Funny haha

What is the difference between “just a funny guy under a spotlight”, and a comedian?

Lawrence Mooney

Previously unrecognised as a journal of semiotics, The Adelaide Advertiser sparked a minor Twitter brouhaha (haha?) this week when it posed this interesting question in a brief, uncomplimentary and otherwise poorly written review of Melbourne “funnyman” Lawrence Mooney’s one-man show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. The piece, penned by hitherto anonymous hack Isabella Fowler, whose previous beat had been News Corp’s real estate section, would undoubtedly have sunk without trace into the seventh circle of search engine obscurity, had it not been for Mooney’s ill-advised reaction on social media.

As more than one amateur media theorist noted on Twitter in real-time, Mooney’s apoplectic, emotionally incontinent response was a case study in how to self-harm in the digital space, and draw attention to a shit review that nobody would otherwise have read. But in one sense, it’s easy to see why Mooney reacted in such a seemingly disproportionate way. Because to be adjudged unfunny, or not in command of the craft of being funny, represents an existential threat to a comedian in the same way that verifiable innumeracy does to an accountant, or impotence to a porn star.

But in addition, as Helen Razer has observed in typically mordant fashion, the exchange illustrates the devaluation of criticism in today’s cultural landscape, with junior, multi-tasking hacks like Fowler being asked to pass judgment on subjects they have little knowledge of or interest in, for the benefit of a dwindling pool of readers who actually look to critics to help them shape their opinions and choices. But I would argue there is an added dimension to Fowler’s question, in that the dichotomy it presents speaks to the demystification and devaluation of craft – particularly in comedy but also in other areas of the arts – that has been wrought by open access to the means of cultural production, online.

For millenials, the concept of a “professional comedian” must be starting to seem rather quaint, given that everybody is now engaged full-time in trying to be funny for an online audience, every day, for free. Whether it’s wittily captioning a bad coffee on Instagram, crafting Wildean epigrams on Twitter or liking shopworn memes on Facebook, we are all constantly trying to be “just a funny guy under a spotlight”: someone who is inherently, effortlessly funny, but who doesn’t feel the need to turn pro. In this world, someone plying their trade as a “comedian” runs the risk of looking like they’re trying too hard. And in a field already recognised as amongst the most difficult in the performing arts – stand-up comedy – this added anxiety must only add to a performer’s insecurities, and is something I’d argue is a discernable undercurrent within the text of Mooney’s meltdown.

Are you deaf or an idiot? You did hear people laughing hard for an hour didn’t you @BellaFowler93 Mooney railed at one point, as he continued to throw post after post on his own PR pyre. But in doing so, he was sidestepping Fowler’s central provocation, perhaps because it was too confronting or difficult to deal with. Because the question of what, in an epistemological sense, separates a comedian from “a funny guy under a spotlight” is one that can’t be answered in an open forum by a practitioner like Mooney, because to do so would be to undermine one of the main tenets of his craft in the post-Lenny Bruce era: its claim to naturalism. And ironically, it’s this sense of naturalism that social media has helped to erode.

lenny bruce mugshot

As the American comic Rob Delaney (a man who readily admits he owes his career entirely to Twitter) noted at a recent event in Melbourne, the transformative power of the microphone – which is of course integral to Fowler’s notion of “the spotlight” – is crucial to the construct of stand-up. Like a magician disgracing his guild by revealing the tricks of the brotherhood, Delaney made the point that a microphone allows anyone who speaks low and slow into it to suddenly seem funny, or at least funnier than they did without it. And with that realisation, objective “funniness” becomes a whole lot harder to gauge than just through an audience laugh-o-meter.

But what is the existential threat to a media demagogue, particularly one with a megaphone and a loyal audience? The answer seems increasingly difficult to define, partly due to these figures’ mercurial place in the table of media elements. What is the talkback radio shock jock, or tabloid culture warrior’s Cartesian fault line, in the absence of diminished ratings? Should we just accept that they and their audience are completely invulnerable to critique, unlike in the inherently delicate space of stand-up where silent protest is enough to completely derail a performance, and stop liking and sharing outraged “reviews” amongst ourselves? Does the fact that we are all constantly broadcasting our own views about and to the world, whether directly or via the semiotics of sharing and liking, in any way diminish these “performers” in the same way it would a comedian? And in the current environment, are there that many differences between comedians and commentators anyway?

Hadley knife

When accused of frothing bias or a lack of sober objectivity, people like Alan Jones will invariably counter that such journalistic niceties don’t apply to them, as they themselves are simply “commentators”, “opinion generators” or even “entertainers”, despite the fact their programs are wholly concerned with news and current events. Political comedians like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher regularly play the “I’m just an entertainer!” card when accused of activist bias. This is true yet disingenuous, given their obvious level of influence in a political paradigm defined almost entirely by notions of spectacle and theatre. Maher regularly makes the acute observation that there are very few prominent right-wing political comedians, as the material they have to work with is so much poorer than that available to those on the left. (In Australia, Ray Hadley continues to valiantly fashion a protectorate for right-wing comedy out of intellectual kitchen twine and bin-liner, via his stream of dazzlingly execrable satirical songs.)

And when accused of xenophobic rabble-rousing, fascist incitement or merely shocking insensitivity, these same figures will produce the sycophantic testimonies of their thought-programmed listeners/readers as evidence that they are merely reflecting the public mood. Alan Jones’ monotonously outrageous statements, for instance, including that Australia “needs more stolen generations”, that Julia Gillard’s father “died of shame”, that Muslims should be attacked in the street, and even the revelation that he accepted money from sponsors to perform corporate payola, have in no way diminished his political capital. In the case of his comments about Gillard’s father, Jones’ position looked momentarily precarious after the withdrawal of some prominent advertisers, but after this brief moment of turbulence he was able to comfortably resume his place in the peanut pulpit, confident that much like the major Wall Street banks, he was considered too big to fail by his corporate owners, who had far too much at stake in him financially.

Zappa politics

In the US, Donald Trump has adopted the habitus of Alan Jones and used it to fashion a terrifyingly successful political insurgency. But in an instructive moment, Trump limned the hazardous third rail of contemporary Republican politics during a recent primary debate, when he was booed for foolishly stating a fact. And not just any fact, but one whose enunciation constitutes the ultimate act of heresy in today’s GOP thought-prison: the fact that George W Bush was President when 9/11 occurred, and that he ignored numerous intelligence warnings about Osama Bin Laden being “determined to attack” on home soil. Prior to this, Trump had made statements which in a normal political climate would’ve instantly terminated his campaign: that Mexicans are criminals and rapists; that a persistent female interviewer must’ve been suffering from PMS; and that former presidential candidate John McCain’s status as a Vietnam POW hero was inherently unimpressive because, as Trump baldly stated, he “prefers guys who didn’t get captured”. And yet it wasn’t until he stated a verifiable, indisputable fact that he found himself on dangerous ground with the faithful.

And here, perhaps, lies a possible answer to what might eventually kill off the dinosaurs that bestride our domestic media landscape, like colossi of cloaca. Anger is an energy, as noted emotional physicist John Lydon was moved to title his latest memoir, but the polarity of that anger’s flow can always be reversed back up the line – back to its point of generation – through a careless, recklessly overconfident adoption of a position that at first might seem a natural sequitur, or an accurate sniffing of the mob’s wind, but whose lethality momentarily eludes even the most cunning of reactionary tub thumpers. It will be a position or pronouncement that has little connection to common sense or decency, but will instead be one that in some way gainsays the monolithic edifice of intellectual guano that they themselves have helped to create. But until then, it looks like they’ll be here all week. Try the veal.

