Archive for August, 2013

With so many dusty Kingfisher beer advertisements painted on the walls of Varkala town, it was odd that none of the shops sold beer. It was Christmas Eve and V and I had spent the last hour wandering around this small town in search of supplies. We had already purchased abundant chilli tapioca chips and plenty of cashews, but nothing remotely approaching a tipple. Was this actually a dry town, with no booze at all? If so, then the countless advertisements must be one hell of a prick-tease.

The town itself was wonderfully chaotic; the usual mess of cars, buses, trucks, rickshaws, people and animals dancing. It even hosted a vehicle graveyard at its heart, where derelict autos sat rusting and sprouting grass.

Bus conductor Varkala town

Varkala town

Ripped labourer

Varkala town

What it didn’t seem to have was a booze shop. We finished a circuit of town, confident that we had checked every general store. Most didn’t even have fridges, though we would have settled for something warm if necessary. Not because we are desperate alcoholics, but it was, after all, Christmas Eve, and we had just arrived in Kerala from Singapore the night before. This was a time for celebration.

Kerala, on the south west coast of India, has a large Christian population and Christmas is a popular holiday. Driving in the taxi from Thiruvananthapuram to Varkala Beach at midnight the night previous, we had passed a number of small churches, many hung with colourful, illuminated stars. These stars, with light-holes patterned like snowflakes, were strung between trees and hung from houses and shopfronts; a pretty adornment in the roadside dark.

Our arrival had seemed inauspicious – being overcharged by the taxi driver and then arriving to find a very disappointing room at palatial prices. It had taken some getting as well – with V diligently phoning everyone in two guidebooks from Changi before finally making a hit at just under 100 dollars – almost unheard of for India. The room itself was in no way superior to those for which I’d paid ten dollars in the past, and we fell into a glum mood – the product of a long and tiring day as much as anything else. My first moonlit glimpse of the Arabian Sea, however, standing atop the cliff at the back of the property, offered welcome relief and the hope that things would turn out well. The long reflection of the moon was a bridge between continents; pointing the way to the Arabian Peninsula; the salty warmth it radiated was evocative of the ancient spice trade, and the Roman historian in me saw their fleets snaking down the coast.

Varkala Beach

The following morning we set off early for the beach. We had reserved a nicer room with a view over the phone, but were concerned about the cost and decided to check with other hotels closer to the main beach. At the back of the hotel was a lumpy, well-watered lawn with scattered palms, leading to the rocky cliffs. Here, a stone-cut staircase zig-zagged down to long stretch of sand curving down the coast. To the south the view was lost in the hazy headland, while to the north, past the hotels, the red cliffs dwindled into a forest of tilting palms. It was an unfamiliar and exotic landscape.

The beach was largely empty – just a couple of tourists doing yoga and an Indian runner, sprinting with light feet along the sand. Until this point I had been half asleep, yet, as the runner approached me I felt a sudden surge of opportunity, whipped off the lens cap and started firing. As he passed and receded down the beach, my excitement rapidly grew. How delicious it was to be back in India, where almost everything is worth photographing.

8074 Varkala Beach

The beach just below our hotel was connected to the main beach by a narrow strip of rocky sand that took some negotiating. Dodging the incoming waves proved a pleasant game and, when I reached the other side, having been liberally splashed, I was in a great mood of expectation. Here a number of rituals were taking place. Men in white cloth were making offerings to the sea – turning their backs and throwing in flowers and rice. A priest sat on a carpeted mound of sand, surrounded by onlookers and with an elderly couple kneeling before him. There were fishermen too –some repairing nets, others out riding long, narrow, tapered punts, and some giving rides to tourists. It was not crowded, but it was lively. The morning sunshine was warm, without being too fierce. It was difficult not to photograph everything.

8118 Varkala Beach 2

8096 Varkala Beach

8329 Varkala beach idol

8111 Priest, Varkala Beach

8138 Varkala Beach

8332 Fixing the nets

8143 Varkala Beach

This was where the road from Varkala town hit the beach. The town proper was a few kilometres away and, at the end of the road, which spilled into a natural cut between the cliffs, there was a collection of small shops.

An open-decked two-storey restaurant built of palm trees sat right on the beach front before the trodden dunes. We walked behind this and followed the path that led up along the cliffs. Soon we were on the main tourist drag – a narrow road lined with hotels and shops, mostly selling souvenirs, clothing and the like, snaking along the front of the cliffs.

8318 Varkala Beach

V and I walked slowly, admiring the elevated views of the beach and ocean. We wandered into all the hotels, asking about rooms. There were many to choose from, with a variety of accommodation ranging from bamboo huts to more permanent and luxurious structures. It took us roughly an hour to reach the end of the strip, where the hotels dwindled into nothing. In the distance, amidst a forest of palms, the twin spires of a temple rose from the fronds.

Coastline, Varkala Beach

We weighed up our options and made a tentative reservation at the place we thought most reasonable. Everyone was charging ridiculous prices at Christmas, which put things more into perspective, and we were still tossing up the idea of taking the room we had reserved already from the airport, which we hadn’t actually seen yet. Needing breakfast and some time to think, we sat down at one of the tourist cafés for coffee and banana pancakes.

When we returned to our hotel and asked to see the room we had reserved, we were instantly inclined to take it. That we apologised and politely told the guy no, then, ten minutes later, changed our minds and apologetically said we would take the room, says something about the state of mind we were in – somewhat disoriented and indecisive. Once we checked in, we never looked back. It was a wonderfully light and clean, with cool tiles, a large white-sheeted bed, ceiling fan and balcony. The upper storey of a standalone structure, we also had access to the open roof. Now all we needed was a swim, some local grass for me, and then a trip to town to acquire alcohol. This was Christmas after all.

8176 Varkala hotel

So it was that two hours later we found ourselves wandering through Varkala town in search of booze. We were on the brink of quitting, having already doubled back for a second look. Standing on the road that led back to the beach, looking to flag an auto-rickshaw, V caught a glimpse of some frantic activity down a narrow side street.

“What’s going on up there?”

