They arrested my high-school guitarist

You can tell there’s pre-election tension in Malaysia when they start locking up writers. On Tuesday, Australian-educated political publisher Ezra Zaid was arrested and brought in front of a judge, where a date for him to be charged was set for July.

For Malaysia observers, a move against Ezra’s ZI Publications was hardly a surprise. In a country where official censorship remains heavy-handed, ZI releases the kind of books that politicians would prefer were not available.

It is not strictly an advocacy publisher, offering short story collections, trivia, even a memoir from Prime Minister Mahathir’s daughter on her vigil during her father’s illness. Among them, though, are critical discussions of Malaysia’s political and social systems, parliament, and internal racism, along with translations from contentious overseas writers. Last year I edited Zan Azlee’s Operation Nasi Kerabu, about the Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s south; Zan’s documentary film on the subject had been banned in Malaysia, leading ZI to propose a book adaptation. It is emblematic of the publisher’s approach: where government frowns upon access to a subject, ZI has moved to facilitate it.

The other reason for ZI to attract political displeasure is perversely also one of the factors protecting it. The company’s initials represent Ezra’s father Zaid Ibrahim, a former MP, senator, government minister, and founder of the country’s most powerful law firm, who opened the publishing house in 2007 before relinquishing ownership on his promotion to the ministry. Zaid’s formidable reputation and influence have played their part in keeping the publisher’s efforts unhindered. At the same time, he has attracted more political opprobrium than perhaps anyone bar opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Zaid was originally a federal MP for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, and was made senator and Minister for Law in 2008. Six months later, the government arrested journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, opposition politician Teresa Kok, and political blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a colonial-era law instated for use against communists, that allows indefinite detention without charge. Zaid sensationally resigned in protest, an unprecedented move for a senator, and initially joined Anwar’s opposition, before eventually leaving to take charge of a third political party, Kita.

Resentment of Zaid by his former party retains the intensity reserved for turncoats, while he has become something of a folk hero to Malaysian progressives. Of course a publishing house run by his son would be closely watched, especially one that has published three of Zaid’s books, including a critique of Malaysia’s sprawling monarchies launched just last week. Nor is it surprising that, despite Zaid’s profile, intimidatory moves are finally being made against ZI. What was unexpected was that Ezra’s arrest was not carried out by civil police but by religious authorities, in a system where the two operate independently.

The charges threatened against Ezra are not over political material, but would be made under sharia law, over Islamic scholar Irshad Manji’s book Allah, Liberty and Love. The daughter of Indian and Egyptian parents, born in Uganda and raised in Canada, Manji has written several books encouraging the liberal development of Islamic thought. Her religious critics are less concerned with her ideas than the fact that she is openly gay. People like these, says The Jakarta Post, will only view Manji “as an avid promoter of homosexuality in Muslim communities”.

Yet the book’s English version was released in Malaysia — where English is so widely spoken as to be a de facto official language — almost a year ago without incident. Foment only began with ZI’s recent release of a Malay translation. In the first fortnight of May, events on Manji’s promotional tour of Indonesia were attacked by hardline Muslim protestors, and others were forcibly cancelled.

By May 19, Malaysian minister Jamil Khir was ordering that Manji should not be allowed to hold her planned tour events there either. Other critics joined in. Ezra, speaking at Zaid’s recent book launch, responded that “these comments are based on an absolute fact that none of these persons had read the book and therein lies the problem”. Zaid dismissed the possibility of the book being banned. “It is not something a modern democracy does… Only North Korea bans books.”

Two days later the Home Ministry announced the ban, on the basis that the book was “believed to have elements that can deviate Muslims from their faith, Islamic teachings and elements which insulted Islam”. Religious authorities (JAWI) began seizing copies from bookshop shelves.

Ezra was on the offensive the same day. “[We are] considering all legal options, which includes filing a suit for judicial review against Jawi’s actions, together with a claim for damages arising from the sales the publisher has lost as a consequence of their illegal actions,” he said in a press release. “[W]e published this book in the spirit of free inquiry — incidentally, something which Islam itself cherishes — and acting strictly in accordance with our right to free speech and expression as guaranteed by Article 10(1)(a) of the Federal Constitution.”

On May 29, Selangor’s state religious police (JAIS) arrived at the offices of ZI Publications. Ezra’s immediate defence was to get the word out on Twitter. “Selangor getting in on the act,” he tweeted. “JAIS hv just dropped by office. In a group of 20 (fashionable that way). Taking books, n maybe me too.”

They did both: 180 copies of the book in custody along with its publisher. The latter kept his cool, tweeting updates from custody. “They must’ve gotten the friendly, professional types to send from JAIS. All suited up, slick facial hair — oddly impressed.” Then later, from the courtroom, “Thx for the good wishes. Lawyer @nizambashir will be here with me. Hope this wraps up soon, hvnt had lunch.” Released on bail, he now has to hold his good humour for at least another six weeks, to see where these charges end up.

