A rough guide to folk-punk

After all these years, I’ve finally made it down to Tasmania. The thing that brought me down here, happily, is HOBOFOPO; a four day festival dedicated to that most wonderful of musical styles – folk-punk.

Wonderful it may be, but folk-punk remains a pretty obscure musical niche. Many people over the years who have seen me perform or asked what kind of music I play have assumed I must have invented the term. As I got ready to leave Brisbane and head down here, a few people were surprised there are enough folk-punk acts in Australia to make up a festival.

But in fact, the folk-punk connoisseur (like myself) could tell you that even in this niche genre, there are a number of distinct styles that fit under the folk-punk umbrella.

Our first category is the singer-songwriter with obvious punk influences. In this group we can place maybe the original folk-punk Patrick Fitzgerald (with his simple guitar playing, tales of punk love and out of tune singing), Billy Bragg (rhythmic electric guitar and again a relaxed approach to hitting the right notes vocally), Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains (screaming and thrashing an acoustic guitar), myself and many more.

Another category, in some ways an extension of the first, is the whole band that plays obviously punk-inspired music but on all or mostly acoustic instruments. Examples vary from the fast-strummed guitar and violin duo Ghost Mice, to the more full band setup of a group like Defiance Ohio (violin, cello, electric guitar, drums), to the intense medieval crust punk of Blackbird Raum. At HOBOFOPO, an example would be Tassie’s own Lordy Lordy.

A third style is traditional folk music sped up and electrified. These can be traditional songs or trad-inspired originals, or often a mixture of the two. The originators of this style are The Pogues, and there are plenty of other examples, from American-Irish acts like Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, to Australian equivalents Mutiny and Roaring Jack, hillbilly punks This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, gypsies Gogol Bordello, or at HOBOFOPO bushpunks Handsome Young Strangers or Tasmanian historians The Dead Maggies.

A fourth style, becoming increasingly common, is the acoustic side-project of the punk singer. Satirical punk blog The Hard Times has great fun with this phenomenon. Originally it was most commonly singers from emo bands discovering a more intimate way to connect with their audience – Dashboard Confessional, Jonah Matranga and Owen being the pioneers, City and Colour a similar recent example. But increasingly it has come to mean punk and hardcore singers growing beards, putting on flanellette shirts and playing country-tinged folk. Frank Turner is the most successful example, but he is only one of seemingly legions – Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour each year takes half a dozen examples on tour; in Australia examples would include ex-Conation singer Jamie Hay’s Fear Like Us project, ex-Disables singer Jud Campbell or former Sydney City Trash member Paddy McHugh. There actually aren’t any examples of this on the HOBOFOPO lineup though there is no shortage of them around and this is probably the most popular strand of folk-punk. But this style kinda exists as a niche of the mainstream punk scene and doesn’t really take on the name or the spirit of the “folk-punk” genre (I’ll explain later).

You could even add another category – bands like The Smith Street Band, Camp Cope and Against Me!; whose music doesn’t really resemble folk very much but who hold on to the label in some ways because they started out as acoustic acts.

folk-punkSo there is a more in-depth analysis of folk-punk styles than anyone was really asking for. But you know, that still doesn’t quite get to the essence of folk-punk. And this is why: while folk and punk are both genre names that describe certain musical characteristics; they are also both more than that. Folk and punk are both ideologies that represent ways of thinking about music.

Folk, as Pete Seeger would describe it, is music “for the people, by the people” – a proudly proletarian artform that rejects virtuoso musicianship or high artistic concepts and instead embraces a recognisable, easy to replicate style and singing about everyday people’s lives. It sees music as a communal resource – songs are “traditional” and able to be performed by anyone rather than a songwriter’s intellectual property; and songs are often developed for use by the community around them – like protest songs for a certain campaign or songs written about a particular place (famous examples of the latter being Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Our Land and The Seekers’ I Am Australian).

Punk meanwhile is an ideology based on Do-It-Yourself – a rejection of rockstar idols and the traditional music industry. Sniffin’ Glue writer Mark P famously printed three chord shapes then wrote “now go form a band”. His iconic publication meanwhile, was hand-collaged and printed on a photocopier. Punk is about making your own bands regardless of technical ability, making your own publications (since the mainstream media is rarely interested in punk bands), opening your own venues (that represent independent values rather than run for a profit), and putting out your own records on your own independent labels. Punk is about rejection of mainstream society’s values and (sometimes) creating alternatives – outrageous fashion, communal share-houses, anarchist politics.

There are large crossovers between the two ideals – both have a long history of political protest songs and benefit gigs, both eschew superstars and technical brilliance (Mark P’s three chord call to arms echoes Harlan Howard’s much repeated phrase “three chords and the truth”), both see music not purely as art for art’s sake but as a means to something bigger.

And folk-punk even more combines the two traditions. Want to see what songs as a communal resource looks like? Go to a folk-punk show (like one I recently played at in Brisbane) and witness multiple performers play Johnny Hobo songs as the crowd sings every word. The guy who wrote those songs doesn’t even play them any more, yet they live on as folk-punk standards. This is not limited to one songwriter either. Folk-punk carries on the folk practice of communal sing-alongs and traditional songs – keeping alive both folk and folk-punk classics. Bands like The Pogues and Weddings Parties Anything (plus many many more) do punked-up versions of old folk songs, while popular folk-punk songs become standards – and not just Johnny Hobo. I can recall shows where Billy Bragg, Defiance Ohio or Andrew Jackson Jihad became room sing-alongs. Or once I played a show where the climax was every band getting together for a mass jam and singing of Blackbird Raum’s Witches.

Folk-punk also continues folk traditions like protest songs (Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs mirrored in the riot-folk collective or Billy Bragg) and travelling songs (the ghosts of ramblin’ men like Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie alive in countless songs about hitching or the beauty of the road), even the hobo lifestyle (Big Rock Candy Mountain and Hallelujah I’m A Bum transformed into Johnny Hobo’s songs like Home Sweet Homeless and the entire oogle subculture).

Meanwhile punk’s DIY spirit is amplified in folk-punk. Doing your own recording becomes simpler when it’s just acoustic instruments (Australian group Mace Face did their one and only recording on a Sydney to Newcastle train journey), as does finding venues for shows (parks, cemeteries and all-night laundromats become concert halls).

