Thursday, August 27, 2015

The poetry of Anna Swir

In Czeslaw Milosz's International Poetry Anthology A Book of Luminous Things  I read the poetry of Polish poet Anna Swir (Anna Swirszcynska).

It is revelatory.

This is sophisticated and powerful poetry without the rhetorical embellishment that characterizes so much of what passes as poetry. This is poetry that is purposeful, direct, simple and with a profound reverence for life.

Anna Swir was a Polish poet (1909-1984) whose poetry was shaped by her experience in the anti-Nazi resistance in Poland and the Warsaw Uprising during the Second World War.

Swir was arrested and faced a Nazi firing squad during the war, waiting 60 minutes to be executed.  As well as writing poetry for Polish resistance underground publications, Swir also worked as a military nurse, caring for the wounded during the Warsaw Uprising.

Many of her poems record the experiences and ravages of war, although it was 30 years after the war before Swir would write and publish the poems about her wartime experience.

As one reviewer notes those wartime experiences changed her poetry profoundly, bringing a concern for the value of the simplicity and immediacy of life.
He Was Lucky

An old man
leaves the house, carrying books.
A German soldier snatches the books
and throws them in the mud.

The old man picks up the books, 
the soldier hits him in the face.
The old man falls,
the soldier kicks him and walks away.

The old man
lies in mud and blood.
Underneath he feels 
the books.

A Conversation through the Door
At five in the morning
I knock on his door.
I say through the door:
In the hospital at Sliska Street
your son, a soldier, is dying.

He half-opens the door,
does not remove the chain.
Behind him his wife

I say: your son asks his mother
to come.
He says: the mother won't come.
Behind him the wife

I say: the doctor allowed us
to give him wine.
He says: please wait.

He hands me a bottle through the door,
locks the door,
locks the door with a second key.

Behind the door his wife
begins to scream as if she were in labor.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)
He was fifteen,
the best student of Polish.
He ran at the enemy
with a pistol.
Then he saw the eyes of a man,
and should’ve fired into those eyes.
He hesitated.
He’s lying on the pavement.
They didn’t teach him
in Polish class
to shoot into the eyes of a man.
In her later works Swir writes explicitly about women's lives, women's bodies and their sexual lives. She writes with directness and intensity about the body as both an object of desire and of suffering. There are few poets who write as beautifully and directly about erotic love and the way desire shapes our lives.
I'll Open the Window

Our embrace lasted too long.
We loved right down to the bone.
I hear the bones grind, I see
our two skeletons.

Now I am waiting
till you leave, till
the clatter of your shoes
is heard no more. Now, silence.

Tonight I am going to sleep alone
on the bedclothes of purity.
is the first hygienic measure.
will enlarge the walls of the room,
I will open the window
and the large, frosty air will enter,
healthy as tragedy.
Human thoughts will enter
and human concerns,
misfortune of others, saintliness of others.
They will converse softly and sternly.

Do not come anymore.
I am an animal
very rarely.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

The First Madrigal

That night of love was pure
as an antique musical instrument
and the air around it.

as a ceremony of coronation.
It was fleshy as a belly of a woman in labor
and spiritual
as a number.

It was only a moment of life
and it wanted to be a conclusion drawn from life.
By dying
it wanted to comprehend the principle of the world.

That night of love
had ambitions

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bruce Levine: the class and economic basis of the the US Civil War

Currently I am reading Bruce Levine's book The Fall of the House of Dixie about the US Civil War and the revolution that transformed the country through the collapse of slavery, the  destruction of the old South and the reunification of the country that emerged from the Civil War.

At the same time, the online radical leftist magazine Jacobin has devoted its current edition to a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Union victory in the Civil War and the antislavery Emancipation Proclamation and an analysis of some contemporary implications. Bruce Levine has an article in that edition.

Levine writes that the Civil War was undeniably a class war. The southern political and economic elite exercised unprecedented financial and political power. They controlled the farms, banks, legislatures and Southern culture. The 50 leading Southern planters each owned more than 500 other human beings.

Levine shows how the war was primarily about preserving their wealth, power and privilege and protecting the economic and social and cultural systems built around slavery that created and sustained that wealth and power.

Levine writes that the Civil War was:
 ‘a rich man’s war’ . . . waged principally by poorer men and sustained by the privation of their families.’

 Levin writes how the Southern elite framed their message of white supremacy to appeal to mass audience. Levine argues that Southern secession advocates:

 “mobilized sections of the white South’s slaveless majority by presenting their cause less as a defense of slavery than as a defense of the South’s prerogatives, honor, mores, and right to govern itself.’’

