Sunday, June 20, 2010


Avowedly crafted for the national good, the policies of the major political parties reveal nothing more clearly than their cynical view of the character of us, the Australian people. 

And that view is that we are racists, rorters and liars. 

Both sides of politics would appear to subscribe to the view of 17th Century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, that we are brutal creatures motivated by nothing more than ruthless self-interest. As such, he was poles apart from a fellow British thinker of the Enlightenment, John Locke, whose theorising on the social contract between individuals in a just and moral society, was influential in the founding of the US republic.

While both sides of politics would ascribe to the Lockean view, in practice they are Hobbesian.
For instance, if the polls and our recent history are anything to go by, Tony Abbott is on a vote-winner with boat arrivals. In his hardline, anti-humanitarian posturing, he is targeting these most vulnerable of people - refugees from bitter, protracted wars in South Asia - and playing the old familiar race card that John Howard dealt Labor with such relish during his tenure of the Lodge.

The attitude of the Rudd Government too has been to posture tough, with much chest-thumping and declarations of “I make no apology”, and so in effect agreeing with the view of us as racists, while still trying to imply to those of us who would prefer it, the warm and reassuring sense that they would much rather treat South Asian war refugees in a more humane manner. 

The truth is the number of people arriving aboard these boats is tiny. As has been remarked, if they keep coming in these numbers, they would fill the MCG - in 30 years. Last year, refugees arriving by boat constituted around just one percent of all migration to Australia. 

Yet Tony Abbott would have us believe that the arrival of these few thousand people seeking a better life among us, constitutes an enormous threat to our nation and way of life. Cunningly, the kind of threat itself is never clearly articulated, but Abbott believes we perceive it so keenly anyway that he can piggyback to office on it.

As such, like John Howard, he is a true believer in the ingrained racism of Australians, which he believes can be manipulated to great effect to divide and rule, in a latter-day reworking of the Yellow Peril.

In the process, thoughtful and humane policy-making is bailed up while the beast of racism bays outside the door, threatening to rip the flesh of any party seen as “soft on asylum seekers”.

This tacit judgement of both parties of us as racists is by no means their only bleak assessment of our national character. They also believe us to be rorters and crooks. They could never say as much, of course, otherwise the real villains in the home insulation and schools building schemes would be named. 

Because it was not Peter Garrett and Julia Gillard who rorted the schemes - that has never been suggested. The schemes were rorted by “decent, hardworking Australians”, who did so in such numbers and to such effect that they killed off one and have brought the other into the spotlight of strong criticism. 

The real charge against Garrett and Gillard is that they failed to stop our greedy and crooked selves from stealing our own money from us.

What? Well may you ask that, but this is the actual failing of which Garrett and Gillard have been accused - of not protecting us from our base and venal urges to get our snouts in any trough, to gouge and gorge, even at the risk of derailing such obviously worthy schemes as insulating our homes and building our schools.

No-one could ever accuse John Howard of that. He knew all too well how low we are. Besides, he never believed in the need for energy conservation, nor in education for that matter.  

Something similar occurred with the Emissions Trading Scheme. After the Senate rejected it twice, the government could have taken the issue to the people and campaigned on it. But it didn’t because it knew Abbott would gleefully run the line of how much more it might cost everyone in household bills, as part of his pathetic, kindergarten chant of “great big new tax, great big new tax, nah-nah!”. 

So even though polls have consistently shown support for an ETS even with higher costs to consumers, both parties knew that when the household bills came in, the people would debit the government in votes. Thus both sides judged us to be mean with money, and not sincere about taking real action against global warming, no matter what we were telling pollsters - not, that is, if it meant paying anything for it. So they think we are liars too.

The conclusion one can draw from this is that when politicians use favourite phrases such as “decent hardworking Australians”, they really consider the phrase an oxymoron, and that they themselves are lying, unscripted or otherwise.  

What they really think of us is that we are racists, rorters, crooks, mean-minded and greedy, insincere about serious matters and liars, which curiously enough happens to be about as much as most of us think of most of them.

Of course, were we to realise what they really think of us, we wouldn’t vote for them, so they do what Abbott confessed to Father Kerry O’Brien that he does, which is lie. Luckily for him the electorate only gave him three Hail Marys and an Our Father in penance for it.

