Thursday, April 25, 2024

Rising at dawn on ANZAC Day – revisiting a long and personal story

Waking before dawn on ANZAC Day I suddenly thought I’d take part in my own one-person Dawn Service by thinking quietly about those in my own extended family who had been to war. That’s my five uncles all of whom fought in World War 2 – and survived – with a sense of humour and a string of medals. It’s also my family-in-law – my father-in-law and mother-in-law who were both conscripted into the German Army. My father-in-law once said to me ‘I’d had enough of armies’. My under-age father tried in vain to join up to be with the brothers he adored, but his father refused to sign the necessary papers – luckily, otherwise I might not be here, part of a later generation, remembering them all with great sadness.

It's ironic that we make such a big thing of ANZAC Day on this date, which celebrates a pointless battle in a pointless war. Unlike World War 2, where the democratic world stood against the scourge of fascism, in World War 1 it’s hard to imagine two combatants more similar or more interlinked by culture and history. 

Air and ground crew with Beaufort bomber, Camden UK September 1944. My uncle, Jack Cassidy, is eighth from the right in the second row from the front, with the khaki hat cover on.

However too many of our politicians love uniforms and posturing and remembering the dead (who fortunately can’t answer back) while neglecting the living – the veterans harmed in their service to Australia. If it helps with re-election, that’s a bonus.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Returning to reading – finding the best of all worlds

It’s a strange time we live in – but then, has any time not been a strange time. I often think that there is no way on Earth that I would ever want to live in an earlier era, before medicine was so developed, when the average life expectancy was in the mid 30s, when life for most people was a short spell of drudgery punctuated by poverty and fear. I'm making the most of it. Lately I’ve started to balance my fascination with the easy-earned opinion of the online universe with a return to reading writing, as distinct from glancing at jotting.

I grew up in the era of mass polio, where every child knew someone who was consigned to an iron lung and fear was everywhere. Then suddenly vaccination appeared and our generation embraced it with relief. In our day the way you became protected from a raft of diseases was to catch them and – if you were lucky enough to survive – when you eventually recovered, you were inoculated. Unfortunately, having spent hundreds of years dragging itself out of the Dark Ages, large chunks of humanity seem hell bent of dragging us back.

 The Boulten and Watt steam engine, Powerhouse Museum.

Easier to be connected than ever before
I like this well-connected time of ours, where I can find information (though not always knowledge) at the drop of a hat – if I’m wearing a hat, that is, which unfortunately in this country of extreme heat most people don’t seem to bother with. It’s a time where it is easier to be connected to those who are important in your life than ever before – no matter where they are on the planet.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Revhead heaven revisited – the possible promise where cars and culture overlap

Here in Canberra the massive convoy called Summernats has just rolled into town for another year. As usual it has incited the locals in a loud mix of love and hate – almost as loud as the car races themselves. Yet, like it or loathe it, cars are at the heart of everyday Australian life. Even if they don’t interest you all that much, or even if you mainly use public transport, you probably also use a car regularly. The Sunday drive, the regional road tour, the daily commute are all as Australian as burnt toast and peeling sunburn. The annual Summernats road extravaganza in Australia’s national capital celebrates this mobile culture. With some imagination, it could be even more – celebrating a central, while challenging, part of contemporary Australian popular culture.

This year the Summernats crowd were even outrageously blamed by a Canberra Times reader for defacing a string of memorials on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin over the new year – in the usual fashion of random comments that no-one cares about, normally only the Greens would get the blame.

A much younger author in the 1950s in front of a car of the era - 'cars have always been at the heart of everyday Australian life. The Sunday drive, the regional road tour, the daily commute are all as Australian as burnt toast and peeling sunburn.'

Summernats brings a mixed bag to the national capital – a large increase in atmospheric polution, a huge jump in stylish haircuts and sleek vehicles and, since last year, a parallel festival of popular culture in hipster heaven Braddon, which this year has been expanded to the whole three days of the main event. There has always been a dark side to Summernats, more so the further back you go, but even last year, but organisers seem to have been actively trying to make the event broader and more inclusive.

Monday, November 20, 2023

As old as the hills and as young as tomorrow - an unexpected insight into a hidden regional Australia

On a short regional road trip to Victoria, I stumbled across something unexpecteda nod back to my past and a taste of an Australia as old as the hills and, at the same time, as young as tomorrow. At a local food and wine festival I encountered Dark Emu dark lager, a collaboration between renowned author Bruce Pascoe and local brewery, Sailors Grave, which uses the seeds from the native grasses Bruce has been reintroducing after hundreds of years.

This week I’ve been in Inverloch in regional Victoria. While we were there we went to the Village Feast, organised by the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, and joined the crowds eating, drinking and listening to music. For the last three years the Festival has been expanding into Victorian regional areas and this year it was the turn of Inverloch.

The Sailors Grave Brewery stall at the Inverloch Village feast.

The local produce was terrific – what's not to like about cheese and wine, especially when it's particularly likeable. Chef and presenter Adam Liaw was there, looking every bit as personable as he comes across on television. 

Saturday, October 21, 2023

When one door closes, a window opens – moving on from another failed referendum

Looking forward from the failed referendum on The Voice to Parliament, everyone seems to be talking about how to find some positives after the result. It’s definitely time for a lot of thinking and rethinking. As I digest the result, I’m thinking about what it all means. There's quite a bit to say and it’s definitely time for thoughtful length rather than the slogans and catch phrases we’ve endured over the last few months. Despite the setback, lots of change is still happening. From my personal experience working alongside the community languages activists for some 15 years as they laboured to revive and maintain their First Nations languages there are many specific examples of positive changes. I can't see a failed referendum stopping their work. Their positive and practical spirit had a deep impact on me. These were people building an Australia for the future, drawing on the best parts of the past and overcoming the worst. They were some of the most impressive people I have ever met. I still remain close to many of them and I will remember them to my dying day.