So as musical style or philosophy, folk-punk has carved out its own niche of the music world. It receives very little attention from the broader music industry; even its most legendary acts are virtually unknown outside of this small subculture. The earnestness and the celebration of mundane subject matter and musical amateurishness means that is irredeemably uncool.

But I love folk-punk. I love it for all of the reasons I have just listed. I love it because it is about having something to communicate and creating spaces where that communication can take place. It is a pretty narrow sphere of music and at times it is clichéd to the point of ridiculousness – I think potentially that’s why over the years so many acts are short-lived and people move on to other styles. And yet I trudge on, hitch-hiking around with my acoustic guitar and simple songs. Uncool, obscure and limited as it may be, folk-punk is a tradition I am proud to listen to and to be a part of.

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A brief history of Australian war resistance (rough draft)

At some point this will be a more edited, full and multimedia document. I’m not sure when that will be though, so I thought I’d put it out as is for now. Compiled for the centenary of the conscription referendum, 28/10/16

Of course, the first (mostly unacknowledged) war to take place in Australia was the invasion of white settlers and the resistance of aboriginal people. At the time, probably few considered this a “war” or opposition to it “resistance to war”. And yet many people, both white and aboriginal, put great effort into a peaceful and just solution to this conflict. I don’t here have a record of it, but that too is a piece of Australian history that deserves to be reclaimed.

A quick disclaimer: this is far from a comprehensive list. This list compiles some war resistance but there has been plenty more which also deserves to be remembered. Also, I am conscious making this list of the fallacy of “great men of history” – that we attribute changes in history to the actions of a select few gifted and influential (and mostly male) individuals. In some ways the nature of putting together this list means you have to stick to people who had a broad impact since I am not talking about a localised history. But in reading this list it should be remembered that no individual; no matter how courageous, intelligent or charismatic; ever acts in a vacuum and that for every action here there are scores of smaller unrecorded ones by everyday people that enabled it to happen. So with that out of the way…

1853

When Great Britain join the Crimean war to help the Ottoman Empire fight Russia, there are meetings in Australia to raise funds supporting the British war effort. Some Australians speak up against the support, including Presbyterian minister, politician and republican John Dunmore Lang. Lang addressed one patriotic meeting saying he “did not ask whether the war is just or not because in either case the colony has nothing to do with it”. He went on to warn that by supporting Britain, Australia would potentially “transfer the Pacific Ocean, never before the seat of war, into the battle-field for the nations of Europe.”

Over the rest of the decade, Lang would remain an outspoken advocate of Australian neutrality in war. In 1858 he wrote “will any man tell me that it can ever be the duty of an Australian patriot to seek to involve his adopted country, with its millions of inhabitants, in the calamities of war whenever, in the complicated maze of European politics, Great Britain chooses to go to war with France, or any other great power, as we know she has done too often, and without the slightest necessity, already?”

1885

Britain’s attempts to put down an indigenous Sudanese rebellion led Mustafa Ahmed (aka “The Mahdi”) lead only to defeat and the capture of General Charles Gordon. When Gordon is killed a colonial army is formed to go to Sudan.

700 troops from New South Wales are sent without consulting parliament by the attorney-general and acting premier WB Dalley. There is some dissent to the illegality of Dalley’s action, and in the Victorian parliament, member for Collingwood James Mirams said “I say unhesitatingly that this country did wrong, absolutely wrong, when it offered to send a contingent to engage in such a miserable, such a mean, such a contemptible, and such an unholy fight.”

The Australian War Memorial records: “the send-off was described as the most festive occasion in the colony’s history. Support was not, however, universal, and many viewed the proceedings with indifference or even hostility. The nationalist Bulletin ridiculed the contingent both before and after its return. Meetings intended to launch a patriotic fund and endorse the government’s action were poorly attended in many working-class suburbs, and many of those who turned up voted against the fund. In some country centres there was a significant anti-war response, while miners in rural districts were said to be in “fierce opposition”.”

1890

Peter Airey, writing under the nom de plume Peter Luftig, wrote this in the Bulletin in response to proposed Australian involvement in the first Boer War:

Rub-a-dub-dub says the loud beating drum,

Country’s in danger, so come along, come.

Rifle on shoulder, the brave boys and tall

Bushman and farmer and miner come all.

But where is Sir Fat Paunch? Oh where does he stay?

Can the first in the feast, be the last in the fray?

Grip what you get and get what you can,

Is the battle cry of the businessman!

1899

16,000 Australian troops go to South Africa to fight Afrikaners in the second Boer War.

The Australian Anti-War League forms during the war, protesting the war and the British pioneering use of concentration camps in South Africa. The Bulletin calls the war “a wanton act of blood and rapine”, and unions oppose the war as a capitalist venture.

In parliaments around the country (there is not a central Australian parliament until 1901), the war is hotly debated. In Queensland former premier Boyd Dunlop Morehead in parliament declares sympathy with the Boers and denounced the war as “the lust for gold and diamonds”. Labour opposition leader Anderson Dawson claimed “Our hospitals are starved; our libraries are being starved; and nearly all of our public institutions are being starved at the present time and the reason given by members of the Government is that we cannot afford to do any more, and yet they can afford to spend buckets of money in sending a mob of swashbucklers to South Africa to show off their uniforms.”

1914-19 WWI

Resistance to the first world war is widespread, but especially takes off when Labor PM Billy Hughes returns to Australia from Europe in 1916. Hughes declares that Australia is not pulling its weight in the war and that it will be needed to introduce conscription. With the unions against conscription, Hughes is unable to pass his desired law even through his own party, so he takes the issue of compulsory military service, for possibly the first time in the world, to a popular vote.

Australia already has conscription for war on the home front, and so the referendum question is somewhat convoluted: “Are you in favour of the government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this war, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?”

The referendum sets into motion a massive and bitter campaign battle. Women on targeted by propaganda from both sides and on the anti side organisations like The Womens Peace Army and WILPF form. A favourite song of women against the war is an American tune called I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier. The song is made illegal under the War Precautions Act, but still sung at rallies and distributed as sheet music.

Some Christian groups like the Quakers and Melbourne catholic archbishop Daniel Mannix were outspoken against the war. Many Irish catholics, angered by the execution of the Easter Rising leaders, campaign against fighting a war for Imperial Britain. The unions and radicals like the IWW are the strongest anti-conscription force, launching strikes and printing propaganda despite extraordinarily repressive laws that make any anti-war material illegal.

