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Politics as more than a dirty word

It used to be sometimes said that a good thing about Australia not having fixed election dates was it spared us from the endless political theatre of say, the US election cycle.

I say “used to” – all Australia’s states now have fixed terms; while at a federal level we haven’t even had an election date called yet are being forced to endure, like some terrible undeserved purgatory, the faces on billboards, tv screens and newspapers of the men who would be our next Prime Minister.

Plenty of this is self-promotion (especially Clive Palmer’s Donald Trump act); though both contribute by putting their opponents faces up as political bogeymen to haunt us as we go about our lives. Labor say Scott Morrison wants to cut our penalty rates,  Liberals say Bill Shorten wants to rob retirees.

The media meanwhile also work themselves up into a state of frenzy. Freed from the responsibility of actually going out and finding out what’s happening in the world, journalists relish the opportunity to sit at their desks and crank out a mixture of gossip and political propaganda. With glee they publish Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull complaining about their old colleagues. Astonishingly, the right-wing media has been openly and overtly calling for a rerun of the 2001 and 2014 election monstrosities; when politicians with comfortable lives shamefully used desperate and displaced people as tools for a campaign of fear.

Even when not completely sensationalist, the media forgoes a rational analysis. Endless pages are devoted to the campaigns of high profile human rights lawyers and former olympians running for seats of prominent MP’s, as if the state of Australian politics is merely due to a couple of individuals and everything will change if they are voted out.

With stories on federal politics coming thick and fast, there is little time to reflect on how ridiculous some of them are – the CEO of government contractor Helloworld apparently telling his employee “Joe Hockey owes me”; senator Brian Burton having a fistfight with a One Nation staffer then smearing his blood on Pauline Hanson’s door; and the peak – the day a government of highly paid and seemingly fully developed adults wasted an entire day of parliament with pointless speeches and questions to avoid having to deal with motions proposed by opposition parties.

Confronted with this overwhelming barrage, the natural response is to turn away and shield your eyes; maybe lock yourself in your room like Japanese hikikomori; at the very least to conclude that if “being political” means keeping up to date with these happenings, then being political is something to be best avoided.

And that, of all the reasons, is why I hate elections the most. Because the all-consuming spectacle cultivated by those in “politics” reinforces the idea that important decisions that affect society are made by men and women in suits, and the role for the rest of us is to be like fans at the footy – standing on the sidelines cheering and gossiping.

The word “politics”, before it became smeared with these connotations, once came from the Greek “polites” – that is “citizen”. It is meant to describe the interactions of people – that is all of us, not just those shameless enough to end up as MPs. About how society as a whole affects the life of each person, and indeed how the lives of individual people affect society as a whole.

Thinking about politics in this way provides a reason why, despite everything, we should all seek to be political. Because we each do have something to contribute to society, and seeking to do that can provide a sense of meaning to our lives and a very real output for the skills we all have. Because politics does affect us all and by getting involved we could potentially shape society in a way that can make our lives very different. And because we do live in a world where our lives are affected by the actions of others. To “not be political” is merely to support the status quo – the disproportionate influence of those who were born into money and property, and who usually act in their own interests at the expense of everyone else.

While the mass media is engulfed in the spectacle of the election; there are people around the country trying to redefine what politics means – into something that includes all of us.

In central Queensland, people from around the country converged last week in response to our government’s continued inaction on climate change. It’s not just that this summer was once again the hottest on record and one full of the kind of natural disasters climate change is predicted to exacerbate. Not just that Australia’s carbon emissions increased again to our highest ever point. It’s that climate change has already demonstrated the disastrous effect it will have on all kinds of species and people in vulnerable situations. And yet people in power talk about the necessity of action then happily approve new coal mines and even coal-fired power plants.

Those gathered near Bowen, where the coal from Adani’s proposed Carmichael mega-mine will be shipped out, had decided that while not everyone has the power to consign whole species to extinction with a signature; each person does have the ability to put their body where their beliefs are. As such, this gathering of random people from across the country managed to pretty much stop any coal from being shipped out of that port for 80 hours. They did this in spite of an overwhelming police presence designed to stop them doing so. They did it with a lot of ingenuity, co-operation, and courage to face the legal consequences and public vilification of hostile media.

Further south in Queensland, the Yuggera Ugerapul aboriginal people have been for several years resisting the plans of property developers to build a new suburb on the grounds of the old Deebing Creek mission and its cemetery where many of their ancestors are buried. Their attempts have so far not been successful, so like those up north they’ve decided that physical presence is one bit of power we all have. They set up camp on the mission site.

This week police came in to clear out the camp. The Yuggera Ugerapul and their supporters refused to leave – terra nullius this is not. A few were arrested. One young aboriginal man climbed a relic “scar tree” and refused to come down. They performed their culture – singing, dancing, and affirming that aboriginal connection to country is still a living breathing thing. The next day there was a meeting of property developers, police and elders. It was agreed the camp could stay. The crowd, who been forced out of the campsite but had refused to leave the area, started setting up the tents and kitchen again. That struggle goes on.

Around the country, high school students live in the paradox of being told by their teachers to think about their future while they watch it being wilfully destroyed in the name of profit. They’ve managed to learn more about the seriousness of climate change in science class than Tony Abbott or Scott Morrison did in all their briefings with the Department of the Environment.

They’ve decided to take action on climate change, and have encountered a history of people who have been fighting for the same. The result was a mass walk-off of students from school in November to protest, and another one planned for this Friday. But more than that, the result has been a cohort of young people learning that for all the platitudes about “your future”, it is possible to reclaim the future from those who would seek to destroy it – by getting together and working on the things we believe in. The patronising responses of conservative politicians to the initial strike has only acted to reinforce the need for young people to act. And miraculously, for the first time really in over a decade, climate action is on the election agenda.