Trump

Devolution

“All I can tell you is that it completely and utterly changed my life. I was a white hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. We were all running our asses off from these motherfuckers. It was total, utter bullshit. Live ammunition and gasmasks – none of us knew, none of us could have imagined… They shot into a crowd that was running away from them! I stopped being a hippie and I started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”

Gerald “Jerry” Casale, founding member of Devo, interviewed in 2005 about his memories of the Kent State University shootings of 1970, and how those events led directly to the formation of the band.

04 May 1970, Kent, Ohio, USA --- Clasping her head in anguish, coed reacts with horror upon seeing body of student who was shot and killed by National Guardsmen during war protest rally at Kent State University here May 4th.  The slain girl is one of two girls and boys killed by the National Guard during the disorders. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands… In the post-historical period, there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed.”

Francis Fukuyama, from ‘The End of History?’ (1989)

devo exhibit

My partner and I have a long-standing disagreement about the lack of rebellion and danger in modern music. In response to my regular harangues that these qualities are now almost entirely absent from the work of kids with guitars and laptops, for a variety of unoriginal reasons relating to the workings of the internet, the machinations of global capital and the post-ideological consensus manufactured by neoliberal hegemony, she argues that I’m actually just too old and uncool to know which abandoned warehouse the avant-garde plays at these days. Or which SoundCloud page it uploads to. Or which blogs are keeping tabs on it. And graciously, I’m prepared to concede she could be right. Or rather, I’d be happy to be proved wrong, and not feel compelled to extrapolate Steve Kilbey’s withering assessment of the recent Triple J Hottest 100 into a grand unified theory of musical shitness.

But in the avalanche of mediated grief and necrophilia that crashed down on all of us following David Bowie’s death, I came across something that only reinforced my feelings about the depressingly safe and neutered state of music today. In a 1999 Newsnight interview with a hilariously smug and complacent Jeremy Paxman (a clip that popped up numerous times in my feed during the week Facebook became “Bowiebook”), Bowie, the great pop seer, had some startlingly prescient stuff to say about the coming impact of the internet on both music and cultural production in general, to the point where you could argue he was personally envisioning social media. But more pointedly, he told Paxman at one point that if he was 19 again today (i.e. in 1999), he wouldn’t have become a musician, as he felt music was no longer the vehicle for disruption and unique social communication that it once was:

“I wanted to be a musician because it seemed rebellious, it seemed subversive. It felt like one could effect change to a form. It was very hard to hear music when I was younger… there was no MTV and wall-to-wall, blanket music, so therefore it had a kind of call to arms feeling to it. [It felt like] this is the thing that will change things, this is still a dead dodgy occupation to have… Now it’s a career opportunity.”

beyonce-pepsi2

Bowie is far from the first 1960s-germinated muso to voice this kind of disillusionment. And his point about music’s numbing ubiquity, and how its subversive currency has been devalued due to the fact it now saturates everything in our lives from male skincare ads and home renovation show soundtracks to shopping centres, buses and bars, has long since become axiomatic. But the spontaneous tidal wave of digital grief that followed Bowie’s death, driven largely by people under 40, whose experience of his career proper would’ve been decades removed from contemporaneity with it, speaks to Fukuyama’s notion of our collective “nostalgia for a time when history existed”: a time when art forms like music seemed vitally important, and weren’t just corporate window dressing but a reflection of, and a response to the vivid clash of ideas and competing utopic visions still playing out in the public sphere.

Despite the post-9/11 tumult, which in many ways has only served to bolster neoliberalism’s intellectual self-belief, we now live with the depressing sense that we are indeed, in Fukuyama’s words, merely “caretakers of the museum of human history”. And it’s this subliminal, depressing understanding which has turned many of us into amateur cultural historians, and has driven a ceaseless mining of the postwar period for ever-more-obscure connections to this vital period of “history” (e.g. documentaries about clubs, recording studios, music managers and backing bands).

The experience of Devo strikes me as instructive here. Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, the twin creative dynamos of that remarkable band, have spoken at length about how their artistic consciousness was indelibly shaped by the horror of what happened at Kent State University in May 1970, when National Guard troops shot and killed four student protestors at a campus demonstration against Nixon’s decision to extend the Vietnam War into Cambodia. As laid out in the recent PBS documentary “The Day the ‘60s Died”, this incident can be seen as marking the beginning of the political world order we live with today, as Nixon exploited anxieties about supposed radical influences on college campuses to peel away traditional blue-collar voters from the Democratic centre-left.

kent state troopers

As Casale says in the trailer to an as-yet-unreleased documentary on the band:

“Propganda about progress and man moving upward and outward, and life getting better, we saw no evidence of that; we didn’t think it was true. Empirically, it seemed like people were getting dumber and uglier … We were doing something aggressive to keep ourselves sane. The more the idiots who were our peers didn’t like what we were doing, the more we felt like we were doing something right.”

“We thought that the things we’d seen would’ve justified a whole new generation of Bob Dylans and Woodie Guthries, and it wasn’t happening,” remarks Mothersbaugh in the same compilation. “Instead we were getting disco and concert rock – Foreigner and Stixx – and nobody was really talking about the issues in the arts. We thought it was time for us to say something, and that’s how [Devo] began.”

Devo keytars

Any of this sound familiar or resonant? Trying to choose an equally asinine substitute for “disco” or “Journey” today seems both overwhelming and self-defeating, due to the sheer tonnage of aural yoghurt in the world. And despite the manifest examples of “devolution” all around us, from the GFC and bank bailouts to the treatment of refugees, the sclerosis and dysfunction of liberal democratic systems everywhere, and the twin horrors of terrorism and its manipulation for political ends, it’s hard to imagine any act in the Hottest 100 – or any young band anywhere, frankly – making statements, or music, like Casale and Mothersbaugh. Or indeed, even thinking that music would be an appropriate vehicle for disruptive expression. As the broader discourse has become neutered and reduced to series of ‘natural’, unchallenged axioms – Fukuyama’s “end of history” – so, it seems, has post-jazz popular music.

But there will always be those who hold out hope of renewal. As The Church’s Steve Kilbey wrote on his Facebook page in response to being slammed as an irrelevance for criticising the Hottest 100’s beige-ness:

“Its not because i am old that i don’t like [The Rubens et al], its because i came to review rocknroll and i found limp bland pop … People have been making this bland tripe ever since i can remember. yes the fifties and the sixties and the seventies were full of it. it will always exist and there will always be people like me railing against it. Because rocknroll is capable of making statements that no other artform can make … its sexiness. its rage. its revolution. its anger. its otherworldiness. its dissociation. its preposterousness. its glory. its tragedy. etc etc etc. I find none of these qualities in the people in the top ten … I find many of the artists in the top ten indistinguishable from what are generally known as “boy bands”. In that they sing dopey little songs in their “little boy” voices to some little girl who (shame upon shame) broke their little heart. good for them.”

johnWayne_DEVO

 

America’s last college cricket team

“Now, I am an educated man, Charlie,” Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet opines to his young valet at one point during the first season of The West Wing, “but when someone tries to explain cricket to me, all I want to do is hit them in the head with a teapot.”

