Melbourne’s Batman

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Photo: @norton_tim

An amusing photo was posted to Twitter this week of a giant billboard in suburban Melbourne captioned “Thank you Batman – David Feeney MP”. The tweet’s poster Tim Singleton Norton added “to those unaware of the name of the electorate, I’m guessing this billboard looks extremely odd.” When I appropriated the photo for my Facebook feed I added the comments “gratitude in Gotham City” and indeed, the humorous possibilities are endless. Batman, the popular DC Comics character, has been around since 1939 and transformed by television, cinema and video games, is now a cultural icon as probably the world’s most famous comic book superhero. Of course, David Feeney MP is not thanking the fictional Batman but the people of the Australian federal electorate of Batman, whose name predates the comic book figure.

The Division of Batman was created in 1906 and comprises mainly working class areas of north Melbourne, traditionally one of the safest Labor seats in the country. That almost changed in 2016 when Feeney survived a close challenge from the Greens. The hapless Feeney, already with an infamous reputation as one of the “Faceless Men” who unseated Kevin Rudd in 2010 did not help his own cause when he failed to declare $2.3m property on on the parliamentary register of interests. Then he was skewered in a car crash interview on Sky News, unable to answer questions on the $4.8b Schoolkids Bonus policy. The Greens beat Feeney on primary votes but with the help of Liberal preferences Feeney scraped over the line to retain the seat with a 51-49 2PP victory over the Greens. It was probably with much relief Feeney could take to the billboards proclaiming Thank You Batman oblivious to the irony of the other meaning.

Batman the electorate was named for John Batman (1801-1839), a native Vandiemenlander, and one of the original founders of white settlement in Melbourne in 1835. Batman had a mixed reputation as a likely killer of Aboriginal people in Tasmania before treating with Victorian Aborigines. Batman died of syphilis aged 38 and his early death meant there were no portraits of him in his lifetime.

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The quaker version of John Batman.

Those that survive are based on William Penn, the English quaker who founded Pennsylvania. Penn was famous for his supposed peace treaty with Delaware natives in 1683 immortalised in a Benjamin West painting “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians”. Batman was an important member of the Port Phillip Association, an informal group of well-connected Tasmanians. Their self-serving yet unique attempt to treat with the indigenous bands of Melbourne was influenced by stories of Penn’s Treaty with the Shackamaxon native Americans. The imaginary connection between the two would lead to the agreement the PPA struck with the Kulin people of Victoria being called “Batman’s Treaty“.

That was the Treaty Batman claimed he signed in 1835 with the Kulin to occupy hundreds of thousands of acres of their territory around what would become Melbourne and Geelong. According to Batman the Kulin consented to the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres in return for “the yearly rent or tribute of one hundred pair of blankets one hundred knives one hundred tomahawks fifty suits of clothing fifty looking glasses fifty pair of scissors and five tons flour.” Though white sealers and whalers had lived independently around Port Phillip Bay since the late 18th century, the PPA’s treaty was the first formal settlement proposal and a significant threat to the 19 counties Limits of Location the British government imposed in the Sydney hinterland of New South Wales.

The Treaty was initially respected around the Port Phillip area until complicated by the arrival of a rival settlement party from Tasmania in August 1835 led by John Fawkner. In the middle of the white men’s fight, life got dangerous for the original owners. New South Wales governor Richard Bourke was also alarmed, seeking legal advice before disavowing the Treaty. It was an awkward reminder the rest of Australia was being taken up without treaties. The British view was the land belonged to the crown since Cook’s statement of possession in 1770. Though absurd to the Kulin owners, that statement was a “matter of history” and could not be contested. The Treaty was abrogated but the flow of white settlers continued into Melbourne forcing the Kulin people off their land. The significance of events was not the Treaty but that the limits of location were smashed forever. The pace of colonisation of Australia increased dramatically in the decades that followed.

John Batman would have been forgotten given his early death, but for another Tasmanian, historian James Bonwick. Bonwick was an evangelist troubled by British dispossesion of the Aboriginal people though he was more concerned by redeeming the sins of the British than upholding Aboriginal rights. He praised the short-lived Batman’s Treaty but accepted the government’s decision to abrogate it. He was more concerned about Batman’s reputation as a founder of Melbourne then he was about Kulin land claims.

