• "The pagent is vast, and I clutch at tiny details, inadequate" Dorothea Lange

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chris Hedges on the death of Tomas Young

Tomas Young with his wife, Claudia Cuellar, in March 2013.Creditphoto by Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star, via Associated Press
"Young hung on as long as he could. Now he is gone. He understood what the masters of war had done to him, how he had been used and turned into human refuse" 
Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges writes about the death of Tomas Young on November 10, 2014, who was one of the first US veterans to speak out publicly against the war. Young was a 34 year old veteran of the bloody US led war in Iraq who was shot and paralyzed below the waist in Iraq in April 2004.

Hedges writes:
his final months were marked by a desperate battle to ward off the horrific pain that wracked his broken body and by the callous indifference of a government that saw him as part of the disposable human fodder required for war.............................................................. We must grieve for Tomas Young, for all the severely wounded men and women hidden from view, suffering their private torments in claustrophobic rooms, for their families, for the hundreds of thousands of civilians that have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, for our own complicity in these wars. We must grieve for a nation that has lost its way, blinded by the psychosis of permanent war, that kills human beings across the globe as if they were little more than insects. It is a waste. We will leave defeated from Iraq and Afghanistan; we will leave burdened with the expenditure of trillions of dollars and responsible for mounds of corpses and ruined nations. Young, and here is the tragedy of it, was sacrificed for nothing. Only the masters of war, those who have profited from the rivers of blood, rejoice. And they know the dead cannot speak.
In October 2013 while contemplating suicide, Young sent an impassioned letter to George. W. Bush and other US leaders responsible for the Iraq War, in which he wrote:
My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Remembering Siev X and all those who died in the ocean off the WA coast

Thirteen years have passed since the sinking of the asylum seeker vessel designated Siev X, in which three hundred and fifty-three people, including 146 children, 142 women and 65 men drowned when the boat sank en route to Christmas Island on October 19, 2001.

The disaster has never been officially investigated and serious questions remain about Australia's role in and knowledge of the sinking. 

The Australian writer Arnold Zable published this article in the Age this week to remember the sinking, and Amal Basry, one of 45 people who, along with her son Amjed, survived that terrible event.

When the boat sank, Basry was separated from her son and spent 20 hours in the water clinging to a corpse, surrounded by the floating bodies of dead children and adults, all the time expecting to die with the others. She was rescued by an Indonesian fishing boat and begged them to search for her son Amjed. He was the last survivor found.

In his article Arnold Zable wrote:
She told the tale of the sinking many times, with  audiences ranging from one listener to a Melbourne town hall packed with more than 2000. She would get out of her sick bed to tell it.  She spoke of the "children like little birds floating on the water". She was condemned to bear witness. In a cruel irony Amal died of cancer in 2006. Her tale is a reminder of the courage it takes to risk the seas in search of a new life free of oppression. 
The broadcaster Phillip Adams also remembered those who died in his weekly column in the Murdoch empire propaganda rag known as The Australian. He wrote:
This one sank in waters that Brandis-speak might describe as "disputed". International waters but within Indonesia's search-and-rescue responsibility, and also within Australia's aerial border protection surveillance zone. The Indonesians failed the victims of SIEV X, but so did we. We claimed ignorance and poor weather as excuses for failing to identify or help the stricken vessel. 
The subsequent Senate Select Committee inquiry into "a certain maritime incident" (as bizarre a euphemism as any ever coined by a bureaucracy) mainly focused on a different scandal – "children overboard" – but its terms of reference extended to SIEV X. The report was unflinching in its findings. "It is extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision-making circles."
The boat known as Siev X set out in the pre-dawn darkness of October 18, 2001 from a Sumatran port with 421 asylum seekers on board. It was a rickety overcrowded, unseaworthy boat, bound for Australia. It was the height of the Howard's government manufactured "war" on refugees. At 3.10pm the following day, the boat, now known as SIEV-X, capsized and sank somewhere between the two countries with a terrible loss of life - 353 of the asylum-seekers drowned, including 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. 

The Australian government claimed it had no prior knowledge of the unfolding tragedy. Yet ministers and senior officials from the beginning mislead the Australian Senate and the community over important questions. What did the government and its agencies know about the boat and its fate, and when? Did we have any responsibility for the tragedy? Did we have a duty of care to save the survivors?
At the time Tony Kevin was one of the few people asking questions about the sinking and the Australian Government's knowledge and involvement. 

