The Laundromat Floor

Where Drinking Tea Meets Waxing Lyrical

Super Best Friends, ‘Round and Round’

Moderately successful local indie-punk band releases topical song; gets some airplay. Moderately successful (Canberra) indie-punk band (containing a former reporter for Triple J’s current affairs program Hack, and a current ABC TV cameraman based at Parliament House) releases topical song (and then gets a bunch of Australia’s federal politicians and journalists to cameo in the video clip); viral sensation.

Canberra outfit Super Best Friends released their latest single ‘Round and Round’ yesterday, and I’m obsessed. The song is a catchy, Regurgitator-esque tune, short and brash and biting. The clip is built on a simple premise – a lib-dub version of the song, with footage of the Parliament House media scrum interspersed with politicians, journalists, and cameramen alike miming the lyrics of the track. But oh, it is so much more.

Nick Xenaphon opens the video. Standing on his desk, clutching a bass guitar, he looks like the reluctant participant in a Rose Tattoo tribute band, hastily formed by three guys from Accounting at the tail end of the office Xmas shindig. Anthony Albanese, clad in Rabbitohs scarf, zooms a QANTAS replica airplane around his head, giving the viewer an adorable vision of Albo the toddler. Embracing his inner thespian, Barnaby Joyce gives an exasperated reading of the song’s title lyrics, in a performance worthy of a HSC Drama presentation.

The two youngest politicians to appear in the clip – the Liberal Party’s Wyatt Roy, and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young – are by far the most awkward participants of the clip. Hanson-Young defaults to the head-shaking, hair-flicking dance moves common amongst the Rhythmless White Female, while her baby-faced colleague Roy’s single contribution to the clip is spinning around (somewhat delightedly) in his fancy office swivel chair. As ever, he looks for all the world to be the school Prefect, trying in vain to convince his peers that adherence to the uniform policy is both ‘cool’ and ‘hip.’

Taking a perhaps too-literal interpretation of the lyrical content, Tony Abbott includes his beloved bicycle in his video spot. As the bike’s wheels spin, Abbott’s eyes convey a frightening vision of the existential terror that awaits us all should we dare venture into the political realm. Also, the existential angst that comes from being a giant twathead.

Of all the journalists present in the video, it is Chris Uhlmann who steals the show, giving a standout performance of “Frustrated Newsreader #3.” I only hope that Big Bear Mark Scott didn’t get too grumpy at the wanton throwing of papers in the studio. Kevin Rudd’s performance, meanwhile, was a particular low point. Filmed while was still a scheming, smug backbencher (as opposed to our scheming, smug PM), Rudd’s robotic hand-dancing provides an unconscious – and uncomfortable – reminder of his recent, unwieldy election debate exertions. As Rudd finished what can only be described as the Worst Dad Dancing Ever (Seated Edition), Clive Palmer appears and (fake) punches the camera. Cheers, you crazy bastard.

Speaking of crazy bastards, Bob Katter appears twice in the video: once to glower at down the lens at the watching ‘youth,’ and then to lasso an imaginary homosexual in his office while wearing – apropos of nothing (or, perhaps, of fading relevancy) – aviator shades and customary maniacal grin. He succeeds only in lassoing his own head. Mental health assessment to aisle four, please.

(Christine Milne appears between Katter’s two on-camera spots, smiling serenely and playing with a replica wind turbine. Her Mum and Albo’s Mum should really organise a play-date for those two.)

Rob Oakeshott is, as ever, an absolute delight, shown both ironing his underwear and aggressively shouting at a t-shirt. I’m gonna miss that guy. Also enchanting is Ed Husic, who contributes to the clip by spinning a basketball in his jersey-adorned office. (I genuinely want Husic to star in a 1990s teen culture film, in which he mentors a rough-and-tumble group of inner city youth to win the local basketball championship, and then goes on to be the benevolent mayor of the district. He’d face resistance, but Husic would clean up that city faster than the nuns in Sister Act. It’d be a heart-warming tale of friendship and redemption and electoral vote margins. Somebody get Spielberg on the phone, stat.)

Twenty-four hours after it was uploaded, the video for ‘Round and Round’ has garnered just under 80,000 hits on YouTube. It’s been played on the morning shows, written up on online music sites, and become – for a fleeting moment – ABC News24’s obsession. The band trended on Twitter, and the song got primetime airplay on Triple J. Reactions ranged from “fuckin’ awesome, only in Oz” (YouTube) to “get back to running the country” (news.com.au) to “I must watch this eighty-three thousand times and then blog about it” (me).

This is what we get this election – this video clip, a new season of Gruen, and the vague realisation that we’re all doomed. On the balance of things, I’m ok with all of that. (I grew up under Howard; the vague realisation that we’re all doomed is my default emotional response to life in general.)

*hits play button once more*

Super Best Friends, ‘Round and Round’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5H7BTKTOwLE#at=120

Interview with Matthew Roberts (bass player, Super Best Friends) on ABC News Breakfast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0XpRMr2kes&feature=youtu.be

Interview with Roberts on The Vine: http://www.thevine.com.au/music/news/q-how-did-a-punk-band-get-kevin-rudd-and-tony-abbott-in-their-music-video-20130820-264488

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In The Words Of The Great Philosopher / Pop Star P!nk: I’m Not Here For Your Entertainment.

– Scenario #1: A man and a woman are dancing together in a nightclub. The man leans in, and the two begin to kiss. Over at the bar, a man is heard to exclaim, “Yeah, that’s hot! Fuck yeah, heteros! Hey, you two – how about a threesome, ay?”

