Drifting on the Gold Coast

It was a slower afternoon than expected hitching back home through northern NSW, and just as the sun was going down I was dropped at the turnoff for Elanora on the southern end of the Gold Coast. A few minutes further up the road I could have got on the train back to Brisbane, but that’s not always how hitching goes. So after half an hour standing in vain with my thumb out under a streetlight on the M1, I gave up and decided to go for a walk.

It’s a decent walk from Elanora to Varsity Lakes train station (google maps says 10km, though the route I walked in the end was more like 15). I could have tried the bus, sure. But once I was off the motorway and away from the roar of the traffic, I found the prospect quite appealing. I don’t spend much time at the Gold Coast, and a long walk would be a nice chance to experience what it has to offer. I’ve also been recently re-inspired by the Situationists – a French art/political group from the 60’s. The Situationists were into what they called “psychogeography”, and one of their ideas was the “dérive” (or “drift” in English), where to break up the monotony of life under capitalism, you walk through an unfamiliar urban landscape with no plan and no direction other than the contours of the city. Given I had a destination in mind and a rough idea of how to get there, my walk wouldn’t quite be a true dérive, but the concept was still running through my head as I set off for the Gold Coast highway.

The word “psychogeography” is not one in common usage, but I quite like it. Any place is marked by physical landmarks – be they rivers or shopping malls – but also that same place exists on another plane in our minds. We can have different maps going concurrently – the physical terrain and the connotations we put on a place, from history, from culture, from our own experience. And so as I embark on the walk, wandering through apartment blocks and occasional shops, I start to recall a few other walks I’ve done on the Gold Coast.

The first walk I remember was a similar route to the one I am walking this time. It was 2011 and I had just begun the most truly momentous journey of my life – deciding to live with no income and no stable housing. I was roaming around the country with each new place offering surprises and new opportunities and adventure. I had hitched up from Melbourne to the Gold Coast for a friend’s wedding – my first long hitch-hiking trip. The wedding had been in Tweed Heads, the friend’s house I was staying at in Palm Beach. After saying goodbye to friends at Coolangatta airport, I started walking up the Gold Coast highway – knowing that eventually that road would take me back to my friend’s house.

I hadn’t read much Situationist theory at the time (I knew them mostly as the inspiration for Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols artwork) but I was an instinctive and devout believer in the dérive. I didn’t know how far it was to walk (checking now, it is also about 10km); and I wouldn’t have cared if I had never made it – I was throwing myself open to the hands of fate. In the end nothing too exciting happened that night – I remember dumpstering some food and running into gangs of bored teenagers roaming the streets – but I was in such joy as I walked that night with no commitments to return to, no plan for the future and no idea what was around the corner. It is a happy memory.

I keep walking north, past the point where that walk had ended over 5 years ago. I recalled another stroll up the Gold Coast. It was the day after the previous memory actually. Besides the friend I was staying with, I knew two other people on the Gold Coast. They were Bronte and Todd – a young couple, still teenagers. I had met them in Wollongong a few months earlier, at a show by American folk-punk band Defiance, Ohio (incidentally the supports that night were Wollongong street-punk stalwarts Topnovil and a still newly formed group called the Smith Street Band). Defiance, Ohio are the kind of band that inspire devotion, and while I had caught the train down the coast from Sydney’s southern suburbs, this young and enthusiastic couple I was dancing next to had travelled from the Gold Coast to Wollongong to catch the only all ages show of the tour.

Fast forward a few months and I was on the Gold Coast. I had contacted Bronte and Todd and we arranged to meet at Burleigh Beach, so I walked up from Palm Beach in the afternoon. Again, the world seemed magically open – everywhere there were amazing people, friends in the making if you reached out and talked to that stranger standing next to you. I got to the beach early and sat down watching the waves roll in. I got talking to a woman at the beach. Years later I can’t remember her name, or exactly what we talked about; but I do remember connecting with her and getting past small talk and on to my favourite topic – how do we live lives of meaning and adventure in this sterile world of production and consumption?

After a while Bronte and Toddburleigh_heads_beach arrived, and we walked up the beach at Burleigh, talking about probably the same thing, interspersed with a bit of comparing music and a bit of asking what it’s like growing up on the Gold Coast. I took them on their first dumpster-diving trip.

The next morning I would leave the Coast for another new city and more new people and adventures. I saw myself as a kind of travelling evangelist, roaming around and giving out whatever I had to offer – be it a moment of connection, inspiration, time or skills – to anyone whose paths I crossed. I don’t know how often it worked out; but as chance would have it, in the time between my dérive on the Coast and actually sitting down to write this, I ran into Bronte for the first time in at least a year. We talked about various things (including, actually, that same topic of finding meaning in life), but one of them was recalling that night in Burleigh all those years ago.

From Burleigh I head inland towards Varsity Lakes. A guy I had stopped to ask for directions told me to follow Christine Avenue. I feel like there is possibly a more direct way (there is), but follow his directions anyway. It’s a long walk. The shops are gone now with the coastline, I’m in suburbia. I wander on, and remember another walk from my past.

It was still 2011, but near the end of what had been an amazing year. I was heading down the coast to Forster to meet up with some old friends. It had been a crazy couple of months – living in the thrown together and sometimes dysfunctional community that was the Occupy Brisbane encampment, busy with all kinds of things and recently heartbroken having been dumped over the phone from New Zealand. I was keen for a relaxing weekend.

At this stage still inexperienced at journeying south from Brisbane, I was still trying to find the best place to hitch from. So after getting off the train at Robina and walking to the motorway, I discovered that there was nowhere for cars to pull over. Unperturbed, I started walking down the shoulder of the road until I came to roadworks and could walk no further. I climbed off the motorway, thinking I would keep walking south and get back on the highway further down. So I went on, with the sound of the M1 traffic getting further away. Having caught the early train from Brisbane, it had been a long morning and I was up for a break. At this point I came across a blood donor centre. “Perfect”, I thought. I was due to give blood, and not only would it give me a break and something to eat, it would mean that regardless of whatever else happened that morning I would have done something useful. After taking a sample of my blood, the nurse told me I was iron-deficient and couldn’t give blood for six months.