These are only three examples, I could give plenty of others. Not all dramatic protest either. But of people who rather than resigning their fate to the faces on the billboards, have decided to act on their beliefs and try to change what is in their power. People who see politics as a lived reality rather than something you watch on TV.

As politicians scramble for votes in the spectacle of the election campaign, this is the one message you won’t get from them – that our best hope for a just, sustainable and life-enriching world is for everyday people to get together and talk about what is really important and how we can bring it about. Not on the billboards, the TV ads or the baby-kissing photo ops. But if you look closely you can see that message being spread; if you give it a go you might even find that it rings true and politics can be more than just a dirty word.

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Singing from the trash

The possession I have the most attachment to is probably the guitar I have lugged around the country over the last seven and a half years. I’ve played it for all kinds of gigs in all kinds of places, jammed with friends, written songs with it and recorded albums.

I love the way this guitar came into my hands. I was running a youth group that included a few kids who you might say were from the wrong side of the tracks. I loved these kids, and they would occasionally come round to my house just for somewhere to hang out. One day they told me they had found a guitar in the kerbside rubbish collection and, knowing I played music, wondered if I would like it. The only thing was that it didn’t have any strings. I told them that was no problem. There was a pause of a few seconds, then “well, it did have strings on it. But we wanted to see if you could play it with the strings on fire. So we sprayed deodorant on them and lit it and they all snapped.”

It’s a while since I’ve seen those kids (though I can happily say they are doing ok), but like I said the guitar is still with me. Many years ago in a cheesy but sincere moment I wrote “this is a weapon” on it because I wanted my music to be a force that can change lives and change the world. I’ve twice had to lovingly repair the neck after others snapped it. I can guarantee that every gig I have ever played I have had the least fancy guitar of all the performers. But that’s the way I like it.

It certainly wouldn’t be the last thing I repurposed out of the trash. After discovering supermarket bins full of edible groceries, I never really went back to going inside the store. Almost all the food I have eaten in the last nine years came out of the bin, or occasionally even the leftovers off restaurant plates I walk past. I often try to distribute the excess; feeding others including years of street kitchens serving strangers for free.

Seeing the waste of our society in a world where people still starve to death made me resolve to be a re-user. I have honestly hardly bought a thing over the last decade – my clothes, bicycles, mobile phones and pretty much everything else salvaged from discard piles; my homes often made in abandoned buildings.

I didn’t limit it to things either. As someone who never really felt I belonged in this society, I gathered with other rejects. We dreamed of a world that was different and tried to put it into place – sharing art and music about our lives; trying to look after each other; discussing politics, religion and philosophy; going out to protest injustice and prophesy new possibilities; sitting together in handcuffs and courtrooms when our values veered too far from the world’s.

I found people discarded in other ways too. I hung out on the streets chatting to people who long ago fell off the chart of social status. I opened up the doors of my house to the homeless, the addicts, the disabled, the migrants and wanderers.

The ideals that have meant the most to me and inspired my life also seem to mostly be the ones our society discards – the idea that nature and people of other lands we’ll never meet have rights equal to our own; the notion that greed is what causes most of the world’s problems and therefore money and status are something to be avoided; the power of humility, compassion and forgiveness. The idea that you can grow older and still believe in changing the world.

A life of digging through the trash like that can bring a lot of joy – at times the kind of treasure that makes my guitar seem like an insignificant bit of timber. To see new possibilities emerge; things that have been rejected and forsaken turned into something useful and whole.

But there are a lot of unpleasant things stored in our bins, and to wade through them can certainly be difficult. You don’t often get many thanks for it either. Sometimes you do; but mostly it’s condescending looks of pity, stares of disapproval, upturned noses, occasionally abuse for violating people’s refined sensibilities.

And yet as difficult as it occasionally gets, I think the trash is where I’ll stay. Certainly the neglected margins of society is where I feel most comfortable and most inspired. Maybe after this long I’ve acclimatised to it and can’t go back; like the urban ibis or possum. I know though that this guitar I carry around with me is a reminder of the possibilities contained in things others have written off.

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Clutter

I’ve never watched Marie Kondo, but I have certainly heard of her. At the moment she is seemingly everywhere – the new guru of our society, a prophet for our times. She fearlessly delves into our immense piles of stuff preaching the message of throwing out what doesn’t bring you joy.

Without having watched her show I also know why she is so loved. Essentially I’d say it’s because we live in a world that is underjoyed and overcluttered. And while I don’t think that these two things are always related, or that things are only worthy if they bring us joy; I think most people would agree that objects become clutter when they stop enabling us to do the things we want to and begin inhibiting us. Which I think is the situation many of us find ourselves in. And so as Marie Kondo recognises, our proliferation of stuff becomes a psychological and spiritual phenomenon.

The problem of clutter is of course mostly specific to our current epoch. New technologies for manufacturing have meant there are so many more things being made than ever before. They’re cheaper to buy too (plus widespread credit means we don’t even have to be able to afford them anyway), and usually less directly linked to our everyday survival than the possessions of our ancestors would have been. Lifetimes spent immersed in a culture of consumerism; constantly wading through advertising as we go about our daily lives; means we accumulate things for all kinds of reasons other than that we need them.

Our lives are cluttered not only with all the things we own, but also plenty of things we don’t – all the products on store shelves we are taught to desire; all the things our neighbours possess that we envy or fear we are missing out on; all the new technologies being planned that render our current model obsolete.