Whatever the justifications, it is hard to see this as anything but a case of political opportunism. While Malaysia’s federal election could be called as late as next March, it was expected to come in the next couple of months, with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s popularity rebounding after weathering various scandals. Nonetheless, his BN colleagues would be nervous. 2008 was bad for them, as five state governments and over a third of parliamentary seats fell to the opposition.

These unimpressive-sounding numbers were in fact of great significance, forming BN’s worst election result in history. The same coalition has ruled for Malaysia’s entire 55 years of independence. Since that first Merdeka Day in 1957, the country has had just six Prime Ministers. 2012, at last, sees the very real prospect of BN finally being levered from power.

This means that whatever tactics can be used probably will, and Ezra’s arrest could benefit BN in several ways. First, where Zaid is a well-known face for progressive politics, arresting his son for supposedly disrespecting Islam is a solid divide-and-conquer move. The opposition is based on the uneasy alliance between Anwar’s progressive PKR and the highly conservative Islamist PAS, whose only real common ground is the wish to finally be rid of Barisan Nasional.

Second, even targeting less religious voters, moral outrage is always welcome in the lead-up to election time. Our values are under threat, our way of life is being eroded, things that change are scary, vote for stability. It’s a political condom, donned in a hurry to desensitise both sides and keep the wielder safe. And like a condom, even something so transparent can be amazingly effective.

Third, it sends a timely warning to those writing and thinking in ways that the government might not appreciate. In Malaysia, the intimidation of writers and journalists is a regular occurrence, but a little refresher course never goes astray. The result, as Zan Azlee summed up in his book, is that “self-censorship is more the problem than any official counterpart. Editors, news producers and journalists all tend to censor their own stories … The way the ISA has been used against journalists is a calculated and cynical attempt to intimidate everyone in the media.”

For now, Ezra Zaid remains free on bail. But with the charges against him yet to be made, the voice of dissenting opinion being further muffled, and an election that could be a national turning point yet to come, it will pay to keep a close eye on the Selangor religious authorities in the weeks and months to come.

First published on Crikey, June 1 2012.

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Better than chicken

One of our new projects is about to be released.

It’s always rewarding when you get to be a part of making something beautiful. Not that a new website necessarily sounds like the most thrilling thing. Nando’s Chicken has a website. The Australian Society of Orthodontists has a website. Christopher Pyne has a website. But it can also mean the creation of something startling, compelling, and a little strange; the digital equivalent of a tongue in your ear.

The new Going Down Swinging site (or web portal, as I like to call it, when I imagine the average browser as a late-career Richard Dean Anderson) deserves those adjectives and analogies far more than it deserves comparisons to mediocre chicken snacks. It has been designed and built by GDS’s digital editor Vanessa Hughes, one of that rare breed of technical experts with the eye of an artist. It’s an ambitious project to make GDS something ongoing, developing and constantly changing. On my explorations of the trial versions, I’ve been consistently excited by the quality: at once aesthetically rich, structurally clean, and functionally simple.

Here’s what it will contain.

Audio / video broadcasts
From now on we’ll be recording any GDS performances in either high quality audio, high def video, or both. The results will be streamed online, with periodic updates. Podcasts of the audio can be followed in iTunes. We’ll also be partnering with some other events to bring further live words and music to your eyes and ears.

Get inside GDS
Read updates and stories from those who work or have worked at Going Down Swinging. Find out what we’re up to, what we’re planning, and how the production cycle works, as well as getting stories about the way things have been done from 1980 through to today.

The Blue Corner
Our new blog, The Blue Corner will bring together GDS’s community of previously published writers and artists under the stewardship of editor Meaghan Bell. Read regular opinion columns, discussions, debates, new stories and pieces, drafts and works in progress, anecdotes, forgotten publications, and anything else to give you a broader sense of the back catalogues and the personalities of those who have contributed to GDS over its 33 years. This year we’ll publish our 1000th contributor, so that community keeps growing.

We’ll also draw from GDS’s back issues to give you tastes of journals past, picking out those things that demand another moment in the sun.

The new shop gives you images and descriptions of every GDS issue, right back to Ned Kelly raising his gloves on Issue #1. Some of those issues are still available for sale in print versions, while the older and rarer ones will hopefully be made available in e-book form at a later date.

The site entire will remain under wraps until its launch this Friday (June 1), details of which are laid out below (artwork here by Vanessa’s equally talented sister Natalie). There’ll be a physical launch in Melbourne, and a general worldwide launch online. For the former, get in early, because the space will fill up, and it’s set to be a great night. Hope to see you there, or round the internet.


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Where the hell did that Heathen Scripture guy go?

