30 January 2007

Death To The Automobile

I've decided I need a new cause, not that I haven't banged on about this one before. But having just read this appropos and apposite article by David Aaronovitch, I'm motivated all over to declare war on the accursed automobile and all those who drive one.

I know, some of my best friends, etc., and actually, I myself may be driving one, albeit briefly, if I go ahead with plans for an out of town holiday in the next few weeks. So I'm a hypocrite and I contradict myself occasionally. But I also make a point of using public transportation, no matter how time-consuming and inconvenient, no matter how much people ridicule me for making such naff choices ("Dude, you can afford a car, why in the hell are you riding buses?") and/or walking, which in many cities, Sydney being one, is often faster and more reliable.

It's true that many conveniences and advantages have come to us as a result of the private automobile. But very few of them wouldn't exist, probably in greater abundance, were we served by affordable, convenient and reliable public transportation augmented by the opportunity to use rental cars for those relatively few occasions when trains or buses just wouldn't suit our needs. But with society structured the way it is, where it is extremely difficult, other than in a handful of modern cities, to function without your own car, the inevitable result is that public transport services wither away or are callously killed off by oblivious bureaucrats and self-serving trade unionists, neither of whom would dream of setting foot on a bus if you paid them to.

Thus the vicious circle: public transport gets worse and worse, until its customer base is reduced to the desperate and deranged (take your pick as to which category yours truly belongs in), and cities and suburbs become little more than rat runs for ever-increasing hordes of self-obsessed automobile drivers, each of whom is convinced that his or her journey is absolutely essential and would be greatly improved if only the rest of those idiots would get off the road, and each of whom is also blithely unaware of the ecological and social devastation he or she is wreaking on the community. Try walking a few miles through your average city, breathing the exhaust fumes, jumping out of the way to avoid being killed by drivers who see no reason why they should waste a few precious seconds stopping for a red light or a pedestrian crosswalk and are fully prepared to kill and maim for that principle.

Think I'm talking about someone else? Hell, nearly every one of us who's ever gotten behind the wheel of a car has done something akin to this, because being cocooned into a ton or two of metal and glass, harnessed to the power of hundreds of slaves (okay, horses if you prefer) does something to a person. It removes us from realising the full consequences of our actions, turns us into exactly the kind of jerks we'd never dream of putting up with if they were to come barging into our path on foot, belching toxins and scattering obscenities in their wake.

Look at it this way: after a couple centuries of the sheer craziness of putting up with people who assumed it was their divine right to fill up any room they occupied with foul, carcinogenic pollution, we finally came (or are coming) to our senses and banned cigarette smoking in most public places. Similarly, we passed laws that greatly limited the ability of corporations or individuals to dump poisons and waste into our rivers and skies. Yet we still tolerate, even champion in some quarters, the right - nay, not even the right, the necessity - of billions of motorists not only to befoul the atmosphere, but to occupy a third to a half of the total area of any given city, to have said cities designed and re-designed to suit their convenience, to demolish whole neighbourhoods to make way for their motorways, to fight endless and ruinously expensive wars to secure affordable fuel, and to produce a degree of social and physical alienation that could ultimately reduce us to a sort of neo-feudalism.

Okay, I'm a nutter, I'll admit it. But come back in a century or two, should this planet survive in its present form, and I'm willing to bet that whoever's running the show in those days, not to mention the common, ordinary person like you or me, will think the way we let the private automobile run roughshod over nearly everything and everyone else in 20th and 21st century society was every bit as bizarre and insane as slavery or imperialism or the subjugation of women. And with that, I think I'll take a leisurely walk home, and depending on my mood, may or may not pause to deliver a leisurely kick to a few shiny new cars I pass along the way. Probably not, as I've got soft shoes on and would damage myself more than the car. But the sentiment is definitely there.

29 January 2007

Blowhard Bono

I bought my first and only U2 record somewhere around 1980 because I liked the song "Follow." I quickly discovered that I didn't like any of the other songs and that U2 were a lot cheesier and more mainstream than I'd been led to believe. I've never had the slightest inclination to buy another U2 record since then, and make a general rule of avoiding, whenever possible, anything to do with the band.

That's not always easy, since U2's music has been licenced for so many commercial purposes that you're always running into it as part of the soundtrack to the football highlights or in random TV shows and movies, and if I'm going to be honest, I'll have to admit that it's far from the worst music that's been made these past 25 years. But that's like admitting that McDonald's hamburgers are occasionally edible or even enjoyable under the right circumstances, like if you're starving to death and/or so drunk you have no idea what you're stuffing your face with.

Okay, okay, I don't want to needlessly stir up resentment; U2 are better than McDonald's. Maybe even better than KFC or Taco Bell. In fact, I'd put them on about a par with Subway, though I'll probably down several dozen Subway sandwiches before I voluntarily listen to, let alone buy anything by Bono and Co.

And there I've put my finger on the nub of the problem: Mr Blowhard Bono himself, the Ronald McDonald-cum-Colonel Sanders of the U2 franchise operation. Without Mr Bono, U2 would probably produce some reasonably listenable background music; with his bombastic bleatings added to the mix, it's simply unbearable. In fact, just thinking of his fat, bloated face, oozing with smugness and smarminess as he preaches about his pinheaded prescriptions for saving the world makes me almost mad enough to invest $150 (or whatever they're charging these days) to get up front at the next U2 concert and plant a lemon meringue pie square in his smug, self-satisfied puss.

Somehow this hypocritical clown has managed to get himself semi-canonised as a patron of the world's poor, and, worse, to get himself taken seriously as a source of advice by presidents and prime ministers who frankly should know better. The man is a generic rockstar who has devoted his entire life to getting fantastically rich and living the life of a pampered, self-indulgent plutocrat, has no education or experience that I'm aware of in the field of geopolitics or international relations, and yet we're supposed to believe that he has something useful to offer on the complex challenges facing Africa and the Third World?

Bono's programme thus far has amounted to little more than regular demands for Western governments to take a bigger share of their tax receipts and hand them over, without checks or controls, to the already obscenely rich and corrupt dictators who are largely responsible for driving Africa into penury and keeping it there. One can only assume that from the rarefied financial heights on which he dwells, Bono sees the multimillionaires and billionaires ruling over various African fiefdoms as kindred spirits, who, like himself are best equipped to spend other people's money.

That's why I found this article particularly enjoyable and enlightening. Read how Bono, who never stops touting new ways to spend your and my tax dollars propping up corrupt African regimes under the rubric of "debt relief" (please note: I'm not at all opposed to debt relief under the right circumstances, just to the ignorant and unregulated approach Bono takes toward it), has gone to considerable lengths to avoid having his own money squandered on such doofy schemes.

Same old story: ordinary working people, who generally get taxes deducted straight out of their paychecks, have little choice but to pay taxes and even less control over how that tax money is spent. Multinational corporations, on the other hand, like Bono, Inc., can move their money across borders and employ armies of accountants and lawyers to make sure they pay little or no tax, while meanwhile still feeling free to decide and dictate what should be done with everybody else's money.

25 January 2007

Australia Day: The Big Day Off

The unexpected highlight of the Spazzys' set at yesterday's Big Day Out turned out to be a guest appearance by lounge singer Kamahl, who, despite the fact that I'd never heard of him before, turns out to be something of a national icon.

As noted here the other day, the musical aspect of the Big Day Out had threatened to be overwhelmed by the organisers' attempt to either, depending on who you listened to, ban the Australian flag from the event, or "discourage" people from bringing flags and flag-bedecked items.

The reasoning was that in the wake of last year's Cronulla riots (pitched beachside battles between Anglo Aussies and Middle Eastern Muslim gangs), the flag had been used as a tool of abuse and divisiveness, with beer-soaked yobbos parading around demanding that random festival-goers kiss or otherwise show their "respect" for the national colours. This year's festival was also moved from its traditional Australia Day date in what sounded to me like a rather cringe-making attempt to "avoid offending" aboriginal peoples, for whom "Australia Day is really Invasion Day." I thought of conducting a random survey of local aboriginal people to see how they felt about this, but the only ones I could find were either planted face down in Oxford Street surrounded by empty bottles or screaming random insults at passersby, and anyway, what one rude wag referred to as "our local native vegetation" wouldn't qualify as a random sample anyway.

In any event, the outrage on the part of politicians, the tabloid press, and the usual rabble-rousers reached near apoplectic levels before Big Day Out organisers wisely fell on their swords and announced that of course they had never never meant to ban the Australian flag, that they in fact loved Australia, and wanted nothing more than for everyone to have a lovely time listening to music and being nice to one another. And despite the Big Day Out containing the largest collection of egregiously drunk Australians that I have ever seen in one place, it was almost completely peaceful and tranquil.