This is one of the reasons dealing with our stuff is often so difficult – a fact anyone who has moved house can attest to, let alone the hoarders who end up on Marie Kondo’s TV show. Sorting through our possessions means confronting and potentially discarding objects that remind us of our past selves and lives. But it also means confronting all our future selves that never were – all those things we thought we would use but never did, the projects we got so excited about but never had time for.

Around the city, storage units sprout like wildflowers; the most obvious symbol of our cluttered world. So many of us literally own too many things to fit in our house, yet we can’t bear to get rid of them or share them around. On the other hand; while the ugly hoarders’ houses with mazes from one end of the lounge room to the other may repel us or give us some voyeuristic thrill, really hoarders are the ones who take the most responsibility for their consumption – many of us go through mountains of stuff but throw it in the bin without consideration of environmental cost or actual use value.

But to be honest I think the overabundance of physical objects is only one part of our clutter affliction. At the same time as we deal with physical stuff, most of us are also grappling with an over cluttered mind. New technology again is surely part of the reason. Think about work – once there was a much more clear distinction between when we were on the clock and when was our own time to relax and pursue our own interests. Now with smartphones, email, and work from home, many people never really clock off – part of your mind is constantly taken up with business.

Then there’s the other work we do constantly – maintaining our public profile through social media. The work is never-ending and all-consuming. Any moment could be snapped on our camera and put on instagram; any thought could be crafted into a Facebook status. But when is the right time to post it to optimise the number of likes? We always have had a distinction between who we are in private and the public face we maintain, but now we are constantly performing. The instant there is a pause in our lives or a lull in conversation (moments our mind could use to decompress), like a reflex action we pull out our phones and start scrolling through more information than our brain can possibly register.

The internet is like a gigantic warehouse filled with mental clutter. Every thought in human history is constantly at our fingertips – we possess it all yet absorb so little of it. Great works of art and great developments in human understanding coexist on the same level as cat videos, Marie Kondo memes and fake news. And we consume them in much the same way. These days we stream the entire universe of culture on spotify and netflix, but are attached to none of it. Every day we log on to find more new things recommended for us by the algorithm.

On top of all the things filling our mind is the knowledge that it is happening and the stress that brings. Absurdly, there are entire industries convincing us that our lives are too full and busy so we need more things to solve the problem – mindfulness colouring books, yoga classes, ASMR videos.

It is in this environment that the words of Marie Kondo resonate so strongly. “Does this bring you joy?” The answer, for so many of us, is no. It brings us stress, anxiety, exhaustion, paralysis. Trapped in our physical and spiritual hoarders’ houses, we need someone like Marie to excavate our stuff and help us get out for a gasp of fresh air.

Like I said, I’ve never actually watched Marie Kondo, so I don’t know how effective it is at combating our cluttered world. I’d have my questions – does Marie tackle the mental clutter that is also inhibiting us? Does she critique the broader society that influences us to accumulate all these things? Is a prioritising of “joy” just a perpetuation of the individualised consumer mindset that got us here? How ethical is it to treat objects as things that only affect our personal joy without reference to the environmental and social cost of their production and disposal?

Still, I’m a long term and committed believer in having minimal stuff. Over the last few years of living in the one crowded house surrounded by all kinds of objects, feeling my head fill up in much the same way, I’ve been haunted by a memory.  Of a time in my life when I owned only what could fit on my back. I had no computer or smartphone, worked happily for free but stayed flexible enough to go where I felt right. I lived in abandoned houses, often with virtually no furniture.

They were some of the most exciting times of my life, and I’m certain that part of the reason was that the vast empty spaces in my life allowed room for new possibilities to emerge – being open to new experiences but also being able to see what I had in new ways. With each attachment I picked up, good things though they may have been, that scope of possibilities narrowed just a little bit, until I felt so consumed by what I had and did that I had lost the ability to think about what a life and a world that really prioritised sparking joy might look like.

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My top 10 songs of 2018

For the eighth year in a row here I am composing this list to post on here. Why do I do it? Well there’s lots of great music made each year I like to share with you all, but also it’s nice at the end of each year to look back at what music moved me for various reasons. I hear a lot of songs each year, but these are ones that stuck as more than just background noise.

 

Carb On Carb – It’s Been a Rough Year

 

It was a bit of a rough year in some ways, but that’s not why I found myself craving emo music. That was just because I love that warm fuzzy guitar and yearning vocals. It can be hard though to find emo music that doesn’t sound like the ridiculous whining of broken-hearted white boys. Saving the day though was Auckland’s Carb On Carb with For Ages; where singer Nicole Gaffney explores the nuances of getting older – an experience which, whether we like to admit it or not, does tend to bring its emotional complications. And this song is just a good pep talk which we can all do with at times.

 

Shed – Poured Out

 

When this song started getting airplay on 4ZZZ in the middle of the year it raised questions – who was this mysterious “Shed”? I know I’m not as connected to the local scene as I used to be, but still it seemed the band appeared from nowhere with this beautiful and odd song. Turns out band members are spread across the country, but I did get to see them play once before the end of the year. The whole record Terrestrial Stress is good, but this is still the highlight with its bare guitar and violin sound and bizarre nature poetry.

 

Hanny J – Trying to Get By

 

No longer do we in Brisbane get the regular joy of seeing Hanny J perform in her many musical projects. She is living down in Melbourne and touring the world with punk rockers Clowns. But she also found time for a solo EP this year, and it was typically great wholehearted punk rock. Definitely my highlight was this song – on a theme way too familiar for those who’ve hung around the punk scene for a while, but sadly relevant to so many people everywhere: “knowing the people who make me want to live want to die”.

