SAM Tells a Story

Shepparton is a rural city that is now associated in my mind with birdsong. It is situated in northern Victoria on the floodplain of the Goulburn River. This fertile area is one of Australia’s food bowls and produces sweet tasting cherries and stone fruit.

Shepparton is first and foremost Yorta Yorta country and known by those people as Kanny-goopna which means deep waterholes by which people camp. The Yorta Yorta people have led the way in the fight for recognition of native title rights and for their culture. Justice Olney in the Australian Federal Court in 2002 on the matter of the Yorta Yorta native title claim said, despite evidence to the contrary, that “the tide of history has indeed washed away any real observance of their traditional customs.” In 2004 the Victorian government entered a cooperative agreement which recognised public land, rivers and lakes throughout north-central Victoria which was a compromise on the Federal Court judgment. The recently refurbished Shepparton Art Museum celebrates that cooperation and puts the Yorta Yorta culture along with other Indigenous artists front and centre of its focus.

SAM is a wonderfully spaced exhibition centre that sits on the banks of Lake Victoria which is skirted by trees where birds squabble and sing and whose waters are home to waterfowl, fish and turtles. Natural light and views of the lake pour through windows on all five floors. Its collection focuses on Indigenous art and ceramics. It reopened on 20 November 2021 with the powerful Lin Onus: The Land Within. Before one gets there, it is difficult to pass by the window exhibition of Maree Clarke’s Connection to Country – I Remember When … These exhibitions put a lie to Justice Olney’s assertion and make the point that no culture is stagnant; cultures adapt and change over time, embracing and developing new ideas. Some sections of Australian society, including political leaders and, as mentioned above, the judicial system, have been reluctant to acknowledge the rich cultural history of First Nation people, past and present. Australia’s First Nation artists are increasingly present in mainstream spaces and are re-educating people, many thirsting for that knowledge. Lin Onus, who died in 1996 aged 47, certainly did that using various media: canvas, paper, sculpture, and ceramics. His work reflects a deep attachment to Yorta Yorta country. His father was an activist and a Yorta Yorta man, a founding member of the Aboriginal Advancement League fought to achieve citizen rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, resulting in the successful referendum in 1967. He was also the first Aboriginal Justice of the Peace. Onus’s mother was of Scottish parentage, a physiotherapist and a member of the Australian Communist Party. It was a household of radical politics and this is reflected in much of his work.

Onus tells the history of dispossession, of persecution and of adjustment in a number of different ways, some witty and laugh-out-loud funny as well as heart wrenching. The sculptural grouping of two officers, indifferent to the anguished prostrate mother as they take her young daughter is emotionally powerful and confronting.

In contrast, Kaptn Koori, depicts an Aboriginal superman powerfully punching his way through the sky to the backdrop of Escher-like steps on which Indigenous people ascend and descend as they continue to fight for recognition, acknowledgment and rights. Painted in the 1980s it is as true today as it was then. His sculptural installation of found objects is joyful and mischievous.

There is so much to enjoy and contemplate in this exhibition. The themes he engaged with when he was alive are just as relevant today, more than twenty years later.

Lin Onus was self-taught and moved through traditional European styles (think von Guerard and German Romanticism, Impressionists and Pop Art) to Aboriginal symbolism and bark cross-hatching as well as Japanese printmaking. It is an exhibition worth visiting and what better than to combine the visit with an exploration of Shepparton’s surrounds, immersing the self in birdsong and the glory of riverine forests and fruits. There is plenty of time. The exhibition is on til the 22 March 2022.


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Dawn Walk in Port Fairy

I am unsure that Brian Cox is absolutely right when on his program Universe he says that we take the sun for granted. If we did, why do so many of us take photos of the sun’s rise and its set? Surely it is an action of some primeval celebration and an indication of our awe of its glory and its mystery; an acknowledgement that without it we could not exist. I agree with him that it is truly amazing to think that just by chance through the right combination of elements at the right distance from the sun that life in all its myriads of forms exists on Earth. The sun is a god and central to all religions, whether explicit or not. The ancients knew this and named it. It is these thoughts that accompany me whenever I rise from bed early enough to wonder at the dawn or marvel at that moment when the sun disappears painting the sky red and crimson and the clouds iridescent golds and blues.

I planned to bid the short-tailed shearwaters or mutton birds farewell from Griffith Island when they departed for their daily forage to feed their chicks hiding quietly with only an occasional cheep to tell a passer-by of their presence. I forgot to get out of bed at four. I remembered at 5.30 so decided to walk along the East beach of Port Fairy and contemplate the dawn.

The dawn had arrived peacefully after storms had lashed the countryside over several hours. The grey-blue sea was flat and the waves lapped lazily while the sun slowly climbed over the horizon. No rosy-fingered dawn this but rather a flat pastel rose blending with the grey sky. The calm after a storm is surprising and almost unbelievable after demented waves and winds crashed into anything in their way only hours previously.

It is a reminder that things are transitory and that Nature continues to do what it does regardless of us and that we are powerless to control it. We are desecrating Earth and we will change it as we have done for centuries, although at a more leisurely rate, but it will continue to survive without us until our sun implodes and dies, enveloping the planets that orbit it in a shroud of darkness. We will be long gone.

Change is constant. Port Fairy is now a holiday town, its only links to its whaling history are the charming whalers’ cottages and the many hotels, the banks and a post office. Oh, and the short-tailed shearwaters. There has been some concern for them over the last couple of years because they have been arriving on Griffiths Island later than usual and in poor condition. Apparently, they are recovering although their numbers are still down. It is thought that they are adapting to changed weather conditions and its effect on food supply as they travel southwards from the northern hemisphere.