Tony's award winning book A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of Siev X is the definitive work on the sinking (as is the website and the documentary Hope.

Marg Hutton (who established and runs the website along with Tony Kevin, were largely responsible for uncovering and telling the story of Siev X and keeping the investigation alive when all around them wanted to deny and hide the truth. 

In this piece to commemorate the 2013 anniversary of the sinking, Marg Hutton wrote:

I know of 16 instances of people travelling alone or in family groups on SIEVX who were trying to reunite with other family members already here. When SIEVX foundered there were at least seven men living in Australia on TPVs whose entire families were washed away. 

For those bereaved men whose families were annihilated, SIEVX was a weight too massive to shoulder and inflicted a wound too deep to heal. As survivor Sadeq Al Albodie wrote: 'We continue to suffer. The tragedy was too big. We have seen the deaths of children and women parading between the waves. Our lives have been severely narrowed by what happened to us.' 

As testament to what the human spirit can survive, some of the bereaved husbands and fathers have married again and now have young families. The loss they endured is always present — it is not something they will ever recover from, but their lives go on. So there are now young kids growing up in Australia, who were born here and speak with Australian accents, who had brothers and sisters who drowned on SIEVX. 

SIEVX is not only a huge Australian tragedy, it is also an international one. Philip Ruddock, Immigration Minister in 2001 when news broke of the sinking, was unmoved by the plight of the survivors. Ruddock refused to provide visas to the 45 survivors and only accepted seven into Australia because to do otherwise, he claimed, would encourage more people to embark on similar dangerous journeys. 

Survivors were split up and resettled in far away countries including Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand. While all of the 23 'early survivors' who departed SIEVX the day before it sunk were eventually settled in Australia it was only after a gruelling wait of many years, despite the fact that most had family connections here. 

There were other cruelties meted out by our government to the survivors and bereaved of SIEVX. Sondos Ismail was travelling on SIEVX with her three young daughters, Eman, Fatima and Zhara to join her husband Ahmed Al Zalimi in Australia. Sondos survived the sinking but her three girls drowned. Her husband was unable to go to her because of the restrictions of his temporary protection visa — if he left the country he was not permitted to return and Philip Ruddock refused to bend the rules to help the couple.

Despite pleas to the government, five months passed before husband and wife were reunited in Australia. And even then their suffering at the hands of our authorities continued. In 2003 it was reported that Ahmed would be returned to Iraq when his visa expired. Thanks to a concerted community campaign this did not eventuate, but the needless pressure exerted on the couple who had already suffered so much, could not have assisted their recovery. 

When Ahmed was interviewed in July this year — the first time he had spoken publicly about SIEVX — he made it clear that the tragedy continues to torment his family: 'It is very very difficult to talk about there is a lot I can't say, my wife is still so depressed and it's been 12 years.' 

Australia's response to the SIEVX sinking is in stark contrast to how the Italian government responded to the recent tragedy off Lampedusa, where a similar huge number of asylum seekers lost their lives. Italy declared a day of national mourning and is reportedly providing state funerals for all 359 victims.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday's poems: Zbigniew Herbert

"Let us detach ourselves a little from this truly horrible everyday reality and try to write about doubt, anxiety, and despair"
Zbigniew Herbert

"It is vanity to think that one can influence the course of history by writing poetry. It is not the barometer that changes the weather.

"Zbigniew Herbert

"This poetry is about the pain of the twentieth century, about accepting the cruelty of an inhuman age, about an extraordinary sense of reality. And the fact that at the same time the poet loses none of his lyricism or his sense of humor - this is the unfathomable secret of a great artist." 
Adam Zagajewski

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) is one of Poland's most influential and celebrated poets. 

During WW2 he fought in the Polish resistance against the Nazis and in post war Poland he opposed Communist ideology, a risky position for a poet and citizen. During the 60's and 70's he refused to submit his poetry to the Communist Government, with the result that his work was not published till the 1980's and then in underground publications.