I’m sure it was a combination of this news and other factors, but I was devastated. You know how they say every time you give blood you save three lives? I had just killed three people! I trudged off again for the highway but got lost along the way and walked aimlessly through Gold Coast’s labyrinth of endless indistinguishable suburbia. It was nightmarish. I was close to having a breakdown. When I eventually found my way back to the motorway, there was still nowhere for cars to pull over. I saw in the distance another train station – Varsity Lakes. In my hopeless mental state, it may as well have been a desert oasis. It was by this point early afternoon and I had made it precisely nowhere. Getting on the train, I thought about going to the truckstop at Beenleigh and trying for a ride there. Wisely though, I gave up and slunk back to Brisbane defeated.

In my many years and many kilometres of hitching, that day still sticks out as the worst hitching experience I’ve ever had (that includes being stuck for a whole day at Gin Gin). It’s funny though, because tonight, even as I start to realise that I am again lost in the Gold Coast suburbs, the memory only makes me smile and laugh. Predictability and hitch-hiking are not meant to go together. If you want reliability, get a 9-5 with four weeks annual leave. Get on a plane and turn on the tv screen. In travel options, like in life; I prefer random with a chance of glorious serendipity to mundane with the assurance you’ll get to your destination on time. The bad times (and here I can include not just hitching mishaps, but also breakups and failed attempts at changing the world) are just a chance to celebrate that rather than settling for the way things are we believed more is possible.

I’m still walking. By this point, it’s been a couple of hours. You could say the dérive had been a success – the cityscape has taken me on a journey I wouldn’t have otherwise embarked on. But the fact that the journey is entirely in my head only serves to highlight the lack of actual interactions I’ve had. The fact is, that in several hours walking – in mid-evening with much of it on a main street – I have crossed paths with less than a dozen people. And I don’t mean people I’ve communicated with. This is the total number of people I’ve seen on the street. As I begin to realise I’m lost, I have no option other than to keep walking – there is not a single person to ask directions from. Eventually I startle a young woman who is sitting in her parked car by knocking on the window. After she hurriedly points the way to the station, I turn around and hear her doors click locked.

Much of our urban spaces is set out like the Gold Coast – seemingly designed to preclude interaction with others. Why would you walk anywhere? The shops are all in a big mall with a massive carpark. There’s no public spaces to just hang out, and who would you meet there anyway? All the people I might want to be friends with are already given to me by facebook based on their algorithm. The chance journey promised by the Situationists and their theory of psychogeography is nowhere to be found here – no people, no street art, no posters, no variety in architecture. There is plenty of nice greenery to admire, but even that is curated and manicured to an aesthetic ideal. I learn nothing about the ecosystem of the Gold Coast and how it is different from other places.

Here, and in so many of our cities, new experiences are mediated to us through the lens of consumerism – the scope of possible interactions is narrowed to a sliver – new products to buy, new places to shop, new tv shows to watch. I think of another classic Situationist idea: “Life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into mere representation.”

Overwhelmingly, it is new experiences that are the pivots on which we change our lives. Books, films, rational arguments or inspiring visions rarely have the same effect on us that an experience of a new state of being does. It’s the multi-sensory stimulation of being there  in the flesh. It’s the feeling that your physical presence was part of creating the situation rather than just observing it. It’s the shift in that part of your brain that stores potential realities.

A world where new interactions are restricted is a world that supports and strengthens the status quo. To change our lives and change our society we regularly need new experiences that will jolt us out of routine and into action and imagination. The Situationists believed this – that’s why they sent people on random jaunts through unfamiliar settings. That’s why they altered familiar images to force us to interact with them in new ways (“détournement”). That’s why they covered Paris in graffiti in May 1968 and appropriated university funds to bombard students with thousands of flyers – creating “situations”.

For any of us that believes more and better things than our current reality are possible, the responsibility is on us to challenge ourselves with new experiences, and to step out and offer new experiences  to others – to bravely act in a way that breaks through the monotony of our daily existence and offers a glimpse into new possibilities – the chance of another world.

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The dance of nationalism

For any visitor to India from the western world, there are many sights and experiences that could be described as strange. But undoubtedly one of the strangest is the Wagah border closing ceremony.

Every night, just before sundown, the ceremony takes place 30km west of Amritsar in Panjab. For a long time this spot was the only road border crossing between  India and Pakistan (it’s now one of two), and each night they close the gate between the two countries.

This is no simple matter of swinging and locking a gate though. No, a couple of hours before sundown crowds start gathering either side of the fence, filing through numerous security checks to fill up grandstands. I could only really see the Indian side, though from afar it seemed the Pakistan side was much the same (one notable thing I could see over there that wasn’t on the Indian side was people holding Pakistan flags and spinning on the spot repeatedly).

As the crowds built up, an MC wearing cricket whites began to lead chants and run around, without much difficulty whipping the crowd up into patriotic excitement. At one point he calls for all the women to come out of the stands and on to the (now closed off) road, where they begin a kind of relay – taking turns to run the Indian flag up to the border and back. After a while, the relay stops and the road turns into a dance floor; women dancing and waving flags to the sounds of Indian pop hits.

The ceremony hadn’t even begun, but already it was too much for me. I was grateful for the fact that it was still a bit sunny and I was wearing sunglasses; because when I thought of the dreams of Nehru, Gandhi and the Indian independence movement for a united India and compared it to the scene in front of me, I could feel tears welling up in my eyes.

That fence was never supposed to be there. In fact, until 1947, both sides of the fence where I sat were known simply as Panjab – an area whose inhabitants included Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs among other religious and cultural groups. As part of the struggle for power that came with people rising up against the British Empire, the Muslim League led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah argued successfully for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan.