Waves have lapped and people have fished in this area from time immemorial; first by the Pyipkil gundjit clan who constructed stone and timber weirs or yereroc to harvest fish and eel. They were dispossessed by the whalers, resulting in the Eumeralla wars in the early 1840s.  Finding Compass  Now a small fishing fleet operates from its picturesque wharf overlooked by expensive houses reflected in the slow- moving water of the Moyne River.

The lighthouse built on Griffith Island in 1859 emerges in the lightening sky, warning of low-lying rocks characteristic of this dangerous coastline where many ship have floundered and lives lost. The boats bumped gently against the wharf timbers their colours carried into the depths of the water.





The water birds are readying themselves for the day as I wander off for breakfast. On the drained swamps up-river golfers hit balls and cattle graze. 


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Meaningless Sound and Fury

Reading a recent review of Claire-Louise Bennett’s, Checkout 19, by Clair Wills (London Review of Books, 12 August 2021) gave energy to what is likely to be my last blog. According to Wills, Bennett’s character realises that she doesn’t have to be drawn into plots written by others; that we can leave the book unopened. To open the book is to be drawn into the hope that others promise us; we might be challenged to do something that leads us away from ourselves, from our own hopes. Better not, she suggests, open the book but imagine what the cover promises us.

The review reminded me of my own despair, which is why this might be my last airing on a blog which seems to be about voicing fury that is really meaningless to anyone other than myself. The despair comes out of the loss of hope and optimism that was authored by the advent of the pandemic. Like so many I had hoped this would wake us up to the need for change: to take action to preserve our environment, to reduce polluting emissions, to reach out to those less fortunate countries and nations and help them manage the pandemic and obtain sufficient vaccines to protect themselves, and to reduce the disparity between rich and poor. It was a metaphorical book cover that looked enticing and promising. Like the book that sits under the cash register at Checkout 19 where Bennett’s protagonist works, I think it was best left unopened.

Afghanistan has been abandoned. Nothing appears to have been achieved in the last 20 years other than the dashing of hope. The Middle East is a mess and vast tracts of South East Asia and Africa have insufficient assistance to manage whichever mutation of the Corona virus is wreaking havoc. Governments promise action on mitigating climate change but it is all just noise. I think I understand the protests of the far-right and anti-vaxxers, meaningless and self-defeating as they are. They are shouting out their hapless fury.

Much of the current sound coming from leaders and governments points to potential war. Diplomacy, it seems, is so last century! How this helps us survive climate change, heaven only knows. But hold on, it is not about saving anyone or anything. Money is to be made as arms dealers become more powerful and immoral. These are the people who have the ear and support of governments. You only need to look towards Yemen to see how it plays out. Has anyone costed the impact of war on the environment? Silly me, it is not about the environment, stupid. Voices raised in protest are lost, a rumble of sound, barely noticed.

In his overview of Angela Merkel’s time in office, Jan-Werner Müller discusses in The Guardian Weekly, 1st October, her achievements along with her failures. Merkel is widely regarded as competent, principled, and pragmatic. However, despite hot air about human rights and climate change, actions were limited and human rights were not written into the EU-China investment pact and little was really done on climate change. She is admired as an uncorrupted politician. Müller asks whether “this self-restraint (which) becomes a matter of moral merit (shows) how little we expect from leaders today”.

So, what had I hoped for last year? Greater equality across gender and wealth: women, the disadvantaged and poor nations have lost equity and are worse off. More compassionate policies: they were enacted briefly but as the pandemic has continued, the policies have been clawed back, diluted amid political squabbles. The realisation that we need to be more conscious of the fragility of our environment in order to protect species and biodiversity: the fossil fuel, mining and forestry industries are forging ahead and forests are being destroyed at a greater rate than ever; environmentalists and journalists who report on these matters are being assassinated. The Artic ice is crashing into the sea resulting in changed currents and disturbance to weather patterns. The hot air and political machinations to avoid active policy in the forthcoming Cop26 in Glasgow will be watched with despair. Even the British Queen sounds exasperated.

The book that I thought I had bought with such eager anticipation at the beginning of the pandemic is a book that I wish I had not opened. When I saw the cover, I thought it would tell a different story. I wish I had left it unread and that I could return it to where it came from. But I can’t. It comes in so many forms: a newspaper or journal article, a radio interview, a passing conversation. I want to stop up my ears and close my eyes. I want to put the book on my bedside table and ponder the cover, imagining the hope within. I want to live in that hope and not in this atmosphere of sound and fury that signifies so little.


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Shadow Shapes in a Pandemic

In 2002 Australia called for families to have three children: one for Mum, one for dad and one for the country. A financial incentive was attached. It attempted (successfully) to increase fertility rates and was associated with strident anti-immigration and anti-asylum polemic. It took no account of an overall unsustainable world population or of climate change and its impact on food supplies. Nor did it take into account that the most expensive phase of child rearing is school age. There were other pressures in family life: rising day-care costs, school fees and rental and property prices. There was a lot of hang-wringing and judgement when the “wrong” people took up the offer and spent their bonus in a way thought inappropriate by the hand-wringers. Inevitably women were blamed and a few years later were told that they needed to return to work by the time the youngest reached the age of five. The bonus was then withdrawn. Many women were working in the increasingly casualised workforce in order to cover childcare and maintain child support. Those children are about to enter universities that now have insufficient places and funding. It is bizarre!

Now women are back home, many in tower blocks, with limited access to playgrounds. If they have maintained their employment, they are also managing childcare and variable school closures.