Bonwick began a revisional process which saw Batman become a major historical figure, though those that promoted him glossed over the Treaty. What became more important was an entry in Batman’s diary about a trip up the river where Batman apparently exclaims “this will be a place for a village”. These words – taken out of context – would take on extraordinary significance in narratives about Melbourne. As the grandees of Melbourne celebrated the city’s 50th and then 100th birthday, they celebrated the extraordinary growth from a “village” to a great world city. For their purposes Batman took “unoccupied” lands; the Treaty forgotten as an awkward reminder the land had prior owners who were dispossessed without compensation or apology.

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The First Settlers Discover Buckley

Yet Batman’s image offered a ghostly reminder of that treaty. Artist Frederick William Woodhouse re-enacted Penn’s Treaty with the Indians in his own painting The First Settlers Discover Buckley. William Buckley was the convict who escaped the short-lived Victorian settlement of 1803 and lived with Aboriginal people for 32 years until he met the new settlers in 1835. Batman was not in that meeting but Woodhouse imagined he was and influenced by Benjamin West painted him in a Penn-style quaker necktie and hat. The image stuck and was passed on to all future depictions of Batman.

The Treaty found a new political purpose in the late 1960s when Victorian Aboriginal people led by Pastor Doug Nichols appropriated it for their needs. “The importance of the Batman Treaty lies in its explicit recognition that Aborigines did, in fact, own the land,” a supporter, Barry Pittock, wrote to The Age. Though Batman’s Treaty is not explicitly mentioned, it is probably no coincidence the 2016 Victorian government is the first Australian administration to publicly back a Treaty. “We understand that it’s not for us to decide what treaty or self-determination should look like,” Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Natalie Hutchins said. “We know that action needs to come from the Victorian Aboriginal community.” Like Feeney, she might have added, Thank You Batman.

Deepwater Horizon event

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The Deepwater Horizon burns after the explosion. Photo: US Coast Guard

The Gulf of Mexico oil rig Deepwater Horizon was either a triumph of 21st century human engineering or one of the worst excesses of global capitalism, take your pick. For 13 years the South Korean-built monster rig plied ocean waters finding hard-to-reach oil 10,000m deep in the Gulf of Mexico until its life was ended, as was 11 people aboard, in a spectacular explosion on April 20, 2013. There followed the largest oil spill ever over 87 days until the well was finally capped.

The Hollywood film Deepwater Horizon barely taps at the surface of many of the issues but as disasters action films go, it shines a rare light on corporate excess. The movie partially focuses on the death by a thousand cuts in the lead-up and ignores the destructive aftermath to concentrate on the human element of the disaster on the day, but to that end it does a fine job.

Deepwater Horizon, the rig, had a complicated history the film alludes to in its corporate colour-coded cast. Swiss company Transocean owned the rig and flew it under the Marshall Islands flag of convenience. Almost half the world’s fleet is registered in three countries – Marshall Is, Liberia and Panama – none of which has a large maritime fleet. The flag of convenience is globalism writ large, offering economic and regulatory advantages, and increased freedom in choosing employees from an international labour pool but also anonymity, tax advantages and immunity from prosecution.

The rig had worked in the Gulf of Mexico all its life. In early 2013 the rig was in the Macondo Prospect 40km off Louisiana, a field whose exploration rights were owned by a three-company conglomerate. The majority shareholder (65%) was British multinational oil giant BP. Texan oil company Anadarko owned another quarter, with the remaining 10% with the Japanese keiretsu Mitsui. Transocean and all three field owners would suffer big financial penalties after the event but well-known BP carried the most reputational damage.

Deepwater Horizon’s primary asset was its ability to explore for oil at deeper levels than any other rig in the world. It had a great success rate in finding oil wells and was finishing off at Macondo at the time of the accident. It was considered a “lucky” rig and had a fine safety record. But as the GFC began to bite and the oil price dived, the owners and operators were looking to make cost savings whereever they could. Inevitably, maintenance suffered as the company culture changed. BP was investigated for having a “worse health, environment and safety record than many other major oil companies.”

The problem was exacerbated by a administrative conflict of interest. The US government makes big money from Gulf wells through selling off the exploration rights licences in auctions held by the Minerals Management Service. However that same Minerals Management Service was also in charge of the regulation and inspection of the oil rig. The pro-business George W Bush administration was keen to remove “red tape” from commercial enterprises. But some of that tape was holding things together. According to an Associated Press investigation MMS’s examination was performed with a lack of detail, lax regulations and poor record keeping. During its lifetime, Deepwater Horizon had six citations of non-compliance, five relating to safety and the sixth to electrical equipment.