The League’s fear of Muslims becoming an oppressed minority in India had some justification – as the subsequent rise of Hindu fundamentalism has shown. But the partition of India was a tragedy – millions killed or displaced in inter-religious slaughter, Muslims in other parts of India left politically under-represented, the impoverished people of Bangladesh (once East Pakistan) forced to fight their own independence struggle, and a half-century (and counting) long war that has economically and socially crippled these two young nations – sucking up money that really could have been used elsewhere.

With this in mind, the scene took on another terrifying meaning. As women danced, as the crowd cheered, as touts walked around selling Indian flag caps and facepaint, I couldn’t help but think “people die over this stupid fence.”

Indian nationalism was something I had been interested to see during my time there. My stay, after all, coincided with January 26. In Australia, this date is the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip and his first fleet of British convicts landing at Sydney Harbour. These days it seems to be mostly commemorated by white Australians getting dressed up in tacky Australian flag memorabilia, getting drunk and getting a bit racist in their proclamations of why Australia is great. Aboriginal Australians see it a bit differently – for them it is “invasion day” or “survival day”, a time to protest the continuing inequality that has persisted ever since the first white settlers put up the first fence. The official celebrations pay little regard to this or our response to boats landing on our shores a couple of centuries later – they speak in platitudes of “multiculturalism” and “inclusion”. For me at least, the usual Australia Day celebrations do not make me especially proud to have come from this place.

In India, January 26 commemorates the day in 1930 when the Indian Congress of leaders from around the vast population declared their independence from the British Empire. It would take a further seventeen years of struggle, including a mutiny by Indian troops during World War II, before the British agreed to this idea; but I like that Indians still believe this to be the date their republic began – like it was their choice to make, not the British’s.

The different circumstances of these two nations’ beginnings, and the very different compositions – Australia with its majority white, anglophone population of 23 million living on an island isolated from the rest of the world; India with its 1.2 billion people, 20 something languages, multiple religions, porous borders – made me interested to see the different ways these two national days were celebrated. Unfortunately, January 26 was the morning my stomach chose for its inevitable surrender to Delhi belly, and I missed the celebration. So other than people I met earnestly asking me what I thought of the country, the border closing was the first chance I got to see a real display of Indian patriotism.

I guess I hardly need to say that the experience was less than what I had hoped for. While there wasn’t much explicitly anti-Pakistan or anti-Muslim sentiment that I picked up, that is common enough in Indian culture to see it as a subtext. In the chants led by our MC, “India” was not the word used – it was “HIN-DU-STAN!” that the crowd cheered. I know the two terms come from the same root word, but there seemed something ominous about it. What about the 200 million Muslims that live in India? Not to mention Christians, Buddhists, Jains, or any other belief system that have for centuries called the sub-continent home.

The ceremony would only get more and more strange – the militaries took their place on either side of the border and enacted the pseudo-aggressive ritualwagah they have done every night for the last 50 years. Goose-stepping soldiers in bizarre outfits stepping out their strange dance routine (being able to kick yourself in the head shows admirable flexibility, but I’m not sure what else it proves), soldiers whose job it was to yell for extended periods into the microphone; the whole thing seemed comical except that it was done completely stern-faced, to constant support from the crowd.

What did it all mean? The fact that soldiers on either side would copy – step for step, yell for yell – the routine the other had just performed only seemed to point out the ridiculousness of nationalism – if the two sides are pretty much identical, then what’s the point of the fence in between? The soldier routines surely owed more to British colonialism than either culture. The outfits lent themselves to an interesting idea. The crested helmets looked to be inspired by that iconic native Indian bird the peacock. It made me wonder about all this aggressive stomping around. Could it be that nationalism and its disputes are just modern human extensions of the primal masculine need to display virility to potential mates? There’s certainly something phallic about all those guns and cannons, not to mention the obelisks frequently set up as national monuments. Is all this bloodshed just for an elaborate courtship ritual?

The ceremony finished with a synchronised lowering of the Indian and Pakistani flags and the closing of the gate. In the end it was friendly and congenial despite all the aggressive posturing and shouting. People flooded out of the grandstands to have their picture taken in front of the border. The atmosphere was lighter. A friend told me that when he went to the ceremony a few years ago he watched everyone get up and shake hands through the fence. But I still felt uneasy about the whole thing. This “innocent” display of national pride and ceremony is the friendly face of a rivalry that has killed and displaced millions of people. And not just historically. While I was in India a student activist from Delhi was charged with sedition. His crime? Protesting the death of a Kashmiri independence fighter who had been executed by the Indian government. Surreptitiously; things like religion, geography, even sport and pop music are co-opted into this power game that will kill and oppress innocent people mostly for the sake of controlling money and resources.

And we should not think of this as a phenomenon limited to the Indian subcontinent. That last sentence could equally be used to describe Australian nationalism. At a hostel I met a young Muslim from India’s southern tip. He was a very intelligent and friendly guy, but because he is a Tamil speaker he was the target of ads on facebook paid for by the Australian government, reassuring him that “if you come by boat, YOU WON’T BE SETTLED IN AUSTRALIA”. Australia’s xenophobia and militarisation of our own history makes us see conflicts where there are  none, turning anyone different into an enemy. The human costs are measurable in deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq; in refugees rotting away in camps or detention centres.

Early in the border closing ceremony, when the Indian women were dancing to Bollywood hits blasting out of the PA, a couple of middle-aged white women joined in, prompting wild cheers from the crowd in the stands. I looked over at the group of British women, barely out of high school, who I had traveled out to the border with; silently praying they wouldn’t also get up to join. The dance seemed so symbolic. Everyone wants to belong to something – a place and a group of people. But belonging at the expense of others is an illusion. As well as excluding others who have just a much of a right to belong, you are simultaneously excluding yourself from other groups and losing out on what they could offer. Plus there’s no telling when the boundaries change and you could suddenly find yourself on the outer.

