Saturday, June 16, 2018

Some days ago a young comedian in Melbourne was raped and murdered on her way home from a gig. The performing arts community have voiced their outrage and sadness, particularly on social media. Some commentators have suggested that too many male comedians have remained silent on this event, and that silence is culpability. Well, here's my way of saying something. (It was the final story in a show I did in 2000 called Love 40)


I can’t help feeling that a young man needs a hero or some bloke to look up to. And even if you believe that’s load of new age cobblers, you can’t deny the fact that so many young men have heroes anyway, so they might as well have one who’s at least a decent sort of bloke, whatever that is. The heroes I had in the mid-seventies were the Surf champions. Unlike my friends' heroes, who were cricket and footy players like Doug Walters and Hayden Bunton, the Surf champions were really distant. Almost ethereal. They had names like Wombat and Shooter and they lived on the other side of Australia. All we ever saw of them was photos in a surf magazines, and occasionally we’d see a close up of them as they collected their trophy before rushing off to South Africa or Hawaii. That was it.

But one year the surf magazines told us the Australian titles were coming to W. A. This was finally our big chance to see Wombat and Shooter in the flesh! Of course, none of us expected to meet the surf champions, least of all me.

It was the early seventies, while all those amazing things were happening with music and TV and politics. David Bowie and Velvet underground and the whole Whitlam era and Apartheid. But I was a surfy and surfies considered themselves outside of all that. We listened to Blues, that was the hip thing. And politics just didn’t touch us. We saw ourselves in the same unrealistic and romantic way we saw the surf champions - Careless Warriors. Norse Gods with reef sores.

My two mates were Steve and Robbie. We were called Gremmos or Grommets - the nick name for young surfies. Steve constantly bragged about his sexual conquests and Robbie, who drove his mum’s station wagon, bought a little blue heeler puppy because Steve assured him it’d be a ‘chick magnet’. And he was right; when the pup was around we were surrounded by girls going, “Oh isn’t he cute.” And occasionally Steve went off with the girls and later told us stories about what he did with them. And while Robbie and I knew Steve was bullshitting us, I wanted to believe him because I was a virgin and just wanted to hear something about sex.

The whole surfie culture was about proving your virility. At the time the latest in surf board design was a board called a ‘thruster’. There was even a game that surfies were supposed to play called ‘soggy biscuit’. This is a game where a group of guys all stand around a Jatz biscuit and masturbate onto it. The rule is that the last guy to come has to eat it. I never met anyone who’d admit to playing it, but it was considered to part of surfie culture. And it’s interesting that here we have a game supposedly played by tough macho guys that promotes early ejaculation! Unless of course you see the biscuit as a prize rather than a punishment.

We slept under a place called ‘Surfside’, one of those fifties asbestos buildings on stilts with a milk bar and adjoining holiday shacks. It was our weekend hideout, and normally life at surfside was quiet, but with the Australian titles came a carnival of surf mania. Trains of panel vans or ‘shaggin wagons’ purred their way down to Yallingup from the city carrying young men, dogs, beer, surf boards and for the lucky guys, the occasional girl, or ‘chick’. And every night I’d watch and listen to the chat about waves and women, and being an almost pre-pubescent midget I’d make the occasional smart comment that always got a laugh. I was like a mascot for their macho games. In fact I’d built up a bit of a reputation at the surf carnival as ‘the funny little guy’ who looks like Alfred E Neuman.

And I’d met several of the surf heroes down the pub, without actually realising it. But on the last night of the carnival, after a day of very really small surf - and that’s really frustrating for the last day of a surf contest - I just didn’t feel like going to the pub, don’t know why, I think I was just sick of being the funny little guy. So I went back to Surfside and sat under the verandah. Outside it was raining hard. A huge storm had hit the coast after the carnival finished. Everyone else was down the pub.

So I just sat there in the dark and looked at my sleeping bag which was wet because I’d left it hanging over a tree. Then I heard some noises of above me. Someone was inside Surfside. I decided to get up and see who it was - maybe I could bum a cigarette off them. For a while I sat on the front steps of the building until finally I could see who it was inside. It was a young woman called Jenny who worked in Surfside. She had a younger sister called Pat. They were known as the local ‘bikes’ because half the surfing competitors had slept with them. In fact at one stage I was walking through a near deserted car park when I saw a panel van with several young surfies standing behind it. They were all laughing and smiling as I went by. I wasn’t sure what was happening at the time but when I told Steve he explained that it was a ‘gang bang’ and that it was probably Pat or Jenny inside.

After a while I noticed that Jenny had seen me. She came over to the side doors and stared at me, so I crouched down, slightly embarrassed about hanging around. Then she opened the door and came out onto the verandah. I’d never spoken to her before, apart from buying stuff in the shop. She was shorter than Pat and wore hennaed hair and tight black jeans. She walked straight over to me and asked me where I was sleeping. I told her ‘Nowhere really’, and she said “Why don’t you come inside? There’s a spare bed in my room.”

Without hesitating I said “Yes”, so she led me around the back to the annexe, an old weather board section of Surfside - probably the original building. Her room was messy but warm. Both beds were army beds made of iron and cyclone wire with kapok mattresses that curved into the middle like hammocks. She was tired but we talked about the surf, her job in the shop and the weather. Then she turned the light off and got into bed.