 

Bombino – Ouhlin

 

Since Tinariwen discovered guitars in their Algerian refugee camp back in the 70’s, Sahara’s nomadic Tuareg people have been making some of the most interesting rock music on the planet. The style has evolved over the years, and while a band like Tinariwen is often compared to the blues, young upstart Bombino plays a style that, while distinctively Tuareg, recalls psychedelic rock with its funky drumbeats and endless guitar soloing. I was very stoked to get to see Bombino in Brisbane in November as it’s pretty rare for Tuareg bands to make it out to this part of the world. The show was brilliant, as was his album Deran.

 

The Gametes – Man of Thumbs

 

Who knew that what the Brisbane music scene was crying out for in 2018 was a group of nerdy looking young guys dressing up and making a dystopian science fiction surf-punk concept album?

But everything The Gametes did this year was amazing. Hilarious social media posts (the band claims they are merely a front for the power-hungry Takiyama Corporation); energetic and visually interesting gigs; amazing videos (one of which is above, another caused a storm when the Brisbane City Council edited from it the words “male impotence”, and one show I saw them play involved them playing an instrumental soundtrack to a bizarre film of their own making); and ultimately their album The Astronomical Calamities Of Comet Jones.

Their creativity, humour and intelligence was a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, they broke up immediately after the release of their album, with members moving overseas. Still, maybe better to burn brightly for a short time than to work yourself to a demoralising end like Comet Jones.

 

Petrol Girls – Survivor

 

This year there were a number of songs that emerged from female artists in response to the MeToo movement making visible the extent of sexual assault.  It made for powerful listening, which is certainly how I’d describe this ferocious track from British/Austrian punks Petrol Girls.

I have to admit I’m not sure how I personally feel about the idea of a vengeful coven as a method of change, or even with the idea of anger as a redemptive force. But damn it’s such a great song.

 

The Hold Steady – Eureka

 

Fourteen years after the release of their first album, The Hold Steady this year released a series of singles, sporadically appearing on their bandcamp. At this stage it’s probably unwise for anyone to hold their breath waiting for the band to top their masterpiece from 2006 Boys and Girls in America. But for fans, each new single is like catching up with an old friend – those familiar cheesy classic rock riffs with a wisecracking narrator telling tragic tales of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. This was my favourite.

 

Teri Young – Cruise Ship

 

A personal musical highlight of 2018 for me was going on a tour of the east coast in March with Teri Young. We played mostly house shows, often in country towns, which was a great medium to do folk music in. It also meant I got very well acquainted with the songs off Teri’s just released album. Her songs are beautiful in how they explore the significance of incidents in everyday life – and this her love song to Hobart is an example of what it means to be attached to a place. Teri was up in Brisbane to play at my own album launch later in the year, which was lovely too.

 

Toko Telo – Oka Niny

 

For many years I’ve enjoyed the beautiful music of D’Gary – a self-taught guitar virtuoso from rural Madagascar who back in the 90’s just happened to cross paths with an American music producer and didn’t even own a guitar when he recorded his first album. His music is often hard to find, so it was a delight to this year discover some of his classic songs re-recorded with Madagascan supergroup Toko Telo; where D’Gary is joined by the diva-like voice of Monika Njava and electric guitarist Joël Rabesolo. D’Gary’s guitar playing is as always extraordinary, the songs are great; and while this one’s probably not actually my favourite track, the opportunity to see the group jamming out on a video like this is a joy. Also, the phrase “Oka Niny” means “Go, Girl”; which is pretty great.

 

Outright – Repeat/Defeat

 

Sadly, it appears neo-nazi ideologies never go completely out of style, as Outright point out in this song (“History repeats itself/Defeats itself“). Fortunately though, neither does hardcore punk – exhibit A being Outright’s wonderful EP of crushing old-school hardcore released this year. It seems many agree, as I see them appearing on all kinds of festival lineups. When they came up to Brisbane to play at Common House headlining a bill of female-fronted punk bands, it was an awesome show that reminded me why I love this music. And this song is just immense.

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World cup memories

I think my friend was a bit taken aback really, when she asked me what I did to just to zone out and relax. I thought for a second, then remembered my guilty pleasure: “I watch old sports videos on youtube.”

It is a bit odd, I know. And maybe even more unusual because I only vaguely follow the contemporary sports world, yet some nights I can for several hours watch videos of games, many of which I watched the first time around back in the 90’s. But thinking about it more, I realised there are ways my worldview was affected by my boyhood love of (some would say obsession with) sports. With that in mind, I thought I would share a few of my favourite sporting memories, united by the fact they were from world cups in the late 90’s (my peak sports-loving period).

The first goes back to when I was very young. I was nine years old when Sri Lanka came to Australia in 1995/96 for their first full tour of the country. Sri Lanka was young too – as a nation it had been independent from its British colonial masters for less than half a century (it had been known as Sri Lanka for half that time again) but was still trying to work out its national identity and was in the middle of a bitter civil war. As a cricketing country it had played its first test in 1982 and in the time since then had won only a handful of games. Apparently the team were so poorly paid several of them couldn’t afford rent in Colombo and lived at the family home of captain Arjuna Ranatunga.

They weren’t expected to beat the cricketing superstars of Australia and to be honest in the test series they didn’t – losing all three games resoundingly. The series really heated up though when the Sri Lankans were accused of ball-tampering; and when a couple of Australian umpires no-balled Sri Lanka’s promising young off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing. Murali’s controversial action had been cleared by world cricket’s governing body, and the Sri Lankans saw this as an act of Australian arrogance to overrule it.

They seemed to take this as a rallying point when it came to the triangular one-day series with Australia and fellow cricketing giants (albeit in decline) West Indies. There the Sri Lankans played cricket with a  new self-belief; but also a startling tactical innovation that surprised their opponents.