True belonging will come when we can look at each other and see commonalities, not differences. Neither losing our own identity in a group nor trying to force change onto others. When we see our own wellbeing as inextricably linked to that of others. Now that’s something to dance about.

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Rivers (of life)

It’s an obscure track by a broken-up punk band, but nonetheless Sydney City Trash’s Just The Country Coming Out In Me is a song that I deeply love. And among its verses of country pride is a line that has always stayed with me – “I prefer rivers to the sea.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the ocean too, with its heaving breaths of tides and its endless horizons. But everyone loves the ocean. Like Sydney City Trash, the bodies of water that truly stirs my heart are rivers.

I grew up a long way from the ocean in central-west New South Wales. Rivers to me bring memories of hot days relieved by oases of cold water, shaded by lines of eucalypt and casuarina trees, often fitted out with a rope swing for entering the water in style. But over the years rivers have come to mean more to me than just childhood nostalgia or a cool place to swim.

on the murray river by ernest william christmas

I take a real delight in seeing rivers wherever they are. When I travel I note the rivers on the journey; look out over the water as I cross. Sometimes when hitching I get the extra joy of being dropped on one side of a river and walking across the bridge in search of the next hitching spot. Not all these bridges are built with the intention of pedestrian use; but even as I have to hug the railing and take off my hat to stop it being blown off into the abyss by passing trucks, I get a thrill from crossing beautiful and iconic rivers like the Hunter, the Lachlan or the Clarence.

As I’ve come to see national borders as illegitimate and arbitrary impositions on free movement, rivers retain a power as a natural border – markers that have been slowly formed by the movement of water over thousands of years. Crossing a river signals moving into a different place. The Wiradjuri nation, traditional owners of the land where I grew up, see themselves as the people of three rivers – the land dissected by what we now know as the Macquarie, Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers. The southern boundary of their land is marked by the vast Murray River – a tradition which is emulated in the border between NSW and Victoria.

Most of our major cities in Australia are bisected by rivers running through them, from the Swan to the Yarra and the Parramatta. Even Alice Springs is split by the Todd, despite the fact it never has any water in it. The twisting and turning Brisbane River is less clear a demarcation than any of these, yet the city is resolutely divided into north and south sides, even when the categorisation seemingly defies logic (for instance, Bulimba is north of the CBD but on the “south side”, while Toowong is south of the city but on the “north side”). Bull sharks and pollution make swimming in the Brisbane River unwise, and the 2011 floods were a reminder of how destructive it can be. Yet that waterway is integral to any idea of Brisbane geographically or socially. Parks line the banks wherever it goes, ferries transport people along its snaking bends.

Rivers are forces of nature that (partly at least) defy human domination – we are forced to build around them, build bridges to cross them. This is surely one of the reasons we are drawn to them as things of beauty. But they are also bringers of life – transporting the water all species require for life from the mountains where the rain falls (or snow melts, depending on where you are) to the ocean where it evaporates; along the way giving life to every area they touch. Even in Australia’s dry and dusty centre, rivers flow deep underground – allowing life to survive where rain never falls.

A combination of these two factors could explain why rivers have often held so much spiritual significance to all kinds of cultures. I’ve already mentioned aboriginal culture, who have often based creation myths on rivers (which, given the role of the river as bringer of life, makes perfect sense). In Hinduism, the Ganga (aka Ganges) is completely sacred – personified as a goddess, used to symbolise the cleansing of sins, a symbol of the afterlife (leading to the somewhat confronting sight of dead bodies often floating down the river).

The Jewish story of Naaman the Aramean leper being healed in the Jordan river by the prophet Elisha became a ritual of rebirth led by John The Baptist, the camel-skin clad prophet wandering the banks of the same river centuries later. From him it was adopted by Christians, and for two thousand years the ritual of baptism has represented death to one way of life and rebirth to another.

The nature of rivers easily lend them spiritual significance. They bring life and fertility (and sometimes death and disaster), they cleanse us, and their perpetual motion and key role in the water cycle symbolise the cyclic nature of life and death.

For slave cultures in North America, the river took on another kind of spiritual resonance. Black gospel tradition is rich with river metaphors (songs like Down By The Riverside, Down To The River To Pray, Wade In The Water; Martin Luther King’s famous biblical allusion to “justice flowing like a river”). You can read all the reasons I’ve already listed into this, but another very practical reason is that rivers provided a rare opportunity of escape from the slave-driven economies of the southern states to the abolitionist north. As stowaways, on rafts or running across the ice in winter; rivers offered a route to the promised land, and those songs gave a subversive wink to other slaves and a symbol of resistance to their owners.

In Australian politics too, the river is an almost mythologised symbol of resistance. The Franklin river, which winds its way through one of the world’s wildest frontiers in south-western Tasmania; was the setting for a dramatic, much publicised and now legendary blockade in the early ’80s. 1,500 people braved the elements to be arrested trying to stop the Franklin being dammed for hydro-electricity. The river was saved when a Labor party with its arm twisted into a policy of conservation won the federal election. But the blockade was pivotal in establishing the Greens party, as well as the culture of “forest ferals” and environmental blockades that have been rolling almost continually since then somewhere around the country. Hardly anyone actually goes to the Franklin River, but direct action advocates in campaigns against deforestation, coal and gas, uranium, even refugee detention will often look back to that river story as an inspiration and heritage.

That story though brings up an important point to be made about rivers. Forces of nature they may be, but these literal and symbolic bringers of life are constantly under threat from human greed and its exploitation of nature. Rivers are dammed, polluted, over-fished; their banks eroded by land clearing and over-grazing; their waters commodified for private usage. Chemical run-off from farms has killed all life in vast swathes of America’s iconic Mississippi, while Australian mining company BHP destroyed over 1000km of the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers in the highlands of Papua New Guinea by routinely discharging mine tailings.