I sat on the other bed in the darkness, wet but happy to have a bed and a blanket. Then it suddenly occurred to me where I was and who I was with! I was a virgin and by all accounts she was very experienced. This was what Steve would have called the ‘big moment’. But the idea of making an advance in the dark seemed absurd, and wasn’t about to ask. I didn’t know how.

I sat for a while, then took off my thongs and wet clothes. She stirred, then sat up and asked me if I was cold. I said “yes” and she said, “sorry” and suggested we sleep together. I didn’t say anything. Then she said it was Okay, she wouldn’t bite. (which of course sent my imagination into hyperspace). Eventually I stood up and mumbled an “Okay” and started to walk towards her bed. My mind was a jumble of bizarre sexual imagery: kisses on the neck, fingers running through hair, tongues slithering across shoulders. These were some of the strategic choices in what was inevitably heading for blind chaos but seemed vaguely plausible at the time.

When I got to her bed she rolled over to make room. I stood beside her bed, shivering - more from fear than cold - and I was just about to climb in with her when there was a sharp rapping at the door. Then a slightly familiar male voice called out, “Jenny, Jenny, it’s me ... Wombat”. Jenny called out “Hang On” and jumped out of bed, turned the light on, put on some clothes and opened the door. And without realising it, I was left standing in the middle of the room - a naked, hairless midget exposed to the gaze of Wombat Carmichael, Australia’s leading surf champion! He was flanked by ‘shooter’ Stevens and Harry Hucker, the 1967 Hawiian champion.

Jenny gave a perfunctory introduction, like she was referring to a family pet, and than asked them to sit down. Then Wombat, who’d just won the Australian titles and obviously had a skinful, came straight over to me and sat down, real casual. I finally grabbed my trousers and shirt and dressed while Wombat asked me questions about my surfboard and what it was like down south. The Australian Champion was asking me questions about surfing!!! I fumbled with buttons and zippers, stuttered a few replies and eventually sat down.

Then there was silence.

Across the room, on the other bed, in the full view of Wombat and myself, jenny was being clawed, slobbered on and undressed by the other two. I couldn’t believe it! Then I noticed that Wombat was staring at me with a warm, avuncular grin, as if to say, “Haven’t you seen this before kid.” I looked at Wombat. He smiled, and when I looked at the others they all turned to me and smiled. By now Jenny was completely naked and casually unbuttoning Harry’s shirt while Shooter was groping around between her legs. Again everyone stared at me. Then it dawned on me that they wanted me to leave. So I got up and went over to the door. Wombat told me to switch off the light. I did as I was told. Then I went out the door and shut it behind me.

Suddenly I found myself in a crowd.

On the rickety old verandah outside Jenny’s room were about fifteen young men. Some of them I recognised from the surf heats and others from the pub. They all laughed and someone made a joke about not wanting to go in there if that’s what happens when you come out!

Near the door of her bedroom a queue was forming, a line of men waiting like they do at the half time break in the footy. Some of them were swaggering, others just standing there smiling, while another, who was closest to the door, was playing with his genitals as though he was having trouble pissing. He then turned to someone near him and mumbled something about ‘working up a fat’. Then a young bloke I’d met at the shops, a tall lanky guy with dark hair, came over to me and said hello. He was grinning like a school boy and carrying a half empty bottle of beer.

What’s she like?”

I had no idea what he was referring to.

What do you mean?”

You know, Jenny. What’s she like?”

I told him I was just in there because she’d invited me to come in out of the cold. This produced a series of guffaws and “Oh yehs” from the others and some muffled comment about starting young. I felt an enormous pressure to be jovial with them so I smiled. They kept laughing and joking. Then something happened in my stomach; I felt a sick feeling like I’d swallowed something rotten. And then I felt like saying something about not really being part of it - I just happened to be there. But all I could do was sit down, accept a beer that was offered, and stare out at the rain fully realising that I was part of it. I was there. I was young but so were they, and what’s that got to do with it anyway.

After a while Wombat and shooter came out, amidst a cheer similar to the one Wombat got after the final heat that day. Both were grinning and doing up their jeans. Then the two men nearest the door went inside.

After about thirty seconds I could hear Jenny’s voice, tense and desperate. She was speaking in high tones, saying “NO NO NO NO”. Then she started screaming, “Fuck off ya cunts. Fuck off, fuck off.” over and over. Then a male voice yelled, “Don’t you swear at me ya filthy bitch.” people outside giggled and the line broke up. Suddenly people were going everywhere. Then a loud smash came from jenny’s bedroom and the male voices stopped. Jenny’s voice continued, “Ya fuckin cunt. Ya fuckin cuuunt” almost like a wail.

The door opened and Harry Hucker came out, angry and quivering, his whole body tense. And out of the crowd came Wombat to quieten things down. After a quick meeting Wombat was sent inside to negotiate.

Five minutes went by while a group of men went up to her window. A half empty can was tossed against the window. It didn’t break. Then Wombat came out and said, “Forget it boys.” Then there was this weird wave of anger in the air. About a dozen young men, who were all standing around the building, began to shake the building on it’s stilts. I really thought they were going to push the it over.