“I don’t know, but it looks busy.”

We could see a truck parked at the end of the lane, and through the narrow space beside it, a queue of men was visible. A moment later a man emerged from the lane, carrying a plastic bag. From the bag came the clink of bottles and, like a pair of desperados, we were over the road in a flash.

As we walked up the rocky lane, past a couple of women begging with their children, the sounds of excited activity grew. We rounded the truck and came upon a most remarkable scene; a crowd of eager men, lined up before a wire-meshed shop front, waving pieces of flimsy paper. Here, so the battered old sign read, was the Kerala State Beverage Corporation, and from behind the thick wire grill, men were handing over bottle after bottle of alcohol. From the back of the truck, a couple of wiry workers were unloading crates full of booze and passing them into the store.

The men in the queue were mostly old, with worn and leathery faces; many with white hair and beards in contrast to their deeply dark skin. They had an almost desperate, unsettling eagerness in their faces – the eyes of addicts. They were patient, but determined, standing so close in the queue that they pressed against each other. V and I stood back and watched, too timid and uncertain as to how this all worked. What was truly extraordinary was how they were paying for the booze. None of the men were handing over money – all of them had some kind of paper permit – a ration card perhaps? My limited knowledge of Kerala included the fact that it was the only state in the world to have democratically elected a communist government. Was there still a communist government in Kerala? Was this some kind of regular allocation or allowance? Had they been paid in booze for something? Had they purchased the permits or received them in exchange for something else? Was this related to the Christmas holiday or a regular occurrence?

8281 The booze truck cometh

I was hopelessly ignorant, but the scene was suggestive of so many things. We stood and watched for five minutes, quietly fascinated. My thoughts soon turned to the social implications of this scene. Was alcoholism a problem in Kerala? What percentage of these men’s wages were going on the alcohol? Could they really afford it? What were the moral implications? Domestic violence, abuse, neglect? Or was this just the rare chance for these hardworking men to relax and let go in a challenging life? Unlike the men selling the alcohol, none of these people looked wealthy; their worn features and lean bodies spoke of a life of physical toil.

V and I stood dumbstruck – not wanting to plunge into the mayhem until we knew exactly what was going on. There were a couple of other westerners hanging about, who seemed to know what they were doing. Seeing us standing there so indecisively, a Dutch woman soon approached us. “You can go to the front, you know” she said. “If you are paying in cash it’s okay. Just go to the counter, this side.”

Still we hesitated. What did we want, anyway? On the wall was a list of prices – all stupidly cheap. For six large Kingfishers and a bottle of rum it would set us back eight Australian dollars. The cost was immaterial and it was really a question of how much we were likely to drink over the next two days. After another minute or two spent watching the weathered faces, the quiet desperation, the tired old counter and the men unloading the truck, we finally drummed up the courage to approach the counter, feeling guilty that our money let us jump the queue.

A moment later we were crouched in the lane, stuffing bottles into our bags. Still pondering the many possibilities of what we had witnessed, I went and gave some money to the begging women, a small gesture to ease my conscience. As we sped back to the beach in an auto-rickshaw, talking keenly about all this, our thoughts began to shift back to self-indulgence. It’s Christmas, for god’s sake, we reminded ourselves for the umpteenth time.

Christmas itself proved a splendid day; a lot of swimming, a lot of friendly exchanges with locals and other tourists, a lot of drinking, smoking and eating. The cliff-top strip was buzzing with travellers, both local and foreign, and down on the beach, many Indian families were letting go and enjoying themselves. It was lovely to see Indian people in a festive mood and to see the way they interacted with both the foreigners and the beach itself. Most of the women remained completely clothed, while the men happily stripped down to briefs and plunged into the water. Many of the men were drunk, walking arm in arm and offering endless cheery greetings as they passed.

8360 ladies on Varkala beach

8512 Men on the beach, Varkala

8352 Varkala beach

8497 Varkala Beach

8349 Varkala beach

8514 Beach scene in Kerala

8420 Big night

8432 Boat, Varkala

8530 Varkala beach

Despite the clear, almost shocking contrast between European women sunbathing topless or lounging in bikinis, and the very properly dressed Indian women, there seemed no displeasure between the two groups – no sense of outrage or offense. Perhaps it is the nature of Varkala Beach, which seems well-used to western exhibitionism, or perhaps it was the sense of liberation that comes with a public holiday, but either way, there was harmony right along the beach.

8697 Snake charmer, Varkala Beach

8718 Twin cobras

8727 Two cobras, Varkala Beach

8731 Snake charmer, Varkala Beach

8814 Varkala Beach

8403 Kerala beach scene

8570 Sunset, Varkala Beach

That evening, having watched a snake-charmer and a blind woman with a heartrendingly beautiful voice singing Bollywood songs on the beach, we decided to try the palm-built restaurant. Sitting upstairs at the front, we could see and hear the constant plash of the waves stroking the beach. Downstairs, the restaurant displayed its daily catch – a collection dominated by a magnificent king fish. It was this that we ordered – the kingfish masala, along with another fish curry. We had come to Kerala in search of hot, sour fish curries, but never could we have expected anything to taste as good as this. It was a veritable foodgasm – large, succulent, tender chunks of kingfish, cooked to perfection in a mind-blowing masala. Never in my life have I made so many exclamatory remarks about the quality of a dish, and despite several equally knock-out fish curries we were to eat in the coming weeks, we always came back to this one. When the meal was done and we sat back stuffed and drunk, feeling the salty warmth roll in off the Arabian Sea, it was hard not to feel that this was the best bloody Christmas ever.

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I recently wrote a piece in response to Kevin Rudd’s return as prime minister of Australia, in which I endorsed him as someone with the potential to be a good prime minister. Over the course of the past few weeks, however, my disillusionment with Rudd has reached such a point that I can’t now express the same sentiments. Let me be clear that this has absolutely nothing to do with any preference for the conservative opposition, a bunch of loathsome worms, but with a sense of moral repugnance at what Labor has ostensibly come to represent in recent times. It is in their handling of the issue of asylum seekers that I have felt most moral outrage, but also in their lack of spine on certain matters of policy.