This of course could have had something to do with the bands, who with some exceptions were a rather uninspiring lot compared with some past festivals, and the absence of racial disharmony could have been affected by the fact that this was only one of the whitest crowds I have ever seen (one exception would be a street fair in Reykjavik, Iceland, but you'd need to remember that a "crowd" in Iceland could easily disappear into one of the side stands of Sydney's Olympic Stadium without even being noticed.

Apart from some of the service personnel and a few black performers from America and the UK (who I suppose count as a sort of service personnel themselves), the place was wall-to-wall white faces. You might be tempted to say, "Just like the rest of Australia, then," but that wouldn't be quite accurate; Australia has a large Asian and Middle Eastern population, but few of them were in evidence at yesterday's gig.

Anyway, before I get completely sidetracked, Kamahl's appearance with the Spazzys seemed to have been orchestrated to show that all was racially and patriotically harmonious once again in Big Day Out-land, though on the surface it appeared to develop naturally and organically. Kamahl sent a message to the Spazzys that he would like to do a guest appearance during their set, to which they promptly assented ("The man is a legend!"), and then he showed up at their dressing room practically oozing old-school charm, to work out a brief routine.

The Spazzys' biggest Australian hit to date has been a cover of the 1963 Angels' tune, "My Boyfriend's Back," so when drummer Ally Spazzy started the drum intro, she interrupted herself to say something about, "What happened to your boyfriend anyway?" That was followed by Lucy asking, "Wait, did you say your boyfriend's back or your boyfriend's black?" at which point the notably dark-skinned Kamahl, himself a Sri Lankan immigrant, strode out cracking jokes before reciting a patriotic paean to Australia and its people and then bursting into song with the evergreen "I Still Call Australia Home," setting off a gentle frenzy of flag-waving, crowd-swaying, and beer-soaked singing along. With all due respect to the Spazzys, he elicited a response that dwarfed their own, or that of almost any other band.

The Spazzys played fairly early in the afternoon, which meant that we had to be there fairly early in the morning (well, I call turning up for a rock festival at 10:30 am pretty early), which meant in turn that I had to be up at 7 am in order to get out to Spazzys HQ in the Inner West where we were to be picked up our limo (okay, our hired people carrier/minivan, but it did serve the same purpose). And by the time I strolled home from the afterparty, conveniently situated on Oxford Street, only three blocks from my house, it was, almost exactly as I predicted, about 2 am.

Of course I could have stayed out a lot longer, as the afterparty was barely getting going when I left, but most of the people I knew were either gone or comatose (another kind of gone, I guess), and given my temperament, I didn't feel inclined to go around chatting up random celebrities. My point, anyway, was that between the Spazzys' performance and the late-night/early morning dénouement, there was an awful lot of time to be filled.

Some of that, of course, could be occupied by watching other bands, but you'd be surprised (or maybe not) at how little interest bands have in watching other bands. Instead, they tend to congregate backstage playing the free video games, smoking, looking sullen and/or bored, or drinking themselves insensate in their dressing rooms or the (totally free) Tiki Bar, complete with flashing neon palm tree towering overhead.

Of course the Spazzys, being rather newer to all this rockstar-type glory, were a bit more adventurous, and attempted to make a tour of all the private bars (allegedly six in all) located on the ground. From some of them you could actually see and hear (though in a muffled roar sort of way) the events on the main stage, and it was from such a vantage point that I got to see part of My Chemical Romance's set. I know they get slagged off a lot, especially by older, more "serious" punk/alternative type fans, but I didn't think they were half bad. Definitely kid stuff, but so were Green Day and a bunch of other great bands once upon a time.

The singer is rather short, I discovered, but not Lily Allen short; that girl is absolutely tiny. Not when she gets up on stage, however; she absolutely commands the room, and of the various sets I saw, hers was definitely the best. I wasn't familiar with her music, apart from one video I saw the other night, and wanted to resist all the hype surrounding her, but it turns out she deserves every bit of it. And she's 21 bloody years old, on top of that! Arrrgh. When I was 21 I was lucky if I could find my way out the front door and down to the corner without getting arrested for general mopery.

Also saw a bit of Kasabian, who someone else correctly described as "another one of those NME bands," and while they're definitely talented and hard-working, a bit of a bore. And Peaches, backed up the "Herms" (as in "hermaphrodites), was a big hit with the Spazzys, but not yours truly. She was loud, brash, aggressive and confrontational, true, but if that girl can write a tune worth humming or remembering, she didn't bother to bring it along for yesterday's outing. It was all big beats and faux-cock rock guitar riffs, over which she hectored the crowd about some cause or viewpoint. Her lyrics are thoroughly sex-drenched, but the overall effect is utterly unsexy. More like the opposite of sex, in fact; at least if I were about to embark some romantic encounter as someone slapped on a Peaches record, I suspect that would be the end of it then and there.

Let's see, did I see anyone else? Wanted to see the Killers, even though their singer's doofy moustache has been replaced by an even doofier gay beard, but that was the hour that everyone went up to the catering tent for our free dinner, and I would have liked to check out The Streets, but he choose the same inconvenient hour to ply his wares. Mostly I either trailed along after the Spazzys or hung out backstage doing people-watching on my own. All those hours to kill (or savour, depending on your viewpoint) might help explain why alcohol flowed in such abundance, but even though I've spent considerable time among Aussies, I was newly flabbergasted by their capacity for getting though vast quantities of the stuff.

Out in the main arena, the biggest crowds apart from those watching the actual performances were the near-endless queues snaking toward the various beer and whiskey dispensaries. And those were the ones where you actually had to pay (and rather dearly, too) for your tipple of choice. Imagine how much more popular the backstage bar could have been, considering that they were serving everything for free, had not access been limited to those bearing the coveted Triple A (Access All Areas) pass.

It was not my first time backstage at one of these shindigs, but most of my previous experience has been in America or the UK, where a much more highly honed class system exists, i.e., no matter what kind of pass you have, there always seems to be some further wristband or star or doohickey required to gain entrance to the really rarefied areas. Not so in democratic Australia, though, where I was never challenged, no matter where I attempted to wander.

Our passes also got us into the afterparty, which was an even more ludicrous boozefest spread out over three floors of a Darlinghurst night club which actually looked rather elegant (though I suspect the very dim lighting had something to do with this), despite the hail of cigarette butts being crushed into the carpeting and drinks spilled into the velvet sofas (I finally found what started out to be a very comfortable seat but turned out to be a very damp one instead, and spent a few minutes wondering whether the moisture saturating my backside was really just an errant vodka tonic).

Getting to the afterparty was an adventure in itself, involving an hour-long journey-cum-bickerfest as our posse attempted to determine whether we were going to the "official" one in Darlinghurst, or the "secret" one, mainly for Aussie-based bands, in far-flung Annandale, along with several stops to reconnoiter, purchase cigarettes, and argue without being distracted by the movement of a vehicle. At the height (or depth, depending on your perspective) of this chaos, someone turned to me and asked, "At times like this do you ever find yourself feeling sorry you don't drink?" Um, not exactly, I replied, while politely trying not to break into hysterical laughter.

I will say this: even in my most hardcore drinking days I don't think I could have kept up with the Spazzys and their entourage. Seriously, as wonderful and warm and talented as they are, I find myself wondering at times whether they are possibly superhuman. There is no way most normal people could put down the amounts of booze those girls do and still be conscious, let alone more or less mobile. Hell, I don't think I could smoke the amount of cigarettes they do, even when I was a smoker, without passing out. Ah well, it's how the other half lives, I guess. Thank goodness they're willing to do it, because I'm sure not.

At the afterparty, there was a bit more of a class (or lack thereof) system; the third floor required you to show an AAA laminate as opposed to a lesser AAS (whatever that stood for), and shortly after I made my way up there, I was required to hand back my ticket to the magic kingdom to the tour manager, who would need it for the Spazzys' next Big Day Out appearance in Melbourne. Suddenly, like Superman strolling into a room lined with kryptonite, I was stripped of all my powers, and couldn't even leave the third floor for the second, where the music was "heaps better," according to the tour manager, because I wouldn't have been able to get back upstairs where most of my friends were.

So we hung about there, the number of Spazzys and Co. gradually dwindling until it was only Ally Spazzy and myself chatting to some members of Lily Allen's group. I complimented them on the afternoon's show, only to be told that it was the worst of the tour, and allowed one of them to explain to me why London was shit and how smart I was for leaving it. The party looked to be going on till dawn at least (I was thinking of strolling past this morning, half expecting Ally to still be propping up the bar and surrounded by half a dozen admirers), but as we know, I'm not a young man anymore (in fact, I'm pretty sure I was the oldest person there; one of the LAG guys was marvelling over some "old guy" who had reached the astounding age of 46.