From Mr Cogito on a Set Topic: "Friends Depart"
with the inexorable
passing of years
his count of friends

they went off
in pairs
in groups
one by one
some paled like wafers
lost earthly dimensions
and suddenly
or gradually
to the sky

I Would Like to Describe
Zbigniew Herbert

I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun 

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin
but apparently this is not possible

and just to say -- I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness
which after all is not made of water
asks the water for a face
and anger 
different from fire
borrows from it
a loquacious tongue

so is blurred
so is blurred
in me
what white-haired gentlemen
separated once and for all
and said
this is the subject
and this is the object 

we fall asleep 
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets
our feet abandon us
and taste the earth
with their tiny roots
which next morning
we tear out painfully

From "Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert";

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Phillip Pullman and the "greedy ghost of market fundamentalism"

"there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about.. things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight"   Phillip Pullman
This speech by the British novelist and writer Phiilip Pullman describes the 'greedy ghost of market fundamentalism' that haunts the offices, meeting rooms and conference rooms of Governments all over the world. 
Pullman describes how everything that sustains the fabric of a decent society and of communities is destroyed by the onslaught of the market fundamentalists and their acolytes. 
He is right. A great speech.
 "And it always results in victory for one side and defeat for the other. It’s set up to do that. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. 
Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”
Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days"

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Saturday's poem in musical mode: Alfred Noyes The Highwayman

Alfred Noyes long narrative poem The Highwayman has long fascinated me.  

Like many others I learned to recite the poem at primary school and remain captivated by the poems rhythmic cadences and vivid imagery.  

The poem was written by Noyes at the turn of the 20th Century and is set in 18th century England. The poem  tells the story of a highwayman and his lover Bess, the landlord's (innkeeper) daughter. The Highwayman is betrayed to the authorities who take Bess hostage and wait in ambush for him. Bess sacrifices her life to warn him. 

Learning of her death he dies in a futile attempt at revenge, shot down on the highway. The final stanza tells us that the ghosts of the lovers meet again on winter nights.

The poem has also been turned into song, most notably (and successfully) by Loreena McKennitt and Andy Irvine.

A live version by Loreena McKennit is here

The Highwayman 
Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) 
                       PART ONE 
    THE wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
    The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
    The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
    And the highwayman came riding—
    The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door. 

    He'd a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
    A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
    They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
    And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
                      His pistol butts a-twinkle,
    His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky. 

    Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
    And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
    He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
    But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
                      Bess, the landlord's daughter,
    Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair. 

    And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
    Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
    His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
    But he loved the landlord's daughter,
                      The landlord's red-lipped daughter,
    Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say— 

    "One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I'm after a prize to-night,
    But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
    Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
    Then look for me by moonlight,
                      Watch for me by moonlight,
    I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way." 

    He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
    But she loosened her hair i' the casement! His face burnt like a brand
    As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
    And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
                      (Oh, sweet, black waves in the moonlight!)
    Then he tugged at his rein in the moonliglt, and galloped away to the West. 

                                        PART TWO 
    He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
    And out o' the tawny sunset, before the rise o' the moon,
    When the road was a gypsy's ribbon, looping the purple moor,
    A red-coat troop came marching—
    King George's men came matching, up to the old inn-door. 

    They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
    But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed;
    Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
    There was death at every window;
                      And hell at one dark window;
    For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride. 

    They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
    They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
    "Now, keep good watch!" and they kissed her.
                      She heard the dead man say—
    Look for me by moonlight;
                      Watch for me by moonlight;
    I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way! 

    She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
    She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
    They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,
    Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
                      Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
    The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers! 

    The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for the rest!
    Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
    She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
    For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
                      Blank and bare in the moonlight;
    And the blood of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love's refrain . 

        Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs ringing clear;
    Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
    Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
    The highwayman came riding,
                      Riding, riding!
    The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still! 

    Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
    Nearer he came and nearer! Her face was like a light!
    Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
    Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
                      Her musket shattered the moonlight,
    Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death. 

    He turned; he spurred to the West; he did not know who stood
    Bowed, with her head o'er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
    Not till the dawn he heard it, his face grew grey to hear
    How Bess, the landlord's daughter,
                      The landlord's black-eyed daughter,
    Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there. 

    Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
    With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
    Blood-red were his spurs i' the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
    When they shot him down on the highway,
                      Down like a dog on the highway,
    And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat. 

                  *           *           *           *           *           * 
    And still of a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
    When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
    When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
    A highwayman comes riding—
    A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

    Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
    He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred;
    He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
    But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
                      Bess, the landlord's daughter,
    Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.


