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Archive for June, 2013

One of the first things I ever posted on this blog, in November 2007, was an expression of my sentiments on the eve of the election which saw the Labor party re-elected and Kevin Rudd become prime minister of Australia. At the time I was ecstatic after eleven and a half years of conservative rule under the much-loathed (by me) John Howard. I’m not about to go over that old ground, suffice to say that I disagreed not just with his fundamental beliefs and policies, but also the tone of his leadership – a brand of dangerously incendiary, flag-waving nationalism that fuelled Australia’s undercurrent of xenophobia and selfishness. Seeing John Howard defeated in that election made me want to return to Australia. I felt a renewed hope that this country might not be so bad after all.

When Rudd became prime minister, his popularity was unprecedented in Australian history. Indeed, he achieved the highest ever positive ratings in polls regarding satisfaction with his leadership and preferred prime minister. It seems almost impossible to believe then that, three years later, in June 2010, he was dumped by his own party in a bloodless coup and replaced with Julia Gillard, the then deputy PM. Rudd’s popularity had certainly fallen considerably in that time, largely on account of the clumsy implementation of otherwise good policy and his failure to get both the mining tax and carbon emissions trading scheme through parliament, yet most leaders lose much of their shine in their first term and come good in the ensuring election. Rudd is such a good campaigner and had, at that time, enough feathers in his cap to defeat Tony Abbott convincingly.

Yet it was not merely a knee-jerk reaction from the Labor party in the face of increasingly bad polls, it was, apparently, also on account of Rudd’s leadership style within the party. Rudd was said to have been dictatorial, inconsiderate, both disorganised and a control-freak, and not adequately consultative. And there were other reasons which say much about the structure of the Labor party – Rudd was unaligned factionally and was often at odds with the unions. This was very much a part of the recipe for his public popularity, yet it did not endear him to many in caucus who felt he was somehow not a  true Labor party member on account of his lacking more traditional affiliations. The Labor party had seen that he was an election winner on account of his appeal to a broad section of the electorate and his personable public style, yet once his popularity was called into question publicly, his lack of broad support within the party left him exposed and they dropped him like a hot potato.

I was, it must be said, totally and utterly surprised when this happened and had not seen it coming. How could a party who had been in the wilderness for eleven and a half years, politically assassinate the very man who had got them so emphatically back into government, before he had even served his first term? I was confused in my loyalties, because I had always wanted Julia Gillard to be the leader of the Labor party and was extremely pleased to see the elevation of Australia’s first female prime minister, yet felt deeply sorry for Kevin Rudd and considered the manner of his ousting to be unfair. I failed to realise at the time just how destabilising this would be and, considering the policy vacuum and low standards on the other side of the house, figured the Labor party would be returned to power in the ensuing election. Ultimately, they were, but as a minority government with the terrible taint of illegitimacy.

In many ways, replacing Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard was the stupidest tactical move the Labor party has ever made in office. I am an admirer of Julia Gillard and think she performed admirably as prime minister. She is tough and intelligent and succeeded in pushing some very important and progressive legislation through parliament in one of the toughest parliamentary environments in Australian political history. The sheer amount of legislation is staggering – over 500 pieces in a hung parliament, all of which had to be negotiated – but it is the big ticket items – the Gonski education funding reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Minerals and Resources tax, the Carbon pricing scheme and the continuation of the implementation of the National Broadband Network which will go down in history as most significant – and, indeed, divisive.

Indeed, Gillard succeeded where Rudd had failed, under even more difficult circumstances, yet these successes often came at a considerable cost to the integrity of the policy. The Carbon pricing scheme has proven deeply flawed on account of the collapsing price of carbon on international carbon markets, whilst the mining tax lost so many teeth in the process of being re-negotiated that it raised only a negligible amount of revenue, far short of the what it was supposed to achieve to fund Labor’s other projects.

Despite various set-backs and public distrust, Julia Gillard’s popularity as a leader remained stronger than that of the opposition leader Tony Abbott’s for much of her prime ministership, whilst that of the Labor party gradually languished. Yet she also created many problems for herself with misguided and unreasonable promises, such as the naïve and frankly stupid promise not to introduce a “carbon tax”, despite clear intentions to do so, and the promise to achieve a budget surplus by 2013. The carbon tax issue is a classic example of how Labor lost control of the narrative. What should have been a positive example of Labor taking the moral highground and acting in accordance with the wishes of the public – remember how much Rudd suffered for failing to introduce this legislation – this issue rapidly became the acrimonious curse of a broken promise. Any sense of the righteousness of the policy was lost in the ensuing bun fight.

Ultimately, however, it was Labor’s handling of the issue of people smuggling, refugees and asylum seekers that brought the most discredit to both the Prime Minister and the party. Faced with a rapid increase in the number of boats carrying asylum seekers coming to Australia, the Labor party was caught between a rock and a hard place and seen to be making policy on the fly, without due consideration or consultation. This is of course a very complex and logistically difficult issue, as much as it is a moral and humanitarian issue, and Labor handled things poorly on all counts. From the perspective of the right, they were far too soft in failing to “stop the boats.” From the perspective of the left, they were far too draconian in insisting on off-shore processing and then adding insult to injury by “housing” refugees in a tent-camp hell-hole. From the perspective of anyone looking on, they were hopelessly incompetent and morally bankrupt.

