Category Archives: Essay

The Space Invader and the Mud Lotus, Teresa Peni

 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

When did my midlife crisis begin? Before the tears on the tiny plane, or the farewell party? Wait, no—let’s go back a bit—maybe the painful arrows and the street battle. Okay ‘battle’ is a slight overstatement. It might have been the moment my husband brought me in a breakfast tray.

He must have wanted my ‘company’. There was even a red rose in a champagne flute, which did make the breakfast look very pretty. Too bad his timing was off. I was mid-paragraph into the fresh ideas of my hero, Pacific scholar Prof Epeli Hau’ofa.i It was not time for sex, oh no, no, nooo. It was time to get angry, get organised, and save sinking Polynesia from climate change or being nuked by Kim Jong-un. The coffee was good though, he got that right. When he flopped into bed beside me I dipped the croissant into jam, turned a page, and kept reading.

He sighed, presumably about my lack of attention, and picked up a random book from the bedside table.

‘Are you going to keep wiggling that foot?’ It was vibrating back and forth as he read, making the bed wobble.

The foot stopped.

‘I might go play guitar,’ he said, strutting off. He wasn’t getting any action in here. The house was still; the kids were no doubt lazing in their beds, hooked up to YouTube. I heard the crackle and buzz of the amp being switched on, down the hall. But it wasn’t that which threatened my serene ladyspace, it was the anthropologist, author, artist, agitator, legend, Hau’ofa, that had got me all riled up.

A walk would do me good. I squeezed into my spandex tights, laced the Adidas, and cranked some electronica into my earpods to fuel my turn around the harbour.

Wind disturbed the mangroves and a black cormorant dove under the ruffled water surface. It reappeared with a tiny silver fish slung from its beak.

I mused and fumed over Epeli’s words as I strolled along. About how the Pacific Ocean, lapping almost everywhere on the planet—even right here at my feet in Sydney—was peppered with awesome Polynesian explorers for millennia before those pesky nineteenth-century colonisers arrived, divided, and dominated the vast Polynesian network—some, my motley ancestors. They carved it up with their invisible imperial boundaries into ‘tiny, needy bits,’ to be developed.ii They didn’t appreciate the wholeness of the Pacific Ocean; it was to them, the middle of bloody nowhere.

Hole in the doughnut,’ is how they saw us, warned Epeli; ‘If we do not exist for others, then we could in fact be dispensable.’iii It was as though the sea connection was worthless.

A man was jogging along toward me. Instead of staying on his side of the track, he made a sudden 180-degree turn. He jogged across my path, over my feet, as if I were invisible. He didn’t adjust his route for me one iota. A surge of outrage compelled me to curl my foot into a sneaky hook and discreetly ankle tap him as he barged through my personal space. He was quick enough to work out what was happening—adjusting his stride so he didn’t fall.

I maintained original course and bearing.

He jogged backwards, glaring at me like I blew out his birthday candles.

‘You tried to trip me!’

I death-stared him through my sunnies.

‘Watch your step,’ I said.

Jogging Man looked ready to pop a vessel.

‘You’re a bitch.’

Very slowly, I raised my two middle fingers, 1 and 2. There. You. Go. I cranked it a notch higher.

He looked me up and down with an overdone head pivot, as if his eyes couldn’t do the task themselves.

‘I hope…I hope your children get run over by a bus!’

He was seeking some part of my identity to trash. Mother, he figured.

‘Why don’t you hurry up and fuck off,’ I said.

I’m not scared of you, I thought, although I was shaking. I considered the likelihood of him thumping me—no one was around—and he was bulky. His blue eyes burned, incandescent with rage. No doubt, we both had adrenaline careening through our systems.

He stayed up in my face, trying to intimidate me, but I did not slow my step, smile, nor apologise. Do not fuck with a Maori lady when she is mad.

Then, it was as if the wind suddenly abandoned his sail; he knew words would not hurt me. He performed a theatrical manscowl and ran off, huffing.

I threw the parting punch:

‘Next time watch where you’re going, cockhead.’

 

MUTATION

Later that night, back at home; all nice and calm again, I felt very bad for Jogging Man (idiot). Of course I was proud of standing my ground, but my good shoulder-angel was more harpy than usual, making me ashamed of the way I’d done it; reaching for that familiar weapon—anger—so powerful yet so terrible. I blamed it on insightful literature, poured myself another red wine and tried to forget about it.

So I wasn’t shocked when Facebook analytics, which knows us better than our own mothers do, magically delivered this video to my feed; because it had digested and diagnosed every procrastinatory rant, preach, like, and share I’d tapped out since 2005. It submitted its sum total knowledge of me that night:

Transform Your Anger’ with Thich Nhat Hanh.iv

I hit [Play].

The Vietnamese Zen master is sitting in brown robes, beside a girl wearing a pink dress. She looks about ten. He’s holding up his fist to his own face and has a mean look.

‘You want to give that boy or girl a punch.’

Sprung bad, I thought.

He smiles as he jabs the air around his head. She smiles back.

‘Punish him or her. That is the anger in us… that anger is a kind of mud, it will smear everything.’

He’s got a strong, Vietnamese accent, so I’m grateful for the subtitles.

‘We need to be aware that the mud of anger, we must handle.’

He brings both hands together as if gripping a hefty mud marble.

‘But without the mud, you cannot grow lotus flowers.’

[Insert time-lapse video of an incredible pink lotus flower opening]

‘So the mud is useful somehow.’

The video cuts back to the monk and the girl surrounded by a luscious array of tropical flowers and candles. Cue bamboo-flute music.

‘So your anger is useful somehow, maybe you should not… let it out.’

He gently cocks his head at her. Maybe she laid into her little shit of a brother?

‘You should not throw it away. If you know how to make good use of your anger, you can grow the Lotus of Peace, of Joy, of Forgiveness. And if we look deeply, we’ll be able to understand. And when we understand, there is love. And when there is love, anger must…’

His palms open like lotus petals.

‘Transform itself.’

The girl gives a simple nod. She gets it.

I, on the other hand, was trying very hard to work out how he got from mud to love.

Google: Booktopia: ‘Thich Nhat Hahn Mud Lotus’. I pulled out my credit card and ordered his book. It was obvious I needed to stop spraying mud everywhere.

 

DIVERSITY

My street-stoush with Jogging Man was a tremor that heralded a quake. He was like a small dog that had got hold of my trouser leg. I wanted to kick the fucker off to fix the problem. But seriously, what was my problem? Was it really because he was a Pale-faced Manspreader invading my Ladyspace?

The next level of my mud quest came at me via another scholar. My two majors were, like the Pacific and the Atlantic, meeting at last. The anthropology of art was meandering into creative writing territory. We read Michael Jackson’s (yep, cool name) ethnographic-poetry, which veered away from desiccated academia. I was immediately fanboyant—more so when I discovered he came from my grandparent’s sleepy seaside town (Nelson, New Zealand), which I reckoned his poem, Making it Otherwisev was about:

 

‘… silt spread on the estuary

like a map of darkness

to be read by those

journeying toward clarity of speech.’

 

A small prophecy that held no meaning, yet—but I digress.

I was intrigued by his sweet-tempered explanation of the human condition. Apparently we are plural creatures, constantly trying to balance the seesaw between ‘our sense of what we owe others and what we owe ourselves.’ We want to be our own bosses and have all the things, AND we want to share nicely with our group, for the common good. Everyone struggles with this in a myriad of individual ways.vi

We tend to employ a bunch of simplified categories to frame our battles (for resources and ideologies). You can imagine all the variations on us/them: Raging Feminist Maori Mother Abuses Misogynist Second-Australian Fitness Addict.

Jackson agrees identity labels are helpful in getting us what we want—we should definitely study how we adopt them for good effect—marginalised people can be especially ravenous for identity.vii

Jackson says good anthropology (and writing, I presumed) will shine light onto the nitty-gritty ways we struggle with these tensions, mixed feelings, and contradictions. Nuanced description can unmask, and is more meaningful than, simplistic either/ors—when we write the life we actually live.viii

This was the kicker for me: ‘Any one person embodies the potential to be any other.’ix

Wait. What? Sounded like Jackson was saying someone can simultaneously carry the worldview of an adult and (a very needy inner) child; or exhibit the prejudices of the asshole and the victim. I am actually Maori and Irish. Goddamit, it’s possible Jogging Man was a nice guy who wasn’t wearing his glasses, just being a dick that day.

Epeli Hau’ofa soothed me, too—with his messier, oceanic view of our modern regional identity. Our diverse group—including new arrivals—were clever buggers, aye, once again regularly visiting each other, via Virgin Air; taking more than bags of cava or packets of pineapple lumps across borders. We were exchanging jobs, spreading welfare dollars, swapping sporting cups, and lovers. Epeli claimed our survival could depend upon us acting in concert to protect the Pacific Ocean (and by extension, Earth) from usurping ratbags who don’t respect it, who don’t see the real value of our epic space.x His warm voice wants to reunite criss-crossing Oceanians… who are all who love her, by being more expansive and tolerant, so we can transform ourselves: from being belittled ‘islands in the sea’, back into ‘a sea of islands’.xi

Heh. I started to like myself again. A roundhouse-kickass style had helped Oceanian women survive their dunking into the realm of nowhere. But, perhaps I could venture beyond the margins of stereotypes or monoculture; maybe morph into a more genuine creature, rather than some abstract, divided identity thrust forth in order for there to be only one winner.

 

GENETIC DRIFT

Finally, the new book arrived, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering.xii

It was really excellent timing because my spunky little grandmother had just died, unexpectedly.

Breathe, incanted the ninety-one-year-old Zen master.

Thích Nhất Hạnh knows his readers’ mud is not limited to swearing at joggers. He did not promise to deliver anyone from suffering, but would teach me how to suffer, properly. The first arrow of pain, he soothingly explained, is pain you initially feel: anger, rejection, failure, injury, separation. The death of someone you love.xiii

Mum asked me to speak at Nana’s farewell: ‘I am somewhere I have never been before: Nelson without you.’ There was a lot more in that speech; but for some reason losing Nana also meant losing the whole town and occupants.

After seven happy-sad days spent setting up and conducting Nana’s funeral street party (Photoshopped invites; TV slideshow; where to park the Portaloo? red or black serviettes?); as well as catching up with hordes of cousins and uncles (beer and burgers; cycling along the river; reminiscing Nana over G&T’s; weeping while weeding her chic garden), it was time to return home to my little family in Sydney.

But grief opens up a hole; it irritates any festering, untended wound, makes it weep. The death of a matriarch can get the pus up.

The wound, what was it?

Breathing in, I know suffering is there.

Breathing out, I say hello to my suffering.xiv

Nhất Hạnh dropped a magnificent truth bomb: the second arrow of pain. Usually self-inflicted, it may take the form of judgement: the crap we tell ourselves to make our suffering much worse.xv

I belong nowhere, throbbed the arrow in the wound.

I pined like a lonely dog, seeing Nelson disappear through the airplane porthole, the din of the twin propellers masked my whimpering. As it banked over glacial blue water whorling into the estuaries below, I started crying up in that lonely airspace and could not stop for four days. I leave my extended family, again, and again and again.

Nhất Hạnh writes: ‘Some of our ill-being comes from hurt and pain in our own life; but some has been transmitted to us by our ancestors… you are the continuation of your parents… your body and mind contain their suffering and their hopes as well as your own.’xvi

I’d moved away from serious Buddhism a few years back when it got a bit mystical in the reincarnation department, but this guy was making things clearer. Nhất Hạnh explained how my body transported the genes and stories and happenings of all the people who came before, who had made me. I carried in my cells all their luck and habits. I was just the next step in all our journeys.

Jackson’s poem, Pioneers,xvii seemed to acknowledge their presence:

 

‘I am theirs and of them and for them speak.

My hands have gone over the roofs and gullies

of their names.

These hills I love under are their doing.

I have been given what they got.

I am what they became.’

 

I was seven when my parents vamoosed New Zealand to explore the world. Economic migration—ah, exciting new opportunities!—meant three nations, six primary schools, and ten houses changed before I slumped into high school. Boring, lovely old Nelson remained my spiritual basecamp, where I clambered a concrete blue whale to see the beach. I posted Nana and Pop regular airmail about our adventures; they were my first readers, and always wrote back. Letters were all that anchored me to their silver-haired kindnesses.

I had lost my huge family and beautiful land, and I never had a choice.

Why must I keep denying the wound? I squinted through my murky grief and saw broken arrow heads deeply embedded beneath my lifted chest armour.

Mindfully breathe, lulled Nhất Hạnh, it will create space to recognise suffering energy, then embrace it, ‘like a mother taking care of a crying baby… in her arms, without judging or ignoring it… with the energy of tenderness.’xviii I hugged my wailing mud baby, just by breathing.

Stacked on Nana’s coffee table had been family albums stuffed with hundreds of photos. One in particular—transported from 1973—gave me pause. Dad was standing on the dock, before his soon-to-depart frigate, hugging two-year-old me; I’m wearing his sailor cap and looking très grumpy. I didn’t know then, what I know now; that he was serving aboard the HMAS Otago, a Royal New Zealand Navy ship sent to protest the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atol. Their military attention helped send those nuclear tests underground.

Our family line of warriors, sailors, explorers, and migrants seeking harbour stretched back through time. My uncle had shown me illustrations of the nineteenth-century tall ships that carried my great-grandmother from Ireland to New Zealand, a late arrival after the ocean-going migration waka had brought our iwi here, the Te Arawa and Ngāi Tahu Maori. I carried inside me more cheeky-sad travellers than one person could own.

How do I connect us? How do I belong?

Remove the second arrow.

Jackson, who knows something of being a bridge between art and social science, says, ‘When we don’t have power to materially change something, one power we can use is via the work of imagination, to rethink and reconstruct our reality, “undo deeds of the past,” with forgiveness’.xix

Could I revere my conflicting moods, be a breathing paradox? Notice, I imagined Jackson whispering to me, notice it all: the ancestors within me / the daughter left on the wharf / the girl torn from Aotearoa / the Oceanian who surveyed the world / the Sydney woman who battles space invaders. I am not either/ors—these are parts of a whole, spacious Sea of Me, and she has many expressions.

All this sounds a bit like the ethereal lotus.

Jackpot. Mud into love.

 
 

Works Cited

i Hau’ofa, Epeli. 2008. We Are the Ocean. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
ii Hau’ofa (p. 38)
iii Hau’ofa (p. 46)
iv ‘Transform Your Anger with Thich Nhat Hanh’, Goalcast, Facebook, accessed 1 October 2017. https://www.facebook.com/goalcast/videos/vb.897393153671209/1536207029789815/?type=2&theater
v Jackson, Michael. 1989. ‘Making It Otherwise,’ Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965-1988. John McIndoe, Dunedin. (p.27)
vi Jackson, Michael. 2011. ‘Not to Find One’s Way in a City,’ Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want. Duke University Press, Durham and London, pp.359-383. (p.375)
vii Jackson Michael, 1998. ‘Here/Now,’ Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 189-209. (p. 199-201)
viii Jackson, Michael. 2012. ‘On the Work and Writing of Ethnography.’ Between One and One Another. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp.167-214. (p.172)
ix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 208)
x Hau’ofa (p. 42)
xi Hau’ofa’s essays: ‘Our Sea of Islands,’ and ‘The Ocean in Us,’ in We Are the Ocean, express all these ideas, throughout.
xii Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2014. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Parallax Press, Berkley, California.
xiii No Mud, No Lotus (p.46)
xiv No Mud, No Lotus (p. 23)
xv No Mud, No Lotus (p.47-48)
xvi No Mud, No Lotus (p.33)
xvii Jackson, Duty Free (p.28)
xviii No Mud, No Lotus (p. 27)
xix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 203)

 
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Planet Earth, Red Alert, Rima Martens

A woman draped in purple stands ankle deep in the shallows, and the waves break around her. It is only her body that interrupts the clean line of a sky that meets the water’s horizon. The rest of us are gathered up on the rocks. A black veil covers her head, one arm is up in the air, and her hand is something of a constant wobble. At first, my novice ears mistake her war cry for wailing.

I’m standing on Whakatane’s pebbled beach in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. It’s Waitangi Day, and a crowd has gathered to watch the Wakas[1] go out to war. Even the group of boys with gang emblemed bandanas over their faces has turned from their intimate circle. Their cool cigarettes are dropped and snuffed out with the latest air soled sneakers. Their attention shows respect.

Although Australia has Indigenous people, we do not have an equivalent to Waitangi Day. For those that share views with Tony Abbott,[2] it might be a concept a little hard to grasp. Waitangi Day celebrates the signing of a treaty between the Maori people and the white settlers. And even though Australia does not currently have an Indigenous treaty, I cannot imagine an equivalent day would be very joyful.

