Bush Medicine: a quick look at some medicinal and useful native plants

I recently went to a workshop in Bush Medicine that was run as part of Bundanoon’s 2018 Winterfest programme. Held in a sunny room at the local CWA, a group of about 9 adults and kids got to touch, smell, crackle and rub our way through an interactive two hours about fascinating local treasures.

All of my information below comes from Aunty Wendy Lotter (of Platypus Dreamin Aboriginal Cultural Programs and Bushwalks).

Bundanoon’s New South Wales is Gundungurra Country. Because Australia is vast and ecologically diverse, the plants used for bush medicine in one area may not be the same as another.  This information really only relates to the native plants that grow in Bundanoon and surrounding areas.

Hungry?

The seeds of Lomandra longifolia (Mat Rush) can be used to make flour.

Wide-leafed Geebung can be crushed into a damper. You can also make tea from the leaves.

 

Thirsty?

Mountain Devil flower (Lambertia Formosa) can be used for hydration. Pull off the red flowers and suck the bottom to make a sweet, honey-flavoured drink.

If you already have water but are after a treat, put in some red banksia for a sweet drink.

Rolling a seedpod from the casuarina plant around your mouth will stimulate your saliva glands and help you out in a hydration emergency.

Sanitation?

The paperbark tree has the consistency of many layers of tissue paper stuck together. Take a guess what it can be used for.

It is useful for many things, including as a canvas for painting and drawing symbols.

It was also used by our first peoples as toilet paper, sanitary napkins, and bandages.

Antiseptic?

For wounds and gashes, paperbark is great for the bandage, but you might also need some antiseptic. Tea tree (used for cleaning at my place) is great for helping stop infection. Place a wad beneath the paperbark bandage and tie it on with a blad of kangaroo grass.

Need Fire?

Even in rain, the string bark will be dry if you go down to the 4th layer. Pull strips off, crush them into fine kindling fragments, and then light with your rubbing sticks.

Need Light?

The candlestick banksia will light up and stay lit for around 20 minutes.

The old man banksia can stay alight for hours.

Stings

Mix the root of the Bracken fern with water and apply to stings.

Insect repellant

Bracken fern is also an insect repellant. You can lay some in the bottom of a large coolamon (a curved wooden tray) and put your baby on top.

Need a hairbrush?

If you need to brush your hair, the small and soft hairpin banksia will leave you with neater locks and a lustrous shine.

Head lice?

The red and purple banksia seeds can be crushed, made into a paste, smeared over the head to kill head lice.

Feel anxious?

Get a few nostrils full of tea tree fragrance. It will calm you down as well as being a good antiseptic.

Need soap?

Grab a handful of leaves from the Balck Wattle plant and dunk in water. Crush into a ball and rub to make a lather. The leaves leave skin feeling and looking clean. Anecdotally, this natural soap is especially effective for psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis.  Twice a day on the black wattle regimen and it all goes fairly quickly.

Tools

The versatile Kangaroo grass can be used for sawing and cutting when held at either end of a blade. It’s one of those grasses that will be fine to touch, but rub them the wrong way and you’ll get a fine cut.

Chronic disease?

Cook up the leaves of the Sarsparilla vine and make a little tea. This is used to treat pain caused by diabetes and arthritis.

Cold and flu?

I can personally vouch for this one. I attended the workshop with a nasty head cold, hoping to get some of the native good stuff.

Do this in sequence:

Tear a few leaves of the Blue Gum (aka Argyle Apple; Eucalyptus Cinerea). Inhale. Ah!

Next, do the same with a few leaves of kangaroo mint (aka native mint). Inhale. Again. Again.Mmm-mm. Mix them into a potpourri with the blue gum. The job of the kangaroo mint is to clear the chest and sinuses and headache. It also sharpens the senses.

Now, grab some delighted lemon-scented tea tree. I love this stuff. Add that to your hand. Breathe. Ahhh.

Last, do this step separately. Discard the other leaves first. Take a bunch of leaves from the bottlebrush (melaleuca hypericifolia) tree. This is the one with small orange and red flowers.

Crush the leaves your palm and breathe in. This will help move all those effects from the other aromas through your body.

Before you go…

Australia’s first people are the oldest continuing culture on this planet and never fail to amaze me. I am always learning incredible information about what is in plain sight. If you get a chance to do learn about the local bush medicine in your area, I recommend it highly.

And another thing… the first two people on Earth were not black. Definitely. If they had have been, Adam and Eve would have eaten the snake, not the apple.

Thank you, Aunty Wendy. Thank you also Yvonne Crofts for sharing photos with me.

 

Prophetic Fiction

Archival (1997, edited 2017)

I am no student of English lit, but when a writer like William Gibson’s prophecies are revealed every day in my newspaper on a daily basis, my jaw drops open and coffee showers into my cornflakes.

Forget the vagueness and ambiguities of Nostradamus, Gibson is explicit. Through the realm of fiction, he is able to plumb the effects and ethics of technological inevitabilities. Maybe it’s the absence of ethics that strangely brings them into the forefront of the reader’s mind.

Steve Beard from Arena describes Gibson’s latest offering of speculative fiction, Idoru, as “like a depth charge, it goes down easy and explodes at a pre-set level… primed to expose the pressure points of postmodern American culture.”

Gibson is the man who wrote about virtual reality before the technology had been invented. He foresaw the Internet and continues to see how it will shape and develop, remaining one step ahead in his books. In Idoru, set in the organic, polluted, Giger-inspired architecture of Tokyo, he foresaw the birth of a new music industry—one that is all marketing and no performer.

The ‘idoru’ of the title (Japanese for ‘idol’) is pop singer Rei Toei. She has legions of adoring fans, a magic voice, and she is beautiful. She has captivated another Japanese singer, a male, who plans on marrying her. Only thing is, she’s not human.

Rei Toei is a bit of an indictment on the superficiality of the music industry. A star created by a powerful corporate profiteer, Famous Aspect, seeking to manufacture a cultural product.

Rei Toei is the company’s child—a kind of holographic digital being. And perhaps a star that is not human may possess more depth and sexual mystery than people do. Theoretically, the premise deserves exploring through fiction. I have discovered, however, that this premise is now being explored in reality. Her name is not Rei Toei, it is Kyoko Date, and she was created by Holi Pro—a Japanese multimedia conglomerate who have happily dispatched her to an adoring and immense teenage audience market.

Hot coffee issues from my mouth in a fine spray, medicating everything in its trajectory.

The Spice Girls may be a blasé example of greed, superficiality and exploitation, but at least they’re human. Maybe what we need are lobby groups who will ‘out’ people who purport to be, but are not homo sapient. Pray may we see billboards with close-up faces and simple defamatory text like DIANA: DANCER. DIVA. DOT MATRIX.

It is interesting that Gibson confesses to being computer illiterate, even a Luddite—not that there’s anything wrong with that. It isn’t from the depths of his immersion in computer and VR technology that his revelations unfurl. It is, rather, from a detached overview, looking down, high on the heady fumes wafting up from the cooking circuitry below him, that he is able to make his prognostications.

Maybe they’re not prognostications at all, but his ability to recognise patterns and inevitabilities. He doesn’t know the specifics of certain hardware and software capabilities, although he fools his readers well, he sees the general direction of these technologies as an aggregate are taking.

What makes Gibson’s work so powerful is that he mixes futuristic images, scenarios, and technologies with those of the past and the present, unlike those sci-fi writers who boggle us with new this and new that and really detract from their own power by overwhelming us.

Let’s say hypothetically that we wanted to make a story about humans living in a post-human world. Why not have our characters use the arcane CB radio as a communication device instead of cellular phones. Sometimes a sense of disturbance, or of being disaffected, my favourite emotions of all, can be achieved much more effectively not be being totally foreign but by being uncannily familiar. Our aim then would not be to make the strange seem familiar but to make the familiar feel strange. In the future, we may not have holographic banking but even if we do we may still call such machines ATMs.

Aldus Huxley hit the mark with Brave New World. Maybe his prophecy was self-fulfilling. Perhaps it is possible that the alternative visions of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s dystopian world and the discourse that permeated through the decades that have ensued after their publication has left tracings on ur collective unconscious. What if anything else could “alternative facts” be than newspeak?

In order not to reproduce a society resembling Orwell’s concentration camp, there is a counterbalancing embrace of everything trivial (movie stars, gossip, consumerism) as a comfort and a distraction.

If so, we couldn’t have duplicated better. Movies are now feelies with gold class seats and Dolby surround sound that shakes and three dimensions are now de rigueur for the blockbusters. Soma is available on prescription under the name Prozac or any one of another selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and the covers of their product information brochures usually reveal lifestyle stock imagery of cooking, walking on the beach, basking in sunlight.

Huxley’s cage of exotic inhabitants who lead a very different lifestyle could be our refugee camps filled with those so blemished by trauma that they best locked from view let they interrupt our purchases.

His children were not born but decanted, much like the extra-uteral babies that will soon be on their way, not to mention the IVF generation and designer genes. The subsequent relegation of intellectual and social status via physical markers—from Alpha to Epsilon—is not just the class stratified society we live in and have always lived in, but a Huxley nod in the direction of cloning or ‘gated estates’ for the gene pools.

One hundred years ago people probably didn’t believe such progress was possible because they couldn’t comprehend it. They would think we were freaks.

We are freaks. It’s exciting.

PJ Harvey: Hope Six Tour Review

22 January 2017

ICC Sydney

As much a theatrical performance as a musical one, this show is high concept.

Accompanied by a ten-piece band with sections of brass, keyboards, and drums, the show is themed entirely around the newest album, Hope Six Demolition Project. It’s a profoundly dark and politically-infused protest.

The sound is bluesy, brassy and percussive. The show begins with the band in a single file, drumming, then opens with Ministry of Defence, a wall of amplified guitar. It’s loud but nuanced. Polly’s vocals are masterful and she soars over the industry sounds and the male voices to pierce the rafters—pitch perfect, every note. One forgets what an extraordinary vocalist she is.

The lyrics are vivid and disturb. For example, this from Ministry of Defence:

Broken glass

A white jawbone

Syringes, razors

A plastic spoon

Human hair

A kitchen knife

And a ghost of a girl

Who runs and hides

Scratched in the wall in

Biro pen

This is how the

world will end

And the druggy zombified wasteland of Washington DC’s Hope Six and Ward 7, in Community of Hope:

Here’s the highway to death and destruction

South capitol is its name

And the school just looks like shit-hole

Does that look like a nice place?

Here’s the old mental institution

Now the homeland security base

And here’s god’s deliverance centre

A deli called M.L.K

Subtle it’s not.

The set is drab. The costumes are black. Polly has strips of material billowing from her arms, black feathers, and a hornlike tiara, like some mythical creature of the underworld.

The music and the set imagery is Anselm Kieferesque. A prefabricated wall serves as a looming warlike industrial backdrop for the murky yellow, grey, and blue light projections. 

The bevelled squares in the wall also casts shadows that, by turns, cushion or entrap.

Where Kiefer referenced World War Two, Harvey references are Kosovo, the United States, and Syria.

The performance is tight and seamlessly executed, with few and small pauses only to reconfigure the players and lighting. It’s like watching a very good version of a Samuel Beckett play. The set direction and stagecraft are impeccable.

After the first hour of new material from the Hope Six demolition album, we get served an obliterating 50-Foot Queenie, which got everyone jiggling in their seats, and Down By The Water. The encore was Route 61 and Is This Desire?

PJ is less a musician than an artist who uses the medium of music and theatre. She’s a powerhouse who can transform completely from one theme to another, but not within the same show.

This is not cheeky, sexy PJ. This is a darker and edgier PJ than we’ve seen yet. And it’s electrifying. I am still fizzing. And I will be for some time.

This performance confirms her place as one of the great musician artists of our time.

Military Blunders in the War Against Terror

Archival: March 2002

LANDMINES

I recently saw a Super 8 video filmed by an acquaintance at a Cambodian hospital. The subject was a young man who had to have three men hold him down so that gangrene could be scraped from the inside of his amputated thigh.