It’s a fair question. Last year I was punching out articles and raging against the dying of the light. This year, a quiet has largely settled over my corner of the internet. But what kind of quiet? The kind where I decided I hated everyone and retreated to a rustic mountain cabin to grow my own tomatoes in a beehive and teach my dog to pump clear cold water from the stream? The kind where I stared too long at an enchanted painting, so that one distant day, someone will notice my tiny silent grimace among the oil-pastel throng? The kind where I’m waiting in a cupboard with a vacuum-cleaner pipe for someone to come looking? The kind where I choked on a corn chip, leaving my nine cats locked inside the house to eat my face, and giving a poignant reminder to all when I’m eventually found that I was alone, just so alone? What gives?

Well, none of the above. Nor have I retired from public comment after a hefty six-month career. But I have been busy doing other things, and I have been holding back from the Scripture a little. People who get immersed in politics can start to take that shit way too seriously in a very short time. They take themselves way too seriously into the bargain. They treat five hours of Twitter commentary like an event of substance. From where my father is currently working in the States, he reminded me the other day that no-one there has ever heard of Tony Abbott. That’s worth bearing in mind. It’s also good to remember that not every debate demands your personal contribution, and not every idea you have needs to be seen through. Whether it’s the self-importance brought on by having any kind of audience, or the depression induced by realising what a spectacular clusterfuck our national situation is, politics can eat you away from the inside like a hydrofluoric enema.

Here, then, are the things I’ve been doing instead.

First, working with other kinds of writing. For a while now I’ve been editor at a joint
called Going Down Swinging. We make books, audio CDs, sweet digital inventions, and put on performances. I like these things. Reading stories that go in strange and lovely directions; reading long-form essays that have nothing to do with the news cycle. Our book/CD package last year looked like this:

and I love it dearly. (That photo is a bit washed out, the colours are even nicer really.) I’m perhaps proudest of the CD – in a world where so much performance work is admittedly awful, I would challenge anyone to listen to this disc and not get some real enjoyment out of it.

Last year, I loved getting Neil Gaiman’s work into our collection; I loved previewing part of Pat Grant’s graphic masterpiece Blue, which has just been released to great acclaim; I loved putting together a collection of writing and artwork that really sings together. And this year, there has been great enjoyment in assembling what is to come.

In September there’ll be a new book and a new CD which will be spectacular. At the start of June we’ll be launching a beautifully redesigned website which will be filled from then on with writing, video, audio, and image. Much more digital content will start to become available online, for tablets, and for e-book readers. These are exciting times.

GDS is one of those chronically under-funded arts organisations, though it is rare in having survived into its 33rd year. If you want to support it, the best thing you can do is buy a copy, or a subscription. It’s cheaper than a round of drinks, and it’ll give you much more lasting pleasure. Garn.

Another thing I’ve taken on is co-directing the National Young Writers Festival, which has run in Newcastle since 1998, most of that time as part of the multi-festival This Is Not Art. I’d been going to TiNA religiously for six years, so it seemed about time to chip in. I’ve even got a half-finished story about it that I might post here if I finally knock it off. TiNA is great because a few thousand random artists descend on Newcastle for a weekend. The town gets a real buzz about it, equal parts intrigue and hostility. There are workshops, panels, discussions, readings, fun and serious. And because only the locals can actually go home once each day, it basically turns into a four-day party. Smart times during daylight, stupidity in the evenings. Thoroughly recommended as a good holiday, no matter how old you are.

My sportswriting has also expanded to include weekly radio segments – Monday breakfast at 8.15 on RRR in Melbourne, Thursday evenings around 8:30 on ABC 702 in Sydney. I filled in for RRR’s full breakfast show for a couple of weeks over summer. Another nice radio thing was Radio National getting me involved in their Valentine’s Day love poetry series, which was apparently a great success. You can hear all the poems here. It felt a bit strange to be among people like my satirical hero John Clarke, as well as Peter Singer, Michael Kirby, Sarah Blasko, Father Bob, Kathy Lette, David Williamson, and Clover Moore. Then there was the fact that the ABC asked all of those people to record their favourite love poem by someone else, but asked me to record one of my own. I didn’t know this until the program went live. So amid all these eminent people paying tribute to Chaucer or Shakespeare, there’s me paying tribute to… me. Awkward, though some were probably unsurprised.

The last excellent thing for the moment is called the 24 Hour Book Project. It’s pretty fucking self-explanatory. In June I get together with some excellent writers like Nick Earls, Krissy Kneen, Steven Amsterdam and Chris Currie, to write an entire book in 24 hours in Brisbane. Apparently we live-blog bits of what we’re doing, and have a day to pull it all together. An entire book, run through an editing team, running through the night, against the clock, literary Jack Bauer style. I tell you I am looking forward to it. Especially the split-screen bits where it zooms in on me staring blankly at a laptop.