As we listened to the chants of rowing men and women echoing around the bay, it is incredible to know that in exactly two months the area would be flooded so severely that even evacuation centres would have to get evacuated. In April 2017, Whakatane homes filled with water two metres high, treasured letters and books were sodden, photo albums washed away and the woodcarvings of Maraen,[3] rotted.

For New Zealand this would be deemed a ‘freak’ accident: Mother Nature lashing out as she occasionally does (of course, she has lots of reasons too). However, some 3000-kilometers away, the island of Tuvalu feels these lashings a lot more fiercely and frequently.

The saying, ‘trouble in paradise’, seems a cruelly shallow way to describe the small nation, though it is fitting. If you google Tuvalu you will be met with pictures of swaying palm trees, bountiful reefs and aqua waters that look like they are straight out of a luxury travel magazine. Alternatively, googling ’Tuvalu climate change’ presents an entirely different colour pallet, of children standing ankle deep in brown waters brimming with trash and holding signs saying: To the rest Of the World Please Could you Prepare a place for my country to stay.

Tuvalu is one of the smallest countries in the world, after the Vatican, Monaco, and Nauru. It is an island group in the South Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Its name, Tuvalu, translates to ‘eight standing together’ and refers to the eight traditional islands of Tuvalu (Nanumea, Niutao, Nanumaga, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti, and Nukulaelae), the ninth island is tiny Niulakita. With a total land area of ten square miles, it consists of nine coral atolls, four of them being reef islands the other five being true atolls. As Tuvalu is low lying, rising no higher than one-point-eight-three metres above sea level, it is particularly threatened by a rising, warming ocean.

Tuvalu is considered one of the world’s countries most susceptible to climate change. In the last five years, its media coverage has been dwindling. This is possibly because it is a story that no one is interested in anymore, or perhaps because it only has a population of approximately 11,000. It may also be because our current world leaders don’t know how to sustaining their economies while dealing with the critical needs of current science.

Tuvalu could be depicted as a contemporary Atlantis, soon to crumble into the bubbling seas. The thought of a country disappearing altogether seems a part of the way-off future—when the fish are belly up, and we go to museums to see trees. The forces working against Tuvalu are far too many, with beachhead erosion, coastal engineering, environmental mismanagement, overpopulation, deforestation, and deteriorating coral reefs just some of global warming’s teammates. A 1989 United Nations report on the greenhouse effect stated that Tuvalu would entirely recede into the ocean in the twenty-first century unless our attitudes and practises affecting global warming dramatically changed. Yet it is the United States that is the world’s largest overall polluter[4], and Australia takes the trophy for highest greenhouse-gas emissions per capita[5], and both countries continue to take scant action on climate change.

The spotlight first fell on Tuvalu in 1997. While I was in nappies, crying about a dropped dummy, Tuvalu Prime Minister Koloa Talake addressed a collection of world leaders at the Kyoto conference in Japan. Talake pleaded that immediate action was required, in order for the effects of global warming to stop from growing. While most nations agreed to reduce their emissions, neither the United States nor Australia supported the Kyoto Protocol at the time. Again, in 2000, then Tuvalu Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana focused international attention on Tuvalu by addressing the United Nations to speak on global climate change and the impact it would have on indigenous cultures, security, and sovereignty. Australia finally ratified the agreement in 2007, but it is clear this reluctant attitude still lingers. Since then, there have been multiple global conferences that have grown in frequency, where the leaders and members of the Tuvaluan public have campaigned for climate change action.

I was already touched down dry in Sydney when I heard of the floods in Whakatane. It was at home that I began to wonder about the surrounding Pacific Islands. I wondered about the phone calls being made, whether any crackly lines voiced that it could be contributed to climate change?

Amongst the stalls nearby Whakatane beach that February I first became aware of an organisation called 350 Pacific. It is an organisation dedicated to connecting individuals from the Pacific islands who are trying to campaign and raise awareness about climate change. As a Maori girl, I was intrigued. Scrolling through the Facebook groups, I stumbled upon that of Tuvalun multiple global conferences that have grown in frequency, statuses of some of their young and active members, such as Betty Melton.

When I skyped Betty, she was in Perth where she studies at Murdoch University in Engineering, majoring in Renewable Energy. She believes renewable energy is how we will save the world. Hesitantly[6], she told me of what life is like in Tuvalu, her home.

The biggest change, she says, is that there are no longer seasons. ‘It’s more than thirty most of the time, it didn’t use to be that hot’. What I’m most interested in, however, is not so much the physical. I want to know how the community feels living where the impacts of climate change are so tangible that they are forcing people to leave. In 2014, for the first time, New Zealand granted a family from Tuvalu legal residency as refugees from climate change.

‘Yes, a lot of people have migrated because of this, gone to Fiji New Zealand. They go in packs. But even the people that have stayed have had to move their homes more than once.’ Most of the people are anxious, she tells me. Mothers and grandmothers are worried about their children’s future. ‘They are worried that, in the future, Tuvalu won’t be there. You know what the scientists say, that Tuvalu will be the first to go.’ Yet when I press her about the perspectives of the older generation she continues that in fact, ‘most don’t agree with what the scientists are saying. They say that climate change is happening but they don’t believe it [Tuvalu] is going to go. They say scientists have been saying that for a long time, but yet we are still here… Back home, they are really religious… they have the hope of what God provides. We do believe in climate change because we are experiencing it, but we still have the hope.’

Since 1990 scientists have mapped the increasing number of tropical storms and cyclones that Tuvalu experiences. In the years between 1970 and 1990, only three tropical storms, hurricanes or cyclones struck Tuvalu.[7] However, between 1990 and 2005, the islands experienced thirteen.[8] 2015 then brought on what Betty described as the worst that Tuvalu had seen, causing over $360 million dollars of damage.[9] High tides are probably one of the biggest problems that Tuvalu faces on a daily basis: the constant creeping water. I canreepingly one of the biggest problems that Tuvalu faces on a daily basis over $360 million dollaring. How could you plan for a future so uncertain? ‘Yes,’ Betty agrees, ‘the government talks about it a lot, on social media and they use the radio for educating people about climate change, most of their trips overseas… Most of what they do is for the climate. Our government and our people do not want to move… that is not a choice.’

Fifty-Fifty seems a rather casual way of describing the chances of your nation surviving, that’s how Betty puts it. ‘We are working on the fifty increasing,’ she laughs.

‘Do you believe it is possible to undo the damage?’ I ask.

‘Reversing the effects are impossible, but we can minimize,’ she says through the screen. ‘If we are sinking, there will be another island next.’

‘Do you think these effects will have an impact on Tuvaluan culture?’

‘It hasn’t had any effect on the culture. That is still there.’ What I was hinting at though, was what the possible impacts might be on the culture of a community spread across the globe.

As she tells me these things, I wonder why it is the first time I have really heard them. Is it because the populations are small that these stories do not receive sound? Perhaps, once in a while when the Very Important (Orange) Man takes a break from his tweeting:

‘Global warming is an expensive hoax!’[10]

Some days at the bottom of the pages a mention of the changes the earth is going through will appear through vicious scrolling. Perhaps a picture of a polar bear will win some kind of award, and we will all nod our heads ‘how sad, how sad.’ We won’t hear though, about the man who moved his brothers grave three times because of the changing tides. As Vlad Sokhin, a photographer of the effects of climate change in the Pacific said, “this is a story about people who stand to lose everything—people who may need to flee their native home and never come back. These people are refugees, but they’re not running from war or an oppressive government. They’re seeking asylum from climate change.”

It is easy to think that New Zealand is untouchable, that the home of the skyrocketing Mount Cook will be a refuge for the other smaller nations to cling too. However, the recent flooding in Whakatane is a reminder that New Zealand is also, just a collection of Pacific islands like Tuvalu. Two larger islands, to be specific. As Betty said if Tuvalu goes, who will be next? 10,800 residents of Tuvalu are by no means the only ones at risk of losing their homes to climate change. While the estimates of future migrants vary widely, from tens of thousands to one billion, there’s little question that an increase in climate refugees is on the way. There is meaning in what Betty and 350 Pacific campaign say, that if we save Tuvalu, we save the world.

As I write this, a past leader has just made a statement about climate change being good. He believes that climate-related deaths will be beneficial.

Injustice to the planet, injustice to the people.

The threat to the Pacific islands is more than a means of measuring how truly troubled our planet is, this threat to Tuvalu is a threat to all countries. And given the much greater connection to the land that Indigenous people have, their loss will be the greatest. It is also somewhat frustrating that places like Tuvalu with the smallest contribution to climate change are receiving the consequences. Kylie Loutit, who wrote her thesis on Māori interactions with Climate Change and discussed how vulnerable populations, such as indigenous people (like that of New Zealand and Tuvalu), face risks that are disproportionate to the relatively small contributions they make to greenhouse gas emissions.

It can be considered, however, that climate change may provide a stage for Indigenous empowerment and advocacy of Indigenous worldviews through involvement in climate discussions. Empowerment and cultural understanding might even contribute to Indigenous resilience against climate change. As despite making up only four percent of the world’s population (between 250 to 300 million people),[11] Indigenous people use twenty-two percent of the world’s land surface. These areas reflect eighty percent of the planet’s biodiversity and are near eighty-five percent of the world’s protected areas. [12] Maintaining important fisheries, water systems and regenerative forestlands are all part of Indigenous peoples profound knowledge base.

There might be one way that climate change can be addressed, by listening to the people who are being most affected. To change the perspective that Indigenous peoples are merely victims of climate change. That they are the drowning people. The knowledge of Indigenous People should offer them certain opportunities and platforms. That there is the potential to mitigate the risks and disintegration of their lands, such as those of Tuvalu, as well as address the centuries of marginalisation.

It is unlikely that climate change will mean a group of Indigenous people rise to become the world’s most powerful players, but I wonder what that world would look like?  Though, when I watched the woman stand in the shallows of Whakatane beach, I did not think of the waters as rising. I was watching the Wakach ride the bay.

 

[1]Canoe

[2]“This outrageous and completely over-the-top attack on Australia Day by mad leftie council”.- Tony Abbot 16 August, 2017.

[3] Maori meeting house

[4]Justin Gillis, Nadja Popvich ‘The U.S. Is the Biggest Carbon Polluter in History. It Just Walked Away From the Paris Climate Deal’, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/01/climate/us-biggest-carbon-polluter-in-history-will-it-walk-away-from-the-paris-climate-deal.html.

[5]Uma Patel and Naomi Woodley, ‘Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions rising, Government figures show’http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-22/australia-greenhouse-gas-emissions-increasing-environment-report/8143110

[6]Betty thought I was a scammer when I first got into contact with her about Tuvalu.

[7]AJ Smith, Klima Tuvalu ‘http://klima-tuvalu.no/tuvalu-and-climate-change/the-consequences-of-climate-change-on-tuvalu/’

[8]AJ Smith, Klima Tuvalu ‘http://klima-tuvalu.no/tuvalu-and-climate-change/the-consequences-of-climate-change-on-tuvalu/’

[9]United Nations Development Program, Crisis Response, http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/crisis-response/past-crises/tuvalu.html.

[10]Tweet by Donald Trump, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/6/1/15726472/trump-tweets-global-warming-paris-climate-agreement

[11] N Alexandratos, World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: the 2012 Revision. http://www.fao.org/3/a-ap106e.pdf

[12] The World Bank, The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity. https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTBIODIVERSITY/Resources/RoleofIndigenousPeoplesinBiodiversityConservation.pdf

Planet Earth, Red Alert, Rima Martens PDF

Adjust Your Sets, Olivia James

Chinese filmmakers recently made their first ever foray into the International movie-making scene. The Great Wall is an action and fantasy movie directed by Zhang Yimou, an acclaimed Chinese director. The cast features young Chinese stars Wang Junkai, Lu Han, Jing Tian and Andy Lau as the supporting cast. The lead of the film –a film funded, produced and directed by Chinese individuals, starring a Chinese supporting cast, filmed and set exclusively in China–is Matt Damon. Matt Damon as in Oceans Eleven Matt Damon. Matt Damon as in about a hundred of those Bourne action movies Matt Doman. Matt Damon as in very, very white, so white that he probably eats casserole at least once a week Matt Damon. Damon responded at New York’s Comic-Con, ‘it was a f—king bummer…When I think of whitewashing I think of Chuck Connors when he played Geronimo. And look there are more nuanced versions of it and I do try to be sensitive of that.’[i]

Matt Damon’s role as white savior is nothing new in film. For decades movies have not only featured overwhelmingly white actors, they have also cast white actors to play people of colour. From Mickey Rooney’s vaguely Asian Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffanys to Jake Gyllenhal’s portrayal of Middle Eastern royalty in Prince of Persia, whitewashing runs rampant.The 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report believes that this casting has become the norm. In the report, it is detailed that between 2011 and 2014 protagonists were white in more than 80% of films.[ii] During this time, casts were always predominantly white with most films featuring a cast with only 10% or less people of colour.[iii] Gender was also imbalanced with roughly 74% of films featuring men as leads during this time.[iv] What has caused this massive underrepresentation of women and minorities in film? If you ask Hollywood you’ll be met with a huge range of answers and a whole lot of awkward stammering.

Actress Viola Davis, star of the wildly successful television series How to Get Away with Murder and a physical manifestation of the #blackexcellence twitter trend,believes that the issue extends beyond recognition through awards. ‘The problem is not with the Oscars, the problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system…How many black films are being produced every year? …The Oscars are not really the issue. It’s a symptom of a much greater disease.’[v] Michael Caine, a self-described bourgeois nightmare, has made comments suggesting that diversity shouldn’t be forced. ‘You can’t just say, “Oh I’m gonna vote for him, he’s not very good, but he’s black”… you’ve got to give a good performance.’He has also said that non-white actors need to be ‘patient’.[vi] What Caine’s comments are indicative of, is how a dangerous disregard for the historical treatment of minorities continues to disadvantage POC actors and actresses today. With already overwhelmingly white casts, it’s understandable that minority actors are frustrated when the few roles reserved for them are instead handed to white people.

So why are people of colour endangered in film? Why do moviemakers continue to believe that white led and predominantly male casts are a guarantee of cinematic success? Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings was completely overwhelmed with criticism as the film, set throughout the Middle East and Africa, featured a wholly white lead cast slathered in fake tan like an Aussie teen on schoolies. Scott defended his choice by saying, ‘I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed.’[vii] Despite showing an immense amount of cultural insensitivity Scott’s opinion supports how the problem has been institutionalized. Still, Scott maybe should have considered caring even a miniscule amount about the historical accuracy of his movie, which had a $140 million dollar budget didn’t even make half of that domestically. It only ended up bringing in $65 million.[viii]

Is there a direct correlation between whitewashing and a movies financial failure? Pan, a live-action prequel to the famous Peter Pan drew criticism after they cast Rooney Mara, a white actress, as Tiger Lily, a Native American character. Whilst Mara defended her choice to play the role, ‘I feel like there really hasn’t been a proper interpretation of the character’[ix], critics and audiences canned the film. Even Hugh Grant, Australia’s greatest export, couldn’t save the movie, with it only earning back $35 million domestically of its $150 million budget.[x] Whilst is did make a final international total of $128 million, this doesn’t make up for the total budget or the extra marketing budget, which has not been disclosed.

A departure from the action genres was Aloha. The choice to cast Emma Stone, who played Allison Ng, a character who was a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian who instead looked like a British person two months into winter, was heavily criticised. The film only made back $26 million globally of its $37 million budget.[xi] The 2014 film The Lone Ranger starred Jonny Depp, notable white man and dog smuggler, as the Native American Tonto. A poor casting choice? Definitely. Worsened by poor writing? Absolutely. Throughout the film Depp spoke in disjointed sentences such as, ‘do not touch rock. Rock cursed’and ‘it better you not hit him. Him plenty weak from journey.’The movie domestically made back $89 million of its $219 million budget,[xii] which was presumably a nice change of pace for Native American activists who are still struggling to change the name of the Washington Redskins.