Opening batsmen in cricket were traditionally of a slow and steady inclination, making sure to wear the shine off the new ball before starting any attack. Sri Lanka though saw an opportunity through rules that restricted fielding positions in the opening overs. They replaced their normal opening batsmen with middle-order batsman Sanath Jayasuriya and wicket-keeper Romesh Kaluwitharana.

Kaluwitharana was improbably tiny – when he hunched over for his batting stance you could almost see the top of the wickets behind him. His bat seemed to be as heavy as he was, but he would use it to club the ball around the field with a joyful disrespect to the opening bowlers. Jayasuriya would slash at the ball in an unorthodox way, hitting sixes over the off-side in a way you never saw anyone else do at the time. They would take teams by surprise, and the rest of the team could chip in enough to get them through. Murali would go on to be cricket’s leading wicket-taker of all time, and stylish batsman Aravinda De Silva was at the time regarded as the country’s best ever player, but in reality they were a team of few stars where everybody contributed bit-parts.

Sri Lanka beat the West Indies into the finals series, where they gave Australia a decent fight in a hot-tempered couple of games. The arrogance of the Australian team and media against this very likeable team of new upstarts was pretty uncomfortable to watch, even for a kid who got his cricket commentary from Channel 9 and the Murdoch press. The Australian players especially targeted portly captain Arjuna Ranatunga; though as it turned out Ranatunga was a man of exceptional levels of self-confidence – named after the mythical Hindu warrior and later to become a politician, his pride could seemingly drag the rest of his team with him along for the ride.

Several months later was the cricket world cup. There the style the team had pioneered in Australia was unveiled for the rest of the world. Sri Lanka broke the world record for highest team score in one match and crashed their way through the tournament winning every game. There was a bit of heat too, and not just because the games were played in a South Asian summer. Australia and the West Indies refused to play in Sri LAnka due to terrorist concerns from the civil war and thus forfeited their games. When Sri Lanka shocked India with a big win in the semi-final at Kolkata; supporters literally rioted, forcing the game to be called off early as smoke rose from the grandstands.

So Sri Lanka entered the world cup final, where they once again faced Australia. Except this time they were on the crest of an almighty wave. They got off to a bad start with both bat and ball, but Aravinda De Silva rose to the occasion, taking key wickets with his part-time off spin and scoring a brilliant century to direct the team to victory. This tiny country had become cricket’s most surprising world champions and announced themselves as a force. Not only that, but they had done so with style, creativity, and dignity in the face of hostility.

 

Two years later, there was a world cup in a different sport. I had never really watched much soccer, but a world cup seemed exciting. So, still in primary school, I would get up at 4:30 each morning to watch the last of the day’s games on SBS then head off to school.

I quickly grew to love soccer. I liked the game, but I also liked the appearance on my TV of teams from continents all around the world, each bringing their own styles. As the cup went on and the teams became less, I picked up as my favourite team the Netherlands. The country’s colonial history had enabled the two central midfielders to be black guys with dreadlocks, which was pretty cool, but most of all I loved the quiet, almost brooding presence of striker Dennis Bergkamp.

Bergkamp never seemed to break into a sprint – he would seemingly glide across the grass. His touch on the ball was so gentle. Which seems like an odd thing to say, but honestly he only ever seemed to caress the ball, and no matter how hard someone kicked it at him, his feet always seemed to absorb the impact. It’s such a cliche for writers with intellectual pretensions to compare sportspeople with ballerinas. Here’s the truth folks – I’ve never watched a ballet in my life. Bergkamp was just an incredibly graceful footballer; a classic number 10 who could create goals where most people could only see lines of defenders.

There was something odd about him too – he didn’t really look like a footballer with his receding hairline and furrowed brow. He had a fear of flying which meant when his club Arsenal played in European competitions they had to go without their star player for the away games when they needed him most; and meant he retired from the national team before the next world cup to save having to somehow get to Japan. All this just added to the mystery of the man. At the 1998 world cup he was at his peak, having just lead Arsenal to their first league title in a decade, and was hoping to do the same for the Dutch.

In the quarter final, Holland met Argentina – the country who had once beaten them in a world cup final. It was a fierce game, but with moments of class. Bergkamp set up Holland’s first goal with a wonderful cushioned header to his forward partner Patrick Kluivert (that was another thing about him – he always set up more goals for others than he scored himself, and he once said he enjoyed setting them up more too), but Argentina equalised. It looked like the game was going to extra time for sure; but in the last minute, seemingly out of desperation, the ball was booted to Bergkamp on the right hand side of the penalty area. He took the ball on the full, then bounced it between the defender’s legs, then shifted his weight and with the outside of his boot curled the ball past the keeper and into the top corner. It was all done with his right foot, yet he sent the defender twisting around like a spinning top. It was, and still is, the most aesthetically beautiful goal I have ever seen. On this youtube clip it’s even better with the sound up; the Dutch commentator, seemingly lost for words with hysterical joy, just shouts Bergkamp’s name over and over again like some ecstatic mantra.

 

In those late 90’s, South Africa was one of the few cricketing teams who could really give the Australians a frequent challenge. As a team they were hard and competitive, and their games with Australia were often dour arm-wrestles played with gritted teeth (and a fair bit of what Australian captain Steve Waugh famously called “mental disintegration”). Among the South African team though existed the maverick presence of Lance Klusener.

Klusener was a hard-looking man with a red crew-cut, but he bounded in to bowl with the enthusiasm of a kid on red cordial. His nickname was “Zulu” because he grew up in a rural area and could speak Zulu language – something which less than a decade after the end of apartheid was a bit of a rarity.

