Thursday, August 30, 2018

Why everyone can (and should be) a writer

Back in Armidale on a visit, I went down to the Newie (Armidale’s New England Hotel) for a Friday night drink with Uncle Ron and some of his country mates.

The stories flowed, some of them very entertaining indeed.

“Why don’t you write them down”, I said. Everybody suddenly got very self-conscious. “We’re not writers”, they said. This is a not unusual reaction. The problem, I think, is that we have mystified writers and writing, turning it from a simple process into a capitalised art form. This is compounded by school experiences that have taught us not that we should write but that we must write in a particular way, that focus on the mistakes we make in writing.

I am not being critical when I say this, nor am I downplaying the importance of grammar and spelling. Schools need to teach people to read and write effectively, to communicate in a variety of ways. However, I am concerned when school experiences create a barrier that stops people doing things. The reality is, as our politicians would say, that most people write and are therefore writers. In fact, with the internet, I think that there is more writing (and writers) now than at any previous time in human history.

To illustrate.There has been a proliferation of special interest groups across the internet. On Facebook, for example, the Armidale Families Past and Present group has 2,246 members.Not everybody contributes, but hundreds do, exchanging reminiscences and information in threads that can run for pages. Some members of the group had to leave school at twelve, others rebelled at formal schooling. In this friendly, supportive atmosphere, nobody critiques spelling or grammar. What is important is what is said, not how it is said.

We also live in the age of the family historian as more and more seek to discover details of their past. Many are older, seeking to preserve family details for their own interest and in the hope that what they discover will be of interest to younger generations when they choose to become interested. All these people write and are, by definition, writers.

At this point I need to plead a special interest. As a regional historian, all these things are
gold to me. They stimulate me, they tell me about the past and provide the evidence I need
for my own writing.

I don’t think people realise just how important their own stories are. I also think they don’t fully understand just how good some of their writing is. A turn of phrase, an interesting anecdote, grabs my attention and cause me to chortle with laughter. This can be dangerous in the evening if I have just taken a sip of wine! So I wish to encourage all writers and writing regardless.
I am sometimes asked how people might improve their writing. I have one simple

Keep a pen and notepad. This needs to be small enough to fit in you bag or pocket. Date each page and jot down things that are important to you from shopping lists to turns of phrase to random thoughts.

The audience is yourself. You will be surprised as you look back at how much you remember, at the increasing value of those notebooks.

This piece appeared in the August edition of the New England Writers' Centre newsletter, The New England Muse.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Monday Forum - as you will

I found last week's events in Canberra distracting to the point that they reduced my productivity to close to zero. The live reporting format adopted from blogging allows one to follow events in real time. I found myself switching between the ABC and Guardian with sometimes crosses to TV for statements and press conferences.

The pay wall prevented me following the newcorp stable; here I relied on the twitter or FB feeds from the more indefatigable right wing followers who breathlessly reported every utterance as though it were fact. Initially some of that reporting was quite weird, the press as players, but as the hours went on the whole affair became increasingly weird in its own right.

I did do some statistical analysis on those who voted for Mr Dutton in the first round to try to clarify the contusions in expressed in my previous post, What a circus! Mr Dutton et al and my own confusions  I have to look at this in more detail, but a couple of things that stood out were the:
  • relative importance of the Senate (11 out of 35 votes). I guess its easier to be an ideologue because your position depends primarily on votes within the party, although that's not true of the Nats. 
  • the relative concentration of votes in the smaller States - 3 Tasmania, 3 SA, 1 ACT and 6 WA. This compares to 11 in Queensland, you would expect this, 6 in Victoria and just 4 in NSW. The WA vote is instructive when we come to think of Julie Bishop's results. 
I imagine that we are all talked out on the leadership turmoil although further comments always welcome! Instead, a challenge. What are some of the stories (not here!) that you have most enjoyed or have most inspired you. I am thinking of news stories, but you can cite books or anything you like!

Update One 30 August 2018

kvd pointed me to this piece in Medium by Meghan Daum, Nuance: A Love Story (24 August 2018). It's a beautifully written piece, although I have to confess I did not know who most of the people were that she referred too!

Meantime in here in Australia, the resignation of Liberal Party MP Julia Banks as a consequence of alleged bullying by members of her party during the recent leadership spill continues the pressure on the new government.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

What a circus! Mr Dutton et al and my own confusions

What a circus! I refer to this morning's events in Canberra when in the face of a leadership threat from now former Minister Peter Dutton, Prime Minister Turnbull called for a leadership spill, thus vacating the Prime Ministerial position as well as that of Deputy Leader of the Liberal party.

The resulting Liberal Party room vote saw the Prime Minister returned as Liberal leader and hence Prime Minister with 48 votes compared to 35 for Mr Dutton. Foreign Minister was the only nomination for the Deputy Leader position and hence was returned unopposed. The vote only involved Liberal Party members. The National Party's leadership including the Deputy Prime Minister were not affected. The size of the vote for Mr Dutton left many speculating on when the next challenge would come.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's  political reporter Jackson Gothe-Snape has a useful short summary of the events leading up to the vote which in many ways came out of the blue, although there had been rumblings.Since the vote, the ether has been saturated with prognostication about the meaning of it all, focused on the question of whether the Prime Minister can in fact survive.

I want to leave that aside, focusing instead on a few things I do not understand.The issues were already fresh in my mind because of a longer piece I have been writing on Senator Fraser Anning's maiden speech. I hope to bring this up Sunday. For the moment, some immediate comments.

I note that my views don't matter. Things will happen as they happen. I am simply seeking to understand.