So why is there a perception that white-washed and non-diverse films are successful? Star Wars: The Force awakens is perhaps the greatest piece of proof that diversity is not a roadblock to success. The Force Awakens was already due to be a financial success, but critics praised the fact that of the new trio of protagonists, not a single one of them was a white male. The LA Times lauded the casting choices; ‘Part of the power of “Star Wars” movies has been how they have invited generations of audiences to imagine themselves as heroic characters in the fantastical, detailed world George Lucas conceived nearly 40 years ago. In 2015 —spoiler alert —it is not only white males who get to harness the power of the Force.’[xiii]

When Star Wars introduced aspiring Jedi master Rey, young girls felt welcome in a space usually reserved for men, despite the fact that a woman, Mary Shelley, created the genre. When Finn pulled off his storm-trooper helmet, black children felt that they could be heroes in a world that was, until recently, overwhelmingly white. When Oscar Isaac flew his X-Wing into the Starkiller Base and completely destroyed budding Sith Lord and continual disappointment to his mother Kylo Ren’s dreams, Latinx children were reminded that they have the capacity for greatness. And the films showcasing of diversity certainly paid in dividends. Whilst it was always set to be a box office success, the total earnings of over 2 billion, for a film with a budget of 245 million, was aided by the positive press surrounding the casting choices.[xiv]

Despite the overwhelming success of Star Wars, both financially and creatively, film is still being left behind in regards to diversity. This year’s newest blockbuster and to-be-expected flop Ben Hur features a predominantly white cast despite the Middle Eastern setting. Similarly, Gods of Egypt only just made back its production budget, despite its token casting of African-American Chadwick Boseman, scene-stealer of Captain America: Civil War. Ground has been made in diversifying casts on new forms of media. Viewers have applauded Netflix’s self-produced content and the lengths taken in diversifying casting. 2015s Sense8 featured a main cast with a transgender woman and tech guru, a Kenyan man trying to cure his ill mother, a Korean businesswoman and kick boxer, an Indian pharmaceutical worker disinterested in her arranged marriage and a gay Mexican film star in a long-term relationship with his boyfriend. The diversity of the cast and the effort taken to film at locations all around the world made the series a success.

Also released in 2016 was the sci-fi hit Stranger Things, which was celebrated for its portrayal of female characters. It featured Eleven, an earnest young telepath, Joy, a mother desperate to find her missing son and Nancy, a gun toting teen on the warpath to avenge her friend’s death. The three main female characters were applauded for having their own emotional and fleshed out storylines that were not reliant on male intervention to progress the plot. The women were also given their own agency throughout the eight episodes. When Jonathon, elder brother of the missing Will Byers, realized that Nancy was a better shot than him he quickly handed the gun to her. Chief of Police Hopper never wrote off Joy’s belief that her son was alive as her being ‘crazy’. Mike, Lucas and Dustan never once questioned befriending Eleven because she was a girl. In fact, women go on to save the day. Nancy orchestrates the plan to trap and wound the show’s monster, the Demogorgon. Joy ventures into the alternate universe titled, the ‘Upside Down’, a horrific dystopia, to save her son Will. Eleven ultimately destroys the monster by sacrificing herself and saving her friends in the process.

Netflix’s dedication to diverse characterization and casting has led to the generation of a great deal of exciting content. In the next year alone they’ve already slotted a sizable list of shows. The revamp of Gilmore Girls will be released in late 2016, and is known for its sundry portrayal of women. A Series of Unfortunate Events will also be released in late 2016, featuring Indian and Black actors in lead roles. Season two of Sense8 is set to air in 2017, along with Marvel’s Luke Cage, which will showcase a predominantly African American cast. Also rumoured for a 2017 release are season two of The Get Down, season two of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, the continuation of Orange is the New Black, part two of Stranger Things and Marvel’s The Defenders, which has a main cast of superheroes comprising of a disabled man, female rape survivor, and Luke Cage, as well as an immensely diverse secondary cast.

Why is a dedication to diversity in film and media necessary? Film theorists Laura Mulvey and Anna Backman Rogers assert that film is a reflection of the world and as such should be honest in its portrayal of the human experience.‘If the ethics of film are to do with understanding how to live, how to die, how to speak, and how to listen – then surely difference, and understanding, respecting and recognizing that difference, needs to lie at the heart of that thinking.’[xv] In some circumstances an authentic reproduction of our world can be quantified. Hailed as an example of feminism ruining the sanctity of iconic movie making, the Bechdel Test was created to highlight the inequity of development given to male and female characters in film. Critics of the test have argued that it sets an unnecessarily rigid standard for creators and believe that the test is incompatible with iconic moviemaking. So what does a movie need to do to satisfy the Bedchel Test? Two named women in the film have to talk about something other than a man. Once.

No, the other elements of the test haven’t been forgotten. That’s it.

American Beauty, Requiem for a Dream, Donnie Darko, Jaws, Pulp Fiction, The Godfather Part II, Star Wars: The Force Awakens–these are just some of the movies that pass the Bechdel test, most of which are acclaimed. Many of them went on to win Oscars. Jaws won three Oscars and a Golden Globe. American Beauty won five Oscars and three Golden Globes. It is curious that there is a belief that the Bechdel test is placing unattainable standards upon filmmaking. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask that two female characters in Jaws, whose names we happen to know, have a single conversation about the giant shark gobbling up children and scantily clad teenagers. It isn’t too much of a burden, to expect that at some point, while saving the galaxy from a tantrum-throwing adult male who fundamentally misunderstands the beliefs of his grandfather, that Leia and Rey have a quick chat about how they’re going to destroy the Starkiller base.

Female characters should not be used as props and devices for the development of their male counterparts. If filmmakers are meant to accurately reflect society, then they should do so by showing women that they are more substantial than an untimely death at the hands of their partners arch nemesis. To do otherwise is dangerous, and perpetuates societal beliefs that women exist as an extension to men. Similarly, theorists Carole Gerster and Laura Zlogar believe that images of race depicted in films can contribute to the disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities. ‘Hollywood learned its lesson…Euro-American audience consumed a steady stream of images whose function was to marginalize African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos/as and American Indians.’[xvi] In today’s shrinking world issues regarding gender, sexuality and ethnicity are no longer separate. The rise of intersectional feminism across cultures has meant that critiques of racial diversity in films go hand in hand with feminist critiques. The need for representation is universal.

To not care about honestly portraying the world in media is dangerous. Visibility creates attainability. It allows a young girl who watches the revamp of Ghostbusters to imagine herself existing in a space traditionally reserved for men. It allows a young black girl who sees the trailer for Hidden Figures to believe that her dream to work for NASA isn’t impossibility. It allows a child of colour who watches Luke Cage or the upcoming Justice League or Black Panther to see themselves as a hero. When it is normalized for children to see those who they identify with as heroes, they themselves will grow up believing that they can be the hero of their own life. Film and television is one of the most easily digestible sources of information, and informs our opinions and understandings of the world in which we belong. It has immense power in shaping our interactions with one another, both positive and negative. Surely we want film and television to influence the world to be more tolerant, peaceful and compassionate. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of work to do before diversity in film is universal. Thanks Matt Damon.
Works Cited

 

[i] Christopher Rosen, ‘Matt Damon: Great Wall whitewashingcontroversy was “a f—ing bummer”’Entertainment Weekly (October 8, 2016) Web. Accessed October 8 <http://www.ew.com/article/2016/10/08/matt-damon-great-wall-whitewashing-controversy>

 

[ii] Ralph J. Bunch Centre for African American Studies, ‘The Hollywood Diversity Report’UCLA (2016) Web. Accessed August 25 <http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016-Hollywood-Diversity-Rport-2-25-16.pdf>

[iii] Ralph J. Bunch Centre for African American Studies, ‘The Hollywood Diversity Report’UCLA (2016) Web. Accessed August 25

<http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2-25-16.pdf>

[iv] Ralph J. Bunch Centre for African American Studies, ‘The Hollywood Diversity Report’UCLA (2016) Web. Accessed August 25 <http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2-25-16.pdf>

[v] Eliza Berman, ‘Insiders Reveal How Huge Hollywood’s Diversity Problem Really Is’Time Magazine (January 25, 2016) Web. Accessed 30 August <http://time.com/4192594/hollywood-diversity-problem-oscars-academy-awards/>

[vi] Yohana Desta, ‘Every Major Celebrity Who’s Commented on the Oscars Diversity Controversy’Mashable (January 26, 2016) Web, Accessed August 30< http://mashable.com/2016/01/25/celebrity-diversity-oscars/#jn68xyNoKPqk>

[vii] Nick Allen, ‘”I can’t cast Mohammed so-and-so from such-and-such”says Ridley Scott’Telegraph (November 28, 2014) Web. Accessed September 2<http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11261784/I-cant-cast-Mohammad-so-and-so-from-such-and-such-says-Ridley-Scott.html>

[viii] Box Office Mojo, ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings: Domestic and International Movie Totals’Web. Accessed September 5 < http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=exodus.htm>

[ix] Sean O’Connell, ‘Why a White Tiger Lily Works According to Rooney Mara’Cinemablend (2015) Web. Accessed September 2 <http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Why-White-Tiger-Lily-Works-According-Rooney-Mara-70870.html>

[x] Box Office Mojo, ‘Pan: Domestic and International Movie Totals’Web. Accessed September 5 <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=pan.htm>

[xi] Box Office Mojo, ‘Aloha: Domestic and International Movie Totals’Web. Accessed September 5 <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=crowe2014.htm>

[xii] Box Office Mojo, ‘Lone Ranger: Domestic and International Movie Totals’Web. Accessed September 5 <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=loneranger.htm>

[xiii] Rebecca Keegan, ‘Star Was: The Force Awakens reflects our diverse, modern World’The LA Times (December 21, 2015) Web. Accessed September 8http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-star-wars-diversity-20151221-story.html

[xiv] Box Office Mojo, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Domestic and International Movie Totals’Web. Accessed September 5 <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=starwars7.htm>

[xv] Laura Mulvey and Anna Backman Rogers, ‘Feminisms: Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film CulturesAmsterdam University Press (2015) p 136

[xvi] Carole Gerster and Laura Zlogar, ‘Teaching Ethnic Diversity in Film: Essays and Resources for Educators in History, Social Studies, Literature and Film Studies’McFarland and Company (2006)p 22

 

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Person of the Forest, Teri Jane Boldizar

I crossed the rickety handmade bridge precariously, one of the last in our group of nine; sent into the Sumatran Rainforest by Sydney’s Taronga Zoo as part of their “For the Wild” campaign. My hands grasped at the thin stretch of rope that followed my path on both sides. The day pack on my back was tiny compared to the 55L backpack one of the village ladies had carried across that very bridge for me the night before, but every step I took still sent it swaying on my back. One of the girls ahead of me stumbled slightly over the thin planks, causing the entire bridge to sway violently beneath us and bringing my attention to the riffle that sauntered along below us. A nervous laugh wove its way through the group as our team leader standing at the other end of the bridge, feet safely planted on solid ground, yelled back that she’d make us wear helmets for the rest of the trek if we weren’t careful. We were looking for semi-wild Orangutan that day; with one of Taronga’s Orangutan keepers, and our local Indonesian guides leading the way.

Often forgotten or overlooked in the grand scheme of apes that humans share similar DNA with, the orangutan may be one of the most fascinating. Named for the Malay words Orang, meaning “people” and Hutan, meaning “forest”, the orangutan is literally the person of the forest. The similarities between ourselves and these forest dwelling apes appears to agree. Not only do orangutan share 97% of our DNA, they also display a variety of amazingly human-esque traits. For the first two years of their lives, orangutans are completely dependent on their mothers for everything. Other than humans, no other animal is known to spend so much time dependent on their mother. In fact, baby orangutans will cling to their mothers the same way toddlers do during the morning daycare drop off. Like many great apes, orangutan have developed tool use and arboreal though they are, construct nests for sleeping in, complete with “umbrella” style coverage to keep the rain at bay. The term semi-wild isn’t a term used professionally but you’ll find that organisations, and even locals to the area will often use the term. It simply refers to orangs that were captive but have been rehabilitated and released. It can also refer to parts of the rainforest that are tended to or have been built into for eco-tourism as we experienced that day.

We trekked through Bukit Lawang, a small village on the edge of the looming rainforest, greeted the kind locals who waved, smiled and complimented us on our pale skin and took note of the stalls selling beautiful handmade clothing. Those that live on the boundary of the rainforest and understand the importance of the rainforest and its animals rely on eco-tourism to bring guests and income that we gladly offer for such an opportunity. However, it was not just the kind people of Bukit Lawang nor the nearby orangutan that provided such an extraordinary experience. There were also the hundred or so long tailed macaques scampering around the village.

They darted in and out of house windows, travelled across clothes lines and stole the fruit of those who didn’t hide it away well enough before leaving their home for the day. It was our first glimpse of a Sumatran animal that wasn’t a cow hovering along the edge of a potholed dirt road. Looking to discover even more of the native wildlife, we continued on and into the depths of the Gunung Leuser National Park, a protected area of the Sumatran Rainforest.

It wasn’t long before we were completely enveloped in the beautiful tall trees of the rainforest; Damar, Rubber and Meranti, the few identified by our guide, Lily. It was our second day in Sumatra and the intense humidity and heat had already begun to take its toll as, under strict time constraints, we made our way up hills so steep we were essentially rock climbing. Perhaps the helmets wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. After roughly an hour of hellish trekking we reached a plateau onto which a platform had been built. Lily invited us to sit on the felled logs facing the platform, ‘quietly, quietly,’ he whispered.

We watched on as one of the national park ranger’s deposited cups of water and bunches of banana onto the platform in front of us, and as he made his way back towards us, we readied our cameras.

‘No orangutan for two weeks’ he advised us, ‘maybe none today either.’

Prepared to see nothing, a thought that hadn’t crossed my mind as I counted down the days to the trip, we sat and made quiet small talk. While it felt as though we had sat for hours, it was only minutes before the rustle of leaves in the distance made its way to our ears. A hush fell over our little crowd as slowly the sound moved closer. Heads swiveled wildly as we searched for what we could only hope was actually an orangutan and not a troop of macaque.

Finally, a blur of red swung through a distant break in the canopy just away from us. It moved closer and closer, until in a whirlpool of beautiful red hair, an orangutan finally dropped down on to the platform. My heart skipped a beat and in shock and awe, my mouth made a surely comical “O”. Before us, a mere metre away, sat a female Sumatran orangutan; and clutched to her chest… Her baby.

With hair my ideal shade of red, the beautiful mother nonchalantly drank water from a child’s blue plastic cup while her little one eyed us off from the safety of her hip, eating a banana he had snatched up from the platform upon their arrival. Apparently satisfied with his fruity finds, the baby orang decided to put on a show. The urge to squeal like a Justin Bieber fan at one of his concerts overwhelmed me as I watched the little one climb a tree, swinging and jumping back and forth between the nearby branches and the planks that made up his platform. Carrying her banana treats, his mother made her way over to sit within arms reach of him and this became a routine. He would frolic; she would follow, inching her way back and forth across the platform in his mischievous wake. Watching this orangutan show such concern for her child was such a sight. But it was one that was cut unfortunately short by the arrival of a much colder spirited mother and child duo. In quite a contrast to the behaviours we had just observed, the new arrival pulled the water bucket from the hands of the ranger and swiftly stole the remaining fruit, sadly causing our first orangutan and her baby to swing away into the canopy. These wild orangutans face such potential dangers, and yet there, sitting on those logs, we saw two mothers, with their children, acting in the carefree way that any orangutan should.

 

*

 

Orangutan face a great many dangers from humans. Population estimates from the most recent transect survey suggest that there are as few as 14,000 Sumatran orangutan left,[i] and only approximately 54,000 Bornean,[ii] leaving both species endangered, the Sumatran critically so. One major threat to the animals of Indonesia in particular, is palm oil. The destruction of palm oil plantations, in the last few years alone, has resulted in more than half of the Sumatran Rainforest – once the third largest rainforest in the world – being removed for palm or acacia tree plantations. And the Indonesian government has approved the removal of another seventy percent of what remains in the near future.[iii] The threat of unsustainable palm oil farming is no longer the tightly held secret that it was in the past though. More people are being educated in the dangers of unsustainable farming and make the active choice to buy sustainable palm oil or palm oil free products from their supermarkets.

Within Indonesia and Malaysia, the illegal wildlife trade of orangutans, most commonly below the age of two, is also booming amongst a select population of locals. The wildlife trade of orangutan occurs both domestically and internationally with most international trade occurring between other nearby islands, particularly in association with zoos that do not comply with the international ethical standards for captive animal care.

A mother orangutan is incredibly unlikely to willingly leave behind or surrender her baby. This means that for a young orangutan to be captured for the pet trade, its mother will most probably be killed while her baby clings to her. This is not only traumatizing for the young kidnapped orangutan but is also massively detrimental to the ability for repopulation of the orangutan populace. It is estimated that every year around one thousand Sumatran and Bornean orangutan are trafficked overseas and that as many as twenty thousand have been caught or killed for the trade over the last ten years. For every one baby orangutan that makes its way into a home as a “pet” or into a market to be sold, two other young and five mother orangutans have died. [iv]

Sixty percent of all orangutan that currently reside in sanctuaries and rescues within Indonesia have been confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade.[v] One particular orangutan, now under the protection of an Australian organisation, The Orangutan Project, was sold into the pet trade by a local fisherman for only $10.40 AUD. The orang was found malnourished and weak, and was confiscated. One of the lucky few, he now resides temporarily in a sanctuary where he is being cared for. Through social learning among his own species and a special forest school under the safe eye of his rescue carers, he will learn necessary skills before being released back into the rainforest to live a natural, semi-wild life.