Tom Barker of the IWW goes to jail for this famous poster, while future wartime PM John Curtin does a stint in prison for speaking at a demonstration. Papers like banned conscription paper The Ballarat Evening Echo avoids government seizure when railway workers smuggle it into Melbourne in their coal piles. In Melbourne it is snuck into horse stables from which 60,000 copies are distributed daily.

On October 28, 82% of the nation turn out to vote (voting was not yet compulsory – 73% had voted in the last federal election), and the result is a victory, by 52-48, for the no side.

The result comes as somewhat of a shock for the pro-conscriptionists. Overwhelmingly most media, governments, churches and generally “respectable” society had all been pro-conscription. Anticipating a yes vote, many men had already been forced to enlist. The troops, known as “Hugheseliers”, caused some commotion in the week leading up to the election when they marched through Sydney’s city in uniform exhorting bystanders to “vote no”.

Hughes responded by leaving the Labor party and forming with the opposition the Nationalist Party. After a sizeable election win in 1917, he tried again in December for a conscription referendum. Again the no vote won, this time by a bigger margin.

Again there is a heated campaign. A group of 12 IWW organisers are framed for burning down a warehouse and sent to prison for 12 years. After four years of their sentence there is a government enquiry and they are released.

A women’s organisation in Brisbane call a meeting at the School of Arts to support conscription.Margaret Thorp, a 25-year-old Quaker pacifist, rose to reject conscription and point out the futility of this attempt to overturn the recent national referendum. Her comments “precipitated an uproar”, a woman tried to force her out of the room, she was set upon by others, and “the gathering resolved itself into a seething mass of struggling women”.

Thorp gamely struggled on to the platform but other women surged up and knocked her down. She was rolled on the floor, kicked, punched and scratched, finally thrown out of the hall. Undeterred, she returned with a policeman who said she had a right to address a public meeting, made two more attempts to speak but was pushed out again as the national anthem chimed in above the uproar. Once more she reappeared but was still unable to get a hearing. The resolution of the Women’s Compulsory Service Petition League was carried, conscription advocates “hurling the vilest insults at the ‘antis’”. An undaunted Thorp called for three cheers for no conscription and finally withdrew from the meeting.

The anti-war movement in WWI was large, varied and powerful. It grew out of an Australia which in its formative years was committed to radical egalitarianism, democracy and individual freedom.

1919

Mary Gilmore, later to feature on Australia’s $10 note, wrote this during the war:

Must the young blood for ever flow?
Shall the wide wounds no closing know?
Is hate the only lantern of the stars,
And honour bastard but to scars?
And yet, the equal sun looks down
On kingly head and broken clown,
And sees, not friend and foe, but man and man,
As when these years began.

1919

Returned soldier and Victoria Cross recipient Hugo “Jimmy” Throssell appears at Peace Day celebrations in Northam, Western Australia. He took the stage next to the West Australian Premier and received loud applause which turned to awkward silence when he began his speech, entitled “Why the war made me a socialist.”

He told of searching for his brother through trenches full of dead bodies, and described the war as futile and an imperialist venture. Throssell’s wife (and later successful writer) Katharine Susannah Pritchard recorded “you could have heard a pin drop. Jim himself was ghastly, his face all torn with emotion. It was terrible – but magnificent.”

1924

The “Temple Of Peace” at Toowong cemetery is unveiled on December 6. Constructed by Richard Ramo, the temple looks much like a war memorial and in fact sits less than 50 metres from the ANZAC memorial.

Thousands of people attended the unveiling of the temple, where Ramo addressed the crowd, describing the temple as “a tribute to the dead, an exhortation to the living, a memorial for the victims of the lust of war, and an indictment against the rapacity and life-destroying agencies engendered by modern capitalism.”

The inscriptions of inside the temple – claiming that Ramo had three sons die in the first world war – seem to be untrue, though his motivation for doing so remains unclear.

1931

Compulsory military training which had been Australian government policy since 1911 is abolished in 1929 with the return to power of the Labor Party.

When Frank Brennan as federal Attorney-General went to Geneva at the head of a delegation to the League of Nations, he said: “We have drawn our pen through the schedule of military expenditure with unprecedented firmness. We have reversed a policy which has subsisted in Australia for 25 years of compelling the youth to learn the art of war.”‘

1933

Melbourne newspaper The Age complained about a lack of public support for the army in August, saying “There is a much stronger local pride in the foot-ball team than there is in the district military unit. Many sporting and social organisations can rely upon more generous support in

any enterprise than the drill hall.”

1930’s

While history now records that Australia went to World War II to fight fascism, anti-war activism in the 1930’s was not aimed at Australian aggression towards fascists but rather its support. Robert Menzies, who was briefly PM in 1939 for the start of the war (and later Australia’s longest serving PM) had a year earlier gone on an official visit to Germany. He returned saying “it is a great thing for Germany to have arms.” Even after war was declared he expressed his “great admiration for the Nazi organisation of Germany” and said “we must not destroy Hitlerism, or talk about shooting Hitler.” Menzies also supported Japan’s invasion of China, and labelled opposition to it “inciting a provocative act against a friendly power.”

The Australian working class though had opposed fascism since the early 30’s, when unions and communists were the first targets of horrific repression and violence in Germany.

1934

The Committee Against War and Fascism plan a national congress and organise for Jewish Czech journalist Egon Kisch to come as guest speaker. Kisch was an anti-war activist and communist in Germany who for his writing had been sent to concentration camps and had his books banned by Hitler.

When his ship the Strathaird arrived at Fremantle, it was boarded by immigration officers refusing Kisch entry to Australia and detaining him on the ship. On arrival in Melbourne though, Kisch jumped five metres from the ship to the pier. He broke his leg and was promptly arrested and returned to the ship. Meanwhile, lawyers launch a habeus corpus case on his behalf.

When the high court found that Kisch’s exclusion had been illegal, the Australian government changed strategy. Under the White Australia policy, “Any person who when asked to do so fails to write out a dictation passage of fifty words in a European language directed by the officer” would not be admitted. Kisch demonstrated his ability to speak a number of European languages, so eventually was asked to write the Lord’s Prayer in Scottish Gaelic.

Another anti-war activist, Irishman Gerald Griffin, was also refused entry by the same means after being given the test in Dutch. Griffin then re-entered Australia under an assumed name and toured the country speaking at events unannounced.