Levine calls this transformation of the country through the abolition of slavery "the second American revolution." As he notes in the Jacobin article, the revolution however was notoriously incomplete:

It is true that during the 1870s and afterward, champions of white supremacy succeeded through a vicious terror campaign in denying former slaves and their descendants many of the rights that they had won in the war’s immediate aftermath. The brutally oppressive Jim Crow system that was then created remained in full force down past the middle of the twentieth century. 

 A reviewer of the book makes similar points:

Within a generation, the remnants of the Southern white aristocracy found common cause with their poor white brethren to subjugate the blacks once more through Jim Crow laws that thwarted the newly liberated. It would take the better part of another century of struggle to make fresh progress in redeeming Lincoln's original promise

Levine argues that slavery could well have lasted into the 20th century, and that it was, in fact, the Confederacy that hastened slavery's end. He suggests that while the South launched the war to preserve slavery, the Civil War in fact destroyed it more quickly than the natural course of events would have.

 "In taking what they assumed to be a defensive position in support of slavery the leaders of the Confederacy ... radically hastened its eradication."

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Remembering the work of music producer Bob Johnston (1932-2015)

photo courtesy of Rolling Stone/Al Clayton/Courtesy of Country Music Hall of Fame
Anyone who has a record (or CD) by Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen or Johnny Cash  is a beneficiary of the work of music producr Bob Johnston who died last week aged 83.

Johnston was a guiding force behind some of the best known records by those artists.

American singer-songwriter Joe Henry (who has appeared on this blog before) has written a fine tribute to Bob Johnston "Is it rolling Bob?': Remembering Bob Johnston".

Henry has written:

More than any other single practitioner of that post, Johnston helped give shape, heft and durability to some of the most transformative American music of the past five decades, framing the sounds and intentions of an era — when invention was valued on par with accessibility; lines were confused and maps were being redrawn — and helping to foster a culture of autonomy and liberation for visionary artists that remains vital to this day, and continues to evolve.

As a staff producer for Columbia Records (and then as a free agent) Bob Johnston was a guiding force behind the artists on his watch — playing priest and lifeguard, counselor and agitator to such standard-bearers and upstarts as Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Byrds, to name a scant few.

Joe Henry reminds us that it was Bob Johnston who stood up to music executives threatening Johnny Cash's career over his plans to make live albums at maximum security prisons Folsom and San Quentin. Both albums were ground-breaking and highly successful.

Johnston produced the early breakout albums for Simon & Garfunkel including Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme

Johnston was instrumental in the early career of  Leonard Cohen, producing his breakout second album Songs of Love and Hate. Henry writes:

Once in the studio together, Johnston pushed Cohen's weary and soulful vocals far into the foreground, allowing each song's story and its teller to trump the weather of whatever else might musically be happening around it. He insisted that the guarded Cohen fully inhabit his own authority as a poetic songwriter and transcendent performer. Following the studio sessions, Johnston was charged with assembling a touring band that could conjure in concert the mystic quality of the recorded songs, and said simply of his criteria that he wanted only, "people who look up — I didn't want anybody looking down." 

But it was Bob Dylan where Johnston had his greatest impact. Johnston produced 7 albums for Dylan from the mid 1960's including Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Naomi Shihab Nye: connecting up disparate events in distance places

photo of Naomi Shihab Nye and family (courtesy of Washington Post and Naomi Shihab Nye)

'Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles a truck on the front page.   
Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root   
is too big for us. What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed,
table mat stitched in blue.
I call my father, we talk around the news.   
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,   
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized? Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?'
final two stanzas from Blood by Naomi Shihab Nye

The evocative poetry of Namoi Shihab Nye appears regularly on this blog.

Naomi Shihab Nye is a Texas based, Palestinian-American poet, writer and author who is the daughter of a Palestinian born father and an American mother.

She recently published an opinion piece in the Washington Post  about her childhood and family life in  Ferguson Missouri and Jerusalem, in which she connects up events in Palestine with those in Ferguson (the US city where massive protests and riots followed the police killing of Black teenager Michael Brown  in 2014).

I grew up in Ferguson, Mo.  No one ever heard of it, unless you lived elsewhere in St. Louis County.
Then my family moved to Palestine – my father’s first home. A friend says, “Your parents really picked the garden spots.”
In Ferguson, an invisible line separated white and black communities. In Jerusalem, a no-man’s land separated people, designated by barbed wire.


My father and his family became refugees in 1948, when the state of Israel was created. They lost everything but their lives and memories. Disenfranchised Palestinians ended up in refugee camps or scattered around the world. My dad found himself in Kansas, then moved to Missouri with his American bride. He seemed a little shell-shocked when I was a child.