Then they just wandered off into the night, jumping and pretend boxing, and I just sat on the verandah. I didn’t feel the cold straight away. I was wrestling with my guts, not my stomach, but my guts, my pit! It was a kind of pain that makes you grimace but you don’t cry.

But soon I was cold. Too cold to worry about what I might have seen if I went inside. So I did. I went inside and lay on the spare bed. I tried to sleep amongst the drafts and Jenny’s sobbing. And no matter how badly I wanted to comfort her, to hold her, or just to say that it was Okay, I couldn’t. The words came to the front of my mouth and disintegrated. And I knew how absurd they would have sounded. Sometimes it’s just too hard to forget what you’ve thought and who you’ve laughed along with.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Cul de sac

Life's a road, as so many song-writers like to say. And yeah, we travel on and we eventually come to the end, and in between all that we take a pile of turns based on a mixture of feeling and experience. And sometimes circumstance leads us to a place where the road stops but we don't. Dead end or cul de sac? Depends on how you feel I suppose. I'm in a cul de sac. I'm stuck for a while. Certainly not a dead end. Just sitting here wondering what I can do or say, as Dylan wrote and sang. But I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything, not even myself. The cul de sac is semi-circular and comfortable. And I'm not sure what to do. Or say. I'm just sitting here thinking about someone I lost: my dear old Dad. Not a drastic end, in truth a very graceful one. Lived to 95 and slipped quietly away a few weeks ago. And all my loving sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles came to join with friends, 'to pay respect' is how it's put, but really to share some love around. And it was glorious, that love. But now they've gone back to their lives and I'm here in my cul de sac. “Do I look forward or do I look back?” might be the next rhyming line. What do I do? Cry, drink, walk, swim, eat, sing, cry again, swim and cry. Tell myself I'm not alone coz it happens to us all, and for some it's sudden and drastic and people are left in a sink hole of disbelief. But I am alone. And that's not so bad. I got my my guitar, my harmonica and my books, and they all fit pretty neatly into my cul de sac. I'm in his home, the one I looked after him in for the last three years after mum died. It's a lovely home and it's full of things that were his and hers. Right next to this desk, hanging on the wall, is his dagger – the one he was issued when he joined Z Special Unit, a secret group of naval commandos who went into enemy-occupied territory during the war. He was one of the luckier ones; being a good sailor, he mostly stayed on the boat (snake boats, they were called: done up to look like native fishing vessels). So he came back, got married, became a doctor, raised a family and had a terrific life. Sometimes he was down – deep as can be – be but mostly he was up. Not only was life his oyster, he had the full dozen with champagne, caviar and dancing girls thrown in! 

Lucky guy. But now he's gone, and I miss him. I miss him more than you can miss anything. If you stood right next to a barn door and fired a bazooka or an Uzi or a cannon at it, and you missed! Well that's how much I miss! Him! Death took him when it probably should have, and as we've been all telling each other, he got the end most dream of: slipped away quietly like the Z Man he was. Brief suffering. And yes death is inevitable, but inevitability, as tragedians show us, is no solace really, unless you're a Buddhist or someone who's really okay with impermanence. I'm not okay with it, it's fucked that things have to finish. My grandpa – Mum's Dad - felt the same. Just before he died he said he felt cheated, life was great and he didn't want to just give it up. Yeah, fuck oath old fella, I'm on your side! Not that I believe we should struggle against death in the old 'Do not go gentle' crap espoused by the Welsh drunk. It's just that it...oh I don't know, it's hard. WAS HERE, NOW GONE. Dirty rotten magic trick gets played on us by that rotten motherfucker called fate or circumstance. Funny old word that circumstance – literally means to stand around. “Those of you who are waiting for something to happen, please go into the room marked 'circumstance'. There are no chairs. Just stand around and something will happen. Those of you who can't wait, well there's no special room for you. You can do stuff: build, work, run, scream, fight, fuck, whatever, you'll still end up in the room marked circumstance.” But standing around is what I'm doing, lying round too, holding a pillow marked grief. (Old French – burden). Maybe that's the name of my cul de sac: Burden Street.
The houses in Burden Street are old, inside there are treasures and pain, there'll be love and romance and sweet things, but nothing will ever remain. No, nothing remains in any street, any reality. Only crap novels and stories with happy endings. Eventually the degradation leads to a full stop.

I'm back in his house again after a delightful 5 week holiday to Scotland – where his relatives originated – and where I wandered and drove and rode and sat on hilltops in the highlands, thinking about him. I cried and I breathed. I also swam in the coldest water ever, but what a marvel it was to plunge into the Atlantic, to gasp and yelp and suck air in like I did sixty one years ago. Like he did ninety five years ago, and no doubt like he did when he trained to be a naval commando. This house is full of his and mum's stuff: paintings, photos, coats, pens, medals, membership badges, his old doctor's bag (which I use for props!), and yes, the dagger on the wall. The dagger which he posed with – holding it between his teeth! - in an old photo on the River Snake, the naval vessel he served on, disguised as a junk, with nine other blokes. In the photo he has a full beard, like many of the young men we see today. He's handsome, small, happy and fit. Really fit, as are all the guys with him. They are beautiful muscle-bound men, all smiles, all ready for action. All gone now.