No doubt we will soon be hearing from gender-blind governments how women are not pulling their weight. This is a blindness to the fact that women juggle usually low-paid, part-time jobs with domestic and childcare responsibilities. Research shows time and again that, regardless of men’s increased family involvement, women carry a disproportionate weight for domestic responsibility. This has continued during lockdown even though the male partner was also working from home.

From fairly early on in the pandemic I began to collect information on the impact of the crisis on women. Almost from the beginning it was clear that women were disadvantaged. Because of the nature of their work (services, health and education sectors) many lost their jobs or their hours were reduced. The family income was thus affected. Then there were the reports of increasing violence against women, trapped in the home with the abuser and denied the usual escape and protection beyond the four walls.

But women are resilient and many protests against mysogynistic power have been led by women; Belarus and the USA being two countries where protest movements have grown alongside Covid-19. Simultaneously, there has been a rise in the far-right movements, often marked not only by attacks against ethnic, LGBGTQ, and religious groups, but also against women.

The statistics are confronting. Brazil, Spain, Cyprus, the UK and Australia recorded significantly increased calls to helplines. Google reported a 75% increase of internet searches for assistance against violence. Anthony Galloway in the Sydney Morning Herald (13-07-2020) reported that in a sample of 15,000, 33% reported first time physical and sexual violence. In one weekend calls for help were up by 65% in Britain (Domestic Violence and Covid-19: Our Hidden Epidemic). Jennifer Neil: AJGP, 2020.

Clare Wenham, Julia Smith  (08-07-2020) in their article Women are Most Affected by Pandemics – Lesson from the Past, reported that between the 18th and 26th March there was an increase of 57% of calls to helplines in Malaysia, in part because of closure of sexual and reproductive health clinics. The USA has also restricted access to such clinics and we await to see what happens if Amy Coney Barrett is appointed to that country’s Supreme Court. Wenham et. al. pointed out that during epidemics women’s socio-economic security is slower to recover. This is not just a third-world phenomenon. Australia has recently passed a budget that favour’s men’s economic recovery over women’s, limiting assistance to those sectors that usually employ women. Women in North America and Europe contribute between 35 – 45 % of their country’s GDP and yet their needs are not being calculated into economic recovery post pandemic, thus increasing financial pressures on families.

There is no doubt that economic pressure sits hand-in-hand with domestic violence. While violence is a criminal offence in many countries, it is often not taken too seriously, possibly because it is not witnessed and it is one person’s word against another’s. Again, we only have to look at the casual misogyny of the USA’s president and the movements to which he provides tacit support. Hungary has recently decided not to ratify the Istanbul Convention that targets violence against women. The World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan provides no guidance about what resources should be channelled into safe abortion and birth control.

Sonia Sodha in The Guardian Weekly (18-09-2020) suggests that extreme misogyny should be treated in the same way as we treat terrorism. Through various platforms people are able to groom others, usually the young, vulnerable and impressionable, into misogynist attitudes along with racial and Islamophobic tropes, creating a recruiting ground in much the same way as fundamentalist groups recruit susceptible people into their ideological beliefs. Sodha points out that in the UK between 2010 and 2017, 49 people died in terrorist attacks. This works out to one every 10 weeks compared to two women murdered each week by a current or former partner.

We know that the education and support of girls is a pathway out of poverty and also results in decreased birth rates. During the pandemic, however, girls have had reduced access to education due to increased poverty. An estimated 743 million girls are out of school due to Covid-19. This is likely to increase child marriages, compromising the health of the girl. Teen pregnancies in Kenya have increased and in Malawi 42% of girls are married before the age of 18. In that country local groups have mobilised against child rape and marriage. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFA) set three goals for women for 2030: increasing family planning options, ending gender-based violence which includes child marriage, and ending preventable maternal deaths. Progress towards these goals is likely to be undermined by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On 21 August 2020 The Guardian Weekly published the thoughts of various thinkers, scientists and activists on how to take advantage of the pandemic to create a better planet. Ideas on art, environment, social media, racial tolerance, education, mental health and future action against further pandemic outbreaks were addressed. Nothing was said about what increasingly feels like a war against women. I am reminded that Phumzile Mlambo-Ngeuka, Executive Director of UN Women said at the beginning of the pandemic: “Even before the pandemic, violence against women was one of the most widespread violations of human rights”. It has also been referred to as the shadow pandemic.

There is a gender bias in most governments and institutions. It possibly is not intentional. It comes out of decades of bias. This was graphically illustrated in the documentary Coded Bias which demonstrated that the algorithms of facial recognition programmes were biased toward male Caucasian facial features. Women and non-Caucasian men were not recognised or confused and targeted by authorities. (Perhaps this is reversed in Asian countries where Caucasians may be unrecognised and targeted in the same way). It raises the question: how can a State, being made by humans and all their faults, in particular the fault of gender bias, become gender conscious?

We have seen women take the initiative in countries such as Belarus and the USA. As women we must find ways to stand beside them as well as to confront our own governments. As women we have also been inculcated toward a male view so that, we too, have the dominant gender bias. We need to recognise this and help each other to recognise that bias so that argument becomes stronger even as the opposition to our call increases. Maria Kolesnikova said of the largely women-led protests in Belarus: “Our female faces became a signal for all women – and for men too – that every person should take responsibility.

Feminism is not male-hating as Milo Yiannopoulos suggests; rather it is about creating a fair world where men and women of all religions and races live harmoniously together, living their best lives, securely and prosperously; where we can come together and explore the best solutions for us and our fragile world without prejudice and in peace.

