Charles Dickens' social commentary

For most of May I'm in England, staying in the old Kent market town of Faversham, a few stops north of Canterbury on the train line from Dover to London. It's also on the line that proceeds from Dover towards London along the coast, through a number of seaside towns including Deal, Broadstairs, Margate and Whitstable.

While I was here last May, I discovered that it's perfectly legal to buy a return ticket from Faversham to Whitstable - one station - for just £3.90, and travel in the opposite direction, taking in the long scenic route around to Whitstable through Canterbury, Dover and all the other coastal towns, breaking the journey a couple of times along the way.

map of kent

That's what I did yesterday. My stops included Broadstairs, where I visited the Dickens House Museum.

Charles Dickens would spend his summer holidays in Broadstairs in the 1850s and 1860s, in a cliff top house named Fort House, which is claimed to be the Bleak House depicted in the title of Dickens' 1853 novel.

The Dickens House Museum is in the beachside home of the friend of Dickens who was the inspiration for the character Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. It contains items that once belonged to Dickens such as his writing box and a mahogany sideboard that he owned from 1836 to 1855.

Dickens writing box at Dickens House Museum Broadstairs

But what I found most interesting was the portrait of Dickens' London. This included his experiences as a 12 year old child working in a boot polish 'blacking' factory after his father was arrested for debt and sent to Marshalsea prison.

He was clearly traumatised by his experience of the rat infested workplace - 'the dirt and decay of the place rise up visibly before me as if I were there again'. His loneliness deepened his despair. 'No advise, no council, no encouragement, no consolation, no support, from anyone.'

It's probably fair to say that he suffered from what we now call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that this formed his outlook on life and gave him the basis of many of his novels. Later in life, Dickens used his writings to offer a social commentary that improved the lives of the poor.

No words can express the agony of my soul

The other quotation that caught my attention was from Our English Watering-Place, Dickens' 1851 eulogy to Broadstairs. It was about welcoming outsiders.

'We are a little bilious sometimes, about these days of fraternisation, and about nations arriving at a new and more unprejudiced knowledge of each other ... but it soon goes off, and then we get on very well.'

This could have been wishful thinking on the part of Dickens. Or perhaps the locals' attitudes have changed over the course of the past 116 years. In the Brexit referendum, the Thanet local government area that includes Broadstairs voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, by a margin of almost two to one.

Broadstairs Station

Moreover the local council is dominated by UKIP councillors, and former UKIP leader and vocal Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage stood for election in the local South Thanet constituency in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

On the stairs above the beach a few metres from the Dickens House Museum, I noticed a group of teenage boys speaking what seemed to be Polish or some other Eastern European language. A sign of the times that are soon to change.

Seeing the Fourth Dimension at the Pompidou Centre

During my brief visit to Paris last year, I tried and failed to find my way into the Pompidou Centre, one of the city's most visited tourist attractions. It was not clear how to get into the building, and there were many layers of security. Nothing had changed, but yesterday I was successful, even though I had time to see a only small part of the collection of modernist art it contained.

I had not even been sure of what all the fuss was about. Last year I wondered whether it was really anything more than a shopping mall, as I tried to negotiate my way through the retail outlets that seemed to obscure the major public institutions it houses. These include the huge Public Information Library and the National Museum of Modern Art, which is Europe's largest and the world's second largest after MOMA in New York.

Pompidou Centre

The Pompidou Centre celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and has an interesting story itself. Being inside and riding the tubed escalators to the top is like being inside a piece of modern art. When it opened, an article in Le Figaro declared: 'Paris has its own monster'. The writer clearly did not appreciate the modern beauty of its exposed skeleton of brightly coloured mechanical system tubes.

One of the three architects was the Italian Renzo Piano, who has recently designed the three 'crystal' residential towers of Barangaroo's One Sydney Harbour building, with their elegant skins and highly transparent glass facades designed to highlight harbour's 'constant kaleidoscopic motion of colour and sparkle'.