Where am I going with all this? This article is a bit like a river really, twisting and turning through different ideas, hopefully spreading  bit of new life to all of them before it empties out into a bigger body of water. One more lesson that we can all learn from rivers is that they usually end with neither a dramatic conclusion nor pithy wrap-up. They run their course and then mix into the wash of vast oceans of water, ready to one day be re-evaporated and do it all again.

The point of this article I guess is to celebrate rivers and all their significance. Rivers are under threat from our greed and exploitation, and at the same time the practice of seeking out meaning and significance from the things around us is endangered by a world of pre-ordained answers, information overload and technotopia. I can’t help feeling that the two things are linked, and that maybe the best hope for both humans and waterways is in a recognition of the value of all things and our symbiotic interconnectedness.

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Self-immolation

When I was about 15 I, like92rage many teenagers before and many since, became enamoured by political rap-rock band Rage Against The Machine. Like a lot of fans, I wasn’t quite sure what all the songs were about, but there was no mistaking that their rage was not mere teen angst – they really meant it. Contributing strongly to this conclusion was the striking artwork of their first album. Looking out from the cover was a Buddhist monk, sitting cross legged while his body was engulfed in flames. The monk was Quảng Đức, the photo taken in 1963 when Quảng publicly set himself on fire to protest persecution of Buddhists by Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.

It’s not often that I think much about self-immolation, but it has come up several times in the news in recent weeks, getting me thinking about this most extreme form of protest.

Most pressingly, there was the story of 23 year old Iranian asylum seeker Omid. Omid was a processed refugee, but has been settled permanently in Nauru, where conditions are so desperate that when United Nations representatives turned up for an inspection two weeks ago, Omid doused himself in petrol and lit a match. Onlookers tackled him and put the flames out, but he died from the burns several days later in the Royal Brisbane Hospital.

Not quite breaking news this time; but self-immolation also came up in the recent obituaries of Catholic priest Dan Berrigan, who died last week aged 94. During the Vietnam war Berrigan walked into a conscription office and set fire to all the draft cards, went on the run after being sentenced to prison, and then later broke into a nuclear weapons silo to destroy a couple of warheads. But one of his most controversial moments was one he was involved in only by association – Roger Laporte, a student and friend of Berrigan, set himself on fire outside the UN building in New York in 1965; echoing the actions of Quảng Đức in one of the earliest public protests against the Vietnam war.

While Buddhism has a tradition of ritual suicide, in Catholicism killing yourself is a mortal sin, and the thought that Berrigan could have been complicit in it was a source of much controversy – he was removed from his New York post by the church hierarchy and virtually exiled to South America. Berrigan later wrote “We had never known an occasion where a person freely offered his life, except on the field of battle or to save another person. But the deliberate self-giving, a choice which didn’t depend upon some immediate crisis but upon thoughtful revaluation of life — this was very new to us and was, indeed, an unprecedented gift.”

In more recent times, probably the most famous act of self-immolation was Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose public suicide in 2011 helped set in motion the momentous Arab Spring, a wave of protest against dictatorial governments across the Middle East (Tunisia seems to have done alright from those events; Libya, Syria and Egypt are in chaos but we can hardly blame Bouazizi for that).

The historical acts of self-immolation I’ve mentioned are remembered because of their tremendous impact – all three were very public and widely reported, and the shocking extremity of the acts catalysed movements around the causes. Sadly I guess this is not always the case. In India earlier this year I found myself in McLeod Ganj; the small Himalayan town where many Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, have settled after fleeing from the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In the streets of McLeod Ganj is a wall dedicated to the many Tibetan monks who have self-immolated in the last couple of decades. Seeing that wall is a strange and uncomfortable experience – you are struck by the magnitude of those actions, but you can’t help but feel that this tactic isn’t working very well and maybe it’s time to find a new less horrific way of protesting Chinese rule. Over 100 Tibetans have set themselves alight since 2009.

Which brings us back to the death of Omid in Nauru. The self-immolations we remember were astonishing images that also acted as tipping points in the scales of history – raised peasants against dictators, turned the prosperous teenagers of post-war America into the most militant anti-war movement in history. But not every person who razes themselves is remembered; and while it did gain media attention, sadly it seems unlikely at this stage that Omid will be mentioned in the obituaries of others 50 years from now.

You could blame bad timing – the budget and election have subsequently taken up the front pages – but that would be wrong. The day after it happened, the media response to Omid’s protest was already playing out as if it was business as usual. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton might as well have a pre-recorded message to play at press conferences for the amount of reaction any kind of refugee news or action prompts in him. He was stoic as ever in response to Omid – “If people think that through actions of self harm or harming a member of their family that that is going to result in them coming to Australia and then staying here permanently, then again I repeat the message that is not going to be the outcome… If I can appeal now to those people who are on Nauru and on Manus, it doesn’t matter what others are saying to you … you will not ever settle in Australia.”

Racists on social media were also predictable in their tasteless responses, but even sympathetic Australians in the media and community were at a loss for how to respond. What were we supposed to do? We are overloaded with the emotional weight of endless stories of government cruelty and refugee tragedy. Like a body gone into shock, we are unable to feel anything any more. How else could you handle hearing about a situation so dire that we are so powerless to change? I applaud everyone who turned out to protest rallies in response, but these rallies have been done so many times before that they are almost like Dutton’s monotonous press conferences. With every new low in refugee policy, we trundle into the city to listen to speeches , march around the block and yell our throats hoarse with chants that reverberate off the skyscrapers then fade into the ether.

How did we possibly get to this point where a human being setting themselves on fire seems like the daily humdrum? The politicians have intentionally numbed themselves to avoid having to make a political decision that could risk any kind of public reaction. At this point Dutton’s ability to feel anything is so far gone that if he set himself on fire he wouldn’t notice until the smoke alarm started going off. But Labor are no better, their silence in the face of every refugee tragedy condemns them every bit as much as the Liberals.

