History in a stream of consciousness

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Shit this is FUN. (1907 Tairawhiti Museum, Gisborne)

In 1967 at the age of almost 100, my Dad’s great Aunt published a book. It details her move from Gympie, Queensland to Gisborne, New Zealand, at the turn of the century. Clara was from a white, colonial family*.

The thing I’ve realised, from reading historical accounts of everyday life, is that there is a point at which historical life becomes somewhat unknowable, a bit like a fairytale. Aunt Clara remarked on this herself as she marvelled at the good fun of rowing little canoes through town along Taruheru creek in Gisborne. She expected it was almost impossible for today’s teenagers, with their cars, television and music, to understand that life before the advent of these things could be hilariously, wickedly entertaining.

I’ve realised that historical accounts of life (dealing with the the last couple of generations) are often reduced to one dimension, a time when people were bad, or mad or good, or completely constrained and dictated by tradition or good manners. These historical characters weren’t ironic, didn’t play with fashion or meanings or boundaries. They didn’t transgress, argue, fret or consider themselves as part of the broader trajectory of life, with a sense of nostalgia or promise.

Their horrors are also unfathomable, for instance, Clara lost her brother in world war one. She writes of him constantly throughout the book, he was her closest friend in many ways. Yet his death is noted in one or two sentences. He was, like many other New Zealand and Australians, killed on the Somme. She doesn’t ruminate on the dimensions of this sadness, perhaps this is what makes older writing seem remote? We’re so used to endless exploitations of emotional whims in literature, when we’re presented with a taciturn description of a loved one’s departure it adds to the cast of unknowability.

Her intention in writing the book was to provide an account of early Gisborne, as she thought this might be of interest. Yet, what interested me the most were her accounts of life in Queensland. She spent most of her young life either in Gympie or Mt Morgan. Clara was from a large family of white people, many of whom are still there.

Mt Morgan was a mining town, although Clara’s father wasn’t a miner, he was a builder. He built some of the mine’s infrastructure but worked in Mt Morgan more generally. Life was obviously hard, but she describes it as a happy time. Like many families, the children came in two batches – a younger and older group. Clara’s parents, Emeline and James, took the youngest batch with them to Gisborne. Both Emeline and James were from Brisbane, so it must have been hard for them to leave Australia and their respective families.

In 1898 there was a devastating drought in Queensland, and many white families left. Her description of the drought and its effects was particularly compelling.

At the risk of becoming a genealogy bore I’ll stop there. Just ruminating I suppose….

 

*The other thing I’ve noticed as I’ve read a little ‘around’ Clara’s story, is the ubiquity of white accounts as ‘Australian’, with enormous interest in the movements of white people throughout Queensland. I tried to read about the Aboriginal history of Mt Morgan in particular, and found it really difficult to obtain information. I wanted to know how people lived in the area, as there was (and is) obviously huge diversity amongst Aboriginal people. I wanted to know what food was cultivated, what their houses were like, what patterns of movement they observed, how they nominated themselves.

It seems likely that the people who lived in the same area as my relative were Gayiri or Garingbal, (and there’s mention of them in the book) but more than that I really struggled to find. Given that I could easily establish the movements of almost every white family in the area at the time (if I’d wanted to, which I don’t), I find it kind of staggering the lack of interest and accounts of local people in the region. As far as I can tell from visiting there, Rockhampton and surrounding areas are incredibly rich – this is land that would have supported large numbers of people. I guess I’m not saying anything we don’t know already, it’s just hard for me, when looking into family history, to escape the feeling that I’m just reading the minutes of a colonial tennis club.

 

Lucky break

Hey you know what’s making housing expensive? Red tape. Nope, not ridiculous, hyper- speculation by Australia’s largest age cohort. No no no. Why would you even think that? It’s red tape. Big, bad red tape. If there were more houses, there’d be more supply.

And you know what holds up supply? Red tape. The Planning and Assessment Commission to be precise. So what if we cut the PAC’s ‘red tape’? How cool would that be? Then we’d get more houses! Or more apartments, anyway, because the PAC only deals in large developments.