It is easy to be caught in a western fog that amputations, which result from landmines are clinical, that anaesthetic is administered and that recovery is sound. In reality, the victim’s limb may be hacked off in order to get out of the minefield. Victims commonly lose both, not just one of their legs, as well as their penis and testicles. Some victims ask to be murdered as they lay in blood and shock, unable to move. Later, artificial limbs are usually rudimentary and awkward.

The aftermath of Russian, Taliban and Northern Alliance fighters, all of whom laid mines, has resulted in between 5 and 7 million landmines in Afghanistan, both anti-personnel and anti-tank. One adult male in every ten has been involved in a mine incident.

After all the devastation caused by the existing mines, aid agencies around the world pleaded with the United States Defence not to use mines in this conflict. Nonetheless, the US found it appropriate to employ thousands of mines, which they marked with yellow flags.

 

AIR DISPATCH OF FOOD 

Unfortunately, the US military logistics, for reasons unknown, decided to also mark the food drops with yellow tags. Against a backdrop of mass starvation (5,000,000 people), the measly 35,000 meals dropped to the ground by air dispatch were often soiled, landed on minefields and were marked in a way that may have made them indistinguishable from mines to many Afghan people.

Medicins Sans Frontiers, the Nobel winning organisation, described the food drops as ‘virtually useless and may even be dangerous.’

In a press information note of October 10, three policy analysts for the US Committee for Refugees called the action ‘cosmetic – ineffective and risky.’

 

THE VOCABULARY OF WAR

For the Gulf War, the US hired PR firm Hill & Knowlton (now Hill+Knowlton Strategies). There seems little need this time. The twin towers did that already and they were justification not only for this conflict but allowed Israel to adopt the terminology used by US Defence Secretary Rumsfeldt, Bush and Powell and thereby hitch a free ride on their soundbites. By declaring a nation of Palestinians as terrorists, Israel put Palestine in the ‘rogue state’ category with Libya, North Korea and Iraq. Bush should have felt suitably embarrassed after being publicly chastised for his “axis of evil” comments when Gareth Evans described them as “irresponsible… through some speechwriter in the thrill of the moment.”

Worldwide, however, the effect has spread. We oversimplify complex issues faced by our neighbours, extinguish their discourse, and label them ‘enemies’. The result is a black-and-white portrait of the good and the bad seeds that is so oversimplified it becomes a parody of the truth.

Israel’s jump onto this vocabulary to disseminate propaganda enabled them to stage a massive military action in the days following September 11, which was largely overlooked. At the same time, of course, Pakistan and India, both of whom have nuclear capabilities now, have the US as its role model, just when they were on the brink of evolving beyond a conflict mindset.

 

VIETNAM REVISITED

Other military blunders? For years, the Australian Army has been giving its young officers lessons from the Vietnam War as case studies of what not to do.

While it is a unique conflict in many ways, it bears many similarities with Vietnam. The enemy is faceless; a philosophy. The enemy is practically unlocatable. He is in every country; fragmented. The enemy cannot be confined to a theatre of war – it is simply spectacle.

All of these factors, as well as the lack of exit strategy, have been criticised by retired Brigadier Brian d’Hage. Most likely, there are many Australian commanders who feel the same way, but cannot speak out – it just doesn’t make good military sense.

Rupert Murdoch said in a 2001 speech that knowledge was, ‘the only force that can vanquish the ignorance that is the seedbed of terrorism.’ Ironic. Thanks Rupert.

The Natural Way of Things: Review

 

In the Natural Way of Things, Verla and Yolanda are familiar protagonists. Yolanda has been in a sex scandal with multiple football players (let’s assume NRL) and the highly educated Verla has been in a relationship with a married politician who has left her–the details are never crystal clear.

The two protagonists have both gained notoriety through their misadventures, as have the other eight they are with–it is a collection of ten hated women. All have been drugged and kidnapped and are held as prisoners stripped of any identity. They are given garish old-fashioned tunics with bonnets over their shaven heads. They find themselves surrounded by a high-powered electrical fence all around the very large periphery of an arid landscape, left in the hands of violent and verbally abusive captors, the cheap labour of a private company that’s holding them. It’s a boot camp without purpose–other than to make the women feel like the ‘sluts’ and ‘dogs that they are’.

One of the first jobs the women are given is to build a road from old concrete blocks for the company, which is called Hardings, to drive along on its much anticipated visit. The visit date comes and passes. And the next. Although the women lose a track of time, we learn from the changing seasons that several months go by. Eventually their captors learn that Hardings isn’t going to come. Soon enough the electricity becomes disconnected, except for the electricity around the high voltage perimeter. Now, prisoners and their captors, which include Teddy, Boncer, and a mean and ineffectual female nurse whose experience has been working in a hot dog shop, are all in a fight for survival with no means of escape.

It all sounds awful, but the prose is characteristic Wood. It’s beautiful, mesmeric and sensual imagery that belies the brutality of subject that include trapping and skinning of rabbits. The vivid and visceral descriptions are like the outback prose of Evie Wyld’s All the Birds are Singing. Much respect to the bunnies.

The Natural Way of Things is not set in a dystopian future, it’s now. There is a scattering of references to modern TV shows like Jamie Oliver,from which one prisoner remembers how to stew a rabbit, and foods like Vegemite and Vita Weets. There are more than passing resemblances to real life sex scandals that have demeaned the women involved, often victims, in high profile cases. It’s disturbing how close to home this all is.

The setting reminds me of three things: the Australian Armed Forces and the kinds of attitudes and language that I have been subjected to. The pointless subordination and deprivation of liberty rings like a glass today because of Australia’s offshore and isolated detention centres which are increasingly being exposed as profit centres in human misery. Lastly, the knowledge that Australian indigenous women just a few decades ago were subjected to similar but worse treatment is gutwrenching.

The characters, dialogue and male characters are entirely believable, including the narcissism and self-absorption of the sensitive new age Yoga-devoted asshole, Teddy. The repellant Boncer who is truly scary with his violence and lack of intellect; he doesn’t get or deserve readers’ empathy.

I didn’t particularly want to read The Natural Way of Things, except that it was chosen for my book club and was highly commended. The fact that it was written by Charlotte Wood made me feel in safe hands. She is a beautiful writer with poetry and accuracy in every detail.

Charlotte Wood has achieved a master work that is light and delicate in its imagery and language while being psychologically searing all the while. It is a challenge to read, but not a long read. It was helped along by the expert typesetting of 12.5 point Fairfield type with a 19-point leading, which made it seem larger and easier to keep reading past the stifling gruesomeness.

I have no doubt it will hold a significant place in the history of Australian literature. So far it has won the 2016 Indie Book of the Year Award and the award for fiction chosen by the Australian Independent Booksellers and the 2016 Stella Prize.

This is a book that resonates. Although it is ultimately validating, this was also the most disturbing book I have ever read. The final pages teach us that there will be no relief in sight for our suffering, we have to escape it in our own way.

I highly recommend it, but with a trigger warning. (Please be advised that this book contains rape, sexual abuse and verbal violence and misogyny and as such it could trigger an episode of post-traumatic stress in those susceptible.)

You probably know someone with MS who is keeping it secret

This World Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Day, you may spare a thought for those affected by this chronic, debilitating disease. You may not realise, however, that there are people you meet every day with MS who are keeping it secret from you.

Early this year, Jamie-Lynn Sigler – who played the daughter of Tony Soprano in the TV show The Sopranos – revealed that she has the disease. The announcement came 15 years after her diagnosis. Like me, she’s been in the closet with MS.

MS is a neurological disease. There are different types and they affect people differently. Some cases of MS progress rapidly and the disability can lead to mobility issues, paralysis and severe nerve damage that can leave the sufferer wheelchair bound.

The relapsing-remitting version that I have is possible to keep hidden. You can’t see MS by looking at me. You would see I wear glasses – the black-rimmed professional kind. If you were discerning, you might see that my right eyelid is heavier than the left – that’s the result of optic neuritis that left me blind for two weeks in the late 1990s.

You would see a fit person, someone who bounds up the steps at Central Station in the morning. You won’t see the pins and needles running through my hands and tight tingling bands around my chest and thighs. You won’t see that I often feel like I’m wearing a corset plugged into something electrical. When I tip my head forward, you won’t see the jolt of electricity shoot down my neck and buzz in my fingers.

I‘ve had multiple sclerosis for 18 years. If you knew, you would be one of a select few to whom I have ‘come out’. It’s not that I don’t accept that I have MS, it’s just that I don’t define myself by it and I don’t want anyone else to either.

Multiple sclerosis is the most common chronic neurological disease in the world. According to MS Australia, it affects around 23,000 Australians and three times more women than men. The average age of onset is 30. The cause is unknown and there is no cure.

The experience is different for everyone. At times my skin feels as if it is healing from bad sunburn. I’ve had the feeling that my jeans are wet, but only on one side. Water droplets that shoot from the sides of a showerhead can feel like the sparks off a blowtorch, much like sciatica feels.

A few years ago I was introduced to a distant relative who had obviously been told of my condition. He looked at me with amazement and said, “You look so well, considering.” He then asked: “How long will it be till you’re in a wheelchair?”

Stigma and discrimination is the key reason people like me keep it quiet. Why wouldn’t you keep it secret when you get a whole collection of flawed worst-case perceptions transferred onto you?

Erika North, a well-known radio announcer in London, kept her MS secret even while talking about many personal stories on air.

“I felt like damaged goods,” she told the Daily Mail. “I was worried people would view me differently.”  I feel entirely the same way. I want people to think of me as creative, focused and hardworking. Not disease-ridden. Not infirm. Not someone sleepwalking into oblivion.

The online forum thisisms.com has comments from people who choose to keep it quiet for different reasons, often professional. “I decided early on that I would tell my family, but not my work,” wrote one forum participant. “I don’t want to complicate the workplace with this because biases in the world are very real.”

Probably one of the most common and difficult symptoms of multiple sclerosis is fatigue. Fatigue doesn’t just make you feel tired; it saps your confidence. In the last few years I have come to the conclusion that confidence and energy are closely linked. Without enough energy, it’s hard for your brain to fire, let alone your body. Without a brain firing at an optimal level, it’s hard to think quickly in a stressful meeting and keep a clear and steady voice.

Jamie-Lynn Sigler may have at last come out, but it wasn’t until after The Sopranos filmed its final season. I respect and understand that. World MS Day is a day to change perceptions. If you have MS, I hope you have a wonderful day. But I can’t say I’ll recognise you.

 

Originally published for DailyLife, 25 May 2016.

Tabloid journalism impacts health and health policy

Australia’s  Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph recently ran a front-page story titled Child Drug Room Lunacy in which it said “children as young as 16 and pregnant women” would be welcomed into Sydney’s supervised injecting centre to shoot up heroin.

People are afraid of the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre because they don’t understand what it does. When pregnant women are brought into the conversation, this fear predictably turns into hysteria. Shocking headlines which sensationalise the stories of desperate people are a major threat to the the supervised injecting centre, which otherwise operates quietly and unobtrusively to save lives and connect people to vital services.

The centre’s proposal that their help be extended to young people and pregnant women needs to be embraced, however unpalatable this idea may initially seem.

Language such as ‘drug room’ and ‘shooting gallery’ used by the Telegraph implies that the supervised injecting centre is some kind of fun but seedy hang out for the criminally deviant.  So what is it really like inside the injecting centre? And why should we “let” pregnant women and young people in there?

I was privileged to tour the medically supervised injecting centre as part of my employment for a  peak medical body. I have to admit that I was reluctant to take the tour at first, feeling that I didn’t want to enter such a “dark”, “seamy” or “underground” place.

Our guide was a registered nurse who had worked at the centre for several years. Situated on busy Darlinghurst Road, the centre has an inconspicuous facade that makes it looks like an unbranded accountancy office. If you didn’t already know what it was, you would be none the wiser.

Inside it has the appearance of an ordinary waiting room. Metal chairs with vinyl upholstery run  along two walls. There are stacks of dog-eared magazines. Clients come in through the front door and move through various rooms, then exit by the back.

Stage one is reception. Staff take the client’s name, basic demographic data, and the drug they are going to be using. It’s a condition that a client must be a legal adult. They cannot come with a minor. They also have to be proven a regular user.