Friday, September 26, 2014

South of My Days: Veronica Brady's beautiful biography of Judith Wright, Australia's finest poet

".....for Wright the truth of existence does not consist in reflection on commitment to it, but is to be found in the commitment itself: for her humanity and nature also are not and never have been something general, but are individual and singular. They demand personal response and commitment. That, I believe, is why her life has been so deeply involved with the pain of the world and of people but also why few have written so powerfully as she has done about the intensities and splendours of love, child-bearing and relationships with others and the living world around us.
Veronica Brady from an article on writing the life of Judith Wright

"Although strong in her denunciation of economic rationalist principles that were undermining the social fabric of Australian life in the eighties and nineties, she remained committed to a world of other possibilities--to see "what the human eye was meant to see /. . . knowing the human ends in the divine" (Vision). Integral to this vision is a profound respect for the sacred dimensions of ordinary life and ordinary Australians: "Living is a dailiness, a simple bread / that's worth the eating" (Grace). The ethical and gracious sense of human dignity is integral to her worldview. Artist and activist, poet and prophet, Judith Wright's images have become part of the fabric of our nation. She is the political poet dancing between the mystical experience and the demands of justice."
Gerard Hall on Judith Wright
Regular readers will know of my profound love and respect for the poetry of Australian poet Judith Wright who I believe is Australia's finest poet. 

Previous blog pieces on Judith Wright are here.

I am currently re-reading for the "umpteenth" time South of My Days  Veronica Brady's masterly biography of Judith Wright, published in 1998, just 2 years before her death. 

Brady does a wonderful job of telling the story of Judith Wright, considered by many to be Australia's finest poet.

I am always deeply moved by this book.

One reason is Judith Wright's profound and beautiful poetry which is quoted extensively in the book. Partly, it is also the inspirational life of Judith Wright- her social and environmental activism, her integrity, the dignity and humility with which she lived her life, her commitment to the ideals of justice and her uniquely Australian world view.

But my enjoyment of this book is also attributable to Veronica Brady, who in telling the life story of Judith Wright displays deep understanding, reverence and respect for the life and work of her subject.

It is particularly intriguing to re-read this book in light of Fiona Capp's book My Blood's Countrya memoir of her friendship with Judith Wright and a journey through the landscapes which inspired  Judith Wright. 

In Fiona Capp's book (and in earlier articles) she and the writer Nonnie Sharp wrote for the first time about the 25 year long relationship between Judith Wright and H.C. (Nugget) Coombs, which remained a secret to the public long after both their deaths.

In her biography, Veronica Brady choose not to reveal the exact nature of the relationship between Judith Wright and Nugget Coombs, clearly out of respect for Judith Wright's privacy and her wish to keep the relationship private.  Instead, Brady referred to their relationship as a long and close friendship.

In a recent article in the Australian journal Australian Historical Studies, the distinguished historian Jill Roe writes of the dilemma facing biographers like Veronica Brady, whose subjects are still alive. Roe writes:
Likewise many were surprised to learn of the depth and longevity of the recently revealed relationship between poet and environmentalist Judith Wright and ‘Nugget’ Coombs, which biographer Veronica Brady had described simply as a friendship in South of My Days, published in 1998, two years before Wright’s death. Maybe the time was not ripe to discuss such a delicate issue. In any event, it is a reminder that writing about a living person has its own problems. It is not just the subject’s reputation that must be considered, but the effect the treatment might have on the lives of significant others.
In her article Judith Wright's Biography: A Delicate Balance between Trespass and Honor Veronica Brady gives some insight into the challenges of telling the life story of such a public figure as Judith Wright.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The criminality of excessive executive salaries

Excellent  article by Raewyn Connell on the need to expose and challenge the theft and plunder perpetrated by corporate executives. 

Connell writes:
"The very top corporate managers now sit on top of a tall tree of bonuses and incentives, which have become an institutionalised and expected part of income. (Board remuneration committees scrutinise “comparators,” and executive search firms compile the data). Inside this world, it seems common sense that the top managers’ bonuses and incentives should be higher than all the rest. How could it be otherwise? That would be an insult to the most excellent.

There is also an effect of the “financialisation” of modern capitalism – the growth of finance capital, and its hegemony over the industrial and agricultural capital that ruled the roost in other eras.