Ferguson was a leafy green historic suburb with a gracious red brick elementary school called Central. I loved that school, attending kindergarten through sixth grade there. All my classmates were white, of various derivations – Italians, French-Canadians, etc….

At 12, I took a berry-picking job on “Missouri’s oldest organic farm” in Ferguson. I wanted the job because I had noticed that the other berry-pickers were all black boys. I’d always been curious about the kids living right down the road whom we hardly ever got to see…

Summer 2014, the news exploded…

Of course, we wished Hamas would stop sending reckless rockets into Israel, provoking oversized responses. Why didn’t the news examine those back stories more?

Oppression makes people do desperate things. I am frankly surprised the entire Palestinian population hasn’t gone crazy. If the U.S. can’t see that Palestinians have been mightily oppressed since 1948, they really are not interested in looking, are they? And we keep sending weapons and money to Israel, pretending we’d prefer peace.

We send weapons to Ferguson, too.'

In an recent interview  Naomi Shihab Nye stresses the responsibilities of writers and citizens to connect up events in disparate places to expose the exercise of unjust power and domination.

'I really did feel like I was hallucinating the whole summer with both Ferguson and Gaza in the news. I felt like if I didn’t say something, what kind of writer am I? If I don’t figure out some way to make a connection. Maybe the connection is slight, but I think the connection of domination and injustice is strong. My dad used to say Ferguson was a tinderbox waiting to explode. We asked him, “What is a tinderbox?”

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jack Davis and WA's forgotten history

"Write of life
the pious said
forget the past
the past is dead.
But all I see
in front of me
is a concrete floor
a cell door
and John Pat."

Jack Davis
John Pat

Jack Davis  (1917-2000) was a distinguished Noongar playwright, poet, author and campaigner for Aboriginal rights and is arguably Western Australia's finest poet.

His poetry calls out to us to remember the unwritten and forgotten history of Western Australia.

Davis's poem John Pat  is perhaps WA's most renowned poem and was written about the death in 1983 in a Roebourne police cell of John Pat, a 16 year old Aboriginal boy who died of head injuries alleged to have been caused in a disturbance between Aboriginal people and Police.

Four police were charged with manslaughter but acquitted. The death was the catalyst for the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Davis’s poem One Hundred and Fifty Years was written in protest at the non-inclusion of Aboriginal people in the celebration of 150 years of European settlement in Western Australia 1829-1979.

One Hundred and Fifty Years
by Jack Davis

I walked slowly along the river.
Old iron, broken concrete, rusted cans
scattered stark along the shore,
plastic strewn by man and tide
littered loudly mute on sparse growth
struggling to survive.
A flock of gulls quarrelled over debris,
a lone shag looked hopefully down at turgid water
and juggernauts of steel and stone made jigsaw
patterns against the city sky.

So now that the banners have fluttered,
the eulogies ended and the tattoos have rendered
the rattle of spears,
look back and remember the end of December
and one hundred and fifty years.

Three boys crackled past on trailbikes
long blond hair waving in the wind,
speedboats erupted power
while lesser craft surged along behind.
The breeze rustled a patch of bull-oak
reminding me of swan, bittern, wild duck winging-
now all alien to the river.
Sir John Forrest stood tall in stone
in St George’s Terrace,
gun across shoulder,
symbolic of what had removed
the river’s first children.

And that other river, the Murray,
where Western Australia’s
first mass murderer Captain Stirling,
trappings flashing, rode gaily
at the head of twenty-four men.
For an hour they fired
and bodies black, mutilated,
floated down the blood-stained stream.

So now that the banners have fluttered,
the eulogies ended and the tattoos have rendered
the rattle of spears,
look back and remember the end of December
and one hundred and fifty years.
[1] Davis, J (1988) John Pat and Other Poems, DENT, Melbourne 1988.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Is the Abbott Government the most incompetent Government in the last 40 years?

Disaster upon disaster consumes the Abbott Government, which is now described as the most incompetent Australian Government in 40 years. 

For the second time in 6 months the Prime Minister’s leadership is now under serious threat as a consequence of his aggressively partisan approach and inherent conservatism.

In Friday’s
AFR Laura Tingle describes along list of tactical disasters swirling around the Abbott Government, while in the Monthly Sean Kelly describes a Prime Minister lurching from crisis to crisis

The first Parliamentary week started badly with the PM forced to jettison Bronywn Bishop, his ‘captain’s pick’ as Parliamentary Speaker over an entitlements scandal that dragged on for weeks.

Polls released on Monday showed the Abbott Government trailing a struggling ALP by up to ten percentage points on a two party preferred basis

The PM’s handling of the same sex marriage debate
divided his Cabinet and alienated many of his Parliamentary supporters. His manoeuvring on same sex marriage was calculated to shore up support from his conservative base by quashing a conscience vote and preventing a private members bill from passing through Parliament.

