Books That Changed My Life, Pt III: My Travel Guides

3 04 2012

I gave a clue in my last post that today I’d be writing about travel. Cheating here and including every travel guide I’ve ever read.

A lot of people scorn travel guides. You’re not a ‘real’ traveller if you have your nose buried in a Lonely Planet / Rough Guide to Wherever. I don’t subscribe to that view. Also, I don’t believe in rigidly following what travel guides set out. A lot of it is common sense and by the time the books hit the shelves, out of date.

That said, some guidebooks have changed my life. Researching my first ‘big’ overseas trip in 1996, I found a one way ticket to Amsterdam which came with a huge bonus: two free flights anywhere in Europe. I hadn’t really thought about where I wanted to go beyond the UK and the Republic of Ireland and figured I’d wing it from there on, but the flight deal was too good to pass up. I checked out my mammoth Lonely Planet Guide to Europe and hit upon an idea: why not squeeze the lemon for all it was worth? I went to the travel agent (hey, it was 1996) and we looked at a KLM flight map. Win. KLM flew to Istanbul … and the airport counted among its European destinations – so that was as far south-ish as I could get. Now for the second leg … just how far could I stretch the friendship eastward? Double win: St Petersburg was on the map. Booked the ticket. The rest I’d figure out as I went along.

The Istanbul leg was pretty simple at first … travel down the coastline and get a flight to Cairo. I’d always been fascinated by the Middle East (well, since hearing of Anwar Sadat’s assassination and asking my Mother if World War III would break out. Yes, she looked at me in a ‘what the actual eff is this child on?’ way). Pouring through my guidebook in my bedsit in Cardiff, Wales, another idea.  Why fly to Cairo when there was so much else to see? Result? Travelled overland from Istanbul to Ankara, got a visa to Syria and from there, worked south through Jordan to Egypt, south to Abu Simbel, north to Alexandria and south-west to Siwa before returning to Cairo and the minibus from hell trip across the Sinai to the border into Israel at Rafah. Well, crossing the border into Gaza. Talk about life changing.

I had to fly out of Istanbul and back to Amsterdam to fly to Russia. What the hell: get a cheap flight to the Turkish holiday resort of Antalya, skip around the Greek islands and head north from the Peloponnese. Athens, of course, but a guidebook convinced me that I couldn’t miss the Great Meteoron Monastery. What a thing of wonder. Mind you, there’s nada in a guidebook (as far as I can recall) about my hare-brained scheme of thinking I could walk across the Greece / Turkey border as I had done from Turkey to Syria. That would be USD10 in a taxi for a 50 metre trip.

Turkey for the third time. Did the pilgrimage to Çanakkale, returned to Istanbul and flew back to Amsterdam. Flew to Saint Petersburg. Utterly amazing city, so amazing you just wander around, slack-jawed, at its scale and grandeur. Time to turn west; a train ticket to Moscow was quoted at tourist rates (you can ask for things in Russian, but at that time, your shoes were a dead giveaway). Estonia was an unexpected delight and still one of my favourite countries; Lithuania will always be bittersweet for me. Beautiful place and people, but the guidebook made me curious to learn more about Vilnius’ past as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’. An elderly man guided me through ‘The Green House’ (the Holocaust museum). I learned more from him than I had at Israel’s Yad Vashem. Thinking about the room only brings memories of the commitment to honour the dead. The true horror of Vilnius (for me) was to come at the former KGB headquarters, now genocide museum, where we stood in line to be shut in a dank, pitch solitary confinement cell. I almost started screaming as the guide closed the door. The place was just as the KGB had left it a mere six years before.

This is becoming like a travelogue – apologies. The rest of that trip – Latvia, Poland, and the-then Czech Republic ended with me broke and needing to get back to England and find a job in a hurry. The great thing about travelling for that length of time is meeting people from all over the world. I stayed in a central Prague apartment thanks to a woman I met in Jerusalem. A Danish guy I met in Estonia made a trip to Copenhagen almost a freebie … and so my reliance on travel guides lessened. I didn’t buy books for a six-week sojourn to France and Italy in 2005, but I still bought a book for later adventures in India – mostly because the Indian tourism office’s range of free material was bloody hopeless. This time, I scoured it (and the internet) for at least a month, then left it at home.

The last travel books I bought were in 2010. I had a stack of leave and was ‘encouraged’ to take it. My entire office weighed in on my destination before I settled on New York, with a brief side trip to Washington D.C. My travel guides changed – I wanted to suck the marrow out of the ‘greatest city in the world’, so I bought books on architecture and a small moleskine city guide, with little maps of the different districts and plenty of space to plot my daily walks around Manhattan. After a few days, I looked purposeful enough for people to ask me the way to subway stations. I’ve seen a lot of the world, but never felt a city itself so alive. The streets hummed with energy. I rented an apartment in the West Village and felt at home. This was the place I was meant to be. My trip to Washington ended up as a mad dash between monuments. The only time I felt at peace was at Arlington National Cemetery. Armed with a map from the tourist centre, the best laugh I had in ages was trying to find the graves of the ‘Supremes’, in particular Chief Justice Earl Warren. I did, eventually, but not before asking a guard. “Justin Warren? Sorry ma’am, I’ve never heard of him.” Suppressing a scold and a giggle, I blamed my accent, which had never been a problem in NYC. In my hotel near the Capitol, I was asked by a fellow lobby barfly whether I spoke English after I quizzed the bar staff about the best bars to move on to. I probably did roll my eyes at that. The local tips were great, but I found the Washington bars cliquey, impenetrable, so I left ‘Marvin’ and a couple of other of the recommended bars before finding a home (and a friendly bartender) at The Saloon. Protip: tip early, and large. You will be richly rewarded. Free shots and straight out asking other patrons to buy the Aussie girl on her last night in America a beer. I barely remember the obligatory late night visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl and struggled, hungover and late, to make my train back to New York.

