Category Archives: Australia

Filtering Brisbane

The sky seems bigger here in Brisbane. I’ve come from Wellington, where the hills surrounding each suburb have the effect of closing in your view of the space above. I can see why some people feel claustrophobic there. Brisbane, by contrast, is built on a river plain and opens out into the incomprehensible vastness of Australia beyond: that continental expanse, which serves to both magnify and diminish everything around — even the stars.

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On the Airtrain, the airport-to-city train, jetlagged and slightly strung out. All I see or hear are keywords. A few graffiti tags sneak through the filter: ‘NWO’ on a silo, ‘EAT THE RICH!!’ above a spray tan salon, the sun baking everything into the dust.

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The fellow tourist with the huge bag and the foreign accent isn’t sure whether he should get off here. After looking him up and down a couple of times, catching the confusion written all over his face, a woman in her sixties asks him where he wants to go and confirms that this is his stop. Then, after a pause: “If you’re ever unsure, never be afraid to ask.” She says it like she’s scolding him, pointing out his folly in not asking. “We love to help.”

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Public Notice, Brisbane

Public Notice, Brisbane

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I listen to Australian radio for a living, and the ‘Straya’ of my working life is spoken in clear, lightly accented English. It leans one way politically, then the other, but is unquestionably politically engaged. It veers evenly between the arts, gossip, scandal, activism, bigotry, and sexism. It’s apparent after an hour in the country that this picture is a narrow, blinkered view, not necessarily representative of Straya as a whole.

A group of four young men aged roughly 19-25 walks past me and all I can catch from their conversation is “had about four loaves of garlic bread”.

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My airbnb host is very upset that Tony Abbott is her new Prime Minister. “He’s going to fuck the Great Barrier Reef!”

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Brisbane ashtray

Brisbane ashtray

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The State Library of Queensland is a brilliant building, superbly designed and full of treasures. Along from the Talbot Family Wall, which is covered with pictures of women (and men) from Queensland’s history, groups of teenage girls congregate in study rooms and actually appear to be studying.

Being an outsider, I wasn’t sure if I could enter this wing. Of course I could! But is it okay to take photos? Please do!

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At a panel discussion on literary magazines, former VoiceWorks editor Tom Doig notes over the last decade an exponential increase in MFA creative writing programs around Australia and the world, in which graduates go on to teach the next batch. “It’s a literary Ponzi scheme,” he jokes, and everyone in the room laughs, including the people who are currently studying towards an MFA in creative writing.

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I hear bells along the South Bank promenade and move to one side as another cyclist glides gently past. This city seems quite well equipped for bikes with its many cycleways and plenty of signage directing cyclists along a certain path. Later, I hear the father of a family walking in the opposite direction warn his children to be careful because “there’s idiots on bikes”.

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Just about everyone around South Bank, particularly the beach area, is wearing bugger all on this beautifully sunny, 25-degree day. The South and East Asian men — I presume mostly Indian and Chinese — generally wear collared shirts and pressed trousers. I’m somewhere in the fashion no man’s land between the two, which is exactly where I belong.

South Bank Beach, Brisbane

South Bank Beach, Brisbane

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An unfamiliar city used to feel like a small, well-lit spot surrounded by an endless dark, invisible expanse. Now I can go into a tourist information centre and ask clearly for the information I need. The darkness is now an unmapped haze to be brought into focus, and I’m growing up. Can I get an aegrotat pass on my twenties?

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Kathleen takes me to a show where an actor playing the Queen refuses to shake my outstretched hand, having accepted all others, and later a naked crotch is thrust at me. Good times. Before the show, we eat dumplings and talk fitness, travel, and the Queensland government.

She’s sunny and friendly, and when she posts a photo of us to Facebook, a mutual friend neither of us has met comments, ‘Well done, you two!’ Nice moment. I mean to catch up with Kathleen again later in the week but for one reason or another, I don’t get round to it.

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The IGA supermarket in Kangaroo Point is playing ‘Computer Games’ by Mi-Sex. I thought they were a New Zealand band? And now a kid’s having a tantrum in the next aisle over, and another over by the beans. There’s a correlation between ‘Computer Games’ and tantrums.

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I’m sitting and reading in that relentless sun at Mowbray Park when a dog barrels up and licks my ear with force, then starts rooting around in my backpack. “Leave it!” cries the owner, and after a few uncomfortable seconds, the dog gambols off to the next hapless sunbather. We came here to relax, he came here for a laugh. “Leave it!” Again and again, person after person. Train your dog!

Mowbray Park, Brisbane

Mowbray Park, Brisbane

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On the train to the Gold Coast, a bloke in a singlet sits down next to me with a pie and an energy drink. He scoffs the pie loudly and swigs the energy drink in gulps, and I avoid eye contact.

Later, I see several more people drinking energy drinks at Pacific Fair Shopping Mall in Broadbeach, including a woman in her 50s pushing a full-ish Kmart trolley.