An old friend and long time Labor supporter recently published a piece in which he stated that the Labor party deserved to be repudiated at this election on account of their inhumane policies on this front, and I wholeheartedly agree. That the opposition policy is no less deserving of repudiation changes nothing – it simply means that both parties, or rather all three, including the Nationals of the opposition coalition – deserve repudiation. In a nutshell, no one should be rewarded for taking a heartless and hardline approach with the issue of refugees and asylum seekers.

asylum seekers

It’s a complex question. Should we attempt to deter asylum seekers who have a right to seek asylum? If so, how do we establish an effective deterrent, whilst at the same time maintaining international obligations to which we are bound under the refugee convention? The problem is that in approaching this question both parties have focussed solely on the question of deterrent, factoring their “humanitarian concerns” only with regard to “stopping the boats” on account of the number of drownings at sea. This in itself is a worthwhile goal – no one wants to see people drown and nor does anyone think it is appropriate for people smugglers to put refugees into boats that are not seaworthy. From this point of view the idea of “stopping the boats” might seem almost admirable, yet the sad truth is that it is all about keeping the bloody wogs out.

When Rudd returned as Prime Minister, it was perhaps inevitable that, with such a short time frame until the election, his priority would be to “neutralise” the issues that were crippling Labor. First of those was Gillard herself, through no fault of her own, the victim of an increasingly hostile press who never had a chance to establish a positive narrative of good governance, despite an impressive record of legislation.

Second for Rudd was neutralising the “Carbon Tax,” another embarrassing failure for the government. The very fact that the government itself began referring to it as the “Carbon Tax” is indicative of how much they were overwhelmed by the negative narrative surrounding it. Julia Gillard had already tarnished the issue with her fatally stupid promise that there would be no carbon tax, turning a moral high ground positive into a broken promise nightmare. Within a few days of returning to office, Rudd effectively quashed the tax by switching a year early to the floating carbon price – a wholly ineffectual licence to pollute. Now, in another pathetic backdown, Rudd has said that Labor never had a mandate for the carbon pricing scheme. Yet, in effect, Labor already had a mandate for carbon pricing as it was on the cards in the 2007 election, which they won handsomely. It’s just that Rudd chickened out once he failed to get his policy through the senate in 2010. A government’s job is to govern – they must make decisions that best suit the public interest, short or long term, and not all of those decisions can be popular. Are we supposed to believe that any decision they make in the course of their term that was not flagged during the election campaign requires a mandate? Labor should own their policies if they have any merit and stop apologising. That is leadership. And yet, in the sorry and apologetic way in which they went about constructing the carbon pricing scheme and the mining tax, they came up with policies not worth owning.

Not quite last, and certainly not least, was Rudd’s attempt to neutralise asylum policy – “stopping the boats”. He was quick out of the blocks in promoting his hardline PNG Solution, denying anyone who comes by boat to Australia the right to seek asylum in Australia – instead being re-settled in Papua New Guinea. This might seem to some like a coup for handwashing pragmatism – keeping the problem entirely offshore and denying asylum seekers any incentive to come here. Other things aside, this policy smacks of a mix of colonial superiority – the idea that no one could possibly want to be re-settled in PNG and would thus abandon their plans to cross the sea smacks of grotesque arrogance – and gross irresponsibility in refusing to accept legitimate refugees into our wealthy, safe country, and instead fobbing them off to a developing country with one of the highest rates of rape, murder and violence in the world and drastic levels of social inequality and dysfunction. If this isn’t bad enough, the refugees are, in the meantime, to be housed in crowded tent camps on poorly serviced tropical islands like Nauru, waiting potentially years to be processed and suffering all manner of anguish and indignity in the meantime.


Yes there’s an argument that allowing onshore processing or settlement in the community might encourage more asylum seekers to risk their lives in boats. There are also pragmatic and economic questions to consider. Can Australia support any further intake of refugees? Outer suburban Australia, in contrast to inner city electorates, has largely been suspicious of and hostile to the influx of refugees into Australia. Much of this reflects some degree of neglect by state governments in providing services and infrastructure in places such as western Sydney, where hostility to asylum seekers is strongest. There is a misguided and incorrect perception in the community that asylum seekers get a better deal than locals and that the government favours these groups. The numbers themselves are not significant. Despite arguments by the government that Australia takes its fair share of refugees, on a per capita basis, we are actually ranked 69th in the world and 49th when considering the total number of refugees on a yearly basis. This rather belies the idea that we are drowning in refugees. Jordan, with 73 refugees per thousand people, is drowning in refugees. Australia averages 1 refugee per thousand people.

Yet of course, it’s not really a practical or an economic question. It is a moral question. How do we treat people in need and what do we do to protect the vulnerable? Sending them offshore to a tent-camp hell-hole is utterly un-Australian in my books. Whatever happened to our generosity and hospitality? And yes, many refugees might well turn out to be economic migrants, but why not take them at their word and allow them to live and work in the community until proven otherwise? Or are we afraid that they might take our jobs and fuck all our women?

Irrespective of their pissweak attitude in certain policy areas, and equally irrespective of their policies which I strongly support – the Gonski education reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband network and Denticare to name a few, this wilful demonising of asylum seekers is not something I can support, and I can’t support a government that expresses these attitudes and implements such a ghastly deterrent. This is not good enough from Labor and nor is it in line with my understanding of their core beliefs and principles. As Tom Clark recently wrote:

If you believe the policy of deterrence is immoral – clearly, not everybody does – then you simply cannot give your vote or your money to federal candidates of the ALP. You can argue they are victims of history, naively caught in another prohibition folly; you can argue their approach is less appalling than the Liberals, although this is now a very hard claim to sustain; but I don’t see how you can admit Phillip Adams’ case that it is worth tolerating because Labor is doing good work in other areas. Unconscionable wrong is unconscionable wrong — or else it is not a moral question after all.

