Last month, I attended a symposium in Newport about memorialisation and the thirty-five bridge workers who died when the West Gate Bridge collapsed in 1970. The ‘past is never over’, observed visiting Canadian academic Tara Goldstein, because we are always reinterpreting history and, therefore, must always interrogate ‘veracity’. The royal commission into the accident held unions and workers partly accountable; as one of the speakers argued, in the lead-up to the fifty-year anniversary of the disaster, this is a narrative that must be corrected.
The #MeToo movement was founded more than a decade ago by a black woman, Tarana Burke, as a way of helping survivors of sexual violence in low-wealth black communities in the United States. Since then it has become shorthand for so many things, many of them far removed from the grassroots approach to healing advocated by Burke. I have watched as it became a lightning rod for anger. I have watched the inevitable backlash gather force. I have watched it turn into a weapon used against women by men.
A few weeks ago I was on the invite list, along with my colleague Professor Gary Foley, to the opening of a major Indigenous art exhibition at the University of Melbourne. The reasoning for the invitations was threefold: we had both, at one time, been senior curators at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum (the museum is involved in the exhibition); we had both been recipients of the Chancellor’s Prize for the best PhD in the arts faculty; we are both, obviously, alumni of the university.
This is your bedtime ritual. After playing a tune at 528 Hz – a frequency billed to ‘release inner conflict and struggle’ – you settle into a simple weightlifting routine. Then you drink a casein shake, put on your headphones and turn on the music player. For the next several hours, the player will recite a list of words in French for you to absorb while you sleep, as you lay your head on a pillow that smells faintly of vanilla. In eight or preferably nine hours, you will wake up slimmer, energised and slightly more fluent at French.
When I was sixteen, I wrote a romance short story by stringing together clichés from Jean Kent and Candace Shelton’s The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book, a kind of thesaurus for expressions such as ‘his strong hands roamed like carefree mustangs over the melting softness of her body.’ Now, as I reread ‘The Dark and Stormy (And Writhing with the Raw Sensuousness that Pressed Them Together like Soldering Metals) Night’, the story sings with supercilious delight at my own cleverness. You can tell I felt no stake in this story. It was not about me, or for me.
Consult any vox pop and you will find that the most enthusiastic celebrants of Australia Day rarely know what happened on 26 January 1788. Some think the holiday has to do with Captain Cook, though it was actually eighteen years earlier, in 1770, that Cook made landfall at Botany Bay. A few associate the holiday with Federation, something that happened over a century later, on 1 January 1901, while others still wrap their flag patriotism around references to Gallipoli, assuming that any patriotic celebration must be connected to the ANZACs.
Hidden in the pages of a thirteenth-century Vatican Library manuscript is a curious illustration of a cockatoo, said to be a gift from the Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik Muhammad al-Kamil, to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. Dr Heather Dalton’s article from June concerning what appears to be the earliest cockatoo in Europe – ‘How did a cockatoo reach thirteenth-century Sicily?’ – caught global attention. My social media lit up with academics expressing equal parts caution and wonder.
It begins with the admission that my entire life is a facade. I teach but am not a teacher, write but am not a writer, edit but am not an editor, take photographs but am not a photographer. On occasion I have attempted to make art or play music, yet I am the mere simulacrum of an artist, the bare chalk outline of a musician. Moreover, I hold no claim to scholarly influence, nor do I pretend to boast any kind of public reputation. The ultimate confirmation of this – if you enter my name into Wikipedia, it responds: Did you mean: dead bison?
Dystopia ‘cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.’ So wrote Jill Lepore in the New Yorker last year. The piece was at least partly an expression of impatience, perhaps even boredom, with the imaginative reach of recent novels and with genre fiction in general (she calls it ‘pulp literature’). Lepore names this trend ‘radical pessimism’, but omits any exploration of what that ‘radical’ might mean.
Some of these letters were written by parents pleading for the return of their children. These assertions of humanity, made more than a century ago, echo our current demands, as we continue to contend with contemporary practices of child removal. More than 36 per cent of children in care in Australia are Aboriginal; as the Uluru Statement declares, ‘this cannot be because we have no love for them’.
Australia’s worst modern industrial accident occurred on 15 October 1970, when a 2000-ton span of the West Gate Bridge fell during construction. Thirty-five bridge workers died and a further eighteen were injured. The play The Bridge, written by Vicki Reynolds in 1990, tells the stories of these workers using verbatim techniques and a contemporary narrative in which a family touched by the disaster prepares for a barbeque to mark the anniversary of the collapse. An excerpt of the play is republished here, alongside a discussion between community theatre maker Donna Jackson and artist Bindi Cole Chocka (daughter of Vicki Reynolds), who remounted the play recently for the 2018 Arts & Industry Festival.