On the day he died, when Sylvie - his daily carer - invited me to wash and dress his body, I saw once again the tattoo on his arm. The one he got when he was a naval cadet, no doubt drunk at the time, and doing it to fit in. A black swan swimming amidst a few rushes. Stretched beyond recognition. “Wow! Your Dad's got a tatt” was often said by friends of mine and my sisters when we'd all go swimming. In those days only prisoners and bikies had tattoos, and Dad was never proud of it. But I thought it was cool.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Wait, there's a Leak in my Truth

When cartoonists and comedians get angry, and it becomes clear they're angry, they lose their power. It's a bit like the fool who turns on his master and challenges him physically without cleverness or humour; then he is no longer the fool but an up-coming master. Recent pieces in The Australian by cartoonist Bill Leak - where he complains about the "sanctimonious Tweety Birds having a tantrum" - are an example of the fool showing he's taken a hit, he's having to be serious.

Leak's anger is in regard to people reacting to a series of cartoons he has done about aboriginal poverty and social dysfunction, in particular a cartoon where a policeman hands an aboriginal child to an older aboriginal man, with the caption: Policeman, “You'll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.” Father, “Yeah righto, what's his name then?”

This cartoon has been criticised as encouraging racial stereotypes and adding nothing new to the debate. (It's also been criticised for not being funny, but that, while very relevant, is a whole other matter).

The Australian has defended Leak. "Bill Leak's confronting and insightful cartoons force people to examine the core issues in a way that sometimes reporting and analysis can fail to do." How they actually force us to examine core issues is simply not explained; all Leak's cartoons are really doing is amplifying the fact that some aboriginal people are living in squalor and don't know what their own children are up to. The very important word here is 'SOME'. It's actually a very small 'some'.

Along with Leak's angry statements, there is also a current trend, an avalanche even, of comedians and social commentators who are arguing their right to be rude, nasty and abusive.

Consequently, any criticism of people who use cruel language about others (nigger, poofter, Paki, ape etc) is being interpreted as an infringement on freedom of speech. 'The good old days' is so often referred to as a better time when we were able to talk about others by using derisive stereotypical terms. 'Political correctness', once a term that referred to absurd euphemism – down-sizing instead of firing, overweight instead of fat, diminutive or vertically challenged instead of small – has been overtaken by people who feel robbed of their chance to be cruel or 'incorrect'. In a similar vein, 'political correctness' was used by John Howard as a way of damning anyone who didn't like his politics on reconciliation and his refusal to say 'sorry' to aboriginal people.

Context is important though, as any comedian will tell you. There's no such thing as a word or term that can never be expressed. I've just written four in parenthesis above, and I doubt anyone would accuse me of bigotry or insensitivity. Also I believe there's a way of expressing our dislike or 'upsetness' if you will, without telling people off or implying they are somehow monstrous because of their use of certain words.

I used to have neighbours who occasionally referred to aboriginal people as 'coons'. These people don't hate aboriginal people; in fact they had affection and care for aboriginal children who visited as friends of their own children. And I have to say that these neighbours are possibly the most generous folk I've met; they would stand up for anyone in need or any person mistreated by others. Nor were they scared, which most racist people are. So, when I first heard them call blacks 'coons', I was shocked, but I didn't get angry and walk out, nor did I say “you shouldn't” or “you can't”. What I did say was, 'Wow, I didn't realise we were in the deep south of America in the 1950s!” (or words to that effect). I also laughed as I said it. They responded well, not by saying sorry (and I wasn't expecting that); instead they acknowledged that I didn't appreciate the language and said they wouldn't use that word around me.

So why didn't I get angry? Why not show my disgust? Because I had to live with these folk, and I'd seen a side to them that I really respected. And I knew that the 'c' word rolled off their tongues as the other 'c' word also pops out amongst some Australian men who, it seems, don't have too many other ways of showing love and affection to other men. Yes, it might seem strange that a man has to say “Hey ya cunt” in order to be friendly, but it's not going to be changed through sanctimony or approbation.

At the same time it's important to accept that language affects the way we think; in fact most of the time we think through words. Yes, tone, volume and facial expression are all linguistic forms that affect emotion, but words are what the arguments are all about when the old 'PC' accusations pop up. And I believe there's a need to question the motives of those who complain about not being able to use cruel and nasty language. When they trot out the old line about how 'the PC police are out to get me' I cringe inside, knowing that the fight against political correctness, in its original form, was really about trying to make language clear, less deceptive; it had nothing to do with allowing people to be abusive.

But, when it comes down to challenging abusive behaviour and abusive language, it's the HOW that's so crucial. When aboriginal Australian footballer Adam Goodes paused mid-game to point out a person who called him a 'big ape' he was simply expressing the fact that terms like that hurt. It's unlikely he knew it was a teenage girl who said it – he was fairly busy at the time! - and he really didn't have time to sit down and formulate some 'I' statement as the psychologists recommend. No, he ran to the fence and pointed angrily. Now, I believe that should have been the end of it. It would have become clear why he stopped and pointed; the various commentators would have found out what happened and Goodes would have been able to explain his actions when he was calm and less worked up. But unfortunately the authorities had to get involved, so the girl was removed from the game. That was a mistake.