– Scenario #2: A man and a woman are walking down the street, holding hands. As they wait at a set of traffic lights, the woman gives the man a quick kiss. Behind them, a teenage girl says to her friend, “Aw, that’s so cute! It’s so adorable when they make out in public! I wish I had a straight best friend!”

Both of the above, while not out of the realm of possibility, are fairly implausible. How about the next two scenarios?

– Scenario #3: Two women are dancing together in a nightclub. One of the women leans in, and the two begin to kiss. Over at the bar, a man is heard to exclaim, “Yeah, that’s hot! Fuck yeah, lesbians! Hey, you two – how about a threesome, ay?”

– Scenario #4: Two men are walking down the street, holding hands. As they wait at a set of traffic lights, one of the men gives the other man a quick kiss. Behind them, a teenage girl says to her friend, “Aw, that’s so cute! It’s so adorable when they make out in public! I wish I had a gay best friend!”

Scenarios #3 and #4 aren’t just plausible; they’re almost expected reactions from straight people whenever queer folk dare to be outwardly queer. Dare to be a woman making out with another woman in a nightclub, and you can almost be guaranteed of a straight dudebro catcalling or asking for a threesome. (Hey, dude, handy hint: the fact that they’re making out with each other, not you, is a fairly good indication that maybe – at this point in time – neither of them are as interested in your cock as you seem to be.) Dare to be a man who holds hands with and kisses another man in public, and there’s a fairly good chance that some teenage girl will want you to be her new gay best friend, with whom she can go shopping and bitch about boys. (Dearhearts: not all queer men are like Kurt from Glee. Really.)

This isn’t homophobia, but it’s something that irritates me just as much as those hilariously Neanderthal queer-haters. It’s fetishisation of queer identity by straight people; at its most insidious, it’s straight people placing queer people – and queer identities – as a lesser ‘Other.’ Women making out with other women isn’t a normal expression of human sexuality – it’s done for the pleasure of heterosexual men! Men who fall in love with other men aren’t doing it for their own happiness – they’re gay boys who exist to fulfil the platonic fantasies of straight women! The list is exhaustive: that bisexual people are in denial about their ‘true’ [gay] identity, that gay nightclubs are great places for straight women to party [not cool, hetero ladies], and that anyone who asserts a label for themselves that is outside of the LGB spectrum are just looking for attention. (Related: queers, in the eyes of straights, aren’t allowed to be angry, or political outside of the straight –approved ‘gay marriage’ debate. We are, apparently, rainbow-filled and glitter-dispensing unicorns.)

Well – frankly – fuck that. At least homophobes are up-front about the fact that they think queer folk are a sub-human species. Self-proclaimed “straight allies” want a medal and a pat on the head for treating us like an (adorable) sub-set of humanity. Not hating queer people doesn’t make you worthy of cookies and applause. It just means that you are a slightly less shitty human being than the people who hang around in parks and bash queer people, or those who legislate against us. Congrats, self-proclaimed allies: you’re one step above total fuckwits. Barely.

Look, it’s not the queer community’s job to educate heterosexuals on our lives, or what is cool and not cool and why. But, because I’m good-hearted (and because I’d rather you not get information about “teh gayz” from the Great Ignorance of the Internet), here are some handy reminders about queer folk / queer community:

Not all queer people fit within the LGBT labelling spectrum. Not all women who are attracted to other women are lesbians. Not all men who are attracted to other men are gay. ‘Pansexual’ and ‘bisexual’ are two different identity constructs, and both are completely valid. Asexuality does exist, and there is nothing strange about it. There is a difference between ‘homosexual’ and ‘homoromantic.’ It is possible to be more than one identity label at any given time. The only person who gets to decide on the label/s that they use is that person. No-one else.

Not all women have vaginas. Not all men have penises. Not all people fit within the (severely out-dated) male/female gender binary. It is impossible to tell someone’s gender identity from how they present, and assuming that gender identity and sex identity match up in everyone makes you an asshole. There are more pronouns than ‘she’ and ‘he.’ Using someone’s requested pronouns – whatever they may be – is non-negotiable. Sexual orientation, gender orientation, and self-identity can change throughout a person’s life.

Not all queer people are white. Not all queer people are middle class. Not all queer people have “always known” that they were queer. Not all queer people are able to come out.

Not all queer people want to get married. Not all queer people think alike, or agree on everything (or anything). Diversity, shockingly enough, exists even within (snort) “non-mainstream” communities. Homophobia, transphobia, sexism, misogyny, classism, and other forms of discrimination exist even within the queer community. (Just have a look at the amount of ‘queer charities’ whose advocacy disappears as soon as the subject being advocated for isn’t a cisgender, gay, white man.)

The ‘A’ in ‘LGBTIAQ’ (and its various incarnations) doesn’t stand for ‘Ally.’ If you are not queer, you do not get to be part of the queer community, no matter how much to say you ‘support’ us or how many Pride Parades you attend or how many slash fanfics of Harry/Draco you read. This is our space. Your space is the rest of the fucking planet.

Finally – and I can’t emphasise this enough – queer people are allowed to be angry. We are allowed to call you out on offensive or incorrect or fetishizing things that you say or do, and we are allowed to be annoyed when we have to do so. Because you know what? Having to explain this shit over and over again gets really tiring, really fast.

Angry Queer Lady Out.

Triple J Hottest 100, 2012

My Top Ten votes, in no particular order:

The Mountain Goats, Cry For Judas

A blistering horn part from Matthew E. White coupled with John Darnielle’s extraordinary lyrical prowess.  I don’t believe in God: I believe in tMG.

Something For Kate, Miracle Cure

Paul Dempsey channels Bruce Springsteen, the lyrics are typical quasi-religious protest SFK fare, and all is well with the world.