I’ve been pretty disgusted with the attitudes of both sides of parliament on this issue, and whilst I don’t have all the answers myself, believe humanitarian concerns must trump all others. Of course I want to stop the boats too – because no one should be putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers who stick them in decrepit and overcrowded vessels and send them to their deaths on the high seas – but that we should show such a callous lack of generosity in looking out for those who do come into our care and ask for our help, makes me sick to the core. Whatever happened to the “fair go” for fuck’s sake? Can not one of the world’s richest countries afford to find a place for more refugees in our community – especially when so many good and kind-hearted Australians would be willing to dedicate their time and money to helping them?

To further this digression, it is astonishing how this has become one of the biggest political issues in the country. Yes, it is a moral issue of epic proportions, make no mistake, but to hear people out there echoing Tony Abbott’s shrill wailing about “stopping the boats” – not because people are drowning, but because we don’t like “queue-jumpers” who abuse our hospitality – is alarming. There is little difference between this mentality and the “taking our jobs and fucking our women” paranoia of traditional xenophobia. How many of those voters’ lives have actually been affected by this issue? Almost none, I would venture.

So yes, Julia Gillard struggled immensely with a degree of vituperation usually reserved for people who poison their children. Much of this was legitimate disappointment with policy, but there is no doubt her gender played a significant role. Men are far less fair to women once they decide they don’t like them, and each of Gillard’s mistakes or inconsistencies only amplified the perception amongst many men that she was a “stupid, incompetent bitch,” a variation of which quote I’ve overheard many times in reference to her. With the increasingly rotten albatross of illegitimacy hanging around her neck after the manner of her elevation to the top job, the perception that she didn’t really win the 2010 election anyway, and the widespread belief that she was a tool of the union movement and a product of the “faceless” men, the powerbrokers of the Labor right who had orchestrated similar coups in New South Wales, there was always a lingering distaste in the electorate and potent ammunition for the opposition.

Julia Gillard also suffered considerably from internal destabilisation. Most of this came from supporters of Kevin Rudd or from Rudd himself, who never relinquished the limelight nor accepted his deposition. There were leaks, rumours and the backhanded compliments of his tepid and often deliberately ambiguous expressions of support for his usurper. His failed challenges for the leadership – one in which he was soundly defeated and a second in which he never fronted – caused considerable damage to Labor’s vote and Gillard’s popularity. Indeed, support for the party and PM tanked during and after both of these challenges and only added to Labor’s woes. Whilst Kevin Rudd failed to reclaim the leadership on those occasions, the cumulative damage would eventually make it possible for him to reclaim the office that was taken from him.

Throughout all this, Julia Gillard never flinched nor showed any sign of personal weakness. She was tough as nails and exuded a confidence that is a testament to her fighting spirit. There is no doubt that she came under a dramatically increased level of pressure and scrutiny on account of the tenuous nature of Labor’s hold on power as a minority government, and her being a woman. I said years ago that Australia was too immature to have a female prime minister and feel vindicated after having witnessed the shameful way in which she has been pilloried by both the media and the electorate. There is no doubt that Julia Gillard was subjected to questions and attacks that would not have been directed at a male prime minister, and whereas she was hailed as a wonderfully strong feminist icon by the international community when she spoke out against the evident sexism in parliament and the media, in Australia she was considered to be making excuses and hiding behind these assertions as a means of deflecting attention from her unpopular policy and underlying illegitimacy.

I can’t recall such vituperation and lack of respect for a prime minister, and it seemed largely at odds with the narrative of the economy or the success of policy. How could a prime minister be so unpopular when presiding over such a successful economy in its 21st consecutive year of growth which had grown 14% in the five years since Labor came to power? A nation in which real wealth was slowly but surely growing on account of low inflation and wage increases increases above inflation; a nation with 5% unemployment; a nation which hardly blinked while the rest of the developed world fell into deep recession, high unemployment and austerity-driven stagflation, a crisis that has now lasted longer than the Great Depression. It disappoints me to think how unaware or ungrateful Australians are of their good fortune, both in living in such a lucky country, and in having sufficiently good governance not only to survive the Global Economic Crisis, but to thrive in it.

Yet, of course, there is much complexity to Julia Gillard’s unpopularity, but underlying everything was the sense of illegitimacy that came with the manner of her elevation. Katharine Murphy at the Guardian recently quoted the Irish existentialist Samuel Beckett – “the end is in the beginning, and yet you go on.” Labor’s tactical folly in failing to see how tainted her office would become through the “undemocratic” ousting of Kevin Rudd was their biggest mistake of modern times, short of putting Mark Latham in charge. Ironically, of course, in removing Kevin Rudd, the Labor party was exercising its own internal democracy, and yet its actions revealed that whilst we ostensibly vote for parties and not leaders in Australia, in reality the public very much chooses on account of the person of the party leader. Take away their choice and you, in effect, disenfranchise them. In August 2010, the people took back their right to exercise democracy and showed their displeasure in no uncertain terms. Yet this did not satisfy them. Nothing short of the re-installation of Kevin Rudd as prime minister would close the wound. Now, exactly three years and three days after Julia Gillard became prime minister, the party has acknowledged its error of judgement and handed the crown back to Kevin Rudd.

Wednesday was one of the most extraordinary days in the history of Australian politics. It began with the dramatic announcement of the retirement of two prominent independent members of Parliament – Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor – both of whom came especially to prominence in the wake of the last federal election in August 2010. The result of that election was the loss of the Labor party’s majority and a lengthy series of negotiations to form a minority government with the support of the Greens and independents.

For a while there it seemed as though the conservative opposition might have snatched power, but fortunately Julia Gillard was able to convince Oakeshott and Windsor to support her agenda over Tony Abbott’s. This was a coup of sorts in that both of these independents occupied traditionally conservative seats, and it seemed, at the time, to be a testament both to Gillard’s capacity as a negotiator, and also the fact that, looked at objectively, Labor’s policy was far superior to that of the jokers sitting opposite. Windsor and Oakeshott were the “queen-makers,” and both men impressed me with their refreshingly non-partisan rationality and apparently careful consideration of the nation’s interests over their personal interest, especially as their support for a Labor government went against the wishes of many in their electorates.

