Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Essay - on cultural appropriation

"Cultural appropriation" is defined in Wikipedia in the first instance as the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture. It is not clear when the term first emerged. Assuming that I am interpreting the results correctly, a search using Google Ngam viewer suggests the term was not used at all prior to 1985 and then infrequently after that up to 2008. A search on Google Trends shows an initial appearance at the end of 2008 with a marked acceleration from 2013.

Digging around, I found that on June 8th, 2005, the book Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law by American lawyer Susan Scafidi was released in June 2005. In May the following year, the annual feminist science fiction convention WisCon held a panel on cultural appropriation that started considerable discussion. The concept of cultural appropriation was then picked up by African-American, native American and First Nation groups in at least Canada, the US and Australia because it fitted with existing beliefs and lines of argument. It also fitted with the post colonial anti-imperialistic rhetoric and beliefs. I don't think that the apparent absolute country ranking in Google trends -   Canada followed by the US and then Australia and the UK - is a coincidence.  

Today, the concept has recently become quite prominent and intensely political. Some random examples:
  • Ruby Hamad accused the recent Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation ad on lamb on Australia Day  for its use of the word boomerang
  • The cancellation of university yoga classes at the University of Ottawa on grounds that included cultural appropriation
  • Justin Beiber's hair  
  • Beyonce's portrayal of a Bollywood character
  • Pressure over the use of the name Walkabout for a dance festival, forcing a name change
  • At the University of East Anglia, student pressure stopped a Mexican restaurant handing out sombreros on the grounds that it was racist, while in Canada Kendall Jenner's Tribal Spirit Mango ad was attacked on social media as cultural appropriation. 
The list goes on. If you do a Google news search on cultural appropriation you can browse to your heart's content. Remember that this is a phrase that barely registered eight years ago.

It would be easy to to point to the silliness of some of this as Chris Berg did in an ABC piece. It would be easy to point to some of the issues raised for intellectual and academic freedom. However, the concept is becoming institutionalised, so we need to understand some of the issues involved. 

Of itself, cultural appropriation defined as the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture seems neutral. At this level, it seems equivalent to the older term acculturation, the way in which interacting cultures affect each other. With acculturation, cultural modification of an individual, group, or people occurs through adaptation to or borrowing traits from another culture. However, appropriation has more active connotation, the taking of a cultural trait.

Absorption or some time rejection of cultural traits or ideas from other groups is a feature of all human societies. All human cultures are a meld. Sometimes the change is forced, at other times a matter of choice and evolution. Cultural appropriation has come to be defined as the adoption or taking by a majority group of a cultural attribute of a minority group. This definition is from a US website.   
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
In the United States, cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) “borrowing” from the cultures of minority groups. African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and indigenous peoples generally tend to emerge as the groups targeted for cultural appropriation.

If you look at it, that's an incredibly messy definition. It starts with the concept of permission:.taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This is then amplified by example: this can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.

The concept of harm is then introduced: it's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.Now we come to the idea of the dominant culture: in the United States, cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) “borrowing” from the cultures of minority group. Note the use of the word borrowing in inverted commas. Then we have the groups most likely to be targeted: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and indigenous peoples generally tend to emerge as the groups targeted for cultural appropriation. Note that targeted is an active word, implying conscious choice. 

To illustrate the confusions that can arise, I am going to take some examples. I apologise if they seem somewhat meandering. I am using the discussion to sort out my own views. 

To start with a particularly silly one from some of the opponents of the cultural appropriation school that I just wanted to get out of the way. In response to some of the manifestations of the cultural appropriation school  you get responses sometimes such as well, why don't you stop speaking English. This is silly at several levels. The Aborigines, for example, had no choice but to speak English. That was a forced adaption, not cultural appropriation. The argument also does not really address the issues put forward by the cultural appropriation school. To do this, you have to disentangle the issues. 

To continue the discussion, this is a Christmas photo of my brother and I dressed in Indian outfits. Is this cultural appropriation? Possibly, but not of the American Indians, rather from the US cowboy and Indian movies and books that were then very popular. It is an Australian mother's attempt to make outfits from what she had (the clothes come from hessian bags, the feathers from the chook yard) that would meet her kids' interest in cowboys and Indian stuff. Why Indians rather than cowboys? Well, the Indians were more interesting. 

The point is that all cultures borrow or adopt and for different reasons. At the time this photo was take, many Australians were worried about the intrusion of US culture into Australia through film in particular. Some nationalists, not all on the left, thought of it as cultural imperialism. We weren't appropriating US culture, it was being imposed upon us.

To take another example, many Aboriginal people like country music and/or rap. Australia does have its own country music tradition, although much has been appropriated from the US and then incorporated into the local culture. Rap is a different issue. It is popular among many Australian young, it is hard to avoid its influence, but it seems especially popular among Aboriginal young people who identify as black. This is clearly appropriation from another culture, but is it a bad thing? I would have thought not. But if not, why not? When does it become a bad thing? 

We now come to the ownership issue. Many Aboriginal people assert that they own their own culture and all its elements. Permission is required to use it. Otherwise, its bad cultural appropriation. Well yes and no, recognising that views change and that it's all very messy. It really depends.

Returning to the Indian headdresses in the photo, would I wear an Indian headdress today? Probably not, with the exception of a fancy dress party and even then I'm doubtful. Why? It's a unique Indian artifact and I have no cultural connection. It would lack meaning. By contrast, I might wear a kilt because I do have a cultural connection. 

Extending, I see welcome to country and smoking ceremonies as uniquely Aboriginal events. It would be totally inappropriate for me to carry those ceremonies out. But what about the bullroarer or didgeridoo? Both have particular cultural Aboriginal significance. As a child we made bullroarers, although the didgeridoo was far beyond us. Is a non-Aboriginal person entitled to use these instruments or is that cultural appropriation of the bad type?  At the moment, the consensus view appears to be that it is acceptable to incorporate the instruments into particular pieces.  

Similar issues come up in art, language and history.

Aboriginal art has become part of the broader Australian visual landscape. There is now an apparent view that only Aboriginal people have the right to draw images from that art.To do otherwise is cultural appropriation.  This is different from the question of intellectual property protection for, say, individual Aboriginal works or indeed specific schools such as the Tiwi Island painters. It is also different from art that may be linked to specific rituals or ceremonies.  Both imply specific limitations as compared to a blanket prohibition.   . 

Australian English incorporates Aboriginal words. That is cultural appropriation, although I don't think that anyone challenges it. Aboriginal languages themselves are more complex, for here there is an assertion of ownership by particular groups that sometimes says the language may only be studied or spoken with specific approval. Something similar has emerged in history and especially prehistory.

