Monday, April 11, 2016

Sexual abuse and its outcome

Art and life: a response to the movie Spotlight

For many survivors, the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight will prove harrowing viewing, and hopefully a sense of what has been achieved so far to address so many wrongs. Some argue correctly that the furore over child sexual abuse is primarily fuelled by the fact that many the victims are male, but the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to ChildSexual Abuse is ensuing that the investigation of these issues would be as broad as possible and would be focused primarily on institutions, not individuals.

As art mirroring life, Spotlight showed that separating those in power from the impacts of abuse is often not so easy.  The drama of the movie, and the saga of uncovering the extend of child abuse in Boston at the time, both hinge on the extent to which Boston’s Cardinal Law was aware and had been aware for a long time of what was going on, and the insistence of the editor of the crusading Boston Globe that unless the institution was impacted then nothing would change. The truth of this insight has been born out here in Australia in the responses of a number of dioceses, and in the responses of a number of religious orders.

What the Royal Commission and the VictorianParliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and OtherOrganisations have demonstrated repeatedly is that time and again authorities knew what was going on, totally failed to understand the gravity and the impact of the behaviour they tacitly condoned, and by so doing spread the effects of the perpetrators into the lives of many people who need not have had their lives destroyed. We will never know the true extent of this abuse in Australia, and it would take much more than a mere Royal Commission to explore how that abuse also spread, like a deadly virus, to the Pacific Island, to India and to Africa, as authorities in Australia sought to rid themselves of these troublesome priests.

That the authorities had no idea of the impact of the abuse is troubling in itself, but not surprising. The Boston diocese ex-priest portrayed in Spotlight, as if invoking an iron-clad moral panacea, insisted that ‘I must stress I got no pleasure from it myself’. His delusional sense of himself, his behaviour and its impact was distressing, but not surprising. As a celibate with a limited adult sense of the intimacy and importance of married life, many of those priests in the current Australian media spotlight show a similarly remarkable lack of empathy for their victims, and a chilling but instructive lack of awareness of the impact of the abusers.

As was highlighted in the movie, this impact was, for many, at the deepest level. Abuse is always appalling, especially when it involves a breach of hallowed trust and a profound imbalance of power. But when that trust breaches notions of self enshrouded in deeply-held spiritual beliefs, then the extent of the destruction of a core self can only lead to the challenging of the deepest resources of individuals. As the movie highlighted, and the interim reports from the Royal Commission confirm only too well, such self destruction ranges across all the forms of self-abuse, with substance abuse utterly common, and suicide an option far too many were finally to take.

Hopefully the Royal Commission will lay bare the mechanics of such monstrous failure, by the institutions and those that lead them. Hopefully, too, it will help those who have survived, and their friends and families, appreciate the extent of the damage they suffered, and how that has impacted on their lives. Most of all, it will hopefully help those who have lost a family member, a partner, or a friend to understand why those who could no longer live with their pain chose to end their lives. That so many suffered is bad enough. That so many have chosen to end their lives as the result of this widespread abuse demonstrates, if  nothing else does, the gravity of the impact of this long-running scourge.

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Sunday, April 10, 2016

WOMAD - death of a dream?


Ten years ago Paul Lloyd was able to write in the Adelaide Advertiser ‘Enough words. WOMADelaide has reached musical perfection’. Looking back at the program that year (check the WOMAD archive) it is not hard to see why he would be brave enough to say that, and for so few to argue with him.

Ten years on, there are grumblings of discontent about the format, the logistics, the programming and most of all about the sound quality of Adelaide’s premier music festival.
Some of the concerns are small, but significant for the devotees who have been coming to WOMAD for more than 20 years.  An example: the decision to not print a souvenir program this year precipitated a small storm of protest. Did the organisers not know that for many people this was an indispensable tool in deciding what to watch when? Yes, of course there is the app (which functioned much better this year), but that is not the same as having access to hard copy.

There had been another rebellion at both entrance gates earlier, when the die-hards who had queued for some time were once again told that the gates were not to open on time. Last year the story was that the ‘new’ security company was having trouble with its communications systems – although patrons were communicating easily enough with each other at different gates. Last year that nearly boiled into rebellion over when security staff insisted that under their new contract, for the first time in twenty years, people were not allowed to bring bottled water into the event. This year, with yet another new (cheaper?) security company, the story was about OCHS, and the need to protect the public from trucks still on the ground in the park. Water was OK again. The organisation wasn’t.
Then came performances – the good, the bad and the stupid, hundreds of acts over three days and four nights. Responses varied enormously, as they always have, but things were changing.
Kaurna welcome - 2016. Photo: D Coghlan

A friend of English descent was so moved by the performance by Spiro that on a balmy early afternoon she had to leave the stage area, sobbing, and retreat to her spot at the back of Stage 2. Luckily it was Monday, and the final day of WOMADelaide 2016. The sun shone, the sky was blue, the Angus Watts flags were flying, and the crowds were so small she could return in peace to her ‘camp’. She recovered quickly, but was lucky that her cathartic experience had happened on Monday. Any other day of the four day festival she would have had to struggle through seething crowds to get ‘home’. More likely she may not have had the cathartic arts-induced experience at all. Crowds stacked thousands deep don’t expedite such experiences.