Abbott roped in the Nationals to a 6 hour party meeting to discuss same sex marriage, prompting Christopher Pyne to label the PM’s action as ‘branch stacking’.

Abbott’s proposal of a ‘people’s vote’ is designed to prevent same sex marriage and created deep Cabinet divisions as Ministers argued in public about whether a referendum or plebiscite was the best strategy.

On Thursday came the devastating
revelations that Justice Dyson Heydon- the former High Court judge appointed by the Prime Minister to lead the Royal Commission into trade union corruption and governance and links with Australian Labour Party- was the headline attraction at a Liberal Party fundraiser.

 The revelations point to Heydon’s political allegiance that renders him potentially incapable of delivering Royal Commission findings perceived as unbiased.

 The revelations have damaged not just the credibility of the Royal Commission, but also the Government.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Miguel Hernandez: Wretched Wars

Wretched Wars

Wretched wars

when love is not our aim

wretched, wretched.


Wretched weapons

those that are not our words.

wretched, wretched.


Wretched men

that die not out of love

wretched, wretched.

Miguel Hernandez, Spanish poet (1910-1942)

Miguel Hernandez (1910-1942) was a 20th Century Spanish poet, playwright and political activist. Hernandez is one of the finest poets of the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and is recognized as one of the great Spanish poets.
During the Spanish Civil War Hernandez  campaigned against the fascist forces led by General Franco. He enrolled in the Fifth Regiment, part of the Republican forces fighting Franco and the Nationalists and joined the First Calvary Company as a cultural-affairs officer, reading his poetry daily on the radio. He traveled extensively organizing cultural events and reading his poetry at rallies and on the front lines to Republican forces  fighting the fascists. 
After the victory of Franco's fascists Hernandez and his family suffered terribly. He was arrested and imprisoned many times and eventually sentenced to death for his anti-fascist political activities and his poetry. The death sentence was commuted to 30 years imprisonment. The years of struggle and hardship and the harshness of his incarceration took its toll and he died in 1942 of tuberculosis.
Much of Hernandez's poetry was written during the destruction and terror of the Spanish Civil War.

His poetry is a direct result of the brutality of the conflict and subsequent savage reprisals and executions. He produced an immense amount of poetry during his imprisonment.
Hernandez's poetry and his example of committed political struggle against the forces of tyranny and injustice had immense influence on other poets, particularly the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who was in Spain at the time and was a friend and colleague of Hernandez.
His family continue to fight for justice and to clear his name. In 2010 they filed a law suit in the Spanish Supreme Cort seeking annulment of the guilty verdicts against him. 
You can read more about Fernandez here, here, here

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Poems of every day life: Geoff Goodfellow

Great poem by Geoff Goodfellow on the lessons learned from everyday events

Geoff Goodfellow

I was reversing out of my driveway
     & signalled to a bloke
to move his car which was in my way

he was a young man twenty-
maybe twenty-two   lots of bottle
blond hair       tousled and spiky
7 his care was about as old
as he was

he was parked in a No Parking zone
& it pissed me off
 as I turned out I drew alongside him-
rolled down my window & growled
   can't you read you idiot         it says
no parking

he looked at me momentarily & said
chill out dude

I set the car into drive
took a left turn       slowly-
and drove down the road laughing

he was right
                      of course.

Geoff Goodfellow is an Australian poet who lives in Adelaide. He has been writing poetry for over 30 years and published 10 books of poetry.  His most recent collection Waltzing with Jack Dancer: a slow dance with cancer  is a record of his survival from throat cancer.

His poems detail the lives of ordinary everyday people whose lives are overlooked and forgotten, including those who occupy the margins of Australian society. These are the voices of people often not found in contemporary Australian poetry and literature.

He has also written and read poems for trade unions.

An article on Geoff Goodfellow from the Age is here.
His website is here.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Learning from the pioneering work of Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012)

Three years after her death in 2012 the work of  Elinor Ostrom remains more relevant than ever for those of us campaigning for alternatives to the contemporary orthodoxy of market fundamentalism and neoliberalism.
 Ostrom who was a Professor at Indiana University was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2009.

Ostrom's work challenged and rebutted fundamental economic beliefs, particularly free market and neo-classical economic paradigms. Ostrom was particularly concerned with  relational aspects of economic activity — the ways in which people interact and negotiate with each other to forge rules and informal social understandings.

Ostrom's early work focused on what she called
Ostrom argued that many public services depend heavily on the contribution of time and effort by the persons who consume these services, i.e. the clients and citizens.
Ostrom believed that services rely as much upon the unacknowledged knowledge, assets and efforts of service ‘users’ as the expertise of professional providers. It was the informal understanding of local communities and the on the ground relationships that make services more effective.