Dutton’s response hints at another uncomfortable thing about our society. The way he talked about Omid’s action was as if it was an act of manipulation not desperation. In our ever-mediated society, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s advertisement. There is no compassion for a fellow human, no smelling the burning flesh or tasting the smoke. The only thing that’s real is our refugee policy, which should be protected from those who would try to force us to change it.  The story appeared as another item on the endless news feed, to be read then scrolled past.

I guess that’s the advantage of stashing away these refugees on islands far away where no one ever goes. Omid’s widow is already scheduled for deportation to a fate too horrific to contemplate – stuck on the small island where her husband publicly killed himself, with nowhere to go and nothing to do except think about it again and again.

It wasn’t always like this. The suicides of Quảng Đức and Roger Laporte in the 60’s shook the world. American journalist David Halberstam wrote of Quảng Đức’s death “Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shrivelling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.” The extraordinary photos shocked the world who could look into Quảngs eyes and see a fellow human being.

The only shocking thing now is our inability to respond. Somewhere between self-immolation being just another image used to  sell another product (I do still like Rage) and just another example of cruelty in a world that gets more cruel every day; we have lost any sense of connection with people suffering from the laws of our nation. For the sake of the future, we need more people like Dan Berrigan, who said:

“Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.”

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West Village

I first walked into West End in May 2011. I knew very little about Brisbane’s geography, but I had heard a talk given by prominent West End advocate Dave Andrews and thought it sounded like a place I would like to go. Amazingly, within a few minutes if wandering around exploring the suburb, I ran into Dave sitting at a cafe. I chatted with him very briefly, and he sent me around the corner to a community house where “there are people you should meet”. They invited me in for tea, I stayed a couple of weeks. The rest, as they say, is history.

I open this article about West End with this anecdote for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is to acknowledge that though I love West End, though I have felt a sense of attachment to this place I have rarely felt elsewhere and though the culture and history of West End fascinates me; I am a relative newcomer to the suburb. Even of the five years since that first day, I have only resided in the actual West End postcode for less than two of them.

Secondly though, this little recollection actually says a lot about West End. It’s almost like a West End cliche. Running into people on the street, neighbourly hospitality, a stopping place for travellers and vagrants, local celebrities who talk about West End as an independent entity. This story helps to illustrate the point that gives this article its title – I’ve lived in small towns, outer suburbs and inner cities around the country; and West End more than anywhere I’ve been genuinely fits the description of an “urban village”.

There are many factors that I think have contributed to this. One is a fluke of geography. Despite being walking distance from the city, West End is virtually an enclosed peninsula – almost encircled by the Brisbane River, with even the land based part partly closed in by Highgate Hill.

Added to this is the historical demographic of the area. Both aboriginal (who traditionally called the place Kurilpa or “Place Of The Water Rat”; and since white settlement have always had a strong presence in West End thanks partly to Musgrave Park being traditionally used as an informal gathering space) and Greek (who made West End their own when post-war migration coincided with white Australians’ pursuit of the suburban backyard dream) cultures are strongly community based, which contributed to the character of the area.

Cheap rents and proximity to universities and the cultural hub of the city made West End very attractive for students, artists and political activists. The introduction of free university education and the development of youth counter-cultures in the 70’s helped to develop the social and political culture that we now commonly associate with the place. In this environment, residents could develop a local network of housing co-operatives, community gardens, DIY social services and local press. Alternative religious communities like the Waiters Union, the Catholic Workers and Ananda Marga chose West End as a home. The streets were sprinkled with alternative businesses (the Catholic Workers started ethical consumption store Justice Products, while there were multiple incarnations of anarchist bookstores, cafes and social centres).

This culture became self-perpetuating – people moved in to West End because they wanted to live in a community like this, which further strengthened the sense of local identity. People who didn’t live in the suburb recognised and valued it too. People would travel to West End for a night or day out because it was a place that contained and encouraged styles and ideas outside of the mostly conservative Brisbane mainstream.

This identity was also solidified by threats to it. When Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s dream of holding Expo 88 in South Brisbane meant mass evictions of low-cost housing in the area (a high number of boarding houses and hostels, dating back to the time when nobody wanted to live in West End, mean there has always been a high proportion of disabled and low-income residents); the response was a massive anti-Expo campaign and a distilling of what people wanted to preserve about the area. More recently, changing demographics and increasing development in the inner city has again been the catalyst for residents to protect what they see as important, from bushland in “The Gully” to small businesses and limiting the size of new developments.

Among these local characteristics was a prioritising of supporting local businesses and preserving public space. These both contributed to the village feeling of West End – it’s hard to walk down the street without running into someone you know, and you see the same strangers out so regularly that before long they become acquaintances. Local homeless or panhandlers are often known by name to businesses and locals. When I first came to West End I went from knowing no one to running into friends on the street in literally days. Share-house culture and local social centres (in my case Turnstyle) also helped that process. It meant that I very quickly developed an affinity with the place.

These things that made West End into the distinctive village that it has been are now threatened by other factors – once people moved to the area because they shared these same values, but now people are lured in by the attraction of property investment, proximity to the city or getting their kids into the catchment area for Brisbane State High School (that might sound hard to believe for people from other places; but literally the attraction of this school, which functions as a kind of publicly funded private school in terms of reputation and extra-curricular activities, is one of the key reasons families now move into the area).

The result of this is that the old make-up of the suburb is changing: artists, activists, eccentrics and the disabled making way for a new demographic of inner-city professionals. So too the main street – the anarchist bookstores and cafes are long gone; in the last year we have seen long-running West End businesses like the fruit and veg shop on Vulture St and George’s Seafood close. In their place is an ever-expanding array of craft-beer bars and coffee shops.