Kisch’s right to enter Australia was again taken to the high court, where his refusal was again ruled illegitimate as Scottish Gaelic was not a valid European language under the act, plus the officer who gave the test could not himself speak Gaelic.

Prime Minister Joseph Lyons again detained Kisch, appealing to the British parliament to overrule the Australian court. Kisch was sentenced to three months prison for being an illegal migrant. This was again overruled by the Australian high court, this time because the department of immigration could not rule against someone who was already in the country.

By this time Egon Kisch had been given immense free publicity, and he travelled around the country speaking to thousands of people about fascism and the need for workers to resist it.

1934

During Armistice Day commemorations members of the Victorian committee against war and fascism lay their own wreath pledging to do our utmost to prevent the imperialist war which now threatens.” The wreath is quickly removed by the police who deem it “offensive”.

1938

Weeks after the Kristallnacht pogrom devastates Jewish communities across Germany, aboriginal people led by William Cooper march from Footscray to the German consulate. Cooper has recently been part of the “Day Of Mourning” and has no citizenship rights in his own country, but leads what has been called by the Yad Vesham Holocaust Museum “the only private protest against the Germans following Kristallnacht. The group is unable to present its petition to the German consulate, but Cooper decries “the cruel persecution of the Jewish people”.

1939

Following the Japanese invasion of China, wharfies at Port Kembla in Wollongong refuse to load crude “pig” iron onto ships bound for Japan. They declare “success for the Japanese militarists in China will inspire them to further attacks on peaceful people including Australia.”

To break the ban, attorney-general Robert Menzies introduces a bill called the “Transport Workers Act” in which the government is able to hand out licences for working on the wharves to scabs willing to load the iron.

While Chinese people send food down from Sydney to support the strikers, Menzies travels to Wollongong to find his car blocked multiple times, his hotel picketed and a strike closing down all ten local coal mines. Menzies acquires the nickname “Pig Iron Bob”.

1939

Unions and others hold massive outdoor meetings across Australia to protest Robert Menzies’ attempts to set up a national draft register for the coming war. Young men burn their draft cards whilst others fill out forms in the name of Menzies, Franco, Hitler, Stalin, Chamberlain, Blind Freddie and other notable figures.

1941

Again conscription is a big political issue during wartime. As in World War One, conscripts are required to fight on Australian territory but not be sent overseas. Unlike World War One, this means conscript militia (“chocolate soldiers” as they were derisively called by the AIF soldiers) were forced to fight the Japanese in Papua New Guinea.

After much heated debate in parliament, Prime Minister John Curtin (who had gone to jail for anti conscription activities in WWI) eventually successfully introduced a bill to the effect of what Hughes had tried to do in WWI – That in addition to Australian soil, conscipt could also be sent to “such other territories in the South-west Pacific area as the Governor-General proclaims as being territory associated with the defence of Australia.”

In the end, this bill was passed but never enacted. Conscript militia were not sent to fight overseas. And once again, opposition of trade unions and working class to conscription was the main reason.

Labor Transport Minister E.J. Ward, a veteran of the anti-conscription campaign in WWI, said in parliament “Today, honorable members opposite are parading their patriotism. I believe that you could not find a bigger group of Quislings in any country in the world. . .” He spoke, not for the first or last time, of Menzies’ behaviour in the first world war, when Menzies had declined to join the AIF although he was an officer in the Melbourne University Rifles. Could Menzies now support a motion which took away the individual’s right not to offer his services for war? He named other opponents across the floor who might, he suggested, be in the army now—among them Harold Holt, withdrawn from the AIF by Menzies in 1940 to be a minister. “The need for his services as a Minister no longer exists”. Ward remarked. “We may rightly ask this man to explain why he did not return to the Army.”

1943

Brisbane factory worker and Baptist lay preacher Phil Hancox is sent to prison for six moths for refusing to take the oath for service in defence forces. Conscientious objectors were allowed to refuse to fight but legally had to register for non-combatant work.

Hancox was imprisoned at the Boggo Rd and Palen Creek gaols with about 30 other conscientious objectors, many of them Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses often would receive longer sentences or be asked to take the oath of allegiance again the day after their release as they were at the time considered a subversive organisation.

As primary producers could apply for exemption to conscription, in Brisbane two Quaker families set up a farm at Slacks Creek — which was then a country area well outside Brisbane. Called Paxton farm (Pax is the Latin for ‘peace’) it provided young people with the opportunity to work on a farm as an alternative to conscription. 

1945

At the San Francisco conference for the formation of the United Nations, Australia is represented by Labor politician and former High Court Justice H.V. “Doc” Evatt.

The conference was called, and the charter already drafted, by the Great Powers: USA, Great Britain, France, the USSR and China. Evatt was prominent in challenging the power of these nations by negotiating a bloc of smaller nations to introduce amendments. American writer Cornelia Meigs wrote that Evatt was the generally acknowledged leader of the whole strength of the Smaller Powers … He had come armed and girded with relentless determination to see that the rights of the lesser nations did not disappear under the shadow of the greater ones.

Evatt had addressed the UN at San Francisco saying that no peace ‘can be permanent unless it has an adequate basis in economic justice… Real stability in the post-war world can be achieved only by carefully building an organisation that will do its utmost to assure the peoples of the world a full opportunity of living in freedom from want, as well as in freedom from external aggression’.

When the UN adoped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, Evatt signed in the document as President of the UN General Assembly, having been elected earlier that year. Australia had been one of the countries campaigning hardest for the creation of the document, and was one of the first countries to urge that economic and social rights should be included in the Declaration.

1945

Australian Wilfred Burchett becomes the first Western journalist to report on the fallout from the atomic bombing in Hiroshima.

Arriving in Japan a week after the blast, Burchett travelled 400 miles alone from Tokyo to Hiroshima. When he arrived he saw “most terrible and frightening desolation in four years of war”.

Burchett became the first person to report on the effects of radiation poisoning, which was at the time being denied by the US military – “people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly — people who were uninjured by the cataclysm — from an unknown something which I can only describe as atomic plague.”

Despite attempts by Allied officials to censor the story, it appeared in London’s Daily Expess under the title “I Write This as a Warning to the World.”

Burchett would later also write about the effects of the Vietnam war on the North Vietnamese. Of his war reporting, he later wrote “My loyalty was to my own convictions and my readers. This demanded freedom from any discipline except that of getting the facts on important issues back to the sort of people likely to act — often at great self-sacrifice — on the information they received.”