Co-production describes the relationship that exist between ‘regular producers’, like health workers, police, and schoolteachers and their ‘clients’ who may be transformed by the services into safer, better educated and/or healthier persons.

Ostrom defined
co-production as

 “…the mix of activities that both public service agents and citizens contribute to the provision of public services. The former are involved as professionals, or ‘regular producers’, while ‘citizen production’ is based on voluntary efforts by individuals and groups to enhance the quality and/or quantity of the services they use”

One implication is that privatization of public services and the turning over of services to the market fundamentally transforms the relationship between provider and service user, hampering the development of co-production and democratic governance.

Her later work examined how people and communities collaborate and organize themselves to manage collective shared resources like forests, fisheries and natural and social resources. The research overturned the conventional wisdom about government regulation  and challenged the idea that private ownership of public resources is better and more effective than the public and collective sphere.

Ostrom's work provides clear evidence  that the commons-based traditions of cooperation and communal management of resources is not a violation of basic economic common sense.

Her work undermines political conservatives and mainstream economists who denigrate collectively managed property and government and who argue that only private property and the "free market" can responsibly manage resources.  Her work also directly challenges current ideas that privatization and private ownership and expert management of resources is a more effective strategy than collective and public management

Ostrom advocated a “polycentric” approach to managing shared or common resources involving oversight “at multiple levels with autonomy at each level. She argued that shared management of resources helps to establish rules that “tend to encourage the growth of trust and reciprocity” among people who use and care for a particular commons.

Ostrim argued that key management decisions should be made as close to the scene of events and the people and groups involved as possible. Her work showed that the people most affected by or with a stake in shared or common resources are the ones best able to collaborate to use and manage those shared resources effectively and sustainably.

Her work demonstrates that ordinary people are able to create rules, institutions and systems that ensure the equitable and sustainable management of shared and common resources, what is often called our 'common wealth'.

She demonstrated the importance of shared (collective) rather than expert or private management of resources and knowledge and emphasises the importance of active citizen participation. She cited a comprehensive study of 100 forests in 14 countries that detailed how the involvement of local people in decision making is more important to successfully sustaining healthy forests than who is actually in charge of the forests.

Bollier writes of the significance of Ostrom's work:

In the 1970s, economics was quickly veering into a kind of religious fundamentalism. It was a discipline obsessed with “rational individualism,” private property rights and markets even though the universe of meaningful human activity is much broader and complex. Lin Ostrom pioneered a different, more humanistic way of thinking about “the economy” and resource management. She originally focused on property rights and “common-pool resources,” collective resources over which no one has private property rights or exclusive control, such as fishers, grazing lands and groundwater. This work later evolved into a broader study of the commons as a rich, cross-cultural socio-ecological paradigm. Working within the social sciences, Ostrom proceeded to build a new school of thought within the standard economic narrative while extending it in vital ways.

 Ostrom's work also has direct relevance to the current economic and environment crises. She wrote:

"We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: the oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways, and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life, including seven billion humans, to thrive.....Success will hinge on developing many overlapping policies to achieve the goals,.......We have a decade to act before the economic cost of current viable solutions becomes too high. Without action, we risk catastrophic and perhaps irreversible changes to our life-support system.”

Articles written in memory of her work are
here, here, here and here.

A reading list of her work is

The last article she wrote before she died is

Her last book, published just before her death was titled Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice, and describes the advantages of using several different research methods to study a problem.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Who are the teachers and educators who inspired us?

This photo from 1953 shows four-year-old Ross Munro and his neighbour Phillip Noble playing in an asbestos sandpit in a residential backyard in Wittenoom in WA's northwest. Residents purchased the deadly tailings which were commonly used as sandpits in backyards for the purposes of children's play and also to reduce dust around houses.

When I read Chris Hedges latest piece about inspiring teachers and educators I thought of Ross Munro.

Chris Hedges, the American journalist, writer, war correspondent and political activist and campaigner has written a moving eulogy to one of his educational mentors and inspirations- the Reverend Coleman Brown who taught Hedges at Colgate University. Hedges writes that Coleman:

had the most profound impact of all my teachers on my education. I took seven courses as an undergraduate in religion. He taught six of them. But his teaching extended far beyond the classroom. The classroom was where he lit the spark.

Hedges describes how Coleman Brown used poetry to highlight the powerful sacred forces that writers and poets struggle to express:

"Coleman would read poems and cherished prose passages out loud as I met with him in his office. It was about the musicality of language. His sonorous voice rose and dipped with intonations and emphasis. To this day I still hear his recitation in pieces of writing and poems......... Poetry, he taught me, is alive. It must be felt. It has a hypnotic power that, as Shakespeare understood, is a kind of witchcraft. And poetry, along with all other writing, is just a spent, dead force if you do not surrender to its spell."