Chance Waters, Maybe Tomorrow (feat. Lillian Blue)

(Timely) post-apocalyptic musings from one of my favourite new Australian artists.

Calvin Harris, Sweet Nothing (feat. Florence Welch)

Florence Welch and Calvin Harris could collaborate on a paper bag filled with day-old sandwiches and I’d probably still vote for it as one of the year’s best musical outputs.

Fiona Apple, Every Single Night

Ms. Apple stole my heart when I was sixteen years old, and she is yet to return it, the beautiful wench.

Jack White, Love Interruption

Nobody does ironic heartbreak quite as well as Jack White. “I won’t let love disrupt, corrupt, or interrupt me (anymore)” is the anthem of every twenty-something with a less-than-stellar past love life (i.e. all of us).

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Thrift Shop (feat. Wanz)

Obligatory novelty song vote. With – admittedly – a pretty sweet saxophone riff.

Of Monsters And Men, Little Talks

Obligatory “this song will probably get #1 so I’ll vote for it to feel like I’m part of something” vote. Also obligatory “I discovered this song six months before Triple J did please validate my indie music cred” vote. Also excellent song / album / band.

Jonathon Boulet, This Song Is Called Ragged

Including Boulet on my Hottest 100 list has become something of a recent tradition. But really, try to stop me voting for a song that includes gratuitous marimba.

Something For Kate, Survival Expert

The second vote for SFK, for three reasons:

1. I first heard this song as a baby solo idea when PD was still touring sans SFK

2. It’s a rollicking good song, and the best chance SFK has of getting a Top Ten track this year

3. Paul Dempsey may actually be some kind of supernatural being, and I don’t wish to incur his wrath.

In Which A Blue-Haired Stranger Saves A Queer Lady From A Life Of Religious Self-Loathing

I escaped Catholicism because of a boy with blue hair.

I was raised Catholic. Baptised as a baby, attended a Catholic primary school, and received a Confirmation name when I was eight. (Veronica, as it happens. In a class full of Marys and Elizabeths and Roses, I chose the name that no-one else wanted.) When I was eleven, and the time came for high school enrolments, I was one of the few in my grade who was given a choice. The first option was the all-girl’s Catholic college that would absorb most of the females of my primary school class. St. Joseph’s was at that time a concrete jungle, a maze of construction and starchy uniform dresses and promises of a new library. It was my parent’s preference – both had been educated in single-sex Catholic schools, and wanted the same type of education for their daughter. The second option was the academically selective public school at which I’d been offered a place, along with three others from my primary school class. (Four out of a class of sixty-four. It remains to this day my primary school’s highest acceptance group to the selective school system.) The public high school was a top twenty school, renowned for high HSC scores and a competitive academic environment. But – problematically – Gosford High was public, not Catholic.

To their credit (or perhaps, indication of their insanity), my parents left the decision up to me. Having been accepted at both schools, and being a somewhat pragmatic child, I waited until the orientation days to make up my mind. St. Joseph’s orientation day was a full-day immersion program, where we young Catholic women (or, as the principal referred to us in the introductory speeches, the “shining young ladies of faith for the next generation”) were split into homerooms and attended mock ‘classes.’ It was pleasant enough – many of the same faces from seven years of Catholic inter-school programs, and the promise of another six years of not having to try very hard to get by. The Gosford High orientation was a half-day program, filled primarily with speeches from the heads of each department and a tour around the school grounds. There were trees, and grass, and the uniform policy appeared to be lax, at best. The school band performed – and they actually produced sounds recognisable as music (!) – and the head of Languages (a woman who would later become one of my favourite ever teachers) talked about the four languages offered to students. The sample curriculum looked tough; unlike at St. Joseph’s, there were assigned English books that I hadn’t already read, and a music program that catered for those of us who’d already had music training.

But it wasn’t the curriculum, or the trees, or even the option to study Indonesian instead of French that made up my mind. As my parents and I were leaving the school grounds, I saw a fifteen or sixteen year old male student walk towards the office block. He had the slumped gait so typical of teenage boys, and his school pants were somewhere down around his knees. And he had blue hair. Bright blue, electric, neon hair.

And nobody cared. No-body stared, or questioned him, or seemed to think it was odd. And I knew that this non-Catholic school, with its blue-haired miscreants and expansive language program, was the place for me.

(Appropriately, my high school years were filled with multiple shades of red hair and purple hair and blonde hair, strange fashions, a habitual non-observance of the uniform policy, and a highly visible tattoo for the final six months of Year 12. And almost no-one gave a single flying fuck. It was bliss.)

Thanks to that blue-haired stranger, I chose the school that didn’t have compulsory religion classes, but instead taught me how to think for myself – or, more accurately, how to question everything and believe nothing and always, always keep learning. (It was also the high school that had café within walking distance. The impact that had on both my 9am Maths class attendance record in Year Ten and my current caffeine addiction is profound.) I don’t think I ever believed in a God, Catholic or otherwise. My mother, though horrified by my atheism, likes to tell the story of how I was that annoying little brat in Religion class who questioned how Noah could have built a boat that fit all the species of animal, and how the animals didn’t eat each other, or the humans, and what happened if one of the animals died on the way? I tried, I really did, and for a very long time, to believe in a higher power. I’m much happier without it.