1945

The Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) was invaded by the Japanese during world war II. With Japan’s surrender, Indonesian independence is declared on August 17th, 1945.

When the Dutch arrive to take back the archipelago by force, Australian maritime trade unions take action in support of Indonesian self-determination. They set back Dutch ships intending to transport military arms and personnel from Australian ports, through a series of boycotts called “black bans”. Once the boycott was established in a few major ports, it quickly spread to other related industry unions such as boilermakers, engineers, iron-workers, ship painters and dockers, carpenters, storemen, clerks and tug crews.

During a protest of waterside workers in Sydney on September 28 outside the Dutch shipping companies and diplomatic offices, leaflets were distributed reading: “Dutch soldiers and officers should not get transport. No Dutch munitions should be touched. Repairs on Dutch ships, etc., must not be done. Dutch ships must not get coal. Tugs must not be made available to Dutch ships. Food, stores, etc., must not be provided to Dutch ships, offices, canteens or personnel. Dutch officers and seamen should not be taken to and from ships. In fact everything Dutch is black.”

1953

A group of Sydney clergymen sign a “Declaration on World Peace”, saying War is a denial of everything for which we live – of our beliefs and of every creative urge. On all sides there is a yearning for the peace which can permit the flowering of all that is best. We suggest that a broad, representative section of the people in every city, town and country centre meet and discuss ways and means of winning the peace and saving humanity.

That led to the organisation of the Convention on Peace and War in September of that year. The convention was endorsed by a number of prominent Australians including clergy, academics, artists and even former Australian soccer and rugby league captains.

The event was accused in media and by PM Robert Menzies in parliament of being a communist front, with a resulting media blackout and refusal by a number of venues to accept the convention.

In the end 1000 people gathered for the five day convention in Sydney and then held a series of report back meetings and rallies around the country in October. The political persecution though meant there was not another national peace gathering for six years.

In 1965 Australia joins the US in Vietnam fighting against communist Viet Cong forces. The army is partially made up of conscripts. By the time Australia pulls out of the war in 1972, almost 60,000 troops from the country have been sent.

The campaign against the war began with Australians opposing the US presence in Vietnam supporting an undemocratic and repressive regime in South Vietnam against a communist one in what was essentially a civil war. As conscription became a bigger issue, much of the campaign was against the government forcing young men to go to war.

1964

The anti-war cause receives help from an unexpected source when the Vice Squad guarantees publicity for anti-Vietnam literature by declaring it “obscene”. After Victorian police seized the American Atrocities in Vietnam pamphlet, booksellers had thousands of copies brought down from Sydney. As the Australian commented days later: “this action by the Victorian police provides a degree of advertisement beyond the dreams (and the pockets) of the Vietnam Action Committee. Another group notes that a pamphlet called How not to join the army “has become a financial asset to us… a bunch of slowly yellowing roneoed paper in the corridor upstairs suddenly became in the Government eyes the source of all dangerous criminal activity against the state and the army.”

1965

Save our Sons (SOS), a non-sectarian anti-conscription group, is founded by fifteen Sydney women. Focused on challenging conscription of under-18s, they fought for the rights of conscientious objectors and draft resisters, by organising public meetings, rallies, teach-ins and protests and publishing and disseminating information. These women received much negative publicity, lost their jobs, were condemned as hysterical and were abused, assaulted, arrested and jailed. “We would be handing out leaflets to all the young men that turned up, sort of saying, “You don’t have to go through these gates. You don’t have to do this. There are alternatives.” Sometimes we’d get jeered at and we’d be told to, sort of, “Go home and get your husband’s dinner.”

1965

Unions take action against the sending of Australian troops to Vietnam, including a 24 hour wharfie strike in Sydney that stops 37 ships from leaving the harbour.

1966

US President Lyndon Baines Johnson tours Australia. PM Harold Holt declares Australia would go “all the way with LBJ” in Vietnam, but his public appearances are met with protests, especially in Sydney where Johnson is in a motorcade with NSW premier Bob Askin, where a number of anti-war protesters lie down under or in front of the car. Askin’s instructions are to “run the bastards over”.

1966

Three army conscripts run for parliament in the federal election on an anti-war platform, since the law says those running for office are exempt from being forced to serve. When they fail to receive the required number of votes, they are forced to re-enlist. One, Brian King, refuses to do so and is sent to jail for 60 days.

1968

Direct action against the war becomes more heated, with sit-ins, blockades of army barracks and draft offices, and protests outside American consulates. Resistance to the draft also grows, with a number of groups circulating material encouraging young men to refuse to register or to resist callups.

From mid-1969, some 8,000 people, including many academics (led by Professors Charles Birch and Charles Martin), politicians, writers (including Patrick White), unionists, students and church leaders, signed up to Committee of Defiance statements urging young men not to register for national service and risking 1 year’s gaol themselves under the Crimes Act.

A number of Australians go to prison for draft resistance. One, Geoff Mullens, tells the jury at his trial “I am not a machine. I am not to be used as others will [in this war]. I can, as Bertrand Russell asked, ‘remember my humanity’. If you cannot, I pity you”

An underground network for draft resisters is also set up to enable them to avoid arrest, often making public appearances then escaping. At Melbourne University in September 1971, four draft resisters announced in advance that we were going to take up sanctuary at the union building. On the third day of taking up residence in the Student Union, 150 Commonwealth police staged a dawn raid. Obstructed by a nonviolent blockade of supporters linking arms, the police failed to catch any of the resisters.

Other notable events included the spontaneous release of “scarlet pimpernel” resister, Mike Matteson, by 800 Sydney University students, on April 24 1971, using bolt cutters to free him from being handcuffed to two Commonwealth policemen; and Matteson’s successful escape from an ABC studio as he was being interviewed on “This Day Tonight” at the same time as the Attorney General, Ivor Greenwood, who immediately ordered police to the studio to arrest him.

1969 also saw the release of at the time the most successful Australian anti-war song ever. Written by Johnny Young and performed by Ronnie Burns, Smiley peaked at #3 in the national chart, including the chorus Smiley
You’re off to the Asian War
And we won’t see you smile no more

In the early 70’s, the moratorium movement saw mass demonstrations against the war, with up to 200,000 people across the country disrupting cities in marches and sit-ins. With the anti-war movement having grown from radical fringes to the mainstream, the Labor party won the 1972 election on a platform that included the withdrawal of troops.