The mind-boggling scale and reach of contemporary financial markets hasn’t exactly replaced other forms of economic activity – we still produce the goods and services. But it has changed the frame of reference for corporate elites. They now live in a world where gigantic profits are often made without any commitment to productive investment, and where financial operations constantly impinge on industrial, mining and trading corporations. Even inside corporations, the separation of control from operations has grown. The new head of Rio Tinto, Sam Walsh, made his mark by automating the firm’s iron ore operations in the Pilbara, locating the control rooms down in Perth. (And happily eliminating part of the Pilbara workforce.)

Inevitably the point of comparison for corporate managers shifts from their own businesses to the world of international finance. At the same time, the financialisation of the business world makes the elite packages, of which the larger part is almost always the bonuses and incentives rather than the simple salary, easier to pay and more normal in appearance.

These trends are not the whole explanation of the great rise in executive incomes, but they are a considerable part of it. The neoliberal era, almost everywhere in the world, has seen rising levels of economic inequality. In the developing world, neoliberalism has meant increased unemployment and massive growth in the informal economy. In rich countries there is some informalisation but also a sustained squeeze on welfare incomes (the removal of sole parents’ benefit is a recent Australian example). There are growing gaps in the wage structure, and a much less progressive tax system than a generation ago. Corporate executives are among the most spectacular beneficiaries of this society-wide process.

To put it in a nutshell, the corporate managers are not earning wages. Markets have little to do with it. They are building fortunes. Their organisational power enables them to claim a share of the expanding financialised capital in the modern economy, and convert part of that share into extremely high incomes. Within an environment of privilege, this claim becomes a matter of common sense and routine. And though there are many critics of the result – the anti-globalisation movement, the Occupy movement, and some of the unions – there is not at present any social force that has been able to reverse it.
Connell's arguments remind me of those of criminologist David Friederichs who argues that the corporate culture and practices that provide for and justify excessive executive compensation for corporate executives not only creates what he calls "crimogenic conditions" but are likely to lead to the taking of money that belongs to others.

In a paper titled "Exorbitant CEO compensation: Just reward or grand theft" in the Journal Crime, Law and Social Change  David Friedrichs argues that executive compensation packages should be considered as a form of white collar crime.

For Friederichs it is time to criminalize this behaviour. He calls it a form of robbery:
""Walking into a bank with a gun and demanding money from a teller is one way to steal money... Walking into a corporate boardroom and securing from the board's compensation committee, made up of cronies, paid consultants, and even relatives, compensation of millions sometimes tens of millions or hundreds of millions is another way to steal money. The principal differences are that the second way of stealing money pays much better, is all too often legal, and does not result in criminal prosecution and imprisonment. This needs to change"
The practices of excessive executive compensation are viewed as standard business practice rather than as part of a spectrum of corporate criminal behaviour that goes unrecognized and unpunished. 

That is how corporate power works. It redefines reality to serve corporate and private interests.

As both Connell and Friederichs argue its time to challenge that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Remembering the vision of Tom Wills

"I'm shunned and ignored
by the mighty who preside
I'll not curry for their favour
I'll not bootlick at their side
I'll be gone with those who knew me well
My dark friends have died in their own sad hours"
Neil Murray song Tom Wills Would

"I think the answer lies in the fact that his story contains such a broad range of factors from our collective past"
Martin Flangan on Tom Wills

"I often think that, although he was a cricketer and created this Aboriginal cricket team, that this act of his creating the team, was one of our first great acts of national healing between white and black Australians"
Greg de Moore on Tom Wills

The juggernaut of the commercialized and corporatised version of AFL Foootball is thankfully coming to a close after 8 months. Next week is the Grand Final and large swathes of the nation will stop for a couple of hours to watch that game.  Australian Rules Football is a uniquely Australian sport, played no where else in the world.

For the millions watching the AFL Finals the name Tom Wills (1835-1880) won't mean much. Which is a pity. Wills was one of the founders of the game and perhaps its first superstar. Wills also understood and lived with the consequences of the profundity of this country's history of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations, an experience embedded in the Australian psyche.

The Australian writer Martin Flanagan calls Tom Wills a uniquely Australian legend whose story draws together many elements of our national and collective past.  Greg de Moore (who wrote a biography of Wills) and Martin Flanagan both note that Wills was one of the early pioneers who acted to heal the wounds caused by Australia's racist history.

