Margate and gentrification's fear and self-loathing

I visited the seaside town of Margate for the second time in a week, on this occasion with my sister. From time to time she goes there for work and knows it well.

She told me that central Margate contains areas in which the residents are in the top five per cent of socially deprived populations in the UK. I read that a study by the End Child Poverty charity revealed that 47.5 per cent of under 18s are living in struggling households. Many have a history of abuse and there is a very high rate of offending and reoffending.

The finest sands in England at Margate

Margate is also a beautifully laid out Victorian town with a magnificent beachfront. It is ripe for gentrification, and that is in fact happening quite rapidly. The deprived areas are in the centre, and the houses occupied by the privileged stand side by side with those of the deprived. They are easily identified as the freshly painted ones with plantation shutters and neat front gardens.

My sister said she sees further signs of gentrification every time she visits. Gay couples arrive in a street and set a standard and they are soon followed by the straights. The change has been accelerated by the prominence of the Turner Contemporary art gallery, which was established there in 2011. Indeed that was what attracted me to Margate.

As we walked along one of the streets close to the gallery, we spotted a hand written sign at the front of one house. It was requesting fellow residents not to disturb the children by slamming the door. The sign attracted my sister's attention because earlier in the day she'd been listening to her daughter telling of her struggle with being woken regularly by a 5:00 am door slammer.

Stop slamming the door

My sister photographed the sign, and the resident who'd scribbled it immediately appeared on the door step. She was a struggling single mother whom my sister had anticipated would swear at her for the invasion of privacy.

Instead we heard the resident's story of how the challenge of raising young children in such circumstances was exacerbated by the door slammers' insensitivity. My sister told of her daughter's struggle with the door slammer at 5:00 am. It was an unexpected and moving expression of mutual empathy between privileged and underprivileged.

Later in the day I was listening to a podcast of a recent long read article in The Guardian titled 'Confessions of a reluctant gentrifier'. It was written by a US academic who was suggesting that we build walls of attitude between differently privileged groups of people living in the same neighbourhood.

Turner Contemporary at Margate

This fosters unnecessary caution and irrational fear. She says we're more likely to be hurt by the cars we drive than the people we live among. Further she argues that this fear induces self-loathing.

'We are afraid, my husband suggests, because we have guilty consciences. We secretly suspect that we might have more than we deserve. We know that white people have reaped some ill-gotten gains in this country. And so privately, quietly, as a result of our own complicated guilt, we believe that we deserve to be hated, to be hurt, and to be killed.'

If my sister's experience is any guide, there are grounds for hope that unexpected encounters with the 'other side' might short circuit our guilt and break down the walls of attitude.

 

Mesmerised by thread art at Margate

On Wednesday I went to the Turner Contemporary art gallery in the famous seaside town of Margate. My sister and I have plans to visit Margate on Monday, as she has a work commitment there. But I wanted to visit the 'thread art' exhibition which ends on Sunday.

Turner Contemporary is part of a vision to make Margate a cultural hub. Clearly it has a long way to go. For a start, the building's modern architecture does not sit well with the 19th century seaside resort and 'seen better days' ambience of the rest of the town.

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That's not to say the gallery does not have a special affinity with Margate. Margate is where the renowned landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) came many times to produce work.

He was drawn by the unique quality of light in this part of Kent, and the skies that he called 'the loveliest in all Europe'. Turner Contemporary is built on the site of the boarding house where he stayed when he visited the town.

I was speaking with a woman who'd come all the way from Devon to see the exhibition. She described the building as a monstrosity. I imagine that impression will change as takes shape as a cultural hub in the coming decades and more modern architecture appears on the landscape.

Louise Bourgeois Hand 2001

That is what happened at St Ives, the isolated fishing village in Cornwall I visited last May. It is the site of the Tate St Ives, a satellite gallery of the London Tate, and many other art activities and enterprises.

Turner Contemporary first came to my attention as the gallery from which the 2016 Grayson Perry exhibition at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art had come. I had a thought that the current exhibition - Entangled: Threads and Making - might also come to Sydney. But the staff at Turner Contemporary told me that many of the works were too fragile to travel and Sunday would be the end.

Regina Bogat Woven Painting 4 1973

For me, the appeal of 'thread art' is that the piece of art I commissioned two years ago to preserve an aspect of my family's history was from that genre. I've come to appreciate it since then, though I was not especially attracted to it beforehand.

A local university historian had given me a hand drawn map of a housing subdivision on our farm that had an interesting story I wanted remembered. I decided it would form the basis for a piece of art. The artist I was put in contact with happened to be a textile artist, and I came to love the form of the work she produced (below).

Cathie Edlington Killara 2015

Entangled is the work of 40 international female artists from the mid 20th century to the present. It includes sculpture, installation, tapestry, textiles and jewellery.

I found it mesmerising. It was easy to lose myself in many of the exhibits. It's difficult to single out any particular work, but what lingered for me were two quotations that were on the wall in one area of the exhibition.

