Sunday, 1 April 2018

Balls


I’m a lifelong cricket tragic, so naturally I’ve been following the ball-tampering scandal unfold with unrestrained fascination.  But while I love cricket I don’t claim to be an expert, so won’t bore you with any analysis beyond a few observations that may be relevant:

1.  Ball-tampering has been around for years.  Its prevalence has increased since the advent of reverse swing in the 1990s, and various methods are used to achieve the desired effect.
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      2.  Players from most of the major cricket-playing nations have been caught tampering with the ball at some time or other.  Australia is an exception, but that doesn’t mean that our team hasn’t engaged in it – it just means they haven’t been caught.

      3.  The penalties that apply when players are caught engaging in ball-tampering are equivalent to penalties for other forms of misconduct.  These penalties are imposed by the ICC and are usually of the ‘fined match fee’ or ‘suspended for one match’ level.  As happened to Cameron Bancroft in this case, for example.

Anyone who knows about cricket will realise from these observations that I have no particular wisdom or insight about the game.  But you don’t need any knowledge of cricket to be enthralled by this saga, because it’s not really about the game.  It’s about other stuff.

I’m not the first person to make this observation, either.  Indeed, the association between sport and our Australian national identity was noticed early.  It’s un-Australian, the narrative goes.  It crosses the line.  We Australians play hard but we don’t cheat.   

Likewise, the relationship between sport and masculinity has also been observed.  This association has, predictably, received less prominence.  How is it, some have asked, that the nation is in turmoil about a few guys who cheated when sportsmen who rape or bash women rate barely a mention? This is a good question.  The answer is simple: Australian men might bash or rape women but they don’t cheat at sport. 

Now, some might agree with this formulation while others understandably object.  Most men don’t bash or rape, it’s not that simple, yadda yadda.  And they could be right, but this is not what interests me most about the whole pahlava. 

Rather, what interests me about this week is the repeated, agonising spectacle of male contrition.  These men – the players - were caught out in an act which, while common, is most definitely against the rules.  They tried to cover it up and then to minimise it but the reaction back home was immediate and powerful and it kept growing and soon they had to fess up. 

And how! After days of media speculation, we were treated to a public confession from each of the identified culprits.  First the young rookie, Bancroft.  Then the golden boy, Australian captain Steve Smith.  And finally the villain, vice captain David Warner. 

Without doubt, these press conference confessions were ordered by their employer, Cricket Australia.  Cricket Australia had, in the words of Cate McGregor, spent the week ‘surfing the wave of public opinion’ –progressively amping up its response as the media amped up its coverage of the growing mess.  This surfing resulted in extended, arbitrary bans for each of the players deemed responsible.  And, to have any chance of returning to the game after their ban was completed, a confession.

Bancroft went first, his voice trembling.  “I’m sorry,” he repeated, as WA Cricket CEO Christina Matthews, offered a comfortingly maternal pat on the back.  The words “mistake” and “regret” were repeated, with a bit of “role models”, “letting people down,” “earning back respect” and hoping for “forgiveness” thrown in.  No doubt carefully schooled by his employers, Bancroft refused to buy into suggestions that he had been bullied or induced into the ‘crime,’ talking only of “taking responsibility”.

The headline act came just a few hours later, as Test captain Steve Smith fronted the media at Sydney Airport.  Smith took the same approach, and used exactly the same language.  The only difference was that his trembling voice disintegrated into tears as he acknowledged the effect of his behaviour on his family.  Pictures of Smith’s agonised face have featured in the media ever since. 

“Steve Smith’s tears just about undid me,” said one social media comment.  They undid me, too.  My own compassion appeared to reflect the public mood, which was moved by Smith’s grief.  Overnight, the privileged millionaire sportsmen were transformed into figures of pity.  “Mr Smith, you have raised a fine son,” intoned sports commentator Peter Fitzsimons.

A fine son?  Let us reflect on that judgement for a moment.  What makes Steve Smith a fine son?  That he is an outstanding cricketer is beyond question.  That he engaged in cheating has also been proved.  So what makes him a fine son?  The fact that he loves his Mum and Dad?  This is a fine sentiment, but it hardly seems worthy of such commendation.  No.  Rather, it is the fact that he loves his mum and dad so much that he cried about it on national TV. 

Now, not so long ago a spectacle such as this would have been impossible.  I am old enough to remember Kim Hughes’ tearful press conference when he resigned the Test captaincy in 1984.  The reaction was soaked in old-school masculinity: he’s weak.  A cry-baby.  And the inevitable, if only implied, accompaniment: poofter.   