When you finally get to it, the Pompidou Centre's contents are just as revolutionary as its form. One of the most famous works in the museum's collection is Dadaist Marcel Duchamp's famous urinal artwork Fountain. The first room I visited was devoted to a large artwork celebrating its centenary this year.

Marcel Duchamps Fountain urinal artwork

In what's called the Fountain Archive, 'post-conceptual' contemporary artist Saâdane Afif collects and archives every single publication in which he finds a reproduction of Duchamp's urinal. The pages are torn out and carefully framed, for the purpose of both preservation and decoration.

All the big names are in the museum, including Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky. I'd been introduced to them long ago when I bought a season ticket and made repeated visits to the Masterpieces from the Guggenheim exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW 1991.

But the artist that most caught my attention yesterday was one I'd never heard of - František Kupka, one of the pioneers of abstract art in the early 20th century. He sought to capture the 'essence' - or fourth dimension - of the subjects of his artwork. Works such as Plan par couleurs (1910) - below - penetrated their subjects to reveal an extra layer of truth, in a way that drew from technical and scientific advances of the time such as X-ray.

Frantiek Kupkas Plan par couleurs 1910

It had me thinking of people claiming psychic powers, whom we perhaps unfairly trivialise and put down. Or animals that have a higher degree of sense perception than humans. It all goes to suggest that reality is far more than meets the eye, and that is the point of iconoclasm and challenging convention. Which is what these art movements of the early 20th century were about, and indeed the architects of the Pompidou Centre.

Cars as a dreadful and beautiful part of our lives

After an overnight stop in Seoul, my flight arrived in Paris early afternoon yesterday local time. I'm here for three nights on the way to Kent, England, where I will spend most of May staying with my sister.

The view from my Paris airbnb

I came to my airbnb, a tiny maid's room on the top floor of a building near the Luxembourg Gardens on the left bank. Then I went walking for a couple of hours to familiarise myself with the surroundings, as I usually do when I arrive in a new location.

The most interesting attraction I came upon was Autophoto, a new photography exhibition at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art. It was, as The Guardian put it, about 'how photographers fell in love with cars'. Or, as the Foundation's website says, the car's reshaping our landscape and radically altering our conception of space and time.

It was the most captivating photography exhibition I can recall visiting, perhaps with the exception of the 'selfies' of the American photographer Cindi Sherman in Wellington in January.

Autophoto exhibition at Fondation Cartier pour lart contemporain

I thought of my father, who never showed any interest in art. But he loved cars. In 1923 his family was the first in his north-east Victorian district to acquire a car. We still have the blanket that was bought to insulate the family from its draughtiness.

He would identify periods of his life by the particular car he or his family owned at the time. In a way, I do the same. I am not exactly anti-car, but I got rid of my last car in 2012 and now consider not owning a car as part of my identity. I sometimes wonder what my father would have made of that.

It occurred to me that this would have been the perfect art exhibition for him, although what would have interested me is unlikely to have been a highlight for him.

The exhibit I liked most was a very literal rendering of the exhibition's theme of cars merging with the landscape. It was from the 1990 visit to New Zealand of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose three works appeared to be pieces of dark abstract art, despite my description of them as 'literal'.

Hiroshi Sugimotos On the Beach 007 011 001 1990

Sugimoto explained: 'One day I came across an unusual cluster of things strewn over a beautiful beach. Vaguely familiar looking, they turned out to be hundreds of car parts... Someone must have junked a whole fleet of cars there... The sight of crafted objects rotting away is at once dreadful and beautiful.'

That summed up for me the impact of the car on our society, and Sugimoto's works were a perfect complement to the more photogenic works in the exhibition, which I enjoyed as well.

Harm minimisation and judging the behaviour of other people

Late last week tabloid columnist Andrew Bolt berated the 47 year old Greens Deputy Leader Scott Ludlum, who 'broke the law' when he used recreational drugs while he was in his 20s.