The effects of the Vietnam war on young men who had been forced to go was also the subject of protest. Two of Australia’s most famous and iconic anti-war songs focussed on the experiences of soldiers in Vietnam – Redgum’s A Walk In The Light Green (Only 19) and Cold Chisel’s Khe Sanh.

1975

Three weeks after East Timor declares its independence from Portugal, it is invaded (with the tacit support of Australia) by Indonesian military.

The East Timorese people’s only link with the outside world is a radio transmitter in Darwin that picks up their communications. “Radio Maubere” would then share reports with the world.

The Australian government repeatedly try to shut down the transmitter, forcing the Timor supporters into “cat and mouse” games. The transmitter is stored in a van that drives to hidden bush locations, and at one point a new transmitter is needed to be smuggled in to occupied Timor. Brian Manning was one of the people who for years snuck around transmitting the signals. His son later said “the Indonesians were in there to systematically reduce the population by any means necessary. So these people were just killing people, and these stories had to get out.”

1976

The USS Truxtun arrives in Melbourne and is greeted by thousands of wharfies walking off the job as part of a black ban on US military visits. Without the assistance of union tugboats and forced to navigate around a flotilla of protesters, the boat finally docks and the crew is met by a demonstration of over 1,000 people.

Over the next decade, visits from US warships are regularly protested and disrupted at ports around the country, with blockade flotillas, ships daubed with paint or blood, banner drops and even attempts at dropping paint bombs from a hang glider.

1978

Export of Australian uranium to nuclear weapon states like Iran (then still under the West-supported power of the Shah) is met with mass protests and disruption. Uranium from Queensland mine Mary Kathleen is exported through Brisbane, where hundreds of people repeatedly block the port or rally in the city. Street marches are at the time illegal in Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s Queensland, meaning any protester can be (and often is) arrested.

1981

Perth residents and ex-Navy personnel Bill and Lorraine Ethel remortgage their home and buy a sailboat. Dubbing the boat the “Pacific Peacemaker”, they (along with their three young children and some other crew members) set sail for the US West Coast where they attempt to disrupt the launch of the first USS Trident nuclear submarine.

1981

The Building Workers Industrial Union places a black ban on the construction of nuclear shelters, condemning those recently advertised in national newspapers as “seekingto exploit for profit the current arms race”.

1983

National feminist peace coalition “Women for Survival” co-ordinates a two week vigil in November at the Joint Defence Space Research Facility at Pine Gap. The vigil aimed to show solidarity with women’s peace camps at Greenham Common (UK) and Comiso (Italy) and to bring to public attention the secrecy of the US Base. The protest draws 800 women to central Australia in the summer heat. On November 13th women scrambled over the fence and held a Boston Tea Party on the green lawns of the Base, leading to mass arrests of 111 women who each gave their name as ‘Karen Silkwood’, the murdered American nuclear whistleblower.

1984

Women hold alternative ANZAC Day comemorations in all capital cities to remember women affected by wars. In Sydney the cenotaph is graffitied with the slogan “Even heroes rape in war” and “Lest we forget the women raped in wars”.

1984

In the December federal election, the Nuclear Disarmament Party run for senate in all states. High profile NSW candidate Peter Garrett polls 9.6% of the vote but fails to win a seat due to adverse preferences. In Western Australia though, peace activist Jo Vallentine is elected.

Vallentine would remain in the senate through the next two elections but resigned due to ill health in 1991. During her time as a senator she was arrested in 1987 trespassing at Pine Gap. After leaving politics she has carried on with peace activism, and in 2015 was arrested at the gates of Shoalwater Bay with the “Quaker grannies”.

1985
In Perth, ten people are arrested by police for painting “human shadows” on the footpath as part of an international action to mark the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

1985

With the Pine Gap US inteligence base undergoing an overhaul, protestors delay the landing of Galaxy C-5 transport planes from landing by riding bikes onto the runway. When the plane does eventually land it is smeared in orange paint.

1987

With Pine Gap’s decade long lease up for renewal, peace activists, aboriginal traditional owners and anti-colonial activists from Pacific nation Kanaky gather in the desert. Mass trespass actions lead to the arrest of over 100 people.

1989

A qualified lawyer going by the name Citizen Limbo in 1987 trespassed on Pine Gap. After being fined $250 he appealed to the Supreme Court claiming he had not had a fair hearing. For the appeal he issued summonses to PM Bob Hawke, US head of Pine Gap Glen Kerr and Australian deputy-head of Pine Gap Peter Woodruff. When they failed to appear he demanded warrants be put out for their arrest. The court rejected the warrants and dismissed the appeal, later handing Citizen Limbo a $30,000 bill for court costs.

1990

There are protests across the country against Australia’s involvement in the Gulf War. In Fremantle, a cannon at the war monument is painted pink with purple polka dots. In Melbourne, 27 swimmers form a peace sign in the water before moving to the bow of the HMAS Westralia to attempt to stop the ship from leaving. In Brisbane NO BLOOD FOR OIL is written in human blood on the wall of the defence recruitment centre.

1990

On 23 August, while HMAS Adelaide was about to depart Perth for the Gulf, Leading Seaman (LS) Terry Jones leaves the ship without lawful excuse. While being absent without leave, Jones stated:

I am not a coward and I would be prepared to fight for my country, but I am taking a political stand because this is not our war, we are just following the Americans. I am prepared to die to defend my country but not to protect United States oil lines.

Jones is court-martialled and convicted of absenting himself without leave. He was reduced in rank, forfeited 4 days’ pay, and received a 21-day suspended sentence. He was discharged at his own request thereafter.

1991

On January 1st; Australian Ciaron O’Reilly, along with New Zealander Moana Cole and Americans Sue Franknel and Bill Strait, enter the Griffis air force base in New York state where planes are stored ready to be deployed to Iraq. They call themselves the ANZUS ploughshares (named after the military treaty of their three home countries and the tradition of disarming weapons inspired by a biblical prophecy of “swords beaten into ploughshares).

Bill and Sue pour blood over a B-52 bomber and crack the fuselage with a hammer. Ciaron and Moana meanwhile write on the runway ‘No more bombing of children — Hiroshima, Vietnam, Middle East or anywhere else. Love your enemies. Isaiah strikes again.” They take to the runway with hammers, ripping up the tarmac.

For destruction of government property, the group are sentenced to a year in prison.