One suggested to me that thread art - and art in general - is akin to meditation: 'Being creative is not so much the desire to do as the listening to that which one wants to be done: the dictation of the materials.' (Anni Albers)

Geta Bratescu Hypostasis of Medea VIII 1980

The other presents this style of art as a kind of mental massage: 'A lot of my work is just repetitive activity. I find that calming and free.' (Kiki Smith)

When I return to my house in Sydney on 1st June, I will look at the artwork on my wall with an elevated appreciation of 'thread art'.

 

Canterbury's connection with flamboyant Melbourne surgeon

Yesterday I visited the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, Canterbury's main museum, library and art gallery.

It is no ordinary municipal museum. In the style of the presentation of its collection, it perhaps reflects the flamboyant personality of Dr James Beaney, the man behind its establishment at the end of the 19th century.

Beaney House of Art and Knowledge Canterbury

I was intrigued by his connection with Melbourne, where he migrated in 1852 in order to deal with a health condition that required a long sea voyage.

Beaney was a surgeon, politician and notorious self-publicist. He was born in Canterbury and maintained a link with the city for the rest of his life. And for posterity, through his endowment of 'The Beaney Institute for the Education of the Working Man', which he named in his own honour. He had himself risen from the working class after managing to acquire an education.

In Melbourne, Beaney shook up the medical establishment. An article in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) describes him as 'a bold surgeon, perhaps rash and rough at times, without the finesse and skill of [his contemporaries] Sir Thomas Fitzgerald and E. M. James, yet often successful when others less daring would have failed'.

Dr James Beaney display in Beaney Institute Main Hall

He was recognised as a pioneer in the specialisations of child health, family planning and the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. But he was just as well known for his fondness for showy jewellery, which he wore even while operating. This earned him the nickname 'Diamond Jim'.

His controversies included four inquests on patients who died after surgery. One led to his trial and acquittal for the murder of a barmaid who died after an alleged illegal abortion. According to the ADB article, he was 'rightly acquitted', in light of 'a regrettable element of professional animosity'.

Beaney had a demeanour that lent itself to caricature. His detractors described him as a 'short, podgy man' with 'pale blue, rather shifty eyes', with his hair curiously upswept to either side of his head 'like a pair of horns'.

Portrait of Dr James Beaney in Beaney Institute Main Hall

He was posthumously criticised for not providing for surviving relatives in his will, instead favouring vanity projects like the Beaney Institute, which had to display his portrait in the main hall of the building (above). In addition, he provided £1000 for repairs to Canterbury Cathedral on condition that a memorial tablet was erected (this led to the Cathedral Dean and Chapter banning such tablets in the future).

My own view is that it can be amusing to judge people whose vanity has overshadowed their achievements but it's important to look at what their legacy has produced. In Beaney's case, a quite remarkable regional museum with quirky and creative exhibits such as the current temporary exhibition of photographs of Canterbury taken by the city's community of homeless people.

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.

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.

Learning the other side of the story at the National Museum

While in Canberra on Sunday, I visited the National Museum of Australia as part of my resolve to see as many of the national capital's cultural institutions as I can while my six month NSW country train pass remains valid.

Often I visit a place and only learn about its significance afterwards. There are many stories of Australia's past contained in the Museum but I must have missed the story of the Museum itself, in particular that of its building and location.

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The Museum was established by an Act of Parliament in 1980 but did not have a permanent home until the current purpose built facility was opened in 2001. It is located on the Acton Peninsula near the Australian National University. The site was previously the location of the Royal Canberra Hospital, which was demolished in tragic circumstances in 1997.

These involved a failed implosion that accidently killed one spectator and injured nine others. Large pieces of debris were unintentionally projected towards onlookers positioned 500 metres away on the opposite shore of the Lake. This was a location unwittingly considered safe by the ACT Government, which had encouraged Canberrans to come out to bid farewell to the hospital.

Yesterday I walked past a cream brick building that I imagined would have been part of the hospital. I guessed that it was retained as a memorial to the hospital. I noticed a sign indicating that it was now the Museum's Administration Annexe.

National Museum of Australia Admin Annexe

Most people regard mid 20th century cream brick buildings as eyesores and are quite pleased to see them demolished. But I very much like them and regard them as important examples of our built environment heritage. I thought that it made a fitting historical counterpoint to the spectacular modern architecture of the other Museum buildings.

Inside the main building, I found that I was able to connect with a number of the hundreds of stories contained in the exhibits. One that comes to mind is that of the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia, which begins at the town of Wiluna and takes a route north to the Kimberley.

I visited Wiluna after I drove across the Nullabor in 2003. I recall that I would have loved to have travelled through the Western Desert along the Canning Stock Route in my Hyundai hatch back, which I had driven to that point from the east coast. But common sense got the better of me and I spent an hour or so in the town before proceeding along the straight dirt road to Meekatharra.

It was only yesterday that I learned of the surveyor Alfred Canning's poor treatment of Aboriginal guides following his appointment to the stock route project in 1906. He was criticised for his inhumane practice of using chains to deprive them of their liberty, effectively using them as slaves.