The details of Ludlum's past were gleaned from an interview with Ludlum in the latest issue of the men's magazine GQ.

Bolt was accusing Ludlum of being hypocritical in taking a hard line against tax evaders who break the law while being unrepentant about having broken laws against recreational drug use.

Scott Ludlum in GQ Magazine

My view is that Ludlum's personal testimony that recreational drug use 'didn't do a lot' for him is more powerful than any attempt to prosecute drug users.

He talks about the dysfunctionality of his life when he was in his 20s and he experimented with drugs. I could talk about the dysfunctionality of my life when I was in my 20s and I experimented with religion.

They're the things that you fall into. They might give you a certain dubious or perhaps real quality of life, or they might cause you harm. I'd suggest they do both. Ludlum doesn't seem to regret that he tried drugs and I don't regret that I tried religion.

I don't know whether he's completely sworn off all mind altering substances, but I haven't given religion away. In fact Pope Francis' 'Who am I to judge?' attitude informs and affirms my approach to behaviours of other people I find hard to accept.

But back in my 20s I was 'driven', and I suspect he was as well. That's what happens before you eventually settle down from the excesses of your 20s. What we do while we're young sets us up - for better or worse - for our middle and later years, and makes us the people we become. Hopefully we like the people we have become. I do.

It doesn't seem fair that Ludlum's experimentation was regarded as a crime, while mine was at the time associated with a position of honour in the community. That's why I believe in harm minimisation and the prosecution of drug dealers but not than the users they exploit.

It wasn't always that way. I remember struggling with radio talkback programs on Triple J that treated recreational drug use as normal. I was still at a stage when I would 'judge' drug users, as I think they would have judged me for my choice of a religious way of life.

I came to appreciate the value of harm minimisation strategies, whether it was the advice of experts on the radio or the medically supervised drug injecting centre that the Uniting Church established at Kings Cross in 2001.

Now I like to believe that nothing should be off limits but everything should be subject to a harm minimisation strategy. But that kind of thinking belongs to an ideal world, and in reality certain actions like tax evasion and drug dealing need to be proscribed by laws that ultimately judge those who carry them out.

Australia's migrant clampdown and religious fundamentalism

Frequently at dinner parties, I look around and realise that I am the only Australian born resident at the table. It's a good feeling.

When I travel elsewhere in Australia - as I did at Easter - I notice that the population is much more 'white' than I'm used to.

I'm always pleased to arrive home in inner city Sydney, where the foreign born population is far in excess of Sydney's average of 39 per cent. Sydney has Australia's largest percentage of migrants.

Postwar Migrants to Australia

I felt depressed this week when the Prime Minister announced a clampdown on immigration to appease and secure political support from One Nation and other right-wing voters. I know that the changes are largely cosmetic because it would be too damaging to our economy if they were significant in real terms. But that is no excuse.

It was about messaging and it was very rude. He said: 'Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard'.

It's as if most migrants don't do these things already.

For me, the greater privilege is having my own values and cultural practices informed and enhanced by the presence of migrants in my life. It is my education.

Those Australians who are hostile to migrants and the pattern of migration in recent years share many of the characteristics of religious fundamentalism, which thrives on willful ignorance.

This week I read an excellent article linking religious and secular fundamentalism. It was written by the anthropologist and Marist priest Gerald Arbuckle in The Good Oil, the online publication of the Good Samaritan Sisters.

What I found most disturbing is his demonstration that there is no effective conversation or dialogue to be had with fundamentalists.

Gerald Arbuckle - Fundamentalism A Threatening Global Reality

'Because fundamentalism is at depth an emotional reaction to the disorienting experience of change, fundamentalists are not open to rational discussion. Here in Australia there is a political fundamentalist movement to preserve the "pure, orthodox Australian culture" from the "endangering ways of foreigners", particularly Muslims. It matters little to adherents that such a culture has never existed.'