Tom Wills was born in Western Victoria and went to the UK for schooling. There he played first class cricket and on his return to the colonies in 1857 captained Victoria in cricket. Wills was the leading cricketer in the colony and was instrumental in establishing cricket matches between the colonies.

In 1858 Wills proposed an "activity" to keep cricketers fit off-season, and in 1859 called a meeting to form football teams. Wills was instrumental in writing the rules of  what become Australian rules football and was coach, umpire and one of the leading players in the competition. He was instrumental in forming teams all over Melbourne and Geelong. Wills was also one of the dominant players in the competition.

In 1861 Wills moved to Northern Queensland to work on his father's property. Wills had been there just three weeks when a party of Aboriginals killed nineteen of the group, including Tom's father in one of the biggest massacre of whites by blacks in Australian history. Tom was away from the property at the time.

Martin Flangan writes that in the retributive raids that followed, three times as many blacks were killed.

The events left a profound legacy. Despite the massacre of his father and friends Wills had a deep relationship with Aboriginal people in Queensland and Melbourne. He spoke the language of the Tjapwurrung people from west Victoria where he grew up.

Upon his return to Melbourne Wills  continued to play football and cricket playing his last first-class match in 1876, at the age of 40. 

Six years after the massacre, Tom Wills captained the Aboriginal cricket team that became the first Australian cricket team to tour England. Most of the Aboriginal cricketers were Jardwadjali men from western Victoria. Their language was almost the same as the Tjapwurrung people which Wills spoke. On Boxing Day 1866, Tom Wills captained the Australian Native XI at the MCG. 

However, psychological trauma from the massacre combined with his alcoholism took its toll  and Wills developed delirium tremors from alcoholism, extreme delusions and night terrors. After a stay in the Kew Asylum he was admitted to Royal Melbourne Hospital in May 1880 and shortly afterwards escaped. Within days Wills committed suicide by stabbing a pair of scissors through his heart. He was just 44.

The Australian singer songwriter Neil Murray has written a fine tribute titled Tom Wills Would.

Greg de Moore's biography of Tom Wills is titled Tom Wills: His spectacular rise and fall.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

In memory of Jimmy Scott (1925-2014): one of the finest singers of all time

“I’ve been called a queer, a little girl, an old woman, a freak, and a fag. As a singer, I’ve been criticized for sounding feminine. They say I don’t belong in any category, male or female, pop or jazz. But early on, I saw my suffering as my salvation.”

Jimmy Scott 

from his biography “Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott" written by David Ritz.

Jimmy Scott, who possessed one of the most most amazing singing voices in American jazz and popular music, died this week aged 88.

Scott was once described in the New York Times as “perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century.”

Jimmy Scott sang with a high-pitched voice and a deep understanding of lyrics. He sang at slow tempos and elongated vowels, bringing fresh emotional meaning to songs. Listening to his songs has a haunting effect.

The jazz critic Will Friedwald wrote:
“Yet there’s a deeper question than even that, one which defies any attempt at a reasonable explanation, and it is, how does Jimmy Scott move us so deeply and profoundly?”
Listening to his haunting and spine chilling version of the song Nothing Compares to You, made famous by Sinead O'Connor, confirms the accuracy of Friewald's comments.

Scott's career was marked by hard luck, sorrow and decades of neglect. He found fame in the 1940's and 1950's, but after contractual disputes, his career floundered and he was forced to work as a lift operator and care attendant before his revival in the 1990's, by the time he was well into his sixties. 

Scott continued to perform well into his 80's, often singing in a wheelchair.

The singer songwriter and producer Joe Henry wrote this on his Facebook page:
jimmy possessed a voice so unique that most every description of his artistry begins with an attempt to dispel its mystery; but it was not something to be unraveled; rather, a divine instrument that one follows like a light out of darkness, the rhythmic invention of his phrasing so supple and sublime that it ran like water uphill as well as down. 
i had the opportunity to produce two songs for jimmy a few years ago; and though they have yet to be heard publicly, they stand as work i am as proud of as any music in which i have ever participated: a sacred morning in my basement where nearly every one stood silently in tears, as the first song played back. 
all except jimmy, that is; who simply beamed and nodded, waved me over, pulled my ear close to his lips, and said, "oh, let's just stay down here all day!"

Articles in memory of Jimmy Scott are here, here, here, here, here and here.