This ability to cry marks a shift, a genuine change, in what it means to be a man in Australia.  For a man to have permission to love his family so much that he can cry about it in public is new.   Even when I was a child, a man’s family was virtually invisible – a mere addendum to whatever worldly achievements he might claim.  To be able to love, and to express love openly, can be nothing but good. 

It is useful to remember, however, that these changes apply only to men and masculinity.  A woman’s tears would have no effect, beyond inviting an interpretation of her behaviour as ‘manipulative’.  But for a man to cry, that’s different.  That’s real and important and enough to change our opinion of him. 

Even, in my case, of David Warner.  Warner has been widely blamed for the whole episode, as he reportedly came up with the nefarious plan.  Intellectually ill-equipped to negotiate moral nuance (a friend who knows him observed that Warner is ‘so dumb that he literally cannot walk and chew gum at the same time’), Warner stumbled through his prepared speech of confession.  He too broke down as he addressed his family.  “Your love means more than anything to me,” he said.  “I know that I would be nothing without you.”  Before he had a moment to compose himself, Warner was bombarded with questions.  None, however, addressed a line in his speech that went unnoticed.  “I am going to look at who I am as a man,” he said.  “To be honest, I am not sure right now how I will do this.”

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

An Australian story

The silly season is over, thank God.  We are back to regular programming on the ABC.  When you’re a single and 50, that’s no small thing.  First cab off the rank for my 2018 viewing was a new season of Australian Story.  I am a fan of this show.  The relentlessly upbeat attitude of some farmer who has had their arms chopped off in a threshing machine may irritate, but there is still something compelling about real people telling real stories. 

And let’s face it, I am a political tragic.  Last week’s episode about Christine Forster was, naturally, a no-brainer.  Forster is a Liberal Councillor for the City of Sydney, but she is more famous for being the sister of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

And for those who have been living under a rock for the last few years, Forster was also a vocal campaigner for same-sex marriage.  Earlier this year, she was on stage at the Sydney celebration of the Postal Vote, where I was a face in the crowd.

Forster is what some of us tactfully call a “late bloomer”.  That is, she was married with kids (four!) before she became a lesbian.  Apparently she met her partner Virginia Flitcroft at a day care centre, while dropping off their respective children. 

“We had an affair,” Forster confesses in Australian Story.  “I’m certainly not proud of that.  I wish that we hadn’t, but that’s what happened.”

Forster’s confession came in the same week as revelations of Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce’s affair with a staffer.  Joyce’s behaviour has attracted much condemnation, particularly from the left.  ‘Barnaby Joyce doesn’t know the meaning of marriage!’ screams one link on my Facebook feed.  Au contraire, I think; I am sure he understands it very well indeed. The reaction to Joyce’s indiscretion makes me uncomfortable, not least because I have been on both sides of the moral Passchendaele of infidelity.  Those episodes left me with nothing but an appreciation of my capacity to behave badly and more usefully, a reluctance to judge. 

Yet Forster’s revelation attracted not a murmur.   Despite being a Liberal Forster is, it seems, a different case.  She is one of us, at least to the extent that she is a lesbian.  And Forster’s affair was set in the context of a journey to an authentic sexuality, which makes it ok.  Her former husband, whose feelings of disappointment and betrayal were likely equal to those of Mrs Joyce, is invisible.  He was dumb enough to marry a lesbian, after all.

But it is the story of Forster’s lesbianism, and her joyous marriage, that really interested me.  I’m not so naïve as to think that Australian Story is more than just that, a story – constructed, with the fingerprints of its makers fully visible.  But what does it tell us about what it means to be a lesbian now, in this modern, equality-loving Australia? 

The story begins on a joyous note:  the happy couple are choosing their outfits.  But this is a different sort of wedding, and the story is quick to make the point.  “I’m very retro 1950s,” says a Flitcroft, “Big skirt, big dress.  Christine’s going for a sort of morning suit, but more feminine.”  It’s hard to see how the couple’s outfits are relevant to anything except as code:  Forster, it seems, is to be coded as masculine.   Flitcroft confirms this, adding, “I couldn’t ask her to wear a dress.”

And very quickly, we cut away from the present for a guided tour of Abbott family history.  Despite the Abbotts being a “loving, caring” family, it seems that the young Christine was always different.  “I was riding billy carts ad bikes and making bows and arrows.  I had a Ken doll … I was what was termed in those days a tomboy.”

Australian Story can’t resist a peek at brother Tony as well.  The former Prime Minister was, according to Forster, “the apple of Dad’s eye, there’s no doubt about that”.  Yet this favouritism brought with it a prescriptive attitude to gender, as Forster observes, “My father was an only child and he was pretty much, from a young age, living only with his mother because his father was in the merchant marine so he was away a lot.  He would describe himself as being a real sook as a child.  So I think there was a deliberate plan from Dad, to make sure that Tony was a man’s man.”

