Friday, January 15, 2021

Writer's Block


A weight on my shoulders

I have rarely suffered from writer's block. More normally, I have the opposite problem, too many ideas chasing to little time. Yet now I struggle to write anything really productive. The ideas and words won't flow.

I know that part of the problem is that I'm over-extended, a perennial problem that I can normally manage to some degree at least. It's partly that I have been pushing too hard, building frustration with myself. But beyond these two things lies a simple fact, my reading has collapsed. 

I don't know about you, but many of my ideas and some of my language comes from others. I pick up some ideas through personal interaction, more through books. 

Inevitably, a fair proportion of my reading is professional. Most recently, this has been strongly connected with my main history project, the history of New England, something I will write about on my history blog in my part completed annual review. This reading feeds into the community activities I have added since I returned to Armidale. I value these, I have objectives to achieve, but they do take time.

The reading outside that I have to do is the area of collapse. I used to read widely in what I call my train reading. This began with a conscious effort to pick books at random off my shelves that I had not read to read on the train. There were two rules: I had to finish the book and then write something about it. I found it very stimulating, forcing me in new directions. 

Many of the books were much older, some now 150 years old. I am not talking "classics" here, although some were. Rather, they were a varied range often inherited from my father or grandfather, most now long disposed of in the skips used by libraries to clear books considered as irrelevant or out of date. As I read the memoirs of a long dead foreign correspondent or a pioneering study of the classical world or an analysis of Chinese history, I absorbed "new" old ideas as well as new ways of writing. English style changes, but change does not always mean improvement. 

In truth, my train reading declined after I stopped travelling to Parramatta. It is one thing to read stuck on a train or bus, a second to allocate time in the morning or afternoon to read things not relevant to one's immediate concerns. Then the thought that you should really be doing other, more "relevant" things, constantly intrudes. However, I did retain other reading for a period. Most recently, that has dropped too, as have my general writing notes.   

I need to address this. Sitting in front of a computer trying to research and especially write when neither ideas or words will flow is not especially helpful. After a point, it becomes totally unproductive. Somehow I have to re-learn just how to read for pleasure without specific objective no matter what else I should be doing! 



Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Trump, fear, hate, love and the need for objectivity in US politics

Nancy Pelosi. To my mind, she has become part of the US problem, impeding a US solution. 

Like many Australians, I watched events unfold at the US Capitol Building with a degree of distress. Like many Australians, I felt that President Trump had gone totally off the rails. All that said, I think that the Democratic Party is in danger of doing the same. that many who oppose President Trump and his objections are doing so blindly, allowing emotion to overcome objective analysis and that we will all be poorer as a consequence.  

Some 75 million Americans voted for President Trump. He has used his marketing skills and showmanship, his understanding of the many Americans who feel disenfranchised, to develop a loyal supporter base that spans from decent Republicans through independents and even Democrats, to right wing conspiracy theorists. As many have pointed out, President Trump is a symbol of a divided America, an America in which many feel betrayed by the American system. 

Alone in his White House bunker with encircling enemies, President Trump lost all sense of tactics, let alone strategy. He kept trying to pull the levers of power even though they were becoming increasingly disconnected, even as his closest aides were distancing themselves. As recently as four weeks ago I thought that he had a path through not to retention of the presidency but to retention of influence and protection of his commercial assets. It was not a path I would have chosen, but as an analyst I could see ways in which it might work.  

His remarks and consequent Capitol riots have destroyed that path. It left a country further divided, fearful.The key need in these circumstances was unification, the calming of emotions. Instead, President Trump's opponents have resorted to emotional language driven by payback and a get Trump mentality playing on the fear of what right wing fringe groups might do that has further divided the nation.  

One common thread in all this is that Trump brought US democracy and the US system of government to its knees. I have a very different view, This episode has actually demonstrated the strength of US democracy. President Trump used every one of the diminishing levers at his disposal to try to overturn the results and failed.

The move by Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats to try to impeach the President strikes me as very unwise. The previous attempt failed and was early recognised as certain to fail. In that sense, it was a symbolic gesture whose political purpose was to wound the President. It failed there too. 