I haven’t travelled overseas since that trip. I probably won’t travel for a while (which KILLS me). What gets me through? Sometimes it’s scrolling through my travel guides (I’ve kept almost all of them) … but most of all, re-reading the best travel guides in the world: my journals.

Until tomorrow …


30 Books That Changed My Life, Part II: Cry, The Beloved Country

2 04 2012

Quelle surprise: I loved studying English at high school. Of all of my teachers, Greg O’Sullivan, who taught me from Year 8 through to 3 Unit English for the Higher School Certificate, was one of two who had the greatest impact on my life. Not every book in the 1980s school curriculum set my brain and heart on fire. This one managed to do both.

Cry, The Beloved Country: Alan Paton, Jonathan Cape (1948)

Written before, but published at the introduction of South Africa’s apartheid laws, Cry, The Beloved Country was a shock to the system when assigned as a compulsory text to my Year 9 English class in 1986. We were the best English students in a baby-boom bumper crop of about 200 students and had started forming our little views about the world. We had grown up knowing only an apartheid South Africa and that it was wrong. Miss Current Affairs Nerd watched riots in townships on the news. I preferred “Sun City” to “We Are the World”. Raised in a left-wing household, I knew that South Africa had become a pariah on the sporting fields, to our unions, activists, and that our Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had taken on one of my most-loathed politicians, Britain’s PM, Margaret Thatcher over South Africa’s repugnant system of government. Paton’s book shook my little window into South Africa. By the time I put it down, Cry, The Beloved Country introduced shades of grey, even if they were extremely faint to my 15-year-old eyes.

I couldn’t grasp why the main character, Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo was so determined to save his way of life in rural Natal. The ‘black homeland’ policy seemed desperately evil, and with one purpose in mind – to deprive black Africans of land and opportunities. It reminded me of the system of Aboriginal missions in Australia. Then the grey tinge … is the greater evil to be found in the cities, where black men leave their families and tribes for permits to work in the gold mines building a new, unstoppable South Africa? The central refrain: they go to Johannesburg and they do not return.

A letter from Johannesburg drives Kumalo on the trail first trod by his son, Absalom – to the city, to find his ‘ill’ sister Gertrude. Kumalo is portrayed as the ultimate naïf in the city, a sort of ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington‘. For all its built wonders, Johannesburg is a place where people are killed simply crossing the street. It is dark and dirty, reflected in the life of Kumalo’s sister. Gertrude is a prostitute, not the Queen of Sheba but queen of the ‘shebeen’ (sly grog house). She agrees to return to Natal. Stephen Kumalo has ‘saved’ one soul – but there is one seemingly beyond redemption: Absalom.

If Stephen Kumalo is an ‘Uncle Tom’ – a compliant, ‘good’ black man, his brother John appears to be the opposite. He speaks, with great flourish, about the injustices perpetrated against black South Africans, but is careful never to go ‘too far’. He has benefited materially from the system, his narrative is estranged from the political voices and protests I knew – he is wary of black men gaining power, because power corrupts. Only the very good black man could gain power and not be corrupted. It’s interesting to me, looking back now on the veneration of Nelson Mandela, the living embodiment of John Kumalo’s ‘very good black man’. My apartheid-era hero is a man who died: Steve Biko (more on Biko to come in another post).

As the search for Absalom takes his father and his companion, Father Msimangu through reform schools, an unwed girl pregnant to his son, and finally, to jail: his son has been arrested for killing a white man. Worse: his son is accused of murdering a ‘good’ white man – Arthur Jarvis, the activist son of Kumalo’s ‘neighbour’, the wealthy Natal landholder, James  Jarvis. Arthur Jarvis is everything a liberal, white reader can associate with – a man whose social views are in no doubt; he sees racial injustice and ‘we’ are grateful for the life of such a man. His writings force his father to accept his share of the ‘white man’s burden’ and carry on his work, from his position of privilege. In the meantime, the other father, Stephen Kumalo, must struggle with the shock and anger that all of his ‘goodness’ has not been rewarded by God. His son will hang. His sister is a low woman. His brother is one lost to Johannesburg. Turning to an English priest, Stephen’s struggle is  the essence of the novel, and to a 15-year-old suburban white girl, of South Africa itself. Why love, fiercely, proudly, when that love is predicated on fear? Stephen Kumalo loves his God, his family, his way of life in rural Natal, and yet these things are under threat – not only from white men, but from urbanisation and the decay of the tribe? Why love Absalom – the son who represents everything that white South Africa fears of the overwhelming black majority – petty thief turned murderer? Why love this ‘beloved country’? Yet, in Stephen Kumalo’s reconciliation with his condemned son, and James Jarvis’ awakening to its racial cleavages through his lost son, this pre-apartheid novel may well prove an allegory for post-apartheid South Africa. Mandela, the good man, sought to heal the beloved country through ‘truth and reconciliation’, not retribution. As the book closes, Kumalo seeks small improvements to the village through the tribal way, through the Chief.  Instead, it is James Jarvis who helps Kumalo achieve his vision of better farming land. A new dawn? Yes, but the dawn of Absalom’s execution, and so we cry.