All this becomes very wearing, raising the question of just where you draw the line. If you adopt a purist position that says everything is cultural appropriation in the absence of specific approval to the contrary, then you essentially assign Aboriginal culture to a self-imposed ghetto. In this context, part of the richness of US culture including its global reach lies in its appropriation of items from both inside the US and beyond. Based on my observations, most Aboriginal people do not want the ghetto outcome. The anti-cultural appropriation pressure comes as much if not more so from elements of the non-Aboriginal community        

I have focused especially on Aboriginal culture because it draws out some of the issues involved. When I go beyond that and return my focus to the broader environment and especially the student and social media protests, I think that some of those involved and the attitudes expressed display a marked form of dictatorial cultural arrogance including a desire to freeze things into the patterns they want. Most cultures are fusion cultures. Strong cultures exert an influence beyond their bounds. They do not need protection.

Looking specifically at minority cultures living within a frame set by a dominant culture, and ignoring issues such as racism that normally fall outside the scope of cultural appropriation as such, it is not clear to me just how opposition to cultural appropriation aids the growth and survival of specific minority cultures. The likely outcome would seem the opposite.    ..

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - visual language, contemporary art and a visit to Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art

From time to time on this blog, more often on New England Australia, I have used the term visual language. The Wikipedia article provides a useful introduction to the concept.

On the New England blog, I have experimented with language as a way of describing the physical and built environments, including variations in those environments over space and time. I have also tried to look at the relationship between writing, art and film in regard to place and variations in place both geographically and historically. In many ways I'm trying to infer or even create a visual language since no formal one presently exists covering the areas that I am interested in.

On this blog, I have been more concerned with the changing structure and impact of visual language. My observations are neither deep nor especially profound. It's just a topic that interests me. The changing way we represent or remember things is based on a structured combination of knowledge, perceptions and relationships. They may not always be articulated, but the structure is there. You can see the impact quite easily if you think how often people will look at an art work and say I don't understand that or, alternatively, I like that.

Visual language shifts with time with changes in content, form and structure. It is affected by what we learn and choose to remember or forget. It is affected by events, by changes in our environment and by changes in technology. Visual language is an integral element of culture. It changes as culture changes, but its changes also feed back into cultural change.We are as we perceive.

I am familiar with certain aspects of the changing visual landscape. It would be hard not to be with youngest as a daughter. After all, I have been following her journey for some years now through early writing and illustration through the NSW Higher School Certificate into the latest evolutions. She operates in the interstice where games, comics, fan fiction, graphics, young adult fantasy, illustration, films and conventions coincide. She constantly experiments with platforms (most recently twitch), mode and content.

While I am familiar with some aspects of the changing aspects of the visual landscape, I have become increasingly conscious of gaps in my recent knowledge, especially in art.This has been peaking through in posts. So I took myself off to the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a curiously unsatisfying experience.

This piece is Mikala Dwyer's  Square Cloud Compound (2010). MCA describes it in this way:

For more than three decades, Sydney artist Mikala Dwyer has explored the alchemical and contradictory nature of objects. Pushing at the limits of sculpture and installation her work reveals an experimental approach to materials that is influenced by art povera, dada and constructivism..
Recently acquired for the MCA Collection, Dwyer’s Square Cloud Compound (2010), is made of large swathes of brightly coloured fabric sewn into cubes that create a soft architectural structure. This mysterious enclosure is held down by tersely pulled stockings attached to the ceiling, floor and to painted poles adorned with lights and trinkets that function like totem poles, lampposts or gallows. Square Cloud Compound  is presented alongside a new wall painting produced especially for the museum and the MCA Collection. .

Accepting that it is a very bad photo, I was struck by the ephemeral nature of the piece. I wandered around it at all angles, studying the stretched pantyhose and other elements.I then went to the second floor gallery. This included the Tiwi Island display plus elements from the permanent collection. It was at this point that I began to wonder about my own visual language. Was that deficient? Alternatively, was I simply showing my age? Or perhaps both?

The Tiwi Islands Exhibition was interesting. This 2015 linocut print on paper, Murtangkala, is by Bede Tungutalum. However, I found that I have been somewhat submerged by Aboriginal art in recent decades, so perhaps didn't give the display enough attention.It was beyond that point that I began to find real problems.

There were two performing art examples, both video; one involved a group in the bush with masks, the second a man playing on a skateboard at Bondi Beach as a storm rolled in. I watched neither to the end, although the visual composition of the second was appealing. .

As I see it, one of the difficulties with performance art lies in the dividing line between art and performance. A second lies in the nature of the message, the reason why the artist undertakes the activity, the expectation of our response. By its nature, performance art takes time and therein lies the rub. Our attention spans have shortened. We may simply switch off before we have had the time to absorb anything.

There are exceptions. Many years ago while still at university, I watched a film clip of people going up and down an elevator in a Canadian department store. The message was about the nature of consumer society. We were watching it as part of a discussion group and then had to write a poem on our conclusions. I absorbed that piece. However, for most performance art I just turn off. I see enough of it everyday as it is.

Overall, I found the pieces on display from the general collection curiously unsatisfying. Some were visually appealing. this is Brook Andrew's "Loop. A model of how the world operates." The MCA describes the piece in this way:
Loop..... is part of an ongoing series of wall drawings using black and white patterns inspired by his (Andrew's) matriarchal Wiradjuri cultural heritage of western New South Wales, traditionally carved into shields and trees (dendroglyphs). In Loop Andrew has overlaid these monochromatic diagonals of traditional memory with slowly throbbing spirals of neon, to challenge the relationship to the inheritance of tradition in a society built on activities of trying to forget Aboriginal culture.
That is the curator's version. I found the last sentence quite problematic. That phrase - the inheritance of tradition in a society built on activities of trying to forget Aboriginal culture - seems to me to have no meaning..More precisely, to the degree that it has a meaning, it is simply wrong.

Brook himself seems to have a more nuanced view. "I like the idea of being hypnotised by a pattern, a pattern that can break the programme of how we are supposed to behave and what we are supposed to be doing," he wrote. "For me the pattern represents a matrix. It’s covering the surface and coding this structure and the people who experience it. It can take you somewhere else and I hope that’s what it does."

That I can understand. Did he succeed? Not with me, I fear. I passed it by as just another piece of visual wall paper. Now this may actually be the MCA's fault rather than that of the artist. We live in a visual wall paper world. Images are all around us. To achieve Brooke's objectives with a big piece, you actually need lots of places to sit, freeing the brain to observe different angles, breaking the bounds set by constant exposure to images. In terms of visual language, we are all suffering from the static created by constant over-exposure. We tune out, noting in a fleeting way before moving on.