For a while there I was flirting with the idea of voting Labor, as I once used to do with regularity – anything to stop the conservatives getting back in – but not now. Only the Greens have shown sufficient humanity in this ugly, quite frankly, disgusting debate and it is they who will be getting my vote. Of course, in our two-party preferred system a vote for the Greens is usually a tacit vote for Labor, and a Labor victory is still my preferred outcome, over the wholly inappropriately named “Liberals”. Yet, as I said above, anyone who pushes this kind of dog-whistle politics is not eligible for my vote.

I conclude with a song by Waiting for Guinness, which pretty much sums up the irony of Australia’s present stance in relation to refugees. Written during the Howard era, it is perhaps even more relevant now than ever – because, don’t kid yourselves otherwise, this is really all about “keeping out the riff raff.”

Keeping out the Riff Raff – Waiting for Guinness


I’ll tell you a tale,

about the history of an old floating gaol

about a fact that’s well reported,

the place where riff-raff were transported.

And so they all swam ashore,

murdering thieves and the poor,

a nation made of riff raff,

a nation made of strangers from afar.


So in order to last

we wrote a story and extinguished the past

and then we made a few decisions

and put the locals into missions

and then the governing few

set up an orderly queue

to filter out the riff raff

to filter out the strangers from afar


That’s why we’re keeping out the riff raff

locking them all away

sending them into darkness

back around the bay

you’ll be re-elected

it’s as clear as day

just keep the whingers in the gutter

and the riff raff away.


We’re waiting in line

We wait here while they count our numbers

And keep our eyes out for queue jumpers

Wait for instructions from the bunkers

Keeping our big eyes wide

Keeping the pigs by our side

Keeping out the riff raff

Keeping out the strangers from afar


And we’re all keeping out the riff raff

locking them all away

sending them into darkness

back around the bay

you’ll be re-elected

it’s as clear as day,

cos if they sew their lips together,

you can’t hear what they say.


Because they’re taking our jobs and fucking our women

and they’re taking our jobs and rooting all our women

and they’re taking our jobs and fucking our women

taking our jobs and rooting all our women

repeat (increasingly hysterically).

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Pariah Dogs

India is full of dogs. Full of gorgeous, terrifying, menacing, cute, mad, hungry, desperate, rabid, emaciated, sleek, playful and murderous dogs. They are everywhere, in the way that Rome is full of cats, and then some.


According to Wikipedia (I struggled to find any useful figures elsewhere)

“India has a population of feral dogs numbering in the tens of millions.”

This huge population is largely made up of so-called Indian Pariah dogs, a breed which is estimated to have existed for roughly 14,000 years, and mixed-breed mongrels descended from pure-bred dogs that have mated with the pariahs. The abundance of exposed garbage and the tendency to keep dogs as free-roaming pets has created conditions very favourable to sustaining a large dog population. As India’s urban population continues to grow, so does the urban dog population. That’s not only a potential hazard, but a lot of extra mouths to feed.


Dogs in India are considered a growing menace. Take this for a statistic – India has the highest number of rabies deaths per year – estimated at between 20,000 and 35,000 – and 99% of those cases of rabies come from dog bites. Indeed, the number of dog attacks each year is staggering. In 2011, in Mumbai alone, an estimated 80,000 dog bites were reported. The actual number of unreported bites is open to speculation, but the real figure could be considerably higher. In one attack alone in Nizamabad this year “a stray dog suddenly went berserk and started attacking people.” No less than twenty people were injured and had to be treated for bites. In truth, it’s a tragedy for everyone involved, dog included.


It’s worth pointing out that my purpose here is not to malign dogs, or India in anyway, but rather to highlight something that has come to fascinate me during the three and a half months I’ve spent in India on two different trips in recent years. I’ve always been a real lover of dogs, having grown up with them, and was, at times, just as moved by the living conditions of the dogs as the people in India. They too are just doing their bit to get by, as they have done for millennia. Some of the dogs seem to be very healthy and robust, whilst others are in dire states of sickness and physical deterioration. One thing I noticed – purely anecdotal evidence though it is – was that the least healthy dogs were in towns that were strictly vegetarian, such as Varanasi. Dogs are omnivores and certainly eat their fair share of vegetables, yet I wondered if there might be a connection here – the lack of any meat to supplement their diet caused them to suffer physically.


The dogs I saw in Darjeeling, on the other hand, a town where a lot of meat is sold and consumed, seemed in very good health. Indeed Darjeeling had the largest concentrated population of dogs of any of the places I visited, something I noted in particular during my last visit there, in January of this year. During the day they tend to lounge around in the sunshine, where possible, curled up into tight, lazy bundles. They are mostly docile and friendly during the daylight hours, and very pattable. When given the chance they are sweet and affectionate, and it was difficult to resist approaching these dogs and stroking their ears.

Dogs aplenty

Darjeeling is a town which shuts down very early, and is quite dark at night, with relatively low-levels of street lighting. Once the night sets in, the dogs set off to scavenge and hunt, roaming the streets either as individuals or in packs. Much of the time they simply plunder the ample garbage piles for scraps and leftovers, but they have also been known to attack people and certainly fight amongst themselves. From our lovely room up the top of the Dekeling Hotel in the centre of town, we were kept awake until late each night by the constant barking and yelping of dogs down in the square below. It is little wonder that they sleep all day, having exerted themselves so much in their nocturnal prowling.

Two days after leaving Darjeeling, we read of a savage attack on a local man by a pack of dogs. It was another in a string of such incidents. The victim, 22-year-old Sahdev Lepcha, said: “It was around eleven at the night when I was returning from a friend’s place… I was attacked by some dogs… I tried to get out of the situation but the dogs more then eight in numbers were unyielding and forced me on to the ground and started biting me from all sides.”


Despite the apparent daytime harmony between the people and dogs of Darjeeling, this is, in effect, a story of competition and conflict between two integrated populations for space and resources, and this story is repeated right across India. In practical terms, the dogs constitute a minority group, scattered throughout Indian society. Loved and hated in equal measure, they are hounded and harassed, as well as being treated with deference and kindness.