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Jacque Cousteau’s Caution


Over the last few months I have been reading about the push to explore the possibility of colonising other planets and mine their resources. In other words, follow the same practice that has devastated our planet. At the same time I have been reading two parallel discourses about our oceans: the increased risk to marine life due to pollution and Climate Change and the hope – you guessed it – of further exploration to mine its resources. It is business as usual despite the evidence that further degradation of our natural systems puts most life, human, animal and plant at risk.

It is with fascinated dread that I approach the articles, the talks, the essays. I don’t want to read and despair but, like a bunny caught in the headlights, I feel compelled to face the awful news.

Apparently like the race to find a potentially human sustaining planet, there is a race to map the ocean – its mountains and valleys, its plains and forests. A global initiative,  The Nippon Foundation-Gebco Seabed 2030 Project has already mapped one-fifth of the seafloor using a multi-beam echo sounder to create three-dimensional pictures.

While there are definite positives to understanding the largely unknown two-thirds of our planet there are also negatives. The positives include understanding the life that it supports and therefore how we might fish sustainably. It might help us clarify territorial claims such as the ongoing argument in the South China Sea between China and Japan in particular although Vietnam also has an interest in territorial clarification. It would also help us discover wrecks such as the Malaysian Airlines MH 370, Amelia Earhart’s lost plane and the Titanic along with many other lesser known disappearances.

The UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA) has authorised State and private companies to prospect the seabed. Continue reading

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Dreams to Nightmares

While I have been dreaming if more equitable governments and more transformative leaders who will anticipate the welfare of people and the environment, others have been dreaming of societies dependent on and imprisoned by technological “solutions”, particularly to further pandemic outbreaks. What is one person’s nightmare is another’s dream.

Some years ago when I was writing a weekly column for a local paper, I raised the question of AI (Artificial Intelligence). There has been a fantasy of what AI can do for all of us – the menial tasks that can be replaced in factories, offices, and such places where manufacturing, accounting and maintenance take place. But improvement does not just stop at riveting pieces of machinery or totting up numbers; it expands and slowly improves applications to medicine, law, teaching – gradually usurping jobs and the weft and weave of social fabric. In my column I asked what happens when there is more AI application and less employment for people. What happens to the people languishing without work, battling to find meaning let alone the means to support themselves? What happens when AI, more logical and less compassionate than Man concludes that Man is surplus to requirements? Perhaps this is where a Universal Basic Wage or Income raises a head. But where would the taxes for this come from? The Tech Giants are not known for their tax returns; rather they ask governments for monetary support to develop applications which they then sell back to the governments. This is exactly what Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, now chair of the Defence Innovation Board that advises the US Department of Defence, proposes of the US Government. Underlying much of Eric Schmidt and various tech giant CEOs’ plan is that government outsource much of what it does to technology. This would give them greater power than they already have: a carte blanche to intrude into every fabric of our lives.

The Australian government has encouraged its citizens to download an app that assists tracking people who have Covid-19 and their contacts. Certainly the idea is laudable. There are assurances that the information is encrypted and then deleted on a 21-day cycle. The Minister of Health has said that application and information it collects will disappear like a puff of smoke when no longer needed after the danger of the pandemic has passed. Personally, my doubts were not allayed, partly because governments have ample excuses to track people for whatever reason and all it would require is a bit of tweaking and fudging over who has access to the information, currently quarantined but without legislative clarity on police access.

What is being sold in a time of fear and anxiety is humanless, contactless technology because, according to Auja Sonalker, CEO of Steer Tech, selling self-parking technology, “Humans are bio-hazards, machines are not.” Hmmm, reminds me of the NRA’s mantra, “Guns, not people, kill.”

So what are Scmidt and his cohorts selling us? Smarter education delivery, smarter cars, smarter cities, smarter homes. Smarter homes? Yes, homes that you never need to leave, where everything is delivered to you and from whence you work. Telemedicine and teleart – it is all there. Teleart? Yes – no more interaction with ideas other than the blunted interface through technology, teleported into your entertainment studio now expanded into a gymnasium.

A recent experience with telemedicine brought home its shortcomings. The doctor or physician needs to see the whole person to arrive at a diagnosis. A man with emphysema, somewhat cognitively impaired with a history of cancer was being reviewed regularly through telemedicine, in other words a phone call. His major anxiety was shortness of breath. The doctor was unable to see the other symptoms (puffiness and swollen, blue feet). I am assuming he or she noted that “patient continues to sound breathless and is anxious but there is little evidence of change”. Only when the ambulance was called could a thorough assessment be made followed by appropriate medical intervention. Unless telemedicine improves significantly and the associated technology imported into the home of people most vulnerable and least competent to manage the technology, incomplete diagnoses will be made.

I have to say I have little faith at this stage that life will be seamless technological ease. My city has recently installed new parking meters, not contactless so disabled during the heightened Covid-19 crisis. To operate them you need an app. However, no matter how I tried, I was unable to download it. I contacted the council office who advised me I needed to go to the actual meter supplier’s website. I spoke to a very helpful consultant who said I could just call them before and after parking on a specified number and follow the prompts. When I parked I waited 30 minutes on a line that was never answered and provided no prompts. I sent them an email. Two days later they advised me that I needed to let the council know. I used the contact email address provided on the council website. It promptly bounced back. At this stage I have given up but if they follow up with a fine, I shall probably have to print off all the associated emails and walk into their offices to talk to someone. From my perspective, there is a long way to go as far as services are concerned.