Another mistake occurred in Canada when a comedian called Mike Ward was fined $42,000 by Quebec Human Rights Tribunal for joke about a young man who suffered from Treacher Collins syndrome — a condition that affects the development of bones and tissues in the face. The child is also a competent singer, and once sang for the pope. Now for the context. Ward had been under the impression the kid was terminally ill, and was being granted a dying wish by a children's foundation. Ward's joke was in reference to the fact that the child was still alive five years after his condition became news. Here's the offending routine: "But five years later, he wasn't dead, he's not dying. The little bastard, he's just not dying!"

The upshot of this comedy routine is that news organisations and social media jumped on it, and the child was not only bullied at school but became so upset he attempted suicide. Ward's defence that there was a "clear difference between harassment against a person and an artistic work being produced before a willing audience” was dismissed by the tribunal. Ward's lawyers are appealing the decision.

Now, given the bare information about the offending joke, it probably doesn't sound that funny. But once again, there's important context to consider. When commercial media get hold of the stories of children with disabilities, deformities or serious illness, they lead their audience down a path of emotional seduction that seems genuine, and in some cases is, but there's something within us (certainly within me) that feels like we're being conned. Our emotions are being tugged at with the claws of a monetised, ubiquitous monster that just seems to be getting bigger every day. It's a monster that feigns compassion – seems, in fact, to have compassion dripping form every pore – but really just wants the bucks: TV, magazines, commercial radio, social media and bill boards all over town. We can try to avoid these messages, but really you'd have to be Amish or a cave dweller to not to be somehow affected by the emotional manipulation of the media machine.

And it's the charity events where the emotion gushes to the point of a flood.

Eventually we're going to feel we've had enough of the sickly sweet, all too often patronising, outpouring of 'goodness', and it's then that we react. And here lies the function of sick humour: it's an 'up-yours' to the media machine's attempts to make us feel deeply about someone we don't even know. All sick jokes are based on this kind of principle. Princess Diana jokes, astronaut jokes, dead celebrity jokes, dead baby jokes. All ways for us to act like Punch – the naughty puppet – and push briefly against a tide of moral compunction, knowing full well we AREN'T Punch, and we aren't really lacking compassion or feeling, we're just sick of being psychologically pushed around.

Mike Ward's joke is funny because his audience have felt this same reaction, and here is a guy standing on a stage who has the guts to express it. Like the joke or hate it, it pressed a button and got a reaction.

Now, I don't know what Ward said after this joke; had he then launched into an attack on the billionaires and media managers behind these stories – in the manner of a George Carlin routine – then his nasty line about a deformed child might have a social and political point. It would have turned the blackness, the sickness around and shone a light on the hideous sickness of media power and the political abuse of that power. But not all comedians are George Carlins, Lennie Bruces or Bill Hicks's. It's far too much to expect, and it'd be boring if they were.

To fine people for what they say or write is something I deplore. It simply goes against the grain, in the same way I hate it when a security guard hassles a heckler at a comedy show. It should be up to the people who are supposed to be controlling the room – the comedians – to deal with that. Once authority gets involved the emotional and intellectual atmosphere changes, it becomes dark and people tend to form groups who more often than not oppose each other. But sometimes the abuse, the behaviour, the words, are so harsh and so affective, if you will, that we can't simply leave it up to the comedians, the public or, the media or Facebook and Twitter to deal with.

And yes, there are situations where language should be challenged and regulated. If I decided to start throwing the 'C' and 'F' words around at a football match in front of children and their parents, I would expect complaint in some form. And not all parents feel confident enough to challenge the swearer; they might not want their children to see them involved in physical scuffle. So, in that situation, I would expect someone, either a member of the public or an official to give me a warning.

But when artists – comedians, writers, painters, cartoonists and musicians – are officially sanctioned or fined for their work, it's a very different story. It's not something that should happen, and in Australia their rights, which some claim are compromised in 18 C of the Racial Discrimination Act, are actually protected in by sub-section 18 D

Section18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith:

(a) in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or
(b) in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or
(c) in making or publishing:
(I) a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or
(ii) a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment

So, getting back to Bill Leak. He hasn't been fined (as Mike Ward has in Canada), and no one has checked him or held him back. All that's happened is a growing number of people have criticised him on social media, and some in various letters to editors (although Leak's own Australian newspaper has chosen to publish mainly letters defending him). Commentators on television and radio have also discussed the issue of his indigenous cartoons.

Leak has responded with more cartoons, in particular one where HE is the kid being handed over, but he's being handed over to a bearded, bespectacled bloke in a Twitter T shirt and carrying a noose and bludgeon.