It is in this context that local opposition to the “West Village” development by Payce and Sekisui House on the old ABSOE site (corner of Boundary and Mollison streets) has emerged. The proposed development is made up of seven buildings up to 15 storeys each; containing 1350 residential apartments, a supermarket, retail space and a 450 space carpark. Quite a sizeable development for the main street of a suburb, but the plan of the developers is not limited to just the one site. Late last year they held an exclusive event launching their plan to “re-brand” Boundary St.

Notwithstanding that the street’s name harks back to a time when aboriginal people weren’t allowed in the city after dark, most West End residents quite like Boundary St as it is and don’t feel it is crying out to be “re-branded” by a development corporation with no links to the community.

No doubt the development will radically change what the centre of West End looks like – the strong sense of local identity may be drowned out forever by a set of new shops (presumably the massive supermarket on the site will not be a locally owned business), new architecture and massively increased pedestrian and motor traffic. It’s impossible to measure in monetary terms the value of West End’s cultural contribution to Brisbane as a whole – opponents should not be written off as just “not in my backyard” reactionaries.

But the other irksome thing about “West Village” is all of its talk of villages and “lush, sub-tropical community heart” – “re-imagining the precinct as a cathedral in the round… Places to sit, gather, relax… with views of our big blue sky”. It’s like a parody of the way the most parochial resident might talk about West End now, except it’s written by the people who are in the process of destroying that sense of community and urban village that West End possesses.

The sense of community that people created over generations is co-opted into advertising rhetoric by a corporation with no community aspirations beyond delivering a profit to its shareholders. And those suckered in by the marketing will never know what it feels like to live in a community that has developed organically with the consensus of its residents.

In a funny way, the changes of the ABSOE site over the last few years is like a metaphor for the transformation of West End as a suburb – gentrification in a microcosm. Not long ago it was a functioning furniture factory, like West End’s working class culture came from docks and factories along the river. I remember when the upstairs rooms at ABSOE became art studios – people running DIY events and living there against zoning regulations until a fire in the building led to a council crackdown (hope you don’t mind me blowing your cover now guys). This is like the creative and radical era of West End’s cultural formation. For the last two years, the Boundary St night markets on the site give you the quirky alternative West End experience but in a commodified form – food and handicraft stalls, a bar with live music, firepits with paid staff to go around stoking them up. Meanwhile down the street are the hipster bars and cafes that offer an “alternative” aesthetic if not an alternative vision of society. The next stage of ABSOE? High rise towers, fancy shops, the history of the site preserved in building façades but not much else. Unfortunately it doesn’t take too much of a stretch to envision the metaphor  extending across the suburb.

The thing about West End’s sense of community and and local identity is that (as opposed to West Village’s) it didn’t just happen – it was generations of hard work, leaps of faith, visionary ideas and heroic failures that made it the iconic urban village that it is. It should never be forgotten that when development companies and property investors advertise their sites with “community” and “creative” buzzwords, it is this hard and voluntary work they are profiting off.

But this history should also be a reminder to us, wherever we reside, that we can actually shape the places where we live and make them into the kind of spaces and communities we dream of. The last ditch resistance to the West Village development currently underway by people who care about West End shows that this suburb hasn’t given up on this process, but neither should any of us – suburbs or inner city, country towns to apartment towers; the communities we want around us are ours to create .

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Rewriting the political script

I met an Australian guy in a hostel in India. “I love politics,” he told me. “Especially American politics. I follow it every day. It’s like a TV show.”

At this point an American sat down and joined us. “Are you feeling the Bern?” he asked. She looked at him somewhat quizzically. “You know, Bernie Sanders. Are you a fan?”

The conversation went on, talking about Democrat primary votes, comparing the virtues of the safety of Clinton versus the hope for change of Sanders. Our friend reiterated his love for the drama and intrigue of American politics.

Meanwhile back in Australia it’s an election year too. If American politics with its mass rallies and larger-than-life personalities can compete for drama with Game Of Thrones though, the Australian equivalent is more like Days Of Our Lives – lower budget, less credibility, grand narratives replaced with petty backstabbing and personal feuds. Like a soap opera, Australian politics endlessly regurgitates storylines that stretch credulity with vengeful acts of sociopathy and characters being resurrected, each time seemingly a desperate grab for ratings. And like any good soapie, you know that watching it is bad for you, but out of morbid fascination you just can’t drag yourself away.

Not long after our conversation in that hostel though, something happened back home that broke the usual nightly soap opera routine. A one year old baby of Nepalese asylum seekers, given the pseudonym “Asha”, was taken from immigration detention on Nauru to Brisbane for treatment of serious burns. The burns healed, but the medical staff at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital refused to discharge her; saying that with deportation imminent, there was no safe environment for her to return to and releasing Asha would be a breach of their duty of care.

It was a welcome break from the inhumanity of politicians that normally dominates any discussion of asylum seekers in Australia. But it was more than that. In a plot that had grown stagnant; with both parties parroting the same policies of boat turnbacks, mandatory detention and offshore settlement; a new character had been thrown into the mix. And what’s more, it seemed like these doctors and nurses actually had the power to stop a deportation and momentarily turn the tide of cruelty to asylum seekers.

Instantly, something had changed. If these people could disrupt the storyline, surely others could too. Instinctively, people got up from behind their screens and gathered outside the Lady Cilento hospital. What were they doing there? At first, no one seemed to know, but they were doing something, no longer content to be passive spectators.

A 24 hour vigil was maintained in support of Asha’s family and the medical staff. Signs were made to communicate with passing motorists. Food and drinks were brought down. Memorably, one night people from all over the country were phoning in pizza orders and getting them delivered to the hospital. Connections were made at the vigil – students, grandparents, socialists, anarchists, christians, unionists, refugees. All brought together by a desire to do something – to play a part in the story of Australia’s refugee politics.

vigil

On the Saturday morning, over a week after the vigil had begun, Border Force officials turned up at the hospital ward where Asha and her mother were. They were told that they were going to be removed back to detention. Their communication with the outside world was shut down. But word filtered to the vigil outside, and a call went out.