And with one typically evocative line of dialogue, delivered by his country’s most popular President, the show’s creator Aaron Sorkin seemed to confirm America’s enduring allergy to the game of its former colonial masters – now the second most popular sport in the world.

But cricket and America were not always mutually exclusive. Indeed, in sporting terms, the game was America’s first love. Up until the mid-19th century, it enjoyed huge popularity in North America, particularly in Philadelphia, where it was something of a craze. Indeed the first ever game of international cricket – and of international sport – was played not between Australia and England, but between the United States and Canada, in Manhattan in 1844. For the record, Canada won by 22 runs, a result the press at the time attributed to poor American fielding.

But following the Civil War, and baseball’s all-conquering rise to the status of national pastime, cricket began a concurrently steep and permanent decline in the US. But in Philadelphia, the game’s last stronghold, cricket continued to rival baseball for popularity and spectator attendances right up until the 1920s. The city had a strong first-class team – the Gentlemen of Philadelphia – which regularly toured England, and even produced one celebrity player, Bart King, briefly recognised as the best in the world after topping the English bowling averages on a tour in 1908.

And it’s in Philadelphia that America’s only full-time college cricket program remains active to this day. Haverford College, a leafy, boutique liberal arts institution in the city’s north-western suburbs, founded its first team in 1834 – the first in the United States made up entirely of American-born youth – and the game has been played there continuously ever since. Allegedly introduced by an English gardener who’d been hired to landscape the new campus, today Haverford boasts the only varsity cricket team in the United States. The college also houses the CC Morris Cricket Library and United States Cricket Museum – the country’s major cricketing archive, and the largest collection of memorabilia in the western hemisphere.

HC

 

“I’ve been involved with cricket here for almost 40 years, since my student days,” recalls Haverford’s Pakistani-born director of cricket, Kamran Khan.

Khan, a former fringe member of the Pakistan national team (he was once 12th man in a test against Richie Benaud’s Australian side), arrived in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, on a scholarship to study international relations at nearby Villanova University. His first sighting of cricket on a college campus came when he was invited by a friend to visit the beautiful grounds at Haverford.

“One day somebody asked me to come look at the duck pond there, which is very beautiful and very famous. So I went to see it, and at the top of the hill I noticed some people playing cricket. I just walked up there and asked the coach at the time if I could play. Afterwards we had a chat, and he invited me for lunch. I had played good level cricket in Pakistan, but I was really surprised when he offered me a coaching job.”

The man who offered Khan a job – as well as smooth passage to a Green Card – was former college president William Comfort, one of those who’d worked to keep cricket’s flame alive at Haverford, long after the game had become an anachronism.

“If we get good athletes, it is very easy to coach them, because I know how to do it now after so many years,” says Khan. “It is very difficult to coach Americans who have never played cricket before, but now I know how to do it.”

Every year, he says, around twenty or more players will sign up for the cricket program, many of who weren’t quite good enough to make the cut for baseball. Some of these are always foreign students from sub-continental or Commonwealth backgrounds, but a large number over the years have been American students previously unfamiliar with the game.

Haverford has grounds that are used exclusively for cricket, including a number of Astro Turf pitches, and a pavilion that is as old as the college itself. It is one of the few fully-equipped cricket grounds in the country, with the same facilities you might find at an English village venue.

The college has sent its team on a number of tours to England, including one in 1996 where they suffered only one loss, playing against sides from Oxford and Cambridge, amongst others.

At home, Haverford still plays against local rivals such as the University of Pennsylvania, but unlike Haverford, these colleges don’t have full-time varsity level cricket, and can only get a side together in years when they have a good intake of foreign students. As the only team that has been continuously playing for almost 150 years, Haverford is forced to fill its schedule playing against various local club teams, and in tournaments and festivals.

One such event is the Philadelphia International Cricket Festival, a popular charity tournament that’s been staged annually for the last 23 years at the well-heeled Philadelphia Cricket Club. Founded in 1854, the festival’s home venue is the oldest country club in the United States, and had been a cricket club in name only for around seventy years, until the game was revived there in the 1990s.

“Cricket was actually stopped here in 1922”, says festival chair Tom Culp, an American who is himself now a keen player. “It wasn’t restarted until 1997, so the beautiful grass cricket pitch that was originally created here in 1854 has since been used as lawn tennis courts.”

The festival’s four days of “gentlemen’s” T20 games, held over the first weekend in May, are played on a combination of turf, matting and Astro Turf pitches at a number of sites around Philadelphia, including other historic cricket clubs at Germantown and Merion, as well as the British Officers Cricket Club at Evansburg State Park, and Haverford College. This year the festival will feature over twenty teams, and its guest of honour will be former Australian paceman Michael Kasprowicz, who will be playing and running clinics. Indeed, the list of previous special guests reads like a Wisden honour roll: Gary Sobers, Dennis Lillee, Richard Hadlee, Gary Kirsten, Mark Boucher, Fred Trueman, Richie Richardson, Derek Murray and Jonty Rhodes, amongst others, are all past attendees.

“They’re first of all shocked that there’s any cricket being played in the United States,” Culp says, “but it’s also a good reason to come to the US for a week or two, and when they’re here they’re much more anonymous than they are at home, so they can go out to places. We cricketers know who they are, but there aren’t many of us!

PCC

Culp says cricket only became an active part of the Philadelphia club’s name again thanks to former top New Zealand tennis player and coach Ian Crookenden.

“He came to club, and he asked ‘How come you’re not playing cricket?’ And I happened to be in the room, and I said ‘Well I don’t really know about cricket, but if you teach us how to play, I’ll organise it. Probably half of us learned the sport at that point, and we gathered as many of our [Commonwealth] friends together as we could so we had some instructors.”

Culp says the Festival has built up a sense of camaraderie amongst all of the local clubs, which has in turn allowed them to revive the Gentlemen of Philadelphia team – the same composite side that once regularly toured England up until the ‘20s, and featured world-renowned players such as Bart King. The current edition, although not of first-class standard, has made tours to England, Buenos Aires and South Africa.

“We even played at Lords”, says Culp, “which made us the envy of most of the English teams we played while we were there.”

Kamran Khan has also been involved with the United States’ national cricket team for many years, as both a player and administrator. He previously served as the game’s national president for two years, and still believes cricket has “huge potential” to grow in the States, particularly with the influx of immigrants from Commonwealth countries. But he believes that poor administrators are holding things back. “They are more into money than anything else, money and power. And they don’t give the proper players a chance to play. It’s just a mess.”

He still gets great enjoyment from his role at Haverford, however, even after 40 years. And the varsity funding support his program receives, unique in the country, makes his job comparatively easy.

“I love cricket, it is in my blood,” says Khan. “I love to coach young people, the students are happy with me, and I genuinely try to teach them cricket.”

Alumni_Cricket_Match-800x533

Abbottabad

Tony Abbott is a clod and a throwback. As a Prime Minister, he was always a placeholder: a flunkey on a short-term contract, whose lack of nous and nuance amounted to an in-built term limit. He was not elected, so much as washed into government on a wave of despair and resentment at his opponents’ risible internecine antics, and with nary a murmur of enquiry from the press as to what he planned to do for/to the country. Naturally, his government’s policy agenda turned out to be your classic neoliberal nightmare, and his uber-gaffes on all manner of subjects, most notably climate science and women, make his recent knighting of Prince Phillip – the straw that broke the backbench’s back – look less like an act of lunacy, and more a touching tribute to a kindred spirit. In the 2013 poll, far from fêting the victor in a keenly fought battle of ideas, the electorate simply opted for a cymbal-bashing toy monkey on lithium batteries, whose every strike triggered one of three pre-recorded slogans. Unfortunately, the ALP had managed to make this look like a superior alternative.