Indeed the Anzac Legend, which features prominently in the now more rigorous citizenship test, was confected for political purposes, largely in the Howard era after 2001.

Because much of this new fundamentalism is recent and superficial, my hope is that it will disappear as quickly as it arrived, even if the motivation is self-interest. The prime minister knows it and hopefully he can lead Australians to the realisation that the enviable standard of living Australians enjoy is a result of migration.

 

Caution on social media

Before I went away for Easter, I was at a gathering at the ABC and having the typical conversation about the future of the ABC. The person I was speaking to suggested the ABC was 'becoming very one-dimensional'.

I was not entirely sure what she meant. But I think it might have been a comment on the influence of ratings on programming decisions. However it could also be said that it is the ABC's job to reflect Australian society and that we are becoming a very one-dimensional nation.

Herbert Marcuse  - One Dimensional Man

This is self-evident in the present blowback against our celebration of diversity and our tolerance of those who are not part of the white Anglo Saxon heterosexual majority.

The dominant political culture now regards multiculturalism as a dirty word. We're also seeing the cancellation of initiatives such as the Safe Schools program, which seeks to educate young people to understand and respect gender diversity. The NSW education minister announced this during Easter.

I was curious to know more about where the 'one-dimensional' critique originated, and I came across a summary of the German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse's 1964 classic One-Dimensional Man. The essence of his argument was that consumerism was becoming a form of social control that was taking away our sense of individuality.

I have a sense that if Marcuse was writing today, social media would be the main target of his criticism.

Although I've always been an enthusiast for technological innovation, my gut instinct has been to minimise my use of social media, even though I knew it would be detrimental to my career.

Because it works hand in hand with the advertising industry, social media forces us to commodify the various aspects of our lives. It pigeon-holes our identity and diminishes the multi-dimensional nature of our own particular human existence.

Facebook graphic

Crucially it takes away our privacy, which is the sanctuary that fuels us to spring into life as our own person rather than a clone of some media celebrity. In addition, I think social media can leave little for others to imagine and discover about us, making it less likely that they will be more than superficially captivated by us.

This accords with the argument I read in an original 1964 New York Review of Books article on Marcuse's book:

'The concept of "one-dimensional man" asserts that there are other dimensions of human existence in addition to the present one and that these have been eliminated. It maintains that the spheres of existence formerly considered as private (e.g. sexuality) have now become part of the entire system of social domination of man by man, and it suggests that totalitarianism can be imposed without terror.'

I think it goes without saying tht we should be concerned that social media is becoming the lifeblood of the ABC, even though it is a necessary part of engaging audiences.


False intelligence on Assad alleged chemical attack

There were a few reactions to what I wrote yesterday about my dream for a 'mass movement of peace'.

One friend who worked in aid and development in Africa wrote: 'I confess to liking the idea of pacifism, but being very happy to have an AK47 in my room when the Lord's Resistance Army were close by - and [I was] willing to use it'.

Another argued for a just war: 'I fully support Hiroshima/Nagasaki [because] I'm convinced by the scholarly research that the number of lives likely saved by reason of the two bombings way exceeds the lives lost and the other consequences'.

The key to this is that it was justified by the scholarly research. That's not what was used to support the US missile attack on the Syrian air base last week.

Idlib Assad alleged chemical attack

In that case it was information about the Idlib chemical weapons attacks passed on by the White Helmets humanitarian group, which has made it clear it wants to see Assad gone.

Prominent US journalist Max Blumenthal wrote in AlterNet last year that the White Helmets were 'created by Western governments and popularised by a top PR firm' and that they are 'saving civilians while lobbying for airstrikes'.

If that's true, we cannot rule out the possibility that the Russians are correct when they claim that the Idlib attack was a false propaganda event staged by the White Helmets.

The former diplomat Tony Kevin wrote on the Australian Institute of International Affairs website on Monday that 'well placed observers' say there was 'zero US intelligence linking Assad to the alleged chemical attack in Idlib and Trump’s decision to attack the Syrian air base was taken entirely on the basis of the White Helmets' audiovisual material'.