So the day began with a farewell to these two prominent independents – fine examples of how important it can be to keep the doors of parliament open to those not affiliated with any of the major parties. They likely made as many enemies as friends, but a large portion of the Australian public have shown appropriate respect for the way they have conducted themselves – with apparent good sense and plain-spoken straightforwardness. Though, it must be said, Oakeshott certainly does bang on a bit.

These resignations soon paled into nothing, however, when it became clear that on this second-last day of parliament before the September 14 election, Kevin Rudd was not only moving to challenge for the party leadership, but that he had the numbers. The so-called Ruddmentum had become so great, so inexorable, that the Labor party had no choice but to accept its inevitability. Realising what was afoot, with rumours of a petition circulating in caucus to call for a vote on the leadership, Julia Gillard called a 7 PM ballot, and the rest is history. Roughly an hour later, Rudd emerged as leader of the Labor party and Prime Minister elect, having secured 57 votes to Gillard’s 45. Six prominent cabinet members, including deputy PM and treasurer Wayne Swan, promptly handed in their resignations. Just under three months before the now doubtful election date, it seemed a change of government had already taken place.

So, what to make of all this? Firstly, it’s bloody exciting. As sad as I am to see Gillard go, and what her treatment by the public says about this country, I’m happy that the whole nature of this election has now changed. Under Gillard, there was no doubt that the Labor Party was facing catastrophic defeat in the upcoming election. They stood to lose almost all their seats in Queensland and western Sydney, along with a whole range of seats across the board. With their primary vote at a miserable 29% and the two party-preferred offering equally discomforting margins of 16 and 18 percentage points, not even the most optimistic Labor pollsters believed there was any hope of avoiding a colossal defeat. Such is life, such is politics. The party quite simply could not go to the election with Julia Gillard on the ticket.

This is also a victory for democracy, of sorts. In the public imagination, where polls have unceasingly shown very high levels of support for Kevin Rudd as an alternative prime minister, and that voting intentions would change were he re-installed as Labor leader, there has long been a perception that democracy was taken out of their hands. I don’t generally like “populism” and it is a dirty word for a reason, because these days it is associated with the base, ill-informed desires of the  “lowest common denominator.” Yet there is no denying that in this case, the public has had a legitimate grievance.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at his first press conference since resuming the prime ministership. He has announced an extension to the sign-up date for the school funding reforms.

Despite deep reservations about how he has conducted himself over the past three years, I am pleased to see Rudd back in office. Only Kevin Rudd is capable of changing the narrative of Australian politics and only Kevin Rudd is capable of giving Labor a chance of re-election. No one was listening when Julia Gillard or Wayne Swan spoke, irrespective of the content or quality of their message. Consequently, Labor could never articulate its successes. This wasn’t helped by an apparently incompetent PR machine – after all, who could fail to sell a mining tax, which creams off the profits of the super rich to fund important public infrastructure and welfare projects, which the public support? – yet in reality, so unpopular had Labor’s leadership become that it no longer mattered what they said.

Kevin Rudd will have a willing audience to whom he can, in his broad-church manner, make a case for Labor’s many successes and its proven record of progressiveness. He has the charisma and rhetorical skill to change the narrative and bring the public debate back to questions of policy, where those opposite will be found seriously wanting. More importantly, however, he also has the moral high-ground. This might sound ludicrous in the light of his deceitful “white-anting” of Gillard’s prime ministership, yet the public, in truth, don’t give a stuff about that, because they have always hailed him as a martyr. Kevin Rudd was wronged, the people were wronged, and now that has again been made right – that is the dominant public narrative which will trump perceptions that he has behaved deceitfully. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and Kevin Rudd is seen to be the latter.

I’m aware of how unfashionable it is to support Kevin Rudd in my own circles. I understand all the reservations and disappointments of many of my friends and peers, most of whom are good lefties with a strong social conscience, and many of whom are women who feel understandably disgusted by how Julia Gillard was treated. I too feel some discomfort about Kevin Rudd’s so-called “humility” and his at times insufferable smugness. But it was Rudd who won the great victory in 2007, it was Rudd who made the apology to the Stolen Generation, it was Rudd who got us through the GFC and it was Rudd who deserved a chance to lead the Labor party to election in 2010. I can hardly blame him for retaining his ambition – he was cut off far too soon and deserved more of a fair go himself. He should have been disciplined from within, warned that his style was alienating people and making internal enemies, not summarily dumped in a midnight coup.

I also genuinely believe that Kevin Rudd will make a good prime minister. There are expectations that he will strengthen the mining tax and make changes to carbon pricing to make it more effective in the long-term, and he has made clear his support for same-sex marriage. Otherwise, what we have is continuity in regards to most other Labor policy, which I broadly support, with some serious exceptions. The difference is that, whilst Rudd has one of the longest shots at winning election in political history, in his case, it is actually possible, whereas in Julia Gillard’s – dream all you like – it most certainly was not. If Kevin Rudd can keep the Liberals out of power, or at least check the degree of power they have upon entering office and save the Labor party from political annihilation, then that is enough for me to endorse him.