Now in the last eight days of the Trump presidency, we have another Pelosi political gesture in impeachment which adds to the theatre of it all but whose practical results are quite uncertain.  It does play to the Democratic political base, but equally it plays to the underlying Trump narrative that everybody is out to get him, that he and his supporters are being robbed. In doing so, it does increase the risk that some Trump supporters may take matters into their own hands. 

For the moment in all this I am just keeping my fingers crossed that we get through to the Biden administration with minimum trouble. Then we can look at new things.    


Monday, January 04, 2021

Reflections on the passage of time - deaths of Mungo MacCallum and Doug Anthony

Talking to people and in on-line discussions, the major reaction to the new year has been one of relief that 2020 has finished. It has indeed been a dog's breakfast of a year! I may try to write something in detail later. For the moment, some random observations in another matter. 

Hotel Wellington, Canberra 1970. Photo Noel Butlin Archives. Prior to the opening of the National Press Club in 1976, the Wellington was one place where journalists, ministerial staff and public servants gathered to drink on a Friday afternoon   

The inexorable passage of time means that events once fresh in our minds, formative periods in our lives, fade. Then something happens to bring at least the emotions and textures alive once more.  

Two such were the deaths of Mungo MacCallum and Doug Anthony, bringing alive a particular slice of Canberra in the 1970s.  

Mungo's death has been well covered in the Australian media. This ABC piece provides a general overview of his life, the Echonetdaily piece provides a picture of his life after he moved to Ocean Shores. 

I did not really know Mungo, although I knew about his family connections with the eccentric Wentworth's, This post, 1923: Classical Greek in the New England countryside, will give you a little taste of that family. However, we did coincide at drinks.   

Canberra was a very small place in the 1970s, a gold fish bowl in which everybody knew or at least knew of everybody else. It was also a remarkably discreet place, at least so far as personal matters were concerned. The sometimes prurient reporting on personal lives that we know today still lay in the future.  

I was working in Treasury at the time and sometimes used to drink at the Hotel Wellington on a Friday afternoon. The front press bar there with its walls covered by copies of past news stories was a favourite watering hole for journalists, staffers and the younger public servants including those from Treasury. Mungo was often found there or later at the Press Club after it opened. 

My memory is of a tall, slightly stooped figure with a bushy if some what straggly beard. Casually dressed, sometimes wearing sandals, he would expound on the world and political events in a barrage of words and hand gestures. I liked him and found him interesting but rarely joined in, partly because of shyness, more because I had different interests and views. 

I knew Doug Anthony rather better. At the time I was heavily involved with the Country Party as a party official and pre-selection candidate, I was also involved in attempts to give the party new directions through bodies such as the McEwen House Group. For several years during the Whitlam period, a number of us gathered in Doug's office on budget night to analyse the budget and provide Doug for talking points in response. 

I said that Canberra was a much smaller place. It also lacked much of the security paraphernalia you find today. This allowed us to come into Parliament House (now the Old Parliament House) all the time. Technically, the attendants should have stopped us, but so long as you looked as if you knew where you were going, were walking with purpose, nobody objected. 

This access plus our knowledge of the Press Gallery was central to the most successful stunt I ever pulled, something I wrote about in  The story behind that 1976 Queanbeyan $100,000 Yowie reward

Upon reflection, Doug was pretty tolerant. One issue at the time was whether or not the Country Party should re-enter into coalition with the Liberals. Our view was no, because we saw this as an opportunity for the Party to continue to rebuild its separate identity. Here there has long been a divide between those whose primary focus lies in blocking Labor as compared to those who believe that the Party must maintain a clear separate identity and adhere to its traditions if it is to deliver for its constituents.   

Doug's view was that coalition was necessary. We prepared a counter case, copied it in Doug's office and distributed it to all Country Party Parliamentarians. It had little impact, but the point is that we could do it and were not reprimanded or disciplined in any way.

I found Doug personally charming, open to new ideas, someone I could follow.  I am not alone in that view.  Reflections on his death across the political spectrum show respect and liking. 


 As an aside, I am sad that I threw out or lost in moves the material relating to this period. I think that it would now be an interesting historical record.