Naomi Klein points out that before the Covid-19 outbreak, the public was becoming more sceptical of the intentions behind technological largesse. As a result, advances in AI were being slowed down: “Keeping fleets of potentially driverless cars and trucks off the roads, protecting private health records from becoming a weapon used by employers against workers, preventing urban spaces from being blanketed with facial recognition software, and much more”. She argues that the pandemic has opened up a window of opportunity to sweep aside democratic engagement, allowing us to compete with China in technological advance without the annoying intrusion of civil rights.

There will be employment – human drones who will work in vast warehouses, data centres, sweat shops, lithium mines, prisons and processing plants, underpaid, under-protected and invisible. They will be the people supplementing AI. Opportunities for white collar workers will also be affected, including computer programmers. People across all professions will be reduced as jobs and skills are outsourced to AI. It raises the question about what sort of syllabus will be taught through tele-education. After all, if you are educating the vast majority to undertake menial work, you don’t want them to think critically – just as you don’t want artists engaging with the public. Oh, Brave New World!

Evidence shows that women have been most affected by job losses as a result of the pandemic. They are predominantly the shop assistants, the hospitality workers, the child and community carers, clerks and other support staff. This trend will continue. After all, who will be supervising the home education and co-ordinating the contactless services delivered to the home? And who will bear the brunt of pent up frustrations of the unemployed or bored employed? The upside may be that this domestic bliss never eventuates because relationships are built on contact, often not very hygienic.

There will be a small, powerful aristocracy who will be able to afford all that the new technology is able to bring along with the enlarged apartments towering over cities where the less fortunate eke out their lives. This aristocracy will be the people who drive the technological advances and increasingly govern.

Alphabet’s smart cities smack of this fantasy. It is worth visiting Sidewalk Labs website and be seduced.

Recently, Toronto’s flirtation with Alphabet’s Street Labs innovation came to an end, seemingly because the full extent of the plans and the working relationship with Toronto’s governing body was elastic and not clearly articulated from the start. The other problem was that those pesky citizens were not happy about data collection and surveillance. Alphabet is still hopeful about developing smart cities but recognises that it may need greater engagement with the people who will live and work in them and (heaven forfend!) demonstrate greater transparency and compliance with applicable laws.’s

As I have been writing this piece the images of a novel I read some years ago, the author and title of which I cannot recall, has been haunting me. In the novel, the rich, powerful and privileged live above the city below, moving from one structure to another for their work and entertainment via aerial pathways. They never need to descend to the dark, pest-infected city below where the sun’s rays barely penetrate and where people get by the best way they can. Indeed, the people living in the sky are barely aware of those below. Alphabet’s smart cities and Schmidt’s dream bring this to mind.

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Creating New Conversations in Art

This piece of writing comes out of my reflections on activities that I continue to miss as the pandemic ebbs and flows. I am not talking about the walks with friends through the countryside or enjoying the well-brewed coffee made from freshly ground beans in a café midst the hum of conversation from where I can gaze out at the passing traffic. I am talking about the missing experiences of galleries and theatre – witnessing the lively expression of art and the chance sharing of views with strangers. These reflections are tinged with the concern for the people who make these experiences happen – the baristas and waiting staff and the artists, sometimes one and the same person, now languishing with little income because they have missed out on financial assistance because they are intermittent casual workers.

I believe that all art forms are an important part of life. I want to be challenged and art challenges me. For me the artist must provoke me, challenge a viewpoint, must discombobulate me. Continue reading

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Women Lead in Time of Crisis

Jon Henley and Eleanor Ainge Roy, writing in The Guardian Weekly (1/5/20), asked whether female leaders were better at containing the spread of Covid-19. (<ahref=”…/why-do-female-leaders-seem-to-be-more- successful-at-managing-the-coronavirus-crisis”>) They reviewed female leader’s responses to Covid-19: nine women who took charge of the response to the contagion. Sint Maarten, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan, Norway, Finland and Iceland led by female heads of state acted promptly to manage the virus, thereby containing the spread. South Korea’s, head of disease control, Jeong Eun-kyeong, was delegated to take charge of that country’s response.

This is not an argument about men versus women but rather poses the question: what qualities do we need in leaders, particularly in a crisis? Male leaders, for instance Cyril Ramposa (South Africa), Daniel Andrews (Premier of Victoria, Australia), Moon Jae-in (South Korea) were also effective by taking similar prompt,
definitive action.

Leadership has been described by Martin Charmers () as a process of social influence of which credibility and authority are vital factors. The leader emerges as a result of being seen as competent and trustworthy, allowing the group to achieve its goal. Is political leadership any different? There is no doubt that the majority of US Americans do not see their leader as competent or trustworthy, but his party does as do his supporters. Modern political leadership appears to work on the basis of casting their opposition as incompetent and untrustworthy offering few ideas beyond this scenario, which might explain why so many electorates are despondent and pessimistic about their country’s leadership and are increasingly disengaged from the political debate and process. The most effective leaders motivate their followers, ensuring team satisfaction,participation and commitment to the task at hand. They therefore need to be effective coaches, be considerate and sympathetic and, importantly, communicate the group goals well.

In managing Covid-19 there was a clear goal: reduce the risk of infection within a population in order to minimise deaths among the vulnerable. Rarely are political leaders confronted with such a discreet goal.What made female-led countries so effective in achieving this goal?
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After the Pandemic

Most of the world has closed down: down, not off. The fear of the potential contagion of Covid-19 has stopped us in our tracks. The sky has cleared, plants and small animals are re-emerging along road-sides, people are breathing, really breathing, better because the air is less polluted. The crazy urge to rush around and do something, anything, has been curtailed. Those who have the means are rediscovering their homes and perhaps, rediscovering themselves. They are the lucky ones.