My overall impression, recognising that this may be grossly unfair?  Beyond the current fashionable political and value concerns so earnestly explained in some of the descriptions, I left the gallery no wiser about either contemporary art in general or Australian contemporary art in particular beyond the hope that what I saw was not representative. I will return, for my original objective of filling gaps in my knowledge remains unfilled.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Australia and the Transparency International Global Corruption Perceptions Index

The release by Transparency International (TI) of the latest global corruption perceptions index has attracted attention in Australia (here for example) because of Australia's slide in the index. The apparent response is that this requires Australia to tighten its anti-corruption legislation. This is quite problematic.

To begin with, the idea that new legislation should be introduced based on other peoples' perceptions is highly suspect in public policy terms. We have far too much legislation as it is based on perceptions of problems as compared to actual problems.

The methodology used by TI to generate the the results is also quite unclear. Maybe someone can help me here. I couldn't find any discussion of methodology on the TI website.

Then, too, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that Australia's pursuit of corruption from sport to the NSW Independent Commission against Corruption has, of itself, affected perceptions and at two levels. More things are classified as corruption, while the uncovering of problems in its turn heightens perceptions about the existence of corruption. In a way, the more we do, the worse our reputation becomes.

This is not to say that corruption is not an issue, although I would argue that our systems are relatively free of the endemic corruption found in some other countries. However, it is an issue that needs to be addressed in specific contexts. To suggest that we need to introduce new legislation just because our global ranking has slipped on a particular perception index is dumb.

If the slip in our global rankings is perceived to be a problem, then we have to ask why it's a problem. Does it reflect a real problem in this country? If so, we need to identify and act. Or is is just a perception problem? If so, how important is it, noting that Australia still ranks 13, a high number? If we classify perception as a real problem, then we have to look at the way the indices are calculated and their real meaning to define how we should address it..This might include surveys to provide independent validation.

These arguments do not invalidate the broader objectives that TI is trying to achieve. They just say that Australia needs to apply a degree of common sense so far as its own position and responses are concerned.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

That Australian Life - Australia Day

Unlike India's Republic Day which falls on the same day, 26 January, Australia Day, is a funny kind of national holiday because it doesn't have a clear national significance.

By way of background, the First Fleet under Governor Phillip sailed from England on 13 May 1787 to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay, arriving between 10 and 20 January. It quickly became clear that Botany Bay was unsuitable for the intended purposes.

On 21 January, Phillip and a few officers travelled to Port Jackson, 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) to the north to see if it would be a better location for a settlement. They stayed there until 23 January, with Phillip naming the site Sydney Cove.

On the evening of 23 January the party returned to Botany Bay. Phillip gave orders to move the fleet to Sydney Cove the next morning, but a gale prevented departure.On 25 January, the fleet tried again, but only HMS Supply succeeded in leaving carrying Arthur Phillip, Philip Gidley King, some marines and about 40 convicts. The Supply anchored in Sydney Cove in the afternoon of 25 January. . Early next morning, 26 January, Phillip along with a few dozen marines, officers and oarsmen, rowed ashore and took possession of the land in the name of King George III.

After some difficulties, the remainder of the fleet joined the Supply on the 26th. It was not until 7 February 1788 that the formal proclamation establishing the colony under Phillip's governorship was read out.

The 26 January date had varying significance to different people and over time. To the new colonists and their descendants in NSW the day was celebrated early as foundation day. However, the other colonies that emerged selected other days to mark their history. The 1938 celebrations of 150 years since British settlement and the bicentenary celebrations of 1988 helped establish the date nationally, but it was not until 1994 that Australia Day became a uniform national celebration.

The Aboriginal position was more clear cut. 26 January marked the day on which ownership by the British crown was first asserted over part of their lands. Not all; dispossession would be a rolling process. 26 January became Invasion Day to distinguish from Australia Day.

I have been surprised at the extent to which Australia Day has become such a structured national celebration. This photo shows the party at eldest's Copenhagen flat to celebrate this year's Australia Day.

In the beginning, the mass celebration of Australia Day was very much an official thing, mandated and funded by governments at all levels. However, it tapped into the deep threads of patriotism and celebration, of the desire to party, within Australians. Around the world, Australia Day has become an excuse to party.

You will get a feel for this from the text on eldest's Facebook post.
Best first Australia Day celebrations away from home ever - thank you to all the fab people who came to party! ‪#‎copenhagen‬  ‪#‎australiaday2016celebrations‬ ‪#‎pavlova‬‪#‎lamingtons‬ ‪#‎homemadesausagerolls‬ ‪#‎timtams‬‪#‎teachingthedanesaboutsundaysessions‬
In terms of the discussion we have been having on Australian culture, the tags are quite interesting in terms of things Australian, as well as introducing Danes to the more informal aspects of Australian social life.

To Australia's Aboriginal peoples and their supporters, Australia Day remains deeply conflicted. Aboriginal elements have been introduced into all the official functions, but to Invasion Day theme is strong. Many want the date shifted. I have very mixed views here. I am inclined to support shifting the date to remove the conflict elements, but also recognise that this is likely to mute the protests themselves. From the viewpoint of Aboriginal activism, the present date is quite a potent weapon. That will be lost if the date is shifted.

As part of Australia Day, Australians of the Year are announced in various categories. Now here kvd in a comment pointed me to something that has been making me uncomfortable. Quoting a piece by Terry McCrann, it's behind the firewall unfortunately, kvd wrote:
Briefly he is saying that if you look at the list of AOTY recipients, it has moved from a national recognition of significant achievement (Nobel Prizes, Writers, etc.) thru sportsmen and 'celebs', to now more recently 'people with a cause' - Flannery, Batty and now the General - to which we are supposed to subscribe for our betterment. And that's all aside from the fact that (according to him) we are one of the few countries who indulge in an Of The Year award.
I suppose that we can think of this as the politicisation of the Australian of the Year process,
I don't have a problem with the Australian of the Year espousing particular causes, indeed of using the honour to promote those causes. I do have a problem when the award appears to be based on causes.

I suppose that its the republic thing that has most got up my nose in the case of the the latest recipient, David Morrison. Once you introduce cause based nominations, then one's response depends on personal reactions to to the causes.

I accept that this can be a slippery distinction, but my feeling is that it introduces a bias where the cause is important as compared to achievement. Without in any way detracting from General Morrison's achievements, I find myself wondering if I am going to have to campaign against him on issues that he espouses and wishes to use promote via his his new platform. I don't think that's appropriate.