Actually, that's not completely true; I was wide awake and reasonably full of energy, and if more people I knew had stuck around and the place hadn't been full of smoke, I might still be there myself. But I'd had enough, more or less, and wanted to be awake for at least part of Australia Day, which in fact I'm enjoying today, not, as most Australians are doing, by barbecuing, getting stewed, or hanging out down by the Harbour watching the boat races and general tomfoolery, but instead holed up in a hot internet cafe preparing this report for you, my faithful readers. Not that I'm looking for sympathy or anything, but if you want to take up a small collection...

Besides, I need to pace myself. Two of the Spazzys have already flown on to Melbourne, but Ally is still in town, and I'm expecting her to haul me off to another, slightly smaller (as in about 59,900 fewer people) rock show tonight, so the merriment and dissolution is not yet done with. So no "Big Day Off," as the Herald described today's holiday, for me. In fact, I just noticed beads of sweat collecting on my keyboard. Either they're raining down from my fevered brow, or the computer itself has started sweating. Whichever is the case, I think it's time to close up shop here and get out into some of that glorious Australian sunshine.

22 January 2007

Enter The Dragons

So there I was in my usual position, prone - or was it supine? - at the beach, when a sudden rattling in the rocks and undergrowth just behind my head announced the arrival of a visitor, whom you'll see pictured to your left.

I jumped a bit, well, as much as my posture and lethargic state of being would allow, and then noticed that the creature in question a) though sitting uncomfortably close to me, didn't seem to be threatening to attack; and b) looked rather a lot like a dragon.

Which is as it should, apparently, because when I got back to town and did a quick check, I discovered that my new friend was indeed called a dragon lizard. I haven't yet looked up whether they're aggressive and/or poisonous, as I plan on going back to the same beach again and would prefer not to know if I am putting myself in mortal danger by doing so.

Anyway, this particular dragon's interest was apparently piqued by the green grapes I was eating, though I didn't realise this until, in a fit of mindless generosity, I tossed one of the smaller and less flavourful grapes up into the bush (more in hopes of persuading it to hang out somewhere other than my immediate vicinity than out of any great spirit of friendliness on my part), and the dragon was on it like a shot. That was cute, I thought, and tossed another grape, but this time, before my new friend could move a muscle to snaffle it up, a second, bigger dragon came tearing out of the rocks some 3 metres/10 feet away, practically knocking both the smaller dragon and myself off our perches on the rocky outcropping in his haste to reserve the grape for himself.

Then the stupid thing didn't even eat it, just sat there glaring at it, as if to say, "I dare you to even think about eating that grape" to the smaller dragon, and "Don't think you're going to take that grape back and give it to pipsqueak here, not if you value your fingers, anyway," to me. Flummoxed for the moment, as well as a bit outraged over the injustice of it all, I decided to flip yet another grape to the smaller dragon when the big mean one wasn't looking. It landed on a rock right in front of him, but then rolled back down across my blanket, followed immediately by frantic little dragon, who was in such a hurry to get at it that he slammed head on into my leg.

This caused me to jump high enough in the air to elicit loud laughter from pretty much everyone else on the beach, at which point I decided I was done playing with dragons. They, however, weren't done with me, and sat, one at each end of me, staring balefully and waiting for another grape to put in an appearance, for at least another hour, at which point the wind shifted, the clouds came rolling in, and I climbed back up the cliff, leaving the denizens of Reptile World to their own devices.

And I swear this is not related, but about an hour after I got back to town, my phone rang, and it was one of my favourite bands in the world, the Spazzys, just arrived in Sydney for their appearance at Thursday's Big Day Out (Australia's version of Lollapalooza/Coachella/that sort of thing). Big Day Out has been all over the news the past two days anyway because of its organisers' attempt to discourage fans from bringing Australian flags to the event after some unpleasant events involving self-styled ultra-patriot yobbos last year. Since then the media have been going crazy and even the Prime Minister has weighed in with the opinion that if the Big Day Out were going to ban the Aussie flag, Big Day itself ought to be banned.

None of this will happen, of course; BDO is too big an event for a little kerfuffle over a flag to scupper things. By tonight, everyone was backtracking, flags will be allowed, and any further trouble will probably have to be stirred up by the Spazzys. And they're off to a good start already; not only was a picture of Lucy Spazzy featured in the background on the national news as the announcer read the story about the flag brouhaha, but Ally Spazzy, only one show into the tour, has already gotten in a fight with the drummer of Jet, one of Australia's biggest bands, and flipped the bird at Brandon Flowers when everyone else backstage was applauding his performance with The Killers ("I thought he needed to see a little balance," she explained). Apparently there were also some shenanigans involving chairs falling from the 19th floor of a Queensland hotel ("To settle a physics discussion among some of the local intellectuals," according to Kat Spazzy), and some equipment that went flying at fans gathered for a photo shoot (details are vague about this particular incident). I've been invited to come along for the festivities on Thursday, but am wondering if I'd be better off heading back to the beach and taking my chances among the dragons.

17 January 2007

Throw The Kufaar Down The Well

What's a kufaar? Well, pretty much all of us, apart from my Muslim readers. Thanks to Josh B in Seattle, I can refer you to this Youtube link, which provides a less than heartwarming undercover investigation into one of Britain's allegedly mainstream mosques, where you can hear preachers advocating the marrying of pre-pubescent girls (the "Prophet" did it in the 7th century, so how can you question it?), throwing homosexuals "off the mountain," and arguing that Allah made the woman, "even if she has a Ph.D., deficient." Your little girl won't wear the hijab? "Hit her." Your children won't pray? "Hit them." And bear in mind, that less than gentle treatment is for the faithful. We outsiders, members of the kufaar, also referred to, curiously, as kaffirs (I say curiously, because the preacher throwing this word around so freely is a black American convert to Islam, and as some of you will know, kaffir was/is a derogatory term commonly used by white South Africans to refer to black people).

So, looks like the Religion Of Peace strikes (out) again, and before someone rushes to accuse me of taking things out of context, fanning the flames of Islamophobia, relying on right-wing information sources, etc., bear in mind that this programme was produced by Britain's Channel 4, often criticised for its left-wing and multi-culti bias. Just watch the video, and tell me if you think this is appropriate stuff for the many children in the congregation to be exposed to.

15 January 2007

An Uncharacteristic Burst Of Activity

I realised - or rather it's been slowly dawning on me - that I'll soon have been here almost a month, during which time I've only left the immediate neighbourhood a couple of times. By "immediate neighbourhood," I mean the Eastern Suburbs and the fringe of the North Shore, and by "fringe," I mean the beach and the road that goes to the beach.

So despite my best intentions of doing little more than going to to the gym and going to the beach and being as empty-headed and carefree as possible in hopes that they'll make me an honorary Australian, I started feeling as though I should, you know, like do some things. Like what, you ask? Well, maybe some of the stuff that people come from all over the world to do in Australia. Getting out in nature, hiking around, seeing some of the sights, etc.

Granted, I've done most of the standard tourist things in previous visits, but some of it bears repeating (I mean, I've walked across the Brooklyn Bridge half a dozen times at least, and been up the Empire State Building at least three times, and that's even before I decided to become a fulltime New Yorker), and there are plenty more journeys to be made around greater Sydney that are off the standard tourist beat and probably the better for it. So yesterday and today I took some time off from the beach (well, after the sun had sunk too low in the west to do much good anyway) and did the most serious walking I've attempted since my foot operation last October.

What prompted this sudden surge - oops, sorry, I think George Bush has run off with the meaning of that word, so let's say, burst - of energy? My best guess is that I started reading a book. Shocking, I know. Not that people here don't read books. They even read them at the beach, but they tend to stick to the fairly light stuff: How To Wax Your Surfboard, Ten Days To A Tighter Tummy, that sort of thing.

Not that my book - a collection of John Updike short stories - wasn't fairly light stuff itself, but it had the unexpected effect of giving me the idea for a couple short stories I might write myself. They're both very good stories; in fact, I spent much of yesterday and today's beach time mulling them over in my head, giving names to the characters, devising plot twists, coming up with pithy - yes, that's how it's spelled and no, I don't have a lisp - bits of dialogue. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but the trouble is that it's getting perilously close to the time when I'd have to sit down at my computer and do the actual work of writing them.

Work being the four-letter word that scares me above all others, I immediately set off to do anything but, which yesterday entailed walking a meandering route across some of the richer and more opulent bits of Woolahra in the general direction of Bondi Junction, eventually arriving at said junction where hitherto I'd only arrived by bus or train. I was going to continue walking on into Southeast Sydney, but it was nearly dark and I didn't like the looks of some of the hoons (uniquely Australian word, I think, sort of a cross between hoodlums and goons) gallivanting up and down the highway, so instead I sat in the coffee shop at Borders Books, read more of my Updike, and marvelled over how Borders had become this vast worldwide network out of its humble beginnings as a cornershop in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Today, after my routine gym and beachness, I decided to walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Very touristy thing to do, and I think I've actually done it once before, back in 2003, but the fact that I couldn't for sure remember doing it meant that it was more than time to do it again. Or possibly for the first time; having now completed the walk, I still am not sure whether I've done it before or merely imagined what it would be like as I rolled across on the train or in a car.