The gender dynamics of the Abbott family would, it seems, provide fertile ground for psychoanalysis.  Yet Christine rebelled, even if unconsciously.  “Chris was very sporty, very studious,” a friend observes. “As we got older, through high school, we started to get a bit more into make-up and things like that.  She didn’t tend to do that.” Forster’s rebellion was, though, only partial.  As she proceeded to university, we are assured that she was “normal”.  So normal, in fact, that she married the unfortunate Mr Forster not long after graduating.

Yet viewers, already aware of how the story ends, await the truth.  It comes some years later.  “It probably wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I started to realise that I had a physical, sexual attraction to women.”  Then comes the famous meeting with Flitcroft at the child care centre which, Forster confesses, “hit me like a ton of bricks”.

Curiously, Flitcroft’s background is not subject to scrutiny.  She is not related to any Prime Ministers and her childhood toys were therefore uninteresting, I suppose.  But this lack of questioning is itself a code:  Flitcroft is a “normal” woman.  Her story begins with such a confirmation: “I was in a very happy, settled married life,” she recalls.  “With a beautiful 2 year old son and a gorgeous 5 year old daughter.  Externally it was Happy 101.”

What, then, are we to make of these codes?  Some feminists may be unhappy about the coding of Forster and Flitcroft as butch and femme.  In the 1970s, many feminists derided butch-femme as replicating patriarchal heterosexual relationships.  Later queer theorists have celebrated these same relationships, reading them more as a parody than imitation.  A woman in men’s clothing, they point out, is not the same as a man.

Yet whatever your take on the butch-femme dynamic, it’s revealing that Australian Story can represent it to a wider audience without explanation.  Clearly, this style of relationships has penetrated mainstream understandings of what it means to be a lesbian.  If that was the case fifty years ago, it’s still the case today.

There is no indication of what or whether the Abbott and Flitcroft families think about butch-femme relationships, but understandably the relationship upset both.  Here again we segue to Tony Abbott, now head of the Abbott clan after the recent death of patriarch Dick.   Abbott is by all accounts a decent chap when he’s away from politics, and it turns out that he and his wife Margie were “very supportive behind the scenes”.   The exception was his very public remarks that “children do better with a Mum and a Dad,” which mother Flitcroft found “hurtful, deeply hurtful”. 

Meanwhile the butch Forster – herself a mother of four – maintains a stiff upper lip and fights the good fight in the public domain.  Forster’s teenage sons continue the seal of male approval, with a friend reassuring us that, “Chris’s boys are very proud for their Mum.  She has put herself out there.  They are comfortable with her being gay.” 

Well, that’s a relief.  Who knows what her daughters think, as there is no mention of them.  Perhaps they were just too smart to put their faces on television.  But Forster herself is no dummy, which begs the obvious question of why she consented to this project.  We can, methinks, expect to see her face in a future political campaign, and for an office higher than that of Sydney City Councillor.

Yet I can’t help wondering if the males of the Abbott clan would be as supportive if Ms Forster were to become one of them.  That is, if she was transgender instead of a lesbian.  We will never know, because the word “gender” is never mentioned in this story. 

This might seem a glaring omission, as much of Forster’s story is about gender roles and gender variance.  Gender variance is at the heart of lesbian identity - so much so that the coded signals of the tomboy and the butch require no explanation.  Everyone knows these codes, just as they know the codes about sissy boys and effeminate men.  Yet to speak gender variance per se is something quite different, and usually avoided through sublimation and disavowal. 

“You have a choice,” says the marriage celebrant preparing for the pair’s nuptials.   “Of being called a groom, a bride, or a partner.”

“Neither of us are grooms, obviously!”  Forster responds defensively. 

Obviously. 

So it’s agreed: here come the brides.  And rather paradoxically, what a relief it is.




Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Being polite (and generalising)


My new job has brought with it a sudden rash of people declaring that they are “totally fine” or that they “don’t care” about my sexuality. 

To be more accurate, they don’t care about what they think is my sexuality.  What they think is based on some reference that I’ve made in conversation, usually to some relationship I had many years ago.  They hear a pronoun and compute:  female person, used female pronoun, must equal… lesbian!  The thought process doesn’t stop there, either.  It then proceeds to: must reassure the lesbian that I’m ok with lesbians! 

This has taken me a bit by surprise, I must confess.  It’s a new dynamic for me.  I’m used to working with people who are much too polite to make reference to such things.  Other people that I have worked with obviously had the same thought process, except for the last bit. 

Gay men and lesbians tend to come to that conclusion before I ever use any pronouns, based simply on how I dress.  Gay men tend to be the worst, in my experience, in the sense that they assume they know all about me, my life history, my opinions and my values - all based on how I dress.  Lesbians have generally been around enough women who don’t wear make-up to know that there’s not a big future in assumptions.