One of the most intriguing facts about orangutan is their self-awareness. A study which was first carried out in the 80’s, found evidence of self-awareness at a level that is not present in humans until around 18-24 months of age. Orangutan marked with a safe and indelible dye while asleep, were placed in front of mirrors. Upon seeing their coloured reflection, they proceeded to touch their own faces and bodies. The conclusion of this study was that orangutan are more self-aware than human infants. [vi] With this in mind, it is easier, or perhaps harder, to conceive the horrific trauma that a baby orangutan suffers when taken from its mother and thrust into such a situation as the illegal wildlife pet trade.

 

*

 

I had been seconds from deciding on the perfect spot to use as my jungle toilet when I heard a rustling to my left. Somewhat terrified, I did exactly what all the people in horror movies do and approached the foliage and squinted, staring out into the darkness. Unbelieving, I threw myself back into camp in a frenzy. The orangutan I had spotted flinging herself through the trees just behind me. The rest of the team spotted her in the same moments that they saw me and we all paused for a moment before racing to our tents to grab our cameras.

To our great luck, she stayed where she was; hovering in the trees above the little kitchen tent that had been set up in haste that afternoon as the rain had begun to beat down on us. She stood upright, very human in her stance, one hand and one foot fastened to a vine. Her other hand fell upon the baby that clutched at her chest. That was our third mother orangutan and at the time we were just halfway through out trek.

 

She graced us with her and her little one’s presence for close to an hour before she swung off into the forest to make her nighttime nest. That wasn’t the last time we saw her though.

The next morning as we packed up camp that all too familiar rustling worked its way to our ears yet again and, prepared as we were, we stood waiting for her reveal. She met us in the exact location she had occupied the night before and we soon discovered why as she made her way to the ground – a very unusual behaviour in orangutan – and stole our watermelon scraps. She stayed low to the ground eating the entirety of the watermelon skin while her little one suckled at the corner of a smaller piece, sucking up the last of the juice from our dessert of the night before. None of the guides recognized her as a re-released orangutan, she was just a mother taking advantage of her surrounding environment.

 

*

 

During my trip to Sumatra, thanks to Taronga Zoo, I had the chance to see ten orangutans. Four were dependent infants; and one was only around five years old and still learning skills from her mother. These young orangutans are just a small number of the population lucky enough to have relative safety in their protected jungle home within the Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra. The helpful income provided through eco-tourism, donations from establishments such as Taronga and the forest rangers of the national park, attempt to protect them from people involved in this harmful trade. Not all orangutans have such luck, however.

Were orangutan faced with only the threat of deforestation and their population decline continued at it’s current pace, the entire wild population of Sumatran orangutan would be completely wiped out by 2100.[vii] Deforestation is not their only concern, however. Organisations such as The Orangutan Project (TOP) which is run out of Australia and was first founded by an orangutan keeper at Perth Zoo, operate to rescue, rehabilitate and re-release orangutans that were taken into the illegal pet trade or became victims of forest burning or felling for unsustainable palm oil plantations. In fact, Perth Zoo recently became the first zoo to ever release a captive orangutan into the wild, to much success. The orangutan in question, Temara, now resides semi-wild within the Sumatran Rainforest.

So how can you help organisations like TOP and Taronga and Perth zoos save those orangutans who find themselves suffering at the hands of the pet trade and/or desiccation of their homes? You could choose to adopt a young orangutan online through organisations like The Orangutan Project, visit the zoo and adopt an animal or even donate to conservation efforts on a more general scale. Our support assists organisations tremendously in their attempts to protect these amazing animals either by leasing land for sanctuary or funding rescue centres.

The orangutan shares 97% of our DNA and possesses a level of self-awareness comparable to human toddlers but these people of the forest rely on us to triumph in this battle, to be able to live in their natural rainforest homes.

 

 

Works Cited

[i]Wich, S., et al. “Land-cover changes predict steep declines for the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii).” Science advances. 2.3 (2016): e1500789.

[ii]Meijaard, E., et al. “Not by science alone: why orangutan conservationists must think outside the box.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1249.1 (2012): 29-44.

[iii]Vidal, J. “The Sumatran rainforest will mostly disappear within 20 years.”The Guardian Australia. (2013): N.P. Web. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/26/sumatra-borneo-deforestation-tigers-palm-oil Accessed: 9 Oct. 2016.

[iv]Afrida, N. “Orangutan: From Illegal Trade to Conservations.” The Jakarta Post. (2008): N.P. Findings also used at: http://www.orangutans.com.au/Orangutans-Survival-Information/Illegal-Pet-Trade.aspx Accessed: 1 Sept. 2016.

[v]CITES/GRASP. (2006). “Orangutan Technical Mission Indonesia”. https://cites.org/common/prog/ape/ID_mission06.pdf Accessed: 1 Sept .2016.

[vi]Suarez, S., and Gallup, G. “Self-recognition in chimpanzees and orangutans, but not gorillas.” Journal of Human Evolution. 10.2 (1981): 175-188.

[vii]Marshall, Andrew J., et al. “Orangutan population biology, life history, and conservation.” Orangutans: Geographic variation in behavioral ecology and conservation (2009): 311-325.

 

 

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Giving Up Glamour: The Magic and Mayhem of Ice Addiction, Angus Dalton

 

Nevermore

 

Will and I walk along the gutter after a summer party gone dull, our bare feet dodging redback webs and shards of glass catching streetlight. An almost empty bottle of vodka swings between us. My hair reeks of chlorine. Will had shoved me into the pool after I swatted a lit fag from his mouth; he’d never have wanted one sober.

He broke the silence. ‘Do you remember that book I lent you?’

‘Book?’

Tithe or some shit.’

I did remember – a black hardback inlaid with a metallic-green butterfly. He’d lent me his copy years ago when we became friends in early high school. I’d never given it back. My slowly sobering brain reached for past imaginings sparked by Tithe’s pages – like remembering a dream with the texture of paper. I get flashes of a girl scorching the underside of a teaspoon with a match, melting a substance the colour of earwax. She draws it up into a syringe and pushes the steel into the inside of her elbow. As a line of beaded blood trails down to her wrist the dark around her manifests into shapes: ogres with hulking muscles, fae wielding swords, changelings with manic faces.

The book is a suburban fantasy novel by Holly Black about a girl named Val who discovers an underworld of fae living in the train tunnels and abandoned spaces of her New Jersey neighbourhood. Humans can access to this faery world – and are afforded the use of magic – under the influence of a drug called Nevermore. Once injected, the human characters become aware of sweet voices drifting out of drains and snarling beasts that skulk in train tunnels. Plumes of coloured light spew from fingertips and ignite alleyways. This magic is called Glamour.

I’m about to tell Will that I do remember the book, it’s at home gathering dust, but he says:

‘I think one day I’ll be an addict.’

‘What?’

‘Yeah. Get on the hard shit. I feel like I have that personality. That it’s inevitable.’

We walk past patches of pale grass guarded by mailboxes printed with NO JUNK MAIL. I run up to one and cover the last word with a finger.

‘Hey,’ I gesture to the sign, grinning. ‘No junk. Okay?’

He doesn’t smile.

When we’re almost at his house he lobs the vodka bottle against a garage wall. He turns around, hugs my stunned frame, and leaps through the open window of his bedroom. He draws the blind behind him. The road is scattered with wet crystals.

That was four years ago. We lost contact soon after.

I wish I had taken that post-midnight conversation more seriously. I thought it was post-HSC anxiety, a brief flash of existentialism in the haze between school and uni. But it proved to be more. The last I heard, Will had moved to Bathurst, and was dealing ice.

In his memoir, The Ice Age, Luke Williams describes a similar conversation he had with his best friend during high school who was comparably disenfranchised with school and the society she was growing up in. At 3am by the fireplace, she said: ‘I don’t really have an identity – I’m not really anyone … I am thinking about becoming like a junkie – it makes you somebody.’ [i] (66)

Almost a decade later, she was regularly taking ice, and Luke moved in with her and some other addicts in Pakenham, an outer suburb of Melbourne, for a journalistic investigation into methamphetamine addiction. But he became addicted himself. The process of becoming hooked on crystal meth and the resulting psychosis and aggression he experienced are all detailed in his memoir. He sees addiction not as a result of one bad decision, but rather a result of a troubled past, and a symptom of his dissatisfaction with suburban living. He writes:

‘It is an anti-anxiety drug in the age of anxiety: a depression-busting, awe-inspiring chemical that brings a tribe, adventure, and excitement to an often monotonous, uneventful suburban life.’ (25)

Reading Tithe was one of the ways I escaped the brain-rot of suburban school holidays. The premise of a gritty faery underworld lurking in the shadows of construction sites and sleepy newsagents was impossible to resist. But I think what appealed to Will about the story is the fact that there is no ‘Chosen One’; no hero elected by fate or by some inheritance of magic from an ancient bloodline – anyone could be fantastical. All they had to do was make a small tear in their veins and let the magic in. Luke writes:

‘I hate rules and limitations, such as the fact that humans don’t live forever, don’t have wings and can’t fly, and I can’t deny that a syringe full of meth brings me pretty close to flying and feeling immortal.’ (33)

Fascinated with his story, I found Luke’s contact email and sent him a tentative string of questions about how and why he got addicted. He wrote back within the hour.

‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to change your consciousness,’ he wrote. ‘But my advice would be: don’t do it with crystal meth. It is too addictive – you often very quickly confuse reality with fantasy.’

 

Soon We’ll All Be Brilliant

 

‘I think there’s too much clandestine glamour attaching to drugs just now,’ said Ted Noffs in a grainy Four Corners episode from the mid-1960s as he opened Wayside Chapel, one of the first community centres to respond with empathy to drug addiction. ‘I believe that by bringing the issue of drugs out into the open a lot of the glamour will disappear.’[ii]

Noffs’ efforts were valiant in a time where the Church looked disdainfully at his attempts to provide counselling services to the addicts of Kings Cross. But 50 years later, the perceived glamour of drug taking remains. Luke tells me, ‘There are many different reasons why people take drugs – glamour is one of them. I am surprised how interesting people find me because I was a druggo – my goodness, if I had of known all I needed to go was use needles and have psychotic episodes to get people to read my work I would have made it all public a decade ago.’

One of the first incarnations of amphetamine was accidentally boiled up in 1887 by a Romanian chemist who was trying to synthesise fabric dyes. When the chemical arrived in Australia three decades later, it was sold freely on pharmacy shelves. From the 1930s-50s, amphetamine was the most popular anti-depressant in the world.

Australian newspapers touted the chemical, then marketed as Benzedrine, as ‘The Drug that Will Banish Shyness’[iii]. An article appeared in a 1937 issue of The Mail in Adelaide with the headline, ‘Soon We’ll All Brilliant’[iv], reporting that the drug increased confidence, initiative, and articulation. After waxing lyrical about the reported benefits of Benzedrine, it finishes abruptly with: ‘The danger of addiction is stressed.’

After reports of people taking over 200 tablets per day and an epidemic of pharmacy robberies throughout Australia in the late 1940s, distribution of Benzedrine was restricted to prescription, and then finally made illegal worldwide by the UN’s Psychotropic Substances Act in 1976. In city clubs, partygoers started taking Benzedrine, now rebranded as ‘speed’ on the black market. Increasingly pure versions of amphetamine began circulating worldwide, until, in 2011, its purest known form arrived on Australian shores in the form of the crystallised methamphetamine – ‘ice.’

When Luke moved in with his mates, he thought he’d be reporting on the powdered meth he’d partied on in previous years – he’d even planned to take some. But he didn’t realise a far more potent version had infiltrated the suburbs.

‘Crystallised meth is totally different – you are awake for days at a time and often go psychotic – I was pretty much hooked from the get-go. I didn’t realise I was taking crystal meth until after I moved out of the house and started talking to researchers,’ he says.

Taking ice inflates your ego to its highest point, into a state that Luke describes as ‘fantasia’.

‘Crystal meth is a very ugly, atomising, ego-maniacal drug that gives a false sense of achievement leading to a sense of personal superiority and sometimes psychotic delusions of grandeur,’ explains Luke.

The hyper-charged ego boost that characterises a meth high is the result of a dopamine spike a thousand times stronger than a naturally induced rush. Despite that we’re a society increasingly disassociated from the natural world, we’re still at the mercy of a force that has driven every organism since the first cell split 3.5 billion years ago: the manic urge to survive and reproduce.

But we’re evolution gone haywire. Where our ancestors fought fang and claw for calorie-high foodstuffs, we line up in a drive-thru, bark orders into a speaker, and a minute later, a huge dosage of salt and sugar drops into our laps. Macca’s is a juggernaut simply because it has tapped into our basic biological desire for high-calorie foods. The rest of the animal kingdom battle, perform and kill for sex, but a potential partner for us is as close as the swipe of a finger. The reason we spend hours curating Instagram feeds and Facebook profiles has a similarly biological basis. As social creatures, the more people we surround ourselves with, the greater access we have to resources and safety and the more protection we have for our offspring – #safetyinnumbers. Social media tricks us into thinking that we’re part of a huge group, which is why a phone vibration can trigger a jolt of excitement – it makes us feel as if we’re increasing our chances of ‘survival’.

The dopamine-fuelled motivation to chase evolutionary success still churns away in our brains and through our bloodstreams, even if it’s been rendered superfluous by our hyper-successful civilisation. An upsurge of dopamine is the most raw, animalistic and biologically vital feeling we have access to. It is this feeling that is unleashed by an injection or lungful of crystal methamphetamine.

Is the ‘war on drugs’, then, a vain fight against the primordial impulses of evolution?

 

Scare Tactics

 

Luke’s answer to the question of how we should tackle widespread meth addiction is curt: decriminalisation.

It’s a conclusion that’s hard to stomach after you read about the violence that ice users are capable of, and the manic throes of psychosis Luke found himself at the mercy of during his time as an addict. One of the hardest parts of writing The Ice Age was picking through the flaky tatters of memory left over from his bizarre psychotic episodes.

‘There was a weird subtext of men – including myself – becoming sexually obsessed with adolescences when we were on the drug and this collided with the fact I began having psychotic episodes believing the local Coffee Club was operating a paedophile ring in town (possibly an expression of my own guilt). So much of that was left out, because it was all just too confusing.’

Around a quarter of ice users come to suffer from methamphetamine-induced psychosis, which can involve intense paranoia and hallucinations. As Luke succumbed to psychosis, he became convinced that his parents had paid his friends to murder him by slipping small doses of cyanide into his food.

When the dopamine begins to ebb away after a meth high, an abnormal amount of adrenaline lingers in the blood. This, paired with psychosis, can result in astonishing violence.

One case involved the murder of an 18-year-old girl in Ultimo, Sydney[v]. The coroner who examined her smashed ribs and the torn tissue of her heart made the initial conclusion that she had been involved in a high-speed car crash. But the injuries were actually administered by her boyfriend’s bare hands. He was high on crystal meth at the time of the attack.

However, the evocation of the ice-user as a violent ‘monster’ has become a stereotype, to the detriment of the addicts, the victims of violence, and the fight to reclaim regional towns from crystal meth as a whole. The anti-ice ad[vi] currently circulating in movie cinemas and on YouTube features a haggard man elbowing his mother in the face after he robs her, a girl crying on her bed and digging bloody craters out of her skin with her fingernails, and a man head-butting a doctor and hurling a chair at a screaming receptionist before being tackled by two policemen. Similarly, the first hit you get on Google if you search ‘crystal meth’ is the website drugfreeworld.org[vii]. A colour-leached video plays, showing a pale, snarling young man raise a gun at a convenience store worker.

These advertisements are obviously using scare tactics to discourage potential users, but for regular users and people already dependent on crystal methamphetamine – of which there are over 286,000 in Australia[viii] – who are portrayed in this way, the result is alienating and reductive. How can you speak out and search for help if you’re portrayed as a monster?

The installation of a supervised ice-smoking room in Liverpool has been met with outrage and petitions from local residents worried about a spike in violence[ix]. What could be a progressive step forward in increasing user safety is being blockaded because of the alarm these media campaigns proliferate.

Luke says that this ice-smoking room and its staff would’ve actually seen a reduction in ice-fuelled violence, as the people who staff institutions of the sort are trained specifically to deal with drug users.

‘There is so much violence in hospitals by ice users because public hospital staff offer no empathy, no patience and very little understanding of what it means to be in a drug-induced psychosis,’ he says. ‘I have on occasions been into hospitals and actually had nurses antagonise me while I was on drugs – it’s bloody disgusting.’

