Monday, July 22, 2013

An open letter to Kevin Rudd

Dear Mr Rudd,

It was good to see you over the weekend, or at least, good to see you on the TV. I don't attend church much these days, so I was always unlikely to run into you there, but I did catch a bit of footage of you patting your minister on the arm and sharing a joke of some kind as you went into the House of God. And I have to say, you looked ever so relaxed and happy, with your cable-knit over your shoulders like a Hilfiger model. And you had every right to be relaxed - it was a beautiful day, you were amongst friends who were almost certainly telling you what a great job you were doing, and I'm sure that you and Therese had a lovely traditional lamb roast lunch planned for afterward. Aren't clear Australian winter days just the best? How lucky are we to live here? But I'm sure you know that.

I can imagine your other reason for looking so relaxed is the knowledge that pretty soon you won't have to worry about losing the job you've taken back after you lost it the first time. I know how much it hurt to lose your job like that – the wobbling chin was a dead giveaway. So of course you did the only decent thing a visionary such as yourself could do: rather than acknowledge that people couldn't work with a micro-manager as ill-tempered as yourself who liked to speak grandly of our most important challenges without doing anything about them, and thereafter throwing your considerable talents behind the elected leader of your party, you took every possible opportunity to white-ant her. Of course I take your point that it was for the good of the party and the country, although I can't help wondering (forgive me for thinking out loud here) that your nemesis' – sorry, democratically elected leader – might have been better able to focus on policy and earning recognition for the hundreds of pieces of legislation she managed to steer through hostile parliamentary waters, rather than having to fight on several fronts. But that would have hurt even more, I guess, if she'd actually been recognised as an effective PM rather than a dead duck. Not that you could have done much about that as foreign minister. Oh, wait, my mistake – there was quite a bit you could have done as a senior front-bencher with such peerless oratory gifts. But that's all water under the bridge now, I suppose.

Oh yes, you certainly had your eye on the prize, and for that I must give you credit. You established what your goal was, then you stopped at nothing until you achieved it. After all, some things are more important than others, aren't they, and when you see regaining the leadership at the expense of your own party as your most important personal challenge, you go for it. So yay you! We Aussies like a battler. (Not if they're a red-headed female battler with a big bum and a voice like a dentist's drill, obviously, but your kind of battler. You know, the kinds of people who have survived Kokoda and been interrogated by David Koch.)

I've got to give you a gold star for something else, Kevin. You said that you've learned a lot from your time 'out in the cold', and I believe you. After all, you seem to have learned that you can't fight on too many fronts at once, which is why you've introduced party rules to make sure that the next upstart Labor MP with the audacity to suggest that your posturing, bullying and policy capitulation is incompatible with your high office will be slapped down with a copy of the ALP Constitution. In other words, you're leader until you decide you don't want to be any more. Now that you're in. Because the first time it happened hurt just too damn much, and no one should have to go through what you went through, right?

And speaking of pain, I applaud the perfectly reasonable plea you made to the Lower House the day after you phoned for Julia's taxi. You remember the speech, where you suggested that politicians try be more gentle with one another? I had the TV turned down quite low at the time, but I'm certain I heard you say, right at the end, 'Starting … now.'

You know who else implored us to be a little more gentle with one another? Jesus. You know, the guy from the church. He also said something about taking in the weary and the needy and the oppressed and the hungry, if I remember correctly, although it's been a while since I was in church, whereas you were there on the weekend.

Look, I know you're going to claim that you just want people to stop getting in those boats because when they do, they drown. You might have a point, but it's not a terribly good one. Unless it's just me – I mean, I found myself agreeing with Paul Sheehan this morning, so maybe it's me who's lost his marbles. All I know is that a long time ago I used to wear a wrist band with WWJD inscribed on it. (The 'J' is for 'Jesus', by the way.) And I'm very confident that of all the things Jesus might do, announcing a policy like yours would not appear on the list.

You know what else Jesus would do if he were living in Australia right now? Refuse to sing the second verse of our national anthem. I'm sure you know it – it's the verse that talks about people coming across the sea, and how we have boundless plains to share. I reckon Jesus might have a bit of an issue with the disingenuity of that one. What do you think?

Oh, it's very complicated, I know. No one's suggesting it's not, Kevin. Besides, there's the very real possibility that you could effectively use this hardline policy to blunt Abbott's 'stop the boats' mantra, and thereby get yourself another three years as PM. And if you do, then maybe you'll be in a position to review and soften that policy. Except we all know what happens when a Labor PM says they'll do one thing but then does another, or says they won't do something, then goes ahead and does it after the political circumstances change. Like Julia Gillard saying we'd never have a GST under any government she led. Wait, that was someone else – hers was the carbon tax. But you take my point, I'm sure.

Look, please don't get me wrong. I sincerely hope you give Mr Abbott the mother of all canings when election day arrives. I want to see his lip quivering as he realises that it wasn't enough to just be constantly negative without outlining any alternatives. But that doesn't mean I'll ever like you, Kevin. In my opinion such an eventuality would hinge on exactly the same reasons as your win back in '07 – elected not so much for who you are than for who you're not. Heaven help you if Malcolm Turnbull decides to roll his leader.