The legacy of Alfred Canning

This led to a Royal Commission, which saw Canning exonerated after the Lord Mayor of Perth appeared as a witness on his behalf. The cook who made the complaint was dismissed. White Australians still celebrate Canning as the pioneering surveyor who plotted the Rabbit Proof Fence. It is good to know the other side of his story.

It was the exhibits involving indigenous Australians that I found most engaging because they unlocked for me the perspective on history that I was denied when I first learned Australian history at primary school. These included the furphy that Tasmania's Aboriginal population was completely wiped out.

The desire to live in a foreign country

While I was in Malaysia last month I was in email contact with a friend back in Australia. He told me about the retirement visa which the Malaysian Government offers to foreigners to bring investment into the country.

You buy a property to live in and deposit an amount of money in a Malaysian bank. In return you get a ten year extendable visa and an exotic lifestyle at less than one third of the cost of living in Australia.

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On the whole I enjoy living in Sydney and did not seriously consider moving to Malaysia. However I think there is a lot to be said for spending time in another culture to give you a greater sense of perspective on your own.

A major formative experience for me was living in the Philippines for three months in 1983-84. Until that point, I had considered Australia and Australians to be God's gift to the Asia Pacific region and the world.

But I came away thinking of Filipinos as the most gracious and loving people on earth. I really wanted to make my permanent home there. I'd lost interest in Australia and its people, whom I now regarded as gauche and self-opinionated in comparison to Filipinos.

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15 years later, I spent two years living in Rome. In many people's minds, a dream existence. I loved my work and my colleagues and the friends I made. But when I had to choose between the offer of a job in Australia or extending my two year initial appointment in Rome, I leapt at the opportunity to return home. Perhaps somewhere in my unconscious, I wanted the exotic to remain exotic. It seemed that life for me in another culture had a use by date.

However my desire to live elsewhere tends to resurface. After I quickly dismissed thoughts of retiring to Malaysia, I felt attracted to the idea of spending more than a few days in a foreign country. So last week I made a gesture in that direction when I booked an August flight to Tokyo, together with the most basic Airbnb apartment I could find. I will be living simply for five weeks in one spot in the city's inner western suburbs, a world away from my usual home in Sydney's inner west.

Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum Kochi

There will be challenges. Furniture too close to the floor for what our culture regards as comfort. Having to use a squat toilet every day. But also pleasures. No inhouse bathroom, which means regular visits to the sento. There's also not much of a kitchen, so I expect to be a regular patron at the ramen noodle bars in my vicinity.

Friends think I'm a bit odd to seek out such a rustic existence in an unfamiliar setting. They may have a point. But time spent in the thrall of another culture's bare essentials offers the possibility of new experience for those of us in the later stages of our lives.

My Muslim prayer cap

Somehow I get the daily email alerts from the Body and Soul website, which contain the Murdoch tabloids’ syndicated articles on personal wellbeing. Today’s headline – ‘Can you really catch up on lost sleep?’ – is relevant to me at this moment.

A day after returning to Sydney, my body clock is still on Malaysian time. The time difference is only three hours, but my body wants to go to sleep at 2:00 am rather than the usual 11:00 pm. Daylight wakes me hours before my body is ready. My Fitbit tells me I slept for only 6 hours and 4 minutes and I lack the energy and brainpower I need to face the day.

Re-entry into my own world in Sydney also requires a few cultural adjustments. The most interesting I’m facing is how to regard the beautiful knitted Muslim prayer cap that I have ended up with.

I bought it from the shop at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. It was intended as a gift for my friend at home, but he diplomatically rejected it because he has brown skin and said he feared being branded a Muslim and becoming an object of hate and fear in these troubled times.

My white skin makes it easier for me to wear the cap without attracting unwanted attention, so it’s more likely that I will feel comfortable wearing it.

As far as street wear in Newtown is concerned, exotic is the norm, so I’m fine on that score. But I need to go into it a bit more deeply to decide whether it’s really proper for me to wear it.

As a Catholic, I ask myself how I feel when I see people with a tattoo depicting the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

It is possible that the wearer of the tattoo is making a religious faith statement. But given the generation of most tattoo wearers, I would guess that it is unlikely that they are Catholics with a devotion to the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.


Therefore I can conclude that they have appropriated an element of my religious culture to make their own statement of cultural identity.

Do I resent that, or am I flattered? Personally I am flattered because they are giving articles of my religion their own form of cultural validation. They probably don’t accept much Catholic doctrine (not that I accept it all). But they’re conferring on my faith a certain degree of coolness, and I like that.

I ask myself what kind of cultural statement I am making in wearing the Muslim prayer cap. I would say that it is, in equal measure, a love of the exotic, and a (hopefully not misplaced) wish to express solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters in these hostile times.

I look forward to wearing it in the street, in exotic Newtown and in the shopping centre of a seriously Muslim suburb such as Auburn, to test the vibe.