Some people, particularly those who are more introverted than others, and have the means to support themselves in their homes, are doing well. No longer do they need to keep to the demands of others, to be somewhere, to engage with someone, to follow another’s timeline, to socialise with colleagues and others they can organise themselves to suit their own needs. Others are finding it difficult to live without the distraction of life and to deal with the self. Many working families have found a new meaning to the work-life balance in a small, crowded space not structured to include office, school and play.

The above is written from the point of view of a privileged Westerner, comfortable in a spacious home with a garden and pleasant walks along a river or nearby wood. It is on these walks that I reflect on my privilege and consider those less privileged. I refer not just to the people in densely populated communities in Africa, South America and Asia and South-East Asia, where access to testing, let alone medical assistance, is limited; people who live hand to mouth, day-by-day, unable to buy in bulk or store what they have bought or harvested. It is easy to be western-centric and bracket people from these countries as unfortunate and something foreign to be dismissed. There are also the families in cities living in apartments, one on top of the other, wall-to-wall, day and night, the sounds of the activities of neighbours intruding without escape to the communal park or garden. I think of those families living with a member who has poor emotional and impulse regulation and compensates by controlling the household members whose usual escape routes are now closed. I think of those people who have no homes, or whose homes are crowded and where there is little opportunity to quarantine or self-isolate. What must their fear look like in these circumstances?

While Asian and European countries are beginning to recover and are considering re-opening commerce, many African countries are just beginning to record cases of Covid-19. Will this mean that a new cycle of the pandemic will develop?

This pandemic has halted human societies. Like any crisis it is a challenge to think and reconsider how we live and how we are to move forward.

Peter Baker, in an essay in The Guardian Weekly (10 April 2020) writes that a crisis shapes history and that the reality of a community is laid bare.

Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear. In such moments, whatever is broken in society is revealed for just how broken it is, often in the form of haunting little images or stories. ()


What we do next is surely important. What is more important is what we as individuals do and what we allow our governments to do. Already we have seen how some leaders have used the pandemic to their advantage. In both Israel and Hungary prime ministers have been given the power to rule by decree. Many governments are looking towards surveillance tools to increase monitoring people’s activities. The large tech companies will of course be important players in this. They already have far more data on us than most governments. How will these two forces use this information and what will be the limits on its acquisition? We are being assured that such measures are only for the duration of the contagion but it would be easy to keep them in place with the excuse of preparing for the next crisis.

Now is a time to consider what we expect of our governments as well as what sort of society or world we wish to live in.

Rebecca Solnit and Naomi Kline have both raised the question of what happens in the aftermath of disaster. Both writers suggest that it is the choices that people make in the wake of an event that is important; not just as the individual but as a collective. Solnit writes

This is tough stuff to face. But I think by facing it we can begin to imagine the coming transformation and imagine how it can best serve the many and not the few, because what is also coming is an epic battle over what kind of economy we will have and whose needs will be met (i.e. the urgent needs of the desperate versus more padding for the heavily padded, which is what they will mean by returning to normal). There are real possibilities of positive change here, and to say that is not is to ignore the tremendous suffering all around us; it’s to face it and say that it can only be alleviated with profound change.

Naomi Klein argues for wealth redistribution, resource sharing and reparations. She has persistently argued that creative focus on finding solutions to climate change and the crisis it presents to us now and particularly to future generations will help us build fairer economies that “close deep inequalities, strengthen and transform the public sphere, generate plentiful, dignified work and radically rein in corporate power.”  Klein has long argued for us to adopt different narratives about how we live or wish to live.

Perhaps the Corona virus is our new best friend. As a result of it many people have looked around and realised that there is a different way to live and may insist on new structures to enable this. We can be kind to ourselves as well as those well past our borders.

Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, suggests that we already have the tools to make world economies more equitable and move away from the north-south exploitation that uses the south as a resource basin to be plundered by the wealthy north. ( Perhaps we need to be more informed about these and insist that our governments employ them.

For some years environmentalism has been disparaged by many in power (government and industry). We only need to look at Brazil and the apathy of world leaders in taking steps to stop the destruction of vast swathes of the Amazon Basin and its Indigenous people in order to mine its riches and create an agriculture that will drain and poison soil, water, flora and fauna. Sanctions have been applied for less egregious activities. And yet, the environment and its health are vital if we are to prevent further epidemics that may become pandemics.

Covid-19 was caused by a virus that jumped species. It could jump species because of the nature of wet markets in China where exotic animals that are distressed are traded. The naturally resilient immune system of animals becomes compromised when stressed. This can become a breeding ground for viruses. If we continue to degrade our biodiversity through polluting industry, mining and agricultural and trade activities along with land clearing and a continued relaxed response to climate change and its main drivers we can expect further disasters, including pandemics, because the environment is distressed.

We acted on Covid-19 because we were forced to, the driver being its rampant contagion and its threat to human life. Governments, the world over, took action, mostly decisively, enacting bills that six months ago they would have baulked at. These were bills that were people-focused, looking after the citizens they were elected to protect rather than the lobbyists and their cohorts. Suddenly the economic conversation changed in a way not thought possible.

Climate change does not confront us in the same way as Covid-19. The impact is slow and subtle. We adjust to its effects rather like the frog in slowly heating water. Like sponges we absorb the losses and associated deprivations until we can’t absorb them anymore. That will be the confrontation: increased pollution-related illnesses, inexplicable diseases, food and water shortages, birth anomalies. By then it may be too late and death rates will be higher than just a few million.