1991

In November, the Australia International Defence Exhibition arms fair is held in Canberra. Over 1,000 protesters blockade the exhibition with pickets, sit-ins, tripods and car wrecks. At one point, with police seemingly about to violently break up the protest, the crowd begins a spontaneous singalong of Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. The defence exhibition is never held again.

1990-98

Peace activists mark the anniversary of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor with annual protests at the Canungra Land Warfare Centre in South-East Queensland, where the Australian military conducts military training with Indonesian troops.

Actions include funeral processions carrying coffins, photographic exhibitions, the destruction of papier mache rifles and a reprint of flyers Australia had distributed to East Timorese in WWII entitled Your Friends Will Not Forget You.

Many are arrested in the actions, peaking at 19 in 1997.

1995

In response to French testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific, massive protest rallies are held  around Australia. In Sydney 40,000 people rally at the French consulate. There is also a widespread boycott of French products like wine and cheese, even postal workers refusing to deliver French mail.

The Australian government takes part along with other Pacific nations in an International Court of Justice case led by New Zealand to intervene in French testing. The case (like a similar case Australia and had brought in 1974) is rejected.

1998

On the 53rd anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, Ciaron O’Reilly and Treena Lenthall enter the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Kakadu national park, Northern Territory. On a mine excavator they spray paint the words “Nagasaki”, “Horoshima”, “Chernobyl” and a town in Iraq that had been poisoned by depleted uranium. They cut the cables of the machine and smash the ignition with a hammer.

They identify the action as part of the Ploughshares tradition of disarmament actions. In court they show as evidence David Bradbury’s film “Jabiluka” about the campaign of the Mirrar traditional owners to stop the mine. They are found guilty, sent to prison and ordered to pay over $6,000 in damages.

2003

As the Iraq war looms, Australia participates in a worldwide wave of demonstrations against the Iraq war, with at least 200, 000 protesters taking to the streets in Sydney as well as large protests in other cities and regional areas. An 82-year-old protester said “I’ve been through one war and that was enough,” she said. “I’m dead against wars, and especially this one.”

Women in Byron Bay and Sydney join with women around the worl in “baring witness” for peace. In Byron, over 750 naked women with their bodies spell out the words “NO WAR” with a heart shape around it on a hillside. Several weeks later in Sydney, a group of over 300 spell out the same words on a football field.

2003

On March 18, the day the first bombs fell on Iraq, Dave Burgess and Will Saunders climb one of the wings of the opera house and paint NO WAR in giant red letters.

They are arrested and later sentenced to 9 months of weekend detention and forced to pay $150,000 in restitution. The image of the defaced opera house though lives on in snow domes and graffiti tributes.

A culture-jamming group called The Lonely Station defaces a number of billboards against the war.

2004

Launceston man Barry Jessup attempts a citizen’s arrest of Prime Minister John Howard as he enters his hotel. Jessup grabs Howard by the coat sleeve and announces he is arresting him for crimes against humanity in Iraq. Jessup is charged with disorderly conduct and eventually given a 12 month good behaviour bond.

2005

Malcolm Kendall-Smith, an Australian born Medical Officer in the British Royal Air Force, refuses to attend training for his deployment to Iraq, saying he “would not be complicit in an act of aggression”. Kendall-Smith had previously applied for an early release from the military which had been refused.

He was court-martialled for refusing to attend training, where he was sentenced to eight months imprisonment, fined 20,000 pounds and discharged from the army. The Judge-Advocate told him “Those who wear the Queen’s uniform cannot pick and choose which orders they will obey.”

2005

Visiting American peace activist Scott Parkin is deported as a “threat to national security” despite never being charged with any crime and a history of non-violent protest. In response, peace groups around the country hold protests, including a “mass deportation” where activists turn up to the Melbourne federal police office with packed suitcases offering to be deported for having taken part in protests. Attorney-general Phillip Ruddock is confronted at a speaking engagement by activists in Gandhi masks and handcuffs.

2005

Adele Goldie, Donna Mulhearn, Jim Dowling and Bryan Law; under the name Christians Against ALL Terrorism; enter Pine Gap in white lab coats for a “citizen’s inspection” of the secretive US spy base.

The four are arrested and become the first people ever charged under the 50 year old Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. For trespass on the base they face up to seven years imprisonment.

When the judge awards only fines rather than prison sentences, the prosecution appeals to the High Court. The government ends up with further embarrassment though when the defendants counter appeal and have their charges dismissed on the grounds that the prosecution have to prove Pine Gap is indeed a “defence facility”.

2005-2015, Rockhampton

With the introduction of biennial joint training exercises between the Australian and US militaries, peace activists begin a tradition of “peace pilgrimages”, trespassing on the Shoalwater Bay training area and disrupting the training exercises.

Over the years there have been over 50 arrests at the exercises, with actions including mock funeral processions, frisbee games (as opposed to “war games”), the planting of a “peace shrine” on the base (which unbeknownst to the army, is still there) and Quaker grannies serving morning tea.

2008

On the 5th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, a new group is formed comprised of military veterans opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stand Fast announces they denounce these wars because soldiers are ordinary people, too many of whom have died or returned with psychological scars. They also aimed to debunk the myth that “If you’re against the war, you’re against the troops.”

2010

Wikileaks, an organisation started by Australian computer hacker and activist Julian Assange, releases to the public a cache of nearly 400,000 field reports from the US war in Iraq, later revealed to have been leaked by US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

The files include the infamous video dubbed “Collateral Murder”, depicting a US helicopter gunning down Reuters journalists and then the unarmed bystanders who came to check on their bodies. It also documents thousands of civilian deaths that had not been publicly reported, and failure by US authorities to act on reports of abuse by Iraq forces and US contractors.

2010-2015

In 2010, four Christian peace activists enter the secretive Swan Island SAS base in Victoria. Coming across a switchboard, they turn off the power and then hit the emergency stop button on a satelite dish.

They are arrested and charged with trespass. When the court later dismisses their charges, they respond by that afternoon returning to the base and blocking the entrance, leading to another nine arrests.

The event becomes an annual “peace convergence”, with activists regularly blocking the gate and trespassing on the base. In 2014, four activists trespassing on the base are assaulted by SAS personnel, leading to an internal defence investigation.

2011, Rockhampton

Bryan Law announces months before the Talisman Sabre exercises that he is intending to damage an attack helicopter in the tradition of “ploughshares actions”. The announcement causes quite a stir in Rockhampton, and for several months Bryan is covered and often condemned in the local news.