It's a spectacular view, or would be if it weren't for the suicide barrier, d let's hope the authorities don't inflict such an atrocity on the Golden Gate Bridge. At least before I finally get around to walking across that one, which somehow in 30 years of living in the Bay Area I never managed to do. The way I was thinking - and perhaps this is uncharitable - is that only a tiny minority of people who walk across these bridges are inclined to jump off them, yet to protect these bozos from themselves, we have to spoil the view for everybody else. I can understand stopping them from jumping off the part of the bridge that goes over land - can't have them landing on people's patios or in the middle of a busy street, obviously - but once you're out over water, why not let them fly, and just send the Coast Guard around now and again to scoop up the corpses?

Too heartless? Okay, then string up a net under the bridge and catch them that way. Nobody's view is blocked, and once a day, or as necessary, you just pull them out of the nets and cart them off to the funny farm for appropriate treatment. And before all you champions of the suicidal write to me in outrage, I've been seriously suicidal on several occasions myself. Not seriously enough to jump off a very high bridge, but enough so to go in for some of the less painful alternatives. I don't want to see anyone die unnecessarily, but at the same time, I don't think we need to constantly be restructuring society to prevent people from harming themselves. Does that mean I'm in favour of doing away with drug laws? Possibly, but only if it's accompanied by a rule that all junkies (including potheads, especially including potheads) have to live on special reservations not accessible to the mainland).

Ah well, enough attempting to stir up controversy. I think it's late enough now that I can go home without feeling I have to do some serious writing. In fact it's late enough that I can't even do the laundry, which leaves me in the somewhat awkward position of having nothing to wear tomorrow, and, worse, without a clean beach towel. I'd already semi-circumvented that nothing-to-wear dilemma by planning on a visit to the clothing-optional beach, but the bus ride to and from could prove awkward. You see the sorts of things I have to go through? No wonder I'm so irascible.

13 January 2007

If You Come To San Francisco...

Want a good example of why I think San Francisco is a hateful, vicious, crime-ridden little cesspit? Read this Chronicle account of the Police Chief, the Mayor, a couple of high-powered attorneys and other assorted SFPD spokespersons lying their asses off to protect the well-connected thugs who assaulted the singers visiting from Yale University.

Policing in SF has been a bad joke for a long time, if not always. Example: back in 1977 I called the police when I saw someone breaking into a neighbour's car in front of my house. The cops showed up all right, then sat at the other end of the block until the robber was through ransacking the car and had casually strolled away. Then they finally pulled up, and I rushed out to point them in the right direction. They said, "What do you want us to do? Looks like the guy is long gone."

So I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose, that the Police Department and the City government are closing ranks to make sure nobody gets punished for what sounds like a really horrific and completely unwarranted attack, perpetrated by some private school gangbangers who just about everyone seems to know the identity of while pretending not to. SF Chronicle columnists Matier and Ross states openly that one of the thugs, "happens to be the son of a prominent Pacific Heights family," but know it would mean expensive lawsuits and no doubt their jobs if they were to dare to name him.

The whole business has now caused such a stink that the Police may finally have to come up with a sacrificial lamb or two, but no doubt if that happens, we'll have to endure stories about how they're "really good boys at heart," and how they were understandably upset by the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner sung in San Francisco, of all places. Oh, and since there seems to be a heavy homophobic element to the attack as well, get ready for the gay panic defence as well. "One of those fruits winked at me while he was singing," that sort of thing. Please God, tell me I never have to live in Frisco again.

11 January 2007

In My Life

In addition to the usual foofaraw about the promise and portent of a "new year," 2007 has a special significance for me: come this (northern) autumn, I'll be 60 years old.

I've never met anyone who's reached a milestone like that (or, for that matter, a mere 40 or 50), who didn't profess to be surprised, even amazed, that such a thing could happen to them. A bit ironic, of course, that we can observe the aging process happening to every single person we know and yet somehow fail to suspect that we ourselves are subject to it.

Although I've always tended to look (and, almost anyone would tell you, act) a bit younger than my actual age, I've felt old ever since I turned 20. Having promised everyone, especially myself, that I would die a fast, shocking and spectacular death before I was old enough to drink legally, I realized on the day that I was no longer a teenager that life just might turn out to be a longer and harder slog than I had dared imagine.

And so it was, though things have gotten progressively easier and more enjoyable with the passage of time, to the point where I can honestly say that my life has never been so good as it is today. Whether that's a comment on how great I'm doing now, or how badly I was doing a decade or three ago is a matter that I could mull over for days if not years, but I probably won't bother doing so.

When I was about to turn 50, I toyed with the idea of staging a big party, inviting everyone, friends and enemies alike, that I'd ever been closely involved with. Having only recently departed from my role as head of Lookout Records, I was well positioned to call on some outstanding bands to provide the entertainment, and had enough money to hire a decent-sized hall for the shebang to take place in. One friend even offered to help organise things, but ultimately I decided it would be just too much work and stress (I'd organised and promoted shows before, and never particularly enjoyed any of them), and ended up spending my 50th mostly on my own.

Perhaps my reticence was based on the experience of my 40th, when I actually did have a real shindig planned at my then spiritual home, Gilman Street. My own band, the Lookouts, were set to play, along with MDC, Isocracy, I think Operation Ivy, and one or two others, but Tim Yohannan, dictator of both MRR and Gilman Street, nixed the plan at the last minute because he had a chance to book a "really important" band from DC called Scream. I was no more a fan of emo then than I am now, so suffice it to say that said "importance" was lost on me. I think a few friends and I spent the night wandering through the streets of Berkeley, Albany and El Cerrito drinking forties instead.

So, here I am again, with about ten months remaining before the actual event, faced with the same decision: do I put myself through all the work and possible disappointment trying to put on a big rock and roll party for everyone I ever knew? It kind of seems like now or never, since by the time 70 rolls around, I question whether I'll want anything more than a warm cup of cocoa and an early night. Naw, actually, I wouldn't be surprised if I still want to rock and roll even at 70, but I question how many of the bands I know would still be up to it.

Compounding my dilemma is the question of where this party might take place, and who/how many would be invited. I could make a good case for any of the three cities that have been most important to me, namely Berkeley, London, or New York. My first inclination would be to go with New York, but whichever I choose, somehow I'd have to figure a way of getting bands and people from everywhere else to the chosen venue. And while I'm willing to kick down a fair bit of money to make this thing happen, I think I'll draw the line at chartering private jets and the like.

Also, given some of the bands that I'd like to have play, it's possible that there might be a considerable degree of interest from the general public, i.e., people who I don't know and who don't know me, but would be happy to crash the show. Would I need to have bouncers and ironclad guest lists and all that crap that normally makes me uncomfortable even when I'm attending someone else's party?

Anyway, it'll probably never happen, at least not unless someone decides he or she would like to organise it for me, and being that my mother just doesn't know the same bands I do, chances are slim. But you never know, so just in case you were debating whether to be mean or nice to me as part of your New Year's resolutions, you might want to opt for the latter if you're hoping to get an invite.

P.S. And before you all decide to post a comment stating the blindingly obvious, yes, I am aware that I am getting really old. Thanks for noticing.

In A Slightly More Serious Vein

Apparently George Bush made his big speech about Iraq today, telling everyone what the news media had been telling us for weeks he was going to tell us. I missed it because I was (duh) at the beach, but I heard them talking about it on the news when I got home.

There was actually a pretty good debate about it on the ABC (Australian, not American Broadcasting Company), in which one fellow argued, somewhat convincingly, that this was just Vietnam-style escalation and would fail for much the same reasons, while the other argued that even if chances of success were slim, any chance had to be taken because the alternative, allowing Iraq to slip into Afghanistan or, worse, Somalia mode, was completely unacceptable.

I couldn't help wondering: what if both speakers were right? Clearly the latter case would be a disaster, not just for George Bush and his "legacy," but for the the soldiers who've died or been maimed in pursuit of this mess, the taxpayers who've had to pay (and will be paying for decades) for it), and the world which will have to deal with the consequences of failure.

Then again, what if it does turn out like Vietnam, and America has to beat a humiliating retreat? Does this mean we'll be at the mercy of Islamist terrorists until, as the most fanatical among them promise, the star and crescent flies over Washington and London? Or could it turn out to be largely a non-event, in the sense that 30 years after the Vietnam debacle, Americans go on holiday to a country that is "communist" in only the most nominal sense and, apart from the hundreds of thousands of dead and the shattered minds and bodies of many survivors, it's almost as though the whole nasty business never happened?