The safety event covered in the film was the failure to test cement at the well.  The investigation found this would have cost $128,000 and taken 12 hours. BP and Transocean blamed each other for the lack of safety checks and misinterpreting the results of the checks that were performed. Neither admitted cost cutting caused the accident. BP issued a terse statement after the movie’s release to say it was not an accurate portrayal of events and it ignored “multiple errors made by a number of companies”.

Accurate or not, the film’s portrayal of the explosion was spectacular on screen. The proximate cause was a problem with the blowout preventer. Some of the 126 workers on board later testified the electric lights flickered, followed by two strong vibrations. A blowout occurred – a bubble of methane gas escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through seals and barriers before exploding.  The explosion caused an uncontrollable fire and after 24 hours, the rig sank. The nearby Tidewater-owned supply boat took 94 workers to safety. Four more made it to another vessel and 17 were rescued by helicopter. Those that died were mostly on the platform floor at the time of incident. The film Deepwater Horizon is dedicated to those 11.

The tragedy did not end there. It took almost three months to cap the oil spill and almost five million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. There was extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats in one of the most productive ocean ecosystems of the world. Oil and compounds entered the food chain leading to fish with oozing sores and lesions and pelican eggs with petroleum compounds. Several species were critically endangered and there was a sharp increase in dolphin deaths. There were also human physical and mental health consequences to those living near the Louisiana and Florida Gulf coasts.

In July 2015 BP agreed to pay a fine of $18.7 billion to the US government and five states, the largest in US corporate history. The size of the fine shows that although the regulator was compromised (and eventually split up by the Obama administration), the US court system remains a strong bulwark agains unfettered capitalism. Imagine how little BP would have paid had the accident happened in, say, Mexican waters. The company remains bullish. BP recorded a loss in September 2016 of $1.5b but the net loss includes a $5.5 billion loss for settlement in the gulf of Mexico oil spill, leaving the adjusted net income to be around $1.5 billion in profit. Its dividend is still safe.

Deepwater Horizon, the rig, was a force of nature, that ultimately was unnatural. Deepwater Horizon, the event, was a tragedy with many deep repercussions. Deepwater Horizon, the Hollywood movie plays on that tragedy for emotional reaction. BP might well say that the movie did “not reflect who we are today, the lengths we’ve gone to restore the Gulf, the work we’ve done to become safer, and the trust we’ve earned back around the world”. But the movie forces people to think about chain reactions and human agency in corporate decisions. That’s no bad thing and it deserves a wide audience.

 

 

 

Sully: 9/11 with a happy ending

thumbnail_24608It’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood was attracted to the story of Sully. Based on the autobiography Highest Duty by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and journalist Jeffrey Zaslow it tells the “true” story of the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009. President George W Bush who faced the 9/11 incident in his first year, was in his final days of office when another plane crashed in New York but as details emerged, he was relieved to say he was “inspired by the skill and heroism of the flight crew as well as the dedication and selflessness of the emergency responders and volunteers who rescued passengers from the icy waters of the Hudson.”

It is not hard to be inspired by the central act of the “Miracle on the Hudson”, a 9/11-style event with a happy ending. Eastwood had to defend including images of planes crashing into buildings in the film version especially as the release date was close to the 15th anniversary of 9/11. “It’s just a bad dream sequence, and what could have happened if he didn’t make the right decision,” explained Eastwood. “The spirit it gave back the city, there was no tragic loss of life.”

That there was no loss of life was primarily due to the skill of pilot Sullenberger landing on the river but it was also due to the work of the emergency responders on the day. Police and firefighters suffered huge casualties in 9/11 and Eastwood takes the time to show their professionalism and calm in the Hudson crash. “No one dies here,” one responder tells a passenger, but that was not something they could say or control eight years earlier.

Other workers doing their job in 2009 were not shown in such good light. For most of the movie the air crash investigators were made to look like the stock “baddie” as they attempted to prove that Sullenberger could have successfully flown back to either Teterboro or Newark airports despite the catastrophe. This plot element may have been why Eastwood chose the film title “Sully” over the more media-friendly (albeit cliched) Miracle on the Hudson as the NTSB tries to sully the hero’s reputation.

The Guardian led the accusations against Eastwood calling the film a “rightwing attempt to delegitimize government – and in the process undermine the safety of millions who travel by air, train, road and boat.” They said Sullenberger’s book never showed any railroading by the National Transportation Safety Board and it was the investigators – not Sullenberger – who crucially asked a simulator pilot to wait 35 seconds before attempting an airport return, showing a return to the airport was impossible. While the Guardian has a point, Eastwood was creating drama and no-one should see the film as an accurate depiction but rather a tribute to the human spirit.