Cry, The Beloved Country changed me. It made me think hard and fast about race relations in Australia; the systemic, institutionalised abuse and marginalisation of Aboriginals, ‘our’ fear of the ‘other’, our pride, our love and our xenophobia. The next year, I spent my summer holidays on an exchange visit to Japan. It was my first time on a plane; but more about travel tomorrow.

Until then …

30 books that changed my life, Part 1: Watership Down

1 04 2012

First thing: this is not a list of ‘XX books you should read before you die’, rather a month-long meander through books of all genres and ages that make me think more, seek refuge in, and ultimately, helped shape the person I am.

Watership Down, Richard Adams, Rex Collings Ltd, 1972

A book about rabbits. Excellent. Where’s my Barbie? I think that sums up my reaction to my 8th birthday present from my Mum and Dad (1979).

I started reading, because that’s what bookish kids do. I didn’t like the frightened Fiver with his strange visions. His brother, Hazel, assumes (not quite so reluctantly) leadership of a small band of rabbits which escapes the destruction of their established warren, but as the journey to the ‘high, lonely hills, where the wind and the sound carry and the ground’s as dry as straw in a barn’ of Fiver’s imaginings results in the establishment of the Watership Down warren, he proves to be the one able to summon the best from each. Hazel is not the strongest, smartest, or most entertaining rabbit. Those honours go to Bigwig, Blackberry and Dandelion. His wisdom is questioned by the others when he befriends mice and the unforgettable injured gull, Kehaar. Hazel’s wisdom is not always explicit to the reader, either. To survive, Watership Down needs does. Yep, got it. Hazel sends Holly, Silver, Buckthorn and Strawberry to a big warren spotted by Kehaar as ‘ambassadors’, with a peace and love idea that they be allowed to take some does from the over-crowded Efrafa back to Watership Down … and plots a raid on Nuthanger Farm to free its thatched rabbits. Holly and the others  escape Efrafa with their lives but no does and the farm raid is almost a disaster.

Efrafa with its marks, regimented eating and shitting times, wide patrols and all-powerful Council and Owslafa is as close to the existence of Orwell’s 1984 as an eight year-old is likely to come. A dark, fearful place for all except a chosen few, where the population accepts its fate, to remain meek and unquestioning under the tyranny of General Woundwort.

Rather than cheer the rabbits the night before another attempt is made to infiltrate Efrafa and escape with enough does to ensure the survival of Watership Down, Bigwig insists storyteller Dandelion relate The Story of El-Ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inle. It’s in the rabbits’ speech (Lapine, as distinct from the ‘hedgerow’ talk of other creatures) and their fables that Adams gives another gift: introducing a new way of speaking of the sun and telling time, an acceptance of strange words and phrases – ‘silflay’, ‘hrududu’, elil’, ‘ni-Frith’ – which later made me treasure Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Similarly, Adams introduces each chapter with the words of other great writers, from Aeschylus to Auden, Browning and Belloc. It is only in adulthood that I drew the meaning of these paragraphs to the chapters that followed.

All novels have a character which the reader relates to, or aspires to be. I did not want to be the leader. I admired the ingenuity of Blackberry, of course, but my heart was set on Thlayli (Bigwig) from the moment he agreed, as a member of the Sandleford warren, to take the inconsequential Hazel and his brother Fiver, with their warnings of impending doom, to the Chief Rabbit. As a frightened, damaged child who needed to survive my own Black Rabbit, Bigwig’s valour and unyielding strength lent me some. His heart, bigger than the strange thatch of fur on his head. His hot temper mixed with his tender care for Kehaar. His wild, unrelenting fury in the face of Woundwort’s assault on Watership Down. All of these things taught me to be hard even when I had nothing to hang on to, no one to speak to, only myself to lick my wounds.

I received my copy of Watership Down more than 30 years ago. It’s the book of my childhood, a book that with every re-reading, imbues it with new values and qualities. That loyalty should not be blind. That it is right to question convention. That no idea, potential ally or friend is too stupid or small … and sometimes, there are things that are not worth dying for, but worth fighting for with your life.

Until tomorrow …

Quiet, please …

28 01 2012

As <insert commercial TV station’s name here> draws the net cord on another summer of tennis, I’ve let the 60,000 tweets coalesce into some sentences with too many adjectives to run through a few of my favourite moments of one of my favourite times of year:

1/. You say goodbye, I say hello: two Australian men reached the fourth round of the Open for the first time since 1976, when Mark Edmonson invented tennis (NB: I am inventing this. It is not true. I think.); one a ‘wretched child’ (copyright Bernard Keane) the other, Bernard Tomic. No, switcheroo. After giving many of us joy with his on court calm and the realisation that at 19, he has that something else that leaves you a little slack-jawed in awe, Tomic has reverted to being another Gold Coast dickhead taking road etiquette lessons from Shane Warne. The much-maligned (well, by me, for his entire Sorbent-endorsing career) Little Lley Lley bundled himself into the commentary bunker without so much as a, ‘jeez, my career’s almost over, what should I do?’. He’s a natural. He knows the nuances of the current crop’s game and adds value to the viewing experience. Do yourself a favour, son: announce your retirement and sew up a contract. Which brings me to …