Years after I left that Catholic primary school, I went back, this time as a Learning Support Assistant. (The things broke uni students do for money.) I sat through Religion classes, and staff meetings that started with a prayer, and lunchroom conversations that offended my feminist, atheist, queer-lady self. And I bit my tongue, and I nodded my head, and then I’d rant and rave to sympathetic former Catholics (or, as one dear friend terms herself, a “recovering Catholic.”) But I don’t hate these people, nor do I begrudge them their faith. They’re not evil, or malicious, and a surprising number of them are actually extremely progressive when it comes to issues like gay marriage and abortion. Even the ones who make John Howard look like a screaming lefty are kind and intelligent. Years ago, a formally Catholic friend and I were having an argument with another friend, who couldn’t understand how we could defend the Catholic Church, particularly as we were both gay. We weren’t defending the Church, we argued – Catholicism for us was two separate beings. On the one hand was the institution that was homophobic, misogynistic, and stuck in the pre-Enlightenment age; but on the other hand, there were the people that we knew and loved – our families, and friends, and the individuals who are just trying to live a life as best they know how. So I don’t hate Catholics – I just can’t stand the Church. To be fair, it can’t stand me either.

(A few years ago, I had minor surgery. Filling out the hospital form, I answered ‘atheist’ to the Religion of Patient question. My mother said she was more ashamed of me for that than when I came out as gay. She’s turned around a little, now, or she’s quieter about my atheism at least – she has her faith, and I have my lack thereof, and we have an unspoken agreement not to discuss matters of religion. This is the same women who wants one of those “May the foetus you save be gay” badges, and who is one of the most strident feminists I know. She confuses me as much as I confuse her, and we adore each other. Adulthood is a strange beast.)

Yesterday, Prime Minister Gillard announced a long-overdue Royal Commission into child sexual abuse cover-ups by the Catholic Church. Today, Cardinal George Pell attended a press conference in which he was his usual blithering, useless, offensive self. My staunchly Catholic mother’s only response was “About. Time.” My response contained a few more four-letter words than hers did. I can’t bite my tongue anymore. It’s tiring, and it’s disrespectful to the people who have fought for so long to have their stories of horrific abuse heard. The Royal Commission is going to take a very long time, and I’m cynical as to the real-world implications it will have (particularly if the next election sees a man of religion become the leader of the country once more.) But perhaps it is enough to have the stories be told, however hard it is for us to hear them. Maybe breaking the silence – and the power of the institution that so viciously guards that silence – is a good enough start.

A few months ago, a police officer came to the primary school. He dug through the archives of attendance books, took some photographs of a particular record from the 1980s, and left. A priest who had once served in the school’s parish, you see, was now up on child sex allegations. There was tut-tutting, and head-shaking, but overall no-one batted an eyelid. It just isn’t surprising, any more.

Keys As Knuckledusters.

I pre-dial ‘000’ into my phone. I know how to use my keys as makeshift knuckledusters. I take down taxi numbers. I change my running route every few days. I text an estimated time of arrival to someone, and then text when home safely – and this person knows to contact the police if I don’t make that second text and if I’m not responding to calls. I use different bus stops wherever possible. I never leave home without my mobile phone. I sleep with said mobile next to my pillow; some nights, I’ve only been able to fall asleep because that phone has been clutched in my hand, my finger on the speed dial emergency feature that so appealed to me when I bought it.

All of this is second nature. It would be easy to dismiss the above as the paranoid precautions of a young lady who spends a fair amount of time by herself, and on public transport. Except that I’ve done all of the above in a place with an extremely low crime rate and in a house with three other people.

In Year Ten, the girls at my high school were required to attend a self-defence course, run by an ex-cop. We were taught how to protect each other when out at night, how to use keys to fight off an attacker, and which areas of the attacker’s body would be most vulnerable to the physical attack of a much smaller victim. It was implied, throughout the day, that the former would be male and the latter would be female.

We were taught to scream “fire” not “rape” if being attacked.

What’s worse than having to offer an admittedly excellent course* to young women? The fact that, seven years on, I know of so many women from my graduating class that have had to use the techniques taught to us. Including me.

With the tragic disappearance of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher has come a barrage of calls for women to be “more careful” when out at night; to “exercise more caution” and not to “put yourself in a potentially dangerous situation.” As if all of that wasn’t already well-ingrained into our collective female psyche. Here’s a fun afternoon exercise: turn to the woman next to you. Ask her what she does or fears when she’s walking home alone after dark. If the answer is “nothing,” I’ll give you twenty quid. If you need further convincing, check out @clementine_ford’s Twitter feed from earlier today; the sheer amount of women for whom keys become knuckledusters after dark is in itself horrifying.

We are taught that, once the sun goes down, we should fear our very existence. We know that even in broad daylight we can be targets of harassment; walking down a main road while in the possession of a pair of tits is an invitation to have abuse and catcalls hurled at you from passing cars. I know of no men who do the same. None who, when leaving the pub, says, “I’ll text you when I’m home safe.” None who knows the most effective bones to break if attacked from behind.  None who feel inherently safer if accompanied by a male friend when out after dark. Are men the victims of violence and abuse? Of course. Are they the victims of abuse because of their gender? Doubtful.

Yes, I know how to turn my otherwise-innocuous house keys into a potent weapon. Because I’m a woman, and because I don’t lock myself away at dusk. And even if I did, I’d still sleep with my phone clutched in my fist.

*Was reminded after I posted this that the self-defence course also included advice like “pretend to be into it and moan” as a means of escaping a sexual attack. Which is, obviously, slightly ridiculous and teeters dangerously close to victim blaming bullshit territory.  Ugh. This is why we can’t have nice things, universe.

 

Twelve Texts That Remind Me How Much I Love Language

One in Japanese, one in French, one in German, nine in English (or variations thereof). All astonishingly beautiful examples of language. All, unsurprisingly, texts that I tend to shove at my nearest and dearest with demands that they read it RIGHT THIS MINUTE lest they face my wrath and judgement. (My nearest and dearest are very patient beings when it comes to my bibliophilic tendencies.)

