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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized


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.”


Filed under Uncategorized

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 .


Filed under Uncategorized

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.


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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Introducing Woolloongabba

For many non-Queenslanders, Woolloongabba is probably one of the few Brisbane suburbs they could name. When the footy or cricket is on, it is the destination for thousands of people from around the country, but the rest of the time it is a pretty unglamourous place. The intersection of all those major roads means it is constantly bombarded with traffic noise, there are no parks, and no real central downtown area for people to congregate – the cul-de-sac at the end of Logan Rd is full of cafes but is hardly a social hub, same goes for the shopping apartment complex on the other side of Ipswich Rd.

The Gabba is a geographically big suburb where lots of people live; but carved up by the freeway and the busway, full of big warehouse style shops; it almost seems more like a thoroughfare than a place of its own.

Woolloongabba was apparently a gathering place for aboriginal people because of ready access to food. The name is said to mean “Whirling Waters”, so named because its series of hills and creeks would flood when it rained. Which early white settlers found out the hard way, hence the fact that the main horse and cart road from the farms of Ipswich into the city (what we now know as Annerley Rd) was given the name Boggo Rd.

That name these days is most linked with the prison whose buildings still stand in Woolloongabba – the place that erupted into a riot in 1983 when a protest against prison food led to Prisons Minister Geoff Muntz saying that if prisoners didn’t like the food “they can starve for all I care”. A friend who moved into the area in the late 80’s has told me that as well as hosting the city’s prisoners, Woolloongabba was known as “the murder capital of Brisbane.”

That’s hard to imagine these days, but still the suburb carries a touch of urban neglect. The ornate Broadway Hotel burnt down 10 years ago and has sat empty ever since, slowly accumulating more and more graffiti. The much loved Lifeline op shop caught on fire in 2012 and has also never returned.

I lived in a squat around the corner from the cricket ground for about six months a couple of years ago. I missed the social connections that came so easily with West End’s public life and cultural drawing power, but I quite liked Woolloongabba’s unpretentious working class style – where people in singlets and thongs relax on a public bench on Stanley St with a hundred cars a minute flying past them.

For the last year and a half I have been a suburb further out but ride through Woolloongabba nearly every day for one thing or another, and so witness the changes in the suburb as they happen.

Woolloongabba has a notably high number of pubs – probably due to the proximity to the sports ground and the suburb’s industrial background. And most of them still unashamedly cater for a working class male clientele – the Australian National Hotel advertises itself as Brisbane’s home of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The Morrison Hotel has a ridiculously huge billboard on top of it proclaiming “Brisbane’s best steaks”. Similarly, the Norman Hotel proudly announces itself as “Brisbane’s worst vegetarian restaurant.”

Notwithstanding that the Gabba is also a hub for Indian grocery stores, the steak is the food I would most readily associate with Woolloongabba.  Which is one reason why the advertising for the new Sth/City/Sq  high rise development being built (by development companies Pellicano and Perri Projects) on the corner of Logan Rd and Deshon St is so incongruous. Because the advertising hoardings that run along the site don’t just proclaim the Gabba as “the new urban centre”, they also contain a bunch of images – some of them food. There is not a a steak in sight, instead there are plates that say “hola amigo taco” and “ciao sexy pizza” (yes, really) and picture of take-away coffee cups, lobster, even that most manly of foods – a bunch of asparagus.

Now I’m certainly not one for a one-dimensional definition of masculinity, but there’s no doubt that this advertising is not aimed at the traditional Woolloongabba demographic. Throw in some of the other pictures in the ads (coathanger, bottle of cologne, umbrella, dress shirt and shoes), and we begin to see that Brisbane’s so-called “new urban centre” is targeted to that very urban species – the metrosexual.

The development there – a proposed seven towers ranging between 14 and 21 stories, with “apartments, a hotel, supermarket, boutique cafes, restaurants and cinema” – was the subject of protests from local residents at the start of last year. The protesters were especially concerned that the development approval required relaxations of the local development plan, and have concerns about flood management (those old whirling waters again). But I think one less tangible reason why people are against the development is the rather presumptuous claim of the Sth/City/Sq website to “introduce Woolloongabba” as a new hub. For people who have lived in the area for their lifetime, and potentially generations before that, you can understand why there is some resistance to a development company “introducing” their suburb as something that doesn’t look very much like the place where they currently live.

The scope of the marketing for the Sth/City/Sq development is quite amazing really. Beyond their billboards and onsite display centre; the website promises not just a set of towers but a revolutionary new urban hub, and they have even for the last two years sponsored a free festival called “End Of The Line” that brings indie bands from around the country to play on the streets of Woolloongabba.

I like indie music too, and the things that Sth/City/Sq say they’re about – community , greenspace, style and authenticity – all sound pretty good, but the question must be asked whether this development company really cares about these things in themselves, or whether they are only useful inasmuch as they can be used to sell apartments and commercial spaces. Because these corporations are obliged to deliver results for their shareholders, and I somehow don’t think increased creativity is the dividend they are looking for.

While Sth/City/Sq claims to offer a lot to the suburb of Woolloongabba, in a lot of ways the more successful they are in marketing the suburb, the worse it will be for the people who already live there. Not just because of the loss of the place’s current identity or increased traffic congestion, but because every time fancy buzzwords, music festivals or pictures of asparagus push up the price of apartments in the new development, by the rules of supply and demand they also push up the price of all the other buildings in Woolloongabba. Which means every house or business that currently calls the Gabba home will have to start paying more money if they want to keep doing so.

If you’re into cafes and boutique stores then it’s great living in a hip suburb; but ask anyone who once lived in Fitzroy, Newtown or West End but now can’t afford to; and they’ll tell you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In these suburbs, even the creative types – like the bands who play at the End Of The Line festival – get forced out as real estate agents happily capitalise on the “hip, alternative” vibe to push up rents further.

Meanwhile the ability of people of low income (who didn’t come to Woolloongabba enticed by pictures of lobster or cologne) to live close to the city; or in a place where they have lived, worked, and helped to shape; just got that bit harder. As property prices go up too, governments begin to see less economic sense in keeping public housing in these high demand areas when it can be sold off at a huge profit.

Change is inevitable, and the point of critiquing gentrification is not to wish that a suburb would forever stay the same. As I said at the start, the current design of Woolloongabba is hardly ideal. But the carving up of the Gabba for construction of a web of main roads should be a warning – this suburb has already suffered once from economics being put before actual community needs. It would be a shame to see it happen again.

What’s happening right now in Woolloongabba is a great example of how a corporation, with the help of a pro-development government, can remodel, rebrand and ultimately transform a whole suburb in the interests of their own profit margin. Not only that, but it’s an example of the role that seemingly unrelated things like music, food and “hip” culture play in the process.


Filed under Uncategorized