Yes, this all sorta stinks, and despite having voted Green for years now, the Labor party is the only credible chance the left have of governing in Australia, which means they have my tacit support. I was for many years a strong believer in the Labor party and though they have disappointed me many times, they will always be my preferred choice in our rather limiting, two-party preferred system. At least now I have some hope, both for their future, and, though it sounds overly dramatic, for ours. And so I say, Go Kevin! And now, can we at last drop all the bullshit and have a real policy debate…

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Rhinestone Cowboy

There are many songs which I have known throughout my entire life. Clearly, these are songs I heard when I was a child, either played at home on the scratchy old record player and woolly-headed tape deck, or heard on the mono AM radio. As with most toddlers and young children, the music you listen to is your parents’ music. Be it through choice or accident, or the inundation of regular exposure, many of the songs make a significant imprint and don’t ever go away, for better or for worse.

My parents primarily listened to country and western when I was a child. This seems oddly incomprehensible in retrospect considering they were middle class people living in the very middle and upper class suburbs of Woollahra and Paddington in Sydney, but it makes more sense when you consider my father’s country town origins, blind attachment to 50s rock and roll and my mother’s preference for songs that “tell a story.” Country and western, which I too can appreciate for its narrative elements, is not exactly one of my favourite genres these days, but pretty much topped the billing as a kid. I had no idea to what degree, even in the mid to late 70s, country music was marginalised from the mainstream.

My favourite singers were Tom T. Hall, Frankie Laine and Marty Robbins – singers who, unsurprisingly, no one else at school had ever heard of. I found them to be a mix of wonderfully wise and mature and pleasingly harmonious, but most of all I think I enjoyed the narratives. Consider the song El Paso by Marty Robbins, which tells the tragic story of a young, impulsive cowboy who, overcome with jealousy for the beautiful Mexican maiden Felina, shoots another cowboy in Rosa’s Cantina and is forced to flee. It was not merely the lyrics of the song which appealed to me as a young child, but the beautiful harmonies and inexorable momentum of the flawless cadence.

El Paso – Marty Robbins

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Night-time would find me in Rosa’s cantina;
Music would play and Felina would whirl.

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina,
Wicked and evil while casting a spell.
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden;
I was in love but in vain, I could tell.

One night a wild young cowboy came in,
Wild as the West Texas wind.
Dashing and daring,
A drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina,
The girl that I loved.

So in anger I
Challenged his right for the love of this maiden.
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore.
My challenge was answered in less than a heart-beat;
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor.

Just for a moment I stood there in silence,
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done.
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there;
I had but one chance and that was to run.

Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran,
Out where the horses were tied.
I caught a good one.
It looked like it could run.
Up on its back
And away I did ride,

Just as fast as I

Could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the bad-lands of New Mexico.

Back in El Paso my life would be worthless.
Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death.

I saddled up and away I did go,
Riding alone in the dark.
Maybe tomorrow
A bullet may find me.
Tonight nothing’s worse than this
Pain in my heart.

And at last here I

Am on the hill overlooking El Paso;
I can see Rosa’s cantina below.
My love is strong and it pushes me onward.
Down off the hill to Felina I go.

Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys;
Off to my left ride a dozen or more.
Shouting and shooting I can’t let them catch me.
I have to make it to Rosa’s back door.

Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side.
Though I am trying
To stay in the saddle,
I’m getting weary,
Unable to ride.

But my love for

Felina is strong and I rise where I’ve fallen,
Though I am weary I can’t stop to rest.
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle.
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.

From out of nowhere Felina has found me,
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side.
Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for,
One little kiss and Felina, good-bye.

http://bit.ly/ElPasoMartyRobbins

Whether or not you appreciate country and western music, this song is a masterpiece of narrative song-writing with exquisite attention to lyrical technique – a natural, unforced rhyme, a constant, flowing rhythm, emotive language and genuine pathos.

One day in 1996, on my first trip around Europe, sitting in beautiful afternoon sunshine streaming through bay windows in a pub in Newcastle in the north of England, I found this song on the dukebox. I hadn’t heard it for years and simply had to put it on. When I did so I was so moved – as much by  nostalgia as  the song itself – that I listened to it three times. I made sure to get a copy of it a few years later and it’s now been on my iPod for some years – pleasantly surprising me here and there when it turns up on random.

Yet, as ever, I digress. Apart from country and western music, and the classical records given to my mother by a friend of hers, which I diligently went through at the age of 8 – settling on Tchaikovsky as clear favourite – there was the radio. My mother listened to AM radio stations, which played more classics than contemporary songs. Despite growing up in the 70s, I never, for example, heard Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple or even any disco for that matter, but I heard a hell of a lot of Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Roy Orbison and the like. I remember how astonished I was at the age of 10 when we went away on holiday with another family and they listened to a more contemporary radio station. Suddenly, there was a whole other world of music  – Kiss and Meatloaf were topping the charts.

Amongst all this, two songs really stuck with me through my childhood and have come, in retrospect, to be the ones that bring out the most nostalgic feelings of all: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy and Captain and Tenille’s Do that to me one more time. The latter was actually released in 1980, but was just the sort of easy-listening croony ballad that wasn’t going to cause any controversy and thus was safe to play on the rather conservative stations to which my mother listened. Rhinestone Cowboy, on the other hand, was, purely and simply, a massive hit that had never really been off the radio since its release in 1975.

Though I didn’t really understand it as a kid, I loved that song and always wanted to sing along when it came on the radio. It’s not that the song’s lyrics are especially complex, indeed, they are very simple, but the song’s sentiments reflect those of the struggling artist or performer dreaming of the big time when the chips are down. The romantic evocation of the struggle itself and the heartfelt jubilation of at last hitting the heights are perhaps best appreciated with a little more life experience.