In their attitudes and beliefs, both parties are of course merely ascribing to the view of Hobbes, that life is a self-interested war fought tooth and claw, as opposed to the namby-pamby community hug-in social contract of Locke - the father, of all things, of liberalism (though what Locke would make of Abbott and his “Liberal” Party, one can only speculate).

So it is up to us to show the politicians they are wrong about us, that we have risen above the brutal ruck of Hobbes, and instead do truly aspire to the lofty social harmony of Locke. Oh, and that we are willing to pay for it. Such of course is the stuff of philosophy, and dreams.

Monday, June 14, 2010


My favourite cafe was the Mali, in Crown Street in Sydney. I went there regularly for more than a decade. When it first opened, they only had three tables and six chairs. When they got new ones, I bought the original chairs, white wrought iron with green seats, for my kitchen. Many years later, I still have one of them them.
The story, or legend, of the Mali goes like this: a young man called Xerxes started it up after a trip to West Africa - so the name. It was rumoured that he reached Djenne, and Timbuktu. He ran the cafe with two young women, one of whom was said to be his sister, the other his girlfriend, and the three seemed to constitute a small arcane tribe of some sort. Xerxes was lithe, dark, very serious. He always wore white canvas baggy pants, and a somewhat ragged white cotton shirt with long sleeves. There was a red bandanna knotted at his neck, and a leather belt around his waist, from which his various chisels, pliers and screwdrivers hung. He was always engrossed in a very important task of renovation. Yet the miraculous and wonderful thing was that despite all his constant doings, the cafe never seemed to change. For years it was in a state of coming into being. Walls were painted, painted over, painted again. Sand sat in drifts in corners. Some patrons believed the cafe itself was an art installation. 
The walls ended up a lime and lemon wash, and outside, a very pale green, giving the place a feeling at once deserty and marine, like sands at the bottom of the sea. The sinks and basins were hand-moulded and encrusted with seashells. The counter upon which the San Marco espresso machine sat like a throne, was hand-made too. The curtains were rough white cotton with cockle shells hand-sewn in. 
Over the years came the decorations - a line of pastel starfish above the entrance, a curving strip of timber over the counter swum along by hand-cut wooden turtles. Weird felucca-like craft sailed high over the tables, and there were also hand-painted wooden animals scattered about, giraffes and gazelles, and plaster of paris tiles painted with watercolours of African kraals, rhino in savannah, a lion in wait for prey. At one stage these were offered for sale. I bought two, though I suspect  trading was a bit thin otherwise.
The cafe was tiny - ten people and it was crowded. There was a scattering of more seating on the pavement outside, big sandstone blocks and milk crates for the most part, where the overspill could sit in the sun and watch the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Crown Street shunt by. Although relaxed enough, the place had its own kind of intensity: a hollow-cheeked desperado scratching out a haiku in sugar, a art student moodily deconstructing a pastry. The coffee itself was rich, with a creamy texture, never bitter. It was - and is - hard to imagine better. And the menu, though minimal, was unique. Lunch was lemon juice sweetened with rosewater, Spanish coffee, and a Turkish bread sandwich of salad, green olives, chillies and haloumi cheese. 

But the truly magnetic attraction of the Mali came not from its menu, nor its coffee, but its mystery. Battered sepia postcards of the Pyramids might appear on the walls one day - the next day all gone. Then a sign in tiny hand-printed letters would appear: "No Photographs In The Cafe Please." This proved problematic for me when I was asked to write a magazine article about my favourite cafe, and needless to say, it was the Mali. I was unsure that the management would find the publicity desirable, and it seemed unlikely they would allow photographs to be taken. So I was in the absurd position of writing a piece which could gain the cafe business, yet I had to do it surreptitiously. And if it worked too well, and too many people came in, I might ruin my favourite cafe through the very act of writing about it. In the end no-one knew the story was being written, and the photographs were taken out from out in the street. I didn't return for weeks, and when I finally did I ordered a very circumspect flat white. I found their trade a little more brisk, but not uncomfortably so.
An elegant Frenchwoman named Sylvie took over when the Xerxes clan moved on. She ran the place a little differently. French fashion magazines appeared on shelves, and soon the cafe was frequented by a new crowd, size eight models with navel rings, boys with nascent dreadlocks and faraway eyes. I didn't feel I fitted in so well any more. Was the original spirit of the place dissipating? Now it was all so, well, "cool". Or had the cafe grown younger, and myself older? Was I merely experiencing slippage from the demographic? 