The sad thing about this is that a cartoonist is crying 'victim' in the same way some comedians are crying 'Orwell' by referring to the 'thought police' when they're criticised for making abusive and unfunny jokes about race, rape and disability. Leak is saying he's being socially lynched by a mob of people who all have the same thought: “Stop this artist now!” And yes, there might be some who want to stop him, but I'd say most of Leak's critics, like me, simply want to point out the flaws in his work, particularly given the fact that his cartoons are appearing in a newspaper owned by one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. In this sense, Leak the fool, is inflating the King's ego (or at least the paradigm of the 'King's' conservative newspaper) not prodding or pricking the King as we expect all fools to do.

Up until nowadays I've always loved Leak's work. The series of dog-fucking cartoons he did about the Malaysian prime minister – as an answer to Malaysian accusations towards Australian politicians along the same lines  – were terrific. And his cartoon with two women wearing burqas and one asking, “Does my bomb look big in this?' is a work of genius. Mainly because it's funny, not just because it's confronting.

But the defence of “I'm just telling the truth” is, paradoxically, as disingenuous as you can get. It's similar to the pathetic bleat by journalists that all they're doing is reflecting public opinion. No, they're influencing public opinion and so is Leak.

Monday, March 7, 2011

One and a half men...and a monster. US morality has lost its Sheen.

There’s always got to be one, or even a few, but usually the media likes to focus on one, and he or she often starts with some kind of extraordinary talent; and if not that at least a siren-like attraction, a la Marilyn Munroe, then we gawk in awe as they plunge to their death on drugs or utter humiliation and loneliness or all of the above.

The latest is Charlie Sheen.

They’ve ditched his TV show, just as the juggernaut of his personality ensures the ratings of Two And A Half Men go berserk!  Who isn’t going to be watching now that he’s given the bird to the producers? Even I who can’t stand those sarcastic, dehumanised Ad vehicles called American sitcoms will be glued to the box, just to see the guy who every day walks the plank of commercial excess, and he’s doing it with such impudence, such utter disgrace.

This is the paradox of capitalism: do it, do it, do it, do it….woops, you’ve done it, you terrible man! Every TV magazine, advertisement, bill board, pop song, sit com, film clip – you name it – is pumping out the idea of going overboard, getting that little bit more out of life; but once someone really does it they’re pilloried by the press, by comedians, by psychologists and moralists, warned off by parents and teachers across the planet.

Charlie’s paying two pretty women to live with him. Sure, they’re blonde and plastic looking versions of women, but they fit the commercial mould nicely. And no doubt millions of married men are secretly wishing they were Charlie for a week or so, and I’m sure millions of American women are wishing they were doing Charlie for a week or so. He’s doing exactly what a commercially successful playboy should be doing: taking drugs and alcohol and getting laid a lot. Is there something else in the handbook of excess?

Well, yes apparently so. Amongst all of this striving to the pinnacle of garish taste and profit is supposed to be some kind of philosophical integrity, some human standard to which one must adhere in order to still be liked by the ‘family viewer’.

‘Family entertainment’ was the famous sardonic catch-cry uttered by American comedian Sam Kinison as he blundered Viking-like into the prudish realms of late night TV shows, smashing their mores and morals with his ‘anti-preaching’ stand-up routine. It’s the family entertainment tag that’s keeping Sheen from being simply relegated to the category of just another talented loony, in the same way that footballers like Brendan Fevola are admonished for their excesses: it's because the kids might be watching.

Well, derr! The kids are watching alright, but they’re also participating in their own world of online excess filled with porn and violence way beyond anything Charlie or Brendon might be involved with.

The whole problem is that shows like Two And A Half Men rely so heavily on the comedy of the anti-hero, in the same way Punch and Judy revolves around the psychotic, scary behaviour of Punch, and we love that Punch is there to actually do those hideous things that we might do if we completely lost our moral compass, just as Charlie is there to do what a good family man wouldn’t. The difference is however, that Punch is a puppet and Charlie is a real guy; his character is his real name, he’s based on a real guy who really does this stuff. And while the real Charlie is walking off set to get smashed and have real sex with real hookers and porn stars, the Two And A Half Men writers and producers are desperately attempting to build a morally acceptable TV show based on the idea that the Charlie guy is wrong, not the guy to follow kids! “No, don’t be like the handsome, witty, commercially successful, wealthy son of a film star and brother of two other extraordinarily talented film stars. Be like the dowdy guy about whom we know nothing.”

In a sense Two And A Half Men is a form of reality TV because it’s premise and it’s fame are based on a real guy; and hey, this does give it an added paradoxical complexity. The problem is that the producers have tried to keep the old school family morality attached to it all; they not only want their cake and eat it, they want to sell the cake at top dollar, lace it with liquor and drugs, smear it over naked imaginations of prime time TV viewers, then claim it’s a lovely wholesome cake for general consumption. And in a way it is wholesome, but the guts of the cake – the luscious, sexy, heart of it – Charlie – is something they don’t own. The can’t keep him locked in a cabinet until next week. He’s a walking, breathing Punch if you like. Imagine allowing Homer Simpson or Family Guy to wander off into the real world and wreak moral havoc amidst the citizens of Los Angeles.

We do the same with our footballers, of course: set them up to be overtly aggressive, arrogant and wilful; then when they display that behaviour in public, we can't cope. Similarly, we shake our heads at the behaviour of Matthew Newton who spent several years on the film sets of Underbelly, a rootin and shootin moral quagmire that celebrates murder, drugs and prostitution and somehow attempts to imply that we shouldn’t be doing these very exciting things.