English group Spiro in full flight. Photo: D Coghlan

A close relative of mine, a hardened WOMADelaide campaigner of 20 years’ experience and dedicated frequenter of local live music venues, noted early on that many of the sound desk technicians seems to be new faces. Was this connected to the rebadging of the ‘Novatech’ stage? As it turned out, this was not the case. It seems as if a number of the acts, now grown to more like touring mini-juggernauts, brought their own sound crews. Perhaps this too is a symptom of the times. Either way, I can’t remember the last time anyone complained about the sound at WOMADelaide. This year the complaints were legion: feedback loops were common, some performers obviously couldn’t hear their fold back and were struggling to get it turned up; soloists could be seen beavering away at their instruments but the crowd was hearing nothing. Numerous people I spoke to left performances because of poor sound. By WOMADelaide standards, the sound technical skill level was well below acceptable limits.

But there were other signs of a festival culture fraying at the edges. In the past years smokers were occasionally seen lurking furtively in the bushes at the outer fringes of the park. Even without the no-smoking signs (missing this year?), it has been for a long time commonly understood that smoking anywhere else was, simply, bad form. Taboo. Even the smokers understood this. This year the smokers were everywhere – in staged areas, in eating areas, and everywhere in between. Umbrellas, long eschewed by WOMADelaide crowds (and the rules) were making an appearance – again in the staged areas, like the many high-tech and high-backed prams visible this year, blocking lines of site for hundreds. On a similar note, a WOMADeladie crowd that had for twenty years picked up its own rubbish had somehow lost the knack. The end of performances saw dozens of discarded plastic drink cups and beer cans, which were similarly deposited on any flat surface – like the table holding the sunscreen containers near the first aid tent. Who were the people doing this? They certainly weren’t the people who had been patronising WOMADelaide for the last two decades. Were they Victorians?
Managing all this is probably the job of security, but for the second year in a row they were newbies. Friendly? Yes. Effective? No. Won the contract on price? Probably – which segues neatly to the other easily fixed but much talked about problem that affected the whole festival: the toilets. Last year there were so many cleaners servicing the toilets they almost got in the way. This year the might have been wearing invisibility cloaks instead of high-vis vests, but the squalid condition of the facilities, some literally not cleaned for days, suggests that the staff simply weren’t there.  

WOMAD Monday crowds.      Photo: D Coghlan

What were there in vast numbers Friday to Sunday were people. Huge swaying crowds of them. While ticket sales appear to have been stable at around 90,000 for the four days for some years, the correlation to bodies on the ground seems to have changed. This may have been a function of programming. Having vast crowds stretching back to the furthest reaches of Stage 1 (spare us this ‘Foundation Stage’ nonsense – whose silly idea was that?) was sadly not unusual, but with the same thing happening on Stare 2 and even Stage 6 (aka ‘Novatech’ stage  – may they be long forgotten) movement around the festival became increasingly difficult and on occasions almost impossible. The experts may agree on a limit of 32,000 for Botanic Park on any one day, but something has changed in the distribution of those people. Are people getting fatter? Are they taking up more personal space? Or are changes to the programming part of the problem? Either way, while the bean counters crowed about having a full house Friday, the experience of those on the ground was way short of optimal.
So finally we come to the program. Ten years ago, when WOMADelaide had achieved ‘musical perfection’, the Friday night line-up looked like this:

·         Kaurna Welcome
·         Miriam Makeba
·         Jalsa Creole
·         Coco Mbassi
·         Gupapuyŋu Dancers
·         Sharon Shannon and Friends
·         LABJACD
·         Chakrini
·         Tommee & The Neighbourhood
·         Ravibandhu Vidyapathy
·         La Bottine Souriante
·         Joe Camilleri & Nicky Bomba
·         The Briscoe Sisters
·         Dhol Foundation
·         Chico César
·         Musafir Gypsies of Rajasthan W
·         Dr L Subramaniam with Amjad Ali Khan
Only a brave person with vast musical experience who no longer wished to live peacefully in Adelaide would start an argument about the balance and content of this randomly chosen example to compare with the 2016 offerings. While the Kaurna welcome goes from strength to strength, the rest is largely in the eye of the beholder. To an untutored eye acts on offer seem to offer a similar mix of local (including Indigenous), East Asian, African, and North American influences, and reviews of the program this year have not suffered from lack of supporters. Amongst the several people I have spoken to or read about there have been mutterings about ‘not a great program, but good enough’, but one common thread has been concern about the blandness of the program overall. ‘Gentrification’ of the program has been mentioned a number of times. Yes, there were standout acts, but these were seen as that – standouts, compared to a time when most acts were remarkable in their ability to take the audience to places they had never been before.