Darjeeling Dogs

There are, of course, organisations working to stem the spread of street dogs in India such as the Vishaka Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (VSPCA), which vaccinates stray dogs against rabies as well as neutering them. There are ways to contribute to this charity from abroad, either directly or through third parties, such as The Animal Rescue Site. Their website paints a dramatic picture: With each litter born on the streets, canine overpopulation worsens, leading to malnutrition, untreated injuries, and the spread of disease, especially rabies. They also offer an important reminder of India’s ancient laws and traditions of respect for and protection of animals – Ahimsa – and it is worthwhile remembering that whilst many see the dogs as a menace and treat them cruelly, there is a great deal of acceptance and love for dogs in India as well. Indeed, the laws prevent them from being euthanized, acknowledging that dogs too have a right to exist.

monkey etc

In the meantime, however, the problem seems to be worsening with the dog population growing and more and more people being bitten. Without denying dogs access to the litter that feeds them, or having a more comprehensive program of neutering and vaccination, Indians will have to continue living alongside them, for better or for worse.

Varkala Beach

As a dog-lover it is easy to feel sorry for these poor mutts. There is even a Facebook page called I Love Indian Stray Dogs, and I guess I love them too. This, however, is from the relatively comfortable and naïve position of not having been attacked or threatened by them. Either way, I hope a solution can be found that works for both humans and dogs. Ever since humans first allowed dogs into their lives thousands of years ago, we have been co-existing and co-evolving towards a kind of mutual dependency. When dependency changes into competition, it is a sorry situation for both parties.

Jaisalmer Tired puppy, Palolem Beach, Goa

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I spend a lot of my time rehearsing speeches and conversations. It can be a highly distracting and frustratingly immersive exercise – especially since in many cases it seems more compulsion than desire that drives me to do it – yet, ultimately, I consider it to be a highly beneficial way of preparing for social situations, arguments, and, indeed, lessons.


When I say rehearsing, I don’t mean sitting down with a written text and practising and memorising the words, but rather running through a simulated conversation or lecture in my head, as though I were engaged in a conversation or addressing an audience. I do this all the time – walking down the street, running, sitting on the train and bus, lying in bed, eating, showering, sitting on the toilet – you name it, I’m almost always rehearsing a conversation or speech when my mind isn’t actively engaged with another task.

It often begins with rethinking a conversation I’ve already had or a lesson I’ve taught and determining how I might have better made a certain point or explained something. In this case I’ll review the words I used at the time – I have an uncanny knack of recalling the exact phrasing – and determine what techniques, language, vocabulary, tone or structure would have better served the purpose. Sadly, the ability to recall conversations so accurately means that I frequently feel the profound embarrassment at past-howlers when I revisit them. It is also worth pointing out, especially for the sake of those who have experienced my absent-mindedness, that recall is based largely on level of engagement at the time. Apologies, therefore, for those occasions when I have not actively listened.

On rare cases where I think I nailed something the first time around – a line of reasoning, an explanation, a means of negotiating a difficult conversation – I’ll reward myself by recalling the conversation / lecture / speech and making note of what made it successful, impactful or persuasive, in case I might need to deploy a similar argument etc. in future. I also just plain enjoy language, and it is pleasing to feel that I produced something persuasive, effective, and, ideally, stylistically entertaining ; )


Another type of conversation rehearsal involves running through a hypothetical situation and allowing the conversation to play out. This does not merely include considering my own words, but also how my interlocutor might respond and how I might adjust my line of reasoning according to their various responses. These conversations needn’t be imminent, relevant or even likely to happen and could deal with past, present or future circumstances, which might be possible or otherwise.

I have often imagined conversations with my father; thinking of the things I might say to him and how he might reply, then running over and over my choice of words in this hypothetical so that my point is made as clearly, eloquently and sympathetically as possible. This might be a case of re-hashing a past dispute or imagining conversations that should have taken place, but never did. Often the desire to run through such hypothetical conversation is motivated by feelings of frustration or regret, yet even when I imagine angry conversations, I am inclined to focus on a reasoned line, not devoid of emotion by any means, but not overwhelmed by it. In my rehearsals, I’m always reasonable and considerate, even when angry, though this does not necessarily reflect how I behave in reality.

Another common form of rehearsal is for imagined instances of public speaking or lecturing. This could be on any topic – the importance of keeping the state secular; the lack of media diversity in Australia; the joys of photography; the pleasing nature of good concrete formwork… – literally, anything. When I go running, I often compose lectures on the significance of the music I am listening to – provided it is significant. Recently I found myself composing a lecture on the importance of Midnight Oil in the canon of Australian music, for providing both a distinctly Australian voice and vision that was not only radical in style and sentiment but also engaged so many young people in politics. The other day, the subject was “when metal was mainstream” – focussing on the popular success of bands such as Metallica / Megadeth / Guns & Roses in the late 80s, early 90s. This, perhaps inevitably, led me to consider how I might address the topic of Cold War visions of future dystopias – so prevalent in the 1980s…

The subject can, of course, be personal as well. A couple of years ago I spent some time imaging what I would say were I to make a speech at my 40th birthday, and came up with a variety of structures, angles and tones. I neither wanted nor intended to make a speech at my 40th, so the exercise might seem redundant, yet I consider it to have been useful as a means of keeping rhetorically fit. Also, narratologically speaking, it was an effective means of examining my life and putting things into context.

The benefit of rehearsing all these speeches and conversations is that should the moment finally arrive, I will feel well prepared to engage on the subject and have a line of reason or argument already prepped – including key catchphrases and ways of putting things that sound so neat you might think I rehearsed them… I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet on this front, rather to discuss the phenomenon, but it is fair to say that one of the skills I do have is being able to speak eloquently and intelligently. I firmly believe that in part, this ability comes from a life-long habit of conversation rehearsal. It is also fair to say that occasionally I lose my shit and go ape and swear and curse like a total and utter bastard and at those times, whilst I might feel the brief satisfaction of rage, I also feel the long, drawn out coda of shame in the aftermath. I can be very to the point when I’m angry – so much so that there is often no coming back from what has been said.