 

Tim Winton, Cloudstreet

Will you look at us by the river! The whole restless mob of us on spread blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chiacking about for one day, one clear, clean, sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living.

The book I’ve read well over a thousand times. The book from which I derived one of my tattoos (“strangeness is ordinary”). The book that still makes me breathless each time I (re)read it.

Stephen King, On Writing

kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings

Writing about writing – and, indeed, reading about writing – is one of the many ways writers procrastinate from doing the thing they’re supposed to be doing (word on paper, followed by another, repeat until finished, edit, rewrite, existential crisis, publish). King’s tome on the art (or slog) of writing is the only one worth reading.

Nam Le, The Boat

“The thing is not to write what no one else has written but to write what only you could have written.” I found this fragment in my old notebooks. The person who wrote that couldn’t have known what would happen: how a voice hollows, how words you once loved can wither on a page.

I read this book and became furious at my own inability to write short stories. Or any type of fiction. Beautiful, fragile, snapshots of culture without the appropriation.

Elspeth Probyn, Blush: Faces of Shame

Moments of shame: an email arrives from a respected colleague. She’s angry at a newspaper column I’ve written. She writes: “Loyalty? Shame? Irony?”In front of my computer and a hemisphere away from her, I blush. Thoughts of denial flit across my mind but are pushed away by the visceral feeling of having done wrong. What can I say but that I’m sorry? It seems such a paltry word compared with the shame that covers me. And I don’t say it. Or at least not immediately. I waffle in reply about how I shouldn’t think out loud in print.

Lent to me by a friend and colleague with the disclaimer: “This book changed my academic life.” Astoundingly, it lived up to its promise. Probyn made me rethink my entire academic existence, in the best of ways, and I am grateful for it.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, 
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

When I was twelve years old, my parents gave my the Collected Works of Shakespeare for Xmas. I devoured them over the summer holidays, and so began a lifelong obsession. Shakespeare is the peerless master, and Caliban’s Speech (above) is the most beautiful passage ever written in the English language. (The first line of which I have also fashioned into another of my tattoos, to my mother’s displeasure / confusion / loving acceptance.) 

Christopher McDougall, Born To Run

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, and it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

I run – shuffle/jog, really – in large part because of this book. This book is a case study, a memoir, and an examination of the physiology / sociology / psychology / evolutionary biology of humans who run. We are, in short, all mad here.

Erich Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?

The text that holds the title of Only Book To Have Produced A Violent, Visceral Response In The Reader. (I vomited.) The most convincing anti-war novel ever to have been written, and one that still haunts me. A must-read.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Mr. Mooney presents his compliments to Professor Snape and begs him to keep his abnormally large nose out of other people’s business.
Mr. Prongs agrees with Mr. Mooney and would like to add that Professor Snape is an ugly git.
Mr. Padfoot would like to register his astonishment that an idiot like that ever became a Professor.
Mr. Wormtail bids Professor Snape good day, and advises him to wash his hair, the slime-ball.

To leave Jo Rowling off of this list would be to deny much of my childhood and teenage years. When I read the third in the series,  it was like a hand reaching out, reminding me that (despite teenage angst and a rather stormy psyche) I was not alone. She is – unequivocally – the greatest storyteller of the twenty-first century.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light. For the beauty of the alcove is not the work of some clever device. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.

I was raised in a household obsessed with design and architecture. Crammed into our family bookshelves are texts on modernism and Phillipe Starck and the role of Cubism on German design tropes. Tanizaki is the master.

David Christian, Maps of Time

I intend this book to contribute to the larger project of constructing a more unified vision of history and of knowledge in general. I am well aware of the difficulties of that project. But I am sure it is both doable and important, so it is worth attempting in the hope that others may eventually do better. I am also convinced that a modern creation myth will turn out to be as rich and as beautiful as the creation myths of all earlier communities; it is a story worth telling even if the telling is imperfect.

A first year undergraduate history course introduced me to the work of David Christian – former Soviet historian turned creator of the Next Big School of modern historiography and resident Big History expert at Macquarie Uni’s Dept. of Modern History. My department. I still get a slight thrill out of that.

Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

What a blight that woman is. Do you happen to know why? I suspect a malignant fairy at her christening.

Given the lateness of the hour, I vowed to only read the first few pages. Two hours later, the sun was beginning to rise and I was grinning maniacally with tears steaming down my face. A charming punch in the guts.

Michel Foucault, Order of Discourse

Ever since the sophists’ tricks and influence were excluded, and since their paradoxes have been more or less safely muzzled, it seems that Western thought has taken care to ensure that discourse should occupy the smallest possible space between thought and speech. Western thought seems to have made sure that the act of discoursing should appear to be no more than a certain bridging (support) between thinking and speaking – a thought dressed in its signs and made visible by means of words, or conversely the very structures of language put into action and producing a meaning-effect.

My aversion to Foucault was renowned and unchanging. Then I read this lecture – initially under duress, for a reading group, and then increasingly with delight. I am now a wholehearted convert (much to the amusement of my post-structuralist colleagues, who had born witness to my previous rants and ravings about the importance of linear or logical narratives.) Damn little Frenchman.

#GoodWritingTips

After hanging out on (and contributing to) the hilarious #BadWritingTips hashtag on Twitter, I figured it was only fair that I try to think of some good writing tips (or at least writing tips that didn’t involve jazz hands and Twilight.)

(Disclaimer: I’m a twenty-something PhD student who drinks entirely too much coffee and tends to live by the motto “Why do it today when it can be put off until tomorrow?” Writing tips are less about passing on advice, and more about reminding myself just how productive I can be if I try.)