At the 1999 world cup; Lance Klusener, theoretically in the team as a fast bowler, became South Africa’s star batsman – adding quick runs late on, or more than once rescuing the team from a perilous situation. This was a surprise because the team actually included a number of the world’s leading batsmen. But it was also a surprise because Lance Klusener batted like a man who had never made it past the contents page of a cricketing textbook.

He would hold his bat high, and club the ball with great cross-batted heaves as if he was back on the farm scything grass. But in a tournament where batsman generally struggled, seemingly nobody could get him out or stop him from scoring.

The semi-final against Australia was another low-scoring battle. Australia only scored 213 but seemingly had South Africa on the ropes at 9-198 in the second last over – needing 16 off 8 balls to win with one wicket left. Except guess who was still there. With his trademark style, Klusener bludgeoned a six and a four in the second last over to get them needing 9 off the last six balls. Unbelievably he then smacked two fours off the first two balls to tie the scores with four balls remaining.

Allan Donald, the batsman at the other end, was one of the world’s best bowlers but hopeless with the bat. He nearly got himself out when not even facing the ball. So next ball, Klusener bumped the ball to mid off and charged off for the run that would win the game and put South Africa into the world cup final. He forgot to tell his partner to run though, and Donald stood frozen like a rabbit in headlights. When he finally went to take off he dropped his bat. The ball came back, and Australian bowler Damian Fleming comically rolled the ball down the pitch to run him out. It was a moment of pure farce at the highest level, one that would be replayed again and again on TV screens around the world.

It’s excruciating on this video watching Klusener walk off while Australia celebrates. But his response to team mates was apparently to shrug “We lost the world cup. Nobody died.”

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Facing the Adani mine with a bang not a whimper

The proposal for Indian mining company Adani’s Carmichael mega-coal mine in Central Queensland were approved in July 2014. Few Australians before then could have pointed to the Galilee Basin on a map, but before long the Carmichael mine had become a divisive talking point.

For those on the side of industry, the mine was a bonanza of wealth and jobs – figures like $300 billion and 10,000 jobs were thrown around at one point (only to be later revealed as wildly optimistic) – as well as the potential for a whole new frontier of remote country opened up to the mining industry. Other mining companies with exploration leases in the region queued up behind the Indian company.

For those concerned about the impacts of climate change, the mine was a carbon bomb – several billion tonnes of coal to be burned in a world that had agreed at Paris Climate Summit we had to phase out fossil fuels to stop catastrophic climate change.

Opposition to the mine quickly galvanised into real action. Environmental activists moved to Central Queensland in an attempt to build a movement for climate action in the very place that would supposedly reap the economic benefits. The Wangan and Jagalingou people, traditional owners of the land on which the mine would stand, had signed an Indigenous Land Use Agreement. A group of them though said the process was a sham. They appealed in court; and began a tour of the world’s biggest banks, telling them not to finance a mine that did not have the blessing of indigenous people.

Other court cases began (enough for Liberal MP George Christensen to label them “lawfare”). The Mackay Conservation Group famously won its case in the Federal Court on the basis that the government approval has not sufficiently taken into account the habitat destruction of the yakka skink and ornamental snake. Unfortunately all they won was the need for the government to reassess, and when it comes to weighing up the comparative values of skink habitat vs billion dollar mines, governments are not known to be reptile fanciers.

A protest camp with the intention of blockading work on the mine was set up in 2015 and by 2017 people were being arrested halting work on mining infrastructure.

The shock victory of Anastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor party in the 2015 Queensland election owed more than a little to their promise to stop the dumping of dredge spoil on the Caley Valley Wetlands for Adani’s port, and to not offer any government support to the mine. In doing so, the Labor campaign was effectively piggybacking on the hard work of activists who had revealed the damage the mine and its infrastructure would do.

That work they have never repaid with any proactive move to stop the mine. The Palaszczuk government had the power to veto Adani’s application for a $1 billion loan from the federal Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund. They did so only under pressure during the next election campaign. They could have rejected the mine’s approval on environmental grounds, either by including climate change in the impact assessment or by applying the “water trigger” over the immense amount of groundwater the mine will use. They didn’t. They sat on their hands when it came to prosecuting Adani over environmental breaches they have already committed – agreeing to do so only at the very last minute after heavy activist pressure. Labor have offered Adani a “royalty holiday” for the first four years to help get the mine off the ground. In 2016, Cairns MP Rob Pyne quit the Labor party, citing the Carmichael mine as one of the reasons. Later that year, when a motion was moved in parliament in support of Adani; Pyne was the single vote against with 87 votes for.

Labor’s failure to move on Adani is certainly not because they have innocently forgotten its climate impacts. They have been relentlessly pushed by a significant number of hard-working people opposed to the mine. Numerous times MPs have said in private that they don’t support the mine, or that it won’t happen because the finance isn’t there. But in parliament or in public, the party has been conspicuously silent when it comes to saying anything critical of Adani.

Partly this can be attributed to Labor’s caucus voting rules, but mostly it just seems like pure spinelessness. While so many people are working overtime voluntarily to try to stop this mine and avert climate disaster; Labor politicians with a mandate to stop it seem paralysed by fear of the Murdoch media, the mining industry and pro-mining unions. They cower in silence while trying to still hold onto favour from environmentalists by reassuring them they’re really on side. It also seems hypocritical given Queensland Labor loves to promote its climate action plan and initiatives (most recently grants for households with solar panels to install batteries). With every media release about the party’s action on climate change, the elephant in the room that is Adani becomes harder and harder to ignore.

All those years of saying the finances aren’t there in the last month have come out as the empty excuses they are. Adani have made a series of announcements about changes to their plan that have the mine looking more likely than ever. First they announced a change to the transport plans. Rather than build a whole new rail line, they now intend to build a spur line onto existing tracks further north. Then Adani announced they would be scaling down the project into a series of stages that makes it require less capital. Last Friday, Adani announced they would be self-financing the project, putting aside all those financial questions. They claim work will start on the mine by Christmas.