And that, essentially, is the problem facing WOMADelaide as it heads into another decade of history.

Problems like sound quality and toilet clearing are simply technical problems that can and must be fixed. Music programming is on another level altogether, but there is a growing feeling that this matter is related to the very large crowds and the quickly shifting culture that is moving WOMADelaide from being a jewel in the world music festival scene to just another gig. Of course it will always be beautiful, as long as the roots of the ailing elm trees are protected by more than signs. Of course issues like garbage and smoking and umbrellas can all be policed, although sadly it seems no longer by the people themselves. However the sad reality seems to be that the legendary WOMADelaide of yore is changing into something less kind, less civil, less inspiring. 

Once upon a time a weekend at WOMAD left you feeling restored, feeling that the world was a good place, that problems could be collectively solved, and that we were, together, able to create a better world. It gave hope. For decades people from all over the world came and shared that dream. It’s much more than a shame to see it dying. It is heart-breaking.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reading for meaning

Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable LifeLeonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life by Anthony Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have complete sympathy for those who commented on the remarkable number of editing issues in this book, but I persevered and such issues almost disappeared in the second half. Given that the author is something of a poetry aficionado, and thus presumably a person who cares about words, I am left thinking that perhaps the issue is not one of poor editing (although I still think it is), but one of ‘style’.

With that out of the way, I really enjoyed this book. Although it goes off into details that were sometimes irrelevant to my interests, the long list of interviews used as background for the project provide a wealth of information about Cohen, of course, but also about the various milieux in which he moved over a very long period of time.

As for Cohen himself, he comes across as a charming, kind and generous man who was dedicated to his vision. Perhaps his achievement of idol status among the bourgeoisie of the Western world has something to do with their / our admiration for a rather solitary man who does what he likes, when he likes, in pursuit of that vision.

Thus in speaking of his years of activities at the Zen retreat at Mt Baldy, Reynolds notes that Cohen would get up before the prescribed 3.00am in order to have a coffee and a couple of cigarettes. That suggests a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to Zen. On the other hand, he seems to have understood the main idea; after his five year stint on the mountain, Cohen notes that ‘One of the goals of the activities is to discard the goal’.

So who is Leonard Cohen?

Fittingly, Cohen himself gets the final word. Reynolds finished the book with this quote from the great man himself, written on Hydra in the early days:

In my journey I know I am somewhere beyond the travelling pack of poets
I am a man of tradition
I will remain here until I am sure of what I am leaving

View all my reviews

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Checking water depths on the Irrawaddy

Posted by Picasa

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Travels in Burma

Posted by PicasaSunset on the irrawaddy

Going though some photos from Christmas last, when we were in Burma. The photo was taken near Old Pagan. There are more photos here:

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Koalas at Morialta Conservation Park

The baby koala left its mother and
went searching for food.

Monday, November 13, 2006

a travel memoir

There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum. At that time you must accept yourself. It is not any more what you will become. It is what you are and always will be.

John Fowles, The Magus [1]

Not every traveller wants to go home in a literal sense – some are marooned for so long that they think they are at home - but every traveller, even the kind that never leaves his armchair in front of the fire, wants to find the place where being what he is will matter. That place is home.

Robert Dessaix, Corfu – a Novel [2]

There is meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveller.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

[1] John Fowles, The Magus

[2] Robert Dessaix. Corfu – a Novel. Picador, Sydney, 2001 p 53

Chapter 4: No Person’s Land

There were night-scapes in Saigon to be visited only when the moon was in a certain phase, and rich mandarins – still existing in those days in what remained culturally a province of China – would pay for white herons to be released across the sky when the party was seated in readiness for the aesthetic experience.
Norman Lewis A Dragon Apparent [1]

Borders are strange places, and the borders of countries that don’t care about their image need to be approached with great care. It may not be dangerous, but it can certainly be very challenging, frustrating, irritating, annoying, demoralising...

On a previous visit, we’d flown into Vietnam and had been astounded at the spontaneous ease with which immigration officials randomly harassed incoming visitors – and that was the foreigners. The way they treated returning fellow Vietnamese was simply appalling, but we had been assured that things had changed. Maybe they had in Ho Chi Minh City Airport, but at a tiny border post at Moc Bai on the ‘road’ between Cambodia and Vietnam, word hadn’t got through.