 

Write Every Day

If there was only one piece of writing advice that I could give, it’s this: Write every single day. No excuses, no exceptions. It’s partly ‘practice makes perfect,’ partly habit building. Mostly, it’s doing the thing that makes you who you are. Waiting for inspiration is the coward’s way to write. You have to run head-first into writer’s block, not avoid it. Scream like Braveheart if it helps.

 

Talk It Out

Writing in academia is a harsh, unyielding mistress. However, the advantage is that there’s usually other people who are writing in the same field as you. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THESE PEOPLE. BLEED THEM DRY OF THEIR KNOWLEDGE. Or just form a reading group, like I did. Once a week, myself and two other PhD ladies in my field (popular culture / cultural history / political history) get together under the guise of discussing a set reading from our research area. Really, we just drink tea and moan about our work. But after every meeting, without fail, I have a new perspective on my work, or some new research to incorporate. Also, that slightly nauseous feeling you get after drinking your body weight in tea.

 

Find Someone Who Will Critique Your Work

For PhD students, this is usually your thesis supervisor. So make sure you have a good relationship with this person; at least, good enough to be able to send them awful first drafts of papers without too much fear or embarrassment. (The occasional “Here is my work I’M SORRY IT’S SO AWFUL PLEASE DON’T KICK ME OUT” email is ok). Whatever your situation, find someone that you can email your writing to, and know that you’ll get honest feedback. On that note –

 

Don’t Have An Ego When It Comes To Writing

Essentially, your work does not equal your self-worth. This isn’t something I’ve had too much of a problem with: as my nearest and dearest can attest, my ego could power the Eastern Seaboard for a decade. Getting honest feedback on your writing can be tough, but a negative review doesn’t mean that you as a person are hopeless. It just means that you as a writer have some work to do. Keep ‘person’ you and ‘writer’ you separate. (This goes for praise of your writing, too: being able to write well doesn’t make you a better or more worthwhile human being. It just makes you a human being who has a decent grasp on the English language.)

 

The First Draft Will Always Be Awful

No, really. It will. It might look lovely now, but give it a few months and a few rewrites and you’ll want to burn that first draft in a ceremonial bonfire. Good writing is rewriting. Confession time: editing hurts. Sometimes there’ll be a sentence or a paragraph that you’re madly in love with, but that just doesn’t work with the rest of the piece. Here’s what you do:

1. Highlight that sentence paragraph

2. Right-click, ‘Cut’

3. Have a moment of mourning

4. Open up separate document entitled ‘Awesome Work, Sadly Deleted, Gone But Not Forgotten’

5. Right-click, ‘Paste’

6. Save, revisit as necessary.

 

Timers And Accountability: Use Them

Like anyone with a Humanities undergrad degree, I majored in Procrastination with a minor in Nah, I Can Totally Get This Essay Written Before Class Tomorrow. “This isn’t an assignment you can get done the night before” was a challenge, not a warning. Procrastibaking, procrastireading, procrastilaundry, procrasticleaning; I did it all. Sadly, this kind of attitude doesn’t really work for anyone wanting to write more than a Pass level essay. The best way to get past the procrastination reflex is reverse psychology. You know how teachers give a maximum word limit for papers? That’s reverse psychology – instead of making sure you don’t go over 2,000 words, a word limit actually ensures that you write 2,000 words. Reverse psychology for writing is easy: instead of word limits, give yourself time limits. I use a combination of a Pomodoro timer and the Task Timer app on Google Chrome. The Pomodoro timer is set at twenty-five minutes; this is one bloc of writing. I write furiously for twenty-five minutes, then I get a break. (Breaks are essential; they actually increase productivity.) Repeat. The Task Timer app is set for a week of work, making sure I get in a certain number of hours writing per week. By setting a timer, it feels like I only have twenty-five minutes to write, instead of having to write for twenty-five minutes.

 

Planning, Planning, and More Planning

This one is fairly simple. If you’re writing an essay, plan out your major arguments and sort them into paragraphs. If you’re writing a piece of fiction, plan out your story arcs, characters, and major plot points. To use a horribly clunky cliché: writing without a plan is like baking without a recipe. It’ll end up being a total mess, and something that you could only really consume after a few hours at the pub.

 

Change of Scenery

My favourite place to work is in my local café. A little table, a power point for my laptop, soy lattés on tap, and most importantly: no distractions (specifically of the Internet variety). Writer’s block is a bitch; one of the best cures (other than aforementioned Braveheart impersonation) is to change your environment. Even just moving from the desk to the dining room table, or from your office to the library, or from home to the café, changes the way your brain works. There’s been a study recently that suggests cafés are the best places to write (summary here: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/06/study-of-the-day-why-crowded-coffee-shops-fire-up-your-creativity/258742/). Café or no, our brains respond to changes in our environment. If you’ve been sitting at your desk for hours and hours, struggling with writer’s block, try moving to somewhere that hasn’t been the setting for that angst and frustration. And support your local coffee shop.

 

Phone, Wallet, Keys, Notebook, Pen

Never leave home without something to write with and something to write on. Most mobile phones have some sort of note-taking app: USE IT. I promise you, the best flashes of inspiration and writing clarity you’ll ever get will be when you’re not even thinking about your work. I’ve scribbled notes to myself on grocery receipts, on the back of my hand, and even on a bar napkin. I’ve also woken up (on more than one occasion) to find I’ve left myself notes on my mobile in the middle of the night. Have a note-taking app, or a notepad and pen, or even a stack of Post-It notes and a crayon. Anything. Don’t be caught short.

 

For Fuck’s Sake, Read.