So no, I won’t miss Tony. He is the sneeze to my macaroni, the clot in my coffee and the bramble of my eye. But should we really be feeling so ecstatic and replete with schadenfreude about his leadership woes, if they mean that our federal politics continues to resemble a cut-price circus? Has Kevin Rudd’s first term knifing at the hands of the faceless men ushered in a new era of chronic instability, where the PM’s job is on the line from Newspoll to Newspoll?

And where is the locus of this instability? Generally, the push for regime change is said to come from skittish backbenchers “panicked” by “terrifying internal polling”. But where is the cause for panic? Isn’t panic something that should follow from existential threat? These people could well lose their seats at the next election due to Tony Abbott’s performance as Prime Minister, but should we be looking at their plight in such catastrophic terms? Is it understandable that they’re now considering what was once an extreme move – sacking a Prime Minister in his first term – to try and save their jobs? More crucially, should we be viewing politics as a “job” at all? Should we be looking at politicians through the same lens as manufacturing workers who are laid off, or company employees who are downsized? I would argue not, yet this is how the language of the media tends to frame our elected representatives. And until we divorce politics from the idea of professionalism, and somehow rebirth it as a public service, then the absurd cycle in which we find ourselves seems doomed to keep repeating.

A lot of this comes down to getting better candidates into parliament – “better” meaning those who wouldn’t see losing their seat as a fate worse than death. For the last decade, reams of newsprint have been devoted to how the ALP should be encouraging people other than union hacks to run for office, so as to scrub clean the nepotistic, jobs-for-the-boys culture that turned the NSW Government into the biggest nest of corruption outside of sub-Saharan Africa. The party is now taking steps to remedy this through their public pre-selection process. But when we look at the nucleus of LNP backbenchers currently agitating for change, it’s not hard to see why they’re terrified of losing their gigs. Rough winds now shake the snarling duds – Dennis Jensen, Warren Entsch and Mal Brough – all of whom, despite their protestations that they’re fomenting rebellion based on policy convictions, must be terrified of losing the best, most perk-filled job they’re ever likely to have. Entsch, a former toilet cleaner from Mareeba in Queensland, proudly declared in his maiden speech to Parliament in 1996:

“I am a member with very few academic qualifications. I spent considerable time as a wild bull catcher and crocodile trapper… These occupations, I am sure will assist me greatly in dealing with the political process in Canberra.”  

Jensen, a former CSIRO physicist and one of the few scientists in the world who rejects the science of climate change, has always had a very tenuous grip on his own seat, twice having to desperately beg Liberal Party heavies (including John Howard) to reinstate him after he was kicked out by his local branch. SMH journalist Heath Aston made the point in a recent story that:

“Perhaps his tenuous grip on his own seat inspired Dr Jensen to go public against Mr Abbott, insisting he was acting on behalf of constituents, who, he said, are all demanding a change of prime minister.”

And as for Mal Brough, the former Howard Government minister found to have been up to his neck in the grubby James Ashby-Peter Slipper affair, he is a low-grade political intriguer of long standing, whose naked ambition, New Matilda’s Chris Graham recently wrote, more than makes up for his lack of credibility, at least in his own mind.

I’m not suggesting that the solution to the current farcical paradigm is a parliament full of millionaire merchant bankers, as that would be far from a representative democracy. But it surely couldn’t hurt to have a few more backbenchers that wouldn’t see losing their seat as an existential crisis. I’m loath to leave the last word to The Daily Telegraph, but Simon Benson says it best, in tabloid:

So the Coalition of the crazy has pushed the button on a challenge to Tony Abbott’s leadership … (a) motley crew of disaffected backbenchers … who feel they deserve to be in the ministry … If these are the people who get to decide who the Prime Minister will be, then God help Australia.

The Treasurer

In every family, certain old stories are always heavy in the air. With these threadbare tales, the most tangential remark in conversation will act as a kick to the anecdote jukebox, causing a 45 rpm of “Do You Remember When…?” to drop onto the spindle, and scratch into life once more. My maternal grandfather, Rupert, was our jukebox and classic hits DJ. One of his favourite tracks was how ugly I’d been as a baby. “You were the ugliest looking baby I’ve ever seen!” he’d say, with a shit-stirring grin, itching to get a rise out of my mother. “But you didn’t turn out too bad,” he’d add quickly, with questionable sincerity, before mum had time to marshal the full force of her indignation.

I featured in another of his favourite stories too. I would’ve been about two years old, and still trying to master bipedality. Rupert was taking the family beagle, and me, for our evening walk around the neighbourhood. My parents, both young professionals at the start of their careers, had just asked him and my grandmother to move in with us, ostensibly as a sort of live-in childcare and housekeeping service. This was in the Elysian dreamtime of the early 1980s, when childcare affordability wasn’t yet a national crisis, and young couples routinely purchased their first homes in Sydney without much fuss, or the assistance of Aussie John Symonds. Rupert and my grandmother Jean were overjoyed with this arrangement of course, as it meant unfettered access to both me, and my sister, who arrived a few years later.

As the three of us walked along that evening, through the pavement clumps of purple jacaranda flowers, past the sandstone buildings of our soon-to-be wealthy suburb, the dog registered something of interest, and sprinted ahead of us up the street towards a blind corner. In an instant, I’d torn off in pursuit, in that terrifyingly fast, rock ‘n roll reckless way of all toddlers, oblivious to any possible danger, or the need to come to a stop at any point. Panicked, as both dog and careening child raced headlong towards danger, and realising he had no chance of catching up to either of us in time, Rupert reacted instinctively. “Sit!” he roared, in the manner of his WWII gunnery sergeant. “And ‘boom, boom’,” he’d say in his retelling, slapping his meaty hands down on the dining table in sequence. “Two bums hit the pavement!”

As I’ve learnt more about his personal history over the years, particularly since his death, I now understand why he loved this story so much. In many ways, it crystalises the two major themes of his life – family security and authority. But there’s another, more important story about my grandfather which rests on these twin concerns, and which deserves to be told, if only for the sake of historical completeness. It’s a story he never revisited, in any company, as far as I’m aware. Despite being a big, charismatic presence in my life, and in the lives of those around him, he was also a modest man, from an era when modesty was much prized. So it’s no surprise to me that he never talked much about turning down the offer to become Federal Treasurer in the Whitlam Government.