I am much more comfortable with the idea of introducing Danes to the pavlova. Of course, even here there is a problem. Is the pavlova in fact an Australian dish? Many kiwis would say no. In any event, I love pavlovas and am glad that eldest is spreading knowledge of it in Copenhagen.


Problems attached to the advocacy role of the Australian of the Year are well captured in this Canberra Times story, Australian of the Year: Catherine McGregor sorry after saying David Morrison choice was 'weak' Apparently Australian of the Year finalist and transgender military officer Catherine McGregor branded the appointment of her former boss David Morrison to the position as a "weak and conventional choice", but then apologised.

A key paragraph in the story reads:
:The National Australia Day Council Board said it was "very disappointed by the comments made today by the Queensland Australian of the Year, Catherine McGregor, and her apology is appreciated and accepted". 
"The board stands by its decision to select David Morrison as the 2016 Australian of the Year as a champion of diversity and for marginalised communities in Australia, including the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community," the board said in a brief statement.
I don't have a problem with the Australian of the Year adopting an advocacy role. I do have difficulties with selection apparently based on that role. This gets into difficult territory. For example, if someone has been a successful advocate for particular marginalised groups or indeed for social reforms, that would seem to me to be okay, although value judgements are necessarily involved. To select someone or to consider that someone should be selected because they are in some ways best for a future advocacy role would appear to be a very different question. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - Updating Australia's cultural decline following a dash of prehistory

The discovery of an apparent human massacre dating to some 10,000 years ago (Archaeologists unearth the earliest evidence of warfare between hunter-gatherers) has attracted some interest.

There has been something of an apparent running debate between those who argue that hunter-gatherer societies were essentially violent, while others argue that warfare as such came with farming and state power. You see the second in some of the discussion on traditional Aboriginal life where it is argued that Aboriginal society was essentially peaceful. A contrast is then made with the European invaders. I have always thought that this debate was a little a-historical with a fair degree of semantic confusion. For example, what is meant by peaceful or warfare?

Meantime, since I wrote The Sulawesi discoveries: where does Australian prehistory fit? John Hawks has had a useful perspective piece, Somebody was on Sulawesi before 118,000 years ago, while University of New England's Dr Mark Moore who analysed the stone tools recovered from the excavation, reports that the tools were finely crafted with a high degree of skill involved.

Neil Whitfield had an interesting companion post, The state of Australian culture, to my last post, That Australian Life - has Australian culture entered into decline? There he quotes Myf Warhurst's review of Brilliant Creatures:
When the small screen and broader media only reflects back at us who we already are rather than challenging or educating us, surely we’re in a spot of bother? If Brilliant Creatures has a message, it’s that ruffling of feathers and robust viewpoints will be remembered. The rest is wallpaper. And currently, we’ve got plenty of that.
Australians are in danger of disappearing up their own self-reflexive, but thoughtfully designed and padded, backsides. Sadly we’re all too high on the paint fumes of home renovation to give much of a toss.
In discussion, kvd accused me of reverse myopia. There is some truth in that. Although my views have changed over time, I am in part a captive of my own past. We all are.

As part of my train reading, I am reading Clive James Cultural Amnesia.  It's a very good book but also very large! Consequently, I am reading it in bits, mainly delving just before I go to bed. The characters selected and especially the arguments presented reflect the author's times and especially European history and thought before, during and in the decades immediately after the Second World War. This covers the period when his views were formed and when he rose to prominence, something clearly indicated by the subtitle on the English edition of the book, notes in the margin of my time.

Early in the book, Clive James refers to common language that used to provide a degree of unity in intellectual traditions across European cultures. He had poetry especially in mind, the way that memorised poetry provided a linking from Australia to Germany to England to the US to Italy, but it is also a broader point. As sharing declines, understanding becomes more difficult. Reading Cultural Amnesia, I actually wondered how many people in 2016 might understand some of the essays without a knowledge of history and culture.

I digress, but this is a muse. Considering the discussion, I concluded that I had been guilty of sloppy wording, a heinous sin for one who strives if unsuccessfully for clarity in English. I have previously argued in a different context that Australian culture has not declined, that it remains as strong as ever as a unifying element despite growing diversity in Australian society. I am using the term culture here in its broadest sense. What I really meant to say, I think, is that certain aspects of Australian culture have lost their influence in Australia and beyond.

Even here, I could be (and indeed was) challenged. Part of the problem lies in time and overlap effects. If the genesis of something lies in the 1960s and 1970s but continues into the 1980s or beyond, then how do you attribute it? Pub rock is an example. This clearly dates to the 1970s, but peaked in the 1980s. How, then, do you classify it?

I will continue this discussion in a later post. For the moment, I have run out of time.


Since I  wrote this post, Legal Eagle has pointed me to this Economist piece that bears upon  the discussion of the peacefulness or otherwise of hunter gatherer societies as  compared to farming communities.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

That Australian Life - has Australian culture entered into decline?

Triggered by two TV documentaries, Monday Forum - Brilliant Creatures, Blood and Thunder and the culture that formed us concluded:
One unifying theme in these two apparently very different stories lies in a certain brashness in the Australian character and culture, a dislike of cant, that led those involved to push the boundaries. 
This brings me to my questions for this forum. We are all formed by our own experiences. What, to you, is that music or film for that matter that brings back your younger years? Are there distinct features in the Australian cultural experience? 
Since then, there seems to have been something of a wave of programs, some repeats, linked in one way or another with political or cultural history.

On such program was the repeat of Gracie Otto's The Last Impresario, the story of British impresario and film maker Michael White. White's productions included (among many others) Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  The photo shows Otto with Michael White. 

A second program was the repeat of the first part of George Megalogenis' documentary Making Australia Great: Inside Our Longest Boom, which first aired in March 2015. Both programs link back to my post. 

Brilliant Creatures focused on four Australians ( Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James and Robert Hughes) who made their mark in London during the 1960s and 1970s. This was also the period in which Michael White first came to prominence, so there is considerable overlap between the two shows. The thing that surprised me about The Last Impresario was the strong Australian presence. This is not just linked to the fact that Gracie Otto is Australian. More, it reflects the deep penetration of Australians into London life during the period.

Blood and Thunder, a very different program, looks at Australian rock and roll and popular music more broadly. Here one of the themes is the youth rebellion that flowed from the unemployment and disillusionment of the seventies. 

The first part of the seventies was positive, captured in the Whitlam It's Time campaign of 1972. That was the first campaign that featured Australian performers. It marked a new standard in Australian political advertising.

This is the best known ad. Even for someone like me who was not an ALP supporter, it's hard not to get goosebumps.

The first oil shock came in October 1973.That shock triggered the end of the longish period of global prosperity that had been in place sine the end of the Second World Way. Unemployment and especially youth unemployment rose and rose. Megalogenis explores the political ramification, Blood and Thunder the musical.