There is a bank of eight stainless steel carrels, each with two chairs and a large plastic yellow sharps bin. Every surface has been wiped and sanitised. Clients are supplied with clean syringes (size depending on the drug they plan to inject), medicated swabs for the injection site, vials of purified water, and cotton for filtration.

In an adjacent room are oxygen and narcotic reversal machines that can be administered in the event of an overdose. These machines have ensured that although the centre has seen more than five thousand overdoses, there has not been a single fatality.

An enclosed courtyard at the back is called the ‘chill out room’. This is where a client can have a cup of tea or coffee and hopefully open up to staff about their life and their situation. Health promotion posters cover the walls. There are brochures and staff to help clients secure services they may need, such as accommodation support, drug and alcohol treatment programs, and detoxes. It is here that clients of the centre have also willingly participated in valuable research studies over the last 15 years.

“There is a real misconception that the people who use the injecting room are violent and inherently criminal, but they’re just people,”  says Dr Marianne Jauncey, Medical Director of the supervised injecting centre. “They’re people with their own set of stories and sadness. Often they have significant histories of trauma and abuse. It’s a real privilege to work with these people.”

Although it opened in a climate of public outrage, KPMG figures confirm that 78% of local residents and 70% of local businesses now support the facility. So do more than fifty related organisations including the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, NSW Nurses Association, New South Wales Police Force, and St Johns Anglican Church, Darlinghurst.

It is a compassionate and practical health service that seeks to connect with people who inject drugs. Its stated focus is on harm reduction. It is grounded in overwhelming international medical evidence that injecting centres save lives and improve community safety.

So what about these pregnant women? Why should we “allow” them to access the same services and facilities as other people in need? Let’s be clear, this is not the same as a shop trying to expand its customer base. These are prospective women in need, albeit in very small numbers, who have already been refused access to the service.

“It is a shocking situation that pregnant women are taking drugs”, agrees Dr Jauncey, “But it’s not a reasonable response to turn them away.” She believes the best approach is to actively engage women who are not on treatment or therapy and get them linked in to the services they need. She can’t do that if she has to refuse them entry.

“For someone who is already opioid dependent, the safest thing you can do is ensure she doesn’t go into withdrawal, which can lead to premature labour or miscarriage,” says Dr Jauncey. “This is the firm view of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and many other services. It’s a considered view based on evidence.”

Not only do such unhelpful articles as the Telegraph’s miss the point medically, they also paint a picture of a heartless woman who, because of her pregnancy, is somehow public property. This fuels dangerous views that the actions of such a woman should be criminalised.

In their book Transforming Addiction: Gender, Trauma and Transdisciplinarity, Greaves, Poole and Boyle argue that moralistic blaming and shaming narratives “create a situation where pregnant women with addiction issues are afraid to seek treatment.” The insistent focus on drug use in pregnancy “illustrates a conflux of sexism, objectification, stigma and social control”. The US Women’s Media Centre has also criticised the media’s reinforcement of stigma, stereotypes and sensationalism when representing women using opioids during pregnancy, whilst ignoring treatments that are known to work.

It’s easy to react to sensationalist reports about pregnant women using “ drug rooms” with shock and revulsion.  Ironically, the Telegraph itself quoted the proposal that the biggest risk to the injecting centre was “public perceptions”.

Despite the best efforts of the police and health services ready to help, it’s a reality that some people, including pregnant women, become addicted to prescription and street opioids like heroin.

Although we might not like the idea of such places, these people need support not vilification. Compassionate experts at the medically supervised injecting centre know much better how to direct vulnerable people into care than sensationalist journalists and politicians do.

Danielle Spinks (c) 2016

Things I Never Knew Until I was a Parent

A few years ago, I didn’t want children because the stakes seemed too high in the anxiety department. But my partner did. Let me tell you, my friend, there is much joy ahead. Relax. But do brace yourself for a personality transplant. And keep these things in mind.

You become less self-conscious

I recently attended the Rhyme Time class at my local library. Singing half-forgotten rhymes with accompanying hand actions in a circle of 30 people was an experience anathema to my personal sense of self. But I did it. Because when you’re a parent, you have to extend yourself.

Last time I did a VIA Institute personality assessment, my score for self-consciousness was off the chart. Now I sing in the street. I improvise new entertainment all the time. Furthermore, I don’t care if adult peers witness my inventions. Karaoke would once have been a private hell, but now I’ve been able to scratch it off the ‘Do Never’ list.

The unparalled power of distraction

Smoking cessation therapies are often about feeling the craving, acknowledging it, taking ownership. When I quit smoking years ago, my strategy was to become attention deficit whenever I had the urge to smoke. Brush TV. Watch teeth. The effects are now obvious. But I did quit.

I’ve learned that the same works with children. Forget focusing on good behaviour and bad. They don’t understand—they’re primal. Accept that they have fangs and wings, but when they do something disagreeable to you: DIVERT! DISTRACT!

By all means take away that ciggie butt she just picked up, but replace it with something better. Give her that water bottle lid. Just imbue it with magical mythology while you do. And make sure it’s not a choke hazard. Or you’re in trouble. You can only do the switch-trick once at a time.

If the water bottle lid is a choke hazard and you want to switch again to the AMAZING TOILET ROLL TRUMPET, she’ll call your bluff and go back to that nicotine-stained filter.

Gregarious and egregious may be one and the same

If you are not a natural conversationalist, you may find it easy if your child is your main conversation topic. But that, my friend, is a mistake. In the perception of others, these two similar-sounding words could become one and the same

Example: I am hopeless at keeping in touch with people. I recently sent a card to an old pal who had sent one to me. I lay the card on the floor and gave the child a pen.

“Draw a picture for BB?” I asked my one-year-old. “Just a squiggle or something.” She eventually made a scrawl over the floorboards, some of which landed on the card. I took a closer look. A jagged V and a half-swan swirl. Genius!

I drew a dotted line around the picture like the x-space around a logo, preserving the artwork’s integrity with a healthy clearway.

ORIGINAL ARTWORK BY SUSANNAH ROSE, I wrote in small uppercase letters. And in brackets below (Prodigy!)

About three the next morning, I thought about the eye-rolling gifs I had seen that day. Heed this warning: your child no doubt has highly advanced physical, intellectual and creative capacities. But please make sure some you have other conversation topics. Not everything is about the child.

The power of ‘the Thing’

“Have more,” I kept suggesting, pushing cubes of watermelon to her little mouth.

Thirty minutes and half a watermelon later, our one-year-old was wildly ricocheting off the walls of her ‘cubby’ (i.e. cage bed) like a loose ball-bearing in a pachinko machine.

Instead of calling an exorcist, my partner told me to do ‘the thing’. The thing’ is a fingertip head-and-eye massage and it works nearly every time. She was asleep in ninety seconds. Go tenderly and slowly so she doesn’t realise at first, then the gentleness and rhythm will suck her into a daze, and then into the sleep land.

There is a world of mind-expanding television

I used to enjoy watching surreal and arthouse films. Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, and Godard’s Alphaville were favourites. But In The Night Garden on ABC Kids TV is the trippiest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s mesmerising, sedating and has a dark edge. With colourful stuffed toy characters in cocoon-like sleeping pods, and an unseen narrator, it’s a richly polysemic text. I have banned the child from watching it because I am unsure of the messages. But I love it.

There is much anxiety and fear bringing a little ‘un into the world. But little gems lie along the path as well. Take these tips on board and be edified.

Can you add to my list?

The Fracture & Other Shorts

The Fracture and other short stories contains seven original works by Danielle Spinks including:

• Dystopian fantasy cult-classic, The Fracture

• A mindfulness meditation in Zen & The Art of Washing Dishes

• Irreverent Australian humour in The 45-Minute Chair and The Benley Acquisition

and other short pieces.

Amazon Kindle Store

 

ebook cover

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

I love Magda Szubanski. I’ve loved her since I was a kid. She’s a true comic. Her humour is borne out of acerbic intelligence and astute observation. She can pull a fully formed character out of the collective unconscious and breathe them into being.

Reckoning is expansive and it covers all of her life from early childhood to today. Instead of being delivered through a ‘story of my success’ type framework, Magda is ensconced in her heritage and history.

There are two sections with colour photographs. The first section is of family ancestors in Poland and Scotland. The second shows more recent images, many recognisable to most people. We can see how much she has achieved and accomplished throughout her life—from the D Generation to the Dalai Lama with Kath and Kim and Steve Irwin in between.

But these celeb-filled headline slices of the story are almost incidental aspects of her life—a life that has had much pain and struggle. There is no gloating or syrup. There are therapy sessions, and a belief that trauma may be genetically carried from one generation to the next through nightmares and imagery. The backdrop of Reckoning is war, courage and cowardice, and trauma.

We start with a grand description of the hilarious Scottish women in Magda’s mother’s side, then we move to the harrowing Polish side and a father who is like a walnut she spends her life trying to crack. Did he collude with the Nazis? Why does he dismiss socialist ideology? Why does he insist she find her killer instinct on the tennis court?

Much of the book also is concerned with sexuality. Or coming to terms with an ‘aberrant’ sexuality. There is much insight in her words. She writes about how all the many aspersions that her loving parents cast on gay and lesbian people, had unknowingly “formed a pointillist impression”. I can say that matches my experiences entirely.    

She describes the fear of being outed publicly and that the first step is coming out to oneself, which can be the hardest step.

Ultimately this book is a love letter to her parents, replete with the idiosyncratic yawning screech of their Jason recliners.

The language in Reckoning is fluid and very easy to read. I had difficulty putting this down. It’s not ‘a laugh a second’ but you can tell that from the cover. This is a serious and thoughtful book. Magda Szubanski is a fine writer.

Panic Hour

 

It’s eight in the morning. An escalator pulls me down from the street into the intestinal darkness. Streaks of lightning blue rush past my left shoulder, Photoshop motion-blur. Same in orange on the opposite wall, like this is an immersive internet advertisement. This tunnel is the cable. We are the particles. A unitary quantum system with a single wave function. I adjust the weight of my satchel and start plodding into the dim crowd.

On a violin, a G is stroked and resonates through the space. There’s a young man like me with a stub of a ponytail. I want to listen but a brush at my back reminds me to keep moving. You cannot be still in the tunnel unless you’re begging or performing. I keep pace along the dirty tiles. A synclinal gutter lines the edges like a blood or beer swill recess, metal grates every few metres. The ceiling is low. A line of fluorescent tubes casts an icteric glow. Every fifth one is orange. Is the place mildly radioactive? Is it a warning to proceed with caution? Like cows in an abattoir, docile but hyper-aware, we follow the path laid out.

A teenage girl sits against the orange wall. Her legs are bent; knees up. Her freshly-washed brown hair cascades down her side, pink tips dip-dyed at the ends. A square LP-sized cardboard sign rests against her. There’s writing on it — in the ubiquitous black uppercase Beggarscript. It’s too small to read. She reminds me of Alex.

*

Alex was performing when I first saw her. I did the poster design and got a free ticket. She had thick black-rimmed glasses and silky raven hair that captured pools of blue from the theatre lights. She could have been a movie star or the queen of the underworld. During the instrumental, we locked eyes. Her thrumming bass and the keel of her hips were a conversation between the two of us.

I tried to say hello in the after-party. I kept failing. She was magnetic and out of my league. Eventually I gave up and realised I was kidding myself. I drank at the bar alone, chatted with whoever would avail themselves. Then about two in the morning she sidled up to me. Her elbow rested behind her on the bar, a green tumbler in her hand.

“Saw you in the audience.” She had a honey gravel voice. She signalled the bar tender for a drink. He poured liquid. I poured compliments. The band was great; she was divine. I didn’t feel embarrassed, just honest.

Her eyebrow made a tiny arch, and her hazel rings sharpened. She smiled from a corner of her lip. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

*

I’m wearing a nice suit for my sentencing. It’s high quality and a good fit. I got lucky that day at Vinnies. Any money I once had is long gone. In daylight, the suit is dark green. Down here—treading along the underground cracks of ground-in dirt, like unexpurgated sin—it’s black.