Straight people tend to think, ‘lesbian’ and then don’t say anything.  Often they genuinely don’t care.  This is particularly true for straight folks who have been around a lot of gay people.  Others probably do care a little bit but they know that it’s rude to make reference to it in public, rather like making reference to someone being fat.  It’s only when they have a problem with me that I become ‘that lesbian’, and this only comes out in private.
 
I haven’t been present for these conversations, obviously.  But I have been present for some of the conversations where I’m informed that it’s my own fault that people make assumptions about me, that I ask for it, because … because I don’t wear make-up, apparently. 

I’ve also been thin – or at least not fat - at different times in my life, and heard the way women who aren’t fat themselves and are much too polite to say anything to women who are tend to change when they have a problem with the [fat] woman in question.  Clearly, good manners are only skin deep.  Or a layer of fat deep, I guess. 

Lesbians are no better, in this regard.  They don’t go to a homophobic place, obviously.  It’s just ‘that fat bitch’ rather than ‘that fat lesbian’.  Gay men, of course, don’t need much encouragement to go to either place – though there are some honourable exceptions.  And straight men… I don’t know where they go.  I think for them it’s just ‘bitch’. 

There is, therefore, no moral distinction to be made between those who say they ‘don’t care’ and those who don’t say anything.  I prefer the people who don’t say anything, though.  If they’re straight, at least. Because really, I don’t want to talk about any of it. 

Don’t get me wrong: I have the same need for affirmation and validation as anybody else, and there was a time when I did want to talk about it.  Talking about it, however, taught me that you’re not going to get validation from people who have no idea.  All you’re going to get is dumb questions.  And people who have some idea can be even worse: they give you fatuous, offensive assumptions dressed up as validation.  I guess there is a lot of good work to be done, if you want to be an educator.  I don’t.  

Consequently, these declarations that people ‘don’t care’ about something I had forgotten about are a bit of a new thing.  I don’t know why it is happening: maybe it’s because the folks I’m working with now are a bit younger.  But they are obviously trying to do the right thing so it seems a bit, well, rude, to say, “I don’t care that you don’t care.  In fact, I don’t care if you do care.  I just flat-out don’t care!”

Instead I just politely ignore it.  “Right.  Good-oh.  Well, as I was saying…”




Monday, 2 October 2017

Dust

In a month of unemployment I haven’t done any of the things I said I would do but I have managed to clean up the house a bit.  The timing for this is good as it’s spring, though it hasn’t felt like renewal or rebirth or any of those happy clichés that one associates with spring.  Instead it’s been heavy and hard and I’ve had to push myself to do even basic things like the vacuuming. 

The dust in this place is endless.  They say it’s the ‘black dust’ – ordinary dust mixed with Sydney’s pollution.  And in this house there is cat hair, which is also endless.  It really doesn’t seem to matter how much or how often I clean because it doesn’t make any difference: the place is always coated in a sticky grey dust. 

I wanted it to be lighter.  In the disturbed decision making process that surrounded my decision to leave work I imagined a lighter, easier life.  Naturally that picture was set in a lighter, cleaner house.  Less cluttered, less heavy.  Of course, it hasn’t turned out that way.  I don’t know whether it’s my age or my state of mind but even cleaning seems to have become complicated.
 
What to keep?  What to throw away? 

Behind the curtain in the lounge room, for example, I find two model cars parked neatly on the window sill.  One is a yellow Mini Minor – I always wanted a Mini Minor.  Three times I’ve come close to getting one.  When I was 17, my mother and I saw a red Mini in a used car yard on the outskirts of Bendigo as we were driving home to Shepparton one Saturday.  The price tag?  $499.  I was so obsessed that I badgered Mum into getting some friend of a friend who lived in Bendigo and knew about cars to go and check it out.  It’s fine, he reported, except that it needs new rings.  New rings??!!  That would have cost at least another $500, not to mention how to get it home from Bendigo and I didn’t even have a proper licence yet.  I let it go. 

Ten years later when I was living in Canberra there was a lime green Mini parked on the corner with a ‘For Sale’ sign in the window.  They wanted $1400 for it but I didn’t know what was wrong with it and I didn’t actually have $1400 and besides, I had a perfectly usable 1973 Corolla.  A few weeks later my partner bought me a frypan for Christmas and said, ‘You know, I thought about buying you that Mini but I wasn’t sure you’d be up for it’.   My heart ached, but I just had to let it go. 

Even five years ago when I was looking to buy a different car and the local mechanic showed me a Mini that he was fixing up and it had a BMW engine in it and leather seats and all the trimmings but he wanted $22,000 for it and I didn’t trust him and I hate grey so I let it go. 