Here we have three very different periods. Those in Brilliant Creatures came through the Australian university system at a time when, while expanding, it was still elite. Even where from poorer backgrounds, they were effectively children of privilege. Not for them the need to focus on careers or the need for vocational qualifications.

Pop culture is always more reflective of young people as a whole. The  Australian bands who stormed to success came from very different backgrounds. They may have reflected youth angst, but it was a very different angst.

And since 1980? Here I have been struggling. The period since 1980 has been one of massive change in Australian wealth and society. But I am hard pressed to identify one Australian cultural trend, movement or group of people that has had impact beyond Australian shores that doesn't actually date to the 1970s or before. Am I wrong? What do you think?         

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Woolworths pulls the plug on Masters

The decision by Australian supermarket chain Woolworths to throw in the towel on its attempt to build a hardware chain to rival Bunnings did not come as a surprise. It all proved just too hard.

Nine years ago, Woolworths under CEO Roger Corbett had the then second ranking Coles' group on the ropes. Coles had been bigger and more successful, but had suffered from lack of strategic investment and from corporate games. In 2007, the then industrial conglomerate Wesfarmers made an opportunistic bid for Coles. At the time it was seen as a gamble, but it proved to be be a successful move.

The seeds for later problems are often sown during periods of apparent success. Under Mr Corbett, Wooloworths had modeled itself to some degree on the US Walmart chain then seen as the global retail success story. However, and I am now speaking from a customer perspective, the company had under-invested in its existing stores, many of which seemed old and tired.

At the time of the Coles purchase, Wesfarmers already owned the Bunnings hardware chain.Since its acquisition in 1994, Wesfarmers had grown the Bunnings chain through further acquisitions and investment in big wharehouse stores.  In doing so, it overtook the previous market leader, Mitre 10, establishing a dominant market position.

The decision by Woolworths to establish Masters in conjunction with the American hardware chain Lowes had known risks. By the time of the launch of the first Masters store in 2011, Bunnings was very well established indeed. The new venture faced two practical problems. The first was simply finding suitable space for the stores. The second linked problem was building volume to get stock costs down and margins up. In the end, Woolworths was failing on both counts, leading to continuing losses. .

The move to close or dispose of Masters has been welcomed by investors and commentators. I'm not so sure. I would have thought that a for a new venture of this type you have to be prepared to adopt a really long term time horizon. Clearly Woolworths could not afford to do so. The real losers in all this are not just Masters staff, but also the suppliers who opted to supply Masters as an alternative to Bunnings.


Another view on the strategic errors involved in the Masters matter - and another..  

Monday, January 18, 2016

Social change in Sydney - In memory of Gardens-R-Us

A week back, Gardens-R-Us at Eastlakes finally closed to be replaced apparently by mixed use high rise. I knew that it was closing, but didn't know the story, including the ownership by the Piggins of South Sydney fame.

Gardens-R-Us has been at least a small part of my life since we moved to Rosebery in 2000. It has been my source for plants, seeds, fertiliser and mulch through all my varying gardening phases.

The land was owned by Sydney Water. If you regard Sydney Water as a State owned business whose key role is to make a return on capital then its sale makes sense. If you regard it as a public asset, perhaps not. In any case, the land has gone despite the petitions against the sale.

I used to enjoy Gardens-R-Us. It was a a very nice place to walk through. You started with an indoor area with running water and a bridge through  the greenery and then proceeded on a circuit through different combinations of plants and garden supplies. I loved the herb section. There you could smell and feel.

It's all gone now. The demolition people have moved in. Buildings will replace the open space. If it is high rise, I will be able to see it from my backyard. More broadly, the area I live in is undergoing fundamental change with the light rail coming through. As a heritage area, the little pocket handkerchief that is Daceyville will survive in visual form. However, the character will not. In particular, the social housing areas that formed the heart of the suburb will go.

Cash is tight, priorities must be set. With private house prices already over the million dollar mark, with those prices likely to rise because of architecture and proximity to transport and the city, each social housing house or unit in Daceyville will provide two to three units elsewhere.

I'm not sure how long the process will take. The combination of inertia with planning and approval processes builds in major lags. My best guess would be about fifteen years.

Change is inevitable. Just recording one aspect of the process.    

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Infant formula, pop-up shops and the future of Australian food

A few months ago, one of the little Chinese owned green grocers on Anzac Parade in Kingsford closed down. For those who do not know Australia, Kingsford is a Sydney suburb adjoining the University of New South Wales. It's a very large university, over 50,000 students, many of them Chinese who live in (the suburb's population is now 22% Chinese) or shop at Kingsford. Along the main restaurant and shop strip, the street traffic is 80% Asian, mainly Chinese. It's quite fun and there is some good food.

I said that one of the Chinese owned green grocers closed. It's place was taken by a pop-up shops trading as Amazing Health and Beauty. I said pop up shop, for this was an odd store. There were no displays in the window, nor much in the way of shop-fittings beyond some shelves of tins. Instead there were stacks of cardboard boxes waiting to be assembled and dispatched along with trestle tables. The place was always crowded with customers waiting for their boxes. Around the corner, I frequently saw a van being unloaded, with tins in particular being carted by trolley into the store. I hadn't seen anything like it before.

Over the next two months, five equivalent shops appeared, although none were as popular as the original. It took me a little while to work out what was going on. They were baby food shops, although they did sell more than that. Their customers were all buying to send to China.

I was actually in China when the tainted milk scandal broke in 2008. It would have been a scandal anywhere, but in a country with a one child policy the damage done to children through tainted infant formula was especially horrid. This led Chinese parents to look for new sources of supply  that they  knew were safe. With more scandals, demand spread to other products that was seen as safe and sensible. This process was assisted by the internet because this created new ways of sourcing product outside the conventional supply chains.

The growth in Chinese demand along with distrust of existing supply chains had considerable effect. Chinese parents wanted to buy premium product that they saw as safe. In doing so, they were as much influenced by branding and perception as anyone else.

The consequence was a demand surge for particular brands, along with a very large price differential between China and the source countries. This price differential was so great that you could buy supermarket retail in Australia and then sell it into China at a considerable profit. The profit was even larger if you could buy at wholesale and then shift.

The Australian pop-up shops were one outcome. This is a Melbourne example.

As demand surged, Australian mothers found themselves unable to buy their favourite brands in supermarkets because Chinese customers or those wishing to sell into China were plucking the product of the shelves for resale. This led to some outrage: here, here, here and here are examples.