Everything. Read from your field (if you’re an academic), read in your genre (if you’re a fiction writer), and read things that have absolutely no relevance to anything you’re writing. The more you read, the better your writing will be. Read great writers, and figure out what makes them great. Read bad writers, and make sure you don’t repeat their mistakes. Read, read, read, read, read.

READ!

To Sleep, Perchance To Dream of a Completed Thesis.

Scene: a town-house in West Ryde. Picking and eating baby corn out of the pot of leftover stir-fry, my hip nestled uncomfortably against the dishwasher, I whinged to my best friend about the life of a PhD candidate.

“I’m exhausted!” I cried. “I’m exhausted, and broke, and I don’t ever feel like I’m getting enough done, and everything I write reads like utter shit, and I’m not even six months into the candidature yet!” Spear the baby corn, chew, chew, adjust hip. (Ouch. That’ll bruise in the morning.)

She glanced out at me from the depths of her pantry.

“Yeah, but you love it.”

Drats. The woman had got me again.

There exists a vague, unspoken masochism in postgraduate study. The money is awful, the hours abominable, and existential crises become a bi-weekly occurrence. And yet we flock to it in droves, clambering for a coveted spot in our chosen department’s echelon of postgraduates. We sneer at the undergrads, and we are astonished by the new batch of Honours students: “My god, were we like that a year ago? What the devil were we stressing about then?! These kids don’t know the meaning of the word stressed!” Conversations with other candidates bypass “how was your weekend?” in favour of “how was your last meeting with your supervisor?” (The inevitable answer, of course, is a despairing wail and a desperate cry of “TELL ME WHAT AM I DOING HERE WHY OH WHY WHAT IS THE MEANING OF IT ALL?”) We lug piles of research with us on holidays, feeling a constant guilt that we’re not shackled to our laptops for a few short days. We stare longingly at our friends, the clever ones who actually snagged a career out of their degree, or the cleverer ones who are flitting around Europe without a care in the world.

And then we sigh, and crack our aching, permanently hunched backs, and throw ourselves back into the teetering pile of overdue library books.

(My chiropractor is never going to be rid of me, nor I of her.)

Despite the tumbleweed in my bank account, despite the frustration of first drafts and archive research, despite the dangerous amounts of caffeine that constantly linger in my bloodstream, I’ve never been happier. Sitting at my laptop, or curled up in the HDR lounge of the university library (with swipe card access! And a kitchen! How fancy!), it never feels like work. It’s a good kind of frustration, a good kind of madness; even a good kind of existential crisis. It’s the reason I keep coming back to study, and the reason I haven’t yet fled the Brutalist 1970s architecture of my university in favour of a comfortable office and an actual pay-check.  Happiness is not my default position. Being anything other than the human version of Eeyore is something I actively have to work at. To stumble upon something that makes me happy with (arguably) minimal effort on my part is too rare for me to throw away.

I’m exhausted, and broke, and I don’t ever feel like I’m getting enough done, and everything I write reads like utter shit, and I’m not even six months into the candidature yet. And I love it.

Let There Be Cosmology.

No one from my generation will ever go to the moon.

 

The Cold War was the reason humanity ever went to space. The Russians had Sputnik, and so the Americans, terrified that their Red foes would get the upper hand, put men on the moon. In the battle of USA v USSR, there were arms races, and alliance races, and races to conquer the Third World, and the space race. Most of these races wrought devastation, their repercussions still felt in the twenty-first century. The space race, however, was the only moment throughout the entire torrid affair that lifted humanity above its minutiae.

 

It should have been a deeply political moment. The United States had won, claiming its temporary victory with a stars-and-stripes flag planted in the most ambitious land grab known to man. It was an American accent broadcasted around the world, and it was an American name – Neil Armstrong – that would be the catch-cry of every child of the moon-landing generation, whose imaginations had been stirred with, “…one giant leap for mankind.” But it wasn’t political. For one brief, shining minute, it was not an American who’s footprint was the first etched into the moon’s surface, but rather that of a human being. For one brief, shining minute, nationality and political allegiance did not matter – all that mattered was that we were the human race, and we had done something so astonishing that it would be our pinnacle of achievement for decades and centuries to come.

 

For one brief, shining minute, we realised how small we really are.

 

In the grand scheme of the universe, we are nothing more than specks of dust. Brilliant, destructive, wonderful dust, but specks of dust nonetheless. I think it does us good to be reminded of that from time to time. We get so caught up in the short-term and the details that we forget the big picture – that our lifespan is a blink, that our world is one of millions, and that we are insignificant. JFK asked America to trust him when he wanted to put a man on the moon within ten years. He asked America to trust in the long-term vision rather than the short-term political expediency, to trust in the abstract rather than the concrete.

 

And America said, “Yes.”

 

(They got to the moon in eight years).

 

We went to space because we were afraid of what the other guys were doing. We went to the moon because the other guys might get there first. Imagine what we could do if there were no ‘other guys,’ if there was no Cold War tension fuelling exploration. Imagine how magnificent we could be if we went back to space simply because we looked at the stars and said, “I wonder how far we could go.” Imagine the world’s most brilliant minds, in one room, with imagination fuelling their work rather than socio-political dogma.

 

It will never happen, of course. Today there are almost no space programs to speak of, and long-term visions like JFK’s are laughed out of the polling booth. Since the dawn of human history we have explored the world around us, and imagination has been at the heart of our progression. The twentieth century saw human knowledge of our world reach new, dizzying heights – not only did we understand space, but we actually went there. We were explorers, and adventurers, and a generation was built on the idea that human possibility is infinite. When we looked at our universe, we also re-examined the more immediate of our environments. Space travel encouraged innovation, and invention, and when space travel is possible our future here on Earth seems a little brighter. We are smaller, but we are all the more wonderful for it. Not anymore. We no longer go to space; we no longer look at the stars with the eyes of a child. We have grown old, and cynical, and it is because we no longer reach out towards the heavens, longing for more knowledge and more adventures. We have, in our own minds, become the centre of the universe once more. And we are poorer because of it.