What’s that? There’s an oversupply of apartments in Australia? Oh, well don’t blame us, here at the Liberal party we’re doing our bit to keep the apartment market afloat.

Now, where were we? Oh yes, red tape. The PAC. Well, let’s ‘streamline’ the approvals process. That’ll get more housing. There’s a housing crisis don’t you know. We’re doing our bit.

And if housing developments happen to comprise about five eighths of fuck all of the PAC’s business, then that’s hardly our fault. What’s that? What does the PAC mostly do?

Mining approvals.

Protection from ourselves

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Two days ago I walked into a pharmacy and bought 3 ampules of b12. For a known reason, my body doesn’t absorb b12. Initially I was prescribed b12 injections, which brought my b12 level up from ‘heart failure’ to ‘low/uninteresting’. I was told that I would probably require supplementation for life.

No worries, I thought, I can buy the stuff from the chemist and inject it myself (intramuscular, not venous). This, incidentally, was the advice from my doctor.

So, after putting it off for too long, I finally went to the chemist and bought three months of b12. And then I asked for the syringes to go with it.

The pharmacist gives me a dead-eyed stare; ‘We don’t sell syringes here’.  That’s what his lips said anyway. His eyes said; I see you in your voluminous, unusual shaped skirt, mid length hair and earrings you would describe to your co-workers as ‘funky’, but your boring middle-aged woman disguise won’t work on me. I know you’re a filthy junky. 

Now I don’t know a lot about injecting drug users but I’m pretty sure they’re not asking for intramuscular syringes. It seems to me they’re probably aiming for a vein, not a soft, rising mound of pale buttock flesh. I don’t think those blue lights in public dunnies were put there to make your arse look more like a moon. Because no-one wants to inject the moon.

Where was I? Ah yes. Junkies.

If I thought that buying intramuscular syringes at the chemist was the root of galloping drug use and its accompanying entrenched social decay then maybe I’d get it. But it isn’t. Australia, in case you haven’t noticed, is already awash with drug addicts. There doesn’t seem to be much trouble accessing drugs. And, in this area, it seems that the non-injecting drugs are far more problematic than the old fashioned ones. Like everywhere else, ice seems to have taken hold. And of course it’s a precious irony that the local chemist that refused me stands next to the supermarket bottle shop.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of decriminalising ice, but my opinion doesn’t matter – if the amount of staggering lunatics is anything to go by, it appears to be more or less tolerated anyway.

After all, the average life span of a regular ice user is ~5 years, with a fairly low standard deviation. Unlike other drugs, ice leaves its survivors compromised in expensive ways, potentially requiring a lifetime of health interventions and support. What’s a government to do?

A) Wait for it to ‘run its course’? (5 years of potential anti-social behaviour in disastrously sweaty sneakers). Cost; policing possibly jail, ~5 years.

B) Assist addict to rehabilitate and pay for resulting lifetime of healthcare. Cost ~40 years of intensive healthcare.

Oooo, it’s a tricky one.

 

So I like, really like Kale, really

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If there’s one thing I love about the unceasing churn of hipsterism it’s the blossoming romance with rural living, the cultural colonisation of all things ‘rustic’. This newfound passion for rurality is not hard to understand. After all, ‘rural life’ is underpinned by what we in the provinces like to call ‘work’, a raw physicality that antagonises the increasingly intellectual urban world occupied by urban, artistic elites, who keep themselves busy marketing images of themselves to others, and ultimately, back to themselves. Rural living provides a wellspring of uncomplicated, binary images of straightforward production anchored through immutable, physical labour. (This is, of course, shameless romanticism. We’re an idle bunch of fucks too but since when did that stop anyone?)

