Clive James (1939-2019) has just died. He was a poet, novelist, writer, TV critic and TV showman famous as a wit and a humorist, although I never found him to be very funny. Strangely, not actually being funny is apparently not a barrier to acquiring a reputation as a comic writer, as the careers of Howard Jacobson and Saul Bellow demonstrate. Jacobson, an Honorary Life Member of the UK branch of the Expatriate Australian Mutual Admiration Society, praises his fellow Society member in today’s Grauniad.
Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category
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Recent Reading 15
The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.
- Michael Ovitz : Who is Michael Ovitz? A Memoir. USA: WH Allen. This is a fascinating and well-written autiobiography by the co-founder and driving force behind Creative Artists Agency. CAA grew from nothing to dominate the agency business in movies and TV, and then entered M&A consultancy and advertising. I always admired the chutzpah of this strategy and marveled at its success. The book explains how CAA’s creative bundling of the products of its writers, actors, musicians, directors and producers enabled it to grow as an agency, and also enabled the diversification: the expertise gained in strategizing and financially evaluating creative bundles was used to value Hollywood studios (with their back catalogues) as potential acquisition targets. Likewise, the creativity in bundling and the access to diverse talent was used to design successful advertisements. What surprised me reading this book was that the diversification ended after just two acquisition assignments and one advertising project (Coca Cola’s polar bears). The key reason for this seems to have been the opposition of Mr Ovitz’s partners and colleagues at CAA, despite the handsome and arguably unearnt rewards his efforts brought many of them. No good deed ever goes unpunished, it seems. // The book also presents his experiences as President at Disney. Although of course we only hear his side of that story, he does seem to have been undermined from before he even began work there. // Overall, the writing is articulate and reflective, and he seems to have grown personally through his career and his apparent failures. I greatly admire his continued desire and willingness to learn new things – new skills, new businesses, new industries, new cultures, new hobbies. Doing this requires rare, personal courage. Few people in American business were as willing as he was to immerse themselves in Japanese culture when doing business in Japan, for instance. One characteristic Mr Ovitz does not ever display is smugness, and this absence is admirable.
Poem: Christmas Tree
Christmas Tree by James Merrill, from here.
Bristol 28 vs. Worcester Warriors 20, Ashton Gate Stadium Bristol, Boxing Day 2016. Gate of 16K.
Ngunawal in the Australian Parliament
The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech in the House of Representatives in February 2016 in which he began with some words in the language formerly used in the Canberra region, Ngunawal. It was apparently the first time an Australian Prime Minister had spoken in an Aboriginal language (at least in Parliament), and probably the first time that Ngunawal had been spoken in any Parliament. The language has been almost extinct for some time. The speech is here.
The SMH carried a nice article by Michael Gordon on the preparation for this speech, of which the following is an excerpt:
The idea was simple enough. Executing it proved the hard part, involving subterfuge, lateral thinking and a collaboration that just might shape how Malcolm Turnbull confronts the twin tasks of tackling disadvantage and advancing the cause of reconciliation.
It was Alan Tudge, the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister, who suggested Turnbull, in his first major speech on Indigenous affairs since toppling Tony Abbott, should begin in the language of the Ngunawal, the people on whose land Parliament House is built.
Turnbull liked the idea, so a staff member contacted the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies which, in turn, referred the request to the institute’s senior linguist, Doug Marmion, for advice on how to do it.
It wasn’t as simple as forwarding a set of words and arranging for some coaching on how to deliver them. The language of the Ngunawal people was almost non-existent just two years ago, having not been widely spoken for more than a century because of the impact of dispossession.
Dr Marmion discussed one form of words with Turnbull via Skype, but the Prime Minister was very particular, wanting to “acknowledge” and “pay respects” to the elders. So the linguist sought the help of Tyronne Bell and Glen Freeman, two members of the Ngaiyuriidja Ngunawal Language Group.