Covid-19 is an alert to governments (north, south, east and west) to the need to communicate and work together to re-imagine the future.

Reports from the world over tell inspiring stories of communities coming together to support those who are ill, have lost their jobs, are alone or in a difficult situation. These stories are inspiring and show us another way of living together, focused on community health and well-being rather than cocooned individualism.

Let’s move forward together, holding in mind that we actually are in this altogether, regardless of where we live, how much wealth we hold or our status.

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A long, long time ago there was a faraway kingdom. Views stretched out from the castle towers over hills and dales, towards a high mountain range that circled the realm. Because of its isolation the country was at peace and lives were harmonious and prosperous.

For all the wealth, there was one sorrow – the king and queen had no children, try as they might. The courtiers, keen to see their rulers happy, did all they could to distract them from their disappointment so the days were filled with games and tinkling laughter, with music, song and dance.

To escape the endless chatter and mindless distractions, the queen often took herself to the river where she had found a secluded rock pool. There she would lie, letting the water flow around her, gazing through half-closed eyes at the sky, the clouds and passing birds calling out to each other. The fish gently tickled her with their nibbling mouths. All tensions left her mind and body.

One hot afternoon in August she arrived to find a fish that had escaped his watery haven and was now lying gasping on the river bank. She saw in its struggle her own. She cupped her hands around it and returned it to the water. It floated on its side, seemingly lifeless while she crooned a song. Then it flicked its tail, regained its balance and swam slowly for a few moments before, much to the queen’s surprise, thanking her.

“Are you not coming to swim with me, my queen?” The queen shook off her robes and lowered herself carefully into the water. The fish swam around her, gently fanning her body with its waving tail and she felt herself relaxing.

“You are sad, my queen.”
“Oh, I am. But I did not think that a fish would know of sadness nor, indeed, of happiness, anger, frustration or disappointment.”
“There is much you do not know.”
“Indeed,” agreed the queen.
“So, what makes you sad?”
“Ah, I don’t expect you to understand. My husband and I long to have a child to love. Our lives remain incomplete and meaningless without one.”
“Even though your subjects depend on your good management and love you as their parents?”
“Yes, even though we care for our people.”

She relaxed even more as she opened herself up to her confidante while he nibbled here, stroked there and fanned his tail, creating small ripples that flowed around her body. The reflection of the setting sun in the water alerted her to the late hour. Hastily, she rose from the water.

“You have been kind, my queen, and saved my life. I understand your sadness and I know that your wish will be fulfilled. You will soon be blessed with a child, a daughter.”

The queen smiled sadly, thanked the fish and wondered how a fish could know.

The king was very anxious when she returned to the castle but at the same time relieved to see her so relaxed and radiant. She told him about her strange encounter with the fish. He looked at her in askance: “Hmmm,” he murmured.

He was surprised over the next months to see her body swell and cast his doubts aside as he shared her joy. When the baby was born, a little girl of such delicacy with skin almost the colour of rose-tinted pearls, his joy knew no bounds; he could barely draw his eyes away from mother and child and hovered protectively over them.

“We will have a celebration like no other,” he declared. “There will be a public holiday. We will show our child to the people and everyone will receive a gold sovereign. Here, in the castle, we will have a feast for the most important guests.”
“We shall invite the wise women, the fairies”, said the queen.
“But they will need special plates. I believe they only eat from gold platters and there are thirteen of them and we have only twelve.”
“We will invite those that live nearest. One lives very far away and it would be hard for her to come.”
“Hmm, I am unsure about that,” but when he saw is wife’s determination he relented and they planned for midsummer’s day “… when Rose will coo and laugh like a bird and show herself to be an early blossom to a beautiful bloom,” he said.

And so it was. Everybody of importance came with gifts and best wishes and all the citizens celebrated in the cities and towns. Towards the end of the banquet, after toasts, the fairies gathered around the crib to give their gifts: love, beauty, riches, intelligence, wisdom, loyalty, compassion, generosity, honesty, kindness, and prudence. Just as it came to the twelfth fairy’s turn, the door to the banquet room was flung open with great violence. The thirteenth fairy had arrived. Her face was twisted in anger and spite.

“You thought not to invite me. Instead you ignored me. I have never ignored you but have lived harmoniously with you, sharing my skills and benevolence. I shall leave this country for another but before I do, I too have a gift.” She looked down at the baby who reached her hands up to her. “It is not the one I would have conferred; it is the gift of a curse. This little princess will, at the age of fifteen, be pricked by a spindle and fall down dead.”

In the shocked silence she departed. The king, after a brief hesitation, regained his composure and tried to follow her but she had disappeared.

The twelfth fairy stepped forward. “I cannot undo the curse but I can soften it. This dear baby will grow and flourish but she will not die when pricked. Instead, she will fall into a deep sleep until she is woken up by a prince who will love and care for her as she will him.”

Only slightly mollified, the king and queen determined to have all the spindles and needles gathered together and burned. They also banned all importation of such items, thus destroying a very lucrative textile industry.

Everyone loved Rose and vied with one another to stay close to her, further ensuring the king’s command that she should never be left alone and always be protected. To the surprise of all, however, in her fourteenth year, Rose expressed restlessness and frustration. She would stand on the highest turret and gaze at the countryside that stretched out to the distant mountains. Her imagination was pricked by what she saw. She wondered what lay beyond the castle. She wanted to know about the people she saw passing by the castle walls. She envied the couples seen wandering hand in hand, chatting and laughing. She wanted to join them.