 

No one from my generation will ever go to the moon.

‘False Prophet: Field Notes From The Punk Underground’ by Steven Taylor

Writing about music is an insurmountable task. It is almost inevitably a lose-lose situation; no matter how good a writer you are, it is near impossible to capture the emotion of music using just words on a page. As a species, we seem to be far more auditory than linguistic. What we try to express with words can usually be said far more clearly with a few notes or a simple chord structure. It’s why we listen to ballads when we’re sad, or thrashing guitars when we’re angry. There is a reason why Beethoven is still so popular: he expresses what our language can’t. I can’t write about music in a way that feels true. Almost no-one can.

 

Enter Steven Taylor.

 

Taylor is a punk rocker turned enthomusicologist. Before today, I’d not heard of him or his band False Prophets, a punk outfit from 1980s / 1990s New York. His book ‘False Prophets: Field Notes From The Punk Underground’ was sitting amongst a plethora of other music texts in my university library. My PhD, you see, is broadly concerned with the relationship between politics and popular culture; really, it’s an excuse to write about music in the only way that I’m comfortable with (academically, and with a large helping of political analysis). The book has a dull grey cover, with thick black lettering in a typography I can only assume has the word ‘punk’ in it’s name. My inner fifteen year old anarchist stirred, finally interested in something other than being angry and yelling at things. And thank fuck it did, because ‘Field Notes’ is the most fascinating book I’ve read in a very long time.

 

Some readers have noted that what’s really presented is “really two books.” So, two for the price of one.

 

The first third of the book is a crash course in ethnomusicology and punk rock. Academic and yet remarkably readable, Book One dashes across a vast number of topics, as energetic as the music Taylor so adores. The paradox of punk, the problem of culture, and the origin myths of the punk world are all given thoughtful treatment by Taylor. He quotes friend and poet Allen Ginsberg liberally, and he talks about identity in a way that makes you feel that it is VERY IMPORTANT. He  invites you to think, and encourages you to question; it’s almost like he’s sitting across from you on the train, talking so excitedly and using such emotive hand gestures that nervous commuters begin to leave the carriage. Taylor is saying, “This is my life, this is what I love, and here are some really cool theories about why it all exists.”

 

The second two-thirds of the book are part tour diary, part memoir. We begin with Taylor entering the False Prophets as replacement guitarist, and he introduces us to the rest of the band by describing their musical preferences – everything from Bowie to 1960s British blues. Almost immediately, the False Prophets are on tour, and Taylor thrusts the reader into a world of dodgy clubs, awful hotels, endless hours in the tour van, sickness and tension and a never-ending parade of fill-in musicians. He begins a fraught relationship with the band’s violinist and resident heroin addict Celia, and describes in visceral detail the horrors of being a travelling punk band with no money and no real prospects. And yet, for all of that, there is a deep affection to the writing, and it’s easy to understand why. Some of the most profound moments in the book are descriptions of the politics of the punk scene, particularly in Europe – anti-government anarchists, and squatters, and leftists, and all manner of the fringe of society, forming a community that fought back against violence and the rise of the skinhead neo-Nazi movement that clouded Europe from the late 1980s.

 

Returning to New York, there is a different cloud that hangs over Taylor: the AIDs epidemic, of which he is particularly afraid given his relationship with an addict. He begins to question his life – at age thirty-five, Taylor is living the same hectic and aimless lifestyle he was living a decade ago, and it’s clear that he wants things to change, if only a little. A writer, he stumbles upon a graduate program in ethnomusicology (the study of the culture of music), and enters the world of academia, albeit very tentatively and with one foot still firmly rooted in the world of the False Prophets.

 

It occurs to me this evening as I arranged my stack of music in K’s piano room that I don’t have to be in a band to write about rock.

 

Eventually, inevitably, Taylor leaves the False Prophets; the demands of graduate school, and writing, and tensions with band members, mean that Taylor slowly slips away from the band. It’s a slow death, with threads of the inevitable appearing throughout his diary entries long before the decision is made. Leaving the band means leaving a large part of his identity behind, and we suddenly realise why Taylor was so insistent that we understand the concept of identity before reaching this point in the book. It’s an apology of sorts, or a farewell. He still plays in bands, and goes to gigs, and even catches up with old False Prophet bandmates from time to time. But it’s not the same.

 

How tired I am. Don’t want to be a punk rocker no more. Don’t want to be in that band. There’s too much stress that has nothing to do with music. It costs too much. I write about them and realize more and more how crazy the whole situation is. I think I’ve reached my limit of tolerance for the down side of it.

 

The book comes with a CD – the False Prophet’s 1990 six-track release ‘Invisible People.’ When I first saw it sitting in the plastic casing on the inside cover, I was concerned. It seemed wrong, or at least a little gauche, to include your band’s CD with an academic text. Like accosting Richard Kingsmill in the street and shoving your demo in his face. But then I listened to it, and it made sense. In every possible way, ‘Invisible People’ is the soundtrack to this book; it adds a whole new layer of meaning to the anecdotes and the characters and the burning, raw energy of the era.  To hear the voices and music of the characters – people, really – that you’ve come to know so well throughout the pages is astonishing.

 

Besides which, ‘Invisible People’ is actually pretty bloody good. It’s smart punk, political and angry and fun. And it has some killer violin.

 

Don’t know how many books about punk rock you can say that about.