I love those land borders between two countries that feel really different: between, say, Malaysia and Thailand, India and Nepal, or Cambodia and Vietnam. Few things help you feel more comfortable than seeing a good stereotype in action, and to be the recipient of two different bureaucratic and cultural styles within a couple of minutes can be a very telling and sometimes comforting experience. It depends which way you’re crossing. This was going to be one of the ‘telling’ crossings. As we said goodbye to Cambodia, the two men in the grubby cement immigration kiosk smiled and smiled and smiled and said ‘goodbye, please come again soon’, as if they really meant it. We tried not to cry. Really.

We walked the few hundred yards across ‘no man’s land’ with some trepidation, and crossed under the yellow star of the Vietnamese flag into a tall, spacious border post.

As the sort of person who likes to do things properly, I’d insisted on carrying our little yellow inoculation booklets with us this trip. No one had actually asked to see these for some years, but a lot of time and money had gone into collecting the stamps they contained, and you never know when someone wants to know when your latest yellow fever vaccination was.

Well, it turns out the man at the Vietnamese border post did. We filled out the necessary forms in triplicate, on the finest of tissue paper, and presented ourselves for harassment. If you didn’t have the medical evidence, you were harassed, made to pay a small fee, and inoculated on the spot. Clean needles? Sort of. As we arrived a European man was loudly (and therefore, to the Vietnamese, very rudely) protesting that he had already been vaccinated, and refusing to be injected here using ‘that awful equipment’. He was still there when we left - he may still be there now, brushing up on his ‘how to deal with Vietnamese border guards’ etiquette.

On the other hand, if you did have the evidence, if you could produce the little yellow books, then you were in real trouble. The immigration officer, in his pressed uniform and his hugely peaked hat, read and re-read and re-read the vaccination stamps, getting crosser all the time. The amount of money you had to pay for the vaccination was so small that couldn’t have been the issue, whether he pocketed it or not. No, there seemed to be a genuine disappointment that we weren’t to be given an injection. We tried not to look happy, made our way obsequiously to customs, who only emptied two of our bags, searching for who knows what. He said he was looking for money. I think he was looking for happy pills. He didn’t find any of either.

At the small drink shop we came to outside the Boc Mai customs hall, the relief among our fellow travellers was palpable, as was the frustration that needed venting. Communist or not, Coca Cola was on offer, and we shared a Coke as we shared notes on our how we’d fared with immigration. We waited quite a while for some of our fellow travellers to jump through the bureaucratic hoops, then boarded another bus for the final leg into Ho Chi Minh City.

We emailed from there.

Date: Aug 06 2000 05:59:45 EDT

From: "On the road with B, D and T"

Subject: Bouncing into Ho Chi Minh the latest from the travel trio

Dear Folks,

We arrived in Vietnam a couple of days ago at a border crossing that can best be described as desolate. With the journey that preceded it, it provided something of a contrast to the comfort levels we'd enjoyed in the Cambodian capital. We'd become accustomed to the relative order of Phnom Penh, and the wonderful hospitality provided by P and J.

After that, the trip by road to Vietnam provided a rude awakening. At seven in the morning, as we moved out of town, we passed a veritable sea of motorbikes carrying people into work - among them some of the city's 145,000 garment workers. But once out into the countryside, the traffic thinned only a little, but the road became desperately bad - and then got worse. Our top speed for the whole 220 kilometres was 80 kph, but we generally travelled at more like 20, frequently crawled to dead slow to negotiate 'pot-holes'. Much of the road was on raised dykes, and with the early flooding that is a major feature of life all over this region this year, we were often surrounded by water, and hundreds of small houses that sat not far above the rising flood.

An hour or so out from Phnom Penh we came to an amazing ferry, carrying buses, cars, trucks and us across the raging Mekong, where the driver had to aim hundreds of metres above his landing point in order to find his right place on the other side. The Danish government may have provided the ferries, but it was the Cambodian captain who made it look easy.

A few more hours brought us to the border, with all of those little forms to be filled in, and other things to be discussed at a later date, taking a fair bit of time. From there, however, it was a breeze. The Vietnamese (or was it the Americans) have created a very good road system, and although the congestion on the roads meant that we didn't travel very fast, at least we travelled in one direction - forwards - rather than up and down and around.

So here we are in Ho Chi Minh City, in the palatial Dong A1 Hotel, mercifully in the middle of a tourist ghetto, with the inevitable in-house internet access, air conditioning and all of those things that we really must give up very soon. Tomorrow may be the day, as we have booked tickets on the train to Hué - a 24 hour journey that will dump us in the centre of Vietnam, still without one confident word of Vietnamese between us. The things we do for fun!!

Best wishes

D, B, T and Gumnut, who is starting to look a little travel stained - she needs a good bath, but you know how koalas hate baths.

[1] Norman Lewis, in the preface to the 1882 edition of A Dragon Apparent, in Norman Lewis Omnibus, Picador, 1995

Monday, May 01, 2006

Whobee newbie?

After watching everyone else do it - why not?