In a way, people like Charlie Sheen and Matthew Newton are walking, talking embodiments of capitalism gone too far, they are monsters spurned from the fetid excess of commercial TV. And before Charlie Sheen, Matthew Newton or Brendon fevola go to their deaths hounded by the press and the fading memories of their own glory, I say to those TV producers and AFL managers: you got what you asked for, you greedy pricks, and now you don’t have the guts to actually take responsibility for it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On The Dole Again, a song NOT written by Wille Nelson

On The Dole Again, a song NOT written by Wille Nelson

On the dole again, I just can't wait to be back on the dole again

I'm so glad I chose to be a thespian

I can't wait to be on the dole again

On the dole again, not-even-dremin-of-goin-to places I've never been,

eating food I wish I'll never eat again

Oh how I love to be on the dole again.

On the dole again, we take the bus 'cause we can't afford the highway

We're a bunch of fiends, insisting that the world pay for some of our way, what an outrage!

On the dole again, pretending that I'm looking for a stupid job again

love is standing in that giant queue again

Oh how I love to be on the dole again.

Bridge 2
On the dole again, like a bunch of losers we hitch hike down that highway

We've lost all our friends, 'cause we get drunk and sing songs like  My Way

(Sing first two lines of My Way by Frank Sinatra...sung like a sad drunk)

Whoops! On the dole again, I can't wait to be on the dole again

Oh how I love to eat two minute noodles with my friends

I can't wait to be on the dole again....Rpt. End. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

"On The Dole again..."

Standing in a Centrelink car park, staring at my car with its bonnet up, steam spurting from the radiator, thinking to myself that maybe, all those years ago, theatre arts probably wasn’t the best choice. That morning my 84 year old mother rang to tell me there are carer jobs in the paper. Thanks Mum, I’ll think about it. Maybe I can find a carer for me while I’m there.
            Is this a lesson in humility or just the culmination of years without planning? Both I suppose.
            It’s a good car though, the only car I’ve ever really taken seriously; bought it almost new and had it serviced and cleaned regularly. As I stare at it and wait for the RAC man, I think of a joke: my car isn’t a station wagon, it’s a stationary wagon. Ho ho! Not a belly laugh for sure, but it suits my whimsical mood.
            In my mid-fifties I’m becoming used to the inevitability of decay. The vortex grows each time it appears and I become accustomed to its chaotic wash. Colds and flues are bigger, noises harder to decipher, words at the wrong end of a telescope. A plus is that music is more resonant, it touches my soul with a firm embrace, and not just the old songs - every tune presses whatever that thing is (a button?) in my mind that leads to tears of joy or despair, or a deep and sensual groove.
            The mailman dropped off an invite to my Nephew’s wedding in Cancun, Mexico. Luke. Sweet fellow who lives in Chicago and works for Porsche as a graphic designer. Marrying Molly, a big and beautiful Irish American. A wish is all they’ll get from me, but a warm and loving wish ‘twill be.  
            And every day and night I hear reports of the extraordinary shows being seen at the Perth Arts festival that runs through to the middle of March. I suppose this sounds like a gripe but it’s really just a simple fact that few of us local performers can afford to see any of it, unless a work mate has a ticket or, as is the case for a few, they’re collecting the tickets and watching from the aisles.  
            Could this be a chance to create a modern version of Crime and Punishment, an Aussie Raskolnikov, a middle-aged clown who, instead of murdering an old aristocratic lady, runs down a wealthy fly-in-fly-out mine worker in order to steal their theatre tickets? He then attempts to justify his actions by riding the coattails of the AWU secretary, Paul Howes, who is currently battling the mining bosses and making veiled threats in the press. But Howes, who it turns out loves opera and ballet, just happens to be at the same show as the bitter and jealous murderer who recognises the Union boss and tries to appeal to his sense of justice and retribution. But Howes dismisses the man as a fool and a 'clown' and the sad buffoon is led away amidst the stares of new moneyed men and women.
            Instead I could just go down the beach and sit on the sand with my dog, knowing I at least didn’t have to pay for the parking or the beautiful view. And there, on a beach by the Indian ocean, I can read a book and attempt to forget the hideous realities that have been happening on this ocean. But it’s hard to do that, in fact it’s hard to believe what’s happening to those desperate folk who tried so hard to save their families only to watch them drown.
My cares are nothing compared to theirs. Only trouble is, it’s a whole lot easier to forget, to turn a blind eye, when you’ve just paid big bucks to watch talented Europeans in a warm and comfortable theatre. I wonder what some of those performers are thinking about us Australians and our selective welcome mats.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Certainty, the bugbear of mankind

I don’t know why people have an incessant desire to be sure about anything. Where did it come from, this need for certainty and truth? We are animals of the earth, organic and changing according to the wind and the rain, as ephemeral as a flame. We breathe, that’s about it, and even that will cease one day or even one hour or second. Who knows? Is predictability that important? The need to know that tomorrow or next week we’ll be here next to that tree with a mountain over there and the same river flowing by, and those we love will be still there, loving us in return.