Either way, this conversation rehearsal has saved my butt on countless occasions, especially in relationships. When faced with a difficult emotional situation, I will spend hours and hours running through the conversation that must come and determining exactly how I must be persuasive, what points to take and what to concede, and what kind of language will be most placatory / plausible / convincing etc. The techniques follow the standard rule-book of rhetoric in many ways, so are hardly revelatory, but I certainly do recommend the benefits. Too often people go into situations unprepared and say things that cause permanent, irrevocable damage. Without rehearsing conversations, I would no doubt have been dumped much more swiftly in the past.

Rehearsal is especially good for break-ups, largely because harm-minimisation is key in this endeavour. It’s very important to be aware of the impact of even the most apparently neutral statements and how they might be received in a moment of heightened emotional intensity. Expect irrationality, expect volatility, but prepare reasonably and at least you won’t add fuel to the fire by accidentally insulting someone or lowering their self-esteem further.

Of course all this takes a degree of empathy and understanding of the other person that isn’t always available. Then again, most people fall within a recognisable range of emotional responses, so if something is going to upset most people, it’s also likely to upset the person you’re talking to. Conversations do need to be specifically tailored to the audience / interlocutor, yet a sound line of reasoning and well-thought out argument or explanation with its own internal logic is difficult to refute, and at least it gives you the benefit of having tried to be reasonable and not having said something unnecessarily inflammatory or hurtful. Of course, you won’t always get it right and might overlook something very important, but having rehearsed puts you in a better position than not having done so.

Last but perhaps not least, it is worth mentioning the conversations that take place with the inner voice. Rather like Gollum, I have lengthy arguments with myself and often subject myself to some terrible insults and accusations: “What the hell is wrong with you, dog, you useless piece of shit!?” Yet I also offer praise where praise is due, and the two voices – the good me and the bad me, tend to balance each other out. Whilst these aren’t strictly hypothetical situations I am rehearsing, and more akin to internal arguments, often it’s this good me and bad me who end up being the two characters in a hypothetical conversation. The bad me is totally immoral, insensitive and crass – the good me is disciplined, formal, polite, passionate and sensitive. These two character types make for useful actors in a Socratic-style dialogue on, let’s face it, any bloody thing you can think of.

So, to conclude, I do indeed recommend rehearsing conversations when possible. Ideally you won’t suffer from a similar compulsion to do it at all times, but it does have its benefits when faced with negotiating a tricky situation, especially one where emotions are involved.


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Gallipoli – Part 1

“Otogar, Otogar,” the man insisted. He seemed almost desperate, as though my life depended on it. If I wasn’t somewhat sympathetic to his situation I would have laughed at this exaggeration. Either way, I knew how to get to the bus station and wasn’t about to pay someone to show me.

The tram platform was raised above the street; the main drag of the Sultanahmet district, Istanbul. The man walked up and down, nose to the opportunity. All about were tourists, travellers, pilgrims; some were bound to be clueless.

The day was still crisp with breakfast; fine air ticklish with desiccated leaf. The order hereabouts – neatness, monumentality, soaring, ancient stone – was an island. Outside Sultanahmet the tides of Istanbul pulsed and surged; everywhere a little busier, a little dirtier. I was still in two minds about the place, though I was reluctant to leave. Love took a little longer these days, but I figured it would eventually arrive. It wasn’t, after all, my first time there. That had been five years before; tired after five months on the road; a sad, reluctant coda, oddly non-plussed.

The tram filled up quickly. The carriage was full of other travellers; pilgrims I suppose, come to pay a sort of homage. The purpose was still indistinct to me and the rationale unclear. It was homesickness, adventurousness, a good excuse to go back to Turkey and see more ruins. Anzac Day at Gallipoli.

I stood by the doors at the carriage’s end. Before me were a group of Kiwis and a tanned and freckled, blonde, weathered Australian. He can’t have been a day over thirty, but his face was lined from squinting against the antipodean glare. I hadn’t seen anyone who looked so Australian in a long time. He was accompanied by a young black man. I told myself he was Kenyan, a refugee, on no good grounds whatsoever. Another guess, but one far less informed. He smiled at the blonde Australian and smiled at me as well. I thought he looked nervous, something was in the balance.

“Are you from Australia?” the blonde man asked me.

“Yes. But I live in England.”

“Right. I’m an Aussie too. From W.A. Name’s Scott.”

He sounded very Australian indeed, dry and broad. There was distance in his eyes. Open space or tiredness? I couldn’t tell.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Gallipoli?”

“Yeah, mate, s’right.”

“Me too. Headed for the bus station?”

“Yep. That’s the one. This bloke’s takin’ me there.”

“Aha,” I said, unsure how to follow it up. “So, you know where to go then?”

“Yeah, well this bloke does. No worries.”

Scott had a tired and guarded look about him. The way he stood with his back against the wall spoke both of practical common sense, but also a certain deficit of trust. The “Kenyan” standing next to him kept smiling at both of us, almost sycophantically. I figured he must have latched onto Scott in the hope of getting a tip. Scott pointed a thumb at him and said:

“I gave him twenty US bucks. He’s helping me out.”

“Okay, nice.”

Twenty bucks. US. Phew. It struck me that here was a bloke who was really going to get taken for a ride in Turkey if he wasn’t more careful. Then again, Scott looked like he could afford it and no doubt the Kenyan needed the money more than him. I thought about saying something, but didn’t want to patronise him or insult the other chap. My mind wandered back to a scene from the film Gallipoli, in which gullible Australian soldiers get ripped off in the bazaars of Cairo. It was at this point that a thought first occurred to me that would stay with me over the next twenty-four hours – Scott was just like one of those original Anzacs.

I thought I ought to make small talk and asked Scott what he did. He told me he was an electrician who worked in rural Western Australia. He’d just arrived that morning at the end of a horrifically long journey. He’d flown back to Perth from the States where he’d been on holiday, met his brother at the airport who had packed his gear for him for his three-month trip to Europe, and three hours later he set off on the twenty-hour flight between Australia and Turkey. No wonder he looked tired.