Mr Dutton

When I first heard that Mr Dutton might mount a challenge, I was incredulous. He is a polarising figure in Australian politics. This began prior to his appointment to the Immigration later Home Affairs portfolios, but accelerated in those roles. He is, I think, the least liked even hated political national figure measured by on-line chatter and commentary. The general consensus expressed before and repeated now is that he might help hold up the Liberal National Party vote in Queensland but would lose elsewhere.

In contrast, Mr Dutton asserts that he ran because he had a better chance of winning than Mr Turnbull, a view that seems to to be shared to some degree at least by 35 of his colleagues. So we have a huge dichotomy between the popular view and that held by Mr Dutton and at least some in the Liberal Party. So what might form the base for such a view?

Australia is a large disparate country with growing divides that reflect history, culture and economic and demographic changes There are considerable and I think growing regional variations. Mr Dutton is a more effective campaigner than Mr Turnbull. Those most opposed to him do not vote Coalition anyway and can be ignored. For the rest, Mr Dutton is more likely to preserve the base from the challenges posed by the proliferating minor parties while attracting votes in at least some marginal seats where issues such as immigration, power prices and services are of particular importance.

The softer, kinder, Mr Dutton who suddenly emerged following his defeated challenge is does seem to be heading in this direction. I'm not sure that it could work, but it is an explanation that at least makes a certain sense.

Liberal Party Ideology, Power and Factions

I'm not sure that I properly understand just how the Liberal Party works. Perhaps I never have. It's never been an especially ideological party, more interested in power, something that has contributed to sometimes instability. It's always been a centrist party with a socially conservative or status quo wing that has varied in power. In many ways, the Party and its predecessors have defined themselves in opposition to Labor. However, it has had a core of values that provided continuity.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the Liberal Party has become very confused, that it has been taken over by ideologues who in many ways are in conflict with the Party's traditional ethos. Some in the Liberal Party complain about its shift to the left, suggesting that it is abandoning its traditional conservative base. My difficulty is that I don't know what this means.

There appears to me, and this is something I will explore in my Fraser Anning piece, to be a fundamental conflict within what people are calling the "right" between the neoconservatives, the libertarians, the traditionalists and the populists. This is exactly reflected in the Liberal Party. The Party appears to be struggling to span the divide, to find a way to cover the rifts, to respond to the forces that it has itself helped to create. The result is a lack of coherence, indeed of conflict, in values, ideas and policy. Mr Dutton appears to reflect this.

I am not saying Labor is necessarily better, although that's another story. I am saying that I don't understand the Liberal Party any more, that I don't know what the Party stands for, that I simply can't predict what might happen. I guess that it's just a question of going with the flow.  


Monday, August 13, 2018

The story behind that 1976 Queanbeyan $100,000 Yowie reward

It was a FB comment from eldest that alerted me. Suddenly I found myself staring at myself in an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) repeat of a  1976 This Day Tonight program on the search for a Yowie. For the benefit of those outside Australia, a Yowie is the Australian equivalent of a Yeti.

This was the most successful publicity stunt I have ever been involved in by many country miles. It began simply and innocently enough.  I was chair of the Queanbeyan Festival. With the festival coming up, we were looking for ways of attracting publicity.

The Queanbeyan Age had just carried a story on Rex Gilroy's search for the the Yowie. "Why don't we offer  a reward for the capture of a Yowie" someone suggested? "That should grab some attention.".

We needed  attention. Queanbeyan lies just across the NSW border from the ACT. In many ways we were a poor neighbour. Struggletown the ABC's Four Corners program had called us a few years' before. We had renamed ourselves Supercity - you have left the ACT, welcome to reality, some of our festival signs said - but it was a struggle getting Canberra people to be aware and actually come to Queanbeyan events.

The idea grabbed. "Let's offer a million dollar reward!" I was cautious. Nobody would believe that we could pay that amount of money. We needed a sum large enough to grab attention, but small enough that people might just believe it to be credible. In the end, we settled on $100,000.

Rob Wall, our secretary, and I drafted the press release. Since Monday was often a soft news day, we decided to release the story on Sunday night to try to capture Monday attention. With the release printed off,  we drove into Canberra to distribute it to the press boxes at what is now Old Parliament House.We couldn't do this now. But then there was no rigid security, while I knew the place well because of my community, work and political involvements. All you had to do was to walk in looking as though you knew what you were doing and the attendants would ignore you.

Monday morning all hell broke loose. Rob rang me early in a bit of a panic to say that it was all over Canberra talk back radio AND that someone had rung in saying that they had captured a Yowie and wanted to know how to claim the reward! I hastily dressed and headed to work. By 10 it was clear that we had a major story with both ABC and commercial TV flying crews in from Sydney.

ABC interviewed me outside the Treasury at lunchtime. I asked them not to identify my department since this was a community matter. Silly boy. They did not name my department, I was a called Canberra public servant, but the camera pans made Treasury clear.

It was very important that I not laugh. They knew that it was a stunt, I had no idea what other material they might have, but I needed to appear reasonably serious,. At the end of the interview, the reporter said that's the end but we just want to get a few camera shots. While the camera rolled an ABC crewman jumped up and down off screen waving his arms and making faces to try to break me up. I adopted a passive face staring straight at the camera.

Back to work, I fielded more radio talk back calls. Fortunately, I had my own office. I remember the tea lady coming in when I was chatting over Toowoomba radio. She looked at me strangely. I just gave her a token and pointed at my desk while I talked. At 6.30 back at Parliament House I did my last interview for Radio Australia.

Tuesday it was all over, the story was dead. That Monday remains one of the strangest days in my experience. Still, we did get our publicity!