and then I realised that James was talking. He was talking to Rowena! Weren’t we supposed to be quiet? I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, for by the time he’d reached the end of a sentence, I’d forgotten how it started. I blinked and then closed my eyes, but things began to spin, so I opened them again and looked straight ahead. The packet of biscuits was being offered to me.

“Have one,” said James, “they’re fucking excellent.”

The biscuits were crisp and cheesy and I took two. I stuck one in my mouth and broke it in my teeth. It was dry and so was my mouth, yet in no time I chewed it into a salty, cheddary paste. They were superb biscuits! I felt the world had once again grounded itself. This was the key – sustenance! How could mankind live without food? I felt myself growing hysterically excited, tears welled in the corners of my eyes, my throat caught and thickened , but I said nothing. I was afraid of what might happen if I started to speak. What would come out? My words or someone else’s?

I ate the second biscuit. It was an historic moment. Here, still, after thousands of years, we were making things from wheat, as once they had in the fertile crescent. Where would we be without crops? Without agriculture? Where we would be without all these slow accumulations?

I was nodding to myself, nodding and chewing my way through that second biscuit. Damn the biscuit was good. I reached out and took another one. So this was what they called ‘the munchies.’ Now I could say I’d officially had the munchies, and yes, I was officially stoned!

James got up to leave the room again. Suddenly there were only two of us – how odd it all seemed. This room felt desultory. I hated overhead lights, yet, propped like some quarto volume leaned against the shelves – a book full of words and pictures – I felt small and inconspicuous. Safe enough to begin speaking.

I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I hadn’t prepared anything at all. Where should I start?

“I’m really stoned,” said Rowena.

“Yes, yes, me too!” I said, thrilled to have a contribution. So, it wasn’t just me, of course! We were both stoned. And what about James? He must be stoned as well. How was he faring out there, sneaking like a cat, like a hunching goblin, picking adventurers’ pockets, hiding the gems in his little chest…

I spoke on; unfocussed, confused inanities to Rowena. James returned and smiled at us. No toilet had flushed, no tap had run – where had he gone? I dived back into the crackers like a man possessed. I needed something to do; I needed to return to the Fertile Crescent. I ate three, four, five more biscuits; but still could not think of a way to start a conversation. I saw Rowena reaching for the bowl, saw her filling the cone. Was she mad? Was it time for another? How much time had gone by? Oh my god, what day was it? Where the hell was I? She was leaning forward with her almond eyes, her cunning smile, her lures and wiles all just for James. I took the proffered bong – it had come from a beautiful woman. Could I say no and still be a man? I smoked it, more quickly this time. By gosh my mouth was dry.

Time stretched out, accordion-like, and I tumbled backwards into the widening distance. It was slow in there, heart-pumpingly slow. I took a deep breath and fell further back into a new and juddering slowness, only this time I kept falling. I could feel the bookshelves against my back, but no longer did they anchor me to the world. I was turning over and over, in an ever-faster spin. I pushed myself more firmly against the shelves to discomfort myself back to reality. It didn’t change anything; I tumbled ever on into a ghastly image of an Icelandic maelstrom conjured from some children’s book.

Oh god, I thought, and suddenly felt very sick indeed.

“James,” I said, breathing carefully, trying to right myself, “I don’t feel so good. I think I need some fresh air.”

“Okay man,” he said.

“Are you alright?” asked Rowena.

“I dunno,” I said. The saliva rushing into my cheeks was sobering; enough to give me speech, but not enough to stop the spinning.

I stood up, climbing hand over hand behind my back, shelf by shelf. James steadied my elbow and guided me through the door. I was listing and reeling, but I stayed my course and we made it to the entrance.

“Are you alright, man?” asked James.

“I’ll just be a bit,” I said and left him standing in the doorway.

I stumbled into the night and made straight for the nature strip, feeling sure I was going to puke. I lay on the grass and welcomed the cool of the springy blades, stretching my neck to place my cheeks on the cold concrete gutter. I had learned from several overzealous tequila nights that cold floors were my salvation. Ideally I’d be lying on bathroom tiles, but at least the air was fresh out here.

I held off the first wave of nausea and tried to haul myself in. I wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep, but could only avoid the spins by keeping them open and focussed on the streetlights. What was wrong, I wondered? Was it the cheese biscuits? The earlier beers? Or could hash do this all by itself? What would my father think of all this?

I slowly managed to get myself together. I felt confused and disoriented, but my stomach had stopped its lurching. I couldn’t stay out here forever and decided, after some time that I was well enough to go in.