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Rupert and Jean were a constant in my childhood: a second set of parents, cut from the cloth of an earlier, harder time. Their ideas on effective parenting often diverged from those of mum and dad, usually in favour of harnessing the rod, but overall my sister and I always felt like we were a part of a harmonious intergenerational commune. Hokey as it sounds, when I visit the family home now, I can still feel their presence in the hallways and doorways, in the re-purposed rooms and the now professionally kept back garden. When I walk into the kitchen, I still half expect to see Rupert there, head bowed in supplication over the morning crossword, the family cat sunning itself across his feet. In his later years, a friend of mine christened him “The Gunslinger”, after his habit of sitting at table with a breakfast banana in each pocket of his heavily-pilled tracksuit pants, the top halves protruding like six-shooters. He had a stentorian voice, akin to a battle-scarred primary school PA system, which he’d often deploy in failed attempts at disciplining the family dog, or me. He was engaged for much of his life in a solitary quest to keep alive numerous expressions from Old Australia that had long since disappeared from common usage. When he’d loudly break wind for instance (an increasingly frequent occurrence as he got older) you could count on the inevitable, cryptic: “Don’t tear it, missus, I’ll take the piece!” He would unfailingly address all retail and fast food staff by their nametags, as if they were old acquaintances, a trait I found mortifying as a teenager. And his incautious driving was a gift to the local smash repairers, who used to send him a card at Christmas. His hair-raising antics on the road were a legacy of having first learned to drive in the army, as a junior ack-ack gunner in Darwin during the war.

When young he’d been a talented sportsman, starring particularly at cricket, where he’d come close to playing for his home state as a fast bowler. I vividly recall him bowling to me in the nets when he was in his mid-seventies, at a pace easily equivalent to my 12 year old peers, imploring me to “get down and smell the ball!” Before my grandmother died, and his world began its ineluctable withering to the size of our kitchen table, he was a vital, physical presence in all of our lives. During our home renovations, he’d pitch in to help the builders, and I was proud of his robustness, and his defiance of the ageing process. In my mind’s eye, I can still see him cutting sandstone blocks in the afternoon sun, shirtless, blue toweling hat clinging to his sweaty head, and the call of some long-forgotten horse race blaring from a radio in the grass.

During the early 1960s, Rupert first came into contact with Gough and Margaret Whitlam as their bank manager, when he was in charge of a branch in the Sydney CBD. The building that housed the branch would later be knocked down to make way for the MLC Centre and Theatre Royal complex. Gough was by this point deputy leader of the Federal Labor Party, and his parliamentary offices were located nearby in Martin Place. In those days, prior to deregulation, and the “Which Bank?” era of corporate facelessness and online accounting, bank managers held a very different position in society. Lying somewhere between a judge and a priest on the social scale, they were respected, sometimes feared elders of the community, who had a much more personal relationship with their customers than they do today. Indeed, it was a time when managers held Christmas parties that their customers attended. Rupert said he used to make sure he’d stand on an upper step at these parties, so he could converse with the statuesque Whitlams face to face, something he never had to do with others, being a tall man. His social concerns were echoed in a famous cartoon of the period: at a cocktail party, one guest points to a pair of monolithic legs dominating one side of the room, and tells his friend, “I’ll meet you later, underneath the Whitlams.”

During this period, Rupert and Gough became close. So close in fact, that in the lead up to the 1972 “It’s Time” election, Gough made my grandfather an offer: come to Canberra and serve as Federal Treasurer, in the first Labor government in 23 years. A political neophyte, Rupert was to be “parachuted” into a safe Labor seat, in order to guarantee his passage into parliament. At first, Rupert thought it was a joke. He had no qualifications in economics; he hadn’t even been to university. But it soon became clear that the offer was serious, so he called a family conference to discuss it with Jean and the kids. These conferences had been a semi-regular feature of his career with the bank. Identified as a rising star early on by his superiors, “Rupe” had been the target of a concerted push to get him into upper levels of management. He’d even been offered a posting to London at one point, which in the pre-globalised era was a rare accolade. But he’d always declined, preferring to remain at street level, where he felt more secure. And it was this street level experience that Whitlam wanted to harness. He knew that he’d have a whole Treasury Department full of economics boffins at his disposal once he took office. What he wanted was someone with an innate understanding of how business worked, and the mechanics of the city. What you really need in a politician is the ability to apply real world, streetwise thinking to judgements about whether abstract, theoretical policy advice will work in practice. And in the case of a Treasurer, you need someone who’s not afraid to tell a notoriously difficult branch of the public service where to go. In this respect, Gough saw in my grandfather the same qualities that the bank had. The two men had also established a bond of trust and mutual respect: something that was noticeably absent between the PM and his second-choice Treasurers in the turbulent three years that followed.

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After talking it over with his young family, Rupert decided against going to Canberra. As he’d always done, he opted to put his family’s security first, rather than take a chance on an uncertain career in the alien world of politics. A child of the Depression, Rupert lost his mother when he was 11, and was thereafter raised by his father, and a clutch of austere adult relatives in the working class suburb of Richmond in Melbourne. An only child growing up solely amongst adults, he was an old soul from a young age, something reflected even in his physical appearance. He went almost entirely grey by the time he was thirty, leaving him with a statesmanlike shock of white hair for the rest of his life. He was a lover of animals, cats in particular. The ones that roamed wild throughout his neighbourhood as a child provided him with a source of companionship he often lacked, and he retained a highly emotional attachment to them for the rest of his life. In his later years, when irascibility had begun to get the better of him, he was even expelled for a short period from his exclusive golf club for defying the president’s orders to cease feeding the feral cats living in the club car park.

At school during the 1930s, he was an exceptionally bright student, staying on to do his Leaving Certificate at a time when few did, and came close to topping the state with what was then known as a “maximum pass”. But his family had no money to send him to university, so it was straight into the world of work, courtesy of numerous job offers. One of these came from the Commonwealth Bank; the other was from oil company Shell. He often used to mock-gripe that if he’d chosen the latter, he’d have ended up a very wealthy man. But once again, the security of a bank job swayed him.

The years of the Whitlam Government, from 1972 to 1975, were arguably the most tumultuous in Australian political history. After the relaxed and comfortable coma of the Menzies era, Whitlam’s progressive program of reform chimed with the rebellious spirit of the times, and hit the country like an earthquake. But the huge problems his government failed to solve, and which eventually brought it undone in spectacular fashion, were largely related to the economy, and in particular the running of the Treasury portfolio. The 1973 world oil crisis, and the “stagflation” phenomenon of rising inflation and persistently high unemployment that accompanied it, were global economic catastrophes on a par with the Global Financial Crisis, and they hit almost as soon as Whitlam took office. And they would’ve been my grandfather’s shit storm to deal with, had he accepted Whitlam’s job offer. Whether he’d have done any better than Frank Crean, or Jim Cairns, or Bill Hayden, who all had a go at the job, is obviously a moot point. But I like to think that his bank manager’s nous, and his ingrained aversion to risk, would’ve seen him reject out of hand the catastrophic scheme that came to be known as the “Loans Affair” – a plan dreamed up by a group of senior government ministers to raise $4 billion in funds from cashed-up Middle Eastern oil producers, by circumventing Treasury and handing loan negotiating authority to a shady Pakistani businessman, Tirath Khemlani. The failure of this scheme, and the stench of impropriety it engendered led to the sacking of Cairns as Treasurer, and the eventual dismissal of the Whitlam Government on November 11, 1975, in the greatest constitutional crisis in the country’s history.

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The man who ended up serving as Whitlam’s first Treasurer in place of my grandfather, Frank Crean (father of future Labor leader Simon), was a compromise choice. Regarded as a decent, capable man, but also as an uncharismatic policy wonk and political plodder, Crean was handed the role largely because of his long service as opposition treasury spokesman during Labor’s 21 years in the wilderness. He infamously refused to go on television to present his first budget in 1973, and ironically, it was around this time that Rupert was coaxed by a director friend of the family into appearing in a commercial for Rank Arena television sets (typecast, of course, in the role of a city executive).