As a child, I loved the easy rhythm of the verses and their gradual rise through minor flourishes to a soaring chorus. It wasn’t the lyrics that appealed to me – though the word “cowboy” was evocative enough to gain my interest and the song certainly is narrative – but Glen Campbell’s voice, which is fatherly and unpretentious and has a natural and beautiful clarity to it. As I grew older and continued to hear the song in various circumstances, the lyrics came to make a lot more sense to me. It wasn’t until about eight years ago, however, when I had lived a good deal more and been trying for some time to make progress as a writer, that the song became a sort of personal anthem.  The song was not actually written by Glen Campbell, but by Larry Weiss, for whom, in 1974, it fell rather flat. When Glen Campbell re-recorded it a year later, it went global.

Rhinestone Cowboy – Larry Weiss

I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long
Singin’ the same old song
I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway
Where hustle’s the name of the game
And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain
There’s been a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone

Well, I really don’t mind the rain
And a smile can hide all the pain
But you’re down when you’re ridin’ the train that’s takin’ the long way
And I dream of the things I’ll do
With a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe
There’ll be a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Rhinestone cowboy
Getting’ cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo

FADE
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting’ card and letters from people I don’t even know

http://bit.ly/RhinestoneCowboyUT

There are few songs which have the same mysterious impact on me as this one. Whenever I hear it I’m pretty well guaranteed either to tear-up and get very emotional, or to feel a powerful, uplifting desire to succeed and bask in the glory of having made it. I find the song incredibly, unbelievably, almost incongruously moving and usually, when it comes on random on my iPod, I have to go back and immediately listen to it again to try to enjoy the emotional stimulus once more. It’s never quite as good the second time, but it’s still good enough.

There are many things I love about this song that transcend my nostalgia for it. One thing is the wonderfully provincial nature of its interpretation of making it big. He’s not dreaming of being a movie star, or even having a number one hit as a singer, but instead the song is about becoming a rodeo star – something very American, indeed, but also very southern and western USA. I like the way it reflects a more local, regional cultural expression of the big time. The rodeo itself has no appeal to me, but I can deeply sympathise with how for the song-writer, it is everything. It tells us something about fame and how provincial it can be. Often the people we most want to impress are the people we know and understand, not the whole world who might not really get it anyway. This expression of success is so refreshingly particular and modest and so adorably unfashionable outside of the country and western circuit – a far remove from the usual – the currency of fast cars, bling and hot women. Don’t get me wrong, this song is about bling from its very title, but it’s not quite the bling we’re used to, and it’s less about the possession of bling than the experience and status it entails.

The lovably innocent line “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know”, offers a splendid vignette of how fame might surprise those unused to it. The word even is pivotal here for emphasising how curiously astonishing it is that total strangers might write to someone they’ve never met on account of their rise to popularity.

There is also something enticingly bohemian about the song’s expression of being down and out. The simple metaphor of walking the same old streets and singing the same old song celebrates the experience itself whilst lamenting the drudgery of it. I really don’t mind the rain either, and the song acknowledges that the struggle itself, the long road or slow train ride, are a mix of pleasure and pain. “And I dream of the things I’ll do, with a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe” further reminds us that the struggle is romantic, in its freedom and possibility, yet ultimately, without success, it is exhausting and demoralising.

There is always, for most people, a “load of compromisin’”, both in art and in life, but the goal of making it is great enough to keep on trying. And that, ultimately, is the great appeal of this song. When Glen Campbell leads into that chorus with “I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me”, everything is not merely okay, but everything is possible, and, hearing it, I believe, perhaps more strongly than I can believe at any other time, that one day, somehow, I too will be riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo, so to speak.

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Wallpeople

Last Saturday, my buddy Paul (Dr Fantasy) and I did our first job together as the team Celebrius. Celebrius is the name of an event photography and video business we are in the process of forming. The plan is to cover any and all events – weddings, parties, anything as it were, providing tasteful, arty stills and innovative video editing. Paul and I have a lot of amateur experience and some small amount of professional experience in these areas, but either way we feel confident we have the capacity, without being cocky or arrogant, I hope : ) In this case we volunteered to work for free – it seemed like both a good cause and a practice project, though there was the slightly mercenary motivation in having our names attached and promoted.

Anyways, this collection of photos is more a mood piece than anything else. I wanted to provide dreamy frames to use for montage and thus focussed more on emotive portraits and evident thought. We were at first somewhat disappointed that there weren’t more people, and that the sky was overcast. Indeed, for a while, at the beginning, there were more people photographing the event than participating in creating or affixing art to the wall. Yet, everybody was lovely and pleasant –  a good-natured and likeable bunch.

As to the event, it was the first Sydney incarnation of an international event called Wallpeople.

Have a look at the blurb below:

Wallpeople is a collaborative art event that happens in 45 cities around the world at the same time. A street wall will become a makeshift outdoor gallery where all participants may exhibit their own works and collaborate to create an improvised open-air museum.

This year, Sydney joins the global network of creatives for the first time and invites all city artists & creative enthusiasts alike to join us next 1st of June in Newtown.

Created in Barcelona in 2009, Wallpeople leads people to create, and be part of a unique moment in a certain urban place, with the intention to set up a unique and street work done by all.

Wallpeople 2013: Music Edition

The guiding theme for 2013 is MUSIC. We want everyone to express his unique relationship with music, no matter what genre or style. The participants have two possibilities:

1. Reinterpret a song in an artistic format of your choice: illustration, photography, text, painting, collage, canvas…
2. Create any work related to music in a general way: For example: a tribute to an artist, a concert, a musical moment of your life, your favourite style, musical origins…

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One Day in Nepal

You can’t really go trekking in a pair of worn-out thongs. It’s by no means impossible, but likely to result in discomfort, injury, or wardrobe malfunction. And let’s be clear here, I mean flip-flops or rubber sandals, as opposed to anal-floss. Despite this, I have many times in the past worn thongs under inappropriate conditions. On my first visit to India, I had nothing but a pair of thongs to wear, and, once in the mountains around McLeod Ganj in particular, put them to the test by clambering up and down a lot of rocky slopes.