There’s a photomontage of train tracks and sandstone arches. I hear a jingling rattle from further down the tunnel. Small bells. Shaking rice-filled maraccas and hand drums. Multiple voices. Hare Hare. Hare Rama. Rama Rama. Hare Rama.

Four young women in pastel silk are sitting on a green and scarlet cloth laid out over the dirty floor. They sing and sway in unison, oblivious and euphoric with the accompanying sub-bass drone of an harmonium.

Alex and I went to Govinda’s once—a big vegetarian Krishna restaurant and movie house. We were both veg at the time. We did kirtan—the improvised, enduring chant and bell ringing. It wasn’t exactly transcendental, but nice, kind of. It was a scene I considered becoming more a part of. Like my design scene, the band scene, and then the natural therapy scene. I remember watching the people in their hemp clothes and long hair, fully-fledged identities. Authentic in every way. On the path.

My heart stops racing. I step out of the main flow, nodding my head with the rhythm, feeling it resonate. I lodge my thumbs under the strap of my satchel; sunglasses bob on the top of my head. It’s transportive.

If I abscond, I could stay in the tunnel. I could join this group. Or not. I am the etherised patient on the table. The cow moving to the slicer. Dare I continue to the courthouse? Dare I abscond? Could I shave my head and join them? Turn a remnant of my long hair into a single plaited cord? Disappear into another dimension of joy and praise?

I step away and then turn back. My eyes say Thank you. But they don’t engage. They are far away. A paper sign that says ‘Street Kirtan’ is taped above them on the pointillist panorama of a freight train.

I walk past the China man. I’ve seen him before in Pitt Street. Is he for real? I could be like china man one day. Grow long hair, wear thick coke bottle glasses, play a quivering one-string instrument. Get a cheap ukulele. Regularly change my disguise. Escape up to the platforms for snatches of sunlight and sushi. Live on vending machine orange juice and cashews.

*

Alex and I fell in love. In autumn we went to an ashram in the mountains. We had our own ceremonies of love and peace. In winter we moved in together. We had a tiny apartment with a rooftop garden. In spring, Alex started studied herbalism. She had more that she wanted to do in life than play bass in a rock band. She inspired me. I thought about setting up my own graphic design business. We could have gone into partnership and been ‘Herbal by Design’. Ridiculous. She kept tinctures and started treating our friends. Bruises got arnica; a dead pet meant rescue remedy; shyness meant bushflower essences.

In summer, we hit a series of wild concerts. We did festivals. We took acid, ecstasy, speed, cocaine. We basked in dappled sun at Victoria park. We swam in the ocean. We looked after a stray black cat and called him Vladimir. We bought acid for our friends. Alex had a contact.

“Come in for a second,” Alex poked her head around the front door. She knew the contact, I didn’t. I was waiting on the veranda. There was trash in the yard. I stepped inside and padded down the dark hall. At the end of the corridor, a small window bled diffuse light, framed by old French lace curtain with nicotine stains around the edges. A table stood beneath, covered with detritus. A pubic mound of tobacco exploded out of a pouch. There were bent spoons. Cigarette lighters. A red-and-green tartan dressing gown belt. Large sheets of patterned paper.

“They’re only five dollars each.” Alex pointed to some black-and-white chequered cardboard. “How many do you want?”

I was wide-eyed, transfixed by the pattern, computing the profits.

“We would never sell that many.”

*

A tall blonde ponytail sashays past. White cords hang from her ears. Her hips and hair swish from side-to-side. I inhale the confidence. I can do this. Behind her, a woman walks just as fast. She’s shorter, teetering on plastic heels. She wears a hot pink jacket with a sharp V cut out of the back — contemporary throwaway fashion. I can’t do this.

A guy stands in the torrent of commuters. He wears a black T-shirt with white text, one of the new fonts.

“Good morning.” I hate this. “Good morning.” Sound happy. “Good morning.” This sucks. “Good morning” Take it! “Good morning.” TAKE IT! On the tiles around him is an arc of dropped cards.

The wall is covered in diamond-shaped tiles. The pattern is like little flames that leap from a fiery orange bottom to a fast-food yellow sky.

*

Alex had burst through the door in a black singlet. She wore heavy mascara and the lashes swept up like cattails, tiny balls at their ends. “He’s coming.” She put a plastic satchel on the table.

“Since that girl died, nobody wants these.”

My eyes were like saucers. I’d hardly sold that batch. Her arms were stiff at her sides, fingers splayed. “It’s too hot for me. I’m out.”

I took rings, my camera, anything I owned of value and the satchels in my backpack. I pushed into Scotty’s on King and set off the croaking door frog. The unshaven, malodorous storeman gave me a wary eye. He looked as suspicious as any of the customers. I hated it, every second of that experience. It was all wrong, and at the same time, completely necessary.

“Pawning these?”

“Selling. “

“Okay. What have we got?”

I laid out my motley collection. A few old things he picked up and pushed aside – worthless.

He trawled slowly through the rest and finally said, “You got some ID?” I gave him my licence.

“I’ll just go out back and prepare you a quote.”

He disappeared through the wood veneer door. Five minutes went by. Then seven. I looked at an ugly white clock above a shelf of dead televisions. Something was wrong. He was still out back with my licence. The frog croaked again. And then there were two plainly clothes detectives in their fifties asking to see inside my backpack please.

*

Billowing steamer emerges from a sepia-tinted wall of the tunnel, with an old handwritten letter blended from a separate layer. Next to it, the gaussian blur of a speeding electric red train. The glorious future. The regrettable past.

A silent and serious-looking woman stands in front of the mural. She wears a long blue cardigan. Her booklet says Watchtower; her resigned eyes say, You will be judged. I know I will. In about twenty minutes.

I’m nearly at the end. Gradually, sounds float my way. A man is standing at an electronic keyboard. Earnest. Asian. His hair is short. He is concentrating on his playing. Soft flutters of precision. I know this one. Philip Glass. I walk towards the music, close my eyes, move through the soundscape. Beautiful shards of breaking glass fall aurally around me. Clear tears roll along both sides of my face.

The light changes as the ceiling opens out. A counter-surge of suits appears. They weave into the throng. Ahead of me is a temple of stairs and escalators. A steep ascent, splashes of light and moving shadows are thrown over them. People move up and down. At the top, cars bleet, traffic lights pulse and skeletal tree branches stretch across the white sky.

(c) Published in Tincture Journal, September 2015.

Inside the Kings Cross Medically Supervised Injecting Centre

If anyone personifies the 1990s, with all its garbage couture and junky chic, I’d suggest Courtney Love. Bearer of lingerie street fashion. Reviled wife of Kurt Cobain. Heroin addict.

So as Courtney kicked off her Australian tour last month, I made a tour of the Kings Cross medically supervised injecting centre (MSIC).

I admit, I wasn’t sure about the tour. The idea of it put a bad taste in my mouth. I came close to cancelling.

The MSIC is the only facility of its kind in the southern hemisphere, one of only 96 around the world.  It opened at a time when much of Australia, especially places like Kings Cross and Newcastle, where I am from, were on their knees to heroin.

It’s a time I remember well. It seemed like every second person you met was on the gear.  The scourge spanned professions, cultural backgrounds, and social and economic groups.

I have heard people comment that because it’s illegal to possess illegal drugs, a place for them to inject them shouldn’t exist. Others argue that tax payers should not be funding a project that condones and supports behaviour that is illegal.

On busy Darlinghurst Road, the centre has a sterile and inconspicuous facade that makes it looks like an unbranded accountancy office.

Around 200 to 250 people visit to inject drugs each day the centre is open.

Inside it has the appearance of an ordinary waiting room. Metal chairs with vinyl upholstery along two walls. Magazines. A long front desk. There are about twelve people for this pre-arranged tour: mostly medical students.

Our guide, a registered nurse who has worked at the centre for several years, gives us the history of the centre. First, he clarifies the legal point.

“If you’re on the other side of that door, it’s illegal to be in possession of an illicit substance. Once you step inside, it is not. The Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act was amended to allow the centre to begin operations on a trial basis.”

In the ‘90s, a number of brothels started renting rooms for 15 and 30 minutes for the use of injecting drugs and became known as ‘shooting galleries’. At the time, there were overdoses every few hours. The sound of ambulances was constant.  The Cross was littered with capped and uncapped syringes. People injected on the streets.

In 1997, there was the Royal Commission into the NSW Police. Having a medically supervised injecting centre was the frank and practical recommendation of Justice James Wood. By 1999,  the problem was at its peak. NSW Drug Summit was held. Then-Premier Bob Carr sought to investigate Wood’s recommendation. Clover More supported the endeavour and the trial began.

Wood found that although the shooting galleries were exploiting people for money, one benefit  of them was that they saved many lives.

“If the user’s fifteen minutes elapsed and they were still in there, the manager banged on the door. If they didn’t respond, they called an ambulance.”

The facility is set up to operate in three stages. It’s a one-way journey. Clients come in through the front door and move through various rooms. Exit by the back. In the reception area, stage one, a client is met. We take their name, basic demographic data, and the drug they are going to be using.

It is a condition that they must be a legal adult and they cannot come with a minor. They also have to be a regular user. They won’t accept anyone coming in to start.

After the duty staff is satisfied they meet the criteria, they climb a narrow white staircase to stage two. Here, a bank of eight stainless steel carrels, each with two chairs and a large plastic yellow sharps bin, faces away from an injecting supervisor.

“Heroin is still around,” says our guide. “But the street drug landscape has changed. Eighty per cent of clients come to inject prescription drugs.”

OxyContin, the brand name for oxycodone, a narcotic analgesic prescribed for strong pain relief and also known as hillbilly heroin, is the most common.

‘Oxy’ is designed as an oral pharmaceutical. Clients may be shown how to filter out the insoluble microcrystals, which can do severe damage to the heart and lungs if crushed and injected.

In an adjacent room, oxygen and narcotic reversal can be administered in the event of an overdose. Clients are supplied with clean syringes (size depending on the drug they plan to inject), medicated swabs for the injection site, vials of purified water, and cotton for filtration.

According to the MSIC’s research, there has been over 5,000 overdoses and not a single fatality.

In state three, clients continue their move forward to emerge into the ‘chill out room’.

“Clients can have a cup of tea or coffee, read a magazine, rest, talk to staff, and get linked in to other services they may need, such as accommodation support, drug and alcohol treatment programs, detoxes, and general engagement activities.”

There are vividly colourful posters on the walls. The chill out room is the opportunity for health promotion, as well as things like the phone photography competition that is running when I visit.

“We’re seeing the cohort of users from the 1990s ageing, so there are other health issues than just drugs.”

The average age is 39.

“Most of the clients are homeless men. This is a very difficult to reach group of people. For most of the, this is the only service they use, so it’s important we try to engage them. We don’t try to force anyone to go into treatment, we give them information and help them organise it when they’re ready.”

So do you get any success stories?

“People come in all the time.”

The MSIC’s supports include: The Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. Its trial status was lifted in 2010.

The MSIC is run as an initiative of UnitingCare NSW ACT.

Funding comes from the Confiscated Proceeds of Illegal Activity account, which is managed by NSW Treasury. MSIC receives no government funding.

A second facility is being considered in Brunswick, Melbourne, a place experiencing some of the problems Kings Cross had in the ’90s. I hope they get it over the line.

I toured the facility as part of the Australasian Society for HIV Medicine.

The Man Who Loves Music

With a name as unpretentious as Les Hodge, it’s hard to imagine the impact he’s had on the music industry. From marketing huge acts like Kate Bush, The Rolling Stones and Queen, to coming up with the name Ticketek, Les has left fingerprints everywhere. Now he is responsible for bringing some of the world’s most beautiful classical music into Australia, and the Southern Highlands is its first port.

We’re meeting at the EOS Music office and warehouse at the back of five acres in Fitzroy Falls. It’s an expansive shed outfitted with shelves of CDs, colourful point-of-sale stands, boxes and a playground of bubble-wrap.

“I’ve loved music since I was a kid,” says Les. “But I didn’t like school. I used to get on the train in my full school uniform and wag so I could read my book, The History of Music.”