Prior to reading Luke’s book and our back-and-forth email conversation – during which he was courteous, thorough and courageous with his answers – whenever I thought of Will, I cast him in one of those bleached anti-ice ads. In my mind his eyes were underscored with grit and purple circles, dead skin lodged under fingernails, split knuckles, teeth the colour of Tithe’s ageing pages. In my dreams, he wandered alone in streetlight flinging bottles at walls, watching the glass scatter. What if he was caught dealing – was he now pressed against the cold concrete of a cell writhing against the venom of withdrawals?

Now my imaginings are far less dramatic. Will is not a monster. Nor is Luke. We know that humanity reacts with violence and fear towards things we don’t understand – perhaps another undesirable leftover from our evolutionary instincts – but the greatest leaps forward in terms of human rights are propelled by empathy.

I can’t remember if the characters in Tithe ever manage to untie themselves from the addictive tendrils of Nevermore, or if they ever overcome their lust for Glamour. I pick up Will’s copy from my bookshelf. Mould scatters the cover like track marks. Its pages bloom with fading yellow bruises and the butterfly is decaying in lustrous flakes. I go to read the last page. Then, I stop. I turn to page one and curl up beside a window that looks out over the streetlights hovering in a grid above my suburb.

To understand the end again, I must start from the beginning.

 

Works Cited:

[i]Williams, Luke. The Ice Age: A journey into crystal meth addiction. Melbourne: Scribe Publishing, 2016. Print.

[ii]Four Corners. Facebook. 7. Sept. https://www.facebook.com/abc4corners/videos/vl.335220750154562/10153920129330954/?type=1. Accessed 08/09/16.

[iii]Author Unknown. ‘New Drug Will Banish Shyness’. Border Watch (Mount Gambier, SA : 1861 – 1954) 4 August 1936, pp.6. Web. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article77934134. Accessed 10/10/16.

[iv]Author Unknown. ‘Soon We’ll All Be Brilliant’. The Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 – 1954) 15 May 1937, pp.2. Web. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article55930408. Accessed 10/10/ 16.

[v]Meddows, David. ‘Sean King bashed teen girlfriend so violently she looked like a car crash victim’. The Daily Telegraph. 9 December 2015: Web. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/special-features/in-depth/ice-addict-killers-sean-king-blames-the-toxic-drug-for-brutal-bashing-murder-of-jazminjean-ajbschitz/news-story/eb97687dcb45a6e7e958ab4264558c2c. Accessed 09/09/16.

[vi] ‘Ice destroys lives Australia Government Commercial 2015 HD’ Youtube, uploaded by Commercials HD: Abantec, 15 May 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfB3iK9jQ_I. Accessed 15/08/16.

[vii] ‘Crystal Meth’ Foundation for a Drug-Free World, 2006-2016, http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/crystalmeth.html Accessed 15/08/16.

[viii]Degenhardt L; Larney S; Chan G; Dobbins T; Weier M; Roxburgh A; Hall WD; McKetin R, 2016, ‘Estimating the number of regular and dependent methamphetamine users in Australia, 2002-2014′, The Medical journal of Australia, vol. 204, pp. 153. Print.

[ix] Metherell, Lexi. ‘Liverpool community members express unease with plans for Australia’s first ice inhalation room’. ABC News. 24 August 2016. Web. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-24/liverpool-community-uneasy-with-plans-for-ice-inhalation-room/7780070 Accessed 10/09/16.

Black, Holly. Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print.

 

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The Golden Mile in Sticky Shoes, Victoria Marin

It was a mild September night as I walked from Kings Cross station toward Victoria Street. There were people who really ought to be wearing a jacket, lining Darlinghurst Road handing us coupons for their venues. Free drink! Free entry! Each one seemed just as enticing as the next to a young crowd starting out the night. I was with a group of friends – it was my first time in Kings Cross – and I felt reassured by safety in numbers. Young people flooded the area as we headed down Bayswater Road, congregating in packs as though marking their territory. With arms slung over each other, groups of mates stumbled around to their next party stop. Perhaps it is my own lack of interest in getting intoxicated beyond recognition, but the volatility of nightlife in Kings Cross made me feel uneasy. Growing up watching news segments that showed the worst of the Cross’ nightlife put me on edge. I knew it could change from pushes and shoves to punches being thrown in the blink of an eye.

Still onwards I went, following the leaders to World Bar. A popular venue where they sell shots of vodka that taste like Skittles. It was the overwhelming smell of tobacco that hit me first. Shuffling through the narrow gaps in the crowd to get inside, the soles of my shoes stuck to the floor with each step. With two drinks for the price of one in each hand, we wondered around looking for a table. What a prize to find a table. They are few and far between in any venue. Spare stools were lying around which we slowly accumulated until all four of us were comfortably seated…more or less. By the time I went back for a second round of drinks the atmosphere had shifted towards the sloppy end of intoxication. This was only the beginning.

 

*

 

In 2001, when Kings Cross was in its golden age where bars, pubs, and brothels kept their candles burning well into the early hours of the morning. Helen and Arthur – my aunt and uncle – started up an Italian pizzeria on Victoria Street. It was previously owned by family friends who had decided to move back to Argentina. My aunt says at the time there were ‘half as many restaurants on Victoria Street.’[i] At first the restaurant was nothing but a shell. The sour smell of fresh insect poison stung my eyes. The kitchen was tucked away behind the front counter, concealing huge steel ovens and benches that still had their plastic labels on them. The dining room had been cleared out to polish the tiles. Delivered tables and chairs sat stacked outside. My cousins sat in the upstairs dining room polishing cutlery. The sun had just begun bowing its head for the day, leaving polluted rays to light the street which was preparing itself for another big night. Above the restaurant was a small apartment that my aunt and uncle began renting in 2003. After their nightly dinner service they would retire upstairs to their apartment. Being so close to the main road, they watched nights disappear into mornings where people eventually stumbled their way home. My aunt says she remembers that from around 2010 onwards, more and more young girls were getting themselves into strife. She and my uncle have witnessed some horror stories, she says; watching young girls struggling to stay upright, and even restraining a young woman whom they presumed was high on something, from attacking their dinner guests. Christie, their daughter, was 21 at the time and just beginning to venture into the Kings Cross nightlife scene. She recalls the queues for nightclubs – Hugo’s in particular – wound all the way down the street and around the corner. Despite being completely ‘packed,’[ii] and ‘messy,’[iii] there was a distinct ‘community feel,’[iv] she says, but that deteriorated quite quickly in the following years.

 

*

 

By round three, I was a little cloudy. My fingers were numb, my tongue wasn’t working properly and it had gotten very warm. Perched on my stool, I recall thinking that people were really enjoying themselves, maybe even a bit too much.

The scene began in the 1920s when the residential landscape began to shift. New apartment buildings were being constructed across the Kings Cross precinct in Darlinghurst, Woolloomooloo, Potts Point, and Elizabeth Bay. They replaced the existing boarding houses and residential chambers that had largely occupied the area. With the rising number of residents in the area, the commercial sector began shifting too. Kings Cross was a becoming a Bohemian place, not just in its new living style but also in its food and entertainment. Bars, restaurants and cafes were the platform for the emerging atmosphere; where artists, writers and musicians began crafting the scene. Murals sprung up on the sides of buildings, both local and international bands and musicians made regular appearances. The Australian poet Kenneth Slessor based much of his poetry on life in Kings Cross during the 1920s, when its seedier, more dangerous side began to emerge. In the journal article Home in 1923, Slessor wrote that Kings Cross ‘is a chasm, echoing with romance and adventure – and hidden drunks.’[v] There has always been something about these streets that make Kings Cross so alluring. Anne Summers, a long-time resident and author wrote that ‘the romance of the place is that it embodies the tougher, edgier side of life.’[vi]

The 1920s brewed an illicit trade of razor-gangs and thuggery in a violent territorial war. Assaults and shootings were all the more frequent. An Australian drama series, Underbelly: Razor that aired in 2011 documented the crimes in the underworld of Kings Cross; from notorious brothel owners, to assassins and corrupt police officers. The show had massive success and was ranked ‘the highest ever drama to have screened,’[vii] in Australia since 2001. While the troubles of the 1920s soon dissipated after countless Royal Commissions, there remained an undercurrent of criminal intent well into the new millennium. Between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, another bout of organised crime surfaced where corrupt police officers and prominent night-club owners were caught drug dealing and organising prostitution. The ‘King of the Cross’, John Ibrahim, was a leading figure in this new era. The Underbelly franchise capitalised on his reputation in another series, Underbelly: the Golden Mile,which traced the 1995 Woods Royal Commission into drug and prostitution crimes. He would frequent the Cross, enough for my aunt and uncle to see him ‘hanging around with his mob’[viii] on their way to Coles. Christie comments that she once saw him pull up in front of Show Girls to pick up his money shortly before leaving. ‘It was like a movie.’[ix]

 

*

 

From this cultural landscape came a series of events that forever changed nightlife in Kings Cross and most of wider Sydney. On my way home from my first night out in Kings Cross, even in my haze, I watched security guards throw young men out of the venue and quite literally shut the doors in their face. It seems I turned 18 during one of the most violent times in Sydney’s nightlife history. Kings Cross was a place that got wild even on a school night. Anne Summers describes it as a ‘place of risk, full of gamblers who seldom win much and who often lose everything, including their lives.’[x]

In July of 2012, a young couple were heading out for a birthday on Victoria Street. It would later be revealed that the young woman was apprehensive about heading into the Cross that night. One random and unprovoked punch from a violent man was enough to fatally injure her partner. It was early in the night, just after 10pm when the incident happened. At the time I was 17. It’s hard to forget the shock of such vicious attacks at that age. The name, Thomas Kelly, still strikes a very sensitive chord.

Similar fatalities were occurring around Sydney. In an interview with Gordian Fulde, the head of the emergency ward at St Vincent’s Hospital in Kings Cross, he described the scene in the emergency ward during this period as ‘really busy,’[xi] and the longer people were out the busier it got. Generally speaking, 10pm onwards saw young girls, typically in their 20s, come in who had ‘drunk too much on an empty stomach.’[xii] Midnight onwards brought in testosterone fuelled young men, whose bodies were toxic with alcohol.

In March of 2014, the NSW government introduced alcohol laws to Sydney’s CBD, in an attempt to ‘crackdown on drug and alcohol-fuelled violence.’[xiii] These laws had been used in other parts of NSW. In 2008, Newcastle experienced ‘something of an element of the Wild West.’[xiv] Young people would pre-load on alcohol before heading into the city and nightclubs, where they would be topping up until all hours of the morning. When they were eventually asked to leave, violence broke out on the streets. It was called the ‘Newcastle experiment.’[xv] The Newcastle coalition ‘scaled trading hours back to 3am in the CBD and instituted a lockout that prevented patrons entering licensed venues after 1am.’[xvi] Much like Sydney, assault rates dropped and violence in the CBD had considerably reduced.

In the eight years since, these laws have become known as the ‘Newcastle solution.’[xvii] In Sydney the effects seem to have succeeded in keeping patrons safe and reducing violence in venues and on the street. The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research ‘found that the reforms were associated with an immediate and substantial reduction in assault in Kings Cross (down 32%) and a less immediate but substantial and perhaps ongoing reduction in the Sydney CBD (down 26%).’[xviii] Fulde says the scene on the footpaths of Kings Cross was the first positive change following the lockout laws. ‘They are safe now,’[xix] he says. Reports gathered by the emergency department at St Vincent’s hospital showed a ‘25% decrease in the most critically injured patients coming in over the weekend,’[xx] which Fulde calls ‘high alcohol time.’[xxi] There are few worthy arguments against a policy that ensures fewer lives are lost, however like every political decision, it has its opposition…

 

By February of 2016 it stood at 16 licensed venues had shut down in Kings Cross since the 2014 lockout laws. The loss of local businesses has had ramifications on trade, employment, and culture. NSW Premier, Mike Baird, describes opposition to the laws as ‘growing hysteria.’[xxii] When the popular nightclub Hugo’s closed its doors, in August of 2015 something of a panic swelled among protestors, with signs reading ‘locked out of venues = locked out from jobs,’[xxiii] Kings Cross businesses are going as far as seeking compensation for the impact the new laws have had. ‘The streets became bare,’[xxiv] my aunt says. Victoria Street had developed into a bar and restaurant metropolis on its own. It was only in May of 2015 when they arranged their liquor license. Prior to that they had been operating as a BYO business. People would just ‘walk out,’[xxv] because venues that sold alcohol were what patrons were looking for. Already tough times were made tougher.

On the 31st of May 2016 my aunt and uncle closed their restaurant. While my aunt says it wasn’t a ‘direct decision’[xxvi] to close after the lockout laws, the downturn was obvious. ‘It wasn’t going to get better.’[xxvii]

Businesses all over the Kings Cross precinct have felt the slow burn of a culture being locked out. The decrease in patronage, particularly of the male variety, has hit the brothel industry hard. Kellet Street, once full of brothels, has seen several adult establishments shut their doors. There are simply not enough young men to make a profit anymore. The new owner of number 16 Kellet Street, formerly known as Cleopatra in the City, ‘plans to turn the space into a licensed boarding house,’[xxviii] transforming it back to what Kings Cross was once known for. Plans for redevelopment of sold-off brothels include high-rise apartment buildings, more boarding houses, and bars and restaurants. Kings Cross was always a modern place. It makes sense, but the thought of knocking these historical buildings down to build more high-rises is depressing. Victoria Street has always been home to bars and restaurants as opposed to nightclubs and brothels, some lasting longer than others. My aunt says ‘the true picture comes from seeing every second shop on Darlinghurst Road with a for lease sign.’[xxix]

 

*

 

Newcastle is now a thriving coastal destination with a nightlife to match. Commissioner of the Newcastle lockouts, Tony Brown, revealed that ‘there has been a 100% increase in the number of licensed premises, which has led to more jobs.’[xxx] In Los Angeles nightclubs close for good at 2am. While my cousin is cradling her first baby boy she says ‘where don’t you see the odd fight? In a mass of nightclubs in the space of a few meters you’re bound to encounter violence.’ She kisses her son and smiles ‘But he isn’t allowed out.’[xxxi] The Coca-Cola sign that dominates the Cross is the last remaining survivor of Sydney’s most iconic suburb. Its flashing red light is about the only red light left in the district. ‘We never thought this is how it would end,’[xxxii] my aunt says.

Lockout laws have now been part of my nightlife experience longer than they haven’t. The trend for young people now is to head to the lockout-free areas of Sydney; Newtown and Surry Hills precincts. Gordian Fulde reveals the local hospital in these areas, Royal Prince Alfred hospital, have seen a decrease in alcohol-related injuries. This may signal part of a cultural change.

Perhaps these laws are doing more than we think? Despite their unpopularity, the laws did their job in reducing alcohol-related injuries and deaths. It’s difficult to think of a good enough rebuttal to that result. It is a great shame it had to play out as fatally, and as abruptly as it did; that we couldn’t see this problem coming sooner, or chose to turn a blind eye and have another drink instead. Not just in the loss of life, but in the loss of a family business, and others alike; that held birthdays, graduations, and baby showers over the years. Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves now is why people need to be heavily drinking past 3am and why they are violent when they do…

 

 

 

Works Cited

[i] Lanza, Helen. Personal interview. 2 October 2016.

[ii] Lanza, Christie. Personal interview. 2 October 2016.

[iii] Ibid, p 2.

[iv] Ibid, p 2.

[v] Dunn, Mark. ‘Kings Cross.’ Kings Cross. Dictionary of Sydney. 2011. Web. <http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/kings_cross>

[vi] Summers, Anne. ‘In the Gutter … Looking at the Stars. A Literary Adventure Through Kings Cross (Edited by Mandy Sayer and Louis Nowra).’ Preface. In the Gutter … Looking at the Stars. A Literary Adventure Through Kings Cross Anne Summers. Web. <http://www.annesummers.com.au/speeches/in-the-gutter-looking-at-the-stars-a-literary-adventure-through-kings-cross-edited-by-mandy-sayer-and-louis-nowra/>

[vii] Channel Nine. ‘Underbelly: Razor Sets New Ratings Record.’ Web blog post. Underbelly: Razor Set New Rating Record – Throng. Throng, 30 August 2011. Web. http://www.throng.com.au/2011/08/underbelly-razor-sets-new-ratings-records/

[viii] Lanza, Christie. Personal interview. 2 October 2016.

[ix] Ibid, p4.

[x] Summers, Anne. ‘In the Gutter … Looking at the Stars. A Literary Adventure Through Kings Cross (Edited by Mandy Sayer and Louis Nowra).’ Preface. In the Gutter … Looking at the Stars. A Literary Adventure Through Kings Cross Anne Summers. Web. <http://www.annesummers.com.au/speeches/in-the-gutter-looking-at-the-stars-a-literary-adventure-through-kings-cross-edited-by-mandy-sayer-and-louis-nowra/>

[xi] Fulde, Prof Gordian. Phone interview. 2 October 2016.