2/. Seven’s commentary team: in the history of sport, has there ever assembled a more annoying, sexist, Captain Obvious bunch than this lot? OK, Channel 9’s cricket team has that trophy in perpetuity, and Versus’ coverage of the Tour de France, where they use on-screen markers to point out Lance Armstrong, is certainly the most brain embolism-inducing; but Seven’s whacky ability to combine cross-promos, ad breaks during games, the pointless Megawalls and crowd-o-meters, with new bullshit, such as ‘Get Jimbo to ask an open mic question’ writes itself. As Fairfax’s chief sports columnist, Richard Hinds, tweeted last night, ‘is it Marry My Kitchen or My Boy Rules?’ Enough with the South Australian princess, the endless shots of the WAGs, the fairly disgraceful promotion of gambling, Todd Woodbridge for being Todd Woodbridge, and the question on everyone’s lips (well, mine): why was Henri Leconte banished to the back courts this year? I love him. He brings the crazy, the passion, the ‘YES!’ courtside. Who cares that he’s biased toward French players? He’s French. It’s a given. My, ‘bring back Henri’ campaign starts Monday, 30 January 2012.

3/. The Twitspats: not so much a fight as my good friend, Melbourne journalist and friend of the game, Neil McMahon, retweeting obnoxious comments made by Bernard Keane. Bernard, you misanthropic old prick, if you can’t grasp the basics (i.e. Rafael Nadal is among the world’s most humble athletes, not a prick), and want to act like a giant ‘wretched child’, be my guest. Tennis is generally a game where even if you love a player who loses, you can say, ‘tennis was the winner on the day’ after a match the quality of the Nadal-Federer semi. It was, as the kids say, amazeballs, and a joy to watch.

4/. The Twitspats Mark II or ‘it’s all about me’: it began in Bris Vegas, where my tendency (ok, constant) references to yesterday’s Great British Hope and today’s Scotsman, Andy Murray, as ‘Andy Pandy Have a Fuckin’ Shandy’ drew the ire of the Andy Murray Fanclub of Buttfuck, Idaho in an exchange which went something like this:

Me: “Oh, fer fuck’s sake, Andy Pandy Have a Fuckin Shandy is on course for a title, if only because he doesn’t want to have a meltdown in front of Lendl.”

Andy Pandy Have a Fuckin’ Shandy Fan: “You’re just JEALOUS because Andy Murray is the second coming of Christ. You are PATHETIC.”

Me: ‘Have you never heard of The Thick of It? Oh wait, you’re from Buttfuck Idaho. That would be a no.” BLOCKED.

The bestest, everest, tennis twitspat of my summer was the advent of Bernard Tomic’s Twitter account. I am a Tomic fangirl, so I started following. My suspicions (and those of a fair few others) that this wasn’t Our Kid but a fake account set up by a 17 year old whose Twitter bio reads, ‘dancing in his garage’ started when he thanked said garage dancer for helping set up his account. When challenged to prove his Tomic-ness, he asked his followers to help verify the account. Um, yeh, right. Night after night of exhausting four-or five set matches, Our Kid was tweeting well into the early hours, not insights into his day, but RTs of people who asked for RTs. When asked to post a pic to settle the matter once and for all, he announced he was quitting twitter and went deep quiet faster than a South Korean submarine. The sad fact of the matter is he wasn’t a good fake. He failed to bring the funny; if done properly, say in the Fake Shane Watson league, it was the time and place to do it. I do like that he accused me of trying to make him feel worthless; a tweet that went around the true believers and earned me so much gold it was multi-platinum.

5/. The derp-domination of summer came to an end: the great twitter war of ancient Greek words for womb faded away. The King’s Tribune got a well-deserved write up in The Age, and I discovered that Juzzy and Jane have a child. Oh, there was also the great reveal of Paula Matthewson’s sekrit identity and the even greater reveal that Twitter has a ‘cool kids’ clique. I think it’s all a crock of shit, so ner, ner, ne, ner, ner, go and have a shandy the fucking lot of you. Mine’s an Old, because that’s what Newcastle Under 8s drink after a hard 7am training session on grass courts (it was the 70s) before taking it to the Merewether under 12s (and their poxy bitumen excuse for a competition court) and going down, bravely, 6-0 6-0.

6/. The derp-domination of summer did not come to an end: shrieking is not a feminist issue. The decibel-defying play of Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka drew Agnieszka Radwanska out of the locker room to say it did put her off her game. Things I do not agree with: tonight’s final being labelled the showdown of the grunters. Plenty of players, male and female, grunt on and off during matches. I put that down to sheer exertion. Sharapova and Azarenka shriek on almost every point. It’s not grunting, it’s screaming, and to me, pure gamesmanship. What I loathe is the idea that the on-court shrieking gives open slather to denigrate these athletes with the cheap Neanderthal crap of, ‘jeez, how would they go in bed?!?’ (yes, professional sports commentator for ABC Grandstand, Glenn Mitchell, I’m looking at you, you tool of monumental proportion). As we’ve seen throughout the Australian Open, gamesmanship exists in some really shiteous ways: Rafael Nadal’s 800 ball bounces before serve; Novak Djokovic wandering around court in second sets like he’s been shot and about to throw in the towel; players looking to their boxes for confirmation that they should take a challenge – but the shrieking takes the cake. Sadly, it detracts from the fact that they are in the final because they’ve played better tennis.