I don’t remember when I bought a yellow model Mini Minor but I have an idea why, though I am not sure why I would keep it now, cluttering up the window sill and gathering dust.
    
The other car is a black VW Beetle with hippie flowers.  You can guess that I love Beetles, too.  I about buying one that I saw parked around the corner in - you guessed - Canberra, in my early 20s.  They wanted $1600 for it but my friends took one look and turned up their noses.  ‘Buying someone else’s problem,’ was their verdict, and I let it go. 

The model VW came into my life in Nevada, of all places.  It was in the late 90s and I was pursuing a stupid love affair, all the way to the US.  We drove from San Francisco to Las Vegas and somewhere in Nevada in the middle of the night we stopped at a petrol station and on a whim, I bought a model VW Beetle for $7.99.  That trip was nothing but an extended exercise in betrayal although, with the advantage of hindsight, I thank God that the betrayal came earlier (though not early enough) rather than later and just prefer to forget the whole thing though I have held onto the model car which is the only tangible relic from the whole episode. 

Why? 

I have enough Buddhism to know that attachment is the cause of all suffering.   This ancient truth is, well, true.  So why keep the model VW?  What am I attached to?  The love affair, which gave me much, much more misery than joy? The affair that, though I thought it about it way too much for way too long, I haven’t thought about it years now?  Or something else? 

A different life.  A moment of possibility, glimpsed somewhere in the middle of the night in Nevada and never seen again.  Often, I hear people talk about the importance of living without regrets.  Sometimes I wonder if I have anything else. 

The place is full of these random, useless objects.  When I’m in a good mood I have been known to say, ‘Everything here has a story’.  My friends - bless them - are too polite to say, ‘Yes, and that story is boring.’ 

The books – the place is full of them.  Some people have been impressed by the books and I certainly was, in the past.  There was a time when a collection of Foucault’s interviews was the thing that I desired most in life.  Now I never look at them, and they just gather dust.  But I can’t get rid of them.  I would give them away, but nobody now is interested in a collection of Foucault’s interviews. 

In my bedroom is the dressing table, which I remember buying back in the early 90s.  I thought it was an antique.  Turns out it was a reproduction but it has lived in a few houses, that dressing table.  I’ve managed to clear off some of the clutter but there is a bowl full of jewellery that has pride of place.  The jewellery is rubbish – things that I’m either allergic to (in my late 20s I became allergic to non-precious metals) or things that I have inherited from my mother and grandmother.  I never wear any of it.  The children to pass these things on to, I never had.  Hell, I never even liked my grandmother.

Clearing away the jewellery I find fully half an inch of dust at the bottom of the bowl.  The bowl itself is a relic – a pottery creation from art class in Year 7.  Forty years I’ve carted that bowl around.  Glazed in a delightful shade of 1970s brown, I imagine it reminiscent of Murano glass except that the bowl is hopelessly off-centre and wobbly.  Regrets aside, it could use a wash. 

As I turn it over in the sink I discover something long forgotten.  My name is etched into the underside of the bowl.  My full name, which I hated then as I hate it now.  But there it is, etched in ceramic.  ABIGAIL GROVES.


Thursday, 14 September 2017

'Not the marrying kind'


I just watched Penny Wong’s eloquent speech in the Senate about ‘polite prejudice’, and a memory floated to the surface of my tired brain.  The memory was this: five years ago I emailed Penny Wong, after her appearance on Q & A.  Her comments got a lot of coverage at the time, so you may remember this exchange:


I can’t remember what I wrote to the honourable Senator but it would have been something like ‘Good on you’.  To her credit, she emailed back and said, ‘thanks for your support’. 

I was chuffed at the time because I am not in the habit of contacting politicians.   I’ve done it three times and as I reflect on it, I can see that there is a pattern.  When I’ve been moved to contact a politician, it has been to express my support, and each time it has been to a female politician who I felt was being picked on. 

Before Penny Wong it was Julia Gillard who, it must be said, abjectly failed the leadership test when it came to gay marriage while she was in office.  Nonetheless, I thought she was treated unfairly and that that unfairness was a product of the most base, contemptible sexism.  Before Gillard it was Joan Kirner.  Remember her?  She was Premier of Victoria briefly, after the Labor government down there shat itself back in the early 90s. 

That seems a long time ago now.  I was living in Canberra then, and was busy being young, out and proud.  Nobody talked about gay marriage at that time, or even about gays having children.  Such things were just not part of our expectations, as young lesbian and gay people. 