The film showed Sullenberger’s dedication to duty. His overriding concern post accident was for the “155 souls” aboard, twice traversing the stricken plane to look for bodies and not resting until all were accounted for and alive. It was easy to see why New Yorkers – would fall in love with Sully (the man) after the incident. Tom Hanks is the ideal everyman to play Sullenberger, slightly bemused with all the media attention but focussed on his job. The film does a good job of showing what the terror must have been like on board in those final moments and the computer graphics of the crash landing are impressive.

Sully is not great history, but is enjoyable cinema and works on many levels as a powerful antidote to the trauma of 9/11. In reality the only ones to suffer (apart from American International Group, US Airways’ insurer) were the Canada geese that caused the accident. As well as the flock that died when sucked into the engines, over one thousand birds were later rounded up from 17 locations in New York and gassed. As group punishment it made no sense. An estimated 20,000 geese remain in the area, and five million across the US, ready to cause the next aviation mishap.

 

 

The forgotten people: Howard on Menzies

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Robert Menzies with factory workers at Birmingham, England in 1941. Photo: Menziesvirtualmuseum.org.au

On Saturday afternoon I turned on the TV to catch up with world news. The dial was set to ABC and as the TV flicked into life I realised I had tuned into a repeat of the earlier episode of Howard On Menzies. It didn’t take me long to forget about world news and become engrossed in what I was watching. Having enjoyed that, I lapped up the final episode last night. Howard wasn’t a bad interviewer, I decided, and had access to an A-list of talent. The subtitle of the documentary was Building Modern Australia, and that was John Howard’s theme, that Robert Gordon Menzies had ruled Australia for so long we could talk of a “Menzies era” inexorably shaping the country as it glided through the turbulent times of the 1950s and 1960s.

The ideas in the television show (and let’s remember that is what it was, a “show”) come from Howard’s monumental 700-page biography The Menzies Era: The years that shaped modern Australia. Howard says historian Geoffrey Blainey suggested he (Howard) was ideally placed to write the biography of Menzies “from a political perspective” as another long-term leader from the same party. Howard says the era of Menzies lasted from 1949 to 1972, as the three Liberal prime ministers that followed him were all served as ministers in the Menzies government.

Menzies was a towering figure in Australian politics throughout the centre of the 20th century and his influence began well before 1949. Menzies was a brilliant intellectual who would have succeeded in whatever career path he chose. Born in a small country town (an upbringing he was proud of, but quietly escaped) he served a political apprenticeship in the Victorian parliament and was a stellar barrister. Former judge Michael Kirby told Howard that Menzies would have certainly ended up on the High Court had he continued in law. But he gravitated towards federal politics in the 1930s where he found an easy fit as attorney-general in Lyons’ UAP government.

In 1935 he went to England, which began a lifelong affair with the country and its institutions. “One realises that a Parliament for England is something growing from the very roots of English soil”, he wrote. For Menzies “home” was Britain, though that was not to disparage his native Australia, which he saw as a British appendage. Menzies was in the constant public eye as AG, earning the nickname Pig Iron Bob for his firm stand when he clamped down on workers who refused to load boats carrying iron ore for Japan.

When Lyons died in 1939, Menzies was the obvious replacement. Though he had resigned from the ministry in a dispute with the Country Party over the national insurance bill, Menzies was sworn in as UAP prime minister. Ongoing hostility from Labor and the Country Party left Menzies vulnerable and he did not help his cause by spending much of the early war years in Britain. Britain was where the action was, and where Menzies wanted to be, but he neglected his power base. An ungrateful Australia booted him out of office in 1941.

Left to stew in his juices in a backwater while the affairs of the world went on without him, Menzies did a root and branch investigation into what power really meant to him. The start of his political renaissance is charted by his best biographer Judith Brett in her analysis of a series of radio speeches beginning in 1942 called The Forgotten Years. Then a backbencher, ‘The Forgotten People’ is Robert Menzies’ appeal to the Australian middle class, whom he saw as the moral backbone of the society. “proud, scrupulous, thrifty and modest.” The middle class lived outside the public sphere and centred their lives on their homes. Menzies imagined them as independent citizens exercising their judgment as to what is best for the nation as a whole. These views struck a powerful note with their intended audience and were to ground his future political success.