It’s a matter of record that Whitlam had no great confidence in Crean, to the extent that Whitlam removed him from the role in late 1974, replacing him with the flamboyant, self-destructive Jim Cairns. Cairns’ infamous affair with married businesswoman Juni Morosi, and his appointment of her as his Principal Private Secretary, despite her being completely unqualified for the role, engulfed the government in a sex scandal that dogged it until its dying days. Despite denying the affair (he finally admitted in 2002 that they had had a sexual relationship), Cairns infamously professed “a kind of love” for Morosi to a reporter at the ALP conference in 1975, a quote that had the same olfactory effect on the government as a bag of rotten fish heads left in a hot Valiant. After being dismissed from the ministry, he and Morosi founded an alternative lifestyles event – the Down to Earth Festival – first held near Canberra in 1976. Often referred to as the “socialist conscience” of the party, he devoted the rest of his life to writing and selling self-published leftist books at market stalls around Melbourne and the rest of the country.

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It’s fair to say that my grandfather would’ve had little in common with the flamboyant, quasi-hippie Cairns, despite a quirk of history that saw both men attend the same high school in Melbourne – Northcote High – some years apart. Amusing as the idea is, I honestly can’t imagine them having too many chats about Marx, or polyamoury and mudbrick housing construction, within the upholstered confines of the Cabinet room. Cairns also harboured ambitions to lead the party, and the spectre of political ambition was always a natural irritant in the relationship between the two men – something that would never have been a factor with Rupert. As for Crean, Whitlam’s memoirs of his time in government make scant reference to him, implying that Whitlam thought him a failure as Treasurer, or at least of negligible importance to his administration. So is there anything to suggest that my grandfather would’ve fared any better? Treasurers in Australian politics have traditionally been aspiring or thwarted Prime Ministers, but it’s obvious that Rupert wouldn’t have fallen into the category of a Costello or a Keating. It’s also highly unlikely he would’ve been ensorcelled by a Juni Morosi, or have had anything to do with a character like Tirath Khemlani.

For all of his street smarts and authoritarian charisma, my grandfather was a suburban bank manager with no formal training in economics, and a babe in the woods when it came to professional politics, and the machinations of the ALP’s faceless men. But it’s for those very reasons that I like to think he would’ve found a place in Whitlam’s eccentric Cabinet, perhaps striking up a rapport with the likes of Al Grasby and Tom Uren, who had been selected for their similarly intuitive qualities. Perhaps he would’ve found a brilliant, MacGyver-esque solution to the devilish macroeconomic problems that had stumped other finance ministers around the world? I doubt it. But history is littered with tantalising potentialities and hypotheticals. In fact, a Gitane-smoking post-structuralist would argue that that’s all history is: a series of sliding doors and roads not taken, scaffolding an accepted narrative.

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Rupert had a pretty great death. That’s something everyone in our family would happily concede. In saying that, I’m not trying to sound glib, or callous, or needlessly provocative, because I loved him very much, and he was a huge part of my life. But he went out well, and I’m glad. I’ve seen what confused, protracted, painful death looks like – the kind that puts a ‘Closed’ or ‘Back in Two Years’ sign up on families, and gives each member a kettlebell of stress and foreboding to carry around in their daily luggage. So it’s a source of lasting happiness for me that his death was the antithesis of that.

It happened at the hairdresser’s. Even as he became increasingly frail, and the confident sportsman’s gait of his youth slowly morphed into a hunched, arthritic shuffle, he remained fastidious about maintaining his silvery plumage. So one day, he drove to his regular appointment, slowly ascended the flight of stairs to the salon, and after greeting the staff with the his standard response to being asked how he was, “Much better and I couldn’t stand it, thanks!”, said he just needed to catch his breath for a minute in one of the waiting room chairs. So he slowly sank into one of them, and closed his eyes. His long-standing heart condition did the rest, and with that, he was gone. It was all slightly traumatic for the salon staff, of course, but totally effortless and peaceful for him.

I spoke briefly at his funeral, knowing that my job was to try and provide a bit of light relief from the more serious speeches. So I talked about how, when his knees became too troublesome, he walked the latest family dog for a brief period by holding its lead out of the car window, while driving slowly through the same streets of my childhood, yelling “Sit!” every time dog and driver came to a stop sign (before I dobbed him in to mum, and she called a halt to the practice). His commitment to job security and family safety never quite translated to how he drove a car. Ignorant of the Whitlam story, I strangely ended my speech with a quote picked at random from one of the great Labor “crazies”, Bob Ellis. At the time I think I chose it simply because it made me sentimentally teary, rather than feeling it bore any relevance to Rupert’s life. But knowing what I do now about his past, and how close he came to playing a key role in Australian political history, it seems vaguely appropriate that I borrowed Ellis’ maudlin words. When I think of Rupert now, through the jumble of fading and frozen images that make up the memory of another’s life, I think about the old stories, but also the ones he never told, and the ones I’ll never know.

Smalltown Boy

I never liked Phil Hughes much: as a batsman, anyway. To a certain type of cricket tragic like me, the kind of onanistic purist who gets an endorphin rush from a technically correct forward defensive prod, and who swoons at a sweetly timed, textbook push through the covers, I always found Hughes’ “homespun technique” supremely ugly. His squared-up, cock-eyed stance, the way he tried to fidget everything through the leg side, and the ungainly, cross-footed flourish he employed when driving the ball, as if desperately trying to stop himself from playing his pet cut shot, used to leave me cold. (And anyone who’s ever witnessed my own feeble attempts at batting will be overcome with the irony of all this.) For some though, the impish Hughes embodied the brio and elan of what Cricket Australia’s CEO has called “the foundation myth of Australian cricket”: the wide-eyed boy from the bush chasing his dream of a baggy green cap to the big smoke, just like Bradman had done in the ‘20s. But the cow corner hoik that Hughes employed to bring up his maiden test century in South Africa in 2009 always made me cringe whenever it was replayed. To a snobby purist, it was the kind of shot that belonged in the backyard at Christmas, or a lower grade park match on a synthetic wicket, in some dusty suburban nowhere. Indeed, when Hughes fell into his famous form trough against New Zealand, and his technical flaws were ruthlessly exposed by one of the international game’s great bowling carthorses, Chris Martin, I secretly enjoyed it. “Not up to it technically”, was the common pub refrain at the time. “How do you get to test match level without ironing out basic flaws like that?” was the other, from a generation of armchair critics fatted on the deeds and dominance of a technically pure Australian top order featuring names like Ponting, Hayden, Waugh (Mark) and Martyn, to name but a small cadre. For some, Hughes’ peripatetic relationship with the national team symbolised Australia’s post-Waugh (Steve) cricketing decline. And along with Shane Watson, he became the whipping boy for the end of a glorious imperial period in Australian cricket.