7/. Controversy Corner with Margaret Court: The Guardian reported that British teenager, Laura Robson, ‘walked unwittingly into a political row’ by wearing a rainbow hairband as part of the protest against Court’s abhorrent homophobia. I shit you not, this made The Guardian. Margaret Court’s hate-filled fundie fucktardedness is mind-boggling in its intensity, but she got a platform at this time of year because she is the greatest female tennis player Australia has produced and has a fourth court named after her. The Rainbow Protest to get the arena named after her changed fizzled, so we were left with a progressive newspaper arguing that a teenaged British player with a multi-coloured hairband was leading the anti-homophobic charge. In a sport where, arguably, homosexual women have said, ‘bring it on, we’re gay’, for a lot longer than any other pursuit, sporting or otherwise, I find it difficult to say that her king-size ker-azy deserves stripping changing the name of the arena. Court has been denounced for her reprehensible statements by former players and almost everyone with a brain. She’s a patently bat-shit crazy woman who invented her own church. Still, her record as a player is mind-boggling and unlikely to be repeated: she won more than half of the Grand Slam singles tournaments she played (24 of 47) She won 192 singles titles before and after the Open Era – an all time record. Her career singles win-loss record was 1,177-106, for a winning percentage of 91.74 percent on all surfaces (hard, clay, grass, carpet); also an all time record. She won at least 100 singles matches in 1965 (113-8), 1968 (107-12), 1970 (113-6), and 1973 (100-5). She won more than 80 percent of her singles matches against top 10 players (297-73) and was the year-end top ranked player seven times. (Source: Wikifuckingpedia). She is, statistically, the Don Bradman of women’s tennis. If we’re going to honour an Australian woman, may I suggest the Evonne Goolagong Arena; Goolagong’s achievements are right up there with the best (14 Slams in the Open era); may I also suggest a name change would give Court and her ilk a greater platform for their nutbag platforms, and a generation of people who laud her tennis achievements a reason to hate teh gays. I’ve never seen Margaret Court given the same respect the men hold for Rod Laver– a lesson for all of us? The locker room has spoken. Let the record stand, but shun the descent of a great into raving crank.

8/. #tweetlikeToddWoodbridge #tweetlikeaChannel7commentator #AustralianOpenfashiontweets … if it wasn’t a free three-minute ad for Nike in the guise of an exclusive behind-the-scenes interview with Serena Williams, we’ve been treated day-in, day-out, to the unnecessary commentary on what female players are wearing on court, down to the colour of the strapping on their lithe legs. Love the shoes, love the skirt, love the bag, love it all. Belongs in the front row of a Milan catwalk, not courtside or commentary box in a Grand Slam. The perfect comeback? …

9/. The Calippo Curse: it started with Fernando Verdasco. Retina-scorching clothing the colour of an 80s iceblock. Having never eaten a Calippo, I struggled for the name, and then it came to me, courtesy of a pointer from my mate, @iamtheoracle to the amusing twitter stream of a Collingwood player. As players fell – Tsonga, Dolgopolov, all of them decked out in #Calippo, it seemed appropriate to take on my nemesis, Todd Woodbridge, and play a few games of piss-taking fashion tweetage between score checks. #Calippo caught on between a few tweeps. I’ll get Woodbridge in the end.

10/. Finally, quiet please. It’s the most basic of rules: if you are in the crowd, you do not call out between serves. End of; no correspondence shall be entered into. For all of the gamesmanship, this is a game of etiquette and deserves to be treated as such. Tomas Berdych learnt a very harsh lesson when he refused to shake hands with Nicolas Almagro after defeating the Spaniard in the fourth round. He broke the code. In other matches, I’ve seen the victor not only pay lip service to the vanquished, but applaud the gladiator. I love that today’s top players are in touch with the history of the game; that Rafael Nadal treats a practice court visit from Rod Laver as a privilege, the iPhone cameras out to record the moment; these amazing young men childlike in his company; the great Roger Federer in tears on accepting the 2006 trophy from his hands. Does this happen at any other Grand Slam? I don’t know; but it melted me when I heard, ‘Mr Laver’ from Novak Djokovic after his win last night. It sums up why I love this sport. So, quiet please; acknowledge the mastery, the guile, the on-court IQ and the physical and mental will that prevails in the end. Thank you, Vika and Maria, Nole and Rafa for giving it everything. Let the finals of the 2012 Australian Open commence. My tips? Azarenka and Djokovic.

12 for ’12: How I Use Twitter

30 12 2011

Blame @mfarnsworth entirely.

After a series of Direct Messages (or DMs, as the kids say) on 28 December, Malcs posted a primer on how he uses Twitter. I hate to disappoint you by not revealing the content of said coup planning, I mean, direct messages, but having been encouraged by the estimable Mr Farnsworth into sharing my Twitter weirdness, here it is:

1/. In the beginning …

… there were politics and elections. I joined Twitter while working as a NSW political staffer on 4 April 2009. I was probably bored during Question Time & thought, ‘I know. I’ll give that Twitter thing a go’. It could very easily have been the trapeze I decided to take up that afternoon, but I started (a locked) Twitter account under my own name.