[xii] Ibid, p4.

[xiii] NSW Government. ‘New Alcohol Laws in Place │Sydney’s alcohol laws.’ New South Wales Government. 2016. Web. <http://www.nsw.gov.au/newlaws>

[xiv] Stephens, Kim. ‘Lockout laws: How Newcastle stopped the bloodshed.’ Brisbane Times. 10 January 2016. Web. <http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/lockout-laws-how-newcastle-stopped-the-bloodshed-20160109-gm2lfg.html>

[xv] Ibid, p 5.

[xvi] Ibid, p 5.

[xvii] Ibid, p 5.

[xviii] Weatherburn, Dr. Don. ‘Media Release: “Lockout” law evaluation.’ NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. 16 April 2015. Web. <http://www.bocsar.nsw.gov.au/Pages/bocsar_media_releases/2015/mr_cjb183.aspx>

[xix] Fulde, Prof Gordian. Phone interview. 2 October 2016.

[xx] ABC News. ‘Alcohol-related injuries down at St Vincent’s Hospital since Kings Cross lockout laws introduced.’ Australian Broadcasting Corporation News. 2 November 2015. Web. <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-11-02/alcohol-related-injuries-down-since-kings-cross-lockout-laws/6904450>

[xxi] Fulde, Prof Gordian. Phone interview. 2 October 2016.

[xxii] McKeith, Sam. ‘Sydney Lockout Laws Have Had A ‘Massive Effect’ On Community, Jobs.’ The Huffington Post. 13 February 2016. Web. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2016/02/13/sydney-lockout-laws-have-had-a-massive-effect-on-community-jo/>

[xxiii] Dumas, Daisy. ‘Kings Cross businesses seek compensation for impact of lockout laws.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. 7 August 2015. Web. <http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/kings-cross-businesses-seek-compensation-for-impact-of-lockout-laws-20150806-git5gh.html>

[xxiv] Lanza, Helen. Personal interview. 2 October 2016.

[xxv] Ibid, p 5.

[xxvi] Ibid, p 6.

[xxvii] Ibid, p 6.

[xxviii] Gorman, James. CENtRAL. ‘”People don’t come to Kings Cross for sex”: Lockout laws killing off famed red light district.’ The Daily Telegraph. 15 April 2015. Web. <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/city-east/people-dont-come-to-kings-cross-for-sex-lockout-laws-killing-off-famed-red-light-district/news-story/801c558035d74b393a6780218fe9ad54>

[xxix] Lanza, Helen. Personal interview. 2 October 2016.

[xxx] Stephens, Kim. ‘Lockout laws: How Newcastle stopped the bloodshed.’ Brisbane Times. 10 January 2016. Web. <http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/lockout-laws-how-newcastle-stopped-the-bloodshed-20160109-gm2lfg.html>

[xxxi] Lanza, Christie. Personal interview. 2 October 2016.

[xxxii] Lanza, Helen. Personal interview. 2 October 2016.

 

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Pub Grubs, Rohan Viswalingam

Sydney is dead. That’s what you’d hear people say and everyone seemed to agree. I didn’t. It was Sunday, the ninth of October 2016 and I was standing in Belmore Park, a two-minute walk from Central Station, Sydney. The park was filled with people, mostly young. They were all there for the second ‘Keep Sydney Open’ rally.
I looked around and saw people talking, smiling and some dancing to minimal tech being shot out of a couple of speakers in the centre of the grass.

The speakers framed two DJs working their decks in the back of a hired Ute, their equipment festooned with rainbow ribbons. I didn’t know their names.
When the lockout laws were first rolled out in Sydney in 2014, I like many others, was afraid nightlife in the CBD would flat-line. I was afraid because I loved to go out and I thought I’d lose the ability to make sparks fly when the hour was late. But a setting doesn’t dictate the experiences you have and the ones you want – your attitude does.

I wandered through the groups of people, looking at the signs they’d made and chuckled to myself. I saw: ‘Baird – Culture Vulture’, relating to our turbulent premier Mike Baird, ‘Sorry Nightlife Is Currently Unavailable’ and a personal favourite of mine and a well known classic, ‘It’s Not My Baird Time’.
I then saw the back of someone I recognised. Sam Hansen. A guy I met on a whim at a university party. I’d offered him pizza for no particular reason and invited him to a party I was having. He turned out to be a good presence with all his faculties in check. What made him different was his noticeable proclivity toward protesting. So, I smirked as I walked up behind him. A roll of white card stuck out of his backpack.
‘Of course you’re here!’ I announced. He turned and looked at me for a moment. It’d been a while since we last spoke so I was a stranger to him at first. Then he smiled back.
‘Rohan, mate, how’re you?’ I shook his hand.
‘Very well, you packing heat today?’ I asked as I motioned to his rolled card behind his head. He recognised it.
‘Haven’t written anything yet, gotta come up with something good you know?’
‘What about “No Lockout Laws and Happy Greyhound Paws”?’ We both laughed and Sam pointed to the centre.
‘Let’s go to the middle, people are dancing there.’
‘Amen.’

Dancing in the midday summer heat would have been favourable had I not had work in two hours. I predicted I’d make a little of the march then would have to leave – a shame, as the vibes of democratic protest were starting to become intoxicating. The music beat was fast and the bass was muted and deep – just the way dancers liked it. It blew my mind that so many people could rock up to a place like this on a weekend, voluntarily. So I celebrated and bopped and swayed among the forest of wooden posts, sporting their signs high up like a canopy of leaves. Someone tapped me on the shoulder, it was Sam.
‘I’m gonna find my friend I’ll see you around.’ I gave him thumps up and returned to solo exhibitionism. Learning how to dance and have a good time on your own is a slowly-learned, vital skill that I had acquired. I’d recommend it to anyone. Losing your group of friends while you’re out is a common experience and a potential downer. But if you know how to operate alone the stakes get a lot lower when you find yourself adrift. For girls this was different, and this is why many of them stuck together like industry-strength adhesive. But issues of gender are another story, not this one.

The music suddenly stopped. Groans galore. A man named Tyson Koh swapped places with the DJs and spoke into a mike. He was the spokesperson for the campaign, this was the first time I’d heard him. His eyelids were sleepy but his eyes were not and they beamed out through his beady, hipster rim glasses. He spoke words of stealing Sydney, the death of culture and live music, of fat cats and casinos, of violence and of friendship and creativity. He also spoke of Melbourne, a city south of us that had so far avoided the dreaded one thirty AM lockdown.
The march began and the crowd, in a slow current, started plodding north. We moved onto Hay Street, under the train overpass where our voices echoed for a moment and out onto Elizabeth Street.
I called Ben. He was to meet me up at the corner of Liverpool a few hundred metres up. The crowd wasn’t too loud but I had to yell into my phone. The corner came and I waved to him from the side of the worm and he joined in. He was well built and walked with a gladiatorial eagerness, his forearms would swing high and both hands were open like they were about to catch a footy. He had pug eyes but that didn’t seem to be a flaw, merely a singularity in a beautiful and jovial face. Of course physical beauty had its place, but there’s no sin in luxuriating in it, like a girls waterfall hair or sand dune legs, or a man’s knife edge jaw line and craggy brow.
We walked up to Oxford Street. People watched from unit blocks above, tiny people way up in the sky looking down at the swirling mass of people below. Cars sounded their horns on the other side of the road, raising cheers from the crowd. A guy in front of me brandished a handheld speaker, held it over his head like a trophy, spitting out more EDM, fuelling the spirit even more in his radius. I saw so many beautiful women, dressed up in lively summer denim and baggy white shirts with those knots done at the torso. The men were all so sanguine, striding up the white lines of the road, with their revamped nineties snapbacks and Mac DeMarco rat moustaches. There were a few older folks dotted here and there, veterans of the night, still bobbing their heads to the plumes of music wafting in the air.

Over the past year or so I’d been out with Ben at night so often that he’d become a best friend. I only had one other from school but Ben satiated my underworked impulsive side. He was the best host, a better drinking buddy and if you could weather the rollercoaster then you’d have a great time. He, like me, could keep his head screwed on no matter how wild things got, which made for some interesting and well-remembered stories. There was never any memory loss; we enjoyed it too much for that to happen.
He was one of the many Sydney nightlife success stories that the anti lockout crowd chose to ignore. I loved all the signs I saw but one at the first rally. It said this: “F**k this, I’m moving to Melbourne”. There seemed to be a sentiment of faithlessness in Sydney. Like these people wanted it to provide them everything they needed to have a fulfilling nightlife. And that if it didn’t deal out a winning hand every single time they went out, they’d simply pack their bags and move to a very similar city. I’ve been to Melbourne and it’s a hoot but that was because of my attitude, not because the bars and clubs were open twenty-four seven.

For better or worse, my attitude was uncompromising in having a good time and sharing that with other people, making them feel included whoever they were, making them feel thankful they got on a train and hiked it all the way into the CBD. Ben shared the same impulse and I had made so many good memories with friends and also strangers before the lockout laws. After lock out laws were introduced in February 2014, my memories and the experiences that forged them actually got better. This was because I now had to be mindful about the way I planned my night.

With fewer resources one is forced to be more creative and I was able to do that on my own or in league with Ben. We sort out different venues, different events for different crowds. I got into the deep house dance scene, jazz bars, whiskey bars, poetry reading, book clubs, performance art, rock metal gigs, late night film screenings and festivals, warehouse parties, dress up parties (even though I hate dressing up) and even a fetish party. Plus the old faithful beer and footy with mates at the pub. The nightlife never went anywhere, it wasn’t dying off under the stairs, and it was all still happening, waiting for people to dive in.
So why was everybody so angry? Because a lot of crowd were cynics who saw Kings Cross as the face of Sydney nightlife and that if they didn’t fit into that scene, all two-to-four streets of it, they would give up all hope and write off the rest of the city as a sloppy failure. The angst would permeate most social groups as the groups’ themselves couldn’t be bothered, or were for whatever reason unable to go to places other than the now deceased workhorses Bar Century and Soho.
If we were so against the lockout laws we should have been protesting but also filling up the dance floors, bars and stages of the venues we loved, great and small, mainstream and underground.
Jimmy Barnes, lead of Cold Chisel, spoke out about the forty percent drop in attendance to live music events. That was our fault. How can you make a stand if you show up to protest, but not at the locations the protest aims to protect?

The crowd plods up Oxford Street, a place where I had seen a decline in populace happening at night.
‘We’re going so fast aren’t we?’ said Ben.
‘Yeah like F1, I have to go work soon.’ I said and then proceeded to make an F1 sound with my mouth. Ben and I did this together. You squeeze your lips tight and then tense your stomach and force air at high pressure through your lips while trying to keep them closed. The sound is like the old V12 engines the cars used to have – the ear splitting, earthquake sound. But for us it sounded like slowly letting the air out of a balloon.
‘Two o’clock right? You’ve got ten minutes to walk all the way back to Central’ He asked, I nodded like a head banger and made a face.
‘Yeah got caught up in the vibes, everyone’s all about our generation not caring about things, but look at this shit.’ I gestured to the masses. Ben jumped, peeking at the line snaking ahead, and then he did the same to see the rear.
‘Quite a lot of people.’
‘Yes.’
‘Protesting the fact that it’s a little bit harder to get a shitty drink past one thirty.’
I laughed. He did have a point.
‘Only the biggest issues in this country.’
‘Oui, you know what else is big?’ No joke is too shameful for Ben.
‘You’re a big dumbass, that’s what’s big.’ I deflected feebly.
‘Nah my dad was a big drinker, sort of became another person after a few. He wasn’t bad, just annoying and like, loose and everything.’ I changed tact, came down to his level.
‘Oh right, well yeah the issue goes back to that I guess. You know our cultural love affair with the bottle. And guys are getting hurt, and dying as well. I mean how can people protest against a decline in violence? Everyone just kinda gleans over that here.’
I did remember seeing a sign advocating to keep Sydney closed.
‘Well yeah they sorta do, but ‘Keep Sydney Open’ want better than blanket solutions. Like Oxford Arts Factory was a graveyard last week.’ He pointed behind me to the Factory, we passed it a few minutes ago.
‘Yeah there were less people.’ I said half to myself. ‘I reckon two thirty or three might be the sweet spot, so places don’t lose so much money, I never knew it would have such a tangible effect in some places.’
‘It’s a bloodbath in some joints.’
I sighed, ‘If Baird can back flip on the greyhound issue everybody suddenly cares about then maybe he will for this. I still love this city, it’s ridiculously beautiful and I’ve been able to satisfy myself and lockout laws haven’t changed that. We’re invincible, matey.’
Ben laughed knowingly, kind of like he knew it wasn’t completely true, that we were unbeatable at times. Ben was Gatsby, Jordan Belfort and Chopper Read all in one but still managed to actually be a proper friend (and also didn’t assault people or commit crimes if you’re worried about the latter moniker). That’s what was just in that knowing laugh. He had all the excitement and almost rabid thirst for experience but also the same fears and insecurities as Joe Blow from down the street. I wasn’t Joe Blow but I certainly wasn’t Gatsby.
But I loved Ben and what we’d done, him as pilot and me as co. Two pub grubs screaming through the sky in a jet made of taxi parts, running on beer, cigarettes and other disparaging substances. There was no destination, just spending time together. I suppose that’s all I ever wanted. Not to miss out on things like that. For us, lockout laws were a non-issue. I said goodbye to Ben and left the crowd.

I rang work to say I was running late, they were okay with it. I cut back down south toward Central through Pelican Alley and then Goulburn Street. My stomach rumbled and I realized that I hadn’t eaten that day.
I slumped into the chair in the newsroom, sizing up the eight-hour shift in my head. The rally would end in Taylor Square where they’d probably have some big bands and more speeches. I had a responsibility to be there but also to work. A reporter I’d seen down at Belmore Park brought in camera cards; the story would feature on the bulletin that night. I perused through the footage on the computer, none of my fantastic face in there but I suppose the crowd made up for it. More attractive women wearing John Lennon shades and daisy chains. I smiled to myself and closed the window.

I’d probably end up going out with Ben that night, maybe to Mali Bar, or Side Bar, Midnight Special, The Bank, The Different Drummer, World Bar, The Palisade, Bungalow 8, Sweeney’s, White Horse, Beresford. Onwards I would go in an endless search for love and human connection, of silence after the noise of voices and music, of the quiet humming of a nourished soul at the end of a good night out.

Sydney is not dead, but perhaps it’s just transitioning between stages of life in certain areas. There are still buckets of the hopes of youths running through our streets – you just have to leave the house to find it.
To re-appropriate a platitude: If you can’t handle the heat, learn to love it and get cooking in the kitchen, because Sydney can still whip up a raging feast. And we can all peacefully sit down and dine. Are you hungry? Because I sure as hell am!

 

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Isolation Stations, Benjamin Breadon

Who in sweet hell thought a mixture of steel and grey paint would make a good start to every workday? I’d always thought graffiti was supposed to be a sort of colourful revolt against dull concrete and metal, however the daily rotation on the clock tower across the road is certainly no Michelangelo. Unreadable black spray-paint is only so inspiring.
The positioning of Woy Woy’s 128-year-old train station will always count for something; a picturesque entry and exit point for the south Central Coast’s Peninsula, just 10 metres from the bay that shares the town’s name. But the structure itself has become as contradicting as the people that use it.
I walk down the ramp to where a crowd has gathered, on the Newcastle-to-Central platform. It’s a sunny yet cold Wednesday morning, and the majority have crammed under the shelter to avoid the sun’s glare – mostly men in suits and women in pencil skirts, gazes fixed upon the dark asphalt, or the darker headlines on their phone screens. Some pore over thick books with eyes that look like they will fall onto the page. A recent study from Lifeline Australia says over 80% of Aussies believe that society has become a lonelier place than it was in the past , and here it’s not hard to see why. How can so many people be so close together, yet still be so isolated? You would have better odds of a first-ever Central Coast snowstorm than seeing someone smile in this crowd.
But I suppose that’s painting the scene with a broad brush. Further down the platform, a group of elderly couples are sitting with hiking packs, chatting away. Crowds of kids in green uniforms shout and grab each other’s backpacks as they wait for the 50-minute trip to their school in Asquith. Nearby, a mum and dad try to keep a hold on four luggage bags, as well as the hands of their young children. Those interacting with somebody else seem so much happier than those standing alone.
Having skipped brekkie, I feed $5 into the Up & Go machine next to the hiking couples. It graciously returns me just a 50c coin. Awesome. But I can’t help smiling, remembering how train station vending machines have never been cooperative with me. When I was around fifteen, my mate Lewy and I used to take our bikes to visit another friend who had moved to Warnervale. We had just discovered the miracle of coffee, and decided on our way home that I would have enough time on a stopover to jump off and grab us two from the machine at Gosford Station. The vending machine didn’t appreciate our urgency and I ended up catching the next train home, arriving at Woy Woy twenty minutes later with a cold coffee in each hand, only to find Lewy holding a bike in each of his.