So I’m not only shocked, but also slightly embarrassed, at how much his death has affected me. I’m not easily moved to tears, and I abhor cheap sentimentality of the type often exhibited by people who get distressed over the deaths of celebrities they’ve never met, or the fate of a cat with cancer on Harry’s Practice. But like millions of people around the country, many of who aren’t even especially fond of the game, the news of Hughes’ death wrapped an anchor around my heart. I’ve found myself welling up reading his fellow players’ clichéd condolence tweets, and flat out crying over Michael Clarke’s raw press conference. I’ve devoured the obituaries, remembrances and journalistic colour pieces that have plastered the papers in recent days, like a grief porn junkie on a bender. And I’ve absorbed the media consensus as to why this horrible accident is being likened to a “Princess Diana moment” for the country (as ridiculous as that feels to write) and much of it makes sense: the Boy’s Own story of a country kid made good, rising to the pinnacle of the national game, but then tragically losing his life to it. All of which was even harder to fathom because the game of cricket itself, even in the post-Ian Chappell era of sledging and non-contact aggression, coupled with Gen Y’s fetish for sleeve tattoos and other assorted “tough stickers”, is still widely viewed as a genteel sport. Yet we have been handed a tragic reminder, in the form of Hughes, that the game retains what Gideon Haigh terms “a small sliver of risk”, one that had seemingly been rendered benign by a vast array of modern protective equipment.

But these ideas alone fail to explain the depth of the national reaction, including for people like me, who’d previously held no great love for Hughes. If Hughes had just been a common-or-garden Sheffield Shield player for instance, just one rung away from the test team, but still only a journeyman professional, would there have been the same national outpouring of grief? I think everyone would agree not. The player Hughes was batting with at the time of his death, Tom Cooper, is also an international cricketer (albeit for his adopted country of The Netherlands). But I doubt that if Sean Abbott’s relatively innocuous bouncer had felled Cooper instead, that anyone outside of his family, friends and the professional cricket fraternity would be feeling the same way about him, either here or in Holland. The impact of Hughes’ death, for all of the media emphasis on his Macksville banana farming background, his lively, untutored strokeplay and his “cheeky grin”, resonated at a deeper level because of the fundamental role that test cricket still plays in the national psyche, whether we like it or not. We are a young, geographically isolated country relatively untouched by strife, and partly because of this, sport and its mythologies have expanded to fill the space usually taken up by things of greater import, like civil wars, civil rights and battles over self-determination. And test cricket, particularly at this time of year, is psychologically bundled into the Christmas season, and the warm feelings of family and comfy Australiana that come with it. As Waleed Aly remarked on ABC’s Offsiders program, sport is supposed to be about the suspension of disbelief, where for a prescribed period of time, we as both audience and participants hand ourselves over to an arena of purely symbolic combat, wherein we are promised that the worst and most difficult aspects of life will not be present, whether it’s for 90 minutes, three hours or five days. So for a stark reminder of mortality to intrude here, and for a player to be struck down “on stage”, as it were, performing both for himself and for his audience was always going to be a shattering experience.

And I think the fact that Hughes was known primarily as a test player, as opposed to a specialist in one of the game’s shorter formats, speaks to this point. Just days after Hughes’ death, an umpire in Israel was killed after being struck in the face by a cricket ball during the last game of the Israeli one-day national league season. The incident attracted little attention, and probably would’ve garnered even less had it not occurred in the days following the Hughes incident. There have also been numerous other domestic sporting fatalities this year, particularly in racing, where three female jockeys have lost their lives in riding falls, and three horses in this year’s Melbourne Cup had to be euthanased. A female hockey player was tragically killed in 2012 after being struck in the back of the head during a Western Australian league match. Yet none of these incidents ever had a hope of inspiring the sort of response we’ve seen to Hughes’ passing. These people died playing the sports they loved. But they were the wrong sports, in the wrong countries, at the wrong level of competition. Our apportioning of collective grief and significance is never just about the game itself, but also the game’s relative cultural significance. Despite ongoing speculation about the health of test cricket, and its compatibility with a time poor, attention deficit modern world, one thing Hughes’ death has demonstrated is that it remains the only game with this kind of hold on the nation’s heart. Unlike our other myriad sporting obsessions, test cricket is tied to a deeper truth about our sense of self. In the absence of more objectively profound symbols (including ANZAC, which prior to its redux under John Howard had become something of an irrelevance), the test team, and above all its captain, are our totems.

There are always those who reel in disbelief from our national obsession with sport, and wonder why multitudes of deaths from Ebola in Africa, or Aboriginal deaths in custody, or even other fatal sporting accidents fail to excite the country’s tear ducts in the same way Phillip Hughes’ passing has. And I’d argue that these people have a keen awareness of moral hypocrisy and injustice, and a very limited understanding of Australia. In both a global and (white) historical sense, irrespective of things like the ANZUS treaty and Tony Abbott’s risible performance as a G20 host, we are still very much a small country town, and a freshly zoned one at that. And as with most country towns, just like the Macksville that bred Phillip Hughes – places largely untouched by events of great historical moment, and where the eyes of the world rarely fall – sport often assumes a disproportionately grand significance, and local sports stars all the more so. This is not meant as a shallow criticism of insularity or parochialism, however, but merely a statement of fact about our history. We were not forged in the crucible of civil war, or colonial oppression, but rather in the deeds of Bradman and Bodyline, Phar Lap and Laver. In such places, the macro tragedies of a wider world have no immediate, quotidian reference point, and hence generally fail to provoke a strong collective reaction. The vicissitudes of everyday life become all consuming, and sport fills the role of both haven and theatre, where we can safely pretend that Bill Shankly’s famous footballing aphorism is true: That it’s not a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that.

There are of course a number of reasons why Phillip Hughes has touched us all so deeply. The plain, unalloyed facts of his death are sad enough. But it has also served to remind us of who we are, and why. Cricket is our real foundation myth. And unlike other countries, we haven’t had to pay for it with our glorious dead. Until now.

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Ass Kapital

My heart went out to Russell Brand this week. It returned soon enough, feeling slightly dirty and ashamed of itself. But I understood why it happened, so forgiveness was swift. The ties that bind Russell and I are slight (some might even say non-existent), apart from the surface commonality that neither of our recent films did very well commercially, and our second beach houses in Malibu are beginning to look like extravagances. But there’s one thing that unites all writers, and indeed all artists, wannabe or otherwise, in an empathy gestalt: the terror of being “pwned”. Of having your craft, style or MO so devastatingly caricatured and demystified that it’s impossible for anyone to take you seriously ever again.

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So the Parklife viral catastrophe that befell Russell this week had me wincing for him, despite his fame, wealth and baseload power-generating braggadocio. Because with a single, devastating 140 character tweet, originally intended for his modest band of followers, anonymous e-commerce enthusiast Dan Barker delivered a hammer blow to brand Brand more powerful than a thousand snotty Daily Mail editorials:

Russell Brand’s writing feels like someone is about to shout “PARKLIFE!” at the end of every sentence,” Barker tweeted, in reference to Blur’s eponymous 1994 Britpop hit, and its cockney ramble-ogue verses. He then adduced this particularly tortured passage from Brand’s latest book, Revolution:

“This attitude of churlish indifference seems like nerdish deference contrasted with the belligerent antipathy of the indigenous farm folk, who regard the hippie-dippie interlopers, the denizens of the shimmering tit temples, as one fey step away from transvestites.”

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The tweet went viral at light speed, so mordant a skewering was it of Brand’s trademark verbosity. Within hours, the star’s twitter feed was inundated with people digitally shouting “PARKLIFE!” at him, to the extent that Brand was soon forced to fire back with his own defensive parody video. But Barker’s coup de foudre had once again proven the millenial maxim that internet mockery is a fate far worse than critical death.