Hundreds of people came to the hospital. At first, it was unclear what exactly the group would do. Where we there just as witnesses? To try to stop the deportation? Some of the prominent voices at the vigil warned against doing anything rash. But the paradigm they spoke of was one of “them” – decision makers, media portrayal and consequences. At the vigil something was shifting. People were thinking about the issue in terms of “us”. What can we do?

By mid afternoon, there were groups stationed at every exit to the hospital, keeping watch. People were practicing how to quickly link arms and sit in front of a vehicle. By early evening, a federal police car pulling up at the hospital was literally stopped by the vigil and searched for baby-deporting implements. The power balance had shifted.

After a night camped out watching entrances, the next morning it was announced that Asha and her family would be placed in community detention in Australia, a solution that the family and medical staff were happy with. There would be no blockading the exits after all. But people at the vigil were already talking about what next – which politicians’ offices could we target? What private companies are involved in the detention industry? What public monument could we drop banners off?

In the end, Asha was snuck out of the hospital via an underground entrance at 4am on Monday morning. It was a move designed to disempower the vigil, to stop the group visibly showing their solidarity. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was still talking tough, saying no asylum seekers could expect to stay in Australia. But the middle of the night sneakiness and community detention compromise betrayed the fact that the sleep-deprived impromptu community clustered around the hospital had made an impact.

The self-congratulatory internet memes claiming “WE WON” were perhaps a bit presumptuous – Asha and her family have no guarantee of staying long-term, let alone any of the others who came after the July 2013 announcement that no asylum seekers would be settled in Australia. The Australian navy is still employed turning around boats of desperate people fleeing their homes. Labor and Liberal show no inclination of letting up their bilateral cruelty.

The victory celebrations will have to wait. The really important development though from the last couple of weeks is that radical new ideas of participation had been planted in people’s heads. No longer content to engage in politics via the remote control, we were getting out of the couch and writing ourselves into the script.

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Desert songs

Riding through India’s Rajasthani Desert for a couple of days on the back of a camel, I thought often about the Australian desert and its endless red horizons. It’s a few years since I’ve been there, something I look forward to changing this year. But contemplating the landscape and how we relate to it, I also thought of three amazing songs that all encapsulate that desert in different ways.

 

John Williamson and Warren H Williams – Raining On The Rock

Warren H Williams is an Arrernte man from Hermannsburg in Central Australia. His father Gus was also a well-known country singer. In Raining On The Rock (co-written with country music legend John Williamson), he takes us to the desert; to “come out of the Mulga where the plains forever roll, and Albert Namatjira has painted all the scenes”.

Like the famous watercolour painter, Warren finds a sense of belonging in the desert landscape – “It’s raining on the Rock, in the beautiful country. And I’m proud to travel this big land as an Aborigine.”

The significance of Uluru extends far beyond its Anangu traditional owners, for whom it is a sacred place. It is the red heart of Australia; a majestic monument to this land, its unique flora and fauna, and all its inhabitants. So for Warren H Williams, it evokes pride in his culture and history; and inspires him further – “It cannot be described with a picture, the mesmerising colours of the Olgas. Or the grandeur of the Rock – Uluru is power!

 

Warumpi Band – My Island Home

While Raining On The Rock uses the desert to sing a song of belonging, the Warumpi Band’s classic  My Island Home is almost the opposite. “Six years I’ve been in the desert,” goes the opening line, “and every night I dream of the sea”.

My Island Home was actually written by Warumpi Band’s white guiarist/singer Neil Murray, but he wrote it for singer George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga; a Gumatj man from Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land who, as the lyrics say, had moved down south to Papunya near Alice Springs. George’s beautiful, plaintive voice certainly makes you believe that he could have written it, and Neil Murray deserves credit for writing a song that speaks not just to his bandmate, but has become possibly the most iconic song about the aboriginal experience in Australia.

My Island Home speaks not just for the literal circumstances of George Rrurrambu – it has come to represent the experience of aboriginal people all over the country; forcibly displaced from their homelands to live in cities and mission camps, often with the sacred sites of their ancestors lost forever. But even more than that, it evokes the yearning for a culture lost; an idyllic way of life that in the face of the poverty, incarceration and social problems that unfortunately make up so much of the modern aboriginal experience; probably sometimes seems as far away as the ocean from Alice Springs.

Sings George, “I close my eyes and I’m standing in a boat on the sea again. And I’m holding that long turtle spear, and I feel I’m close now to where it must be. My island home is waiting for me.”

 

Coloured Stone – Wild Desert Rose

Bunna Lawrie is a Mirning man, from the Nullabor plain on the coast of the Great Australian Bight. He is from the desert, and in the years of touring around Australia in Coloured Stone, possibly the first ever aboriginal rock band, he would have seen plenty of red sand.

Wild Desert Rose is Bunna’s tribute to the desert flowers, one of the stunning sights that make the Australian desert such a special place. The beautiful lead guitar and backing vocals conjure a side to the desert that we rarely consider.

“Don’t grow where no rain or snow, don’t grow where no river flows. Don’t grow where no waterhole, only where the north wind blows”…. “Dancing in the desert sand, swaying from side while you stand. The desert is your paradise, under the sun and blue skies.”

It is a joyous song, a tribute to the extraordinary resilience of these plants that thrive in the most inhospitable conditions. It’s a tribute to indigenous people too, who have lived in that same desert since time immemorial. And a tribute to the strength of aboriginal culture, which holds on 200 years after European colonisation despite every kind of injustice and hardship. It is a song of hope for everyone who ever finds themselves close to giving up – that life and beauty not only survive, but even in the smallest scattered fragments can still light up an entire landscape.

 

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