New cast member on 'The GC'

New cast member on ‘The GC’

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Peta is good company, talkative and insightful, not remotely as icy as her measured words on the page might suggest. We used to write for the same website, when I lived in India and she lived in the US, and are meeting for the first time. Our conversation focuses primarily on craziness.

At the restaurant in Broadbeach, I look over to another table and see a young Asian woman wearing a wide hat and blue shirt, talking to herself as she taps away at her phone. Peta’s phone rings and she answers it, absentmindedly holding an edamame pod in the same hand.

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There’s a frozen yoghurt shop called YO-LO. You only live once, so why not come to the Gold Coast and eat frozen yoghurt?

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Junk food is my life’s addiction. I used to smoke, but only for a couple of years; on the other hand, lollies, crisps, ice cream, and chocolate have been nearly impossible to resist for close to three decades now. In some ways, you never grow up.

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Music distorts your perception. ‘Une Année Sans Lumière’ by Arcade Fire in the headphones twists Brisbane into fairytale.

The Wheel of Brisbane and the ABC Building

The Wheel of Brisbane and the ABC Building

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The haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe in West End is spectacular. Thanks for the tip, Nik. I’m curious, though: what is this older couple next to me talking about?

She: “Nothing is boring. It’s just not.”
He: “[inaudible]”
She: “We don’t have deep conversations!”

Haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe

Haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe

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Reena, eight months pregnant, can’t even look at TV ads for McDonald’s beef burgers. She couldn’t drink tea for most of her pregnancy, either, until her mother arrived from Maharashtra and made it the old way with lemongrass and other spices.

For me, her mother made utthappam: pancakes made from rice, white flour, and urad dal, with onions, tomatoes, and chillis mixed through. It was like being back in India, like a step back in time. I hadn’t had utthappam for years. Reena hadn’t been able to handle onions for months, having previously wolfed them down raw with her meals. In her mum’s utthappam? No problem.

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Back at South Bank, again — God, I love it here — a teenager in a group of teenagers spies a turkey. “Oh fuck yeah!” And he’s off sprinting after the poor thing. It gets away, so he makes gobble noises himself as the group walks on down the promenade.

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Poster in the Botanic Gardens

Poster in the Botanic Gardens

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In Myer, a huge and essentially faceless department store, ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Eurythmics plays over the PA. It’s September and they’ve already got most of their Christmas displays out. Some of us want to be abused.

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“I think every boss I’ve had over here has claimed to have bikie gang connections,” says Paul. He slips into a perfect working-class Aussie accent: “’You keep that up, cunt, and I’ll get me bikie mates onto ya, come round your house and fuck you up.’” Paul’s workday Australia, of tradesmen and sleeve tattoos and the mining boom, is one I will likely never touch.

Paul is literally my oldest friend. He still seems so much wiser and more experienced in life than I am, just as he did back when we were five years old.

Paul and I

Paul and I

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Here’s an old-school bus driver. He announces every street and points out landmarks. “There’s the ‘Gabba!” He has shoulder-length grey hair. “Nicely done, on yellow, woo-hoo! The 235 has arrived!” He wears glasses. “Good morning, young man! Good morning, young lady!” He’d be somewhere between 50 and 65 years old. “10:36, we’re a minute and a half late!” All delivered in exactly the same faux-dramatic tone, almost like a defence shield. “Thank you, have a nice day!”

At my stop, two buses arrived at the same time, and I had to signal to the rear bus — his bus — that it was the one I wanted. The driver was impressed: “You should’ve been a traffic cop!” Well fancy that! Maybe I should’ve!

“Ah, the bus is leaking.”

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At the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane

At the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane

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Time to leave. My airbnb host drives me to Fortitude Valley railway station and we don’t hug goodbye, though we got on reasonably well.

In the station, there are posters advertising New Zealand. Despite the facetious sentiment of ‘100% Pure New Zealand’, and as enjoyable as Brisbane has been, I’m really looking forward to closing in the sky again.

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Look Out, Julia Gillard, There’s A Tony Abbott Obscuring You

Excuse me while I make a brief foray into Australian politics.

Yesterday, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard made an extraordinary speech in Federal Parliament. In it, she accused Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, of being both sexist (adj. Discriminatory on the basis of sex, usually said of men’s attitude toward women) and misogynist (adj. A misanthrope who dislikes women in particular). There’s a lot of background to Gillard’s remarks, most of which is succinctly explained in this New Yorker blog post on the issue. Basically, though, Abbott has exhibited sexist and misogynistic behaviours in the past (particularly in his attacks on Gillard the Prime Minister, as outlined in even more detail in this thorough speech by Anne Summers); when Abbott sought to have Parliamentary Speaker Peter Slipper removed from office on the basis of what he views to be sexist and misogynistic text messages, Gillard used fifteen minutes to outline exactly why the Government rejected this motion, with the chief basis being Abbott’s hypocrisy in raising it.