Brand’s Revolution – a confused, inchoate manifesto calling for the overthrow of corporate capitalism and parliamentary democracy in favour of a superior, utopian system yet to be devised by its author – has received a nuclear panning from the mainstream press. The Daily Beast’s Michael Moynihan memorably described it as “a meandering and pretentious mélange of student politics, junk history, and goofy mysticism”, peppered with factual errors and “simple ideas brutally assaulted by a thesaurus.” Over 300-odd pages, the star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Despicable Me 2 naively lionises Castro and Guevara, misquotes G.K. Chesterton and demonstrates a “Wikipedia understanding” of Orwell, Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism, all in the service of an unreadable, unfunny harangue about the state of the modern world.

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The book is unquestionably shit. However the critical firestorm that’s engulfed it has as much to do with the eternal resilience of the English class system as the poor quality of Brand’s prose. Brand first came to prominence as a comedian in Britain not because his material was devastatingly witty or piercingly original, but because of his caste. In addition to his well-publicised formative years as a heroin addict, he first announced himself to a mass audience as a prolix Cockney, capable of using big words in complete sentences, a feat still unconsciously viewed by many Brits as akin to a dog walking on its hind legs in a crop top. Even in 2014, an accent like Brand’s is still a powerful signifier of a lack of education and sophistication, both in Britain and, via cultural osmosis, the rest of the Anglosphere. Its cadences still make us reflexively think of Alf Garnett, Del Boy and David Beckham, London cab drivers and Dickensian street urchins. There are, of course, exceptions to the generalisation I’m about to make, but you don’t hear too many public thinkers holding forth on, say, the limitations of Lacanian post-structuralism, or the late works of Gauguin, in a broad South London accent. Thus, Brand is forever cramming as many polysyllabic words as he can into a sentence, both in print and performance, in a desperate bid to transcend the enduring stigma of his accent and background. It’s true that Brand’s writing and speech are also littered with self-conscious Thames Estuary idioms, rhyming slang and references to his love of football and chip shops, but these are overt acts of self-tethering to a working class identity. He implicitly understands that he must still play the Cheeky Chappie, if he wants permission, both from those above and those of his stratum, to reach for anything more sophisticated.

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All of which is a bit of a shame really. Because for all of his literary and intellectual shortcomings, Brand is attempting to articulate the malaise of our times, and giving garbled voice to the frustrations of the majority. His rants about corporate welfare, political duplicity and underclass exploitation, whilst supported by an intellectual framework about as sturdy as a Fantastic Furniture settee, are the sort of thing progressive voters are crying out to hear from centre-left parties everywhere. But after a brief, lambent flickering across the political mainstream courtesy of the Occupy movement, these issues have once again retreated to the bosom of the leftist commentariat, and are no longer something that politicians feel compelled to address directly. Good luck getting an Australian politician, for instance, to make corporate tax avoidance a central plank of any upcoming election campaign. So it’s now left to impassioned clowns like Brand, armed with a few McNuggets of political science and a celebrity megaphone, to try and reset the agenda. As Mark Steel wrote in The Independent recently:

“The most effective complaint about Brand’s call to arms is that it’s confused. Of course it is, it’s all over the place. “He poses only questions but has no solutions,” it’s claimed. Which is also true, but in a world in which it’s accepted by all major parties that banks and giant corporations and vast inequality are inevitable and can’t be curtailed, the most radical act can be to ask why.”

Indeed, you have to be grudgingly impressed by Brand’s willingness to even seriously associate himself with the word “revolution” in these politically tranquilised times. Because despite our knowledge of the toxic, venal links between corporate interests and their political handmaidens, of the growing chasm between the lives of the One Percent Tsars and the vast mass of serfdom beneath them, and the Orwellian horrors being perpetrated by governments on a daily basis against their own citizens (thanks largely to a few genuine subversives like Assange and Snowden), calling for a “paradigmatic shift” will still get you a seat in the crazy corner. The idea that poorly functioning economic and political systems can and should undergo revolutionary change, for the betterment of the many, has over the last 30-odd years been carefully assigned by the dominant neo-liberal orthodoxy to the playpen of public discourse. Only a backward child, a junkie comedian or worse, The Greens, it’s now supposed, could seriously entertain the notion that social and political change can be anything other than glacially incremental and painfully compromised. “Just look at that Obama guy and how well his ‘Change You Can Believe In’ stuff worked out…” But why should we feel so complacent about the idea of revolution, when history tells us that these are high fire danger conditions, and there’s plenty of tinder-dry fuel lying around?

Watching something like Town Bloody Hall, DA Pennebaker’s 1971 film of the public debate between legendary literary chauvinist Norman Mailer and a panel of heavyweight feminist thinkers (most notably a young Germaine Greer), it’s still possible to glimpse what the last genuinely revolutionary era felt like – an era that scared the bejesus out of conservatives, big business and the military-industrial complex. The 1960s and ‘70s were a time when truly dangerous ideas were in the air, water and soil, and didn’t need to be curated into a ticketed “festival”. This febrile, incendiary spirit is cellared beautifully in Pennebaker’s film, as we watch not only Greer, but a crowd full of big minds (e.g. Susan Sontag) rip into one of the great American reactionaries over his unreconstructed views on women. As Mark Holcomb of the Village Voice wrote at the time of its re-release:

“Mailer backpedals and obfuscates like a madman, but what finally makes Town Bloody Hall so compelling and unsettling is the impression that such serious, spirited debate is a thing of the past.”

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Watching the film, you get the sense that tectonic plates are shifting before your eyes, and that Mailer is attempting to stem an un-stemmable tide of social history with his own, negligible manhood (although looking at the withered view of modern feminism espoused today by the Julie Bishops of the world, you wonder why he bothered). One doesn’t get quite the same sense of profound communion with the zeitgeist from watching Russell Brand’s 2013 Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, but comparing the two does strike me as a sad commentary on our distinctly un-revolutionary times. Paxman, the Oxbridge totem, accuses Brand of wanting “a revolution”, simply because of his naïve call for people to stop voting, thereby ending their “complicity” with a failed system. And despite lacking a coherent ideology from which to mould his new utopia (beyond a few Green Left Weekly talking points), Brand nevertheless counters that today’s working poor endure living conditions equivalent to those faced by Paxman’s own grandparents, a fact Paxman had himself become emotional about when featured in a recent reality TV program.

Much like the farmer in the McCain “Super Juicy” corn advert (“Marge! Marge! The rains are out!”) I too get the sense we are living in a liminal historical moment, prior to a storm. Apart from anything else, we are too volatile a species to go without some sort of revolution for much longer, whether it be social, cultural or political. Russell Brand is a reedy, prolix voice for the partially informed and totally disengaged – a significant voting (or non-voting) bloc, if the polling data is to be believed. When challenged by establishment figures like Paxman, or even his own publisher, the mouthy comedian has, unsurprisingly, failed to articulate an alternative vision to replace the iniquities of the present. But does that mean we can dismiss his agitated “revolutionary” yappings altogether? Can we really say he’s not in touch with a certain spirit of the times?

Bill Maher recently labelled millenials “Generation Ass”, in an entertaining rant that decried our culture’s obsession with youth (and Kim Kardashian’s ass) at the expense of age and wisdom. For better or worse, Brand can be seen as the political spokesperson for Generation Ass. He can just about identify the overarching problem, and convey the dot points to those with TMZ in their bookmarks. But having pressed the fire alarm, he has no coherent strategy for getting anyone out of the burning building.  And the fact that he’s the closest thing we have to a revolutionary public discourse right now is pretty fucking depressing.

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