My thongs, on Varkala beach

On my second visit to India, over December and January 2012-13, I once again took only a pair of thongs as footwear. Why? Because I was travelling light again with just a small bag and couldn’t fit a second pair of shoes in my “luggage.” Knowing too that most of the holiday would be spent in very warm and humid places, including a few stays on the coast, I figured I could get away with it and was proven right in the end.

The one concession I made on the footwear front was to bring a pair of socks with me, which proved invaluable when staying at higher altitudes – Ooty and Darjeeling, for example. Naturally I would have preferred not to be seen in cargo shorts, socks and thongs, but I have an amazing capacity to dispense with vanity when on the road – amazing, I say, considering how terribly vain I am most of the rest of the time.

The reason I mention all of this is that on our second-last afternoon in Darjeeling, as we wandered through the sun-drenched dark-green tea shrubs in the Happy Valley plantation, I made the decision to accompany V on her one-day trek to Nepal the following morning. The two reasons I’d opted out initially were that I’d caught a mild cold on the way up the mountain to Darjeeling and hadn’t been feeling especially energetic over the previous few days, plus I only had a pair of thongs, which made my attendance seem farfetched. The more I thought about it, however, the more it became clear just how much I wanted to go. Apart from the beautiful views and exciting exercise, along with the chance to enter Nepal for the first time, I knew I would regret not having shared the experience with V when she returned and told me all about it.

The task of buying shoes can be complicated, but this is usually because people are fussy about the look of the things and take their time deciding from amongst various styles. In this case, however, we soon discovered that irrespective of style – of no concern in this case – just finding a pair in the right size was going to be difficult. We began our search at around 1600, the tail end of a warm and sunny afternoon, and ran almost immediately into trouble. There were three or four shoe shops in the streets around our hotel, yet none of these had anything larger than a size 45. This was roughly two or three sizes too small and would ultimately do more harm than good, if I even managed to get them on my feet, which was not actually possible. With none of the closed-toed shoes fitting, I asked to try all the largest sandals, yet none of these were big enough either. I was willing to take a pair a tad too small, as sandals offered a lot of freedom anyway, but the soles were simply too small and I had some toe-overhang going on.

I was fortunate to have a welcome flashback at this point – to my last visit to Darjeeling when I had stumbled into a sort of shoe-emporium. One level of a shopping mall, just a little down the hill from the top end of town, which had several shoe shops inside. We made our way to this place at around 1730, and were very pleased to discover that, indeed, the ground floor contained nothing but shoe shops.

I felt certain I would find something appropriate in here, but still, after the first four visits to ask about size, we came away with nothing. Eventually, however, we entered a shop which had one remaining pair of size 46 sandals. I tried them on and they were a near perfect fit, with the straps loosened. They also felt sturdy and comfortable and seemed more than capable of doing the job. I thanked the cheerful gents in the shop and apologised for my long deliberations. I felt triumphant. The trek was on.

The car arrived at 0545 the next morning to drive us to a town called Maneybhanjang, roughly 32 kilometres from Darjeeling. It’s a common starting point for treks into Nepal, be they for a day or considerably longer. I had been concerned about whether or not we could enter Nepal as both of us were on single-entry visas, but the young man in the hotel had assured us that while the border police would check our passports and register them, they would not be stamped and no official entry would be recognised. Our trek would take us only a few miles into Nepal, which allowed some degree of flexibility.

Our driver was another lovely local man – friendly, welcoming and helpful. Like so many people in Darjeeling, he never seemed restless or impatient, but entirely at ease, which made his politeness completely genuine. We exchanged a few words, but sat quietly through most of the one-hour drive, taken with the shifting views of the mountains through trees and villages. There was a light haze in the air, but little sign of cloud, and the weather was predicted to be as it had been for the last three days – clear and crisp sunshine.

We were taken straight to the local police station to register our passport details. This took place in a very spartan, cold, wooden-floored room with tired old blue paint on the walls. I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t have a big fire burning or a heater on. In fact, we’d noticed that the interior of several places around Darjeeling had also been very cold and people simply wore coats, scarves and hats. Perhaps heating was too expensive, or they were just used to it. Either way, I wasn’t so much worried about myself, but for their own comfort. The policemen were as sleepy as we were and the whole process had a dreamy and unreal quality to it. Having watched a few episodes of Banged-up Abroad while on the road, I entertained myself with the grim thought that something would go wrong and we’d end up imprisoned in some remote place for a visa violation, being left no choice but to make a daring escape.

Shortly afterwards, we met our guide, Ranjin, and our driver left us. Ranjin was actually born and bred in Maneybhanjang. It seemed surprising that anyone could choose to live their lives in such a small place – a mere single main street with a cluster or two of houses off to the side – but this was merely my prejudice for busy places with all manner of shops and services. I have never understood the desire to live in small towns in remote places, but perhaps this is simply because I’ve never tried it. Still, the lack of access to an art-house cinema and a wide variety of restaurants gives me the shivers.

Ranjin took us to a local restaurant of sorts. It was a simple, small room with a few tables and chairs and an elderly woman making dhosas and mildly spiced potatoes. For all we knew, it might have been his family home. At this stage both of us were in a sleepy state of fascination with all around us and hardly said a word. We wolfed down the food and drank a couple of cups of tea, then set off to begin the trek.

