Thursday, December 19, 2002

Culture Crime

Thursday, 19 December 2002

It's probably time for me to take a break from blogging, at least until after Christmas. So, on the general assumption that this is going to be my last post for a little while, I though that I'd try and finish on a positive note, rather than the last dreary post.

I've just been reminiscing, privately, about the teacher I had for English Literature and 18th Century History in 1972. The whole school knew him as the Doc. After the school acquired an orchestra, thanks to the organising work of a dedicated music teacher, weekly assemblies began with [a march past of] the senior academic staff in mortar boards and black academic gowns [to the strains of Mendelsohn's Academic Festival Overture]. The Doc, who was merely an ordinary teacher but an old and respected one, brought up the rear, in the soft cap and red gown of a Doctor of Philosophy. The Doc's degree was in history, but we are talking about the old days, when scholars were real scholars and a Ph D in history stood for something more than a licence to lie. Even if the Ph D in question was an avowed leftie.

How I came to study Eng Lit and 18th Century Euro under the Doc is another story in itself, but one for another blog. For now, it's enough to say that it was at night school, in the year I took off from study of any kind, to work and save up a few readies before I went on to University. It was the Doc who reccommended to me, and a classroom full of adult students (I was only 17 at the time), that we all read this. In the light of one blogger's suggestion that this represents the sort of world class international best practice we need to adopt to restore the integrity of the academy, I thought I'd finish the year with a small culture crime and quote a so called "key passage" out of context.

We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of publick men, how we spill that season'd life of man preserv'd and stor'd up in Books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdome, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kinde of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elementall life, but strikes at that ethereall and fift essence, the breath of reason it selfe, slaies an immortality rather then a life.

Now go and read the whole thing. Please.

Life in the Professional Underclass

Thursday, 19 December 2002

[This is another of those long posts that I've had to split into several sections to cope with blogger limitations. This time I've resorted to ellipses at the end of the individual posts and as titles to provide the links. The last in the series is also marked with a suitable typographical device].

About six months ago, I had to attend the Residential Tenancies Tribunal. I was behind in my rent and the bank which had the dregs of my superannuation in its grasping clutches was playing silly buggers about the severe financial hardship I needed to prove so that I could get back enough money to settle my back rent and fund a move "down market".

I was at the bottom of a declining spiral of not quite having the money or time to move and knowing that staying in the present place was slowly driving me broke. In a situation like that your thinking can get woolly and the efforts to find work take on a desperate edge. The flawed logic is that if you can just get your landlord to carry you for the week or two it will take to get back in work, you can put enough by to cover the bond on a new place and the moving expenses. It doesn't help if you have the experience of having pulled the same trick off a couple of times before to help support the delusion. You hit bottom hard and it's time to put an end to the denial and self-delusion of genteel poverty.


The estate agents and I finally decided that the best way to shove things along so that I could afford to move to cheaper digs was to get an eviction order from the Tribunal. Seriously.

Just before my hearing, a legal aid lawyer collared me, saying that she'd been told I might need some legal advice. We talked about how things had come to this pretty pass and she told me my situation was pretty invidious and advised me on how best to secure the eviction order I needed to get from the tribunal so that I could pay the rent and hence, leave the property voluntarily rather than being evicted.

She knew a little about the lives of unemployed computer programmers too: she was married to one and now they were living on wife support. The employment market for computer professionals took a nosedive on January 1st, 2000 when a lot of businesses and government departments discovered two things: firstly, that the whole Y2K thing had been the biggest panic since the millenium fever of 1000 AD and secondly, that they'd been so thoroughly mulcted by the mob of Y2K consultants and contractors that there was no money left in the kitty for useful system development projects.


I'm proud to say that I wasn't one of those consultants or contractors. Mainly because there's only so much boredom you can tolerate before you want to chuck the whole thing in disgust, regardless of the ridiculously inflated hourly rate. There isn't much to be said for doing work that you don't really want and don't believe should be done in the first place, just because the money's good. Even the much maligned common prostitute has higher professional ethics than that. I made it clear to the agencies I worked through that I wasn't interested in it and most never bothered to ring me about it after being told the first time.