I soon discovered that to get the most out of Twitter, you have to put yourself out there. I unlocked my account, which didn’t go down very well with some of my former political masters – not because I was giving away state secrets, but because of the old political adage: ‘if you don’t want it in the Sunday papers, don’t do it’. I was warned that my openness about my mental illness (particularly, talking about my anxiety disorder medication in what I thought was a fairly innocuous way) was setting me up as an easy mark for the then-Opposition. To this day, I think it had more to do with the potential embarrassment for a story on staffers – and again, ‘staffers are never the story’.

2/. Why Twitter?

Twitter’s allure as a news and expert opinion aggregator is a no-brainer. In 2009, I used Twitter as a way of accessing information that helped me enormously while I was studying international relations.  By 2010, in real-time, I was getting booth-by-booth results in the UK General Election, followed by the US Congressional races and sharing with incredulity the most awful attack ads I could find with @chas_usa. This year, I followed the Presidential election and violence in Cote d’Ivoire closely and engaged on a deeper level with people in Africa. Sometimes the foreign policy wonks / correspondents respond to my questions or tweets; most of the time I just seize upon the links and information they provide.

3/. Human Contact

There are #wonkdrinks, which in Sydney has lost momentum, and tweet-ups if someone is in town. I’ve met people who share my passions. I’ve made friendships I hope will last a lifetime – but a word to the wise: Twitter is not your friend. Never again will I participate in real life rescue missions for people I have never laid eyes on. Sounds callous? Try calling ambulances because people say they’ve overdosed, only to have the ambos told to go away. Then more messages and phone calls along the same lines. Result: cops at my door in the early hours of the morning whose jaws dropped on the floor when I said I had only ‘met’ this person through Twitter; followed by a complaint days later that I had made vexatious calls. Fortunately, there were several people who had been contacted and if I had to prove what happened, I could. Also: I’m more cautious about meeting people (only in a group setting first) and handing out my number via DM.

4/. Following

If someone follows me, I check out their tweets. If they’re real, and not trying to sell me real estate, cars or their social media expertise, I return the follow. It’s polite, and why I think my follower to following ratio is fairly even. That said, I will probably cut the number of accounts I follow in the new year – as I said, I rarely use a global filter. I either want to get news from you or engage with you. If we’re not getting that out of Twitter, what’s the point? I try to keep my list ‘clean’ as I rarely apply a global filter (exception: #auspol). Which leads me to my next topic …

5/. To block, or not to block?

I look at my new followers carefully, and I don’t just block spambots. Don’t try to sell me stuff. You’re blocked. If you tweet quotes, and that’s all – blocked. If you engage in vitriolic behaviour toward people I know on Twitter (especially people I have met) and respect, I will call you out on it, probably with added swearing, in public if you’re being an utter twat and then get out the old blockity block. See more under ‘Criticism and Abuse’ and ‘The Great Unhinging’.

6/. Conversation

While I still use Twitter as a news and opinion source, the great, unbridled joy I’ve found is when you bond with people over random things, like a mutual appreciation for the built environment lovers’ wonder that is Grand Designs (especially when it comes to #ohKevin). That and seeing Malcolm Farnsworth, and lately, @mishaschubert, #tweetlikemalcolmtucker.

As in real life, if I’m having a conversation with someone, I address them first – not in the middle of a sentence. If it’s a conversation I’d prefer to have alone, I use DM.

7/. Twitter superstar, that is what you are …

I will take quality over quantity any day. There are no kings and queens of Twitter. Apply a pub test. I follow and tweet people I’d like to have a beer with (or water, coffee, whatever). If you’re so far up your own arse that you retweet praise from your boss or a #FollowFriday recommendation, get over yourself. Say thank you, to that person – don’t broadcast it or include everyone else in the #FF.

Another pet peeve? Tweeps who do not credit a source when tweeting news, someone else’s opinion or factoids. It’s not hard. If you have nothing to add, RT so your followers know where you got the information. If you’re amending the tweet for space reasons, use MT. If you’re rewriting the tweet but using the same source (I do this quite a lot when linking to articles) use ‘via’. Chances are you didn’t break the news, write the story or publish the opinion, so give credit where it’s due (including the publication if the writer doesn’t have a personal account). It will also cover your arse if the report is wrong.

Oh, for the record, I’m not Malcolm Turnbull’s sister. I #tweetlikemalcolmtucker. If you’ve never seen Peter Capaldi’s performance in ‘The Thick of It’ or ‘In the Loop’, I am fangirling a fictional character and taking the piss out of my profanity-fuelled, political media adviser past.

8/. Abuse & criticism

I’ve dished it out big time, but I don’t think (feel free to correct the record) I’ve ever trolled someone for no reason. I have a very quick temper which nearly cost me a very good friendship with @prestontowers (this is after we’d met) until he reached out to me and I realised what a stupid bitch I’d been. That’s the mark of a friendship, one forged online and strengthened in person.