You can understand the complaints. It's forced the big supermarkets into a degree of rationing. Mind you, the supermarkets have effectively been acting as wholesalers for some time for small stores and restaurants since they are generally the cheapest source for things like soft drinks. Each time there is a special, you will see trolley loads departing. But infant formula and especially the prestige brands is something new.

The impact of Chinese demand for high quality safe products is not limited to Australia, nor to infant formula.  In Ireland, Chinese demand for safe milk products has fueled dairy demand, with some infant formulas selling in China at up to four times the Irish price. In Australia, vitamin and health supplements company Blackmores saw its business (and share price) explode under the impact of Chinese demand. Now the company has entered the infant formula market..

This burst of Chinese demand will ease. The Chinese Government, for example, is already campaigning for breast feeding. New supply will enter the marketplace. Chinese producers will emerge with sufficient market standing and quality to meet local needs. However, baby formula remains an interesting case study of just what can happen when you get a sudden demand shift.

Australia is in an odd position. Australian customers have been buying imported product, food and other, because it is cheaper. This has adversely affected both Australian farmers and food processors. At the same time, the country's reputation for safety and quality is also creating premium product. Australia is not alone here, of course, for it is in competition with other advanced countries including New Zealand and European suppliers. Still, we have the situation where significant parts of our agricultural sector have been struggling while other parts display growth.

Both Australian and New Zealand have traditionally been exporters of bulk commodities. New Zealand made the shift to more specialisation and product differentiation before Australia, but Australia is now following that route. The process is not an easy one. It's easy to forget, for example, that not so many years ago diary products were a low growth area. Nobody foresaw the boom that would follow, nor can we assume that that boom will last. Just the opposite, in fact. There may be a boom in infant formula, but the overall dairy market is well down from its peak.

In Australia, the supermarket wars have given us cheap bulk milk, but at the cost of reduced Australian production. Further, faced with reduced margins, all the diary companies have been looking to diversify, to reduce their reliance on bulk milk. In a way, both the supermarkets and consumers have been sowing the whirlwind. In forcing diversification, the supermarket chains are in fact destroying the monopsony on which their market power has rested.

Australians have been used to cheap foodstuffs. That age is coming to an end. Lamb, for example, has already become a luxury foodstuff for many households. Beef is following the same route. Only mass produced chicken remains a cheap meat.

I suspect that the women presently complaining about the shortages and prices of infant formula should regard this not as an immediate outrage, but as a symptom of what will happen across food as Australian prices come to be set by the global market rather than local production.          


Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Sulawesi discoveries: where does Australian prehistory fit?

Really a random collection of things.

This painting, "Les Pin, Constantine,"  is by the Canadian artist Frank Milton Armington.(1876-1941). It goes up for auction on 25 January with a projected price range $US 25,000 - 35,000. I was curious because of the time and space overlap (Armington worked mainly in Paris) with the Australian impressionists. In a national sense, Canadian art is much more fragmentary than Australian reflecting questions about Canadian identity linked to Canada's very different history and greater complexity, as well as its proximity to the US.

 I was really interested in the latest archaeological discoveries on Sulawesi. There has been so much new work over the last decade or so that our perceptions of the history of the human race and of human prehistory have been transformed. I am just starting to get my mind round this. It's also changing the context of Aboriginal studies in ways that aren't clear to me, but seem to involve a diminution in its relative importance.

Globally, the quantum of work done has been steadily increasing, whereas in Australia budgets are constrained with archaeology now heavily dominated by rescue digs. Australia is a large country in geographic terms, so resources are thinly spread. Then, too, Australian prehistory is conflicted by the present in ways not found in many other places. You will get some feel for this if you look at the Australian archaeology entry in Wikipedia. I quote:
Archaeological studies or investigations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture in Australia have had many different agendas through time. Initial archaeological investigation was often focused on finding the oldest sites. By the 1970s, archaeological research was concerned with the environment and the way it impacted on humans. In the late 1970s cultural heritage management gained prominence, with the increasing demands by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups for representation in archaeological research. At a research level the focus shifted to cultural change of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through time. 
Currently, archaeological research places great importance on Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's viewpoints on the land and history of Australia. Consideration is given to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's belief that archaeological sites are not just capsules of the past but a continuation from the past to the present. Therefore, at a research level significance is placed on the past but also on the importance of the present.
I don't know that I quite agree with this history of Australian archaeological studies, but it draws out the inherent tensions involved. These tensions can be found in other places, but they are very pronounced in this country. The practical effect is the reduce the quantum of archaeological work.

When I visited the prehistory section of the Danish National Museum last year, I was staggered at the advances in knowledge that had occurred. I was also envious. They had created a story, a regional synthesis, of the type I was struggling to write for the area that I was studying.

I said earlier that all this was changing the context of Aboriginal studies in ways that weren't clear to me, but seemed to involve a diminution in its relative importance. I have outlined some of the problems as I have seen them. But now I want to stand back from those issues and look more broadly.

Putting things very simply, the work carried out by Australian archaeologists on Sulawesi suggest that tool using hominins were present there more than 60,000 years before the oldest date we presently have for occupation on the present Australian continent. They may have been a different hominin species,  but it's a staggering find. The issue now becomes how did the Aborigines fit into a pattern of regional and global hominin occupation stretching back far more millennia than anybody realised?

This is not a small question. I lack the scientific knowledge to attempt an answer, if indeed anybody can at the present time.I am merely observing. I would be reasonably sure however that the pace of discovery will continue to shake the very foundations of our view of the human past.


Further to this story, John Hawks had a useful perspective piece, Somebody was on Sulawesi before 118,000 years ago, while the University of New England's Dr Mark Moore who analysed the stone tools recovered from the excavation, reports that the tools were finely crafted with a high degree of skill involved.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

That Australian Life - Lamb and Operation Boomerang

There is something irreverent about Australian humour. It really does show a lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken (or meant to be taken) seriously. It consequently outrages those who do take the particular matter seriously.

Each year, the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation commissions ads promoting consumption of Australian lamb. For a number of years they have tried to make the ads quirky and irreverent. This year is no different.

The ad features SBS newsreader and social media personality Lee Lin Chin as she masterminds a plan to bring Australians home for Australia Day so they can eat lamb. One particular scene has already drawn dozens of complaints. It shows a team of special agents breaking into a New York apartment and using a blow torch on a table when the occupant protests that he is vegan..The Hobart Mercury gathered some of the complaints. Even after just a few days, it is the Corporation's most successful ad to date.

The ad follows. I leave it to you to make up your mind.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Art Daily: the art of Julian Opie

In art, I tend to focus on Australian art because I know it best, it resonates me and I can set it in context. I am less familiar with international art, certainly current international art. Here I tend to dip, looking at artists or works that have somehow become relevant to a current interest. It makes for a very patchwork quilt effect.