Another friend who wrote to me yesterday - Justin Glyn - has an article in Eureka Street titled 'No easy judgment in Syrian chemicals attack'. He provides a long list of reasons to doubt US claims about the attack, which may even have not involved chemicals. 'The pictures released show the rescuers apparently unharmed... If it was a sarin attack, the rescuers would be as dead as their victims'.

Yet US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insists it was 'chemical weapons' and says 'there is no doubt in our minds that ... [Assad is] responsible for this attack'.

This could be the kind of false intelligence that led the US and the 'Coalition of the Willing' to blunder into the Iraq invasion in 2003 that has arguably precipitated most of the trouble we have in the Middle East today. We all remember the 'mobile [chemical] weapons laboratory' that was used to justify the invasion and was later found not to exist. Now we could have a war against Russia based on false intelligence.

 

A Trump strike on North Korea

Yesterday I was with the travel agent collecting my e-ticket for travel to Europe in two weeks from now. I'm flying Korean Air, with an overnight stop in Seoul.

Curious to see his response, I showed him the 'Trump poised to strike N Korea' headline that I'd just noticed on my phone app. I asked him to tell me what happens to my flight if Trump does strike North Korea. He was understandably evasive.

Trump poised to strike North Korea Headline

The truth is that I'm not really worried about the flight being cancelled or even coming to grief. What will be will be. Even in these circumstances, it's probably true that I'm more likely to die in a road accident some other time than in a plane falling from the sky or missiles hitting Seoul on 26 or 27 April.

But I do fear for the people of South Korea and Japan who are without the options I have. They are the ones who will really suffer because of Trump's choice to use military rather than diplomatic means to solve political conflict.

Undeniably there's method to Trump's madness. It will play well at home among those who are deluded enough to believe he's just honouring his election promise to 'make America great again'. But talk about evil empires!

US Military Presence in the Pacific

When I was in King Street Newtown on Saturday afternoon, I saw a man with a Japanese face walking the street carrying a sandwich board promoting peace. Some people averted their gaze because he was just an eccentric elderly man making a futile gesture. I'm pleased that I was able to look him in the eye and nod and smile supportively.

Momentarily I wondered what it would take for him to have conferred upon him the coolness and respect associated with the legendary Arthur Stace. Stace was the reformed alcoholic who walked the streets of Sydney for 35 years spreading his message by chalking the word 'Eternity' on the footpaths in his distinctive script.

Years after his death he became a cultural icon. His message featured in the 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony and it lit up the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of New Year celebrations that year.

Eternity Sydney Harbour Bridge NYE 2000

The question is how you lift Australia and the world out of its complacency and start a mass movement for peace. We are now are a crossroads, which I think is evidenced by the feeble and unconvincing nature of Malcolm Turnbull's endorsement of Trump's cruise missile strike on Syria following Assad's acid attack on his own people.

Does Australia really have that much to lose by remaining silent on this (like New Zealand)? Or even adopt a critical posture and advocate directing resources towards diplomacy rather than building the war machine. The possibility is open.

The alternative to ambition

I spent last week at a men's group retreat in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. One man I got to know said something about a friend of his that had me thinking about my own attitude to competition.

He said his friend 'works in a factory and lacks ambition' and could do much better for himself.

20170406_082219

Years ago I had a colleague who would stop at nothing to get ahead. He was very inexperienced in his profession and with mixed aptitude. Since then he has capitalised on his not insignificant strengths and risen to the top.

If necessary, he's pushed others out of the way, as you do in a sporting competition and most corporate work cultures. It's his thing, and I respect that. Good on him.

But as for me, I've always avoided competitive sport and have considered myself lacking in ambition. Looking back, I'd say that instead I had - and still have - more of a sense of enjoyment of the moment.