“My first job was at Grace Brothers at Bondi Junction in the record department,” says Les. “Reps from major companies like EMI and Festival would come and talk to us about new releases. I was desperate to work in the industry so I used to talk to them and finally managed to get a job in a warehouse at EMI.”

EMI was the biggest music company in the world at the time. The job was to run around the facility, pulling orders from the shelves and packing the boxes for delivery.

After a year and a half, Les was promoted to the Artists & Repertoire division. Soon, he was producing music, including major recordings of Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Albert Landa, Carl Pini, Donald Smith, operas of Margaret Sutherland, and performer Jeannie Lewis.

“Jeannie Lewis was an artist that I loved,” says Les. With classic psychedelic cover by renowned pop artist, Martin Sharp, Lewis’ first album went on to win the Best Female Vocal Album award at what would now be the ARIAs. “We did three albums together. She filled the State Theatre with her shows.”

It’s not hard to work out how the young Les went from factory floor to music producer. His manner is soft-spoken and warm. He radiates a gentle but irrepressible energy. Whether it is for the soaring euphoria of a Mozart symphony or the delight of being served his favourite mineral water (Badoit), Les is always seeking and indeed finding things of which to be appreciative.

In the early ‘70s, the Australian music climate was pulsing. A plethora of Australian artists were building big international profiles, including the Easy Beats, ACDC, the Bee Gees, and Little River Band.

By the late 1970s, Les was promoted to International Marketing Manager for EMI. He and his wife moved to London to be at the epicentre of the action.

“The Rolling Stones were already big. Mick Jagger was and still is The Man. Also Cliff Richards. Then another little band came along called Queen. Queen was a monster success. I used to travel with them on their tour buses.”

It was the young Kate Bush who really impressed him. “She was very modest and focused as an artist. She had a natural flair for art direction. She melded art, music, choreography – the whole package. Her rehearsals were awesome,” says Les.

“We started her European tour in Copenhagen. Wuthering Heights was her first single. At the end of the song there was deathly silence. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Thirty seconds later, the whole place went berserk,” says Les, casting shining eyes to the ceiling. “She was a star!”

After son Simon was born, the family decided to leave the rock-n-roll environment and return to Australia. Les was 33. In 1985, he found himself working for Kerry Packer at Consolidated Press.

“My goal was to rejig BASS – the ‘best available seating service’. I negotiated the rights for the software worldwide, but at the eleventh hour, the copyright owner refused to release the name and logo.

“We had to launch the new system at midnight. I remember sitting in my Park Street office at nine that night and having to come up with a new name. I wanted to use the word ‘ticket’ but also to convey technology.” Ticketek was born.

Les stayed there for three years. The CD revolution came. Les dreamed of distributing music.

“I couldn’t get the albums that I wanted in Australia, so I thought I would do it myself. I had two kids by then, a wife and a mortgage. It was a risk,” says Les.

Sonart began as one shelf in the family’s Killara garage. It grew from $35,000 turnover in the first year to over $5.5 million with staff of 18.

*

As a young woman in the family boarding house in Paddington, Les’ mother was raised in a Catholic environment. But her natural mother had been Jewish and had died during the childbirth. The family’s part-Jewish heritage remains much of a mystery that has intrigued Les for years.

“For a long time I’ve wondered why, as a civilisation, people have gone from having lots of deities and gods — like the sun and animals — to notions that there is just one God and that it is to the exclusion of all others. The fact that more people have died in the name of religion than from any other cause in history, I find staggering.”

After many years of collaboration with a transnational team, Les began work on a documentary tracing the origin of monotheism.

Interviews were conducted with the Knesset (Israeli parliament), orthodox Jewish rabbis, and a number of Catholic and Muslim clerics.

“We’d been filming in Italy and throughout Israel. One day we were walking toward the car and my mind went blank – totally. My speech was up and down and then gone.“

The stroke left Les in a Jerusalem hospital for 12 days. After this, he returned to Australia, sold Sonart, and undertook extensive rehabilitation.

“I had to learn how to use a knife and fork again. I couldn’t even remember my address. It was the love and support of my family that got me through.”

Speaking with Les, it’s hard to imagine just how incapacitated he was. The only trace of the stroke is a lingering stammer over the enunciation of a difficult phrase. His mind will find the perfect word from his vast, well-stocked vocabulary, but it may take him a heartbeat to begin articulation and at times his tongue may transpose a syllable.

*

The journey to Les’ property is a series of changes. There’s the Range Road split corridor of vaulting pines, then the bushland and dirt roads of Fitzroy Falls before Les’ verdant mini-oasis is revealed. Three jersey cows are at the gate. Beyond the entry is an olive grove plump with fruit, and a large cloud-reflecting dam jutting with water reeds.

The Hodge family discovered the property in 1993 on a weekend stay in the Southern Highlands.

“When we first came here, they were playing The Nun’s Chorus by Strauss. It was my mother’s favourite music,” says Les. “The cottage was totally ruined inside. Wombats lived in it. It hadn’t been inhabited for years. We loved it! We renovated it in keeping with the character of the farm.”

The intention had been to keep the property as a weekender. After the stroke, Les moved in and planned to retire. The plan failed. After two years, Les felt restored and energised to create his original dream.

In 2007, Les and son Simon began classical and world music distribution company, EOS, named after the Greek goddess of dawn. A suite of exclusive international labels and retailers including ABC shops are among their clients.

One of his joys is distributing the HUSH collections. Now up to the 13th in the series, HUSH recordings are used to reduce stress and anxiety for children undergoing painful procedures in hospital.

“At the age of 66, I am doing what I always wanted to do. I’m in the Highlands with a business I love. I get so much satisfaction from what we’re doing, especially the HUSH series because music is another word for love,” says Les.

“Sometimes you can’t find the words you need to say, but you can find them in music.”

####

 Published in Highlife, March 2014

The Benley Acquisition

I’m at the bar, chugging orange juice with my mates, and we’re laughing at each other’s pov jokes. Nuns Frightened by Change. That’s the name of Friday night’s band at the Landula Criterion. Our band, as it happens. It’s our first gig. ‘The Nuns’ are two mates in my year and me. I’m called the percussionist. That means I play drums and, occasionally, I whack a thong on a bongo.

Next week we start work experience. That means no school for two weeks. I was one of the lucky ones who found a placement. Gareth had to go to the meat packers and so did Kev. So it’s kind of a celebration gig. For me, anyway. Without the alcohol.

We’re up next, straight after Gordon Finney. He’s the Mayor. He’s having an Extraordinary General Meeting.

The mike squeals. “Hiya!” Donny says. He is our resident monobrow.

“Top to see ya all. Tonight’s gunna be a great night. We’ve got The Nuns Frightened By Change, a local act, all Landula boys, born and bred, barely outta their nappies…” He looks over at Gareth who likes to wear his jeans low. I don’t get why he likes to flash the top of his Y fronts. He’s a mate, but he ain’t no Justin Bieber or anything.

“No, maybe not quite out of the nappies…” Blah blah blah. Donny’s a dickhead.

Here comes Mr Finney. He looks like he wears women’s foundation of the orange kind—the stuff seen on Days of Our Lives.

“Ladies and gentlemen of Landula.” He’s got a new microphone ring. A great big chunky one that flashes out to the crowd. It flashes into my eye. Geez, Finney. Ya bling could blind a man.

“I told the wife this evening to shut the bloody door. ‘Why?’ she says. ‘Coz I caught five flies in here already this evening. Three of them were male and two were female’, I say. ‘How the bloody hell d’ya know that?’ she says. I say, ‘Coz three of them were on the beer and two of them were on the phone.’”

I’ve heard him tell that one three times now. And I don’t even make it a habit of listening to his speeches. If anything I try to avoid them. But they’re unavoidable. He pops up everywhere. Someone opens a cake shop—there’s Finney to cut the ribbon. A new house gets started, there he is with his gleaming shovel. The town donates ten bucks to the midgets of Miffaworfoo, there he’ll be with the big fake cheque.

A few guffaws from the audience, and an especially loud one from Shirley Mason. Fiona Cassidy is up the back. She looks like she’s smelled something foul. She’s wearing a hot pink business suit with black edges around the lapels. ‘The Nuns’ have our own secret awards. We call them ‘The Landies’. Even though she’s really pretty, Fiona wins the Landie for ‘Filthiest Fashion Sense’. Finney ties with Farmer Kelly for ‘Ugliest Man’. Shirley Mason? If you saw her you wouldn’t be asking. ‘Most inaccurate lipstick applier? / Most gargantuan blonde in the over 50s category?’ She’s be a contender for both.

“Ladies and gentlemen, now Let’s Get Serious!” Finney thrusts out two open hands either side of the mike. Open hands. Sign of sincerity.

“Landula is facing a crisis. This year, Landula Primary School has held a fete, half a dozen chook raffles, a cake stall, and a dance contest.”

There’s a round of applause. So many fond memories, I guess.

“But why, people? Why?” Finney’s an ace public speaker. He lets the tension build up when no one answers. It’s an awesome technique. Makes tingles go over you. It’s like advertising. It’s all Sell Sell Sell.

“What? For the tuck shop? For gucci new sports equipment? Well, where are they? Bring it on!”

People are ordering beers but other than that, it’s quiet. “I’ll tell you why then. I’ll tell you why they’re expending so much energy and time on these kinds of events. I’ll tell you why, people. They’re having to fundraise for their most basic expenses: Chalk. Paper. Wages.”

He’ll just let that land for a minute.

“Landula Public Library. Same situation. It’s bought no new books for nearly eight months. No new books! What’s a library without books! The only new books have come from personal donations and bequests, and if it keeps going like this and any more Fletcher sisters fall off the perch it’ll be all Mills’n Boon and no natural history.”

A greater silence. Until Shirley Mason knocks over a beer at her table.

“Why? Because the State Government doesn’t care about little places like Landula. It’d rather see us disappear.”

“Benley Shire’s got it worse than us,” Roger McElroy calls out from the bar. Ever seen Star Wars? Remember Jabba the Hut? I’ll say no more.

“They do. But you know what they’ve done about it? They’re expanding their copper mine.”

“Well good luck to ‘em!” Roger says into his beer. “Yeah.” Finney takes off his spectacles and looks at them as if he’s deciding whether he wants them or not.

“Yeah, good luck to ‘em.” They’re brown transition lenses. With the spotlight on him, they’re practically sunglasses. He starts wiping them on his tie.

“Do you know what will happen a year or two from now? When Benley is pulsing with change and new growth and Landula continues to slowly starve on its paltry funding?”

He puts his glasses back on, hands on hips. “It’s goodnight Alice! Landula will be subsumed by Benley.”

It takes a few moments for this to sink in, because the beers are doing that. Then people charge to their feet and beers are knocked over left, right and centre. There’s disbelief. Shock. Indignation. That’s because Landula people hate Benley people. It’s nothing personal. No one throws eggs or anything. It’s just a Shire thing. And as far as we know, Benley people feel the same way. So the idea of having Landula become a part of Benley is pretty bad to us.

“So here’s what we’re gonna do.” Finney interrupts the racket, both hands jutting out as if he’s measuring the one that got away. “We’re gonna do our own acquisition. We’re gonna make a PR pitch so effective that even Benley people will vote for it. Benley Shire will become Landula Shire. And I’ve hired our very own, very impressive Entice Events to do it for us.”

Fiona Cassidy stands up and starts applauding. Oh God. Suddenly my glass feels very heavy.

That’s the firm I’m doing work experience with.

Monday 8.50am

Fiona is at work first. Then me.

Mum made me arrive at 8.45, not 9.00, in order to make a positive impression.

It’s a two-room office with mushroom pink walls. It’s a bit on the crappy side.

“It’s a dump, isn’t it.” Fiona is jiggling a tea bag for me in the little kitchenette. I’m close enough to pash her. My face is red and, because my hair is on the reddish side, it isn’t a good look.

“No. Not really.”

“Used to be a massage parlour.”

“Did it?” She steps on the bin’s foot pedal and dumps the sodden tea bag in, then hands me a mug which reads Entice Events and with a drawing of a swoosh and a shooting star on it.

“Thanks.” I take the mug.

“Did you work here then?” She lifts a nostril at me, an open gesture of hostility. Why did I say that?