Back when it was being launched, I never made a full-fledged decision on whether the Iraq War was a bad or good idea, seeing some merit to both sides of the question. Right or wrong, however, it has become painfully obvious that Bush and his advisors have disastrously mismanaged it, to the point where even Bush, Senior, one of my least favourite presidents ever, begins to look like a military and political genius.

That being said, unlike many of the Bush-haters, I can't say I want to see him fail in this last-ditch attempt to win the war. Yes, probably we should have never gone in there, and yes, if we were going to, we should have done so with sufficient numbers and strategy to install an occupation government that could ease Iraq's transition to democracy. For those who sneer that such a thing is impossible, I need only cite the examples of Germany and Japan after the Second World War.

But though I will be happy to see the back of George Bush when he leaves office, and will be quite content to see him vilified as the 21st century's counterpart to Warren G. Harding, it would be cutting off our nose to spite our face if we hope to see his humiliation completed by failure in Iraq. Not just for the sake of our own geopolitical position, though that's hardly insignficant, but even more so for the sake of the Iraqi people. If you genuinely think they'd be better off under an Islamist regime, or Somali-style warlords, then I'd say you're harbouring a fair bit of contempt for those people, or somehow think them not capable of enjoying the same sort of freedom and responsibility for freedom that you take for granted as a Westerner.

Personally, I have my doubts over whether Bush's new approach will work. For one thing, I think he'd need more like 200,000 than 20,000 extra troops, and we simply don't have that kind of army anymore, and couldn't raise one without wholesale conscription. But for the sake of just about everyone involved, I can only hope that just this once the Boy Blunder can pull off a miracle.

The Sad Travails Of A Sybaritic Existence

There's such a thing as "high class problems," and if you don't know what I mean, picture the rich lady who complains that, "It's so hard to find good domestic help," or try shedding a tear for the wealthy businessman who's out of sorts because he had to fly in business rather than first class en route to his Tahitian holiday.

I'm very conscious that when I complain about things, as I too often do, I risk coming across in much the same way, and yet I don't always seem to be able to stop myself. The trouble is that everything is relative, and if someone's lucky enough not to have any major issues troubling him - for instance, having to trek miles through ice and snow to a crappy minimum wage job just to keep body and soul together, or suffering from a crippling illness or experiencing a tragic death in the family - it seems to be human nature to find fault even with whatever good fortune one is enjoying.

But there's a perverse streak to it, too, that comes in the form of wanting to remind people, even though you know it might annoy them, that you're having such a good time that you're reduced to having to search for the most Lilliputian problems to complain about. Just this morning, for example, noticing that some people on my favorite message board were talking about the first snow of the season, I just had to point out that it was 86 degrees (30C) here, and that I was on my way to the beach.

So yes, I know I'm very fortunate to be spending this time in the sun, with very little to trouble my mind other than which of Sydney's 50-some beaches to frolic at or which of its 500-some cafes to dine at, but never fear; my Catholic heritage and phlegmatic family tradition still gives me plenty to brood about. Perhaps we will all be washed out to sea by a tsunami, or giant man-eating crocodiles will invade Sydney Harbour, or my bank will make a clerical error and deposit all my money into the account of my arch-enemy.

I think I may be safe on that last count, at least, as for the first time I can remember, I don't seem to have an arch-enemy. Well, not that I know of, anyway. Nevertheless, to keep myself from stressing about major catastrophes like the aforementioned, I seem to spend an inordinate time getting wound up over any number of small things, of which I intend to list a few. Don't hate me, believe me, these are real problems. Just not very big ones, granted, but we all follow our own particular road to perdition, as the nuns always used to remind me.

So, let's start with:
1) Smokers at the beach. Now don't get me wrong. I don't think all smokers should be taken out and summarily shot, even if the thought has crossed my mind. Some of my fondest friends are smokers, and even though I cringe every time they light up another coffin nail, I still cherish them, and my sadness and frustration is mostly the result of seeing them committing suicide on the installment plan.

But after another day spent dodging clouds of toxic fumes wafted my way by self-obsessed bozos who think the perfect way to enjoy nature is to stink it up, I'm having a hard time being patient. Picture this: a perfect day by the seaside, the intoxicating smells of water, sand, trees and the less blatantly smelly brands of suntan oil all gliding gently on the zephyr-like breeze, and then some jerk flops down next to you and lights up his own personal stink bomb to blot it all out. I mean, if I were less inhibited, I'd walk over and fart in his face and see how he likes it. On the other hand, given the habitues of some Sydney beaches, he might...

And then, when (the first of many) fags is done, what does he (or she, don't want to be unfair to one gender) do with it? Why, stubs it out in the sand and leaves it there, as though the whole beach were his or her personal ashtray. What are these people thinking? That sand has magical qualities that cause cigarette butts to instantly vaporise? Or that people enjoy lounging around in a field of stinky butts that will take approximately 10,000 years to fully decompose and/or get swept out to sea to provide dinner for the already seriously poisoned fish stock?

I hear that in Santa Monica they've actually banned smoking on the beach, but here I'd at least settle for smoking and non-smoking sections. Oh, and by the way, this whole smoking thing is arousing a new level of homophobia I didn't think myself capable of, because gay guys, who make up a third to half the population at an average Sydney beach (and considerably more than that at others) seem to smoke at about ten times the rate of the general population. And not just smoke, but chain smoke, neurotically, compulsively, flamboyantly.

The same guys who devote endless amounts of time to attaining perfect hair, bodies, clothes and personal fragrances then proceed to blow it all by lighting up and instantly devaluing their appearance, their body odor, and most bystanders' estimates of their intelligence. Barring the courage to employ my fart-in-the-face technique, I'd at least like to have the nerve to tell them, "Way to stink up the beach, buster," but even that seems a little combative, especially when dealing with people twice my size and half my age. But if you hear news of me being found floating face down in Sydney Harbour, you'll know that my annoyance finally got the better of my trepidation.

2) No internet access at the beach. Okay, that's a bit of a joke (sort of), but though I don't really need to log on while sunbathing, I'm very cross about the rather primitive state of the internet in the otherwise progressive and modern country of Australia. It's like it's 1995 or something and we've barely advanced beyond having to pay AOL by the minute for a creepy-crawly modem-based connection.

As New Yorkers will know, if you've got a laptop with a wireless card, you can log on practically anywhere in the city, typically by "borrowing" your neighbour's connection (true, sometimes you have to balance on the edge of the bathtub because that's the only place in the apartment it reaches, but basically, the internet is where it should be, i.e., everywhere.

Not so in Sydney. Wireless exists, yes, but almost everyone who has it jealously puts a password on it so nobody can jump on it, and while many cafes also have it, you'll pay through the nose for using it. Then there's my flatmate/landlord, in almost every respect a modern, enlightened 21st century man, who indeed has broadband wired into the apartment. But, enlightened and modern as he may be, he recoils with fear at the notion of our sharing this connection because, "It might mix up our systems," much as you would expect a South Sea islander to fear his soul being stolen by an unauthorised photo. The cost of paying by the hour to use an internet cafe across town almost negates the eminently reasonable rent he's charging me, but on the other hand, it does get me out of the house. Which perhaps was his idea in the first place...

3) Public transport. This is a perennial one with me, and will no doubt soon get a post of its own (tentatively titled: "Sydney To Public Transport Users: Drop Dead"). And indeed, faithful readers will have heard me complain about public transport in virtually every city I've ever visited.

That being said, Sydney is no worse than most American cities (New York being a prominent exception). In fact, it's on about a par with San Francisco, possessing an occasionally useful railroad and wildly unreliable buses. It's just that for this completely pedestrian (as in, you'd often be better off walking) service, they charge fares nearly as high as those in London, which are by far the highest in the world. Result: nearly everyone drives private automobiles, Sydney is gradually being turned into Los Angeles, and sad losers like myself who actually feel both a duty and a personal inclination to use public transport end up consuming two hours to make a trip that a selfish but practical motorist could do in 20 minutes. Luckily I've got a lot of time on my hands, much of which I apparently use to compile lists of grievances like this one.

4) Poisonous flora and fauna. It's well known that Australia is home to some of the nastiest and most venomous creatures on the planet. Fortunately, many of them can't afford Sydney rents, and some of them, like the man-eating crocodiles, prefer the climate way up north. But there are still spiders that can kill a man in three seconds by breathing on him, and dingoes that snatch babies, and sting rays that can slip right through the shark nets and lay waste even to mighty crocodile hunters. Somehow I've managed to avoid all these perils (so far), but yesterday, while dashing frantically to catch one of those rare and infernal buses to the beach (this one goes once an hour, and if you miss it, well, no doubt it's not important because you're just a sad unemployed loser who actually takes the bus, ha ha ha), I took a shorcut through some seemingly pleasant ornamental palms, only to find a three-inch spike protruding from the palm of my hand.