I know I shit a lot of people to tears. I tweet a lot, I’m opinionated, obstinate and not half as amusing as I think I am; however, I believe you can disagree with people on Twitter without resorting to thinking people are stupid. I’m political, but I hold a lot of contrary opinions to people who I really enjoy interacting with, and increasingly, bonding with people I would never have thought possible (like @markatextor – intro’d to me by @Drag0nista). There are also times when people I don’t know will say something about a tweet I sent the day before and I react badly. I have to learn to walk away from the keyboard more often. If I believe so strongly in something that I’ll hold my ground, look for flaws in logic or ask whether you’ve pulled that one out of your arse because I believe in critical thinking. Change my mind, convince me, recommend something to read / watch / learn more about. It’s different to criticism or calling someone an idiot, sell-out or whatever else because they don’t share your view, especially if it’s slavishly party political. I’ve taken to calling Twitter ‘Twittargh’ – & last week tweeted that I’d like to see more of the ‘Twit’ and less of the ‘aargh’.

9/. The great unhinging

I have completely lost the plot on Twitter a few times. It’s never pretty. It’s generally when I’m unwell, or drunk – sometimes a combination. It’s a pretty feeble excuse for some of my behaviour; I would like to be seen on Twitter as in real life, not a special case because I am treated for borderline personality and anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, and hurtfully for the people around me (in real life and on Twitter), there are times when my behaviour is incredibly challenging and difficult to watch. If you know me well enough to DM me, tell me to get off twitter for my own good and that of others. If you don’t, tell me in public but try and understand that I may switch from bolshy and nasty to fearful and anxious very quickly. I don’t like asking for help as a walking, talking person (or online) – it’s another aspect of the crazy. If I do, I will try via DM. It’s not always a bad thing. It’s realising, actually admitting weakness; a huge thing for me. It does not mean that I’m going to hurt myself. If I see other people hurting, I try to support them in private – via DM.

I’ve only felt truly threatened on Twitter once. A politician didn’t take kindly to me cracking a joke about his footballing knowledge. Several days later, he (or a staffer), tweeted: ‘does your boss know what you tweet about?’. It was retweeted by a prominent journalist, prefaced as a political stoush. It wasn’t. It was about football! A journalist I’d never interacted with poured some more scorn on, said I swore a lot. Yes, I do. Mostly followed by #tweetlikemalcolmtucker. Then another journalist called me on my private number because they wanted to run a story on it. By this time I was hysterical, in fear of losing my job over what I saw as an innocuous joke – I wasn’t abusive. I begged them not to do write anything. To their credit, they didn’t pursue the story.

10/. Pseudonymity

I was in a position where setting up a pseudonymous account would probably have been a smarter option, but I didn’t think about it. People have very good reasons for not revealing their names – it may affect their employment, their families, impinge on their freedom to write what they like. For others, I don’t get it. If your sole aim is to abuse other people for their opinions, or who they are, have the guts to put your name to it.

11/. It’s not you, it’s me

The issue that never fails to make me set my hair on fire about Twitter is when I receive the, ‘you tweet about XX too much’ tweet. This is invariably when I tweet about sport. I realise this leaves a lot of people cold; so when I’m about to tweet a Swans away game or a ball-by-ball account of a Test match, or cycling, I give a warning, two, sometimes three, letting people know that there’s going to be one topic happening for the next few hours about something they really hate, or don’t want clogging their timeline, I send it out, which offers people the opportunity to unfollow (and, I hope, come back) or put a filter on the hashtag. I think this is polite and mirrors what I would do with my friends: share an interest (obsession) with people I would speak to these things about. The one thing I do not, and will never do, is send other people whiney messages about what they choose to tweet because I don’t relate to it – such as their children, their culinary talents or technology. I follow people based on the totality of what they choose to tweet. It’s a reflection of who you are – or the facets of your personality you choose to put out there. Others have suggested that I create separate accounts for my different interests. That would involve me splitting myself in eleventy ways.

12/. One more thing …

Perhaps the greatest gift Twitter has presented me is the courage to write. I started a blog, and this year, was published for the first time on @ABCthedrum … maybe not such a big deal, but I’m still proud of it, mostly because of the reaction I got from friends who didn’t know I write. Thanks, Twitter. It’s been (un)real. Here’s to 2012.

Words on a page

15 11 2011

Little white flowers will never awaken you.

Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you.

 ‘Gloomy Sunday’, Rezső Seress

A man dies, early, unexpectedly. Bewilderingly. A man I only knew as a writer I admired, an expert commentator on a game I love. I mourned the loss of those words, never to be written or voiced again.

I’d never thought about the man beyond the words on a page, or the voice on the radio. Unless information about people’s private lives is made public, I admit, I rarely think about it. I knew there was a very public disgrace, conviction for assaulting three young men in his care who were brave and reported him to the police. Reprehensible acts, facts, there for all to read in black and white.

For the last day, as the whispers of those ‘in the know’, blind sources, and media reports quoting other media reports, grew louder; the vicious dogs bark at me and I scream in the night as the rats surround my bed. The man who leapt to his death from a hotel balcony in South Africa, the facts, as they are known, the speculation and reports … if, I say to myself. If.

In the act of writing, you expose yourself, as much of yourself, as you choose. There it is. In black and white, words on a page. To live apart, removed from the world as it is, may be a choice and one which can be forced upon you. I can’t live with my feelings. I can’t be with them.  Allowing yourself to be seen as the person you are, with the door locked, takes resolve. The man who committed suicide on Sunday may have exhausted his reserves. If. I don’t know the man who broke his own body; almost all of the words on the many pages since Sunday morning have been the same. Loner. Apart. Increasingly, if. Those who loved, hated or accused him know these words, written in black and white because they will forever be associated with him, and them.