The calibre of people involved in this means it’s actually really exciting rather than daunting. I’m especially pleased to be working with Nick Earls, who was one of my adolescent writing heroes. At perhaps 16, times were hard. Hormones were high. Outlets were scarce. I was an impossibly awkward teenager – funny, but never confident, ever the wacky sidekick. (I have a story about it on YouTube.) I had never even managed to kiss a girl, and was growing distinctly pessimistic about that opportunity ever arising. I felt young and strong and ready, but hemmed in by adults, constantly frustrated in any attempt to do anything. It was a pretty depressing time.

Nick’s book Zigzag Street made me feel a whole lot better. It helped that I lived on Zig Zag Road – immediate identification there. I picked up the book after my sister had left it on the table. “A laugh-out-loud book,” the cover said. Never one to be told what to do by anyone, especially lowly copywriters, my sister declared “It didn’t make ME laugh out loud, not even once!” before flouncing off to her room. In the spirit of wanting to explore any possibility of my sister being wrong, and also in the spirit of not having anything like, say, a girlfriend to go and hang out with, I started reading. I dropped right into the middle and got stuck. I read through to the end, then went back to the beginning, then right through to the end again. It was well into the evening when I began, and I read through until four in the morning, until the book was well and truly done. And you know what? I laughed. Out loud. A lot. Late into the night and echoing off the kitchen slate, sometimes until tears came.

Because finally – finally, in sweet relief – that book made me feel better about things. The main character (Richard?) was something like 28 years old. He was frustrated with life. He felt like he was being kept from achieving things. He was lovely and kind and likeable, but utterly hopeless with girls. He had a lot of time in his life for masturbation. These were all things that I imagined guys grew out of at an early age, in which pursuit everyone else was well ahead of me. Then suddenly I was being told, no. It’s not like that. It doesn’t necessarily get any easier. And rather than being a depressing prediction about where we might all end up, it was a message of heartening solidarity.

It’s ok, said Richard. There are so many others out there like you, like me. It’s how things are. So much of Richard’s life involved extreme embarrassment, hilarious mishap, in the same exaggerated form that we always imagine our own humiliation takes. But of course in the end, Richard is found (via the most absurdly hilarious embarrassment) by a girl who sees through his fumbling awkwardness, and finds the lovely guy within. This is possible, said Zig Zag Street. This is what happens to guys like you. Just be patient.

As it turned out (see that YouTube story again), he was eventually right. And though I couldn’t be certain that he would be right, I still went to bed that night feeling like a lot more things were possible, and I’m not sure that a little bit of that feeling hasn’t stayed with me ever since.

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Just because it’s free… (the worst CDs from the storeroom of doom)

My first gainful employment putting words down on a page was as a music writer. Like most writing gigs, it started out with doing things for free. When it comes to free work, reviewing is the best option. Aside from the intangible notions of experience and opportunity that will be cited (sometimes genuinely) by anyone who wants your work for nothing, at least reviewing means that you generally get to have the thing being reviewed. If you’re reviewing a restaurant, someone has to give you a feed. A friend who works in tech assessment has a different smartphone any time I see him. Music writing, as long as you can pick your assignments, lets you go to concerts you were too broke to attend, and you can often take someone you like into the bargain. For what it’s worth, reviewing albums helps you expand your CD collection, though as the years have gone by, that has begun to seem more con than pro.

In my state of student poverty a few years ago, these perks were enough to start me writing for a free online mag, the now-defunct ultra-indie site Wireless Bollinger. Aside from expecting it to vanish at any moment under the weight of a single legal letter from a certain champagne manufacturer, I found I was an unnatural fit in a stable of writers who would jizz down their legs in perfect synchronicity if Thom Yorke farted into a dictaphone. The Album of the Year writers’ poll was an annual foregone conclusion, because surely Radiohead had at least released an instrumental mp3 under a fake name on an obscure Russian torrent server, and of course that counted because THEY ARE GENIUS DAMMIT. There was also constant conflict regarding taxonomy and category: no, we can’t cover The Rapture because they aren’t ‘indie’ music, but next week we’re going to send you to Cut Copy and ask you to review the new Chemical Brothers record. The last straw came after a couple of years of being told not to mention any of the hip-hop acts while reviewing major music festivals, when I booted up the computer to find Kanye in our best album list. Because… well, Pitchfork did it…

I like Kanye as much as the next white guy, but still – fuck that shit.

Amazingly, despite barely posting any new content in the last year of its life, the site was eventually sold as a going concern to a new group of guys who were dead keen to take it over. They came bustling in, made their announcements, emailed everyone to say that they assumed we’d keep working for free, and enthusiastically ignored the replies asking how exactly they proposed to resolve the various and substantial problems of the site’s previous incarnation. Four months later, the entire site had gone dark. The domain name now dead-ends at a 404, and the hacked Twitter account is just iPad spam and tumbleweeds. A salutary lesson for anyone who thinks that data is somehow more durable than print. Check some papryrus, bitches.