In thinking about the influence of his educational mentor, Hedges has written a beautiful summation of the significance and value of education:

"Education is not only about knowledge. It is about inspiration. It is about passion. It is about the belief that what we do in life matters. It is about moral choice. It is about taking nothing for granted. It is about challenging assumptions and suppositions. It is about truth and justice. It is about learning how to think. It is about, as James Baldwin wrote, the ability to drive “to the heart of every matter and expose the question the answer hides.” And, as Baldwin further noted, it is about making the world “a more human dwelling place.”

Many of us have had or known teachers and educators who paved the way for such inspiration and passion, either in ourselves or in others.

At both secondary school and university I had teachers- sadly too few- who managed to create and light a spark like that which Hedges describes. One was  John Croft, a secondary school teacher of history who bought to life the study of history and triggered my lifelong passion for the power and relevance of historical understanding and analysis as the basis for social thinking and action.

As  a young secondary school teacher I worked with an English teacher named Ross Munro, who brought alive the power of the written and spoken (and sung)  word to his students. Each day outside his classroom would be a quote, extract or lyrics from a text- a book, a play, a song, a poem- which was designed to engage, to provoke, to encourage thinking. 

Ross was  a man much loved by his students. Even now, some of those students still speak about his influence and legacy.  

Ross died young, aged just 38, a victim of the horrors and indiscriminate cruelty of asbestos and the neglect of mining corporations and government agencies. Ross was a victim of perhaps the greatest industrial and corporate crime in Australian history.

Ross was one of the 'Wittenoom kids' who spent their childhoods exposed to asbestos in the town of Wittenoom  in north-west of Western Australia who have gone on to develop a range of cancers and are dying at a rate well above the average population of mesothelioma.

Ross became the first non-mine worker to win a mesothelioma claim against CSR in January 1989, just before his death. His appalling treatment is documented in Ben Hills book Blue Murder.

More on Ross and events and the human cost of asbestos are  here and here

(1) Mining of the deadly blue asbestos at Wittenoom, 1106km north of Perth, commenced in the 1940's and ceased in 1966 and the town was later closed after airborne fibres in dust from mining operations were found to cause malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other serious diseases

Remembering Ken Sprague (1927-204) and his powerful images

image by Ken Sprague

"In essence, the leitmotif of his work is about power and the abuse of power as well as the resilience of ordinary working people to this abuse... It is an art of engagement – engagement for change."
(John Green, from the Introduction to Ken Sprague – People’s Artist.)

People continue to ask about this powerful image that appears on this site. (It it also continues to appear in its original or modified form elsewhere).

The image is a drawing by Ken Sprague. I have written before here and here about Ken Sprague who I had the privilege to know during the 1980's. You can read more about Ken's life, his work and legacy here

Ken Sprague's remarkable image captures the recent zeitgeist of uprisings and revolts happening around the world, in which ordinary people are standing up and fighting against state and corporate power and political and financial plundering.

Ken's image was created decades ago but reflects his profound and lifelong commitment to  human rights, justice, peace and socialism.

Ken was a renowned artist, cartoonist, illustrator, poster designer , print maker, educator and filmmaker  who believed profoundly that art should  always serve social justice, peace, human rights and political struggle.

obituary for Ken was written by John Green and appeared in the Guardian newspaper. John wrote a book on Ken's life titled Ken Sprague: People's Artist.
 Ken Sprague: Radical artist in pursuit of Socialism
By John Green ( from The Guardian 6th August 2004)

 The aim of Ken Sprague, who has died of a stroke aged 77  was, he said, “to build a picture road to socialism, to the Golden City, or as Blake called it, Jerusalem”. A painter, sculptor, muralist, banner-maker and sometime television presenter, Ken was, for half a century a regular, but dissenting cartoonist for the Daily Worker and its successor the Morning Star, and for papers like Tribune and Peace News.

As a posterman his work included material for Martin Luther King, and the women of Greenham Common — and against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslavakia, and Edward Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was designing scenery and backdrops for Unity Theatre and was involved in the Centre 42 trade union arts project.

All round talents
His linocuts for the radical collective Cinema Action’s Kill The Bill film (1971) began an involvement in moving images. I made a film about him in 1972 which led to Jeff Perks’s 1976 BBC Omnibus documentary The Posterman. This led to a series of Channel 4 films, devised with Jeff Perks and presented by Ken, called Everyone A Special Kind Of Artist (1986). There was also a BBC South West series, The Moving Line with Joan Bakewell. In later life, he taught and practised as a  psychodrama specialist. Ken was born in Bournemouth , his father was a train driver and his mother worked in a cardboard box factory. His first work of art, in 1937, was a linocut made from linoleum, torn from the kitchen floor in response to the Spanish civil war.