Problem was, he couldn’t tell them he was ringing on Turnbull’s behalf, just in case something went wrong and Turnbull took the safe option of giving the acknowledgment in English.
Soon enough, though, they were in Turnbull’s office coaching the most powerful man in the land on how to honour their people. Freeman recalls almost having to pinch himself.
“How amazing is our country that ordinary people such as us get to meet the leader in his personal space and for him to embrace what we put to him!” he says. “He picked it up so fast it surprised me. It was lovely.”
For Turnbull, the experience changed his motivation for opening his speech in Aboriginal language. “As we looked into it, we realised this whole issue of language, and language preservation and culture was so important it could be more than a mark of respect – more a statement about the importance of language and the continuity of language,” the Prime Minister told me.
Turnbull also recast the body of the speech, highlighting a commitment to spend an extra $20 million over two years on the collection of “critical cultural knowledge” and the promotion of Indigenous cultures and traditions.
That is good news for Bell, the “knowledge-holder of the Ngunawal”, and Freeman, who for the past two years, without financial assistance, have been collecting material that will bring their language back to life.
When they began, they had around 30 words. Now they have more 300 and are confident there will soon be a strong enough understanding of the language for it to be taught in Canberra schools and to adults and widely used.
Their mission, they say, is to rediscover their collective soul and reason for being. “Language is the pathway to all things involving culture and the link to our ancestors,” says Freeman. “It’s the seed to sustenance for those who follow.”
If many non-Indigenous Australians struggle to appreciate this, Dr Marmion says it is because they have a “monolingual mindset” that makes it hard for them to appreciate the value of other languages, and particularly the value of heritage languages.
“Imagine the sense of loss if you were never able to read a letter written by your grandfather, or understand a recording of your grandmother singing,” he explains.
This is why, in January 2012, the expert panel appointed by Julia Gillard recommended that any constitutional change include recognising that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were this country’s first tongues.
Since then, the recognition debate has struggled to achieve a consensus on what form recognition should take and when the question should be put. Part of the reason for this is that Indigenous leaders believe their voices were not being heard or respected.
Turnbull’s speech was crafted to change this perception. It included a promise to be guided by the “great wisdom” of Indigenous educator Chris Sarra, who advised the new Prime Minister to “do things with us, not to us”.
To this end, Turnbull has responded to the blueprint to empower communities produced by Cape York leader Noel Pearson and several others including Sean Gordon, who represents Indigenous communities on the Central Coast of New South Wales.
The PM has embraced the idea of partnership and agreed to fund the empowerment model in eight sites and potentially others, but held back on embracing the institutional reforms proposed in the blueprint until progress is assessed in three years. This has disappointed Pearson and Gordon, but it is a start.
Moreover, Turnbull told me recognition is “achievable” next year, and has vowed to work closely with the referendum council that will report in June on how Indigenous conventions should be structured to refine the question. “The first thing is that we’ve got to come up with some words, an amendment that is meaningful for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait islanders. It’s got to speak to, it’s got to sing to them, otherwise they’ll wash their hands of it,” he said. “
UPDATE (2016-09-03): And here, delivered on 31 August 2016, is the maiden speech of MHR, Ms Linda Burney, member for Barton, the first woman of Aboriginal descent to be a member of Federal Parliament. Ms Burney speaks in part in Wiradjuri language, and the speech includes a traditional singing invocation from three be-cloaked Wiradjuri women in the public gallery. Ms Burney is a former NSW Minister and member of the NSW Legislative Assembly, aka the “Bear Pit”, Australia’s roughest parliament.
And, now Senator Patrick Dodson, in his maiden speech, delivered on 1 September 2016, has addressed the Senate in his native Yawuru, and obtained the agreement of the President of the Senate, Senator Stephen Parry, to respond to him in Yawuru. How heart-warming it is that the President of the Senate did this. Some background here.