Apparently the stalks of these things are lined with such spikes, the better to discourage... what, I guess to stop some of Australia's other vile creatures from eating them, but honestly, I had no such intentions. Nevertheless, there I was, looking as though I was out to acquire my own personal stigmata, and when I pulled said spike from its lodging place, a deep pool of dark, venous blood came welling up to the surface. At least it looked like very healthy blood; I found that vaguely reassuring.

And had I ever been inclined to doubt the effectiveness of acupuncture, let me note that this spike had been driven deep into a major acupuncture point, and not only did this greatly enhance the painful effect, it also very nearly paralysed my hand. A day and a half later, I'm still typing with considerable effort. So either acupuncture is real or that vicious palm tree went straight for a major nerve synapse and came close to severing it. By the way, the bus ended up not leaving for another ten minutes, which gave me plenty of time to mop up blood from my paralysed hand, so there's a bright side to everything, right?

5) The exorbitant cost of sunscreen. In addition to being home to innumerable pests and pestilences, Australia is also the skin cancer capital of the world. Sunscreen, and copious amounts of it, is absolutely essential for its predominantly Anglo-Celtic inhabitants, they of the pasty and delicate complexions. Being of the Anglo-Celtic persuasion myself, I get through at least two large (200g) tubes of it a week. Holy cow, I just calculated: that ends up equalling nearly a pound of sunscreen! No, must be a different sort of gram... Or maybe not... Anyway, for one of those tubes, you're likely to get stuck paying between $15 and $20 Australian. Even converting to US dollars, that's at least 25 bucks a week just to keep your face or other epidermal attachments from falling off.

Worth noting, too, is that much of this sunscreen is imported from thousands of miles away, as in, from the US of A. Um, you'd think that coming from one of the sunniest places on earth, some enterprising Aussie might take it upon himself to produce some cheaper, homegrown sunscreen? Why, the next thing you'll be assuming that Australia would also be a pioneer in the use of solar energy, but fat chance of that; instead the government proposes to tackle global warming by rolling out a huge nuclear power programme that will come on line oh, about 20 years or so from now, by which time most of Australia may well have dried up and blown away.

And speaking of dried up and blown away, most of Australia has been suffering from a terrible drought for years now. Not Sydney. It rains all the time here, more than it does in London or San Francisco or even Seattle, for crying out loud. But we're suffering from a disastrous water shortage. Why is that? Because, as the English Water Board once memorably put it when people rightly asked, "How can you call this a drought when it's been raining for three weeks?" it's the wrong kind of rain.

Namely, it falls on the city instead of on the dams and reservoirs out to the west. Now, it's been doing this for at least 150 years, and probably longer than that, long enough, anyway, that you'd think the authorities might have figured out by now that the dams and reservoirs (or rainwater collectors) need to be put somewhere else. But of course you'd be wrong: instead they're proposing to build a horrendously expensive and polluting Israeli-style desalination plant, as if we were living in a bloody desert. But hey, lots of jobs for the boys, at least if said boys have the right connections in the state Labor Party.

6) Naked people who shouldn't be. A couple of my favourite beaches are "clothing optional." Unfortunately, the wrong people are being allowed to exercise that option. Those who are genuinely fit and attractive, who, even if you're not an outright perv, you wouldn't mind seeing a bit more of, invariably cloak themselves in both modesty and less than revealing swimwear. While those whose private bits you'd rather not even contemplate, let alone have dangling in your face, are eager not only to let it all hang out, but to parade up and down the beach flaunting it like so many pleased peacocks.

The Catholics having sufficiently inculcated me with guilt and shame (and aware that, being of a certain age, I myself may be numbered among those who the general public would prefer to observe with clothes on, I rarely participate in the public nudity myself. But I'm just wondering if there isn't some way the city or state could make that sort of discretion mandatory?

All right, I'll think I'll leave this splenetic venting of genernal dyspepsia for now; if you've read this far, congratulations, and if you've done so without wanting to strangle me, mister, you're a better man than I. By the way, that picture at the top is where I spend many of my days thinking up these complaints for you. If you're still managing to find a soft spot in your heart for me, allow me to suggest that the soft spot may actually be in your head.

10 January 2007

Oh, Before I Forget

Ben Weasel also delivers an incisive and I think largely accurate review of my other favourite band, the Steinways (that's of course if you don't count my other favourite band, the Zatopeks, and no, I'm not being a band slut or groupie or whatever the proper term is, I just happen to think that all three bands, the Left(overs), the Steinways and the Zatopeks are totally the future of rock and roll. And if you disagree, you're just plain wrong.

Oh yeah, one of the best things about Ben's review is that he zeroes in on Steinways resident genius Grath Madden's excessively self-effacing tendencies. As Ben points out, it's great (and refreshingly rare) to see a gifted musician and writer not take himself too seriously. But when you've got that kind of talent, enough seriousness to at least FINISH THE @#%%#!% SONG might be in order. Anyway, Steinways. Remember that name, and unless they get sued by the piano company, they'll probably be able to keep it.

Meet The Leftovers, Part 2

I could have sworn I'd used that "Meet The Leftovers" tag a year or two ago, and it turns out I was right. On that occasion I was posting about this young Portland, Maine band's picture-perfect covers of a few Beatles songs, and noting that they were a musical force to be reckoned with, even if they were barely out of high school.

Since then they've gone on to produce a couple records of original material and played gigs all over the Eastern United States and, in a real coup for an as yet barely known band, the UK. But they're not likely to remain barely known for long, not with the brilliant songwriting and performances they've been turning in, and even more so now that Ben Weasel has taken them under his not insubstantial wing.

The Leftovers have already recorded some sterling stuff (it doesn't hurt that Adam, their drummer, is already an accomplished studio engineer) for the up-and-coming Rally Records (the record label that is literally from Mars). Now it looks (don't ask me for details, as I'm in the wrong hemisphere to be up to date on these inter-label goings-on) as though Mr. Rally has formed some sort of alliance with Ben's new digital-only Mendota Recording Co., so exactly where and how the new Leftovers album presently being recorded will become available to the public is still a little unclear to me. One thing that's not unclear, however, is that it will almost certainly be sensational, so you'd better plan on getting it ASAP. Ben waxes a bit lyrical on these guys, telling those who suspect he might be, as the British say, overegging the pudding, that, "I saw Operation Ivy and Green Day a bunch of times before they got big." The implication is clear that he considers the Leftovers to be in that same class, and he may well be right.

I know the kind of excitement they engender when they take the stage is akin to what I felt when I saw Green Day and Op Ivy in the early days; the one thing that might - I say "might" - stop me from unhesitatingly declaring them the next big thing would be that as of last summer, anyway, they were still coalescing as a band and developing their own unique style. Both Green Day and Op Ivy, new as they were when I first saw them, already had that sound that set them apart from every other band, whereas the Leftovers - again, as of last summer - still had a tendency to sound like a compendium of about half a dozen different totally great bands. At the rate they were going then, however, I'd expect them to come roaring out of the blocks with some staggeringly great new stuff and remove any residual doubts I might have.

Oh, but one other potential problem, and one that is only likely to get bigger as the band does: there are about half a dozen bands already using the name "Leftovers." None of them are of any great consequence, but the music business being what it is, it's a fair bet that one of them has by now trademarked the name and will surface with lawsuits or injunctions just when the real Leftovers are bursting forth onto the world stage. I'd suggest finding a new name before that happens (unless of course, someone has already done a trademark search and secured the name for our boys). But if the name has to be changed, here's my suggestion: The Left. I know it carries the unwarranted implication that the guys are a bunch of hippie radicals, but it's as close to "The Leftovers" as you can get (you don't want "The Overs," do you, especially not after reading my previous post about cricket?), sounds kind of edgy, and, I'm willing to bet, hasn't been taken by another band.

Plus, and this is a big plus, with any luck it will really piss off the commies.

09 January 2007

And Now For Some Real Pommy Bashing

So read the headline in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald, referring to last night's comprehensive dismantling of anything that might have been left of England's cricketing pride. As it happens, I was there to witness the affair, my first cricket match ever, though purists would argue that Twenty20, the variety being played, really isn't cricket at all.

The name refers to the fact that the game consists of only 20 overs, 10 to each side (for befuddled Americans, an "over" is kind of like an inning in baseball, only shorter, and in this particular branch of the game, 10 overs adds up to an "innings." In a normal Test Match each side would have two innings, consisting of 10 wickets (sort of like "outs") each, which typically last five days, at about 8 to 10 hours a day of play, at the end of which there may or may not be a winner.