Well before the whimpering end had come for Wireless Bollinger, though, I had also branched out into (minimally) paid reviewing for more mainstream outlets. Citysearch was a frequent option, which then syndicated out to MTV. As a person with what was then a deep antipathy toward pop music (the transformation of which I’ve laid bare in ‘Lady Gaga destroys Neo Tokyo‘), it was discombobulating to see my name below an MTV logo and above a discussion of Flo Rida. For those who imagine that there are riches and glamour involved with the world’s most recognisable pop brand, I can see you and raise you the $30 that I received per album review. MTV Online Australasia does not equate to getting stage-side at the VMA’s while Kanye intercepts Taylor Swift. Nonetheless, it was money that nudged me over the edge of a weekly personal budget deficit, so I persisted.

Which brings me to the very simple original point of this post, which was not in fact a discussion of my freelance employment history. The thing is, when you write reviews, you get a whole shitload of CDs. People give you CDs, people send them to you. The publications you write for send them too, not just the discs you’re writing about, but extras from the massive piles that they receive and don’t want to write about. Ever notice street presses trying to sound generous by running competitions to win 100 mystery CDs? Yeah, those specially selected gift packs are really just the result of shovelling a bucket through the drift of audio crud that has backed up in their office. It’s less about promotion than it is just getting shit out of the way.

Apparently the same trick is expected to work on their writers, though those same writers well and truly know the score. Random extras find their way into your review parcels as ‘bonuses’. Any visit to the office of a street press will usually end with someone pressing jewel cases into your hands. “Take them, please,” they smile, while their eyes grow wide and slightly desperate, and you think you hear “just fucking take them” added under their breath.

The net result is that I ended up with far too many CDs to ever listen to, and a large number that should never be listened to. They all ended up in a giant box in a storeroom. Last week, in the interests of getting my life in order, I decided to clear out that box. The results were varied and hilarious, and I want to share some of them with you.

EcoZen: a musical awakening. For people who loved India because life there is just so much more real, man. 

“Beyond mere chill-out, here’s where the ambient revolution begins.” STRAP YOURSELVES IN. WE’RE GOING BEYOND CHILL-OUT. I imagine this to be a really relaxed Mad Max film, where two warriors compete to see who can best roll around in a pile of people on some mattresses on the floor of a filthy nightclub while inhaling Medic fumes off a kawaii stuffed-animal backpack. Can I just raise a semantic point here? If chill-out is a point of aspiration, then surely going beyond chill-out implies you will be doing what chill-out does, only more so? Which is to say, being more chilled out? Less active? More comatose? Is that why we have to strap ourselves in? So we don’t slump unconsciously out of our chairs and shatter our front teeth on the coffee table?

Sorry, but a more intense version of chill-out makes as much sense as a hardcore butterfly kiss or a savage beating with soft cheese.

Cornlicker. This band make the list because their name is Cornlicker, and they apparently feature a man with a machine-penis putting it in a hole. That and the fact that they photocopied their EP cover onto nice red paper. I liked that.

Given that this is an EP in a plastic sleeve, someone probably gave it to me personally. Which means I probably know someone in this band, or at least know someone who knows them. Which means there’s a good chance they’ll see this, and might bring it up, and there’ll be that awkward moment when they’ll bring it up, unsure about whether I was really insulting them or just kind of taking the piss.

I guess I’ll say: Dude. Your band was called Cornlicker. To be fair, it does sounds like a Tennessee sex crime.

Faux-hobo bluesman track names are below.

1. You won’t hold me back
2. Hair of the dog
3. Prime motivation
4. Quicksand
5. I know what’s right for you
6. Ball and chain
7. Memory is the enemy
8. Some kinda luck
9. Another dollar
10. Bright lights / Big city

Go Cornlicker.

Yeah, this isn’t exactly a shitty low-profile band, and I thought the Pumpkins put on a rad show last time they toured Australia. But still. This later-era record, after Billy recruited some high-school kids to play Darcy and James, is just that fucking awful. It really is. And it’s called Zeitgeist. I guess Synergy and Optimise had already been trademarked by juice companies.

Hard to go past a record with tracks called ‘Reflections’, ‘Shaman’s Dream’, and ‘The Naiades of the Purple Lake.’

Hahaha, remember back in the days when blackface was funny? Like on Hey Hey in the 80s? Yeah, those were some good times. So this must be an album from… wait, they didn’t do CDs in the 80s. Ok, 90s then? Some hangover?

Nope. This CD is from the end of 2007. Even Sam Newman’s final foray with the boot polish was back in 1999.

Here are some call synopses from another Tilley masterpiece:

3. Indian Holiday Disaster
Melanie Gault was leaving her job managing a travel agency and wanted to leave her replacement Sam Marshall with a very special customer… who was figuratively and literally a little “dark”.

4. Vasectomy
Karen Harman is a colleague of Nik Embury who had just had a vasectomy. She figured everyone at work could join in the fun as he snuck off to discover just how far the truth (and his scrotum!) could be stretched.