The love affair with rustic living has reached fever pitch in Melbourne. Amongst the high-stakes froth of the inner city elite, it’s producing a wonderfully rarified, utilitarian idiom of a bucolic, authentic life, realised through trendy vegetables and a stream of elaborate food porn. Stylistically, the whole project is peculiarly filtered through Eastern-American, Shaker lens, reinventing an entire cohort of urbanites as a kind of dark-denim, good-time-Amish, while at the same time reflecting an absolute disconnection from the Australian rural life as experienced by third or fourth generation urbanites. I’ve yet to be reminded to rate the ‘Breech Strike and Scabby-Mouth’ App on ITunes.

Cynics might suggest this folksy revival is sheer folly, the work of depoliticised youngsters, frittering away their pampered lives, searching for meaning in the absence of hardship or struggle. And that may be so. But to critique hipsterism overlooks the project’s fundamental promise; That one day someone will bring home a sheep.

Oh yes, it’s only a matter of time before young Justin, freshly recovered from his woodchopping ‘incident’, discovers The Smith Journal’s article on hand shearing and convinces his flatmates in between cups of kombucha tea (Mongolian for ‘torrential vomiting’) that what they really, really need is a sheep.

This will be hipsterism’s high water mark. Because nothing keeps it real like sheep. Sheep are the ultimate hipsters. They cluster and shy in unpredictable ways, hovering vacantly over their raw-vegan menus. They bleat and renounce technology that can’t be operated with a cloven hoof. Sheep want to be like everyone else, except when it’s time to be counted and then they’re on their own.

Well I say bring it on, Justin, with your kale smoothie and activated sticking plasters. The world is your sheep dip.

Attending the opening of a lotus.

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In some ways, Bermagui could be a coastal town anywhere; 1980s feature-brick arches hosting ice cream parlours and shops selling sarongs, the cloying smell of incense cut through with waves of cigarette smoke and urinal cakes from the tavern’s gaping verandah, its armpitty patrons leaning away from the creep of the mid-morning sun. And then of course there’s the ubiquitous seaside motif – seagulls and brightly coloured, swirly whale-tails emerging out of toilet blocks and rubbish bins.

After navigating the mandatory whale tails at Bermagui’s annual Sculpture on the Edge exhibition last weekend, I noticed something that’s made me wonder if it might just be time to rethink this lynchpin of the clunky seaside theme. And that’s because there’s another ubiquitous marine symbol on the rise, one that is invariably represented at art exhibitions in touristy, coastal towns – the pink-lipped muscle.

You’ve no doubt seen this sculpture or one like it before – a set of interleaving ‘lips’, rendered in stone or clay. The artist’s statement usually describes the work as a ‘form’ that represents ‘sacred femininity’, as if there’s something subtle, abstract or interpretive about a weary gash at eye level. It may or may not reference an opening lotus flower.

These vag-sculptures resonate with a zeitgeist of baby boomer towns, full of women who have ‘realised their artistic spirit’ around the same time that they discover purple is their power colour. You can be sure that every stone-vag has had several predecessors, all rendered in felt, by women whose sacred femininity is actualised with the help of unflattering rayon pants and the inability to change a tyre.

This is not to suggest that Bermagui’s Sculpture on the Edge exhibition isn’t without its charms. Whale tails and stone vaginas aside, the exhibition provides more readable works than its Sydney counterpart, running concurrently. And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. A well executed figurative sculpture is a joy and a delight. For me, the giant Rhino, artfully plated in translucent white plastic, was eerily compelling, while several other pieces made me smile or think. Most importantly, hordes of people were wandering around, discussing and taking photos of the artworks. There’s definitely room for art that rejects smartypants abstractionism and tired ‘styles’ in favour of something clever, surprising and aesthetically appealing. Sculpture on the Edge contained some quite splendid pieces. If you go, make sure you also have a look at the indoors exhibition at the community hall down the road.

And, as with all regional exhibitions, do check out the large stone flange, if for no other reason than it is set to replace the whale tail as the true icon of coastal Australia, welcoming visitors into its warm embrace alongside a perennially glowing Woolworths and a string of skin cancer clinics.

P.S Bermagui is currently at war over a proposed Woolworths. For all of the above, Bermagui is gentrifying in interesting ways. If I go there again I might talk more about that.