My cheeks are burning so I go to the dunny to check them in the little mirror. I’m a beacon.

9.20am

German Karl arrives. Then Boyd, the league player. He’s the manager. He’s wearing a nice suit, but with basketball shoes. No jacket. Mental note – trainers are okay.

10.00am

We have a meeting at the wooden conference table. We all bring our teas. Fiona brings the bikkies.

“How are we gonna convince Benley people that they want to be Landula people?” Boyd.

“We’ve got to make them want to.” Karl.

“Oh, DER!” Fiona opens her notebook.

“Let’s make a mind map of options. We’ll have a brainstorm.” In the centre of the page she writes ‘Landula Job’. Boyd leans over and draws a circle around it.

“Okay, brainstorm,” he says. “The floor is open. Pump ‘em out.”

I feel like I’m the new boy on the stock exchange floor and I’m supposed to jump up and down yelling out prices. But I’m embarrassed. And I don’t know what any of the prices are.

“Make Benley jealous of Landula,” I submit.

“Tarnish the town’s reputation so that they’d rather not be associated with Benley anymore.” Boyd.

“I’m not puttin’ that down.”

“It’s a brainstorm. You’re supposed to put everything down!”

Fiona, in capital letters, writes ‘EMBARRASS – THE SHIT – OUT OF BENLEY’.

Boyd leans over and draws a star around it.

Fiona’s fringe is shaped like a flower.

“What else?” she looks at me. Her skin is tanned from years of holidaying in Bali and Surfer’s Paradise. “One suggestion isn’t a brainstorm.”

Her suit today is yellow and covered in large magnolias.

“Haven’t heard from you yet, Karl.” Boyd picks up an iced vo-vo.

“Make them fear not merging with us,” I put in. “We’ll become a big town and they’ll be the little backwater.”

Boyd clicks his fingers at me. “Good one, Jace. Write that down, Fi.”

“I’m writin’ it!” “Except that, really, they’ll become the big town and we’ll become the backwash.”

“Stuff ‘em. They don’t know that.” Boyd, licking the pink crap of his bikkie.

“Everyone knows that.” Fiona throws a bit of paper at him. “Stop that. It’s disgusting.”

Boyd reclines all the way back in his chair. “Let’s just have a public boxing match between the two mayors. Gordon Finney versus Gerald Whittaker. Winner gets both shires.”

“May I ask, why do we need to join the shires anyway?” asks Karl. “Coz if we don’t one of us is going under. Weren’t you at the meeting, Karl?”

Karl shakes his head. “I don’t like rock music.”

“We could dig up some dirt on Whittaker and get him to convince his people. Maybe he’s a homo or something.” Boyd. I think he’s serious.

“Wait a second,” Fiona drops her pen. “Before we go any further, we need some research. Otherwise we’re just gonna go round in circles. We need to know who our target is, how they think and what it’ll take to make ’em vote for it.”

“Well Benley Shire is our target, ya fool.”

“Well when we find the rest out, that’ll determine our approach.”

Boyd crosses his feet on the table. “That’s a good point, Fi” He sucks on his pencil. Not just the end of it. A good inch or so.

“We should get a person from Benley on board. Someone who knows them, trusts them.” Karl.

“Like who?”

“Monica Metherin. The Natural Therapist.” It’s Gordon Finney, standing in the doorway, a half-eaten hamburger in his hands.

“Monica’d be perfect. She knows the place, she’s lived there all her life, and she’s short of cash.”

“Great idea, Mr Finney.” Boyd jumps to his feet, shakes Finney’s hand and starts circling the table.

“How about a television ad?” Finney throws in.

“Do we have the budget for that?” Karl.

Finney looks like he’s about to toss us his hamburger to us like he’s feeding pigeons. “Sure.”

“We’ve never had the budget for a television ad before,” Karl again.

“If Mr Finney wants a television ad we’ll give ‘im a good quality one,” Fiona.

“I don’t want to tell you guys how to suck eggs, it’s your show. But if ya ask me I reckon Monica is just the ticket.”

1.20pm

Fiona phones Monica, gets her in and we start discussing the script.

“People need a spiritual underpinning for their decisions. They have to agree with the acquisition.”

It’s not what Fiona wants to hear.

Monica quickly proves to be another pain in the arse. And she’s a large woman. Very large. Elephantine, really. She’s the Shirley Mason of Benley but with redder, straighter hair and without the beer burps.

“Jase!”

“Yeah?”

“Whadda you think?”

“I think…” I think her knockers must reach her knees when they’re not all bunched up like that. Loose pandas.

“I think we need to just find one thing that’s good about it. Then talk about that. So… I think the acquisition is the right thing because we can share resources and it’ll be, you know, less stressful.”

“Good point, Jason, I’d like to flag that,” Monica. “Benley people, like Landula people, want simplicity and grace back in their lives. The merging of the two shires will be a mechanism, a catalyst, for that return to spirit.”

“God, Ms Metherin, we’re not killing anyone,” Boyd.

“Exterminate Benley. There’s another option,” Karl.

“Would you guys shut up!” Fiona unscrews the lid of her water bottle.

“How do we link acquiring the shire with, you know, being spiritual?”

“Well, it’s like a brotherhood, isn’t it, darling?” Monica’s words are like warm caramel off a spoon. They’re long and syrupy and they land on you.

“For so long there has been this sibling rivalry. Now it’s become unhealthy. It’s time to put our pitchforks down and come together – arm in arm.”

“That’ll look good,” chortles Boyd. “Imagine Farmer Kelly and Big Ross.” “Errr.” Even Monica can’t help but quiver. She’s grossed out to the max. It makes me laugh. She recovers herself.

“But symbolically, darling. Symbolically.”

“Maybe we need a bush dance.” Time for me to make another suggestion. “You know, we give away a few lucky door prizes, get everyone dancin’ with each other, everyone gets pissed.”

“Not bad, mate. Not bad.” Boyd. But he’s not into it.

“I could get The Nuns to play.” Struggling now. The Nuns doing Strip The Willow. That’ll be the day.

“If you need a fiddler, Mary Allan is wonderful. Wonderful.” Monica.

Mary Allan is a 55-year-old depressive.

“Oh. No thanks.”

“A bush dance, yeah. Not a bad idea.” Fiona likes it!

“We’ll have to write a speech for Gordie.”

4.10pm

Meeting’s over. Finally.

Monica makes the ‘closing ceremony’ remarks. “I think we’ve come together beautifully today and now we will simply massage the differences.”

The calendar falls off the wall.

Wednesday 5.30pm

We’re filming the ad. Monica’s doing the voice-over, on location, at Farmer Kelly’s.

“For a hundred years, Benley and Landula Shires have co-existed, side by side, through drought, flood and war.”

Long shot. Late afternoon. Two farmers are hoeing in their neighbouring paddocks.

A chalk line on the tarmac between them symbolises their separation.

“And not always without some sibling rivalry.”

Farmer Benley throws something at Farmer Landula. Landula picks it up. It’s a dirty apple core. Focus pull to Farmer Benley pretending not to notice.

“But now, the state coffers have tightened the purse strings and there’s no relief in sight. And it’s likely that one, or both of our shires, will disappear. Our small, close-knit community will be split, with many of our members travelling to the city for work that leaves us unsatisfied and homesick.”

The music, an austere banjo, crescendos, and a drum-kit kicks in, played by none other than yours truly.

“So, now more than ever before, it’s time to extend the hand of friendship and unity.”

Long shot. Farmer Landula throws something at Benley who catches it. It’s a shiny green apple. Benley lifts it in acknowledgment of his neighbour, smiles and takes a bite.

They drop their hoes and each walk to the road between them. The divisive chalk mark is inadvertently scuffed by their boots, and begins to disappear.

Monica steps into the medium long shot. She’s wearing beads and an orange and purple caftan thing, like Mama Cass.

“Let’s save our precious shires, our lifestyle, our community. Join with us by voting for Gordon Finney’s ‘Union of Neighbours’”.

Camera pulls back. Sun melts into the horizon.

The waning sun shoots a star-shaped flash from the corner paddock. Beauty. End of ad.

The bit about the new shire being called Landula Shire and the fact that Landula was acquiring Benley to keep itself afloat, not to save both of them, well, we all agreed that was better in the ‘round file’.

Friday 4.20pm

“I’m lovin’ it. I’m lovin’ it!” Finney’s pours himself a whiskey in the dark.

The curtains are closed. We’ve wheeled the telly into the office for the sneak preview screening.

Tuesday 9.16am

I’m at Landula Railway Station.

We have a big mediation meeting in Sydney. Evidently, I’m two hours early for my Sydney train. Stupid Landula phone service. They’ve given me the Saturday timetable.

Tuesday 3pm

At another big conference table, but this office is swish. I mean, fully swish.

Gerald Whittaker, Mayor of Benley, is here. He isn’t happy about out proposal. Or the ad, which aired over the weekend.

“Now hold on Gerry. You’re getting ahead of yourself!” Finney—always the height of diplomacy.

“You haven’t even secured my consent yet alone that of the State Government or the Australian Electoral Commission. What on earth are you trying to achieve?”

“Now settle down Gerry.”

“I beg your pardon!”

“Just take a breath. Look, I understand there’s nothing in concrete. We are just keeping on top of things, okay. We simply want to send out a feeler, if you will, gauge the vibe of the kind folks of Benley.”

“Are you suggesting that television ad is a piece of legitimate market research?”

Finney looks like he has tasted something sour while he thinks it over.

“It’s a bloody propaganda piece!” Whittaker snaps. He pushes his swivel chair back from the table.

“I’ll be obtaining advice on this matter, Mr Finney. But I’d imagine you’re too intelligent to do the same.”

Fiona makes an ‘oooh’ face as Mr Whittaker storms out.

Boyd slaps a hand down on the glass table.

“Well.”

“Well indeed,” says Finney.

He turns to us with disgust. “See the shoes that guy was wearing? Got to be worth two hundred quid. Now who’s ripping off the people of Benley? Is it really us or him?”

“Mr Finney, when Mr Whittaker said you were too intelligent to get advice, I think he was doing some reverse psychology.”

“You don’t say.”

“So that’s why we’re here.” She looks around at all of us. “We are here for you.”

No one is saying anything. I look back at Fiona. “Do we have a legal advisor?”

“He’s our legal advice man,” says Boyd and slaps Karl on the back.

That doesn’t quite make sense to me so I look back at Karl. “I thought you left Landula High in Year 10.”

Karl is a beacon but Fiona snaps, “Karl is very knowledgeable about the law. Aren’t ya, Karl.”

Karl’s all hunched forward. He only lifts his eyes.

“Yes.”

“Well,” with my point won, I raise a single eyebrow. I’ve been practising in the bathroom mirror and have pretty much nailed it. “Aren’t we lucky.”

Tuesday 4.15pm

Despite Karl’s fantastic legal background and obvious skill and knowledge, Finney makes the surprising decision to see a solicitor.

“You can organise an election to ‘merge’ the shires if your constituents so choose, but you cannot ‘take over’ a shire. Benley is not a ‘fish-and-chip shop’, if you will,” says the suit. His jowels are bobbing over his too-tight white tie. He does the finger thing for inverted commas, which I personally hate.

“I’m not suggesting Benley’s a bloody fish-and-chip shop.”

“Analogously, you are.”

“No I’m not.”

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s unworkable.”

“How bloody ridiculous. It’s a vote, not a massive drama. Unity of Neighbours. Shirley’s designing the voting form right now. It’ll be letterbox dropped tomorrow.”

“I don’t think I’d recommend proceeding.”

“Oh, well. That’s your opinion, isn’t it.”

“Yes, sir. Yes it is.” Mr Finney stands up and walks over to the window.

We can all feel he’s out of his league. Legal advice. Electoral commission. Gees. It’s more complicated than any of us thought. He stares ahead, back to all of us.

“What’s the objective of what you’re trying to achieve?” ask the suit. He pulls his jacket sleeves and discreetly checks the time, but I catch him.

“Things are going under, mate. Things are going under.”