There was one exception: an agent who told me that the job on offer definitely was not Y2K work after I'd given him the usual spiel. The interview didn't last long. After the employer described the work: running a test program that identified potential Y2K compliance problems in other programs, fixing them, testing again and so on, until the program came up clean. I told him that the agency had wasted both his time and mine by sending me over, then went back to the agency for some forthright post-interview feedback. I never heard from them again.

It's difficult not to miss the days when I was a sought after professional with a considerable degree of cachet but most importantly, in the modern Australian labour market, raw market power. The main differences between working on the factory floor or building site and working up in the office, is that in the office the money's better, you start and finish later in the day and you don't get dirt under your fingernails. Everything else is snobbery.

It was a very friendly hearing: the estate agency's rental manager told the Tribunal arbitator what a good tenant I was, and I told the tale of all my calls to the bank's Sydney call centre. The tribunal member asked if an order to pay up or quit within 28 days would help me out in my negotiations with the bank. I said it couldn't hurt. Two days later, I got the eviction order in the mail and faxed it to the bank, thinking that this ought to be it. Any fool ought to be able to see that without my money I'd be looking for a friend's sofa to sleep on in 4 weeks time - or a slightly hyperbolic bridge to sleep under. I hadn't reckoned with the fools they employ in banks. They wanted to carry on playing silly buggers. It's their right under the legislation.

I decided that enough was enough and contacted my local Member of Parliament. I made some phone calls to a couple of those busybody regulatory authorities that governments create in the mistaken belief that interfering in business is sometimes necessary for the benefit of the polity. I finally got a call from the bank asking me an account number so that they could credit the money to it. With that sorted out, I was able to get on with the serious business of packing my souvenirs of upper-middle class life into cardboard boxes and moving out of the pleasant little rental unit I could no longer afford.

If I'd had more time to look I doubt that I'd have settled on my new place quite so quickly. You don't open the windows, you take them out of their frames. They're a bugger to get back in. But the rent is the lowest you can find in this part of the world: the only way to get anything cheaper is to break my "mutual obligations" by moving to an area of high unemployment. I've got together with some friends so that we can tender for serious programming projects and build up a business. It beats leafleting the local milk-bars and pie-shops letting people know that you're an experienced computer professional who can help them out with those egregious features that riddle a certain popular operating system. I saw someone doing just that once, when I was buying a pie. A less jaundiced vision than mine would probably have seen enterprise and initiative where I could only see a sad and familiar desperation.
- *** -

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Post-Modern Nation

Wednesday, 18 November 2002

This is something which shouldn't go unremarked, especially for those who are concerned about the intellectual health of the nation. Listening to AM this morning, I learnt that the traditional notion of a nation state - you know, a more or less fixed area of geographic territory inhabited by a bunch of more or less similar people who get to vote for a democratic government every so often (even if it's at the point of a gun and there's only one political party to vote for most of the time) - has undergone a little post-modernist deconstruction. Over the weekend, alarmed by the possibility that a small vessel spotted in Australian waters was carrying asylum seekers, the Government quickly removed four islands from Australia's Immigration Zone. Now that it has been learnt that the boat was just an illegal fishing vessel, the Government is faced with putting them back in.

It's a pretty clear indication that the opponents of post-modernism might as well throw in the towel and turn to other intellectual disputes. The traditional nation state is no more: in its place is a shifting ambiguous something-or-other whose main defining feature is that it can be redefined at will, with the usual playful irony. Post-modernism has finally penetrated the halls of Parliament. Not, as you might expect, through the ALP or those pernicious Greens but through the Government itself. When even the nation's established boundaries are up for the occasional spot of post-modernist revision and re-revision, the cause of traditional values is well and truly lost. The Government's action has made it official: we're all post-modernists now so we may as well start learning to live with it.

Private Hells

Wednesday, 18 December 2002

I've been trying for some time to devise a suitable hell for Charles Dickens, but it's a knotty problem, devising a suitable eternal torment for Victorian literature's most ruthless sentimentalist. I did come up with one for James Joyce, which is a little disturbing, because I like most of Joyce's works and enjoy reading them once every few years. Nonetheless, there's something fitting in the idea of Joyce chained to a desk in the nether reaches of some dark pit, condemned to spend eternity trying to correct misprint-riddled first proofs of Finnegan's Wake, entirely from memory. Now back to Dickens - there's got be a lot of winsome orphans in his hell, that's one thing I am sure of.