When the exercises arrive, Bryan crosses the tarmac at Rockhampton airport and, using a garden mattock, punches a hole in an Australian Euro-Tiger attack helicopter. A television crew is on hand to film the whole thing.

Bryan is charged with malicious damage, but dies before his scheduled trial in 2013. His friend Graeme Dunstan though, who drove him to the airport and helped him open the gate, faces the same charges. After three and a half days in court in which he represented himself, Graeme is eventually found guilty, given a two year suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay $160,000 in damages.

Brisbane, 2011

The 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan passes by with hardly a mention – by this stage it has been going on longer than Australia’s involvement in the first and second world wars combined. In Brisbane, four peace activists mark the anniversary with a vigil at the Enoggera Barracks to show their continuing resistance to the war. After blocking the entrance gates for over an hour, the four are arrested. They are later found guilty in court despite producing as evidence the Geneva Convention on rules of warfare.

Alice Springs, 2016

Several hundred peace activists converge in Alice Springs to protest the 50th anniversary of the Pine Gap lease being signed. Amongst various protest actions, six “peace pilgrims” walk on to the Pine Gap base to conduct a musical lament for the deaths caused there.

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Kurilpa Derby – the songs, the squid, the stairs to nowhere

Two years ago, I wrote this review of a Mouldy Lovers gig in West End. Factual and objective as always, I talked mostly about the bands relationship to the suburb:

A highlight for me though was just looking around and seeing so many familiar faces around me. Some were good friends, some just faces that I have come to know from 3 years living and hanging out in this peninsula. I’ve lived in a number of places and can confidently say that none of them are quite like West End.

Mouldy Lovers are quintessentially a West End band – like the suburb they are daggy but friendly, enthusiastic, enticing you to let go of your inhibitions, an indistinct mix of different styles. And present tonight are so many of the elements that make West End the place it is – musicians, hippies, punks, students, activists, hipsters, and yes, the yuppies who shop at the Boundary St markets. I didn’t see any Greek yia-yias out working in their gardens, but maybe they were there somewhere near the back.

Mouldy Lovers in this situation are more than just a band and those songs more than just rhythms and melodies – they are the encapsulation of what so many love about this suburb. Even if you didn’t like the music (though I doubt many people could hate something so fun and danceable), you could still dance, moving to the beat of this suburb and the idea of belonging to a place and a group of people. In a world where it’s so easy to live completely self-contained lives and to consume your music in a personalised niche, dancing to Mouldy Lovers with a few hundred others is a celebration of community and the Mouldies are the ligaments that hold together all these disparate parts.

I hadn’t thought about that review in a long time, until Sunday night when I was again watching the Mouldy Lovers in West End, this time on a stage in the middle of Boundary St for the Kurilpa Derby.

A lot can change in two years – the Motor Room and night markets where I saw that original show are gone, set to be developed into seven high rise towers of retail and apartments. My own feelings towards West End have changed in that time too – the sense of belonging those streets once gave me has mostly given way to a kind of sadness – sad that I no longer live in the neighbourhood, sad that the place is changing and the people who put so much work into making the suburb what it is don’t seem to have much control over it.

The Mouldy Lovers’ music has changed too – still tied to the suburb they call home, these days half the songs are about gentrification:

There’s an army approaching
The yuppies are encroaching
Armed with noise complaints, graffiti proof paints
Six foot fences and a sleeping potion

The Kurilpa Derby as always was wonderful, but this year (actually the first I’ve made it to in a couple of years) it also seemed to carry some sadness – and not just because Auntie Mulinjarlie Dillon, the wheelchair-driving aboriginal elder who apparently came up with the idea of a wheeled parade, has recently passed away.

The annual squid relay (carry a squid in your mouth down the street and pass it on to the next person) seemed like a cruel joke given George’s Seafood (the immensely popular local business which would always have the molluscs displayed in the shop window) is gone and replaced with yet another hipster bar.

The idea that a street can be a home and not just a thoroughfare was (as mentioned in a speech by Mouldy Lover and local councillor Jonathan Sri) this week thrown in the trash by the Brisbane City Council along with most of the possessions of the little shanty town under the Go-Between Bridge. As more and more apartment blocks go up on that side of the peninsula; there is no room for the homeless who have been a presence in that spot since before the bridge was there. The council gave as a reason complaints of anti-social behaviour towards joggers and cyclists using the nearby riverside path.

As I ran into people at the Derby, frequently the topic of changes in West End came up – one person said it was like a celebration of what West End used to be, another said there were more ex-residents than current residents present – it was like a homecoming for the West End diaspora.

I can count myself among that number. My time actually living in the suburb was never that long, but I recalled last night that I was one of those people forced out of West End by real estate agents. We were the kind of house that hung political banners from the front verandah, at times crammed a dozen people into the house and invited homeless people to come and stay. Not the dream tenants for any landlord, but we paid the rent on time every week and kept the house in good condition. We were kicked out at the end of our lease despite pleading to let us stay. Didn’t it mean anything that Catholic Worker hospitality houses like ours had for decades been a vital part of creating this suburb? The rent they could charge was partly inflated by the cultural capital we brought to the area!

It didn’t mean anything, and now that house is just another spot I look at sadly as I ride around West End. Yesterday I told a friend from overseas about the “stairs to nowhere”; a local hangout with views of the city where I spent many a night with friends (and actually named my old reviews blog after).

The stairs (they were literally a set of concrete steps that led to a vacant block) are gone now, a new house built on the site. I acknowledged to my friend that of course a house is of more use to society than a vacant block, but I just wished they’d left the stairs. Even just as a  monument if they weren’t up for punks drinking outside their front door.

This is a challenge we face. People who are for the economic and high rise development of West End can talk in numbers and statistics – this many extra homes, that much extra money. Those of us trying to defend the culture of West End have only vague feelings to describe its worth – how do you explain the squid, the stairs to nowhere, the sense of belonging? The fact that we like having obnoxious homeless people around?

It’s hard to talk about this stuff without just sounding like a NIMBY who doesn’t want tall buildings or outsiders in your neighbourhood. But among other people who value West End for the same things, we can let out the pent up feelings. So on days like the Kurilpa Derby we ride wheeled contraptions down the street and we talk to reassure one another we’re not alone in feeling like this, to remind ourselves of the things we value in a community, and to keep alive the inspiration that actually it is possible to build spaces that embody this.

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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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