Early life
He was educated at Alma Road Elementary School — until it was bombed — and Porchester Road Secondary Modern School. There the headmaster, noticing his talent, recommended that he apply to the local art college. He won a scholarship to Bournemouth Municipal  College and, from 13 and a half, studied graphics — in those days students of his background were hardly considered for fine arts courses. One morning in 1944 he volunteered, aged 17 for the Royal Marines — and that afternoon, in Southampton, he joined the Communist Party. After basic military training he was transferred to Vickers-Supermarine as a technical artist, work which took him to wartime Yugoslavia. Postwar, and after a summer stint in a circus, he completed his college diploma course in design and illustration. The CP, he told me, was his university, but after the Bournemouth Daily Echo had labelled him a college revolutionary, local job prospects dwindled. He briefly worked for a volunteer labour battalion in Yugoslavia, was employed  by the Boy Scouts and then, between 1950 to 1954 he worked in a Carlisle mining company design office — doubling as a cartoonist for the local Conservative, and Liberal newspapers. Then came a move to London as the Daily Worker’s publicity manager, which also had him working as a journalist and cartoonist. Devastated by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, in 1959 Ken left to set up, with Ray Barnard, the publicity company, Mountain & Molehill. Yet he continued producing cartoons for the Worker, and its successor the Morning Star into the 21st century.

Mountain & Molehill
M&M — later The Working Arts — was responsible for some of the most innovative trade union campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s. Ken told union leaders they had to (TO) use publicity to win hearts and minds and to see it as an integral part of union work. And it was Sprague and Barnard who initiated the sensational 1961 visit to Britain of the first man in space Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. M&M also worked for the Indian High Commission — which led to a meeting with Jawaharlarl Nehru In the late 1960s Ken began editing the Transport and General Workers Union’s the Record, transforming it into a lively newspaper, — and illustrating it with his own cartoons. As a poster and print-maker he worked with a number of leading progressive organisations and individuals, including Pete Seeger.

New life in Devon
In 1971 he moved with his wife, Sheila, a talented potter, to Holwell, a farmhouse in Devon, and converted it into an artistic centre. Sheila died of cancer in 1973, but with his second wife, Marcia he set up the Holwell International Centre For Psychodrama and Sociodrama which continued until 1998. There Ken combined his artistic talents with pedagogic expertise, using them in this new field in which he became a leading practitioner.

It is his posters and prints that will remain his true epitaph. His innovative and prolific creativity, his recalcitrant questioning, determination and belief in others’ potential was an inspiring beacon for everyone who met him, young and old. His images remain etched in the mind, they unsettle, provoke, discomfort but also amuse. Ken was concerned about how politics impact on the ordinary person. In essence the leitmotif of his work is about power and the abuse of power as well as the resilience of ordinary people. He depicted the world as changeable. His work is imbued with unfashionable optimism, depicting a world where ethics and values still have relevance. It is the antithesis of post-modern fragmentation and its disdain of value systems. Every morning, he drew a political cartoon to assuage his anger and frustration at the state of the world. And only a few weeks before he died, he was excitedly telling me about plans for an artistic project in Cuba and a book he was determined to publish of anti-war drawings. He left the Communist Party, after the acrimonious split in 1988. He continued to call himself a communist, however, saying “The party left me, I didn’t leave the party”. He won several prestigious awards, including poster of the year award from the National Council of Industrial Design on two occasions.

He is survived by Marcia, from whom he recently separated, his five children and seven grandchildren.
John Green

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Esperance WA: Sacrifice zone for the profits of the uranium industry?