This is not to say the mine is now a foregone conclusion. There are still hurdles Adani needs to get over regarding its groundwater management plan, the rail network and the federal court challenge of the Wangan and Jagalingou family council. Plus of course the ongoing public opposition.

The campaign against Adani has been Australia’s biggest grass-roots political movement at least since the Iraq war, except more sustained and varied. Polling suggests that three quarters of Australians who have a view on whether the mine should go ahead are against it. There have been all kinds of actions done against Adani, and even in the last couple of weeks we have seen schoolkids on strike and invading parliament; mass messages sent to Anastacia Palaszczuk; and people in Brisbane and Bowen arrested stopping export coal trains to protest the mine. The “lawfare” it seems will continue from both sides, with the Australian Conservation Foundation taking the government to the federal court over groundwater and rail company Aurizon putting a court injunction on Front Line Action on Coal to stop them encouraging people to blockade coal trains. The protest Camp Nudja is still there mind you, with more people going up there to try to get in the way of the mine’s construction. These actions are only going to intensify if the mine gets closer to construction.

You can’t fault the effort of the movement against Adani and all the people involved. But alongside the businessmen and careerist politicians who care for nothing as much as their own pockets; supportive but inactive politicians are now standing face to face with the prospect of being responsible for immeasurable more emissions on the road to catastrophic human-caused climate change.

In 2007, federal Labor leader Kevin Rudd described climate change as “the great moral challenge of our times”. For all his well-publicised flaws, Rudd did at least finally rouse Australia’s climate conscience and sign the Kyoto Protocol on reducing emissions. He took on the mining industry with his super-profits tax and paid the price. Regarding the climate action of so many politicians since (including Queensland Labor on Adani), I think mostly of that classic line from TS Eliot’s 1925 poem The Hollow Men: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper

Few generations have ever been offered the opportunity we have – to do something of real significance and help save the future of the entire world by taking action on climate change. While so many have had to live heroic lives only vicariously through books and movies, or head off to war in the pursuit of a life of significance; our invitation to do something heroic stares us straight in the face – put aside our self-absorption, apathy and pre-occupation with the daily humdrum; and instead be part of a movement to create a better and more just future.

For those politicians, the opportunity is slipping away. Queensland Labor still could move on Adani, but realistically the best chance for it to be stopped is if federal Labor turns it into an election issue early next year. For the rest of us, the call is still there. You can hear it from the threatened ecosystems, the swathes of the world’s population who did the least to cause climate change but will be most affected, and from our future generations. They are relying on us to get involved and try to stop this mine being built the best we can.

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A history of Australian folk-punk

A couple of years ago, down in Tasmania to play at HOBOFOPO festival, I wrote this guide to folk-punk. I love folk-punk, and wanted to articulate why. Turns out lots of people want to read about this niche genre, and that article has become the most consistently read post on this blog. So, as I prepare to head down to play at HOBOFOPO again, I thought I’d again turn my pen to the subject and write this: a history of Australian folk-punk.

I should start by saying this is not a definitive list. I’ve especially looked to include videos of bands that were pioneers of a style or notably influential. If you like it though I encourage further exploration of some of the other artists I mention. As to what makes someone a folk-punk artist, I’ll admit this can be subjective and all I can do is refer you to my previous article.

I should start by saying that Australia has its own distinctive history of both folk and punk music; both of which have influenced the artists on this list. There was a revival of Australian folk music and culture in the 1970’s often linked to radical politics. That decade too saw bands developing uniquely Australian folk-rock styles – most notably Redgum‘s political folk-rock (even when succumbing to the musical excesses of 80’s arena rock they held on to a folk sensibility), and the rocked-up traditional Aussie folk of The Bushwackers (check out this amazing video of them miming on daytime tv).

Those bands, along with UK folk-punk pioneers The Pogues, would have been big influences on the first generation of Australian folk-punk acts in the late 1980’s. One of those acts was Melbourne’s Weddings, Parties, Anything. They mixed a punky/pub rock with some folk instrumentation; while the subject matter took folk’s story-telling style as well as a folk-singer’s eye for Australian history, places and working class politics. Somewhat cultural archaeologists, The Weddos (as a pub audience would predictably abbreviate their moniker to) would cover old folk songs (most notably Tex Morton’s hobo classic Sgt Small), as well as keeping alive Australian history through songs like this early tribute to Henry Lawson.

 

At the same time in Sydney, fiery Scottish socialist Alistair Hulett formed Roaring Jack. They trod similar territory musically and thematically, though with a sound a bit rougher and the politics a bit more explicit.

 

As the decade changed another significant folk-punk band emerged. Mutiny were similar musically and also looked often to Australian history and radical politics for subject matter. They came out of the anarcho-crust punk scene though, which shows through in the breakneck tempos of their songs and the fact that the politics venture from the traditional class warfare and union songs to singing about squatting buildings and choosing to live on the fringes of society.

 

Meanwhile in Adelaide appeared something different. The Bedridden had a rudimentary level of musicianship and a love for irreverent subject matter – their style was similar to what would later emerge from New York as “anti-folk”. They only ever released a couple of albums, but played on and off for a decade with an ever rotating cast of musicians; plus key member Baterz was also quite prolific as a solo musician until his unfortunate death in 2002. In Adelaide, Baterz and The Bedridden are legends, as proved by an epic tribute album compiled after Baterz’ death.