The occupations they had were “salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on”. Menzies believed that no party spoke for these people and set about creating his own as he sat out the war. His new Liberal Party was smashed in the 1946 election but the time was right in 1949. By then the electorate had enough of Labor’s post-war austerity and wanted something new to believe it. The times were right for Menzies.

Menzies had a lot of luck in his following career. In 1954 he was on the nose until he used the Petrov Affair to whip up the fear of communism. The Labor party split of 1955 put it out of action for the rest of the decade, yet Arthur Calwell almost snatched government in 1961, Menzies winning by one seat. Menzies’ final victory in 1964 was a triumph as he used Labor sectarianism to push through popular reforms in education, snatching much of their Catholic vote in the process. He retired in glory on Australia Day 1966 handing over power to Harold Holt.

Hated and despised by Labor in equal measure, it wasn’t until another towering intellect came along in Gough Whitlam, that Menzies’ ghost could be exorcised. And it took another Labor genius Paul Keating to read the last rites. Howard tries to get us to look at Menzies in a new light, but with Howard being in Menzies own image, perhaps is fatally undermined in that task.

But as a gripping sequence between Howard and Bob Hawke reminds us, Menzies’ longevity in power is extraordinary in a democracy and questions need to be asked about he survived so long. Luck played a large part as did his ability to turn world affairs to his account. The quality of his opposition was poor, Labor being even more conservative and set in their ways than Menzies was. And the power of his personality made him the dominant figure in his own party making sure that there would be no night of the long knives from within. His patrician bearing could never make him a man of the people and he failed in his personal quest to ban Communism. But he was always a political survivor. As Barry Humphries said “no one liked him except the electorate”.  

Howard On Menzies teased out many of those issues, as it was about Howard as much as it was about Menzies. Menzies’ success was based on “quiet prosperity” which is an oxymoron today, and probably was in Menzies’ time, predicated by hiding behind tariff walls, picket fences and whitewashed history. There was no doubt the people Menzies appealed to were hard-working and decent and Howard tried to tap into them to guarantee his own long term survival. But by the late 20th century the walls were crumbling and despite Howard’s dictum of “we will decide who comes to this country”, he could not keep his Australia as white and pure as Menzies’ Australia.

As I said, Howard had a stellar list of Australian greats ready to give their fascinating tuppence worth on Menzies. But one of Menzies’ key lessons was missed in the program. As he sat out the war, he realised an important electoral demographic was women, and he spoke to their needs. But Judith Brett aside, they were largely absent from Howard on Menzies. They remained the forgotten people.

On John Mulvaney and Indigenous antiquity

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John Mulvaney (right) at Lake Mungo in the early 1970s. National Archives of Australia A6180,23/8/74/3

There were two bits of intertwining news yesterday, one exciting, one sad. The exciting news was that a study of Indigenous Australian DNA dated their origins to more than 50,000 years making them the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth. The sad news was the death of a man who did more than most to place the Aboriginal context in deep time: John Mulvaney, aged 90.

Aboriginal Australia lacked a written language which made it inscrutable to historians, making it easier to write them out of the history. It took experts from other disciplines such as archeologists like Mulvaney, anthropologists like Bill Stanner and ethnographers like Deborah Rose Bird to make sense of the available texts and create a new history for Australia 50,000 years old not 230 years.

Over 10 years ago another geneticist Spencer Wells found proof humans travelled from Africa to Australia and not vice versa when he found Australian Aboriginal blood has DNA mutations, or markers, from Africa that are 50,000 years old, but no African tribes have Australian markers. He also found genetic data which shows humans travelled along the south Asian coastline (at a time when sea-levels were low) before reaching Australia. The new study by geneticists that also traced the DNA journey from Africa to Australia would have been no surprise to Mulvaney. He made the astonishing discovery that although Africa was the wellspring of humanity, the earliest signs of human evolution outside Africa are in western New South Wales.

At the time sea levels were lower than at present and mainland Australia was part of the mega continent of Sahul with New Guinea and Tasmania. There is evidence to suggest humans were here at least 50 kya (thousand years ago).  The earliest direct age for human occupation of Australia is between 50 and 60 kya for stone tools at Malakunanja and Nauwalabila rock shelters in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

Humans quickly fanned across the continent.Given we have seen rabbits spread across Australia in a century, it is not unreasonable to believe the human invasion happened in a similar timeframe. The spread was aided by great herbivore trails that crossed the land linking watering and feeding sites. Stone artefacts have been found at Devil’s Lair, a single-chamber cave area, near the south-west tip of Western Australia which date to 48kya.