 

*

 

I’m headed into the city to visit friends and I need to get some Uni readings done. In one of the ‘quiet carriages’ that make up the front, back, and two centre carriages of the train’s eight, I sit next to a tiny old Asian woman. She frowns like I’ve sat on her birthday cake. The air – the only part of the train’s insides that isn’t coloured a kidney-purple – is thick with a hostility that only the twice-a-day repetition of hour-plus train trips can bring.
Then the worst happens – a phone rings. The default iPhone tone echoes throughout the carriage. Everyone looks up to glare holes through the person responsible, this abuser of our right to remain silent. In their defence, this is probably the early-morning alarm tone of 90% of the people here. The culprit – a lady with greying brown hair and a bright pink cardigan – looks around nervously, waits for the ringing to stop without taking the call, and shrinks into her seat.
I sit and watch her for a while, with my web design readings open on my lap, thinking of what the call might’ve been about. Could’ve been anything really – a neighbour calling to let her know her dog, Spud, had pulled off a great escape by leaping a two-metre fence, or a friend wishing her a happy birthday. It could have been the hospital, ringing to say that a loved one had been in a car accident. Maybe it was a bank rep, calling to ask if she was aware her credit card had been charged $400 for the purchase of 800 low-grade Yo-Yos from a shady eBay seller based in Sweden. Who knows? Who would ask?
She puts her phone back into her not-purple handbag. I look out the window at the Hawkesbury River as though playing a part in a 90’s music video. Work? The aquarium? The casino? I wonder who the woman is, and how anyone even defines that. A man with a belly forced into a light-blue shirt and tie starts snoring across the aisle. Where does he work? Is he at the bottom or top of the corporate ladder? The woman on my left shifts in her seat as I start scribbling words onto my book margins with a highlighter: TRAIN TRIPS. SILENCE. HOSTILITY. PHONE. PINK CARDIGAN. My highlighter squeaks, and she exhales loudly. Why is everyone so cranky? sunder
The word sonder comes to mind; a term I’d come across for the umpteenth time through a Facebook meme the night before. The word doesn’t seem to belong to any dictionary andI tracked its origins to a webpage that was later published as a book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig . Sonder means the realisation that every other person has their own histories, loves, hates and attitudes; their own friends, families and enemies. It means that even though in the overall scheme of things they may just be one random passenger sharing a train trip, but every stranger is just as complex as you – which also means there are thousands of reasons as to why someone might be in a bad mood.
I shove my book into my bag and stand up – it is way too quiet and it’s doing my head in.

 

*

 

The ‘quiet’ carriages mean well. They aim to make trips more bearable and ‘provide you with a quiet environment when travelling longer distances’ . And the stress that comes with commuting is by no means an imaginary thing – a direct link has been found between psychological stress and both rail and automobile commutes: longer trips tend to increase passengers’ stress levels, with crowding and noise said to be particular contributors .
But it is hard to judge whether staying quiet in a carriage crammed with people is truly helpful, or if it fosters an atmosphere that makes you worry about getting king-hit by a stranger for sneezing. If we’re all glued to our phones in silence, will that silence really be more beneficial than talking to each other? The CEO of Lifeline Australia, Pete Shmigel, summed up a recent Lifeline study on loneliness: ‘for a society that is more technologically connected than we have ever been, these [survey] results suggest we are overlooking good, old-fashioned care and compassion when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing.’i
Tiptoeing my way down the aisle, I realise that a prohibition of noise reads like something dystopian out of V for Vendetta. Especially when that silence now spans half of almost every train in NSW. We live in a time where a whole train carriage might antagonise you, simply because your phone went off. Is breeding a culture of isolation really the answer to the stresses of everyday commuting? More importantly, is this change dangerous on a wider scale? Nowadays it takes insane courage to strike up a conversation with a stranger in public, spending two days afterwards critically analysing every word you said. It’s just how it is, right? We were raised not to talk to strangers. Nobody told us to try again at an older age when we could judge our own safety. But loneliness has become rampant in modern culture: Australia’s suicide rates are at a 13-year high, with loneliness also being linked to higher instances of heart disease, stroke and generally shorter lifespans .
We are in mortal danger of falling out of touch with each other.
But how can we battle this culture of isolation? Just yesterday, as I drove 45-minutes along the M1 from work, although I was just listening to the radio on my own, I’d thought about how time seemed to pass so much quicker while listening to completely average people call in and tell stories on the Hamish and Andy show.
I’m not alone in finding pleasure in other peoples’ stories. It’s human nature. Clinical psychology theorist Miller Mair argues, ‘Stories are habitations. We live in and through stories. They conjure worlds. We do not know the world other than as story world. Stories inform life. They hold us together and keep us apart.’
Mair went on to argue something very similar to the recent term sonder: ‘We are, each of us, locations where the stories of our place and time become partially tellable.’
How can it feel lonely on a train packed with people, whilst being alone in the car listening to people sharing personal stories is inclusive and entertaining?
Paul J. Zak of the Harvard Business Review pins this on the release of our feel-good chemical: ‘Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.’
Zak says that the tension of a good story creates empathy between the teller and their audience: ‘If that story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviours of those characters.’
What if the characters Zak mentions, are ourselves? If we are in the company of others each day, full of stories that make us feel good to tell and hear, then why not take advantage? Even if they are silly stories, like someone missing a train at Gosford Station ten years ago for a crappy vending machine coffee. And of course, not everyone sitting silently on the train is sad to be doing so. Mny people would prefer to just read a book or sit on their phone. But these, like us, are just containers of stories. Encouraging ourselves to at least be open to a chat might be helpful. You never know what one conversation could do for a person. Plus, if a culture of storytelling takes off, it’s only natural that we’d all get better at it.

 

*

 

Unfortunately, it seems the culture has spilled over. I’m moving down the train through carriages that aren’t officially “quiet” but you’d still hear a pin drop. I have to walk down a few before I find one that’s comfortable. And it isn’t just one or two people talking in here – it’s the majority of the carriage, and the tension from the beginning of the train is nowhere to be found. I flop into a spare seat and soak up the noise.
Across the aisle, an elderly man with slicked brown hair talks on the phone. He is trying to jam the handset inside his earhole without realising it’son loudspeaker. He has a thick accent that makes it tough to figure out what he’s saying, and by the responses he’s getting from the speaker it seems the other guy’s struggling too: ‘What?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Righto.’
From the seat behind me, one elderly woman is trying to convince another to go to the Avoca Picture Theatre for the Melbourne Cup in a few months’ time.
‘It’s only $48 per person,’
The other woman gasps.
‘But you get to have champagne in the garden, have some fish and chips from the nice shop nearby, and you get to watch the race on the big screen. AND you get dessert! But I’m not sure whether that’s before or after the race. So it’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive if you look at what you get for it.’
The other woman doesn’t respond, likely just as confused as her friend’s last selling point.
The city’s skyline comes in view. The lady rambling about the picture theatre makes me think of the places we go. They too are just containers of stories: how many people have passed through the doors of the theatre over its’ lifetime, and what lead them to go there? All the questions in the world are answered with stories. The amount that must be held within the walls of every building here is mind-blowing. The sky-high apartment buildings, small shopfronts, the old brick factories that seem abandoned but have new Hilux’s in their parking spots.

 

*

When I exit the train at Central, the atmosphere again turns hostile. People crowd toward the exits or to other platforms to switch trains. You half expect to see a lion named Mufasa being trampled somewhere in the middle. It’s also kind of like how I’d imagine the inside of a beehive; everyone too busy to talk, and there’s a sort of buzzing hostility hardwired by efficiency.
The bees swarm past around a dozen or so people, huddled in sleeping bags on the station’s stone floor. How did they come to be here, in this position? I pause for a moment, but then keep walking. Even after reflecting on the value of being open to other people, it still seems too weird to ask and too out of place to strike up a conversation.
There’s more than just our daily commute that would benefit from hearing other people’s stories and understand deeper understanding of each other.

 

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Live a Little, Laura Schwebel

When I stumbled upon Mr Simmons, on the office rooftop, standing on the ledge that wrapped around the building, I thought two things. Firstly, I was not convinced it was a suicide attempt and the second was, ‘Bullshit!’

‘Aha! Annabel! Glad you could make it’ Mr Simmons remarked, as if he’d been expecting me to find him like this.

‘Glad I could make it?’ I shook my head in confusion, ‘to what? Your funeral?’

My relationship with Mr Simmons was rather unconventional. I met him on my first day at Unblocked (a publishing company with its hands in every pocket – books, magazines, newspapers, and journals) and I found him to be quite the character. Noted by his orange jeans, and navy and white polka dotted shirt. While initially I’d found his uniqueness quirky, and a little bit charming, it grew tiresome quite quickly.

‘My funeral?’ He laughed, ‘don’t be daft girl. I don’t want to die.’

Could’ve fooled me, I thought. ‘Then why don’t you come down?’

This was not the first time I’d come across Mr Simmons in a compromising position. During my first week, I found him first in the female bathroom. He was taped to the end toilet, rope wrapped around his feet and hands. ‘It’s not what it looks like!’ he yelled when I had appeared. I don’t recall having thought it looked like anything except a man who was in dire need of help. I reasoned that how he’d found himself in this position was none of my business. Plus, truthfully, I didn’t want to know. So after untying and untangling him, time spent counting my blessings I had not found him, a middle-aged man, naked, I bolted. Afterwards, I tried my best to avoid him. I assumed he was caught up in something, exactly what I was unsure of and I didn’t want any involvement.

But of course, there was a second time too. I found him next when I was working back late. My fourth week in and already there had been a push to work over time. Working overtime meant more books on the shelf at the end of the year. And more books equalled more money. At around 6:30pm, when I’d assumed everyone else had left, I heard a loud BANG! Strange, I remember thinking. On shuffling out to inspect the noise, which had come from the lobby, I found Mr Simmons hanging over the glass railing that stretched across the building, connecting two sets of parallel stairs. A bungee rope tied to his ankles.

‘What are you DOING?’ I yelled, running out into the open space so he could see me.

Caught off guard, he stammered, ‘it’s not what it looks like!’ And then as an afterthought, ‘what are you doing here?’

‘Working! Because…’ I gestured with my hands, ‘…this is a work place!’

‘Ha! For some.’

Since my arrival at the company, I’d heard about an elite group who completed dangerously risky challenges. Who was in it? No one was sure. The danger of these challenges was resigned to getting caught or getting killed. Like taping someone to a toilet or bungee jumping in the lobby. And whilst I was concerned about what I was hearing, I never had any open conversations about it. I did, however, often find myself within earshot of other people’s speculations. Yet, I still kept to myself. But with each conversation I overheard, I found more of my attention turning towards Mr Simmons. I began to watch him to see what he was up to. He only ever appeared to be very engrossed and motivated by his work, however. If I had not caught him in action, I would have believed he was the perfect employee.

By chance, I had caught a glimpse of Mr Simmons sneaking into the stairwell as I emerged from a meeting. Curious, I thought. Why go up to the rooftop? I didn’t have to think – I followed him.

‘But I don’t want to get down Annabel! The view is just marvellous!’

‘I am sure it is. But I am pretty sure you can still admire it from of the ledge’ I tried reasoning to him.

His eyes suddenly lit up, ‘Come join me!’

Is he being serious? He was being serious. ‘Join you? Are you crazy?’

He looked at me inquisitively, ‘maybe a little.’

He turned away from, and began to side step along the ledge. My heart stopped, I was certain he was going to fall.

‘Get down,’ I yelled. I couldn’t handle this. I was going to witness him die.

‘Did you follow me up here?’ He asked suddenly, rotating his body so he was facing me. His face had contorted into annoyance – not a quality I had ever associated with Mr Simmons. ‘It must be the only explanation for how you found me up here…’ Realisation dawned on him, ‘you know! Don’t you!’ He was like an excited child.

‘How about this… you come in off that ledge and I’ll tell you everything I know.’

Delight. Utter delight ran across his face. At least it did before conflict appeared. He was torn between removing himself off the ledge, which could result in him plummeting to death, and finding out what I knew.

‘Seriously? You have to think about this?’ That got him. Sighing he turned towards me and, with ease, jumped down. He’s done this before, I thought. That crazy bastard has done this before.

He sauntered over to me, hands on his hips. I watched as he surveyed me, pondering what he going to say. Possibly even pondering what I was going to say. He brought his hand to his chin and stared. He was safely off the ledge. But I had a nagging feeling that if I did he would hop back up again.

‘Are you going to speak?’ My eyes narrowed in on him. ‘I came down safely…’

Somewhat safely,’ I muttered.

‘…So you would speak. And now you’re standing here not saying a word,’ he shrugged his shoulders. ‘Alright then, up I go again.’

I snapped, ‘oh stop it! Fine I’ll speak! But if you so much as take one more step I will scream so loud you won’t know what will happen. The bloody riot police could show up.’

Laughter. Does he think I’m joking? He probably did. He didn’t know much about me. And there I was, claiming I would yell and scream and make a ruckus when all he had probably examined of me was my quiet exterior. I didn’t blame him for laughing. I could be a little uptight.

There was patio furniture atop the roof I had not noticed before. Perhaps, because this was the first time I had been on the roof. Spotting the nearest seat, I took off towards it. I needed to sit down. Mr Simmons followed suit and sat down opposite me. When I didn’t speak straight away he began tapping his foot against his chair. Ignoring him, I said, ‘all I know is some of the staff challenge each other to weird and dangerous tasks – like the ones I found you doing.’

Laughter. Again. He needed to stop that soon. My patience was wearing thin.

‘Weird? Dangerous? That’s close but not really.’ I didn’t reply. He continued, ‘we push each other’s limits, we complete challenging tasks to feel a release.’ He waved his hands in the air, ‘release from the office life, from what is boring.’

‘If it’s so boring, quit. It could literally save your life.’ I deadpanned.

He considered me. I didn’t have anything to say, so I stayed quiet. It was ridiculous. Endangering your life for a release? Work wasn’t that bad. Was it?

‘You should try it.’

‘Pardon?’

‘You need to loosen up’ he seemed sincere. ‘You need to take risks.’

I didn’t answer. I did not know how to. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. Opening it, it read: 23 Cove Way, Pineville. ‘I hope to see you there.’ And with that he sauntered past me, leaving me to wonder if our encounter had really happened.

The remainder of the day I didn’t see Mr Simmons. I suspected he’d taken off early. I had a mountain of work to sift through but couldn’t concentrate enough to do it. Instead of answering phone calls, I ignored them. Instead of attending meetings, I sat imagining what could have happened if I hadn’t found him on the roof. Would he have fallen? Would he have died? Will he go up there again? And then, what will happen if I turn up at that address? Nothing. I wasn’t going.

I deliberated these questions all day, even as I walked home from work.  When I stood at my front door I needed a moment to process where I was. I had been so lost in thought I didn’t know how I’d gotten there. Turning my bag to the front I sifted through for my keys. I found them, but something was missing.

‘Where are you?’ If ever there was a night I needed to go inside and have a glass of wine, it was then. But my house key was missing. My car key was there, my gym key was there, and even the key to my parent’s house was there.  ‘Where are you?’ I asked again. I tipped everything out onto the pavement. I sifted through my mess and eventually picked each item up to inspect it and make sure my key had not fallen off and gotten lost in the mix. I hadn’t. It definitely was not there. What I did find was a note:

Missing something…

23 Cove Way, Pineville

Mr Simmons had stolen my house key. It was clear. I just didn’t know how. ‘Little snitch!’

‘I beg your pardon?’ I turned to the sound of Mrs Barker’s, my neighbour, voice. She stood a few metres away, a fence in between us, and had garden clippers in her hand.

‘Not you Mrs Barker.’ I coughed, ‘some…someone else.’

‘Alright dear.’ She was unconvinced, but went back to her business and didn’t say anything else.

Ignoring the contents of my bag at my feet, I stood staring aimlessly at my front door. I willed it to magically swing open. But it did not. This left me with one choice. ‘Alright Mr Simmons, give me your best.’

The address was further away from my house than I thought. But I made it. It was an abandoned building with no lighting and not a single person milling about. Waiting in my car seemed like the best solution.

I waited for five minutes. For ten. When twenty-five minutes ticked over I decided sleeping in my car outside my own house was the safest option. I felt I was being watched and it was not a nice feeling. I turned my car on, put it in reverse and began backing away. Until, a figure appeared at my window and began thumping on it with their palm.

‘Where the hell do you think you’re going?’ I couldn’t exactly make out his face but I knew it was Mr Simmons. His voice is rather unique – like a little boy who had not completely grown up. ‘Don’t you want your key?’