 

As one century changed to another, that Celtic punk sound became more common as American bands like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys entered the mainstream. In Australia a steady stream of bands emerged in this style, most notably The Go Set (who built a big following playing a very Weddos-style pub rock folk mix). But plenty of others have popped up, including but not limited to: Melbourne’s The Ramshackle Army and The Currency; Sydney’s The Rumjacks (very popular overseas but not always in Australia due partly to the behaviour of their lead singer) and Handsome Young Strangers; Brisbane’s Wheatpaste and The Great Shame. In a style that can at times be a bit generic, one of the most original acts are The Dead Maggies, who formed with the mission statement of “folk-punk songs about historical Tasmanian murders and suicides”.

 

 

Another old form of folk music that worked well when mixed with punk was country. Australian punk and country had definitely crossed paths even early on, in the inebriated “cowpunk” of The Johnnys or the various bands that emerged out of St Kilda led by Fred Negro. Over the years various bands fused the two in different ways – in Melbourne Graveyard Train‘s horror-themed hoedowns, in Perth the boozy epics of The Kill Devil Hills. A bit less punk but unquestionably great was the “subversive homespun bluegrass” of Sydney’s The Lurkers , while a bit more punk (albeit with pedigree from Australia’s country music capital of Tamworth) was the foulmouthed hillbilly thrash of Sydney City Trash.

 

 

Other styles of folk-punk were brewing across the country though. In Queensland Steve Towson appeared Billy Bragg-like with just his voice and a very rhythmic style of electric guitar playing. He sang about radical politics and Australian places; and also toured and recorded relentlessly for a few years, which is also quite a folk-punk characteristic.

Another man with a guitar was Jamie Hay, singer and guitarist of iconic Newcastle crust-punk band Conation. In his quieter moments he recorded a set of acoustic songs as Fear Like Us – prefiguring the later deluge of American punk singers donning flanelette shirts and recording alt-country acoustic albums. Fear Like Us have remained an infrequent but ongoing musical presence for more than a decade now, occasionally turning out to be a pretty fierce rock act themselves.

 

Another Newcastle band with a bit of a thing for alt-country was Like… Alaska.  Where the country-punk I mentioned early had been blokey and boozey, Like… Alaska took the introspective singer-songwriter style of Bright Eyes or Ryan Adams and carved out their own space in the punk scene of the mid-2000’s; again before the sight of punks singing country songs was quite as common as it is now. The lovely voice of Jen Buxton too adds a dash of femininity to a list that so far has been pretty male-dominated and masculine in outlook (working class jobs, drinking, fighting, travelling around).

 

Way across the Pacific Ocean, a new development in folk-punk had been brewing. Florida’s Against Me! emerged playing a style of punk that was completely unplugged, yet bursting with energy and intensity; they took punk’s DIY touring method to a new level with shows in parks, laundromats and wherever could be found. Over the next few years this became the dominant style of folk-punk; from the ultra-positive nerd vibes of Ghost Mice, to the misanthropist gutter folk of Pat “The Bunny” Schneeweis’ various musical incarnations and the intense cacophony of Blackbird Raum.

Most well known of Australian artists in this style is Chris Burrows. First as Asking For It, then The Anorexic Olsen Twin, and most recently as This Is A Robbery; and either on guitar or piano; Chris thrashed out his distinctive songs from chilly and beautiful Tasmania. And within the developing folk-punk subculture he became Australia’s main ambassador.

 

Chris wasn’t alone though. The ease of playing completely acoustic music meant that folk punk bands popped up all around the place, often only momentarily. New venues appeared where it was scarcely possible before; like St Stephen’s Cemetery in Newtown where there were some classic shows. Here is a video of Ethan Del Carmen playing there as Commonfilth!, a couple of state moves and musical projects later he is still playing acoustic music now under his own name.

 

On the burgeoning flannelette singer-songwriter scene, Lincoln Le Fevre started strumming in Hobart, Ben David from Adelaide, and Rachel Maria Cox of Newcastle encouraged more prominence for women in the genre with her label/booking agency Sad Grrls Club. In Brisbane former Sydney City Trash member Paddy McHugh re-emerged singing insightful, funny and powerful songs about Australian people and places.

 

There was a heady point for a few years when a bunch of acoustic folk-punk bands were travelling the country playing shows in all kinds of locations. Glitter Rats played punked up versions of old folk songs. Lordy Lordy were an all-women gutter folk band that emerged out of the forests of Tasmania. Year Of Scummery lived out their name in gigs across the country, plenty of others appeared and disappeared.

One of those who stuck around was Wil Wagner. From his days as a teenager singing Chris Burrows covers, Wil developed his own distinctive style and eventually a full band setup as The Smith Street Band. In a couple of albums (and many tours) they had become one of the country’s most popular rock bands. They had also developed a pop-punk sound that wasn’t exactly very folky. But it did hold on to a bit of the spirit of folk-punk; as well as a narrative song-writing style that has become their signature and means I will still include them under that amorphous banner of folk-punk.

 

The influence of The Smith Street Band on Australian music has been immense. Having been around this tiny scene for a long time, it’s a bit of a shock now to often walk into a venue and see a band playing with an obvious Smith St influence. One of those (who have by now enjoyed enough success of their own to have outgrown the comparison) is Camp Cope. Again, they grew out of the acoustic sets of Georgia Maq. They also brought a bit of punk’s tradition of feminist action to the fore; in their lyrics and in their actions calling out sexual assault at gigs. Songwriter Georgia Maq also happens to be the daughter of one of the members of Redgum – the first band I mentioned in this post. Which makes this seem like the perfect place to end, having travelled a generation.

 

Folk punk though keeps going as strong as ever, with artists of varied styles mixing these two genres and philosophies. The HOBOFOPO festival coming up next month in Hobart is the perfect example to demonstrate the happy present and future of Australian folk-punk.

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