England played so badly in the recent Ashes series that getting trounced didn't even take the full 25 days (five Test Matches, one in each major Australian city), only 23 if I remember correctly, and though I had hoped to get to see one match in the last series here at the Sydney Cricket Ground, no well-connected friend emerged with a spare ticket for the completely sold out event. So, it was Twenty20 for me, which lasted about three hours and concentrated largely on whacking the ball out of the park, much like an American baseball home run derby, whereas serious cricket is composed of heinously complex strategies taking in several varieties of bowling (pitching, for you Americans, although you have to bounce the ball before it gets to the batter, and what you are really trying to do, even more than stopping the batter from hitting it, is to knock over the wicket behind him, which means he is out), fielding, and even more arcane stuff regarding playing for a draw by stretching things out until a promising rain cloud or approaching nightfall puts an end to play.

Every time I try contemplating the full extent of cricket's nuances and subtleties, I end up concluding that whoever made up the rules was a truly demented individual, and/or one of those mad Englishmen who spent too long out in the proverbial midday sun. After a couple of years of observing the sport, I can probably say that I understand about 60% of the basics, which put me slightly ahead of the girl from Sheffield who sat next to me last night, also attending her first cricket match. About all we knew for sure was that England was getting absolutely hammered, but nothing new there. England managed for the first time in about 18 years, to scrape a narrow win in the previous Ashes, and hubris predictably set in. That combined with the Aussies' fury as losing a trophy they considered their permanent property, led to massive vengeance being wreaked.

But it was all astoundingly good natured. Australian and English fans sat side by side (football fans are kept segregated by lines of truncheon-toting policemen), drank unbelievable amounts of beer (no alcohol whatsoever allowed in the stands at English football matches), and barracked for and against their chosen sides in uproarious and occasionally obscene chants and shouts with never so much a cross word being exchanged, at least within my earshot. It would have been nice to see more of a contest, but it was still an altogether nice and engrossing way to spend a summer night out in Sydney.

Oh, P.S., for those of you puzzled by the word "Pommy," it's the all-purpose Australian epithet, typically preceded by "whingeing," used to describe Englishmen. I've also heard it coupled with "bleedin'," as in the "Don't tell me you're another bleedin' Pom!" directed at me when I let slip that I was from London. Oh, and there are also "10 pound Poms," originally applied to those working-class Englishmen who emigrated to Oz in steerage class for the princely sum of, well, 10 pounds, but now generally extended to any Pom or Pom-like individual who, consensus would have it, might be best advised to go back where he or his ancestors came from.

08 January 2007

The White Man's Burden

Not surprisingly, someone at the Guardian doesn't like Blood Diamond, the film I spoke of here yesterday. Not because of its plot or direction or characters, but because it's racially incorrect. Or so says Joe Queenan, himself more than a little race-obsessed; he feels that Blood Diamond carrries on an iniquitous Hollywood tradition of portraying white men as something other than totally evil racist beasts.

Queenan's specific complaint is that the film shows Leonardo di Caprio's character helping "po' black folks," thus (in his paranoid imagination) implying that black people are incapable of helping themselves. Never mind that Hollywood has also churned out a host of films premised around the "magic Negro" concept, in which Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington or Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock help hopelessly befuddled and uptight honkies get their groove back and sort out the meaning of life, love and happiness. Never mind, too, that in real life, white people have occasionally been known to do things other than enslaving and exploiting decent and long-suffering black people. In fact, come to think of it, wasn't it white people who were largely responsible for abolishing the slave trade that had flourished in Africa for millennia?

But who needs facts, as the Guardian's unwritten masthead motto might very well proclaim, when we've got a hamhanded all-purpose ideology to resort to? And in that particular dream world, all white people, particularly those of the British and American ilk, are automatically suspect (curious, too, that the British and the Americans have both gone to war to end black slavery), and all citizens of the Third World, especially those "of colour," are to be considered wholly virtuous unless proven otherwise (and in the case of Third Worlders gone bad, like, say, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, it's almost always the devil, erm, the white man who made him do it.

I think reasonable people can agree that white people have done terrible things to Africa and its people, though not necessarily anything worse than Africans have done to themselves. This being so, shouldn't it be all the more imperative that white people do what they can to help out their African brothers and sisters when possible? Obviously so, though the means to accomplish this are not always clear. Certainly Fatass Bono's recipe of handing over loads of money, erm, excuse me, of browbeating other people to hand over loads of their money, is not an adequate solution, and in many cases has produced more harm than good.

Hundreds of millions in Western aid to the Horn of Africa, for example, may have kept some people alive, but has also made it possible, if not inevitable, for Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea to live in a near-constant state of warfare and brutality. The millions in "food" aid furnished to Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe have enabled the aging but still vicious tyrant to carry out a campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass starvation unrivalled since the days of Pol Pot. Writing in the Sunday Times, RW Johnson paints a chilling picture of the hellhole that once-prosperous country has become, and you need look no further than Johnson if you want a clearcut refutation of Queenan's thesis about the white man helping out the black man.

Johnson has risked both life and liberty to keep the story of Zimbabwe's ongoing agony before Western eyes, repeatedly sneaking back into the country after he, along with nearly all British correspondents, were barred by Mugabe. Not that it's likely to do a lot of good; Guardianista thinking has infected much of the media and academia, to the point where no Western politician would dream of doing anything to rescue the people of Zimbabwe for fear of being seen as neo-imperialists. So we see more ink spilled - on the occasion of his passing - on the crimes of Augusto Pinochet, whose miltary coup in 1973 killed about 3,000 people but left Chile with a functioning liberal democracy, than we do on Mugabe, who on any given day of the year is responsible for more deaths than that. Is it because, as Ali G would have put it, he is black? What do you think?

Of course white people do bear some responsibility for putting Mugabe in power in the first place, and even more so for turning a blind eye to his depredations through the years. Doris Lessing's The Sweetest Dream, which I'm sure I've mentioned here at one time or another, or should have, anyway, contains a barely fictionalised account of how Mugabe and other future Aftrican dictators like him were influenced and coddled by muddled Marxists and revolutionary playboys in 1960s London. To the drug-soaked theorists of the "New" Left, Africa was just as much a plaything and social laboratory as it had been for 19th century imperialists, and with consequences possibly even more dire. If this seems an extreme statement, consider the outcomes: after a century of European imperialism, Africa had, despite the many obvious injustices, the beginnings of an urban middle class, the rudiments of a physical infrastructure, growing and healthier populations, and relative peace. After a few decades of "liberation" struggle, Africa is beset by war and plague, with populations and life expectancies declining in many areas, and only a handful of countries possessing anything resembling stable, democratic governments.

Is this an argument for recolonising Africa? No, and for a variety of reasons, some moral, some pragmatic, no such thing is ever likely to happen. Unfortunately, tragically even, without some form of recolonisation, there is precious little that the West can do to alleviate some of Africa's most pressing problems. Can we furnish them with antiretroviral drugs to stem the rising death toll from AIDS? Sure, but the law of unintended consequences means that we're then likely to see millions more people starving to death instead, thanks to the inability or unwillingness of most African governments to maintain a functioning economy. Can we send in peacekeeping troops to separate the warring tribes and factions? Yes again, but unless we're prepared to stay for the long term - itself a form of neo-colonialism - we're only postponing, not averting the eventual bloodshed.

I remember reading a poignant story of some citizens of Roman-era Londinium, who, when the Romans evacuated Britain to deal with more pressing matters closer to home, set up something like a vigil for their departed colonial masters. Periodically they would send letters off to the Emperor, imploring him to come to the aid of his loyal subjects in far-off Britannia before they were completely swamped by the invading Saxon hordes. Something similar happened in Sierra Leone, the setting for Blood Diamond, when the (ahem, Joe Queenan) largely white British Army finally succeeded in halting the bloodbath that had devastated that unhappy country. Large numbers of Sierra Leoneans demonstrated in the streets of Freetown, asking to be taken back into the British Empire. Of course no such thing was going to happen, not least because the Empire itself is largely moribund, and as previously noted, there's absolutely no political will for such a thing, regardless of any good it might accomplish.

So what's the point, then? If there's little or nothing we in the West can do to alleviate Africa's suffering, why go on about it? Surely they'll eventually sort themselves out, much as Europeans did after a few centuries of mayhem and misery when they underwent their own decolonisation process following the collapse of Rome. The problem seems to be that we're not quite insensitive enough to sit by and watch a continent disintegrate, but at the same time not resolute or confident enough to do anything that might actually be of help.

07 January 2007

Barbarians Inside The Gates

The sun finally came out in Sydney, producing a reasonable semblance of full-on summer beach weather, so if any of you have been wondering what's become of me, that's what.