8. Doggy Style
Deep down every man likes to think he could make a woman bark like a dog. Bruno Preiato is no exception but being slightly prudish, he wondered if the job could be done for him on his friend Selina Camilleri.

14. Black Booty
“Irene” and “Connie” have been placed in the witness protection program. This is what happens when two girlfriends turn on each other just to find out if the other has been with a black man. Wearing a false beard will no doubt decrease their chances of a repeat offence with ANY man.

Aside from rolling on the floor at the suggestion that all black men have enormous penises (classic!), I did wonder whether the description of Selina in relation to Bruno should be less ‘friend’, more ‘colleague who he wasn’t brave enough to sexually harass himself.’ Goldmine, nonetheless. Some comedians are so intimidating in their genius that I never want to make another joke again.

Tilley’s isn’t the best disc I found though. No, that’s another one in the category of things that white dudes should stay away from.

In case you missed that, that’s Psychedelic Didgeridoo. A genre sorely lacking from our musical scope, filled in one brave movement by Elohims Child (he’s reducing his carbon footprint by cutting down on apostrophes). The production values, too, are breathtaking – I’ve photographed the interior for you below. Note the colour transposition from cover image to disc, and note the amazing track names.

Timecrusadiers. (Yes, Crusadiers. They’re a thing.)
Lightwaves Remixed.

Why is Timecrusadiers not the track on everyone’s lips, being covered by Walk Off the Earth in a YouTube sensation? It’s the disillusionment of injustices like this that drove me out of the music writing business and into the kinder world of politics.

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The last few nights, we’ve had those beautiful late-March evenings you get in Melbourne. So many in fact that the last one has draped over onto the first day of April. Those nights where it’s like summer has forgotten that it was supposed to be over, and come wandering back into the party half an hour after it left to catch a cab. It’s dishevelled, and there are sticks in its hair and a piece of plastic wrap stuck to the bottom of one shoe, and you don’t ask where it’s been, but it wanders round the kitchen to fix itself another drink from the dregs of bottles scattered on the bench, something with warm soda instead of tonic, and a partly-chewed lime wedge dropped in, and summer drinks it leaning against the kitchen washboard, chatting with a vague slur for another seven minutes, before regathering its senses enough to attempt again its exit.

Every year, without fail, everyone acts surprised, and goes on about the unpredictability of Melbourne weather. Every year, without fail, the same pattern recurs. This is in accordance with our practice of pretending that we are some sort of hardcore weather warriors, battling an anomalous climate, as though conditions don’t change sharply in Chicago or the Russian steppes. “Melbourne weather,” we cluck, a phrase with so much intuited meaning as to require no further utterance, never aware that Sydney has twice the rainfall in any given year.

No matter. These nights are a gift to us by a city whose virtue could be more appreciated. The air is gentle and the trees still have their leaves. There’s a softness to the evening, as though atmospheric fabric conditioner had been added to the wash. When I first fell in love, a long decade and more ago now, it was one of those late March nights. I was a recent refugee from adolescence. When it started I thought that everything had changed; when it ended I thought that life could never move on. It had, and it did. Some years later I met another girl on another late March night, in the midst of a minor Melbourne disaster whose memory might soon be jarred free. We passed a few weeks in that company, until the world turned another turn, and I wrote this poem.

If you’ve enjoyed these last few nights in Melbourne, it’s for you.


That night tasted like grapefruit; we were
hallway silhouettes. Some hours earlier, drops


had started pocking Victoria’s state-wide parch
softening the cracked lips of reservoirs.


It was summer’s last convulsion. The heavy energy of heat
curled round us and over, even as the rains came in.


There’d been a crash in the Burnley Tunnel: explosions,
calamity. With power to the whole northern grid failing


we sat in darkness – streetlights doused, houses
thinking themselves over at the edge of vision –


watching four blind lanes of Royal Parade
snakehiss with traffic, water sheeting the roadway,


tyres unable to decide if they were planes or scythes.
Our shoebox veranda made a diorama,


a comfort to those out in the world.
With the familiarity born of shared disaster


passers-by stopped to tell us of chaos in the city:
traffic lights out, cars dismantling each other,


man undone by invention one more time.
How long has it been out up here? they’d ask.


At twelve I said I’d walk home when the rain stopped.
Cars thinned out but never ceased


though at least no more cyclist lights
scrived their laser scrimshaw in our skulls.


Veranda edges circumscribed the sky, the iron lacework
boxed it up like Chinese takeaway.


Beyond the swoop of the Parade was space
and space and space. That dirty couch was a canoe,


the road a roiling mud monsoonal river, mile-wide.
We rode the current, waiting for a break in rain


that never came; let it ride the way things ride
on nights that taste like grapefruit.


Morning was a nudge in the ribs: the clouds’ campaign
from black to ash to oyster-shell.


Water still hissed through our streets
arced from branches…turned orange?


Yes. In the ultimate redundancy
the streetlights came back on.