Bernard O’Reilly (1903-1975), of Green Mountains fame, writing about his bush childhood in the Kanimbla Valley, NSW:
That music! – accordians and concertinas [page break]- low brow, but who is so high brow or blasé that he doesn’t secretly enjoy such music? But best were the violins and they were played by men to whom violin playing had come as legacies from father to son and on to grandson. Their music was a thing apart, it had the quality of antiquity which is only possible where father had taught son and no outside influence or technique had been allowed to creep in. Thinking back now it is impossible for me to say whether or not they played well from a technical point of view – you wouldn’t even think of that whilst you listened. The violin became a live thing in their hands; it didn’t merely express their moods and feelings, but it commanded and all who listened followed as they would the Piper of Hamelin through moods of tenderness, through sorrow and through wild joy.
Are they all gone, these men? No, there is one left. Our old neighbour, Pat Cullen, of Long Swamp, has lived beyond his four score years, but in his hands, that old brown violin can still make you dance or laugh or cry.” (pages 37-38)
Bernard O’Reilly : Cullenbenbong. Brisbane: WR Smith and Paterson Pty Ltd. My copy was purchased in 1945 by Burl Ives.
The need for enchantment
I just described our contemporary western culture as pseudo-rationalist materialism arising from a Protestant disdain for the supernatural, pagan aspects of Catholicism. I recalled a 2015 column by New York Times op-editor David Brooks on the need for enchantment in our lives. A willingness to accept enchantment is indeed a counter-cultural act.
The dating sites have taken the information available online and tried to use it to match up specific individuals. They’ve failed. An exhaustive review of the literature by Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern and others concluded, “No compelling evidence supports matching sites’ claims that mathematical algorithms work.” That’s because what creates a relationship can’t be expressed in data or photographs. Being in love can’t be done by a person in a self-oriented mind-set, asking: Does this choice serve me? Online dating is fascinating because it is more or less the opposite of its object: love.
When online daters actually meet, an entirely different mind-set has to kick in. If they’re going to be open to a real relationship, they have to stop asking where this person rates in comparison to others and start asking, can we lower the boundaries between self and self. They have to stop thinking in individual terms and start feeling in rapport terms.
Basically, they have to take the enchantment leap. This is when something dry and utilitarian erupts into something passionate, inescapable and devotional. Sometimes a student becomes enraptured by the beauty of math, and becomes a mathematician. Soldiers doing the drudgery of boot camp are gradually bonded into a passionate unit, for which they will risk their lives. Anybody who has started a mere job and found in it a vocation has taken the enchantment leap.
In love, of course, the shift starts with vulnerability, not calculation. The people involved move from selfishness to service, from prudent thinking to poetic thinking, from a state of selection to a state of need, from relying on conscious thinking to relying on their own brilliant emotions.
When you look at all the people looking for love and vocation today, you realize we live in a culture and an online world that encourages a very different mind-set; in a technical culture in which humanism, religion and the humanities, which are the great instructors of enchantment, are not automatically central to life.
I have to guess some cultures are more fertile for enchantment — that some activities, like novel-reading or music-making, cultivate a skill for it, and that building a capacity for enchantment is, these days, a countercultural act and a practical and fervent need.”
David Brooks : The devotion leap. New York Times International Edition, 24-25 January 2015, page 9.
The image is “The Spirit of the Plains” (1897) by Sydney Long (1871-1955), now in the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.
Of things unseen
I have remarked before that anyone who has spent any extended period living in Africa or Asia will have encountered people with strong beliefs, beliefs based on their own direct, personal experiences, in the existence of a non-material realm. In many places, the overwhelming majority of people have such beliefs. It may be that the majority of westerners, too, have had such experiences but our contemporary culture (pseudo-rationalist materialism arising from a Protestant disdain for the supernatural and pagan aspects of Catholicism) inhibits their public expression, or even, sometimes, their private recognition.