We are walking down a busy Fitzroy street on a Sunday afternoon. Ahead of me, two women are decked out in electric blue and purple tights, bottoms bouncing in thong leotards. Behind, a friend is wrapped in a golden cape, her face covered with a red mask. I am wearing a silver lightning-strike top and sparkly leggings, and have a blonde comb-over that easily rivals Donald Trump’s. We are all rocking an ONJ attitude. People in the street turn and watch as we pass by, cars honking. Gold glitter trails us as we walk. We are heading for Evie’s Disco Diner.
Message Received 21/06/2051:
MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY. Immediate evacuation requested, sanctuary and aid requested. MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY.
Reply Sent 30/06/2051:
Attn: Noplace, mayday received. Parliament is discussing your situation, expect decision within six months. Please tender more information on your situation to assist with Parliament’s decision. Please state the nature of the emergency.
They call it a wall, but it is a funny kind of wall. You might have seen them around. Crushed basalt rock sandwiched between sheets of reo. The sides go up, then the rock is added from the top. That’s the job of the gang, to hand the rock along the line and then up to the person on the ladder. I’m sure there are more efficient ways of doing it – elsewhere they’d be prefabricated beforehand. But that’s not the point.
The moon forms weird shapes in the ripple of the pub window. The dark-haired woman leans her head against the glass, tapping her fingertips against the windowsill in anxious patterns. There is a story lingering in the back of her head. She cannot remember if it is a story someone told her a very long time ago, or a story that she dreamt of once. When she tries to fix upon the details they slip away, like lights in fog.
Nora loosened her undies past her calves until they slipped to her ankles. She kicked them to the side of the ceramic pot. She placed one foot either side of the sempervivum arachnoideum and hitched up her skirt. It took some adjusting to get the pressure just right so that the pee didn’t list sideways and splash her thighs. Droplets clung to the cobweb filaments of the succulent. The nested leaves of the rosette guided the flow inexorably centreward. Nora watched the clouds in the sky.
Up on the hill, the moon
is always large, but last night’s
once in a hundred and fifty years
From where we stood, careening quiet.
The knives of shepherds slit the lambs.
Later, the huge apparatus. When.
Just now, feeling a glitch coming on, I took a few envelopmental leaps in thinking. The fits will soon subside, higher powers have assured me. The day will come when a tingling sensation starts up, then a grumbling that spreads through the nether regions.
the way sovereign bodies grow into one another
enclaves coalescing to form new imperfect states
when we are produced together it becomes impossible
The distance between expanding curves is vexing.
Consider what is lost
across lines primed for transoceanic dispatch;
I mean it to be a thing that is lank but fond like a dead feather boa no-one can remember who it belonged to originally god
but you still grab it
I carry within the unmimicable dark.
Weeping open on the train one day
I learn no-one speaks to the sorrowful
i’m throwing it off in a big way &
no-one notices. i’ve seen it cause a
fuss & now that’s the only way to do
does melinda bufton think this much
about collared shirts?
Artwork for this edition by Mary Leunig.
‘New collectives, old struggles’, the theme behind this year’s Fair Australia Prize, is an attempt to encourage creative, literary and analytical work that gets to the heart of these questions. This year’s winning entries meet the challenge and they reflect the real diversity of the contemporary Australian working class – from a migrant farm worker with a talent for graphic design to a poetic construction worker to a PhD candidate dealing with shift work in hospitality to a musician and early childhood educator grappling with childcare in the Paris Commune.
‘You either deliveridoo or you deliveridont’
Will Shu yelled at me from app land.
But that was yesterday.
Today I’m tender, teased, and toastie,
everything shows it off.
Since beginning work as an early childhood educator two years ago, I have been struck by the psychological difficulties of performing work that is poorly paid and poorly respected, but that encompasses big, life-giving acts of care, intimacy, warmth, and even love. An emotive dissonance, as Arlie Hochschild would call it. I have been frustrated by the ways in which the supposed feminine, non-technical nature of these life-giving acts is seen as justification for the lack of remuneration, the assumption being: that which is natural is free, or at least cheap.
Unions have a proud history of enacting some of the most important social changes in modern times. The quality of life enjoyed in Australia today is a direct result of hard fought for gains made by the trade union movement. We can count among these the 8 -hour work day, annual and sick leave, relatively high wages, and environmental protections through green bans and ongoing campaigns such as the NTEU-backed Stop Adani campaign.
Jeff is doing the school run for me today. I’m wondering where he is, if he’s going to want his usual teeny-tiny black coffee in a giant mug, when, just as we’re sitting down to breakfast, he knocks on the glass patio door and hauls it open. I pop a ristretto pod into the coffee machine. He rubs a hand across his bald head.
‘Hey,’ he says, pointing to my coat. ‘I know that coat.’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I got it from you. Well, from your shop.’
‘How long did it take to arrive?’
‘Less than a week.’
A portrait of a a farm worker (one in a series) by Tia Kass, winner of the 2018 Fair Australia Prize – Cartoon.
Winner of the 2018 Fair Australia Prize – Migrant Worker, Ridwan Aziz, on labour and activism in contemporary farm work.
Winner of the 2018 Fair Australia Prize – Best NUW Member Entry, by Yusniza Yusoff.