Forest

It began with a very steep ascent, up a rocky road. The slope was so steep at some points that it seemed not even a four-wheel drive could have handled the gradient. The road was flanked by tall cedars, which Ranjin was later to explain were all replanted some time in the last twenty years as part of a reforestation project. With such a steep ascent, it wasn’t long before we were warmed up and removing layers. After just ten minutes I was down to a t-shirt and was to spend most of the rest of the day as such. We were also soon treated to some excellent views of the surrounding hills and mountains. The valleys were still full of mist, but the haze had cleared from the sky and it was crisp and blue over head.

Mountains

After twenty-five minutes of climbing we reached a point where the road levelled out on the crest of a hill. A few small, modest houses, a temple, shrine and monastery sat the ridge, in low yellow grass. Ranjin lead us to a large iron gate that was chained and locked. He produced a key and began to unlock the gate.

“On the other side is Nepal,” he said, then opened it up and went through.

V and I smiled at each other and followed him through the gate. I was immensely excited, in fact, having never been to Nepal. As silly as it may sound, I’ve always loved the idea of collecting countries and, whilst this one would not appear on my passport, I could safely say afterwards that I had, in fact, been to Nepal.

Opening the gate to Nepal

We wandered into the grounds of the monastery and took in the colourful buildings. Everything was white-washed with red, blue, green and yellow highlights. Perched as it was on the top of this yellow crest, the snow-capped Himalayas as a backdrop, it had a wonderful remoteness to it; a sort of complex simplicity that evoked contradictory feelings of wanting to stay and leave at the same time.

Welcome to Nepal

Tree and mountain

Monastery, Nepal

We moved on quickly, following Ranjin’s lead, and began a walk that followed the crests of the hills. For the next hour we alternated between walking on the road and on the grass alongside. This early in the day there was still much frost on the grass and the icy patches in the shadows had a blue luminescence about them.

Frosty road

It was very beautiful and I kept wanting to stop and look at it, but moving as we were at a good marching pace, we kept on. Ranjin told us that the road was in fact in India, and that where we were walking alongside was Nepal. On account of this, we must have crossed the India Nepal border on countless occasions during that early part of the walk.

The Himalayas

Around nine we reached the top of another crest to see a small collection of buildings. From a distance it looked like a small village of wooden barns and thatched roofs, though I’m not sure in the end that it wasn’t just a single family living there. There was, however, a shop which sold snacks and made tea. From the open, wooden-shuttered shopfront, an old man emerged to greet us. He spoke briefly with Ranjin who told us that the tea was all part of the service. It was a young girl who came out to serve us. We said hello, though she just smiled and nodded in reply and didn’t speak to us. The tea arrived a short while later.

Tea stop

Up the road a little, some young men were repairing the axel on a jeep. They seemed so happily engaged in their task that they didn’t appear to notice us at all. Perhaps the solitude bred this quiet detachment though, of course, it was only us and the wider world from whom they seemed detached. The wide, open views into the valley below and across to the line of snow-capped peaks were engaging enough. I sat quietly watching the men work, relishing the cooling sweat on my back and shoulders where the pack had been.

We set off again along the road in the direction of Megma and Tonglu. The road itself was an impressive construction, a tightly packed and solid path of uneven rocks. The light colour of the rocks gave it a magical quality as it curved like a ribbon along the rolling crests. So uneven was the surface, however, that it was nigh impossible to walk on, and we strolled alongside on the time-smoothed verge. Soon a jeep approached. We stepped to one side and watched it rocking awkwardly from stone to stone. The vehicle jumped so clumsily at every rock that it seemed to be walking on four legs. The driver and passengers wore a long suffering look of bemusement as they leapt up and down in their seats. How anyone could stand such a bouncing motion for an extended period of time was beyond me. The jeeps must be very durable indeed.

Tonglu / Megma

We soon reached the small village of Megma, which housed an Indian army border checkpoint. Apart from the checkpoint and barracks, there was a monastery and a row of four or five houses. The guards were young men with old-fashioned carbines, who smiled and seemed to enjoy looking at our passports. I still retained some small amount of irrational fear that there might be a problem with our single-entry visas, but this was soon dispelled as we were directed to the ubiquitous ledger into which we had to enter our names and details. All the while, a short distance away, one soldier was continually shouting at another one down the hill in the barracks. It was an unfortunate disruption to the peacefulness of the place and had an air of gratuitousness about it. Ranjin had warned me not to take any photographs.Tonglu

Megma

Just outside Megma the weather began to change. Waves of mist and cloud came sweeping up the mountainside. The puffs of dark grey and white cloud added a welcome bleakness to the scenery, increasing the air of remoteness and mystery. The light acquired an eerie, metallic hue and we walked in that realm of contrast between sunlit ground and overcast sky. It grew rapidly colder and soon we felt droplets on our skin.

Approaching Tonglu

We made excellent pace and Ranjin was impressed with our fitness and speed. We weren’t trying to push the pace, but both of us are naturally fast walkers. We came to a small stream near some rocks painted with runic symbols. The stream ran through a small shrine in which a prayer wheel turned constantly from the motion of the water. It was very simple and clever, though I have always wondered about the sincerity of such contrivances. Was there not something intrinsically lazy about automating devotion? Not that I really minded, but it does seem slightly askew.