I stood up, turned around and found myself in serious trouble. The two houses in front of me were identical, and like a butterfly print, their doors faced the same central path. I remembered that the door had been on my left when I came outside, and therefore, I reasoned, it must be the door on the left. I walked towards it and tried the handle, but it was locked. I was afraid that I had been locked out accidentally and reached for the buzzer. It was only then that I realised my mistake. I stepped back, walked over to the door on the right, found it unlocked, and went back inside the house.

I made it through to the room where James and Rowena were sitting, gave a little wave and welcomed their smiles, but the moment I caught a whiff of the hash my stomach vaulted. My head reeled and saliva rushed again to flood my gums. I wobbled, flushed with panic and turned straight back around to head for the pavement once more.

I took up my previous position. The grass was waxy and sharp and pressed through my loose black shirt. The concrete smelled of stale sun. I could scent the cool rubber of a car tyre and the metallic grease of the brakes. I desperately wanted some water, but had not had the good sense to ask for it. I was still an amateur at looking after myself, still working out all the cures. I stared at the lights, hiding in the shadows. At first I had been too anxious to be ashamed, but now I was beginning to feel conspicuous.

I pulled myself together, stood up and brushed myself down. I was dizzy and confused, but my stomach felt sound. I made for the doorway but once again faced a dilemma. Which door was it? The left or the right? I struggled to remember. All I knew was that I had gotten it wrong last time. I recalled my previous mistake and tried to work through it – I had started confident but came to the wrong conclusion. Only where had I started from last time? What was the basis of my previously flawed logic? I could not remember, but the door on the left looked attractive. It looked familiar. Had I not perhaps gone through it before?

I tried the handle on the screen door. It was locked again! I couldn’t think at all. What had happened last time? Had I rung the buzzer? Had I knocked on the window? I couldn’t remember a thing. Was this what it was like to be stoned? I pressed the buzzer. What the hell, I needed water; I needed to get inside. I waited only a few seconds before being struck by the terrifying realisation that this was the wrong door. Of course! The other door had been open all along. I ran across the path, tried the other door and was through into the hall in a flash.

I needed water, but wasn’t going to try finding the bathroom by myself, so I walked through to where James and Rowena were sitting. It looked and smelled as though they’d just had another cone; the air was thick with smoke, coiling around the glaring, ugly light. The reek was dreadful, overpowering, and before I could say a thing I felt myself reeling again. “Oh, god,” I said, “get me some water!” Then I turned straight back, ran this time through the front door, lunged towards the gutter and vomited into the concrete.

“Oh, god, oh god,” I moaned, as the full scale of my cheese-cracker consumption became gaudily apparent.

I rose with the heaving retches, otherwise lying flat as a lizard. I don’t imagine anyone likes to vomit, yet I had lived with a phobia of it since suffering a terrible bout of gastro-enteritis at the age of eleven. I was old enough to know I would shrug it off, however, and did not feel overly concerned, but rather, humiliated, ashamed, longing for home. My father’s words now came back to me clearly. His offer of assistance would be more than welcome now, yet my troubles did not seem to be on the scale his words had suggested. Still I imagined him helping me up, grabbing me under the armpits and lifting me to my feet. “We’ll get you home, don’t worry, son. You’ll be alright.”

My home grew great and necessary in my heart. What was wrong within me to make me seek these alternatives, these frontiers? Could I not be happy at home, clean and fed, loved and looked after? Of course it came with a swathe of attendant woes, but the core things, beyond all the bickering, brought a simple, profound happiness. I wished these truths could be always predominant. What a pleasure it would be to go home now and feel them in my body and soul; to feel the safety, comfort and love.

One evening when I was twelve years old, walking home with my father along Oxford Street, we passed by a scene that shocked me to the core. On the bus-stop bench sat two young men with a girl lying across their lap. The girl was, to all intents and purposes, unconscious and had vomit trickling from her mouth, right into the lap of one of the blokes, who seemed so out of it as not to care.

“Jesus,” said my father, “who bloody-well sold them the booze?”

I felt at the time a mix of fear and shame, but worst of all, it made me feel very, very ill owing to my morbid, indeed, at the time, pathological phobia of vomiting. I could not comprehend how people could put themselves into such situations. And yet, look at me now! Perhaps it wasn’t always so obvious where the limits lay.

I retched and retched until I could retch no more, praying that no one would walk past, wanting neither their scorn, their charity or their pity. I was especially fearful that some young child might walk past with their father or mother and that I would become the fearful blueprint of how not to behave. I cursed my fate. So, being stoned could make you sick as well? I suppose I wasn’t to know.

After fifteen minutes I stood up and steadied myself. I was disappointed that neither James nor Rowena had come to check on me; yet perhaps things were more discrete without a pavement congregation. I faced my foe one last time: the two identical doors. Surely I could not make the same mistake a third time, and yet I did, trying the handle repeatedly on their tight screen door. I stood a while shaking my head. How could I be so useless? How I longed to be home, showered and changed, warm in my bed with a good book and the dogs snoring at my feet. How I looked forward to the happy normality of Sunday, killing time with my brother.