“The hospital had additional funding this year, did it not? The school. It had a new teacher. The government noted it in its rural and regional economic impact report. It was a case study, was it not? Things are going relatively well, aren’t they?”

“No. No they’re not.” Finney sounds like a broken man. Or a broken record. Not going well. Not going well.

“Well what’s not going well? Essential services are in the clear, are they not?”

“Oh, bloody essential—“ Finney waves a hand behind him as if swatting some imaginary fly pestering his back.

“Well what’s not going well?” Finney’s staring intently at the grassy area below. A dog squats down and a turd arcs out of its behind.

“It’s the bowlo.”

“It’s the what?”

“It’s the bowlo. The bowlo’s not doing well.”

“The bowlo’s not going well.”

“It’s not just any Bowlo.” He’s annoyed. “It’s the centerpiece of our community. It’s the linchpin. It’s the whole town. It’s the meeting place, the espirit de corps. It’s everything to Landula. Everything.”

“Right.”

Mr Finney turns back to us. “That Bowlo goes under, we go under.”

“I see.” The solicitor shuffles papers and closes a manila folder.

He clasps his hands together. Nobody moves so he stands up and puts the file in the filing cabinet. Then he closes it resolutely.

He faces us and lifts his eyebrows like it’s our move now. Our time to move. To move out of his office. We don’t.

“May I suggest a fundraiser, then. A cake stall. No, they don’t do that anymore, I know. You’re right. Something else. A table tennis tournament? No. You probably know what will work best in your town. Why don’t you think about it.”

Wednesday 8.30am

“Why didn’t you bloody suggest that in the first place? What do ya think I’m paying you for?” Finney is jiggling his tea bag like a madman and throws the sodden wad into the bin. The white flap doesn’t open to receive it though, so it just slides down and onto the floor. I get up and put it in, wiping my hands on the tea towel afterwards.

“With all due respect Mr Finney,” says Fiona. She’s wearing a black suit today. Stylish. Except for the white polka dots all over it. “We’ve spent two thousand dollars filming a TV commercial, another $500 screening it, had legal advice, designed a flyer, got it printed. And you’re suggesting we should have organised a cake stall.”

“Well it makes sense, doesn’t it. Who doesn’t like a bit of cake?”

“A diabetic?” says Karl. God, he’s a nonger. Hasn’t he heard of saccharine. Or carcinogenic aspartame, everyone’s favourite for diet battery acid soft drinks.

I suddenly realise the intricate design over his tie is little batmen.

Finney scrapes a chair out fromk the table and plonks into it.

“Food allergies aside, it’d bring us all together, wouldn’t it.”

Boyd throws his pen onto the table and swivels his beer bulk to one side. “Great idea, Mr Finney! Simplicity. It’s a great place to start. How much money are we looking at raising? What’s the damage?”

“Fifty thousand, at least.”

“Fifty thousand from a cake stall?” Fiona does that I’ve-smelt-a-fart look.

“It’s a start!”

“Why kind of cakes would people buy for fifty thousand dollars?”

“Perhaps ones with illicit substances,” says Karl, deadpan.

My eyes roll involuntarily at Karl. No wonder he was a high school drop out. He’s just an idiot.

Finney’s lip twitches. He pouts. He blinks. The man’s face is a sea bed of moving parts.

“Well… one wouldn’t… make it… obvious.” When his face moves like that, it must mean that he’s thinking.

“What did ya say the name of that band’o yours was young Jason?”

“Um. It’s the Nuns Frightened By Change, sir.”

“Nuns Frightened By Change, huh? He.” He almost chuckles. More like a smile with a hiccup at the same time. Finally. Someone almost chuckles at the name of our band. Especially neat coming from a person high up in the government. Gareth’ll be stoked.

Finney gets up and walks to the door. His slow and his eyes look like they’re in deep focus.

“Organise me a cake stall, people. You know what to do. The targets fifty gees.” Finney turns back to look at me. “Get that band’o yours on board son.” He winks at me. I feel a bit slimed, to tell the truth. A bit like an odd uncle has said something… odd to me.

Finney leaves and closes the door. Boyd swivels back around, intent on the surface of the table with all its splashes of Lipton and red pen marks.

“Well,” he slaps his hand lightly on it. “You heard the man. Who are we gonna get for a big stash of pot. Anyone know?”

It was silent. No one was prepared to say anyone’s name. Not for a second anyway.

Then, “Monica.” Karl.

I have to second him, but feel bad. “Monica.”

Fiona is just nodding. She pushes her teeth together and kind of smiles in a grimacing sort of way.

“I think that’s where Stevie gets his from.” Stevie’s her boyfriend.

“Monica it is then.” A smile and one more Boyd-slap for luck. Then he chuckles and rubs his hands together.

As always after victory, the basketball bullfrog trainers shovel their way on top of the table. They stink.

3pm

“Only because…” she sighs. A long drawn-out sigh and no one cares to hear the answer. We just want to get inside and have a look.

“Mr Finney has been very good to me. Pivotal, really. Pivotal. Life changing. And I would require a small commission to cover basic costs.”

“Monica,” Fiona steps closer and whispers, “It’s okay. You’re amongst friends. We just need to raise fifty grand. Can we have a look see?”

Monica nods, turns and from the massive chain of keys around her neck and caftan, inserts one into the padlock and opens up the double garage doors at her property.

“Wait a moment, while I get the light.” Then she switches the lights on—a whole shopping mall of them.

The garage is like a cross between a nursery and DJs. It’s one memory I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

This is not good, is all I remember Boyd saying as he walks between the aisles of the greenery and the fountains and the lights. His face is almost horrified. But kind of titillated as well.

This is not good. But after a minute he must have changed his tune. He swings toward Monica, grabs both of her shoulders and kisses her fair and square on the lips. A pash, really. Joy and repulsion in one.

“It’s PERFECT!”

Friday a week later – 6pm

People have started arriving and the hot cakes are selling like, well, hot cakes.

“They sell themselves,” says Finney, stuffing another $15 muffin between his fat cheeks, hands flapping around.

“I’m lovin’ it.” Finney walks off. “Lovin’ it!”

Gareth and Kev and I start up our set. We play covers. We start with Stairway. It’s a classic. People love it, people hate it. But it makes them laugh, cry, dance. Most importantly, open their wallets.

In the corner is the black-and-white photo from 1973. Finney’s in it, holding the trophy. Best Team. Best under twenties footy team in the shire. Benley came second that year. But half of Benley’s here so they don’t notice enough to care. When they found out Monica was catering and it was a cake stall with a twist, thanks to Shirley’s nice little flyer, they came in droves.

And it appears they are stocking up the larder for later. At nine, the charity muggers come out in droves as well. All the buckets get passed around, full as a goog. The chuggers don’t have to harass for it even. The coin is still getting spilled by the volunteers from the TAFE hospitality department into the Save Landula glass box. It’s piled pretty high. So is everyone else.

At eleven, Finney takes the stage. He’s got a new microphone ring. Right now I like it a lot. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of bling I’ve seen.

“Ladies and gentlemen of Landula and Benley. Tonight we’ve come togther. We’re saving our shires by uniting. We are uniting in fun, friendship, and food. Thanks so much to Monica.”

I roll the drums; Kev smashes the cymbal.

“Thanks to gorgeous Monica Metherin and the Whole Damn Collective Shire that we are. We may live in different towns, but we live as one. A name just isn’t a difference. This Bowlo, thanks to your generosity of spirit and willingness to have a good time for a good cause, isn’t gonna go away. It’ll live on. Just like the photos on the wall. Age shall not weary them. And when you think we’ve lost, think again. We haven’t lost. We’ve won. We’ve won the lot, the loot, the whole shebang! We’ve won it, ‘cause we’ve stuck together!”

Then we play another couple of tracks. It’s like the Hordern Pavilion, right here. We play, we joke on mike, we stuff around. It’s great for our confidence.

Gareth’s getting over his Hep C. He’s shaking in a good way now. We’re all just shaking together. Doing what we know. Doing what we can. And, thank God, work experience is over. What a high note to leave on. What a ride. Can’t wait for school on Monday. The autograph pen is ready. And the success ring, gold and chunky and totally deserved. I am a legend. A red faced, ginger noggin legend.

Published by Regime Books, Perth, July 2014

Shortlisted for Southerly Literary Journal, August 2014

 

 

Food, Big Pharma & Multiple Sclerosis

Clad in a tablecloth and fitted with a face cage and helicopter headphones, I am strapped to some vinyl upholstery and remotely rolled into the tube.

Continue reading

Bad Feelings on Good Friday

I hear a lot of people bemoan the secularisation of religious holidays. The Crucifix has been passed in for a chocolate rabbit. Children worship Santa, the deity of consumption, rather than baby Jesus.

I agree that the value of these substitutes is indeed dubious. My question is this: are we not surrounded by unwanted messages reinforcing Christianity?

Case in point: on Good Friday all the bottle shops are closed and licensed venues are forbidden by law to sell any take-away alcohol.

My two favourite radio stations broadcast Station of the Cross, a ritual accompanied by an unlovely wailing of the bereaved, no doubt intended to make the listener experience Christ’s prolonged agony.

The church on the hill features two huge beams of splintery wood bound with rope. Designed to shock and visible from the road, it’s a reminder of the violent origin of this holiday and as disturbing as any Anselm Kiefer piece of modern art.

I confess I have an unholy bias. I grew up a Christian. My childhood dreams were not of daffodils and rainbows. They were scenes of mass slaughter, public burnings and decapitations – a recurring nightmare that lasted fifteen years.

If you said I watched too many movies, you’d be right. The vivid imagery came thanks in no small part to the graphic depictions in the propaganda films screened in the clapboard church halls we went to. These gems were niche, arthouse splatterfests— stuff that would warrant stickers and extra packaging from any mainstream classification board.

Hell wasn’t my only worry. The stealthy fingers of fear would crawl up my neck every time I walked into my house if it were empty. It meant one terrible thing: the Second Coming, which was when Jesus would come back to Earth and take all the good souls up to Heaven. If you were left behind, you were left to Satan and his henchmen of the New World Order.

The New World Order could ignite and spread at any time. It could happen before the Second Coming or afterwards. The scriptures were ambiguous.

The ultimate trademark of the New World Order was the cashless society, a sign that our civilisation was about to end and the Mark of the Beast would soon be rolled-out. People would be forced to have their personal and financial identity barcoded into a tattoo on their hands or foreheads. Or a silicon chip.

Richard Dawkins says that indoctrinating children into religion is akin to child abuse. I won’t make comment on that. My point is simply this. If you tell a child something as their parent, they will almost always believe you. If their teachers at school tell them the same thing, and the church leader and Sunday school teachers reinforce it, I think that comes pretty close to anyone’s definition of brainwashing.

Next Easter, I’ll be making a healthy choice again – chocolate over church. The irony is, without dogma, I have a more deeply connected and moral life than before: one that can accommodate spiritual principles without intellectual cognitive dissonance.

The best explanation I ever heard came from actor, Nick Nolte. “Religion exists so that people fear hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there.”

Melbourne Street Art

Hosier LaneAfter nearly five years since my last visit, Hosier Lane is almost unrecognisable. A few favourites (like Mum and Gun) are still there, but the lane is now coated in fresh ideas and fresh paint.

Last time, I had to shoot covertly, wore a coat, scarf, and backpacking, and was looking over my shoulder the whole time. The thrill of the shoot! This time, there was a group of school kids on excursion and an organised explanatory walk for tourists. Times have changed. But the ideas are as fresh and vivid as ever.

Graphic Designer and Street Artist, Deb, has a beautiful Deb-style Ganesh. Her work is also in Union Lane and Fitzroy. There is a load of subversive commentary on hot topics like Julian Assange, Tony Abbot, free speech and religion.

Many people complain about the unsightliness of street art, or the feeling of suppressed violence exuded by lashings of spray paint. Vandalism and graffiti are a disagreeable nuisance and there is no disputing that fact. Defacing private property is simply not cricket.

But to confuse the mindless tagging of roughly scrawled letters with the ornate, beautiful, insightful, hilariously acerbic, is to entirely miss the point.