The oldest human remains are found in western New South Wales at Lake Mungo (Willandra Lakes). A near complete skeleton was found in 1974 sprinkled with powdered red ochre before the grave was filled in. In 1999 paleoanthropologist Alan Thorne said the Lake Mungo 3 skeleton is 62kya plus or minus 6000. However later research in Nature journal said humans had been present at Lake Mungo no earlier than 50kya and no later than 46 kya while the skeleton dated to 45-42 kya. 

Mulvaney was one of the first archaeologists to realise the significance of the find. He had gone on a scholarship in the 1950s to Cambridge to study pre-history and had urged the need for preservation of cultural materials in museums and legislation to protect important sites. He used the new science of carbon dating to push back known dates of human existence in Australia, first to 13 kya, then eclipsed by others to 20 kya, 30 kya and beyond. He carefully packed the Lake Mungo skeleton into a suitcase to take to the National Museum of Australia. 

The Lake Mungo finds put Australia on the world map of pre-history. Use of ochre for paint and grindstones for pulverising plant food were skills humans learned in Africa and brought to Australia. From 60-43kya Lake Mungo was full of freshwater and the land was green and lush but the newcomers had to adapt to climate stress. Australia was an ancient land with low fertility, poor soil quality and a low energy ecology. At Kow Swamp in Victoria a population of humans dating to 22-19 kya lived by Kow Lake shore in a period of glacial advance in the Southern Highlands until their shellfish population died out and they moved on.

Mulvaney was instrumental in getting Kakadu and Lake Mungo added to the World Heritage List (and had helped develop the criteria for that list in the 1970s.) The discovery at Lake Mungo showed the power of the site to represent archaeology’s resonance in society and the broader cultural meaning of antiquity. It also helped the political ambitions of Indigenous Australians when they could point to this astonishing connection with deep time.

The new genetic findings, based on a population analysis of 83 Indigenous Australians and 25 Papuans, shows these groups can trace their origins back 50 kya and they remained almost entirely isolated until 4kya. I said these findings would not have been a surprise to Mulvaney. Nor are they a surprise to Indigenous Australians. Larissa Behrendt said they confirmed their oral history (another form of history mostly ignored in the western written tradition). Behrendt said Aboriginal culture and traditions were often viewed through a Eurocentric gaze that failed to see the rich historical wisdom in its values and teachings.”Cultural stories were often illustrated for children without looking for deeper meanings and codes,” Behrendt said. “These stories didn’t just tell a tale of how the echidna got its spikes, they contained – like parables in the bible – a set of messages about the importance of sharing resources in a hunter-gatherer society and the consequences of selfishness.”

What Behrendt is talking about is the dismantling of the racial discourse of white Australia and its near-sighted notions of superiority. What Mulvaney found was pre-history and its awesome timescale was uniquely qualified to make that discourse irrelevant. In an attention economy-dominated society where a week is a long time in politics, fame lasts 15 minutes and soundbytes eight seconds, the deep timescale of Indigenous Australia cannot be discussed enough.

 

 

 

 

Remembering William S Burroughs

william-s-burroughs-2Some 20 years after his death William S Burroughs still has the power to keep media writing about him. This week The News Hub recounted the story of how Burroughs was arrested in France in 1959 for importing opiates into the country but he was released after trial. The reason? “Burroughs was excused and given a suspended sentence because his work ‘The Naked Lunch’ was considered to have too much artistic value to leave the man rotting in a Paris prison.” The French appreciated Burrough’s debauched writings, while his native America was “too caught up in (its) Protestant predispositions to appreciate a great artist.”

The story is true, but it does underestimate Burroughs’ intrinsic American-ness. In his biography “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him” author Graham Caveny said Burroughs was “as American as the electric chair”. William Burroughs was the grandson of William Seward Burroughs I who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company. In 1885 the elder Burroughs invented and patented the first workable adding and listing machine in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandson William Seward Burroughs II was born in that city 29 years later in 1914 just as Europe was about to go to war. His father Mortimer Perry had no desire to join the family business and ran an antique shop. But the family wealth gave young William a good education.