Kissing you was like rain the night before:
while anyone could see that it was coming


it was hard to predict when the first drop would fall.
But it always falls. With a whole night to lean on


the first kiss came as easily.
And with that rain now in its twelfth hour


and your eyes so close to mine
it was hard to dodge metaphors of droughts breaking.


Inside, the terrace dusk of your room was dark grey felt.
My hands found your hands.


The rain stopped. The earth breathed,
and as we broke the crisp of brand new sheets


it seemed that everything else
had become new.

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Bondi Junction fitness gangsters are not Julia Guillard

This is by far the best hand-delivered crazy person’s letter I’ve seen today. It was left in a manila envelope at the back door of the offices of The Global Mail in Sydney, and discovered by Hugh Robertson.


There is so much to love here. The idea that Fitness First is behind the gangster takeover. The idea that all gangsters think they are the Prime Minister. The distinctly Gallic spelling of his champion’s name. The carefully selected photographs. The signature – Mark – written blockily beneath the printed text – Mark. No last name. Yes sir, I am so firmly convinced of the claims in my crazy letter that I am certainly not prepared to put my name or any identifying information to them. Take that. (Mark, do you think they don’t already know who you are?)

Oh, and the sticky tape. The dear, sweet sticky tape. 

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Hey Yumi, stop being so goddamn Japanese

I know you’ll be as shocked and disappointed as I am, but someone on television said something stupid last week.

George Negus and Yumi Stynes, on a morning talk show that no-one watches, made some smartarse comments about the intellect of an Australian soldier (or as headlines unemotionally put it, an “Aussie war hero”). The chap in question was Ben Roberts-Smith, an SAS corporal who recently won a Victoria Cross. The comment boards, radio, and news-report talking heads veritably exploded in a kind of indignant patriotic hyperventilation.

This all came to my attention when a friend in the defence force posted a Facebook note addressed to Stynes. At the time I’d never heard of her, and was wondering whether she was one of the now-adult Tin Lids, until I dug through the brain-crud deep enough to remember that their dad was Jimmy Barnes, not Jim Stynes. Having laid that crucial matter to rest, I read the following.

“An NCO in SASR is a man specially selected and trained to lead similarly selected and trained men into harm’s way to achieve objectives of national importance to Australia beyond the range and scope of conventional forces. They most often do this in either non-permissive or outright hostile environments at great personal and mission risk.”

“These men have not only prepared for and passed the infamous ‘Cadre’ Course to be accepted into the regiment, they have committed countless hours and days to their physical and professional development. A commitment almost unimaginable in today’s gentle society.”

“The NCO among them has been identified, further trained, and assessed as capable to lead them. Split-second decisions hold life-or-death ramifications for them, their mates, and their adversaries.”

“You sit on a couch, and gossip. Who do you really think should look for their brain on the bottom of the pool?”

Compared to other responses, it was accurate and dignified. But I also wondered at just how its author – someone normally impassive to society’s ignorance about the armed forces – had been stung enough to write it.

This may surprise you, but Network Ten’s The Circle is not in fact one of the names muttered reverentially by comedians as existing at the finely-honed cutting edge of their craft. So here, looking at photos of an inordinately muscle-bound Roberts-Smith in a pool, its hosts went with that old classic about how attractive people aren’t particularly smart. (A blackface skit was presumably scheduled after the break.)

Negus took the cue to speculate that it would be sad if someone attractive (and therefore stupid) was no good in bed. “But that sort of bloke…what if they’re not up to it in the sack?” he asked, prompting Stynes to question whether he was suggesting the corporal was “a dud root.” The clap-o-meter was going wild.

The real traction for the offended, though, came from presuming that the “in the sack” remark referred to Roberts-Smith conceiving his children via IVF, as he’d discussed in a current affairs interview a couple of nights previously. How dare someone insult to the virility of the corporal’s manly sack-juice?

I want to stop you here. To the best of my knowledge, after some research on the issue, I’m pretty sure that being designated as “good in the sack” does not generally correlate to your ratio of impregnation per sex act. In fact, you might argue that one factor of sack-goodness directly relates to the efforts you undertake to ensure that precisely that outcome does not result. Many other criteria of sack prowess, at the same time, involve acts from which conception is a distinctly distant possibility. From personal experience, my girlfriends have generally been much more appreciative of my bedroom efforts when I don’t knock them up than when I do. Nothing says ‘sexy’ like a first-trimester abortion.

Nonetheless, the fury of the bored media-consuming public came down like a pillar of holy cleansing fire. Channel Ten’s website, their Facebook page, any outlet that ran an article on the story, was subjected to strings of sputtering outrage from readers. A large proportion of these were demanding apologies long after all the parties involved had already issued them, which didn’t show the most comprehensive grasp of the subject.