It’s also to miss the opportunity to engage with the ideas of others you might never speak with in your life. To me it’s a reminder that, in a true democracy, this is a legitimate soapbox for the disenfranchised. And, gee, it’s interesting what they have to say. If these walls could talk… well here they do. It’s fascinating.

 

 

Storm

Lying on a white bed

in a wooden room

listening to the silence

watching her read

and there is an inkling of a rumble.

Continue reading

Versailles of Relief

parc versailles chateauInitially set up as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII, Chateau de Versailles became France’s grandest and most famous chateau by his successor, Louis XIV—the Sun King. Continue reading

From the Village to the Brothel

After nearly 30 hours of flights, the city of Kathmandu was awash with blood and there were headless carcases of horse-sized beasts on every corner. In my shock, I sent a sarcastic email to family saying that the entrails lining the streets to herald my arrival was an absolutely lovely gesture.

Continue reading

Zen & the Art of Washing Dishes

They say life is a series of imperfect facts with many things we can’t control.

But the sequence of washing dishes is not one of them.

Glassware first. Continue reading

Mining Industry Propaganda

The recent Australian mining industry campaign (not shown above) certainly looks impressive. The soulful, worried faces of mums and dads, average looking, average people. It seems so believable and important.  Even if the statistics are the result of heavy-handed play with definitions as basic as “tax”. Continue reading

Bundanoon Says NO to Bottled Water

evian label as naiveJuly 9th, 2009

“Australians spend half a billion dollars every year on bottled water that we could get for free from a tap, but we complain when petrol goes up a few cents a litre,” said Jon Dee, Founder of Planet Ark and Do Something at a public meeting held in Bundanoon Memorial Hall on July 8th.

“We’ve been conned and they’re laughing all the way to the bank.”

Residents of the Southern Highlands village, known for its national park, pristine water and cycling paths, voted almost unanimously to back moves which will see Bundanoon as the first bottled water-free town in Australia.

The initiative, known as Bundy on Tap, would see businesses no longer selling bottled water and fresh, clean drinking water available in shops, on the street, at school and at events. A reusable bottle will be manufactured which can be refilled, as opposed to the single-use plastic bottles manufactured by most water companies.

Bundy on Tap is the brainchild of local businessman, Huw Kingston, organiser of mountain bike race Highland Fling and proprietor of Ye Old Bicycle Shoppe café.

Huw, Jon Dee and local business representative, Peter Stewart, spoke to attendees about the environmental damage, health impact and marketing lunacy of the still, single use bottled water industry.

While local business is behind the idea, measures are still being explored for ways to ensure their sustainability.

“We will lose money immediately, but we hope that it will bring a few more people and they’ll buy a few more newspaper,” said Peter.

With support from the community, a working group was formed and Jon Dee became an enthusiastic participant six weeks ago.

“The catalyst for the plan has been the ongoing battle against NORLEX, a company that has been trying unsuccessfully for more than 12 years, to bore Bundanoon’s aquifer for the bottled water industry,” said Huw.

“Although this campaign is not an attack on NORLEX, it has meant that Bundanoon is very aware of water issues.”

It takes 1,000 years to decompose a plastic bottle with 70 per cent currently ending up in landfill or oceans. Conservative estimates state that more than 15 million litres of oil is used each year in the manufacture and distribution of bottled water in Australia alone. Others believe this figure is much higher.

At the meeting, health impacts were also raised. The conspicuous absence of fluoride in the 1,000+ brands of bottled water sold is raising the concern of some dentists, especially for children.

Jon Dee says that the belief that bottled water is somehow cleaner or better for health is a fallacious perception.

“They’ve been taste tests all around the world and no-one can tell the difference. The spin that goes into it, we’ve bought it hook, line and sinker. The fact is there are huge amounts of money to be made selling water, more than soft drinks or sugary drinks.”

After a morning that started at 5am with ABC interviews, the team of three had conducted some 70 interviews with global reach, including CNN, NHK Japan, Sydney Morning Herald, BBC, and the Times of London. Appearances were also scheduled for Channel 7’s Sunrise and Nine’s Today Show this morning.

The morning’s media blitz was followed at lunch time with an announcement by Premier Nathan Rees that he would be banning all bottled water from government departments.

“If we had have paid for this PR, the bill would be in the millions,” said Jon. “We haven’t even sent a media release yet. The media is behind us.”

Culligan Water and Street Furniture Australia, who have already installed public water stations in Manly, have promised to donate three water stations to Bundanoon, one of which is earmarked for the primary school, if the town goes bottled water-free. The combined value of the water stations is $18,000.

The crowded, standing room only meeting included residents, businesses, councillors including Pru Goward, journalists and camera crews, needed little encouragement to vgote yes for the initiative.

Jon Dee who helped Coles Bay in Tasmania be the first of many towns in Australia to go plastic bag-free, said “fifty councils are now in touch with us to do the same. They all want someone to do it first. Bundanoon will provide a role model for everyone in Australia.

Letter to my Accountant

Thank you for your very kind letter.

My initial tax meeting with your very pleasant sub-contracting accountant concluded with a statement I was not expecting to hear. Not the mellifluous, “you’ll be getting a refund of a grand.” Rather, the strong and discordant, “you owe the tax office two thousand dollars.”

Continue reading

Love Letter to Bundanoon

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. It was quaint. But dinky. No place for a city chick.  The roads were narrow. You could hide an orphanage in the potholes. And it was creepy, all those doilies. Continue reading

A Future Now in HER

HER is a film that is both entirely formulaic and completely original.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a soulful, depressed introverted 30-something who works for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com in a city some time in the very near distant future.

By day he writes personal letters between parents and children, lovers, and others who don’t have the time or poetic skill to communicate with those closest to them.

Theodore is nursing a broken heart and a divorce impeded by his unwillingness to sign the paperwork.

At night, he plays his 3D video games; a world that is holographed impressively into his apartment lounge room. After trialling a new computer operating system with ‘intuitive’ capability, Theodore soon finds himself falling in love with  Samantha, the intimate, intelligent, supportive voice of the new OS (spoken by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha helps him clean his in-tray and boost his confidence – the perfect woman.

What follows is a typical love story. There’s the cautiousness at first, the flirtation and coyness, the union, the honeymoon period, the misunderstanding, the jealousy and a somewhat predictable denouement.

Belief in the absurdity of the relationship can be suspended for the ride because the voice of Samantha is so sexy and the dialogue is far better than the average rom-com.

The Art Direction is also great – with effective matt painting of sets that create a city like a laid back New York with elements of Shinjuku.

Theodore learns that his best friend (Amy Adams), with whom he regularly falls out of contact, is also in love with her operating system (Alex). Soon, we notice that everyone on the street seems to be talking lovingly not only with but to their phones.

It reminds me of something I once heard, “People use their PCs. But people love their Macs.” I don’t think anyone can fail to consider this incited by Apple’s cult brand.

HER holds a mirror to what we have now – people disengaged with people. The love affair is with the technology that binds us together with a most tenuous adhesive. It allows insomniacs to have phone sex with strangers and be complicit in auto-asphyxiation ritual using a dead cat’s tail. Real human contact is undesirable and unnecessary.

People are routinely enamoured with their machines and as machines make quantum leaps in capability, this tale could be cautionary. Even Telstra now advertises a new phone every year so you can enjoy the hedonic ‘new phone feeling.’

The cars, the computer games, and the voice-activating ear buds all add fun and depth to a simple story. It’s a compelling film. It is a stretch of credibility, but only a small one.

I’m off to see if the domain beautifulhandwrittenletters.com is available. I’m positive the market already exists.

HER was written and directed by Spike Jonze. It also stars Amy Adams and Scarlet Johansson as the voice of Samantha.

Fred Cress Exhibition

Fred Cress PaintingGaleria Aniela, Kangaroo Valley

What strikes you first about Fred Cress’s latest exhibition is the richness of colour; pure blacks, pure whites, and every jaundice yellow and bloody red in-between. His large, caricature-like depictions are iconic images of people known to us from society; recognisable, but unidentifiable. Continue reading

The Big Spinout: Politics by PR

The corporate world has moved on. They recognise that PR is not a professional working title for an employee and that ‘spin’ does not work in a world of high information search power and acutely tuned radar for any lack of authenticity. Politics, however, seems to be lagging behind.

Continue reading

Philomena (2013)

Philomena (directed by Stephen Frears) is a film based on the book by Martin Sixsmith about the true life story of Philomena Lee, who as a pregnant teenager, was forced into Roscrea Sacred Heart convent for four years. Continue reading

War on Unconscious Sexism

Australia has a very small population compared with other countries. If we are to remain competitive, we must use our entire population to look for talent.
David Gonski, Chairman Coca-Cola Amatil, Investec (Australia), Ingeus

I recently saw the short French film by Eleonare Pourriat, Oppressed Majority. It’s a tragicomedy and the premise is simple: a day in the life of a man who is experiences the same that a woman would. In an inverse flip on reality, women rule.

Our protagonist absorbs the subtle sexism he receives from condescending females, and the sexual jibes. He rides a bike to see his friend, who has been forced to shave himself, wear a head covering and is not permitted to leave the home.

He encounters sexist comments on the ride home and is yelled at for talking back. Seeing a group of females peeing in a lane, he stops to berate them, becomes surrounded, and is molested. At the police station, the female officer clearly does not want to believe his story because there were no witnesses, and questions the appropriateness of his clothing — shorts and casual shoes.

When his wife picks him up from the police station, having left a business meeting early, she soon twists the conversation around to how well her presentation went at work, and what the positive implications might be for her career.

If this film was a realistic portrayal, a gendered mirror of the scenarios depicted, it would be hard to see the point. These power roles are not only overt, in fact it is easier to deal with overt sexism than sexism in all of its subtleties, but deeply coded into our collective subconscious.

It’s such a problem that major companies, including Qantas, Westpac and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, are conducting training of senior management in the war against it. Why? Because diverse workplaces are much more profitable.

Alan Joyce (Qantas CEO) says that diversity “allows you to tap into an unbelievable talent pool. If you don’t, you’re fishing in a very small pond.”

subconscious sexismIn the recent book by Tara Moss, The Fictional Woman, Moss describes a riddle you may have heard. A young man and his father are driving through the countryside when they have a terrible car accident. The father is killed, the young man is critically injured and flown to hospital. About to undergo theatre, the surgeon looks at him and says, ‘I can’t operate on this patient. This is my son.’

Moss asked a random number of people to solve the riddle, including a female medical student, and very few were able to provide the correct answer that the surgeon was his mother.

So deep is the codification of gender roles in our society that even current Minister for Education has said women would not be disadvantaged by the deregulation of the education system because they generally studied teaching and nursing where fees would be lower, and not law or dentistry, where fees would be higher. Even though the comments were factually incorrect, no doubt they will be dismissed by the Minister for Women, Tony Abbott, as a ‘gaffe’, rather than not the sackable offense that they should be.

A ground-breaking double-blind study by Yale researchers in 2012, unfortunately was able to prove that subconscious sexism exists in the workplace, and to a statistically significant level. Published in the Proceedings of the Academy of National Sciences, 127 lab scientists were given job applications for a lab manager position. The candidates had equal qualifications and experience, but one had a male name attached to it and the other a female name.

The ‘male’ applicant was deemed to be more competent, more hireable, and the scientists more willing to mentor them. The starting salaries offered were also different. No sexist reasoning was given by the recruiting scientists to justify the disparity, rather, they spoke of seemingly sound reasons like competence. These scientists were not all male, but female as well.

The problem is not just pay differences and employment opportunities, it extends into workplaces and all sorts of work-related social conversations.

A comment on Scienceblog describes what seems to be a common experience. When asked where she works, ‘Caro’ would say the name of the hospital, only then to be invariably asked, ‘Are you a nurse?’ Her female colleagues, also doctors, had experienced the same. Her male colleagues, however, would generally be asked if they were a doctor.

Perhaps there is something women in the workplace for which women can be grateful. I can certainly attest to this myself.

According to ‘Andrea’, you can speak up at meetings and have your idea ‘recreate’ itself anew in someone else’s mouth a few minutes later. It’s pretty amazing to discover you have the power of ventriloquism.

Awesome.

« Older posts
Font Resize