He went to his namesake John Burroughs school in St Louis. There was no relation nor was there an affinity and Burroughs the boy left Burroughs the school without a graduation. He was sent to the private Los Alamos Ranch School for boys in New Mexico. In this rustic scout-like setting, Burroughs discovered sex and drugs. He was gay but he was expelled for taking chloral hydrate, a sedative drug used for insomnia. Disgraced and back in St Louis he kept his head down long enough to finish high school and enrolled for Harvard.

He arrived there in 1932 at the bottom of the depression. There were 25 million unemployed and the US was deep in debt. He seemed to buckle down and got himself an arts degree in four years. 1936 was the cue for the Grand Tour of Europe. In Europe he found homosexual freedom he could not find in the US. Nonetheless, he married Austrian Jew Ilse Klapper who needed an American visa to flee the Nazis. Ilse was living in London and her visa was about to expire when Burroughs saved her life. They married in Athens and then separated. She lived in New York until the end of the war and divorced Burroughs before settling in Zurich. They always remained friends.

Burroughs returned alone to St Louis. His parents were distraught he had treated his wife so shabbily. But they did not stop his sizeable allowance. Burroughs mooched around following boyfriends until Pearl Harbor stepped in. He was drafted but his mother had him declared mentally unsuitable for military service. The punishment was a six month stint in a psychiatric evaluation unit. On the advice of someone he met there, he travelled to Chicago.

Men were scarce and jobs were easy to get. He became a “bugman” for AJ Cohen Exterminators, an experience that informed his writing. But the thrill of killing cockroaches eventually died and he followed a lover to New York. He settled in Greenwich Village and was introduced to a shy young Jewish boy from New Jersey named Allen Ginsberg. Through Ginsberg he met Jack Kerouac and their mutual friendship solidified. Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Lucien Carr, another friend of Burroughs, killed his male lover. Carr told Kerouac and Burroughs he had stabbed him after a row and dumped the body in the Hudson river. Burroughs advised him to find a lawyer. Carr turned himself in after two days and after plea bargaining down to manslaughter he served two years at a reformatory. Burroughs and Kerouac were charged for a failure to report a crime but released.

Burroughs had always written on and off but the murder spurred him into life. Ginsberg and Kerouac helped him on his manuscripts. Burroughs experimented heavily with drugs and learned how to persuade doctors to write morphine prescriptions. As the war ended, he got involved with another woman. Joan Vollmer was one of the Beats, a smart lady and a match for Burroughs. She knew he was gay but said “he made love like a pimp”. She was addicted to benzedrine. Their house was raided and Burroughs was given a four month suspended sentence for forging prescriptions.

He returned to St Louis and Joan deteriorated. Burroughs came back to her when he found out how bad her condition was. In 1947 they moved to a ranch in Texas where they could take their drugs unmolested. Joan gave birth to William Burroughs III that year. The Burroughs were forced to leave Texas after he was arrested and lost his licence having sex with Joan in his car. They moved on from New Orleans after police there took an interest in his drug habits.

They went to Mexico where their mutual self-destruction took a sudden turn. When drunk in their apartment, they decided to play William Tell. He placed an apple on her head but missed the apple and shot a bullet through her head. Burroughs was released on bail after 13 days and was told the trial for her murder would be a year later. Burroughs did not take his chances with a Mexican court and fled to New York.

Joan’s death was the catalyst for literary greatness. Later he said, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death”. He quickly wrote his first two novels about his two main predilections: “Junky” and “Queer”. “Junky” was released in 1953 under the named of William Lee. Burroughs travelled to Europe and eventually settled in the Moroccan frontier city of Tangiers where he could indulge his taste in drugs and men. With the help of Ginsberg he published The Naked Lunch in 1959. It was banned in Britain (the Lady Chatterley’s Lover court case had yet to decide if it one could read it to one’s wife and servants). Burroughs said in the introduction Jack Kerouac suggested the title. “The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

The non-linear story of sex and drugs was published in the US in 1962. Police in Boston arrested a bookseller for obscenity when he tried to sell the book. It took two years for the trial to come to court and the defence called in the heavies. Norman Mailer defended the Naked Lunch speaking of “artistry..more deliberate and profound than I thought before”. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work “not obscene” based on criteria developed largely to defend the book. The case against Burroughs’s novel still stands as the last obscenity trial against a work of literature prosecuted in the United States.