I mention this now because I have taken out a subscription (its free) to Art Daily. Yes, I realise that I already get too much stuff. At the moment, my in tray still has 1,456 items, and that's after clearing over 1,000 emails this week. But its rather fun.

This illustration shows works by Julian Opie featured at San Francisco's Jenkins Johnson's Winter Salon exhibition. I quote:
On view are his series Tourists; Walking in the Rain; and his lenticular series Walking In London 1 and 2. Opie is one of the most significant artists of his generation whose work is immediately identifiable. His pieces examine how we, as viewers, see things. His portraits, sculptures, and reliefs provide a way of depicting the world in which he balances the nuanced styles of Western Art with graphic traditions of caricature, illustration, and even cartoon. In the Opie style of graphic minimalism yet acutely descriptive, these series render figures in bold black outlines, capturing the personality of each. The series Tourists (screen printed with hand painting) depict telling portraits of people who might have just walked by on the street. While the works Walking in the Rain, London and Walking in the Rain, Seoul give the impression of being immersed on a busy urban sidewalk, bustling with noise. We will also feature his lenticular prints, a technique that utilizes multiple lenses to produce the illusion of depth and motion. The Walking in London lenticulars include figures such as Architect and Musician who shift in front of your eyes as you move in front of them.
I hadn't heard of Julian Opie, but he is clearly a leading British artist. His street scenes remind me somewhat of the Australian artist John Brack, although Brack belongs to a different period. Were I in San Francisco, I would certainly go to see Opie's work.    

Monday, January 11, 2016

Monday Forum - the battle for Europe's soul

Today's Monday Forum is a meander. I leave it in your hands to decide which direction to go, including revisiting issues from past Monday Forums.

Last Thursday, eldest left the warmth of Sydney for Copenhagen, returning to this weather!  While in Copenhagen last year, I asked what cyclists did in winter? The answer was ride! Apparently, it's quicker than public transport. Mmmm. I might trade warmth for speed in this case.

In Saturday Morning Musings - the 2016 global outlook  (2 January 2016) I said in part:
Doubts about the future of the EU has been a common theme in the reporting and commentary on the various European crises of 2015, with sometimes gleeful predictions of a break-up of the EU. I would be very surprised if that happened. As I have explained in previous posts, the model that I have used to understand some EU dynamics is the Federal model for the EU is an evolving Federation; the term Union is a misnomer. Applying this model, I expect Europe to muddle through through with some strengthening of central power. 

At the time I was writing, news of the New Year events in Cologne was just breaking. Now the number of alleged cases has topped 500, fueling anti-immigration protests in Germany.The photo is from the linked BBC news story.

The events in Cologne are unacceptable. If it were to happen in Sydney or Melbourne on New Year's Eve, there would be a massive political explosion. However, the tone of the protests makes me very uncomfortable indeed.

Growing up, I knew of the mass forced people movements at the end of World War II, I was less aware of people movements within Europe during the War associated with the desire to create Lebensraum or living space for the German people. Yes, I knew the phrase, but not the full implications.

I was reminded of all this while watching a document series "Invasion outbreak of World War 2" which focuses on Poland. Let me just give you a simple number. Following the German/Soviet Union agreement to partition Poland and the German invasion, large sections of Poland were incorporated into Germany. Around 1.5 million Poles were forcibly relocated to the so-called General Government territory so that their homes could be occupied by German settlers. Following the war, the process went into reverse, as millions of ethic Germans were relocated including those who had called Poland home many, many generations. This was ethnic cleansing on a large scale, a process that we had seen earlier with the mass forced relocations in Greece and Turkey at the end of the First World War and would see later on a smaller scale in the Balkans.

The European experiment was meant to overcome this bitter past, but the past hangs on. In Poland, for example, the Law and Justice Party still reflects old battles.You can find similar patterns in other countries. I remain of the view that Europe will muddle through 2016, ending with some strengthening of central powers. It is less clear what will happen to Europe's soul.

Perhaps I'm wrong. What do you think?


More information is emerging about the Cologne incident. According to BBC News reports, North Rhine-Westphalia state's interior minister Ralf Jaeger has criticised
" police for not calling for reinforcements on the night, and also for the way they informed the public about the investigation in the days after the events. 
His report details how a group of around 1,000 men of North African and Arabic origin gathered on 31 December. Smaller groups formed, surrounding women, then threatening and attacking them, he said. 
These groups were predominately made up of North African men who had travelled to Cologne from different cities. 
"After the intoxication with drugs and alcohol came violence," said Mr Jaeger. "It culminated in the acting out of fantasies of sexual omnipotence. That must be severely punished."
Certain things in the emerging information make me quite uncomfortable. Just to summarise the reasons for my discomfort.

There are a number of different issues involved that to some degree are being conflated in reporting.

To suggest, as some European leaders appear to have, that women should avoid certain times or certain areas for safety reasons creates discomfort.

Leaving gender issues aside, it has always been the case that wisdom sometimes dictates caution. To use a Sydney example, I used to stay in Kings Cross when visiting Sydney because I loved the ambiance of the area including its restaurants. However, I did exercise some care, especially late at night because there were some risks to physical safety. In similar vein, there were some areas in Sydney near Newtown where walking alone at night could pose significant risks as one friend found when he was king-hit and robbed..

All that said, the idea that that women should be told to avoid areas or behaviour in Europeans cities for risk of sexual attack is discomforting. This is certainly so if applied to Cologne's main railway station on New Year's Eve.

Equally discomforting is the idea of an alcohol or drug fueled male sex mob. I had not heard of taharrush gameĆ¢, an Arabic word apparently meaning group sexual harassment in crowds, although I do remember the incidents in Cairo's Tahrir Square at the time of the Egyptian revolution. To the degree that this pathology exists, it needs to be dealt with and firmly.

Perspective is important, however. Even at a thousand, the numbers involved in Cologne were not large. There was clearly a significant policing failure. This brings me to my next area of discomfort.

Official reporting on this incident and apparently others in Europe appears to involve a degree of self-censorship, an unwillingness to record ethnicity or the culture of sub-groups even where this is directly connected with the incident in question. Again, we have seen this in Australia.

The reason for this appears to be partly a matter of political correctness, more a fear of exacerbating tension.

To my mind, it's a silly approach. Details of an incident and public responses to an incident are two very separate things and need to be dealt with separately. People generally know who is involved. If police or official media outlets don't report or massage their reports by concealing information, then it just provides ammunition to those who wish to use the incidents for their own purposes and just fuels the fears of those already frightened or angry. It's generally best to report accurately and fully, dealing with the consequences as a second issue.