Scott struck me as an old-fashioned Australian; quietly spoken and with a country formality about him. He was curiously, almost stiffly polite, saying “thanking you, thanking you,” to even the smallest offer of help or advice. He seemed to be utterly genuine in what he said and did – devoid of pretence and incapable of telling a lie. He didn’t exactly volunteer information, but was willing to talk once he got started.

I had often imagined a character such as him sending a postcard home with a touchingly simple message on it – his first communication in months. It would read something like this:

Dear Mum,

I’m in Turkey and I’m alright. Don’t forget to feed the chooks. Hope the tractor hasn’t broken down again, love to Gran,


When we finally arrived at the bus station some fifteen minutes later, I gestured and offered Scott the door.

“After you,” I said.

He smiled and replied in his dry accent.

“Thanking you, thanking you.”

At the bus station we fare-welled Scott’s helper who had long ago realised he was redundant, but showed impressive loyalty for sticking it out. The main bus station, or Otogar, in Istanbul is a massive hexagonal affair of tall, brutalist concrete bays, accessed by spiralling overpasses. Like a temple complex for machines, the scale of it would be dehumanising were it not for the buzz of human chaos that fills it.

Scott and I followed the New Zealanders who had stood near us on the tram and bought tickets for the next bus down the coast. Having flown in first thing that morning and had next to no sleep, I really hoped I might be able to doze on the bus. Once aboard, however, I was too restless. The Kiwis from the tram ended up sitting opposite us and we all swapped stories along the way, taking in the dry landscape with its concrete communities that looked like so much scattered lego.

When we finally pulled into Eceabat, I was instantly struck by its scrappiness. The roads were full of holes, many of the pavements were dirt and rubble, and a considerable number of the houses and shops were half-derelict. Turkey is no stranger to that peculiar Mediterranean phenomenon of the concrete skeleton. Everywhere there are unfinished developments, many standing alone in the middle of nowhere – usually three to four storey apartment buildings, with the walls yet to fill the framework of concrete pylons and floors. Eceabat had a number of these skeletons on the outskirts of the town, and it was here that we headed after alighting from the bus, for at the southern edge of the town lay the famous “Vegemite Disco Bar.”

The Vegemite Disco Bar was ramshackle to say the least. Thrown up without symmetry or polish, the brick and breezeblock structure was a glorified shed, though in no way glorious. It was patched here and there with corrugated iron, fishing nets and pieces of board and was ennobled by a sloppy yet commercially accurate mural of the Victoria Bitter logo. The place had the feel of a post-apocalyptic survivors’ refuge; a last chance saloon of sorts. And so it was.

They did of course, sell dirt cheap beer – a snip at five hundred thousand lirasi – and it was cold. Just before embarking on this trip, the Turkish Lira had taken a nose-dive and was once again spiralling out of control. It lost half its value against the pound in little over a month and one pound now bought around two million lira. As a consequence of the insane level of devaluation and inflation that has plagued Turkey over the last few decades, they now have a ten-million lira note, which is truly spectacular to behold. The most alarming thing about the banknote, however, was that even for the seemingly impossible number of zeroes on it, it was still only the equivalent of a fiver.

Scott had worn a strained expression on his face for the last few hours, which I hoped was due to his epic trek across the world and not my conversation, but once he got a can of Troy Lager in his hand, he looked decidedly more relaxed. We were instantly accosted by a garrulous Kiwi who asked if we had anything to smoke. Sadly no, but he seemed an amusing bloke, so we walked outside and pulled in along the stretch of concrete beside the water, now crawling with southern hemisphericals. Some smiling Turks had a barbecue going and the smell of kebabs grilling over the coals filled the air.

We sat on a small, rickety wharf leaning out from the broken concrete, so rickety that we soon moved off it onto the concrete. Simon, our new-found Kiwi friend, proved a real barrel of laughs. He can’t have been more than about twenty-five years old, but he claimed to have just sold his house, left his girlfriend behind and left New Zealand “for as long as it takes.” I soon enough gleaned that the house had come into his hands as a consequence of some apparently very profitable drug-dealing. We chatted for a couple of hours, sinking cans of Troy in the warm afternoon sun. Clearly satisfied with the size of the crowd, the guys running the bar put on a cassette recorded off Triple J radio station in Australia. It must have been quite an old one, because after about half an hour the music was interrupted by a news flash in which there was mention of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who hadn’t been prime minister since 1992.

A light breeze blew over the water and I took great pleasure in watching the glittering ripples across the bay. It was joy enough to be beside the sea once again and the scene was almost picturesque. By around five in the afternoon it started to get a little chilly, and I realised that the clothing I had  was not going to be warm enough to get through a night sitting on a windswept beach. What had I been thinking in bringing so little – and no sleeping bag? Scott looked ready to move. I think he was feeling sleepy after four beers and a kebab or two, so we fare-welled our new friend and set off along the main drag towards the bus-station.

I wandered into the first clothing shop I saw and bought a discount jumper that didn’t fit me in the slightest, but had potential life-saving qualities. We grabbed a couple of bottles of water, some snacks, hot and cold, fruit, and a large bottle of raki for emergencies, before grabbing one of the many taxis buzzing around. Our driver was an affable bloke who told us this was his fifteenth run out to the beach that day. During the course of the conversation, Scott somehow found ample opportunities to roll out his charming mantra of “thanking you, thanking you”.

On the drive out of Eceabat, we passed lines of people walking to the beaches and a number of flat-bed, horse-drawn carts topped by beer-swilling antipodeans. We drove through darkening fields and copses of pines glowing a pale magenta in the westering light. As we reached the other side of the neck of land and saw the horizon again, the richly coloured sunset had such an impact on me that I asked the driver if he would stop a moment so that I might take a photograph. I caught the sun as it was halfway towards night; radiating echoes of burnt orange past distant hills. In the foreground, a sea of purple shadows was topped by dulled silver. It vanished quickly and the oranges darkened; the sky’s reflection faded into the blackening waves. We climbed back into the taxi.