The big issue for gay men in those days was AIDS, obviously.  Lesbian politics was mainly diverted into feminist issues – hence we did things like writing to beleaguered female politicians.   I don’t remember marriage even coming up.  If it did it was roundly dismissed as ‘mimicking the breeders’ or something like that.  ‘Breeder,’ incidentally, is a word that seemed to disappear from the lexicon very quickly, once poofs and dykes starting breeding like rabbits themselves.

And they all did.  Without exception, the dykes that I was friends with in my early 20s are now in ‘settled domestic relationships’, as Tony Abbott calls them.  Some are already married, because they ended up with men.  Most have children as well.  Because that’s what they wanted.  Because that’s what everyone wants.  Really, everyone wants a home with someone who loves them or who, at the very least, will be there for them because let’s face it, life can be fucking hard. And lonely.

None of them seemed to feel overly deprived, though, about not being able to enter into the sanctity of marriage.  In 2004, when John Howard amended the Marriage Act to clarify that it was indeed intended to exclude same-sex couples, it seemed odd.  Nobody in the GLBT community was even talking about marriage.  Sure, it might have been made legal in Vermont or Denmark or wherever but here, the subject of marriage rights was more likely to be greeted with a sanctimonious speech about how there were ‘much more important things’ that gays and lesbians should be worrying about.  I seem to recall that Community Action Against Homophobia took this line, for example.

My, haven’t they changed their tune!  Now everybody is talking about it and everybody is in favour of it and all the poofs and dykes seem to feel aggrieved about their inability to get married.  Because it’s about rights, of course.  Once the debate is framed in terms of rights rather than privileges then everyone has a right to feel angry. 

Whether they are angry about their inability to get married or about being treated differently by the law or about this postal survey nonsense or at the Tony Abbotts and Cory Bernardis who brought it about, they all seem to have got to the same place.  Proposals to boycott the vote have faded way.  Even the usual anger toward GLBT people who have a less than glorious history when it comes to marriage (like Penny Wong), or towards straight people whose sympathies are nakedly opportunistic (like Bill Shorten) seems to have been put on hold.  I’ve never seen such unity and better still, it reaches beyond our community to all Australians with goodwill and justice in their hearts.  I wonder if Aboriginal people campaigning for their referendum fifty years ago felt like this?

Vote.  Yes.  Now.

Yet I’m conscious that it’s not my rights that I will be voting for and it’s not going to improve my life even one little tiny bit.  I’m not going to marry – I’m single.  At 50, it is unlikely that I will find someone.  I will not, therefore, benefit from this enhancement of my rights. 

Indeed, if gay marriage does have any impact on my own life, I suspect it is likely to be negative.  No doubt I will be accused of pessimism but I do not think that a shift in social status from ‘queer person in her 50s’ to ‘unmarried woman in her 50s’ is likely to be positive.  But among all that my friends have said about gay marriage over the last few months, not one has indicated the vaguest awareness that a single person might feel differently about this issue to someone who is in a ‘settled domestic relationship’.  This does not bode well.


I will vote, of course.  And vote yes.  It goes without saying.  But I won’t be putting glitter in the envelope, as some have suggested.  As chance would have it, I have another request from the Government that I need to respond to.  It’s from the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program – another dubious present for my 50th birthday.  I’ve just finished gathering my sample.  I thought I might mail them off together.  

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Fear and loathing

There was a footnote to the recent federal election that stuck in my mind.  It was this: in Victoria, One Nation won half of its votes in the electorate of Murray.  This detail appeared in The Age a couple of weeks after the election, right around the time that the “Pauline Hanson: Please Explain” doco aired on SBS.  One Nation won four Senate seats but none of them were in Victoria, where it gained only 1.8% of the vote.  The votes that it did receive came overwhelmingly from rural seats and in particular, Murray.

As it happens, I grew up in that electorate.  Its main town is Shepparton – my home town.  Shepparton is a big town that supplies health, education and retail services for the surrounding region – much like Dubbo or Wagga or Tamworth in NSW.  Like them, it has grown while the smaller towns around it have withered.  Outwardly prosperous, Shepparton still hangs on – just – to its rural manufacturing base, with iconic brands like SPC Fruits and Campbell’s Soup based there.  It has changed a lot since I lived there, but in some ways it is just the same - deeply conservative, and deeply racist.     

When it first emerged in 1996, the Pauline Hanson phenomenon shocked me.  Not because of her views or her popularity, but because anyone could be in the least bit surprised by it.  And they were surprised, or at least they said they were.  They dressed up their reactions in fancy language like “feelings of exclusion” and “responses to globalisation,” which I thought were just nonsense.  A vote for One Nation is not a vote against globalisation.  It’s a vote for racism. It was as if people didn’t want to say that word.  Where, I wondered, have they been

Not in Shepparton, obviously.  I had been there, to visit my Dad.  I grew up in racism.  All those lines that Hanson spouted, about Aboriginal people getting “special treatment”, getting “paid to go to school” and all the rest of it, were like a vox pop from the pubs of Shepparton.  Even from my Dad, who was a Labor man all his life. 