Checked out a couple of North Shore beaches, and even though they weren't shark-netted and were beset by annoying selfish people in big, ostentatious boats who insisted on dropping anchor in precisely the spot where people might like to swim, it was still pretty nice. There's a bit of science involved to swimming/beaching in Sydney Harbour, which involves ascertaining which direction the winds are blowing (and which direction they'll be likely to be coming from by the time you actually get to the beach), and then knowing which beaches will be in a sheltered position. With literally hundreds of beaches to choose from (okay, maybe I'm being liberal with the "literally," which annoys me no end when other people do it, but seriously, there's a lot of beaches), the devoted layabout needs to have considerable knowledge stored in his or her noggin, and that's before you start factoring in low and high tide times.

All right, by now I'm starting to feel a little like the old Doonesbury character (does anyone still read Doonesbury? is there any reason apart from inertia that it continues to exist?) Zonker Harris, whose entire life was devoted to suntanning, but just to show that I'm not completely shallow (something Sydneysiders are regularly accused of by jealous residents of less pleasant Australian capitals), I, um, had a discussion about philosophy the other day. Two, actually. Oh, and I went to a movie, too, so there.

The philosophy discussion was triggered by an offhand comment I made a few months ago about the general worthlessness of the post-modernists and post-structuralists, which elicited a rather poignant cri de coeur from a university student in Chicago (formerly of Humboldt County, however, itself well noted for its deep philosophical roots, and yes, I'll always have a soft spot for Humboldt, hippies, marijuana and endless reggae notwithstanding).

"Why are you being so closed-minded?" was the gist of his query, and this not being the first time I'd been accused of that particular defect of character, I gave careful consideration to my reply. It was hardly as knowledgeable as that of my young interlocutor, but handicapped by the fact that I haven't actually plowed through much in the way of Derrida or Foucault, I had to fall back on two main points: a) that most of what they wrote was unnecessarily dense gobbledegook (why, I contended, was Plato able to couch his ideas in far more clear prose?) that barely failed to mask the fact that they mostly consisted of nihilism and hippie-dippie "nothing is real" 60s rhetoric; and b) that such theories had a corrosive effect on both thought and morality, in that they could be used to negate or contradict virtually anything.

As I said, not a particularly learned analysis, probably more visceral than intellectual, but hey, I'm a shallow Aussie beach bum, what do you expect. Anyway, now my correspondent (whose name is Nathan Shepard, by the way) has written back with a very cogent argument, much more readable and understandable than that of the philosophers and theorists he's defending, and while I'm not sophisticated enough to summarise it here (perhaps later, when I've decided whether I'm capable of arguing back at him or will have to capitulate utterly and completely), my estimation is that Nathan Shepard is a figure to reckon with in the world of philosophy. And I don't say that lightly, as I actually know at least one professional philosopher (that would be Dave 327) and a fair few amateur ones.

One of the latter would be my Aussie friend Michael, who's actually qualified as an attorney, but who, I learned last night, did his undergraduate degree in philosophy (and at a proper college in London, not at the University of Surf Australia, you snide bastards). I mentioned this discussion to him last night as we were on our way to the movies, and he, a Wittgenstein fancier, sniffed that he hadn't found time to read the post-modernists/structuralists, and didn't anticipate finding such time in the foreseeable future. So I felt temporarily reassured in my blithe ignorance, but Nathan's letter may yet goad me into doing some difficult reading. If I can find a waterproof edition suitable for taking to the beach.

The film we saw was Blood Diamond, and it was a real rip-snorter, with copious amounts of explosions, beheadings and amputations, not to mention some stunning cinematography (to be honest, I'm not even sure what that word means, but it sounds knowledgeable, doesn't it?) that gave me a real sense of what West Africa must look like. Well, as real as it's likely to get for someone who's never been there. True, there were cheesy aspects, such as when Leonardo di Caprio did his Titanic-style dying swan act, this time into the red African earth rather than the icy waters of the North Atlantic (I half expected Celine Dion to come in warbling as he breathed his last), but hey, life is cheesy at times, too. Overall, di Caprio turned in a great performance, even delivering a creditable African accent, but the real star was Africa itself.

The plot revolves around the civil wars and struggles for control of the diamond fields that rages in West Africa around the turn of the century (the most recent one, that is), which I'd followed fairly closely when they were actually happening, and been suitably horrified by. In case you don't remember or don't live in an area served by the BBC, among the features of those wars were wholesale amputations, usually of hands but sometimes of feet as well, and the kidnapping of young children for purposes of turning them into drugged and brainwashed killers.

But the news accounts and video footage I'd seen at the time barely prepared me for what it looked like on the big screen: truckloads of what can only be described as savages, tearing into villages and towns swathed in marijuana smoke and bouncing to an urban American rap sound track, and cutting loose with their automatic weapons at any and all. Then came the rapes, kidnappings and ritual amputations, much of which served little purpose other than to provide the maruaders with some sort of twisted kicks. From everything I've read on the subject, the movie didn't exaggerate or sensationalise at all. In fact, Michael thought that it had rather downplayed the full extent of the violence.

Before going further, I should delineate my theoretical continuum of savagery/barbarism/civilisation, which I hasten to point out flies directly in the face of most contemporary historical theory. Nowadays it's very unfashionable to use terms like "barbarian," as my history lecturer friend Bella often and with some patience points out to me. It's a relative term, used by the dominant civilisation to diminish other societies that are not necessarily inferior, just "different" (thanks, Foucault et al.).

Well, fie upon this, I say. I need only wander from the British Museum's rooms of Roman artifacts into those housing the shoddy and inferior imitations produced by the Saxons to see that there is a qualitative difference between the two societies, and to know beyond a doubt which I'd prefer to live in. Anyway, my theory goes like this: savages are people who have no conception of the relative worth or significance of the instruments or institutions of civilisation. Give them a gold coin and they might hang it around their neck; they might just as well try using it as fish bait or seeing how far into the forest they could throw it. Barbarians, on the other hand, know the value of things, understand the desirability of tools and luxuries produced by civilisation, but are not capable of maintaining the institutions capable of producing those items, so therefore must resort to stealing them. Civilisation, which, despite continuing evidence to the contrary, happens to be where we live, is capable of sustaining and reproducing itself, based not so much on individuals but on collective knowledge and institutions.

Simplistic? A bit, perhaps, but all theories risk that. It doesn't mean we shouldn't stop trying to have them. Anyway, by my own definition, the marauding maniacs of West Africa should probably be called barbarians rather than savages, since they were sufficiently sophisticated to loot things of value and there was some rhyme or reason to what they were doing (i.e., control of the diamond fields and a continued supply of civilisation's desired artifacts). It was only their behaviour that was savage, not its rationale.

But the most disturbing image was how closely these particular barbarians/savages/as you will resembled similar gangs that can be found in urban capitals around the world. The difference is only one of degree, not of substance. Whether hailing from Brazilian favelas, the banlieue of Paris, or any number of gritty council estates and housing projects across Britain and America, the sound track (angry gangsta rap) and the chemical enhancement (marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy) is the same, and only the more evolved and heavily armed policing structures of the First World stand between the same savage results.

Mobs of gangsters in Rio and Sao Paolo have recently been attacking and destroying buses and engaging in full-scale armed warfare with the local police. Not in pursuit of any particular cause, just to gain ascendancy and prevent the police from interfering with their criminal activities. Although somewhat cloaked in the rhetoric of race and religion, the ongoing civil insurgency in the suburbs of Paris and most other major French cities consists of the same thing: criminals, barbarians, if you will, saying to the police: "You no longer control this territory, and soon you will no longer control the city itself." It's no secret that the same sort of mindlessly violent yet at the same time insurrectionary spirit has been brewing in black ghettoes across the USA, to the point where police in many cities (particularly the more effete ones like San Francisco and Oakland, or the hopeless ones like Detroit) have all but admitted that there is little they can do about it.

The trailer for Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto, which hasn't opened here yet, played before Blood Diamond, and featured a tagline to the effect of "This is what it's like when a civilisation ends." Although Mel was ostensibly referring to the Maya, even without having seen the film I think it's safe to assume that he was/is trying to make a Spenglerian point about the decline of the West. I'm not sure he's too far off the mark, either. I know it's a hallmark of aging ditherers since time immemorial to proclaim, "We're going the way of the ancient Romans," but I'm willing to take the risk of being so branded. When we no longer see the value of what civilisation has given us, and when we're no longer willing to state unequivocally that with all its obvious faults, civilisation is still preferable to barbarism and thus worth defending (and once again, thanks a lot, Foucault), then yes, trouble just might ensue.

That being said, I enjoyed the movie immensely and it had a mostly happy ending, so hooray for Hollywood, I guess. Perhaps we'll still find a way to live happily ever after, and if not, Leonardo di Caprio will no doubt turn up to save us. Meanwhile, here's hoping the sun comes out tomorrow so I can go back to the beach.