A mining industry media outlet has reported that the uranium industry in WA is keen to establish Esperance on WA's southern coast, as a port export hub for radioactive uranium material mined in Western Australia.
The Canadian uranium miner Cameco, whose Yeeleerie uranium project is billed as the largest in WA, is located near Wiluna in WA's Northern Goldfields,  however, Wiluna is considerable distance from Port Adelaide and Darwin, the only two ports in Australia approved for shipping uranium. Esperance is the port closest to Wiluna.
The other uranium miner active in WA is Toro Energy who plan to ship product from its Wiluna mine through Port Adelaide, a 2700km journey by truck.
The Managing Director of Cameco Brian Reilly was quoted as saying:
“This is a region that needs the next wave of projects and the uranium sector can deliver four, five, six projects down the track and make a significant difference to WA. The product we ship is a high-value, low-volume product and as it sits today most uranium goes to the port of Adelaide. Why wouldn't we contemplate a WA port when we get a business case and a number of other projects up and running?"
A weekend article in the Kalgoorlie Miner describes the community's response to the disclosure and notes that the Esperance community is exceedingly vigilant about the environmental risks from products coming through Esperance, largely as a result of the Magellan Lead Scandal of 2005-2008.
This vigilance and likely public opposition from the people of Esperance is a consequence of  serious harm suffered by the people and environment of Esperance as a result of that earlier lead contamination scandal at the Port of Esperance.
Over 2 years (2005- 2007) Magellan Metals and the Esperance Port Authority allowed lethal lead dust to escape from storage facilities at the port and contaminate the town of Esperance and surrounds. Over 9500 birds died of lead poisoning and hundreds of children suffered lead poisoning from elevated lead levels.

Western Australian Parliamentary Inquiry found that the Esperance Port Authority and Magellan Metals (and 2 other government agencies) were guilty of "critical failings" in their handling of toxic material in allowing lead carbonate particles to escape during Port operation.
The Inquiry concluded that the deaths of 9500 native birds in December 2006 and March 2007 resulted from lead poisoning from Magellan Metals lead carbonate concentrate which had been handled by the Esperance Port Authority from April 2005 until March 2007. A quarter of the children under 5 years of age who were tested showed a blood lead level over 5 µg/dL.
The Committee concluded that the exposure of the Esperance community to lead was a result of:
  • the ongoing transport to, and inloading practices at, the Esperance Port which occurred almost every second day over some 23 months;
  • the escape of lead dust during the usual out loading practices at the Esperance Port, which occurred on 22 occasions; and
  • a number of key dust incidents occurring during ship-loading of the Magellan lead concentrate at the Esperance Port, which released significant lead pollution into the environment, and in the absence of any containment or clean up, caused on-going exposures to lead.”
The Report found that the Esperance community had been let down by the actions of the Esperance Port Authority, Magellan Metals and the WA Department of Environment (DEC).

The Esperance Port Authority was fined over half a million dollars after admitting responsibility for the lead poisoning. Magellan Metals escaped without any serious penalty after agreeing to a $9 million settlement to clean up the town. As part of the agreement the State Government agreed not to pursue any criminal or legal charges against the company.
A State Government report released  in 2010 claimed that three years after the crises the poisonous lead dust still present in the town  remained a major threat to bird life and animal life but claimed no "serious threat to human health". Locals were not convinced
Research in 2010 by the Conservation Council of WA showed that local insect eating birds have lead levels in their feathers about 8 times background lead levels. The birds are at threshold level for lead pollution in birds.
So why should the people of Esperance have any faith they will be protected this time around by those with responsibility to regulate mining companies and protect the community, when they failed so badly last time?
During the Esperance lead crises, Government agencies continually downplayed the seriousness of the problem and denied any serious risk to human health.
The inability of WA Government agencies to effectively regulate and monitor the operations and performance of multinational corporations whose rationale is profit maximization was confirmed in a recent WA Auditor General’s Report.
The Auditor General found that corporations were failing to meet their environmental and social obligations and Government agencies were unable to effectively regulate and enforce the social and environmental activities of private corporations.

A recent Corruption and Crime Commission Report identified that large government agencies  who oversee large contracts with corporations do not have the necessary skills controls and governance systems in place to manage these contractors and identified the risk of corruption.

It is patently clear that regulation and monitoring of corporations is largely ineffective and government agencies and statutory authorities responsible for monitoring them have not proved themselves up to the job
Like many other places in WA, Esperance has become  what US author Steve Lerner calls a "Sacrifice Zone"- communities forced to live with the harmful social and environmental impacts of poorly regulated mining and industrial activity.
Martin Bruckner's remarkable book Under Corporate Skies tells the shocking story of another Western Australian "Sacrifice Zone"- this time the struggle between the community of Wagerup and the multinational mining corporation Alcoa and its ally over three decades- the WA Government.

 Brueckner tells a story consigned to the dustbin of Western Australian history. His book describes the the same pattern of denial, protection of mining and industrial interests, collusion by State Government agencies and  dismissal and trivialization of community concerns that was evident in the Esperance scandal.
These "sacrifice zones" exist all over WA, in towns and communities where mining and industrial activity are dominant.  These are places and people sacrificed on the alter of corporate profit and economic growth. 
The harms caused by poorly regulated mining and industrial activity- ill health and death, scarred land, polluted, air and water, despoiled environment and human landscape and a fraying social fabric- are trivialized, and denied, and when proven, they are simply dismissed as a cost of economic prosperity or considered not serious enough to warrant attention.