Anyway, I should leave it there, since it's time for lunch. I think I'll stroll down to the shops and use that  walking time to decide what I'll get. So much choice! Do I want sushi, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, some pasta or a pizza, maybe a gozleme or a pide, perhaps a curry. But most likely that great Aussie dish, the kebab, which is really just a lamb sanga, after all. Can I get you anything while I'm there?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Writing quote XVI

I want to do a piece where I go to the Alps and talk to a mountain. The mountain will talk of things which are necessary and always true, and I shall talk of things which are sometimes, accidentally true.  

(Bas Jan Ader, Dutch performance and conceptual artist)

Ader’s body of work is not large in volume – a few photographs, a handful of short films – but to many in the artistic community his work is considered profound, especially when one looks at his personal story and his deep grief around the death of his father, wh
o was executed by the Nazis for harbouring Jews when Ader was a very young child.

When Ader was 33 years old, he packed a tiny sailing boat with a few supplies and set out to sail solo from Cape Cod to the other side of the Atlantic. Ten months later his yacht was found drifting, but his body was never recovered, leading to speculation: did he fall victim to his own harebrained scheme, was he literally on a suicide mission, or did he simply expect to probably fail, thus turning his final voyage into his ultimate piece of performance art?

I thought of Ader when I was watching German Wanderlust, a BBC2 documentary by Julia Bradbury. In it, she visits one of Ludwig II’s hunting lodges near Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. The proprietor of the place, which stands in the shadow of a great mountain, owns a number of old photographs of the lodge taken in the time of Ludwig. Showing her one, he says, with typically Teutonic dryness, ‘This is the house - you’ve seen it [as you were] coming up. It’s quite different now, because the roof is very different.’ Then he points at the mountain in the photograph. ‘[But this] is the same mountain, because mountains don’t change every two hundred years.”

The natural world isn’t permanent – we know this all too well. But some aspects of it change more slowly than others. Under most circumstances, a snowflake is far more delicate than a tree. Glaciers are slow but measurable, the ocean permanent but far from still. But significant geological formations like mountains are perhaps more permanent – more solid, if you like – than pretty much anything else in the natural physical world.

To Ader, the Alps offered solid emotional and philosophical grounding that spoke of permanence. He needed to hear that, to be reminded that there are truths beyond what we understand. His contribution to this conversation would be one of subjectivity, humility and accidental enlightenment. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Writing Quote XV

It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer. Those who do not do this remain amateurs.

Gerald Brenan (British author and historian)

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? I can’t tell you how many times people, on learning what I do, have said, ‘Oh, I’d love to write a book!’ To which the obvious, if not slightly antagonistic response would be, ‘Would you like me to lend you a pencil?’

What we writers do is a seductive proposition. At its core, our lot is to tell stories – lies, even – for a living. We get to make things up, say what we think, research topics that interest us, create worlds, play God for a season, discover wonders we might never have discovered otherwise. And at the end of that, the fortunate amongst us see our work produced and handed over to an audience, at which point the tight shoulders and long nights and innumerable cups of coffee are magically forgotten. Yes indeed, it’s a very seductive proposition.

But it doesn’t come easily. It very rarely happens by accident. Like anything that’s worth having, it takes serious work to acquire and maintain.

There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur. After all, an amateur has something no professional has – the option of walking away when it gets too hard.

So, which are you?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Writing quote XIV

I have a critical nature, in the sense that when I look at something I often look for the flaws. 

Donald Fagen 

At first glance, this quote might suggest that Donald Fagen is a negative person, and perhaps he is – I’ve never met him. What I do know is that I love his music, and the music he's made over the years with Walter Becker, under the name Steely Dan.

In one sense, when he speaks of looking for flaws, Fagen could be speaking about the idea that comes up all the time in any art-form – that without pain, or flaws, or loss, or imperfection, there is no art. A perfect relationship offers very little to sing about, unlike a broken heart. 

However, I think I prefer to look at this quote as a reflection on the way a raw idea is turned into a rough representation then, after close attention to the flaws, it reaches a state approaching perfection. Anyone who has ever listened to a Steely Dan song or any of Donald Fagen’s solo work will immediately recognise the attention to detail. Even if the kind of music Fagen writes and performs isn’t quite your bag, what's indisputable is that he values perfection as much as if not more than any other single element. Whether he’s looking for the perfect production, the perfect chord, or the perfect phrasing, he’s always looking. Steely Dan concerts are renowned for the quality of the mix, and I’m sure it’s because Fagen would settle for nothing less. Famously, on the classic 1977 album Aja, finding just the right drummer for each track was such a priority that six different drummers were employed on seven tracks.

The editing process isn’t a single step. It’s a long process, where you get to the end, then turn back to the first page and begin again. Over and over, looking at structure this time, consistency of voice the next, a particular character after that, then how that has affected structure. Yes, by all means we should strive for perfection, but as well as admiring the greater shape and form, we shoudn't forget to look for the flaws.