Update (Thursday, 19 December 2002): Don Arthur has made a brief, but welcome, return to the blogosphere to solve the problem. He's come up with a hell for Dickens and it's a beauty. Check it out in the comments thread. I may have to lift it to a more prominent position to preserve it for posterity, if that's OK with Don.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Another Boring Lefty Rallying Cry

Tuesday, 17 December 2002

Tim Dunlop yesterday issued a rallying cry for all Oz bloggers to come together on the issue of the Howard Government's ASIO Bill. I agree with Tim on this issue, so I am hesitant to detract from his campaign by issuing a rallying cry of my own. But in the light of recent events in Ozblogistan, such as the recent hacking of Robb Corr's Mentalspace and this, I have decided that it is needed. It's a mistake in political debate to let an important issue slide because we believe something else is much more important. And in this case I'm not asking for much of your time and energy anyway - just your support.

Like any good stereotypical political agitator, I have decided to issue my call to arms in the form of a manifesto, along roughly anti-idiotarian lines. This is only a first draft, so please feel free to make comments and suggestions for changes: the more people who are prepared to sign up for this trivial campaign, the happier I will be.

The Pro-Bilge Manifesto

We, the undersigned, as free citizens of a nation with a nominal tradition of free speech, declare that:

1. It is the right of every author to write bilge.

2. It is the right of any newspaper or magazine to publish a wide variety of bilge in order to attract as wide a readership as possible.

3. Similarly it is the right of every television channel and radio station to broadcast bilge for identical commercial reasons.

4. It is the right of every book publisher to publish bilge for exactly the same reasons.

5. In relation to the right to publish bilge we accept that this is a commercial imperative and a legitimate way of doing business in a free market economy.

6. It is the right of every Australian citizen to read, listen to, or watch the bilge of their choice, without interference or hindrance from others.

Mindful of these principles we hereby renounce the twin follies of pissing in the bilge and complaining about the stink, and amateur attempts to suppress bilge. We accept that the production of a large quantity of bilge is an unavoidable consequence of the exercise of free speech and that the preservation of public morals through the prevention of writing is properly the business of government appointed professional censors, not amateurs like us. This we swear by the dirt on our keyboards and the grunge that gets stuck to those rollers inside our mouses. It shall not have gathered in vain.

I know this is a big ask: I'm asking you to rally in defence of bad writing and the publication of offensive opinions you really can't stand. All I've got to say in support of this proposal is, if you're not prepared to stand up on this issue don't come bitching to me when the "l33t hxrs" get to your blog, or the hate-mailers start bombing your E-Mail account. If you're not prepared to respect my right to write rubbish don't expect my unquestioning support when the time comes to defend your right to write excellent, insightful commentary. You won't have earnt it.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Who Owns George Orwell?

Sunday, 15 December 2002

I've been thinking (this is something I do from time to time, believe it or not) about this question, on and off, for most of the weekend. Does he belong to the "left" on the basis that he was, after all, a socialist or does he belong to the "right" because he was, first and foremost a decent bloke who was opposed to totalitarianism in all its forms? Is the proper use of his literary corpus to dress up bad leftist writing with some of the good stuff or is it to dress up bad right wing writing with some good dirt on Stalinism in the 1930s and 40s?

The answer is he "belongs" to John Pilger, Tim Blair, Gummo Trotsky the pseudonymous captain of a fictitious clapped-out tug boat and to Professor Bunyip, a mythical Australian animal inhabiting a metaphorical billabong. He belongs to everyone who has the price of a copy of Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1984 or Animal Farm. He belongs to anyone who has membership in a Public Library. He belongs to everyone who can read. And he belongs to no-one.

So I'm going to resign from the game of defending Orwell's ghost from those who would abuse his writing by quoting him out of context regardless of which side of the political spectrum they want to place themselves on. Orwell's writings are there for anyone who can get a hold of them and that is the way it should be. Professor Bunyip has read Orwell and so have I. In my case it helped form an attitude and a set of political opinions that make me identifiably "left-wing". In Bunyip's case it seems to have done the opposite.