Strangely, my thoughts on this subject I find mirrored uncannily by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), writing 120 years ago. Here is Hearn, writing about Shintô temples in Japan and his reactions to the associated beliefs:
Why certain architectural forms produce in the beholder a feeling of weirdness is a question about which I should like to theorize some day; at present I shall venture only to say that Shintô shrines evoke such a feeling. It grows with familiarity instead of weakening; and a knowledge of popular beliefs is apt to intensify it. We have no English words by which these queer shapes can be sufficiently described, – much less any language able to communicate the peculiar impression which they make. Those Shintô terms which we loosely render by the words “temple” and “shrine” are really [page-break] untranslatable; — I mean that the Japanese ideas attaching to them cannot be conveyed by translation. The so-called “august house” of the Kami is not so much a temple, in the classic meaning of the term, as it is a haunted room, a spirit-chamber, a ghost-house; many of the lesser divinities being veritably ghosts, — ghosts of great warriors and heroes and rulers and teachers, who lived and loved and died hundreds or thousands of years ago. I fancy that to the Western mind the word “ghost-house” will convey, better than such terms as “shrine” and “temple,” some vague notion of the strange character of the Shintô miya or yashiro, — containing in its perpetual dusk nothing more substantial than symbols or tokens, the latter probably of paper. Now the emptiness behind the visored front is more suggestive than anything material could possibly be; and when you remember that millions of people during thousands of years have worshiped their great dead before such yashiro, — that a whole race still believes those buildings tenanted by viewless conscious personalities, — you are apt also to reflect how difficult it would be to prove the [page-break] faith absurd. Nay! In spite of Occidental reluctances, — in spite of whatever you may think it expedient to say or not to say at a later time about the experience, — you may very likely find yourself for a moment forced into the attitude of respect towards possibilities. Mere cold reasoning will not help you far in the opposite direction. The evidence of the senses counts for little: you know there are ever so many realities which can neither be seen nor heard nor felt, but which exist as forces, — tremendous forces. Then again you cannot mock the conviction of forty millions of people while that conviction thrills all about you like air, — while conscious that it is pressing upon your psychical being just as the atmosphere presses upon your physical being. As for myself, whenever I am alone in the presence of a Shintô shrine, I have the sensation of being haunted; and I cannot help thinking about the possible apperceptions of the haunter. And this tempts me to fancy how I should feel if I myself were a god, — dwelling in some old Izumo shrine on the summit of a hill, guarded by stone lions and shadowed by a holy grove. (Hearn 1897, pages 2-4)”
Lafcadio Hearn : Gleanings in Buddha-Fields: Studies of Hand and Soul in the Far East. London, UK: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Company Limited.
Two buskers practicing, Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, London, this morning. They each had three skittles, and threw one up with their right hand at the first and second beat of three beats, while throwing a skittle to the other juggler on the third beat. The other juggler caught the thrown skittle with his left hand. They stopped practicing as soon as they saw me take this photo.
Courage, honour, valour
For as long as I can remember, I have had to endure lectures from men in uniforms – policemen, soldiers, teachers, clerics – about courage and honour. I recall a particular egregious lecture from a cleric on the cowardice of men who had long hair. (For next millennium readers, this was part of a larger argument accusing anyone not supporting US and Australian involvement in the second Indo-Chinese war of cowardice. Of course, it required great courage for a 17-year-old conscript to openly confront such logically specious, and morally tendentious, nonsense.) The forces of conservatism always accuse those who confront them of cowardice, it seems.
The Hillsborough coronial verdict shows just what true courage and valour and honour are: It is fighting for justice against all odds, against the overwhelming sentiment of those in authority and of society in general, against friend and peer, as well as journalist and foe, against recalcitrant judges and lying policemen. But courage is also admitting when one has made a poor decision, and bravely facing the consequences of that decision. It is not too late for these men in uniform to finally reveal some courage and accept the consequences of their negligence, their lack of preparation, and their poor judgment.