Burroughs was now living in Paris, the home away from home for US intellectuals. In this intense period he produced The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963). By 1967 he was famous enough to merit a spot on the album cover of Sergeant Pepper. He returned to New York where he was the darling of a set mixing with Warhol, Basquiat and Ginsberg. Ginsberg was now also looking after Burroughs’ son William Junior. Father and son never got on and young Billy Burroughs turned his hostility into autobiographical published works of his own. He was also drug dependent (probably since birth) and he died of liver cancer in 1981. By now Burroughs was becoming a giant of counter-culture. He released voice albums and starred in movies. In Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy”, he played himself in the role of Father Tom a defrocked priest and junkie.

In 1983 he moved to St Lawrence, Kansas, where aged almost 70, he bought his first and only home. David Cronenberg filmed the unfilmable Naked Lunch and Burroughs returned to NY from time to time to meet old friends. There weren’t many left. They were dying off as a result of their extravagant lifestyles but Burroughs seemed to outlast them all. Allen Ginsberg died in April 1997 and that was enough for Burroughs himself; he finally threw in his Russian roulette chips barely four months later. He was 83 and an opiate addict for the last 40 years of his life. All through his life he kept another addiction; that of guns, even sleeping with one every night.

His reputation is mixed. Some like Mailer say he is one of the greatest and most influential writers of the twentieth century, but others found him over-rated. What is undeniable is that his impact across literature, art, cinema and music is vast.At the end of the Naked Lunch, still his best known work, Burroughs wrote: “The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth, in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement.” As the Telegraph wrote, this aberrant perspective is perhaps the reason why his words were widely adopted.

To Big Red, Birdsville and back

Just back from a long weekend in Bedourie where the highlight was a trip to Big Red west of Birdsville. This adventure was planned months ago as neither my Bedourie friends nor I had been to the dune but it was put in doubt by the big rains down south which played havoc with the Birdsville Races last week.

Even as I drove the five hours down from Mount Isa to Bedourie on Thursday, the news was that the road to Birdsville was open for 4WD but the Big Red road was still closed. It was fingers crossed for Friday morning.

The news in the morning was good – Diamantina Council had just re-opened the Birdsville-Big Red road to 4WD access only.

So I set off with my friends in their big Prado and the car proved its worth on the drive.

There was plenty of water over the road between Bedourie and Birdsville but the track out to Big Red was a serious challenge.

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We saw one vehicle stuck awaiting help from a council grader to get out of the mud. Local knowledge said the best strategy was to stay on the centre of road where the base was hardest and we made it through, taking about 30 to 40 minutes to drive the 30km from Birdsville.

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The 30m high dunes stand out in the flat wilderness and situated on a north-south alignment they provide great views east towards Birdsville and the Channel Country and west into the vastness of the Simpson Desert. Below is the view east with the site of the campground below where the annual Big Red Bash concert is held (though like the Birdsville Races it was rain affected this year and moved into town.)

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Below is the view west into the Simpson Desert National Park. There is a track down below which remains officially closed though that wasn’t stopping two intrepid South Australians we met on the top of the Dune who were heading to Adelaide via Maree. They cheerfully invited us to join them. We respectfully declined. It would be a long journey even they could somehow make it through. A sign along the way says the Birdsville Bakery was a “cupla miles away” but in the other direction the Mount Dare pub was a “cupla days away “.

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It was a bit blowy on top of the sand dunes so we didn’t hang around for long but we stayed long enough to enjoy the endless view into the desert. This was as far as the road was open, it was clear the further south you went the more rain there was.

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The Prado comfortably managed the job up and down.

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Then it was back through the puddles and rivers of water to Birdsville. Take my word for it that it was muddy in parts and it felt like proper bush bashing.

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Back in town Birdsville had emptied out the thousands of racegoers during the week and was back to its sleepy self.br8.JPG

However we didn’t go to the pub but our preferred option which is the Birdsville Bakery. The Bakery only opens in winter but it has a good vibe and a good way in slogans: “It’s a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll.”

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On the wall inside is what looks like a cardboard cut-out but is an actual photo of Malcolm Turnbull with the Bakery owner in August 2015 eating one of their famed camel pies. As communications minister Turnbull was out this way with then-local MP Bruce Scott to check out local telecoms difficulties. But the tagline on the photo tells you what happened next: “Old mate Malc got the top job 2 weeks after he had a Curried Camel Pie! What will it do for you?” As for me, I never got to find out, plumping for a chicken and mayo roll instead. Unlike Turnbull, the only thing I spilled was breadcrumbs.br10.JPG

The Diamantina was running freely in Birdsville as was the Eyre Creek further north (pictured below). The bird life was amazing and all that lovely water should be filling Lake Eyre up nicely.

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