I know these words. The deep cleft within me, I suppress; this pillaging anger and sorrow for the many people affected by association with the defiler of my childhood. He was a rapist and my mother’s father. How could my own mother not see this child of hers change, change and degenerate; yet I speak to her and I know her pain is one she carries, hard and unforgiving. My father, so tormented that this filthy crime happened on his watch. I look at him and I know he cannot see past it. My abuser was the husband of a grandmother I mourn deeply and wonder, how, in a small fibro house, how did she not hear or see anything? How could she sleep while her husband left their marital bed to enter mine? How can I seek relief from a god who refused to hear my cries? In what great hell must we all live, damaged irretrievably. Who can I blame, when there is one dead man, and many living who loved him, including me, who now revile and have nowhere to empty their disgust except on themselves. I knew as a teenager, that he was finished with me, and I said nothing to anyone who has outlived me. J’accuse … when I accuse myself? I cannot speak of this truth, so these words are left, words on a page.

These things that set me alone and apart are what they are; they are what I am, when the door is closed. They may appear black and white; but when I write, I hazily sketch the grey, grey words on a page.

The fighter

13 11 2011

“I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments.

The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

Earl Warren, 14th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America

This post is dedicated to the memory of Joe Frazier, the Olympic and world champion boxer, who died this week, the first man to defeat Muhammad Ali in ‘the fight of the century’ in the year of my birth. It will come as no surprise to anyone who follows me on Twitter, or reads this blog, or has ever had a conversation with me, that I love sport. My interest in some has diminished over time, while others have grown into obsessions. Some loves, however, are constants: cricket and the round ball game, soccer, football, call it what you will.

Let me be clear: I am an armchair sports fan par excellence. I cannot run out of sight on a dark night, as my Dad would say; and my body attests. In a family where generations of sporting trophies were displayed throughout homes, my contribution is a small silver-plated medal: dux of my primary school, 1983. I readily admit to envying the seeming ease with which my father played tennis ambidextrously and went to the beach every morning to run and swim, big night before regardless; my brother competing at state and national level in multiple individual sports; a sister who rowed surfboats.

I may not have won the dust-gathering trophies, but I love that as a gangly girl who could bowl overarm, I was always picked to play Joel Garner in caravan park cricket. It was the ultimate icebreaker with kids I met across India in 2007. I love a day at the races, wearing hats and watching horse and jockey round the straight; I cherish the many nights spent stalking angles on the pool table of my local in East Dulwich, London. My hands clasped together, involuntarily as a Sydney Swan lines up for a shot at goal, the involuntary ‘YEEEES!’ as I leap and cheer from the O’Reilly Stand; the joy of watching a perfectly-delivered cross headed past the keeper (unless the keeper is Mark Schwarzer); the tension, ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of a long rally in a Grand Slam final.

Whenever an Arts Minister trots out the statistic that more Australians attend a ‘cultural’ institution each year than a sporting match, I wince. Who decreed sport is not cultural? Is it not a slight twist in our colonial kowtowing to label as philistines those Australians visiting Mother England who choose the Theatre of Dreams over the Old Vic? I don’t believe sport has to be an either / or – even an ‘and’; love it, loathe it, let one, another or all leave you cold. It doesn’t have to be The Ashes versus Ashkenazy; Cadel winning the Tour de France or a tour de force by Cate. Why are people confounded by others’ enjoyment of some, or all of these things, and more? People who watch the boxing documentary, When We Were Kings may also think of the detritus of a State left by an unhinged dictator; those who read For Whom The Bell Tolls might learn more about the complex rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid (it’s not all Republican vs Nationalist); we can mourn Ayrton Senna, not only for his brilliance on the F1 track, but for his philanthropy; we remember the image of St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar lifting his guernsey, pointing to his brown skin, defiant in the face of overt racism, just as we celebrate Charles Perkins and the Freedom Riders for returning to Moree, unbowed, after being denied entry to its public swimming pool, forcing council to lift the 40-year-old ban.

… so I reach, in a not-so-neat segue, back to Joe Frazier, and his great rival, Ali. Then Cassius Clay, Ali threw his Olympic gold medal in the Ohio River after being refused service in a restaurant and seemed to throw his career away when he refused induction into the United States army. Reviled and admired for his overt protest, Ali symbolised the ‘Black Power’ zeitgeist. Less loquacious than Ali, Frazier lobbied for his right to box to be reinstated; and refused to contest Ali’s championship belt after it was stripped from him for saying no to Uncle Sam in 1967. Imagine the hatred, the hurt burnished into ‘Smokin Joe’s’ heart when ‘The Greatest’ called him an ‘Uncle Tom’, at a press conference before their ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ fight. Ali, whose words were as powerful as his punch, wanted Frazier to be seen as the ‘white man’s boxer’. It was a low point in a personal enmity between two men raised in the segregated South and a deeply political one, more impactful than the inanity passed off as political comment today.

One final tribute. On learning of Frazier’s passing, another of his great fighting foes, George Foreman, simply tweeted:

Good night, Joe Frazier. I love you dear friend.

Poetry, in less than 140 characters, from a man who was integral to the, ‘apex of pedigree fighting in which each man would not give an inch until they were dead.’ ~ Mike Tyson.