“Why do the Abos get special treatment from the government?” he asked during one visit.
I thought for a moment, because my Dad and I rarely talked about political things and never to disagree.
“I think they probably deserve a hand, Dad” I answered. 

There was a long silence.

“Yeah well,” he grumbled.  “I suppose we did steal their land.”

When I was growing up, Shepparton was an overwhelmingly white Anglo town.  There were a few Italians and Greeks and Turks – they seemed mostly to live outside the town.  It is irrigation country, where water is as precious as gold.  The Goulburn River flows north to Echuca where it meets the Murray and all through the area there are orchards and dairy farms.  The wogs had orchards and kept to themselves.  In the town, as in most Australian country towns, there was a small minority of Aboriginal people.  They lived in the poor end of town in public housing, which is also where my family lived. 

They were our neighbours.  They swam at the swimming hole in the river, which is where we went on those long, hot summer evenings.  They dived for mussels, which I thought was strange and dirty.  I didn’t taste a mussel until after I left home.  When I was little we occasionally played cricket with the Aboriginal boys in the park on Malcolm Crescent, until someone pooped in the tower on the playground.  I just assumed it was one of them.  After that, I went to a different park. 

In the early 80s there was a bit of an uproar, when an Aboriginal family got evicted from a house in my street.  The Shepp News reported that they were living in a tent. 

“I heard,” my mother whispered, “that they hadn’t paid rent for two years before they were evicted.”  The implication was clear:  why should she have to scratch and save to pay the rent while they didn’t?  We would be out on our ear if we didn’t pay rent, and long before two years. 

They went to my school, but we weren’t friends.  In truth, I was scared of them.  And not without reason: Tracy Bennett and her sisters pulled me off my bike while I was doing my paper round and roughed me up when I was 12.  In fact, the characterisation of Aboriginal people as victims has always bemused me a little bit.  I sure don’t remember these kids that way.  They were fierce.  They were scary.  Joanne West, who was in my class in first grade and pretty much every year after that, was not a girl to be messed with.  I was shit scared of her. 

Joanne left school at 15, as all the black kids did.  There was an Aboriginal girl who enrolled at our school in Year 11.  That was unusual enough.  Then one day she turned up to school wearing a bright red sweater with an Aboriginal flag on the front.  It was NAIDOC week.  I remember this because the teacher stood at the front of the class and earnestly explained that, “This is a special time for Aboriginal people and we understand that this is special for Jackie and in recognition of this we have allowed her to wear her Aboriginal sweater instead of the school uniform.” 

This lecture was shortly followed by a classroom “debate” about land rights.  That poor kid was howled down by an angry mob of 30 white kids and I, with my desperate need to belong, was one of them.  She ran out of the room in tears. 

I grew up in this racism, and it grew up in me. 

Why, I wondered years later, would a bunch of teenagers care or even know about land rights?  They didn’t know, of course.  They were just mouthing the nonsense they had learned from their parents.  But their parents didn’t mention the other stuff.  The stuff about Aboriginal children being taken away.  Or about the fact that there were no jobs - never would be - in that town, for a black.  They never told them, either, about what happened to the first people of that region.  To be fair, their parents probably didn’t know themselves.  
By the turn of the last century those people had been virtually wiped out, and their passing wasn’t considered important enough for white people to talk about. 

In 1994, just two years before Hanson was elected, I went to a school reunion.  I’d barely said hello when one of the women turned to me and said, “We were just saying how unfair it is that the Abos get all this stuff for free.” 

“You’ll get no sympathy from me,” I said, and walked away. 

Afterwards, I thought about this exchange a lot.  Why, I wondered, did this even come up?  There were no Aboriginal people there – of course there weren’t.  With people you haven’t seen in years, aren’t there more important things to talk about?  And yet none of these people were especially racist, by local standards. “That kind of whingeing and whining about Aborigines,” said Marcia Langton in the Please Explain doco, “for those of us from rural Australia, that was the norm.”  It was just normal.  More than that, I realised, it was something that we were supposed to share.  To bond over.  It was their way of being friendly to me, and I rejected them. 

I claim no credit for this.  My need for approval was, by that time, directed elsewhere, so it was no loss for me. 

Credit, if there is any, goes to Kath.  I don’t remember her last name but she was a Murri woman who I knew in Canberra in the early 90s.  She worked at ATSIC.  I remember telling her about my boss – an eminent left-wing political scientist – who had asked me to find a “nice photo of some Aboriginal women sitting under a tree” for her latest book. 