On her fifteenth birthday, while preparations for the celebration were underway, she escaped to explore a flight of steps she had recently discovered but had been prevented from exploring some days before. “Can I never be left alone?” she had exclaimed, stamping her foot, to the surprise of the courtier who discovered her as she was about to mount them.

“But your highness, we are instructed to never leave your side.”
“Bother instructions! Bother you and my mother and my father! Indeed, bother everyone!” And she flounced to her chamber and slammed the door shut pointedly.

Now, free, she followed the narrow, dank, and steep steps, up and up through the darkness. At the very top was a door, its rusty iron key in the lock. Clearly no one had been here for a while. She turned the key and the door swung open. She was wrong: someone had been there and still was.

In the small, round and comfortably furnished room, a woman sat on a low seat with a wheel and a spindle, spinning the wool from a basket at her side into fine thread.

“Oh, I am sorry. I did not expect to find anyone in here.”
“No, my dear, nobody knows. I am forgotten.”

The princess regarded her with clear envy before exclaiming: “What a lovely room and look at the view and how the light comes through your narrow windows to arrive at the centre where you sit working away. What is it that you are working so hard at?”
“It is not work but pleasure – the pleasure of making something fine that in turn will be made into fine cloth. I am spinning.”

The princess sat on a nearby sofa and watched mesmerised as the woman worked.

“Is it very hard?” she eventually asked.
“There is a knack to it; it is a skill.”
“Can you teach me?”
“Of course,” and the woman slowed the wheel down and explained how to operate it together with the spindle so that they worked together to create the thread.

After a while the princess asked: “May I try?”
“Be careful, my dear, because you can prick yourself and spoil the thread with your blood.”
“Oh, I shall be very careful,” and Rose took the spindle and sat at the wheel while the woman prepared a tray for tea.

Rose kept spinning, lost in a reverie.

“A cup of tea, my dear?” The woman’s voice cut through Rose’s thoughts, startling her. Her hand slipped as did the spindle that pricked her. Immediately she fell into a deep sleep as if lifeless.

Slowly sleep slipped down the stairs and spread throughout the castle freezing everyone mid action including the blow the cook intended for an errant kitchen hand. Only the roses in the garden seemed to be awake. Over the seasons they grew, untended, reverting to their wild ways, clambering across walls and spilling over one another in the ecstasy of being uncontained and undisciplined.

It was not only the roses that lived. Dreams also inhabited and thrived in the sleeping minds of the castle inhabitants. Everyone dreamed, including Rose. She dreamt of a young man she had glimpsed as she gazed out from the window of the small forgotten room. She knew he had also seen her because he had lifted his hand to her. He too, far away, dreamed of her and their dreams became, like the roses, entwined, pricking the sleeping imaginations.

Stories of the beautiful princess also pricked the imaginations of other young men who dreamed of awakening her. No matter how brave and determined they were however, the roses scratched them and held them in prickly embraces, taunting them with their fragrant beauty. Time continued to pass and the young man continued to dream of the princess and she of him and their dreams became infused with those of the sleeping king and queen and their courtiers, the servants and all who slept including the dogs and the cats, horses, cows, pigs and poultry, even the rats and the mice.

The young man made excuses to pass the castle and each time he stared beyond the clambering roses, now flagged with blood stained rags of unsuccessful fortune seekers, looking for evidence of life within the castle.

“Is there a way through?” he asked the old couple who lived on the other side of the highway.
“There is a spell,” said the old woman.
“Only the right man can penetrate the growth,” added the old man.
“Who would be the right man?”
“One who cares to know the princess; one who can unlock her imagination and love.”
“I think I can do that. I know her dreams.” The old woman looked at him quizzically and smiled a secret smile.
“That is a bold assertion,” said the old man. “We all think that we know someone without knowing that we hardly know them at all.”
“You may be right. Perhaps like all the others before me, I shall fail because of my presumption – that I do not really know her and her dreams. I shan’t know until I try.”

The young man found an inn and reconnoitred the perimeter of the castle to establish the best place to make his attempt.That night he and the princess dreamed of sharing their secrets, of riding together and walking through the woods, hand in hand.

The next morning he dressed himself and his horse in thick leather. He sharpened his sword and placed it in its scabbard. He also sharpened a small scythe so he could cut through the brambles more easily. Young branches were shooting from the hard thorny older ones. These were softer and more flexible. Buds were forming, some ready to burst into bloom.

Up in the tower, the princess dreamed of his approach.

After hours of careful cutting back, the young man broke through the tangled growth. There in front of him towered the castle. All was quiet except for the call of a cuckoo.

He rested beneath an apple tree. He was in no hurry; after all, he had waited many years for this moment. He found some water, washed himself and attended to his horse. He stepped across the threshold. A dog whimpered and a cat flicked its tail. He bent down and stroked the dog’s head. The dog lifted its head and wagged its tail, stood up and licked the man’s hand. It leapt forward. The man followed through the silent, sleeping rooms to the flight of stairs. Together they climbed the steep, damp smelling steps. The dog whined at the door and the man turned the rusty key. He stepped into the room, bright with sunlight, where a beautiful woman lay asleep on the sofa.

He looked down on her face and marvelled at her familiarity. He sat on the nearby chair and reached to touch her face gently. She stirred but did not wake up. He took her hand and held it, stroking it while he called her name. Still she did not wake. He knelt beside her and brushed his lips across her face before resting them on hers. She moaned and slowly opened her eyes. They looked at each other and smiled. The dog yapped.

Downstairs, people in the castle drew in deep breaths, stretched, opened their eyes before commencing their interrupted tasks and wondered about a strange strangeness.

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