A winter's day, chilly but sunny. Inside, a few people were huddled near the single kerosene heater traditionally put out in the middle of the cafe, the only recognition of the cold months. Boys in pre-loved army coats and beads, girls in recycled fluffy bath-mats. I was just finishing my sandwich when there was a sudden commotion: a pigeon had strayed into the cafe. The girls looked up from their Marie Claire magazines, the boys from their angst. 
Startled to find itself indoors, the bird flew hard for the street beyond - only now there was an invisible barrier blocking its escape, and with an awful thud it smashed its head against the glass. All of us, eight in number, stared as the big grey pigeon picked itself up, fluttered randomly around the cafe, just overhead, panicking. We all knew it would do it again, and surely enough it did, flying straight and hard at the barrier that blocked its escape, smashing itself against it, so that it slid down half-stunned onto the magazine counter, wings flapping about helplessly.
No-one moved. The bird would keep doing it until it rendered itself unconscious or smashed its brains out. Someone had to do something, but everyone seemed unwilling, or incapable. Besides, it was just a pigeon, the lumpenproles of city birds, "rats with wings". They didn't command a fraction of the respect of native urban birds, cockatoos or currawongs. Yet up close one could see the terror frozen in its eyes, and sense the intelligence behind them.
Again the bird flew at the glass, again the horrible thud of head on glass, the scrape of beak, the panicked flutter. But then I found myself on my feet, stretching towards it. I had never handled a bird: patting cats and dogs was about as far as my contacts went with fauna. But my hands joined around the bird's body. It was surprisingly soft. It did not resist. If this were to be its moment of death, it felt ready. It relaxed, and I lifted it gently and carried it to the open doorway. The winter sun on Crown Street beckoned. I raised the it high and released it. It hesitated a half-second, then flapped off.
Just a simple street pigeon, but I felt for that moment as if I had released a wallaby from a rabbit trap. When I turned back, the others in the cafe, those of the frozen cool, discreetly applauded, even smiled. It was a strange feeling, a sense of belonging renewed, in that pale cafe of the unexplained.

An edited version of the story from my travel collection "The Blue Man", published by Lonely Planet Journeys.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Drinking alone at my hotel bar in Accra, I was joined by two German gold dealers with three Ghanaian women. One of them was a modelish woman I had noticed with the Germans a few nights before, but I hadn't seen the other two. It turned out they were her sisters. As we sat over a round of beers, one of them began flirting, running her toenail up and down my leg under the table. But I was becoming used to this sort of thing in Ghana by now, from women trying to make a little extra to get by, and chatted on and smiled.
A Ghanaian man in his fifties, slight, with heavy spectacles, walked in and sat down at our table. The Germans seemed to know him. I thought he was a doctor, but he introduced himself as a businessman. His name was Terence. He sat next to me, and we talked for a few moments before he asked my nationality. When I said Australian, his face fell, and he looked away. He didn't speak for a few moments, and when he did so he apologised, saying that his wife and two young children had died in Australia.
'In Queensland, in a plane crash,' he said. 'In the sixties.'
He said the memory still hurt him very much, whenever when he heard the world "Australia". I gave my condolences, and he shook his head and said it was his problem - so much time had passed since he had waited for that plane that never touched down on a bush strip in the Queensland scrub.
Terence ordered more beers and we drank. The Germans drank on too, into the mid evening, when they got up and summoned the three sisters to follow. The girls suggested I accompany them, but Terence whispered in my ear not to have anything to do with them. As one of the Germans passed by me, he bent into my ear and suggested that I shouldn't have anything to do with Terence. When I told him I intended to stay and have another drink, the German shrugged, curled his arm around the waist of his girl, and led the way out. 
Terence said he knew a jazz bar nearby, and we went. We passed down darkened, deserted alleys. When we arrived there, I found myself in a long, low-ceilinged room, almost empty, blue lit with dingy corners. A vintage Nina Simone tape played softly. 
We sat at the empty bar. 'It's still early for this place,' Terence said. He called over the proprietress, a larger than life jolly woman called Margaret, and she lined up beers. 'Drink up,' she said. I'll run a slate for you.'
Terence and I downed our first beers, and I looked around. Here and there people loitered at tables in ones and twos. There was a TV above the bar, showing a news broadcast. I saw Stevie Wonder beside another man in matching white African robes and long, curly hair, Ghana's military ruler Jerry Rawlings. 