North Beach, where the ceremonies would take place at dawn, was a well-landscaped site with neatly cut lawns and three flagpoles bearing the Turkish, Australian and New Zealand flags. A large crowd had already gathered, spread out along the lawns and the beach itself. Stepping out onto the newly bitumened surface, we spotted a bunch of blokes playing two-up down beneath the flags.

“Okey dokes, ladies and gentlemen, place ya bets!”

Having been away from Australia for a couple of years, I felt a mix of nostalgia and self-conscious embarrassment. It was, however, something of a relief that people had not come here to sit about in mournful silence. This more spirited, larrikin attitude to the occasion struck me not only as appropriate, but as being what the original diggers would have wanted. Scott and I had hardly dumped our stuff and taken a slug of raki before a game of Australian Rules football started up. We shifted our gear and joined in the game.

It was now about seven thirty in the evening and there were probably only a few hundred people about, spread over a rather broad area. Once the game had broken up, we sat down and had another hit of raki, but neither of us were in the mood for drinking. Scott seemed to be fading fast after so long without sleep.

“Mate, I’m butchered. I think I’m going to crash for a while.”

“No worries. I’ll take first watch.”

“Wake me up if anything happens.”

“Will do.”

Scott climbed into his sleeping bag and curled up on the grass. In a moment, he was fast asleep, like a cocooned insect.

Now a game of rugby league sprang up in the middle of the “field”. Being a New South Welshman, this was more to my taste and I volunteered my services. Two teams were immediately formed and, what started as a game of touch footy soon upped a gear into full tackle rugby league. A bunch of Turks who were sitting alongside the road watching the activities decided to join us, getting right into the spirit of it. Fast asleep in his sleeping bag, Scott was chosen as one of the corner posts. It was little short of miraculous that during the next hour of noise, mayhem and vigorous tackling, he not only avoided being stepped on, but did not even bat an eyelid.

When the game was over, things slowed down a little and everyone sat down in groups, drinking and talking. People continued to arrive in a steady trickle until all the grass we’d been playing on was covered. Some of the new arrivals couldn’t resist planting the Australian flag, which struck me as both unnecessary and discourteous. After all, the Turks had been kind enough to fly the Australian flag over this hallowed ground, and to want to claim it all over again seemed not merely arrogant and thoughtlessly nationalistic, but also naively disrespectful of the Turkish victory.

Indeed, I was struck by the ridiculous amount of Australian flags on shirts, singlets, bags, towels, you name it. One woman was completely decked out in the bloody thing. She wore a flag tracksuit, the top of which was undone to reveal a Tee-shirt with the Australian flag on it  – it was all over her socks and beanie, and just in case you hadn’t got the message, she had a flag draped over her shoulders. I have never ever been able to understand this expression of nationalist fervour and find flags horribly offensive and aggressive. Maybe it’s just me, but is it really necessary to shove your nationality down someone’s throat in a foreign country? Who gives a rat’s arse where you come from? A lot of people seem to think that the only level on which they can communicate with foreigners is to discuss their foreignness, rather than just assuming that they too are human beings and can be engaged on all manner of other subjects. They say travel broadens the mind, but for a lot of people it makes them increasingly militant about their own identity, which seems to be reduced to a bunch of symbols and clichés.

I sat there listening to people talking around me, bemused by the snippets of conversation I heard.

“Gee, it really makes you think, dunnit?”

“Musta been tough for those blokes on that first night.”

“Yeah, you can really feel the history, eh?”

I passed the time writing in my diary, listening to my walkman and occasionally taking swigs of Raki. I thought about going and making friends with some random people, but it just seemed like too much hard work, and from what I was hearing, I felt as though the conversation might be lacking something. I turned to look at the cliffs behind me, visibly outlined against the stars, and spent a good hour with my eyes fixed on a neck of land that looked like the head of the Sphinx. It might have even been called the Sphinx, I can’t remember. It had been beautiful just after sunset when the sky was still a darkening blue, and it was still beautiful now in the moon and starlight.

More and more people continued to arrive, and by around eleven-thirty at night, things had become a little ridiculous. Coach-load after coach-load was turning up, until the road behind was completely filled with huge tour buses and every inch of ground for a considerable distance was covered with people in various states of repair. As the evening wore on, so the sea-breeze wore on in, and gradually, it wore me down. I’d started out feeling vaguely warm, but by around midnight, I was freezing cold. I had no jacket with me, and so my only option was extra layers. I put on another tee-shirt, which got me through until around one. I then had to put on another and that got me through until about two. By three, I had no choice but to wrap my last tee-shirt around my head and put on a collared shirt under my jumper. By then it had become quite ludicrously cold and I was exhausted.

All this while, Scott had not moved at all, but had remained fast asleep. He was now surrounded on all sides by the crowd, and I lay down beside him in the small space that remained, head on my bag. I tried to sleep, but was far too cold and damp and lay there shivering miserably. It was so cold my entire body started aching, my head most of all. I cursed stupidity and bitterly passed two of the most miserable hours of my life. Why had I not brought a sleeping bag, or at least a coat? Hadn’t it occurred to me that Turkey in April was cold at night? Obviously not, and admitting my folly was no consolation. All I could think of was dawn. The sun would rise and so would the temperature. I would survive to see this great event, and gradually my body would thaw!

When things began stirring for the dawn service, shortly before dawn, I dragged myself from a despairing huddle and stood to attention. Imagine my displeasure when it was announced that the Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, was going to address us. I was certainly no fan of the man or the government of which he was a part, and was not pleased to be reminded of why I’d been so glad to leave Australia.

I woke up Scott and we both stood like zombies, watching the service. I tried hard not to laugh at Downer’s teddy-bear intonation, but could not take the man seriously. The New Zealand foreign minister was a little more inspiring, despite equally dealing in platitudinous clichés. One line stood out, however, and I got over myself and remembered the individuals who had come here in the first place.

“When they first got to the beach, there was no battle plan, no orders, just sheer heroism”

Sheer heroism indeed. And standing there, cold, exhausted, surrounded by a bunch of jingoistic antipodeans and having survived a speech by Alexander Downer, I felt like a bloody hero as well.

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