Of course I wanted my key. What a stupid bloody question. ‘Yes. Hand them over.’

Laughter. Again. ‘You’ve got to come inside first.’ And then he disappeared.

I didn’t want to do it. Whatever these people were into, I didn’t want any part of it. They’ve literally forced me into doing this, I thought. I don’t have to be here. I knew I could’ve walked away – I had every right too. But there was this nagging sensation in the pit of my stomach. I’d never experienced anything like it before. And while, for a second, I thought of bolting, I knew there was something in there I needed to face. I also knew Mr. Simmons wouldn’t have gone as far as he did to get me there if he didn’t think it too.

Sighing, I conjured up a plan. It was simple. I’d do in, suss it out. But if it was too scary, I was backing out. I’d fight him for my key instead, if I had too.

I turned my car off again and finally got out. I hadn’t exactly seen where Mr Simmons had disappeared, but I knew the general direction, so I headed in it. As the distance between the building and myself shortened, a cut out appeared on the side of the building. It was a door, with light peeking through the bottom crack. I latched onto the door handle and pulled it open. Twenty sets of eyes turned on me. Mr Simmons appeared amongst them. He looked like the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland. ‘Took your time,’ he muttered, as he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the centre.

I recognised several faces. Although no one said anything so I didn’t say anything back. This must be a usual thing, I decided. They are used to new people just turning up.

‘Are you ready?’ Mr Simmons suddenly asked.

I frowned a little. No I wasn’t ready. I just wanted my key. ‘Give me my key Simmons.’

‘All you’ve got to do is jump.’

‘Jump?’ I looked around. ‘Up and down?’

He did not answer me. Instead, he looked up and pointed. My eyes followed, and began examining a tall building – with a ledge.

‘No.’

‘Yes.’

‘This is ridiculous. Give me my key!’

‘Just follow me.’ He didn’t leave me with a choice. I had to follow – up four flights of stairs.

I was surprised when we reached the top. It was quiet and peaceful. Well, quiet except for my hammering heart.  It was just the two of us. And unlike me, glued furthest away from the ledge, Mr Simmons walked straight over and peered down.

‘Come have a look,’ he said with his back to me.

‘I’m fine where I am thanks.’

‘”Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all…” do you know who said that?’ Nope. ‘Helen Keller.’

I snorted. ‘I’m pretty sure that doesn’t translate to jump off a tall building.’

He sighed. ‘Do you know why I got you here?’

I didn’t answer. He knew the answer was no.

‘You need to push yourself. Take a chance. Think heedlessly!’

‘If it’s not already obvious by my being content to stay as far away from the ledge as possible, I am not wired that way.’ I took a further step back to prove my point. ‘I’m sorry but you’re going to have to find someone else to take my place.’

‘What are you scared of?’ A sarcastic comment was on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t think this was a surface level question.

‘I don’t think I understand what you’re asking?’ I frowned a little.

‘Do you think you’re here by accident?’

‘Are you proposing that each time I found you was a part of some master plan to help me overcome a fear – that I don’t know I have?’

He didn’t answer this question. Instead he smiled at me, his eyebrow arched. ‘I cannot confirm that.’ Who’s following whom now? ‘What I can say is you work back late, and do more for other people than you do for yourself. You need to live a little. Take more risks. Perhaps not as risqué as me, but at least something that gets your heart racing.’ When I didn’t answer he continued, ‘we’ve all done this and we’re fine. So you’ll be fine.’ He moved towards me. ‘Look, just take a look. If that’s the biggest risk you’ll take than it’s a start. Just don’t come back down for at least ten minutes. Otherwise no key.’

I took a deep breath and walked towards the ledge. I think it’s because I really wanted my key. There was no other explanation. While doing so I couldn’t help but think of the places I’d rather be – bed was the first on my list, with wine close by. Walking closer, I peered over. A black hole was in the centre. I turn to Mr Simmons, he just grinned at me. If it was a scare tactic, it was working. I was literally shaking. I hoped because I couldn’t recall any recent deaths at the office, that there was a net at the bottom. This helped me step forward. My heart rate picked up, and sweat beaded across my forehead. All I wanted in this moment was to be at home sipping wine, maybe doing some work before tomorrow. When I woke that morning, I was not expecting my day to end up like this.

Anxiety filled me. I rubbed at my neck. Tingles ran up my arms, and my stomach began to heave. How did I get myself into this mess? I didn’t. It found me. I didn’t want to do it. But that nagging feeling had grown. He was right, and I knew it. I needed to do this. I gulped – Just stop thinking. I hopped on the ledge, bent my knees and jumped.

At first, I didn’t feel anything. Then gradually I felt a slight draft as it began wailing in my ears. I could no longer feel my heart but I was certain it was thrashing hard. Then, unexpectedly, every muscle in my body began to relax. I had my eyes closed but I opened them. And instead of plummeting to the ground, I was winding through a tunnel. At first it was a tight fit, but as I wound around and around, it grew – wider and longer. I went up and down. Up and down. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. And just as I did so, a hole at the end opened and I flew out. I hit something. It was not soft but neither was it hard. It was a crash mat.

‘How was that?’ Mr Simmons was at my side instantly. He reached out his hand and helped me out. ‘Are you glad you took the plunge?’

It was loaded question. He knew it, I knew, and everyone knew it. But was I? Maybe a little… But I would admit, only to myself, that answer. ‘That’s all I am ever doing! Because that’s what you’re really asking isn’t Mr Simmons?’

‘It was only a tunnel!’

‘Mr Simmons…’

‘Tim. Call me Tim.’

‘Tim, you’ve tried to bungee jump in the lobby and you’ve almost jumped off a building… I know for a fact that next time it won’t be a tunnel.’

He smiled his usual smile; the kind of smile that always came before a laugh.

‘Now hand it over.’ He did. And I was gone.

 

 

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Free Love: The Death of the Artist, Louis O’Neill

My finger presses once more against the refresh button. Yep, still there. Wow, who would have thought that my writing would lead me to the big leagues? I continue staring, attempting to digest the fact that at a mere twenty years old, my dreams have finally been realised. My name has been immortalised beneath the heading of an online article. I have become a literary god.

I make myself a celebratory coffee, pull my curtains back and sit down again in front of the computer, keen to see the world through my newly-acquired eyes of a published writer. Sure, I’d run my own blog before, and wrote for some Facebook pages, but this was different. This was an established website. I had written about the issue of political correctness in today’s hyper-sensitive age, and to my surprise, people agreed.

As I soak in my own glory, the mouse beneath my fingertips makes its way onto my Facebook, where I can publicly announce the news of my latest advent into stardom. Ah, these poor plebs, I think to myself whilst scrolling through the lives of my acquaintances; stuck in their nine-to-fives, no accolades, no articles publish-… wait, what’s this? Another girl on my Facebook, the same age as myself, has just shared news of her own published article! The nerve! Doesn’t she know that I am the only writer in town?

I click on the link, and to my dismay the girl has not one, not two, but five published articles on the site. My overwhelming feelings of glory and self-satisfaction begin to dissipate. Here I was, thinking I’d made a name for myself, all the while some other shmuck had beaten me to the punch, and five times at that.

Wait a minute Louis, let’s not be selfish. There’s room aplenty in the world of writing, we can all get along, can’t we?

 

*

 

My answer to that question becomes less certain as the days go by. As I continue to look, I find that several times a week – if not daily – another person on my Facebook or Instagram will start a blog, or have an article published somewhere. Now admittedly, I don’t think anyone I’d come across was actually being paid for their work. And there was also the little known fact that I wasn’t either. But the worst part? I had to accept this wasn’t just happening near me. This was happening worldwide.

Though such is to be expected. Pretty much everyone has access to a computer with Internet now, and these are seemingly the only prerequisites needed to become a writer. Perhaps not a good writer, but a writer nonetheless. Well to that I say, power to them! No… to us! Writing is a beautiful thing, it’s only fair that everyone should have the capacity for their writing to be seen and heard. But what exactly does this mean for people who wish to make themselves a career from writing? More importantly, what does this mean for me? More writers creates more competition doesn’t it?

First one must distinguish from those who write as hobby, and those who write to pursue longevity. While Facebook has more users than there are people in China, and thousands of new blogs enter the ether daily, very few of these mediums actually lead to consistent, established writers.[i] Blogging is often used recreationally by teenagers as a form of expression, usually only temporarily, and often with no intention or aspiration towards financial gain. Though there are of course exceptions to the rule, with a wide array of occupational blogging seen in the public sphere, from ‘blawgs’ for lawyers, to blogs run by school library teachers, who explain that their use of blogging leads to a more ‘refined audience.’[ii] Blogging is an accessible medium for both writers and readers, and so undoubtedly they will come in handy for aspiring writers won’t they? Well, yes and no. In the search for hope, I interviewed Graham Young, owner of Online Opinion, a contribution-based news and opinion website, seeking direction in this new world of writing.

Graham somewhat confirmed my doubts by saying that while marketing methods such as blogging, Facebook and smaller contribution-based websites do assist in creating a  ‘sense of collective identity’ for the author, they are largely a ‘secondary way of making a name for yourself outside of getting into one of the popular, more established forums.’[iii] Blogging and other similar pathways to publication are primarily forms of advertisement, rather than an actual endpoint or financially viable career. And even when using a blog for promotional purposes, Max van Balgooy of the National Trust says that ‘maintaining a blog requires continuous activity,’ warning that ‘many blogs eventually fail when the owner stops posting frequently, most often due to time constraints,’ or ‘lack of personnel.’[iv] The Internet has pried open the floodgates of information, and as a result, both writers and media companies alike have to produce at superhuman rates just to stay in the race for readership and attention.

 

*

 

These newly opened avenues of media have led to a deterioration of previous business models, specifically in the print journalism industry which has been forced to make its way into the online arena. To their credit, this has been somewhat of a success. The readership of online journalism now exceeds that of its print predecessor, leaving newer generations wondering why anyone ever bothered with those impractical, ink-covered newspapers of the past. Though while ink-free it may be, the shift to online journalism has not been without its blemishes.

Newer generations not only expect to read the news with the touch of a fingertip, but they largely have no intentions of paying for this information. Online publications have been forced to lower their subscription costs, often ranging from between a few dollars a month, to flat-out providing their articles for free. An egregious example of this is the decision of eighty-year old Newsweek magazine to stop publishing its print edition, substituted with an online-only digital subscription. Tina Brown, editor-in chief of Newsweek, explains how the Internet affected her work. ‘When I returned to print with Newsweek, it did very quickly begin to feel to me an outmoded medium. While I still had a great romance for it, nonetheless I feel this is not the right medium any more to produce journalism.’[v] Brown continued to say that ‘Clearly, the digital revolution is fundamentally transforming news as business. So much so that while the old model is breaking down, there is no clear alternative in sight.’

The media’s free-for-all for attention has become just that: free, for all. Emerging writers now depend upon unpaid contribution work as a means for getting their foot in the door, but as late songwriter Elliott Smith once sang, ‘Got a foot in the door, god knows what for.’

Jane Singer in her essay ‘Journalism ethics amid structural change’ states that with the shift online, ‘staff cut backs mean fewer – perhaps far fewer people, with some newspapers losing half their journalists – available to handle all the tasks necessary to sustain multiple news products.’[vi] There are more avenues for writers and artists than ever before, and yet the room upon the stage seems to be dwindling.

 

*

 

This technological tidal wave has not only hit journalism, but too the industries of music, movies and literature, who are quickly losing their place upon shelves and within physical stores. Downloads and e-books have come to the fore, which may save on production costs for companies, but raise new challenges. The biggest of which, is piracy. While piracy has been possible essentially as long as print has been alive, new online programs such as BitTorrent, uTorrent, and websites like ‘The Pirate Bay’ make this process almost too easy. Users can now share and download music, videos and novels for free, instantly. Granted this process is illegal, it still remains difficult for industries to clamp down such a widespread phenomenon. An example of this is television company NBC, who upon complaints about Apple’s one-size-fits-all pricing methods, removed their products from iTunes. This attempt to reclaim profits only backfired on the company however, as piracy then increased 27% since their detachment. NBC subsequently returned to using Apple’s iTunes for their distribution.[vii]

These results provide news and media outlets with a clear message: provide a high-quality product for a few dollars, or watch as your users and consumers happily turn to pirated versions for free. From the perspective of an aspiring writer, reading things such as this can be disheartening. But from another perspective, the increasingly free media industry can be seen as a good thing.

When analysing this increase of piracy within the music industry, Professors Felix Oberholzer-Gee of Harvard Business School and Koleman S. Strumpf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found their way to less pessimistic outcomes. The professors remarked that ‘While [illegal] downloads occur on a vast scale, most users are likely individuals who would not have bought the album even in the absence of file sharing.’[viii] This brings up an interesting point. Whilst artists may see their products pirated more frequently, or be forced to release their work for next-to-nothing, they are also able to reach audiences who would otherwise have not paid to access it at all. Producing and consuming art is now more accessible than ever, and this can definitely be seen as a good thing. No longer are individuals limited by their paycheck when satisfying their appetite for the latest song, movie or novel.

Though free art and literature can be seen as a win for society, there remains a big decline in profit margins within creative fields. Despite their praise-worthy adaptability, these industries and artists are continually forced to innovate in order to survive in the constantly changing online marketplace. The journalism industry for example is forced to make up the lost profits of reduced physical sales and prices through advertisement, which Graham Young argues threatens the ability for news companies to maintain an objective and honest approach. ‘Advertising gives [news companies] an incentive to gravitate towards those articles that have the most views. This has led to a sensationalisation of the news with click bait tending to be much more frequent.’ These are fears commonly echoed in regards to the oligopoly of Australian media, largely held by the Murdoch press, in which concerns of corporate interests and monetary biases arise. This ethical resistance to financial intervention means that news businesses must address their own challenges, namely those brought on by the Internet. And as C.P. Chandrasekhar writes in his essay entitled ‘The Business of News in the Age of the Internet, ‘providing online content for free is not only difficult, but evidently “not viable”, and so if a company wishes to charge for content, they must ‘not only be unique but of high quality.’ [ix]

 

*

 

The demands placed upon media and creative companies have never been so high, in that they must not only produce higher quality, more unique products in an industry awash with more competition than ever, but they must also do so with dwindling profit margins. The big question now is whether or not these industries can withstand such pressures. A report written by Pew research states that 31 per cent of readers have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were ‘accustomed to getting,’ as lower profits have led to fewer reporting resources and a compromised level of journalistic expertise and content as a result.[x]

Every industry has felt the effects of the Internet, for better or for worse. For musicians, releasing records has now become simply a means of promotion, kick-starting a new tour in order to garner interest in that particular musician so that their live performances can gain bigger crowds, with live performances being one of the few elements of music which eludes piracy. Likewise within film, despite having a similar experience to concerts that cannot be captured in MP4 form, film companies have also been forced to shorten the time between their release in cinemas and in digital form, in order to keep up with ever-awaiting pirates.

The Internet has afforded everyone access to media and new means of self-expression, but this has come at a cost. Creative industries are met with an array of new challenges that at this point have largely yet to be overcome, much to the detriment of those working in the field. The clock is ticking on whether or not traditional forms of media can adapt to these changes in time to preserve themselves, or if we may be seeing the death of such industries as we’ve come to know them. As an aspiring writer myself, I have no solutions to give, being as[xi] much in the quagmire of uncertainty as anyone else. All I can do is urge those who pirate programs, songs, and literature to think for a moment about what effects this has upon the hard-working creators of our society. And if you enjoy a free subscription to a magazine with writers who spend hours of their time producing content, spare yourself the extra coffee, and instead donate those few dollars. As one day in the distant future, I might be living off them.


Works Cited

[i] https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/

 

[ii] Dilsworth, Andrew I. “TECHNO ETHICS: Blogs: Online Practice Guides Or Websites?”. American Bar Association 24.8 (2016): 54-56. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.

 

[iii] Young, Graham. 2016. Via Email

 

[iv] Grove, Tim. “HISTORY BYTES: To Blog Or Not To Blog”. History News 63.3 (2008): 3-6. Print.

 

[v] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 25

 

[vi] Singer, Jane B. “Journalism Ethics Amid Structural Change”. Daedalus 139.2 (2010): 90. Web.

 

[vii] Danaher, Brett et al. “Converting Pirates Without Cannibalizing Purchasers: The Impact Of Digital Distribution On Physical Sales And Internet Piracy”. Marketing Science 29.6 (2010): 1138-1151. Web.

 

[viii] Kusic, Don. “Technology And Music Piracy: Has The Recording Industry Lost Sales?”. Studies in Popular Culture 28.1 (2016): 18. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

 

[ix] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 34

 

[x] Chandrasekhar, C.P. “The Business Of News In The Age Of The Internet”. Social Scientist Vol. 41.No. 5/6 (2016): 35

 

 

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