Postscript 2

In comments, Ramana pointed me to this Huffington Post story (Mass Sexual Assaults in Germany and the Liberal Dilemma) which he agreed with. I also agree. Regardless of your position, there is always a dilemma in saying things that might provide ammunition to those who disagree with you on other matters that you consider to be important. He also pointed to this story on taharrush

kvd referenced this story as interesting but without comment on the content: The West is losing the battle for the heart of Europe.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Benchmarking 2015 writing and blog performance

I used to monitor my web stats quite closely, then found that I was spending just too much time navel gazing without productive results so gave up. However, this year it seemed sensible to do a stocktake to provide a benchmark for 2016.

Over 2015, I posted 346 times across my blogs compared to 344 in 2014. The decline was relatively greater on the New England blogs. In 2015 there were also 42 History Revisited columns compared to 45 the year before. 

Because I republish the columns on my history blog, the post stats include the History Revisited columns. This means that you cannot simple add them to get a total output figure, although re-posting actually takes a fair bit of time in part because I have to re-source the supporting images. 

In addition to the column and post, I also tweet and maintain three Facebook pages, one private and two public. This takes time too, and I'm not sure of value, although FB and twitter do feed into blog traffic. I have been experimenting with all this to try to get the best mix. 

Audience reach across the various platforms is difficult to measure precisely. Reflecting lower posting as well as variations in Google tracking and search algorithms, 2015 traffic was down. However, for benchmarking purposes:
  • Total page views as recorded by Google on the three main blogs in 2015 was 252,332 broken up as follows 158,681 Personal Reflections, 64,486 New England Australia, 29,166 New England History
  • The claimed circulation for the weekly Armidale Express Extra in which the column appears is 12,588. I have no idea how many people actually read it, although feedback from the paper or direct to me suggests a fair number especially in the older and more strongly local demographic.
  • Then there are the public FB pages (419 members/likes) and Twitter (209 followers)
There are other ways of looking at or presenting the data. Here I am conscious of other patterns. But this basic analysis is sufficient for my purposes. 

I sometimes wonder if all this activity makes me a busy fool. Obviously I enjoy the writing and the interaction that follows, but it also makes progress on some of my main writing targets slower. The lags here are considerable. For example, the two chapters in Came to New England that formed my main print output in 2014 were completed in 2013, over twelve months before publication. There was no equivalent output in 2015, although I did have a 120,000 word working draft of Belshaw's World completed by year end.This should come out in 2016 to be followed (hopefully) by New England Travels in 2017 and the main history of New England the following year. 

One feature of the last eighteen months has been the increasing number of people interested in the use of the blogs as platforms for their own purposes. This is important to me, for my various platforms are central to my objective of generating sufficient income from writing/publishing to make that my primary income source. We will see how I go in 2016!   .    
Turning finally to this blog, as stated earlier, the Google stats show 158, 681 page views over 2015. There are some issues with Google counts, but difficulties with my other counters now make them the most reliable information that I have. I still use the other sites for checking certain patterns.  

Looking just at 2015 posts, over the last twelve months twelve 2015 posts recorded more than 300 page views. This does not include those who visit the site on a regular basis and therefore come straight to the front page. Ranked by order they were:   
The number of Monday Forum posts included is interesting and has to be linked primarily to the titles. Hopefully visitors actually read the comments sections. That's where the greatest value lies!  

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - reviewing Looking for Grace: interesting but flawed

Running over January and February, the St George Open Air Cinema has become something of a Sydney institution. The reasons aren't hard to find.

The Cinema's location in the Domain overlooking the city is a beautiful venue. Gates open at 6.30, but the film cannot be shown until dark, so people eat and drink in the meantime, taking advantage of the view to turn it into a real night out.

Construction of the Cinema is a major undertaking in its own right. The huge screen is mounted on pylons in the harbour along with all the mechanicals required to raise it as darkness sets. The tiered open air auditorium seating 2,000 has to be built, as do all the food and bar areas. Then, at the end of the season, it all has to be dismantled and the site returned to its original condition. The whole process is large scale and expensive. You can see why ticket prices have to be high!

I hadn't been to the Cinema in some time, but last night a ticket became available. By chance, it turned out to be the opening night of the 2016 season and also the Sydney premiere of the new Australian film Looking for Grace. I had noticed the cordoned area with its red carpet at the waterside, but hadn't thought about it until there was a rush of people to take photographs. Needless to say, I joined the throng.

 Looking for Grace takes the form of a series of interconnected stories.

The starting story, Grace’s story, introduces Grace (Odessa Young)  and her friend (Kenya Pearson) who have, it appears, run away from home to go to a rock concert. However, there is more to it than that.

In her introduction to the film just before screening, Director Sue Brooks told the audience that we should work through this scene. I can see why she did this and will explain why later.  However, it was an error. She would have been far better off briefly explaining the structure of the film, helping us to understand.

The film then switches to the respective stories of Grace's parents,  Denise (Rahda Mitchell) and Dan (Richard Roxburgh). The next shot shows them both at the premiere.See what I mean by the beauty of the location?

Both Mitchell and Roxburgh are considerable talents with substantial cinema records. Mitchell is also very sexy (am I allowed to say that today?), more so than you would think from her portrayal in this role where the setting required her to focus on the domestic.

I think that Mtchell's performance was better than Roxburgh's. This is not a criticism of his acting ability, rather that Sue Brooks as both writer and director miscalculated and especially in the potential adultery scene where Roxburgh's portrayal did not quite ring true. Indeed, there were several places in the movie where the detail in the plot lines just didn't come off. A director has to be very focused and disciplined. That's hard where the director is also the writer. How do you as director say to you as writer this isn't quite working? Or vice verca?

There were two more sub stories, one involving Terry Norris as the private detective, a second and short one involving Bruce (Myles Pollard), a truck driver. The second was necessary for the plot, but I'm not sure about the first. Before giving a summing up, here is another cast photo.

Writing in Variety, Guy Lodge was critical of aspects of the film while also recognising some of the strengths. He focused on the ennui of down-under life.There are elements here that I need to think about before responding properly, elements best summarised (and this is a very Australian comment) by the distant sounds of a crow's caw on a quiet morning with its remoteness and loneliness. There are also elements that I just thought were too stretched, that brought me out of that suspension of disbelief necessary for full enjoyment. This wasn't helped by the fact that the narrow gaps between the rows were making my legs and especially my knees hurt.

Given this, should you see the film if you get a choices? Yes, you should. I think that it might become a minor Australian classic as much for its weaknesses as its strengths.  It's an interesting film. .