If you haven’t seen the speech, the whole thing is worth watching, even if you are completely unfamiliar with the people or issues involved. It’s an incredibly skilled piece of oration and, on a more basic level, it’s great political theatre.

One more thing to quickly note before moving on is that Abbott, in raising the motion, stated that Gillard’s Government “should already have died of shame“. Less than two weeks ago, a controversial conservative radio host named Alan Jones delivered a speech at a meeting of the Young Liberals (Abbott is the leader of the Liberal Party) in which he stated that Gillard’s recently deceased father “died of shame“. This received widespread press coverage and strong condemnation from Gillard’s Labor Party, and a number of advertisers withdrew support from Jones’ programme.

Yesterday, the fiercest part of Gillard’s speech, which made me gasp, was when she linked Abbott’s and Jones’ statements and bitterly rejected both. She looked Abbott squarely in the eye and with unvarnished, vulnerable anger, said, “My father did not die of shame”.

Anyway. Here’s the point of why I’m adding my small voice to an overwhelming swell of opinion.

I do not support Gillard or the Labor Party. I don’t think they’re running a particularly good government, and I think they have been complicit in about as much so-called ‘mud-slinging’ and ‘muck-raking’ as the Liberals have. As in many other countries with a two-party system, they have repeatedly relied on dirty attacks on the Opposition to cling to an already untenable position in the polls.

However, Gillard’s speech went beyond the usual standard of mud-slinging and muck-raking in politics. Her apparently seamless evisceration of Abbott stood apart from all that as it was a direct victory for Australian women – even a victory for women everywhere. She stood up, representing the highest elected office of her nation, and took apart a consistently sexist and misogynist man with articulacy and barely contained emotion. She showed everyone exactly why women should be considered the equal of men and, arguably, how women can offer certain qualities in leadership roles that most men cannot. Men and women are different, after all, but neither is lesser in overall value.

I woke up this morning feeling refreshed and excited at how Gillard’s speech might change the national conversation of Australia. At the end of the day, I am again jaded and frustrated, because as brilliant as Gillard’s speech was, it has already been displaced in the national public, political and media narratives.

The problem, apparently, was that Gillard’s speech was ostensibly a speech of support for Peter Slipper – who then effectively rejected that support by resigning. Political misstep by Gillard, went the headlines. Cynical Gillard’s tactic backfires.

To which I say: what? The context of Gillard’s speech wasn’t just whether or not Slipper should remain Speaker. It extended to years of sexism and misogyny directed at her by Abbott, and more broadly to any sexism and misogyny that Australian women have suffered and continue to suffer.

Then, on Australian radio stations throughout the day, hosts and talkback callers alike seemed to go out of their way to disregard the epochal nature of Gillard’s speech, and further to disregard Gillard herself. Those siding with the Opposition told Tony Abbott to stay the course, you excellent leader you, as all this will surely blow over. Those siding with the Government told Abbott to apologise, resign, pull out your fingernails one by one you evil, evil man. Nobody saw fit to add, “and hey, Ms Gillard, you were on fire!” (Or words to that effect.)

This is my problem with the general response. Whether or not you are supporting Tony Abbott or vilifying Tony Abbott, do you know who the spotlight remains squarely pointed at? TONY ABBOTT, that’s who. When Julia Gillard should be receiving plaudits – or at the very least rebuttal – for fifteen minutes that transcended politics, she’s left shrugging her shoulders as the crowd clamours for Abbott’s attention. If having the guts to get up in front of EVERYONE and soundly reject her opponent’s persistently gender-based bullying tactics does not win her respect and notice, what will?

Today, Abbott and his fellow opposition frontbenchers have had the gall to suggest that there was no connection whatsoever between Alan Jones’ and Abbott’s uses of the phrase “died of shame”; that it was all a coincidence, and anyone who thinks otherwise – including “she” (as Gillard is often referred to by the Opposition) – is crazy. They all know that this is a patent untruth, but they do not care as long as everyone on both sides remains rapt in what Tony Abbott will say next.

Also today, Greens leader Christine Milne has come out in support of Gillard:

“If a woman makes a strong and passionate speech … then it has to in some way be put down on the basis of an emotional response,” Senator Milne said.

“If a male politician had made the same speech, it would have been seen as strong and decisive and leadership. And that’s where you get it all the time. The Prime Minister’s had it all the time.”

The headline of this piece? ‘Abbott guilty of sexism: Milne‘. Nothing to do with the broader points Milne makes about sexism in politics. Tony Abbott is apparently what’s important here.

So, for the record, I congratulate Julia Gillard for her words in Parliament yesterday. I applaud her efforts to stand up to sexist and misogynistic behaviour and to demand that respect for her office be entirely unlinked to gender. I hope that she has the strength to continue that fight. And I hope that the Australian public can one day, if not now, look at this speech as a watershed moment for women’s rights in their country.

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