Okay, so it’d be a little unfair and also implausible if I came home tonight and found my neighbour had turned into a rhinoscerous and stampeded into my yard, wrecking my garden and smashing down my house. Or if a man went to the house of his lover to find he’d simply imagined her, the smell of her hair, the touch of her hands, her embracing smile – all just gone. And I really don’t expect to hear a report on the news that scientists have finally discovered that the Indian Ocean is really a large bowl of jelly. These things are what we call absurd.

But there are times when our environment is changed to such an extent it may well seem that reality has been replaced by an inscrutable and absurd alternative. During WWII there must surely have been a sense that some foul creature had reached into the heart of reality and rearranged things forever. As a reaction to that, absurdism and surrealism came into being, frivolous, child-like expressions where words and images shifted and morphed into the ridiculous and often hilarious. Was this a way of saying, “We don’t know, so don’t try to be certain.” Was it a warning to the world that ideologies based on certainty are crazier than any wild thing we might attempt to invent?

Or was it simply escape? The world has no meaning so why should we? And if there is no pattern, no God, nothing to guide us then we may as well be silly and have a little fun in the mean time.

Those Queensland folk who have dealt with floods and a cyclone, and some people in Victoria who only two years ago had a massive fire and now floods, must be wondering about the overall pattern of life. To have a natural event destroy one’s house and completely wreck one’s dearest possessions must make it difficult to trust the future. Why do anything, why build a living environment when it could so easily be taken away?

When a close friend or relative dies suddenly (and particularly by their own hand) one is left with a gap, a disconnection from what we might call the normal pattern. It’s more than a shock, it’s an onslaught on our very being, leaving us empty and cheated by circumstance. But really, by being more than just sad over our loss, by allowing it to infiltrate and shake the core of our belief system, we’ve actually cheated ourselves. We’ve been left with a philosophical mess we never saw coming.

Impermanence is one of the central ideas of Buddhism. Death is never left undusted on the shelf, it’s brought to mind with as much constancy as food and drink, warmth and friendship; it’s part of the family of life. Does this mean that Buddhists cope better with death and destruction?

When I toured to Sri Lanka recently I met many people who talked about the tsunami and how it affected them and their businesses. Not one person described a horror even though it probably was; they always smiled and shrugged as if to say “It was what happened” and their lives went on, perhaps a little less comfortably. And no doubt there are many in Australia who will do the same. I did meet a few Sri Lankans however, who needed to borrow to rebuild their houses and restaurants and are consequently in debt at very high interest rates. All the same, they weren’t spitting in anger over the usury (as one might); they talked about the bankers with a sanguine acceptance.

And the most devoted Buddhists, the monks, well they’re mainly in the central highlands, way up in the safety of the mountains, far from the hustle of tourism, far from capitalism and its co-conspirators style, comfort and glamour. And far from tsunamis.

Perhaps this is what our attachment to consistency comes down to: material wealth? If we define ourselves by what we possess then we’ll need to fight hard to hang on to a reality that could any day be taken from us. I began writing this piece because a friend quoted the American poet EE Cummings: “To be nobody but myself – in a world which is doing its best, night an day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”

My friend, a fellow blogger and inspirer of many, posted this quote and simply asked what we thought of it, thus sparking an interesting (and still on-going) debate about the nature of self and the concepts of reality and certainty. Questions arose, such as “Do we need to know ourselves?” and “What’s wrong with doubt anyway?” and so forth.

E.E. Cummings was a man who lived through both the world wars, was arrested by the French on an accusation of espionage, and became one of the preeminent examples of the absurdist poet. His poetry and his drama, inspired by the writing of Gertrude Stein and the painting of Picasso, are perfect examples of the escape into the ridiculous. But is it an escape – to create sentences and ideas that challenge the normal pattern? Is it somehow ‘less’ to take words and images and to chop them up, juggle them around, then throw them into the air and see what lands, how it lands and how it makes us feel?

But Cummings poetry, and the work of the absurdist playwrights, while often
nonsensical, always made some kind of connection; it was never dribble by any means, always somehow sparking a feeling about the world around us, and always allowing us to revel in the mysterious nature of reality and unreality. It’s hard to comprehend the idea that Cummings or Spike Milligan (the Pope of absudism) might somehow be unduly influenced by the prevailing mood of society to the extent that they might be not be themselves; that these giant personalities might be subsumed by fashion or societal pressure is simply unbelievable.

But maybe that’s part of being a writer, a painter, a performer – the creative mind will always be fragile and vulnerable, in the same way Mozart was a victim of his critics and peers, and the idea that they could be swept under the rug of conformity is an ever present horror, just as meaninglessness and madness are feared by so many in the western world.

Everything has its dark side, its possible downfall and disintegration. Perhaps that’s why Buddhist monks spend so much time telling jokes. The journey to enlightenment might be a silly hoax, so hey, let us laugh as much as we can in the mean time. Or is it just that disconnection is the key to inspiration, so let us experiment with, indulge ourselves even, with chaos and uncertainty in the hope that the flight out of uncertainty will give us a new insight, an epiphany if you like, which will let us cope a little better the next time the bottom falls out of our world.