Then again, a comprehensive grasp on anything is not really indicated by comments like “I will never watch this The Circle again. What Ms Styne and Mr Negus said was totally inappropriate. Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith is helping to keep our Great Country safe from the Terrorism.”

Consider the following (asterisks belong to the artists).

“You Yumi are simply a vacuous inconsiderate mole, and George, if you’d be too gutless to say this to Cpl. Bens face. Both of you should have your tongues slit out.”

“Yumi Stynes you are a dumb gutless low life! You live in your little bubble you know NOTHING of sacrifice you low breed talentless bi*ch!”

“Lock George up and deport that inbred bitch Yumi!!!!!”

“It doesn’t surprise me that Yumi made comments like this when she’s part Japanese..Look how the Japs treated our men in World war 2..a total disgrace of a woman..Learn your history and respect Love and get off your high ****y horse.”

“…I am appalled by the comments made by an ignorant, half Jap Bitch and an aging journo with no balls…”

Ah, there it is. That curious chain of reasoning that says: my sense of decency has been offended. The best way to defend that decency would be to subject the perpetrator and all others in earshot to a stream of violent personal abuse in a public forum.

While it was Negus who initiated the more controversial part of the conversation, Stynes was the focus of the coverage and the criticism. Negus was attacked, but generally with less ferocity, or as an afterthought. Comments about him lacked the sexual aspect, and less of the implied or explicit threat of violence.

You can’t help concluding that the tenor of this response has a lot to do with Stynes being female (What the fuck would you know about soldiers anyway?) and a lot to do with being identifiably Japanese (Our Aussie diggers died to keep morning television safe from your kind.). Never mind that Stynes was born in Swan Hill, so deportation would be a tricky exercise even if we did have a Foreign Minister.

But why so much rage to begin with? We can only arrive at the contention that, according to the values of this vocal proportion of the public, no-one has the right to disrespect Ben Roberts-Smith because he was a soldier. As the ANZAC Day mythologising seeps deeper into our cultural self-view, we end up with a situation in which Aussie soldiers are rendered sacrosanct, and no criticism of them can take place.

This is a dangerous place to be. Australian soldiers are and always have been ordinary guys wearing one of a range of funny hats. They’re ordinary guys with a bunch of specialised training in a range of things important to their profession, and perhaps not enough specialised training in others. Some do the right thing, some do the wrong thing, most do at least a little bit of both. To treat them otherwise is dishonest.

Do I respect Ben Roberts-Smith, and what he does? Absolutely. In winning his VC he showed tremendous courage. At the same time, I’m also aware that the fighters he killed were just other men, with their own lives and personalities. In another circumstance, they could as easily have ended up fighting alongside him. None of us are born so very different, it’s just the paths we take from there that can diverge.

The trenches of WWI found Britons up against German friends they’d drunk with in London or Berlin, or half-German cousins who’d chosen a continental university. Of course those cultures live closer together, but there were the Arabs who fought under T.E. Lawrence, the Saudis who joined the liberation of Kuwait, the American covert operatives aiding Iraq against Iran or Afghanistan against Russia. Allies and enemies come and go like any other ghosts.

Sure, the comments about Roberts-Smith were unnecessary and tasteless. An awful lot of what’s said on radio and television is. So is a lot of what I write, so are a lot of the conversations we have every day. Yet we rarely see this kind of response. And sure, a Victoria Cross winner doesn’t knowingly put himself in the public spotlight by virtue of his deeds in the manner of an actor or athlete. But a VC winner happy to volunteer for interviews about his personal life on national current affairs programs can’t have quite the same gripe about being discussed publicly as the curmudgeon who goes back quietly to his cabin in the woods and melts his medal into an ashtray.

VCs don’t come along very often, and as many generations of commanders have known, a VC is more for the soldiers still fighting and the people back home than it is for the recipient. It lifts morale, gives a sense of achievement, of collective ownership of the struggle. “Our VC winners,” people say. By going public with his achievements, Roberts-Smith agrees to be part of that charm offensive.

So the comments were inane. Of course they were. They were made on a show that devotes half of its airtime to informercials promoting new ways to slice carrots. It’s not exactly contributing a lot to society. If a bunch of us were stranded in the jungle, Yumi would probably be the first to be devoured by wild pigs.

All of which just adds to the case for ‘who gives a shit?’ If a man can storm two machine gun posts singlehanded and emerge as the only survivor, I hardly think the not-so-biting satire of a couple of TV hosts is going to keep him blinking at the ceiling through the late hours. Given Ben’s work in defending us from The Terrorism, he probably doesn’t need Schlubhead from Donger Beach to volunteer to defend him, especially not with some charmless noise about killing or deporting the citizens that Ben is tasked to protect.

And yet the letters section of the papers have been full of it. The RSL has been making announcements. Federal politicians from both sides of politics are feeling the need to make their comments known. In the meantime, Syria’s on fire.

Time to get back in your goddamn boxes. And spare a thought for the people being forcibly put in theirs.

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