“What a crock of racist shit!” Kath scoffed.  “If she wants a photo of a black woman, tell her to come down here and take a fuckin’ photo of me.”

And Judy, an Aboriginal woman I met through work when I moved to Sydney.  I didn’t make friends in the queer community, but Judy asked me home for dinner.  She served roast beef like my mum used to make, and talked to me about her life.  She had grown up among white people.  Her real mob, she said, were “all gone now”.  Judy knew a lot about racism.  “Education is not the answer,” she said.  “And yet it’s the only answer.”

Those kids that I went to school with, I’ve since learned, came from some of the great Aboriginal families of Victoria.  Their ancestors survived the diseases and the massacres and were herded onto reserves and missions.  Their grandparents had been at Corranderk and Cummeragunja.  They started the Aboriginal Advancement League.  In 1939 they walked off Cummeragunja and some of them headed south to Shepparton where they could get work picking fruit.  They camped on the river flats between Shepparton and Mooroopna.  Those camps were gone by the time my family moved to Shepp in the early 1970s, but the parents of my schoolmates had grown up there.  That’s how they knew where to dive for mussels.

In 2006, when my father was very ill, I travelled to Shepp.  In the waiting room at the hospital I heard a voice behind me.  “Excuse me, but are you Abigail Groves?” 

I didn’t recognise the speaker.  It wasn’t any of the women from the school reunion. 

“Don’t you remember?” she asked.  “It’s Jo. Joanne West.” 

Joanne West greeted me like an old friend.  I told her my dad was sick.  “Oh bless him, poor bugger!” she said.  She gave me her phone number but I never called.  To tell the truth, I was scared. 

Once I wandered into the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney to find an exhibition by an artist called Lin Onus.  He painted huge canvases, of tall gum trees and ghostly rivers.  Ethereal, they transported me to another place, another time.  When I got to the end I read his bio and it turned out that Lin Onus was from the river country on the Murray.  He was one of the Yorta Yorta people, the same mob that I had known at school. 

I don’t go back to Shepparton much anymore.  My father is gone now.  His ashes are in that river.  The water is muddy and running with carp – another plague brought by us Europeans.  But the river winds its way north and then west and then south and some of that water, somewhere, will find its way to the sea.



Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Don't forget me, cobber.

Travelling in country NSW recently I was struck, not for the first time, by the war memorials that sit in each town.  There are a few variations in their 1920s architecture: the soldier, the cross, the plain obelisk.  To me they seem archaic and pompous.  They are always engraved with names, of those who ‘made the ultimate sacrifice’ or whatever.  The dead.  Every town, no matter small, has one.

If you linger for a moment and read the names, you will see that often there is repetition.  Like, Woolcott, J., Woolcott, M., Woolcott, W.  What are the chances that three men named Woolcott were not related?  These towns are small now – they would have been tiny then.  They must have been brothers, or cousins.  What a loss!  These little towns - just a handful of families that all knew each other - must have been devastated. 

It’s not very fashionable, in the circles that I move in, to write about wars.  Unless you’re horrified about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, I suppose.  It’s easy to lay blame in these fuck-ups.  But remembering is not so easy.  ANZAC Day, that annual orgy of remembrance, is soaked in ideological nationalism – thinking people, including me, often find it repulsive.   
Nonetheless, I would like to sound a note of remembrance for those who died in a less publicised episode that took place a hundred years ago today, at Fromelles in northern France.  This battle – and it was only called that later – was part of the Battle of the Somme.  It was someone’s bright idea, to conduct a ‘diversionary action’, to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their troops on main Somme front. 

This task fell to the Australians and was, in military as well as human terms, an unmitigated disaster.  The attack was delayed by two days by the weather, but the artillery bombardment had already started.  It was supposed to destroy the barbed wire that lay in front of the German trenches but served only the warn them that the hapless Australians were about to attack.  The Germans were well dug in, safe throughout the bombardment in deep trenches.  When the Australians did attack, in waves at five minute intervals, they were slaughtered by machine gun fire.  Nearly 2,000 Australian soldiers died; another 3,000 were wounded, in a single day.  Many of the bodies, left hanging on the barbed wire, were never recovered.  News of the debacle was covered up, and only came out much later. 

I wondered, as I travelled around northern NSW, what such a disaster must have been like then.  A hundred years ago Australia’s population was much smaller, obviously.  I try to imagine such a thing happening today.  Adjusted for population growth, it might mean perhaps 14,000 people dying, in one day.  It’s hard to imagine what that might look like, or what it might be taken to mean if it happened now.  And I try to imagine the impossible, and think what it must have meant then, in some little town that was really just a handful of families where everyone knew each other.  It’s no wonder they built their obelisks, and I hope it brought those wives and mothers and sisters and fathers and friends some comfort.