I'd talk about getting to a particular place, but essentially I'd enjoy doing what was within my grasp and 'felt right'. At my best, I'd land somewhere congenial and then I'd play at things and involve myself in a particular project I'd enjoy and - importantly - believe in. When I'd exhaust possibilities, I'd move on to something different.

One of the retreat facilitators mentioned a book which I subsequently purchased to read on my Kindle. It was Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by British-American poet David Whyte, who runs an institute dedicated to what he calls 'conversational leadership'.

Consolations- The Solace Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

What he writes about ambition accords with my own philosophy of life and work. He says ambition 'takes willpower and constant applications of energy to stay on a perceived bearing'. This is set against a serious vocational calling that 'demands a constant attention to the unknown gravitational field that surrounds us and from which we recharge outselves, as if breathing from the atmosphere of possibility itself'.

He concedes that it's good and natural for youth to be ambitious. But holding on to ambition for too long 'makes the once successful into an object of pity'. The only object becomes 'the creation of larger and larger empires of control'. The more ladders you climb, the more ladders you discover that need to be climbed to get to what will inevitably be a lonely destination.

I'm quite sure that my friend at the retreat does not wish this on his friend when he says he would like him to be more ambitious. I imagine he means that he hopes he will be moved to energetically inspect the menu of the possibilities that his life has to offer.

Honest History credits Mark Latham's 'prescience'

One of my aspirations is to be outside the country on Anzac Day. I have never quite made it, though I will go close this year with my departure for a month overseas on 26 April, the day after Anzac Day.

I've always felt that it was an odd celebration. My skepticism was heightened by the politicisation of the Anzac Legend under prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. I have been frustrated by what I see as the brainwashing of Australian school children, particularly from the time of the Howard Era, when funding was made available to arrest the long-term decline of the Anzac Legend.

The Honest History Book

This was occurring as historians such as Henry Reynolds were revealing more about the 19th century 'Frontier Wars', in which mainly British settlers put down Australian Indigenous resistence, resulting in the deaths of around 20,000. Teaching about the Frontier Wars was - and is - downplayed or even suppressed.

A strong and reputable voice in questioning the Anzac Legend is Honest History, a Canberra-based incorporated association founded in 2013. They use the term 'Anzackery' to argue, among other things, that Anzac Day 'targets children, to the extent that their psychic health is at risk from a sentimental, misleading portrayal of war'. They stress that it is 'possible to be respectful and regretful about death in war, without at the same time sacrificing thought and judgement'.

Among their distinguished list of office-bearers and members is the president - Professor of History at ANU Frank Bongiorno - and the immediate past president David Stanley - professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy and former principal historian at the Australian War Memorial. New South Press has just published their first book - The Honest History Book - edited by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski.

That they are such a reputable and credible group of individuals makes it interesting that they're currently applauding as 'remarkably prescient' that prince of ratbags Mark Latham, the onetime Labor leader who was this week sacked as a commentator from the SkyNews TV channel for making one too many vile slurs against various people including colleagues and a school student.

Mark Latham as Labor leader

There's an emerging consensus that Latham's comments are so anti-social that we should not give him oxygen by talking about him. But Honest History's honesty trumps that, with one of the commentaries currently featured on its home page celebrating Latham's 'prescience' in 'questioning the tired old Left-Right spectrum' in his 2002 Menzies Lecture at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King's College, London.

Latham shows how the divide between 'insiders and outsiders' is a more reliable guide to recent politics than Left-Right. 'Insiders' refers to inner city educated elites, while the 'Outsiders' are those living in the suburbs and the regions. He argued that the Howard Government was particularly skilled in appealing to outsiders and demonising insiders.

Honest History says: 'The whole speech is worth a read for its analysis of Australian politics in the Howard era and its insights into our own.'

Current political debate in Australia may not need Latham's style of putting down those he doesn't like, but it could do with Honest History's questioning assumed orthodoxies armed with the facts of historical research.