A young man beside me at the bar spoke up. 'Bastard. This used to be a good country,' he said quietly. 'But that bastard Rawlings... he's a killer. We never used to have killing here, you know. But he has soaked the land in the people's blood. And do you know why? He is half Scottish. There is no people more violent in this world than the Scots. Look at them, soccer hooligans, the tartan army... Well, Rawlings is half Scottish, half African. If he was all African, he would never have killed his own people.'
Feeling it wasn't quite the time to mention what was happening right then not too far away in Rwanda, I just nodded. Terence spoke up at my other elbow. 'Come on. Let's play darts.'
A board was located and three sets of darts, and Terence, Margaret and I started up a game of "Around the Clock", which I had not played since childhood. Margaret quickly showed herself to be a skilled exponent of the game. I was just beginning to get the hang of it again when the alcohol kicked in and I perforated the woodwork.
Some time later, Terence had wandered off and I realised Margaret and I were playing by ourselves. She had a sharp wit, and got no end of amusement out of my hopelessness with the darts. 'I thought Australians could drink beer.'
'We can. Just not as much as Ghanaians and still hit something as elusive as a dartboard.'
She laughed, and Terence returned with a formal-mannered middle-aged man whom he introduced to me as "lieutenant-colonel" somebody. The bar by now was filling up, and the smoky air resounded to laughter over which I strained to hear.
'The lieutenant-colonel wishes to propose something to you,' Terence was saying.
'Oh?' I asked. 'What?'
'Pigs' trotters,' the lieutenant-colonel said.
'I see,' I said, as surprised as if they had suggested I run guns for them. 
'Yes, you see,' the lieutenant-colonel went on, in clipped English, 'I do believe you have rather a lot of them down in Australia.'
'I must admit to not being utterly au fait with things in the pork regard,' I said, desperately trying to think of something more pertinent. Then a light bulb blinked on. 'Actually, our Prime Minister is in the pig business. He has an interest in a substantial piggery.'
'Excellent,' pronounced the lieutenant-colonel with a tweak of his grey moustache, obviously used to wheels being greased at the highest levels. 'Perhaps you could have a word with him for us.'
'Well,  I suppose I could write to him, yes.'
'Very good!' Terence said. 'The moment I saw you I knew you could help us. You see, pigs trotters are very popular eating here, whereas I would wager that in your own country they are thrown away as waste.'
'Or ground up for hamburgers or pet food,' I said. 'How many would you like?'
'One container load would be optimum to begin with,' the lieutenant-colonel said. 'Or as many trotters as you can get us for, say, forty thousand US dollars.'
'I'll see what I can do.'
'Very good then,' the lieutenant-colonel said, then stopped for a moment and looked at me. 'By the way, I'm sorry to have been so pushy about this... You're not Jewish are you?'
'No,' I said, 'although I am a vegetarian. Well, almost.'
'Vegetarian!' the lieutenant-colonel laughed with a military British bark. 'Vegetarian!! Oh, that's a good one, that's a very good one!' 
We all laughed, and he gave me his business card, and asked me to get in touch as soon as I had the shipment organised back in Australia. I said I'd do what I could.
'Secure us the order, and we shall send the money. Five percent is yours. Is that adequate?'
'Done,' I said.
We shook on the deal, and the lieutenant-colonel went away still chuckling, 'Vegetarian...'
'He really liked you,' Terence said, offering me another beer. 'It couldn't have worked out better.' 
Terence and I parted like old friends, and I stepped out into the cool night for the walk back to my hotel. There was a table outside, and a young man and woman were talking in low tones. Strangely enough, I thought I recognised the man, who wore a sports shirt and pants, and expensive shoes.
'I'm sorry, don't I know you?'
'I don't know,' he said, then flashed me a smile. 'Perhaps you do from the television.'
'Of course, you're the beer man!' 
'So you have seen my commercials,' he said still smiling. 
'All the time. They're on virtually every five minutes.'
'And do you know how much I get for each commercial? Just $200.'
'Well you'll have to do something about that,' I said, with the uninformed determination of the adequately inebriated. 'You'll have to get yourself a good agent.' 
'But who, here?' he said. 'There is no-one.' He stopped for a moment, and looked at me closely. 'You seem to know about the business. I don't suppose that you would consider...'
'Oh, I'm sorry - it's not really my line.'
'No? What are you in then?'
'Import-export,' I said. 'Meat.'

From my travel book "The Blue Man", published by Lonely Planet Journeys.