Right now, that's my position on Orwell. I've read him, extensively but years ago. His writings have informed a lot of my political opinions. But no hyperlinks and above all no quotes: I'm well and truly sick of that part of the fight over the Orwell heritage. Read him for yourself. Form your own opinions. You'll get no "I understand Orwell but you obviously don't" from me. I'm sick of that too.


Sunday, 15 December 2002

We seem to have lost access to the Potemkin's archive temporarily. They're still there, just not accessible on the site.

This might be a good time to put the blogging in abeyance for a short time, while I write some system specs (never my favourite task) and cut some Perl code. I might start with a functional spec for a new blog site.

Update: no, they appear to be back again. Double bugger, because now I'll have to spend the next few days doing something productive.

Give 'em Muck

Sunday, 15 December 2002

Before I learned that it was not correct line, I used to annoy my lefty acquaintances of university days with remarks about how funny I had found last Sunday night's Benny Hill Show. There's one skit of Benny's that I've recently remembered: in it, he plays a television producer on the telephone to a writer called Will. We never see Will, just Benny responding to Will's story ideas which he rejects one after another because the viewers might not like them. Such as the one about the black war hero who is married to a white woman, whom he kills at the end of the story. This is an idea that the viewers are definitely not ready for, but above all, they really want to see a happy ending. Which rules out the plays of William Shakespeare as television fare.

Which makes you wonder why Will ever wrote them in the first place: surely he knew that all those plays, (technically known as tragedies) where all the stars are dead at the end of the show with only a minor character or two to provide a eulogy, weren't going to play in Stratford-On-Avon (Elizabethan England's Peoria) no matter how many bits of comic business he inserted to get the groundlings through the box-office turnstiles. Apparently he woke up to himself at some stage in his writing career, because he seems to have turned out a lot of comedies too. Including The Merry Wives of Windsor which (so I read somewhere) was written at the behest of Good Queen Bess herself.

I can only speculate about how Will might have felt about this: did he ever have a quiet bitch to Anne Hathaway or Mr WH about how the punters only ever wanted to see the bloody comedies, never the serious stuff? Were there ever any stand-up rows with other members of the company about changes to the script to make them more acceptable to the populace? I don't know, nor I suspect does anyone else, because this is the kind of stuff that rarely makes it into any sort of written record. Although there are signs that this is changing, as this page that I found via Catallaxy shows.

Yes, this post is about that article by Fiona Scott-Norman and her allegedly elitist slur against the producers of Cabaret and popular culture in general. Because there are some serious points in here article and Scott-Norman's final question is a serious one: what sort of culture do we want? And is the assumption, made from Dame Nellie onwards, that we want muck true? Asking questions like these doesn't strike me as an elitist position, nor is making the assertion that we don't want muck. This bricklayer's son certainly doesn't.

A Quick Lesson in Lit Crit

Sunday, 14 December 2002

The Bunyip has noticed the existence of the Potemkin, which is hardly surprising, since we've sailed up the Biliousblog a couple of times to ram it in the snout. The Professor asserts, correctly, that I disapprove of his take on Orwell. This is because I reckon the "take on Orwell" is not about Orwell at all, but a take on Margo Kingston, dressed up as a defence of Orwell's decency against misappropriation and abuse by naughty incompetent and above all lefty journalists.

Today, the Bunyip links to this article by Fiona Scott-Norman in the Melbourne Age. It's made him very grumpy, particularly this sentence:

But though McCune doesn't overly register on stage, her wholesome star power makes her the engine room: she's able to attract that mythical, most desired audience demographic - people from the suburbs who don't know anything about art but are willing to fork out $85 to see someone from the telly live on stage. [my emphasis].

The words I've emphasised are conveniently elided in the Bunyip's blog on the article, where it is quoted as:

But though [leading lady Lisa] McCune doesn't overly register on stage, her wholesome star power makes her the engine room: she's able to attract ... people from the suburbs who don't know anything about art but are willing to fork out $85 to see someone from the telly live on stage.

I pass over in silence a number of other misrepresentations of Ms Scott-Norman's review. Dishonest intellectualism? I suggest that you take the Professor's advice apropos Orwell and read all the material for yourself before you decide.