Tonglu

Painted rocks

The shrine marked the beginning of our next destination – the slightly larger village of Tonglu. It was here that we stopped for lunch, in a large wooden house. Ranjin led us inside and a youngish girl came to greet us. It was a cosy place, the wood-panelled walls painted pale blue and inset with glass cabinets. A wide bench under the window was covered with colourful cushions and here we sat, before the dining table. Ranjin went inside to chat with the family in the kitchen whilst we amused ourselves looking at the many curiosities about the room. On one wall, next to a hand-drawn map of the region, was an old faded photograph of a girl riding a goat. I wondered if it was the girl who had greeted us on our arrival.

Lunch stop, Tonglu

Lunch consisted of Maggi noodles with a few peas thrown in and some not especially hot chilli sauce. We both smiled at the disappointing simplicity of the meal, yet ate the lot of it with an eager hunger. My father had always said that the best sauce in the world is hunger sauce, and both of us were very hungry after the morning’s exercise.

Hanging lantern, Tonglu

The village sat just on the snowline and, as we advanced up the road out of Tonglu, we found ourselves walking on a snow-covered road. Both V and I were very excited about this as we rarely have the chance to see snow. I had now put my coat back on, which was fortunate because I soon slipped on the perilous surface and landed on my elbows. After that, I trod more cautiously, enjoying the squeaky crunch of the snow under my sandals. The shoes, incidentally, were working perfectly – sturdy, supportive and very comfortable. It had been clear for some time that this was not a walk for thongs.

Tonglu

We passed through another small village whose name escapes me. All the buildings were locked up and no one was present. It had a pleasantly bleak and lonely feel about it, another chance to indulge in the sweet melancholy I love so much. We hurried through, now at the highest point for a few miles around, with great views of the valley dropping away into Nepal on one side and India on the other. Down in the valley it was sunny, but up here on the heights we were in amongst the clouds.

Tonglu

The cloud had thickened considerably around us and clung like heavy fog. It continued to rush up the mountain in great sweeps of mist, adding drama to the dark and subdued landscape. My childhood love of fantasy locations had been awake during the whole walk, but now, with the fog sweeping up and the yellow grass growing wet under the grey light, the snow on the rocky road and the closeness of the world around as the cloud limited our vision, it seemed more fantastic than ever.

Nobody home

We walked through this fog and cloud for another hour and a half, slowly descending along a winding road. We had soon completed a circuit of the crest and the army checkpoint at Megma came back into sight. From here we would follow the same road home, retracing our morning’s steps. With the weather having shifted so dramatically and with us now facing in a different direction, it seemed like a different walk altogether.

Road into fog

Road into fog

During the last stages of the journey we talked more with Ranjin, asking him about his life and interests. He came across as incredibly content – married with children and loving his job. I asked if he ever got bored, taking people on the same walks all the time, but he assured us that he never did, so fond was he of this landscape in which he had grown up. To some degree I could understand him – how could anyone ever get bored of such magnificence? Though only at an elevation of around 3500 metres, it had felt to me like the top of the world – high, cold, bleak and yet staggeringly beautiful. And yet, inside me, there remained that knowledge that I could not do this forever. I needed the city somehow, though perhaps this would not always be the case.

Mountain road

Mountain road

Our last stop was the place where we had first entered Nepal. This time we visited one of the houses there and sat in the lounge of the family who lived there. Two children watched television and a young Nepali man sat in another corner drinking a beer. At first we just nodded to him and kept to ourselves, but when he came over and spoke to us, we instantly warmed to him and listened to his story.

He was a jeep-driver, taking people across the mountains between India and Nepal. He was drinking Kingfisher Strong and told us that he needed it to keep himself steady in his dangerous job. I thought there was something foolish about this and wondered at his commonsense, but the more we learned, the more sympathetic I was to his situation. He was, in fact, terrified of his job and the risks involved.

Troubled young Nepali

“When the roads are icy, it’s very dangerous. Jeeps go, whoosh,” and he motioned with his hand as though a jeep were falling down the mountain. “Tonight I can’t go, because there is ice on the roads. But tomorrow I have to go, ice or no ice. It’s very dangerous.”

As he spoke to us in his good, clear English, he shifted about with nervous energy and had a mild look of desperation in his eyes. His demeanour was a strange mix of happy, almost glib, yet clearly he carried a burden. I got the impression that he was not just scared but frustrated – as though he had something unpleasant to do and would like to have gotten it done then and there. Waiting til tomorrow was actually worse than doing it now, so for the moment, drinking beer was the next best thing. Yet, even then, he seemed unable to relax and remained standing, shifting on his feet.

We quizzed him further about his life and he told us he had studied at university in Darjeeling. He had had to abandon his studies on account of his “domestic situation.” He didn’t elaborate, and though desperately curious, I wasn’t about to ask him. Had he gotten someone pregnant? V and I later speculated. It was impossible to know, but I felt deeply sorry for him, with his dangerous job and curtailed prospects. I certainly hope he finds some way to be content in his life.

Armani my foot

We had made such good time on the journey that we were early to meet our ride home, so we lingered for almost an hour in this house. When we finally did leave, we just had the walk down the steep hill to the car, which took only twenty minutes going down. All along the way we noticed long, narrow plastic pipes running from the mountain-top down into the valley. I hadn’t noticed these on the way up, and Ranjin told us that they were to provide water to the houses in the village. Without a proper water supply, people tapped into the springs and streams up on the crest. Many of the pipes dripped and ran with escaping water. It was an interesting insight into the lives of the local people…

Maneybhanjang

The car was waiting for us down in Maneybhanjam and it was time to say goodbye to Ranjin. He was so unassuming and mil-mannered that he tried to slip away quickly before we could give him a tip, but we were not about to let him go without giving him the bonus he so surely deserved. Even when we handed him the money, his surprise seemed utterly genuine. He really was a top bloke.

Distant trees

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