I soon realised my mistake and crossed to the right side of the path. I turned the handle and walked on in, back with the low, roiling scents of oily hash. I marched straight through to see James and Rowena and told them I was leaving.

“Can you call me a taxi?” I asked, and they were more than obliging. Perhaps they had just forgotten about me out there; perhaps they had simply not cared. I couldn’t be sure, but I was pleased to be leaving.

“Can I use the bathroom, man?”

“Sure thing.”

Rowena showed me through with a curious, sorrowful smile. I wondered if their hearts were hardening in this life they led, or were they harder to begin with.

I washed my face and hands, rinsed out my mouth, drank a small amount of water. When I emerged from the bathroom, James and Rowena were waiting to see me off.

“Taxi’s coming,” said James, “it won’t be long now.”

We all walked outside.

Later that night as I sat up in bed, freshly showered, book on my lap, nursing a hot cup of tea, I made a silent promise that my father need never come fetch me. Despite his willingness, was it really necessary for him to know of my shame?

So it was, that on the hard nights to come, on the speed and acid, coke and ecstasy nights of the reeling future, I didn’t muck around, but instead went straight to hospital.

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I have long had a fear of blogging, because I’ve always made the error of regarding it in the same light as opinion writing, and, sadly quite a lot of rubbish is written in the guise of “opinion”. Don’t think I don’t see the danger and the irony in making this statement in a blog, but there you have it. I felt it was necessary to make this point, both by way of a disclaimer and as an excuse for why I have been for so long so reluctant to blog.

I am fully cognisant of the fact that the term blog derives from “web log” and means, in effect, an online journal or diary. It is not by any means necessarily supposed to be a forum for debate or the equivalent of an opinion column or leading article. Yet the simple fact remains that many blogs do constitute precisely this. They are often used as an informal means of addressing contemporary critical debate and, all too often, the flimsiness of their academic foundations are immediately evident.

Having pursued research to a post-doctoral level, it is difficult to be sympathetic to arguments (which, frankly, is what opinions essentially are) that lack the same depth of academic credibility. It does not mean they ought to be dismissed, but they do rather reek of agenda as opposed to impartiality.

But isn’t the whole point about opinion partiality, I hear you cry? Yes, it is, but that thought doesn’t make me feel any more comfortable when reading poorly constructed arguments. It goes without saying that the construction of any argument will always be a highly selective process, yet at least within the academic world this process is, ideally, achieved through consideration and demonstration of knowledge of the available evidence and literature on the subject.

Clearly it is impossible to be an expert on everything before forming an opinion on something, just as it is also possible for people to form relatively accurate assessments with only a relatively limited amount of information. I guess I’ve always thought it was a little presumptuous or even arrogant to seek to influence people with opinions that were based on relatively little research. More often than not, these arguments are constructed purely for the sake of a political, economic or social agenda. So why should anyone trust such hastily composed, poorly researched blabber as often can be found in blogs?

So what the hell am I banging on about?

Opinion is also very much of the moment. In commenting on recent events it is impractical to expect any writer to have at their disposal the full spectrum of academic and non-academic research and analysis in order to pass authoritative judgement – a judgement which might, through proper review, turn out to be flawed in its conclusions.

So who do we trust? And how can one be so bold as to make a statement of their own? This has long been my principal objection to blogging. I have no desire to see statements restricted to people with the appropriate qualifications, though this might quell a great deal of unnecessary hysteria and prevent many of the worst consequences of populism, my objections have essentially rested with the arrogance of many commentators who were clearly unqualified to pass judgement on anything. In such a light, how could I possibly justify making my own contributions to the world of opinion writing? Is it arrogant of me to comment on politics, when there are so many established, better qualified political commentators? Could I write about psychological issues, when my doctorate is in history and not psychology? Am I qualified to comment on society as a whole when not a sociologist who has conducted research into precisely the social phenomenon upon which I am commenting? Can I have any confidence that my opinion will not be misleading, and thereby, dangerous, as so many other misleading and patently incorrect opinions can be? And, let’s face it, I’m a really opinionated sonofabitch.

I’d like to think that it was a deficit of arrogance that has kept me from blogging al this time; an academic distrust of opinion and argument that lacked the depth and the checks and balances of academic work. Perhaps it is as much timidity as anything else. After all, as Yossarian said in Catch 22 in response to the question – “But what if everyone thought like that?” – “Then I’d be a damn fool to think otherwise.”


Wtf, I’m blogging now, so to hell with it all.


Yours truly, Herr Professor Dr. Rollmops.

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