Change at the level of Parliament and the Constitution seems – as has almost always been the case – to be too hard for Australians. The problem is that whenever any change to deal with the complexities of the modern world is proposed, big money is unleashed to protect power and privilege. As Bob Dylan observed money doesn't talk, it swears.’ On top of those who weren't convinced of the merits of the proposal anyway, I suppose the outcome is not that surprising.

Shortage of knowledge and bullshit detectors
Too many Australians didn't have the knowledge of Australian history, of Indigenous communities or of how Government works. More importantly they didn't have enough of the learned critical skills to see through the expensive marketing campaigns, so they ended up marketing victims. It used to be said that Australians had an inbuilt bullshit detector, but that itself is the biggest piece of bullshit I've heard.

Mixed interpretations from The Treaty of Waitangi on display in Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum of New Zealand in Wellington, show how in these sort of matters messaging is critical. Will the failure of the Voice to Parliament referendum reinforce calls for a treaty instead? It involves a much longer timeframe but has potentially far more wide-reaching implications.

Yet, despite this, lots of change is still happening. From my personal experience there are many specific examples of positive change, quite a few which come down to the community languages organisations, at both local level with dual naming, but also nationally through the work of First Languages Australia.

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Alive and kicking – childrens songs in first languages take culture into future

For many years I managed the Australian Government cultural program that supported the maintenance and revival of Indigenous languages – the languages unique to Australia. The community languages over-achievers I met in those years demonstrated that there has always been an inextricable connection between language and music and song. In the case of the many hundreds of community languages spoken in Australia before European settlement, this has always been true. There is a long history of music and song in First Nations cultures and communities and increasingly contemporary musicians have been performing and recording songs in First Nations languages. When music and song featuring First Nations languages is specifically by and for children, we start to see the face of the future. This is not a story only of relevance to First Nations communities. Why it is important to everyone is that it shows how focused community activity can be a major force for good and can underpin a broader, richer Australian culture.

Recording songs in First Nations languages has been an established practice for some time now. Who can forget hearing the words in one of the Yolngu languages in the ground-breaking song ‘Treaty for the first time? Whole albums by the great Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu were almost completely in language – Yolngu languages such as Gaalpu, Gumatj or Djambarrpuynu, a dialect related to Gumatj – with only a sprinkling of English.
Young Yolngu musicians practicing at Garma Festival, East Arnhem Land, 2008
Taken off
In recent years, though, it has really taken off, with many performers, such as Shellie Morris and the Borroloola Songwomen (featuring the Yanuwa, Garrawa, Mara and Guanji languages of the Borroloola region) releasing albums in their community language, part of a wider international trend. As a Sydney Morning Herald article points out other musicians to record songs in language include ARIA-nominated singer and songwriter Gumbaynggirr woman Emma Donovan, Emily Wurramara, Baker Boy, Budjerah, DRMNGNOW, Christine Anu and King Stingray, to name just a few. This has built on a long tradition of singing and music featuring First Nations languages.

First Nations performers have also taken and transformed songs originally written in English. Mitch Tambo’s performance of the much-loved unofficial national anthem ‘You’re the Voice’ in Gamilaraay at the Fire Fight Australia concert – alongside its original singer, Johnny Farnham, and Olivia Newton-John and Brian May of Queen no less – is a recent high profile example.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Who we are and where we come from – end to the rot in our national cultural institutions?

After a hiatus of ten long years Australia finally has a new national cultural policy that maps out what the current Albanese Government plans to do in support of Australian culture and creativity. At first glance the new policy appears to be an arts policy, rather than a broader cultural policy, but on closer scrutiny it is connected to far wider initiatives. Part of a series of three articles that consider different aspects of the cultural policy, this article looks at the boost to the national collecting institutions which collect and safeguard Australia's cultural heritage, outlining how after decades of damage from the so-called efficiency dividend, these institutions, amongst our most important publically-owned assets, might just have been saved. The first article looks at the policy generally and outlines some of the major components it will deliver. The second article is about the connection between the policy and broader social and economic features, such as the cultural economy and First Nations economic development.

Finally, after decades of neglect, this Government has seen fit to start to address the dire state of our national cultural institutions. These are the publically-owned institutions which belong to the Australia people and which play a crucial national role in supporting and preserving Australia’s culture and heritage. Yet over decades their work has been steadily and stealthily crippled by the operation of the ‘efficiency dividend’ the 1.25 per cent annual levy introduced in 1987 by the Hawke government and continued by Government under both major parties ever since.

This is an automatic bureaucratic mechanism which through its cumulative impact cuts support for the work of the organisations at the very time it needs to be expanded to service the growing needs of an expanding population and economy – it is about everything but efficiency. This was a crucial issue recognised by Arts Minister Crean at the time of the last national cultural policy. 

The National Film and Sound Archive, one of nine national collecting institutions which received a funding boost in the 2023-24 Budget as part of the delivery of the new national cultural policy.

Much of what is happening to these national organisations is also occurring at state level to state cultural institutions of national significance. The disappointing and badly thought through changes to the once-mighty Powerhouse Museum are a good example. These organisations are very different to Government departments, which have much more room to adjust to major cuts. They have very specific requirements to operate effectively, including a body of highly specialised expertise, with staff with long-established international and national professional networks to facilitate their roles.