Category Archives: Australia

#TomLehrer in #Australia (also, happy 90th…)

Tom Lehrer celebrated his 90th birthday today – he’s definitely old and grey.

Born in New York, Lehrer began studying classical piano aged seven. However, popular music caught his eye, and he began writing show tunes . A prodigy, he started at Harvard aged 15. There he began to write comic songs, including a spoof football fight song –  “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” – which has been performed ever since.

By 1953 he had enough songs to release a 12 song album ‘Songs by Tom Lehrer’, which included classics like “The Old Dope Peddler” (“he gives the kids free samples, because he knows full well, that today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele”, a song telling boy scouts to “Be Prepared” (culminating – spoiler alert – in the invocation to always carry condoms) and other songs from the silly to the downright macabre.

Since US radio stations wouldn’t play songs about murder, racism, plagiarism and worse, the album was a ‘sleeper hit’ – spreading by word of mouth. Lehrer later recalled “lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola.”

Lehrer spent the next few years working as a researcher at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, and was drafted into the Army from 1955 to 1957. He continued to play nighclubs in Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco, His musical “career” then received a huge boost from…. Princess Margaret. The oration accompanying her honorary doctorate in music from the University of London mentioned her liking for Lehrer’s work.

(Lehrer ended up performed in front of the royal family, and afterwards Prince Philip shook his hand and said he’d always enjoyed listening to “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. Lehrer asked if the Queen liked it too. “Oh, she thinks it’s horrid. She leaves the room if we put it on”.)

The BBC was less shy than American radio stations about playing his songs, and Lehrer became well known in the UK, having sold 370,000 records by the end of the 1950s.

And then, in 1960, taking the opportunity that his new-found fame allowed him, he visited the Australia of Robert Menzies….

On tour in Australia

Lehrer’s music was already on the Australian radar. The previous year a Labor MP had asked the Prime Minister if he knew any of Lehrer’s work, which had been withdrawn by the record company EMI from sale for fear of offence (and possibly banned).

Menzies denied knowledge – “Do I gather that these songs are romantic or what?”

During his tour Lehrer made mock efforts to set the record straight.

When he performed in Brisbane, the chief of police tried to prevent Lehrer singing Be Prepared (aside its condom advice it had also advised “don’t solicit for your sister, that’s not nice, unless you get a good percentage of her price”).

While audiences in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney got the full benefit of Lehrer’s decidely cynical and bleak worldview (surely influenced by Yiddish sensibilities), Adelaide was not so lucky. Ruled with an iron fist by Thomas Playford, South Australia was not ready for Lehrer.

A young ALP MP called Don Dunstan asked questions of Playford about censorship, but to no avail. During his two nights of performing at Adelaide Town Hall, there were five songs which were off-limits. His audience knew those songs, and at one point he teasingly began to play one of them. Lehrer apparently quipped that South Australia had the “finest 18th century government in the world”.

Lehrer took it all in his stride, saying that having been “banned, censored, mentioned in several houses of parliament and threatened with arrest” was “the highlight of his life”.

tom lehrer discovers australiaThe tour resulted in an album of live recordings “Tom Lehrer discovers Australia (and vice versa)” (the cover shows him in a staring contest with a kangaroo). Lehrer also debuted a song that couldn’t be banned- “The Masochism Tango” (“I ache for the touch of your lips dear, but much more for the touch of your whips dear…”)

Aftermath

After Australia Lehrer briefly taught political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and presumably got confused with Noam Chomsky, who is exactly the same age.)

He then produced a flurry of brilliant topical songs for a short-lived satirical TV show called ‘That was the week that was’. The album (That Was the Year that Was’ covers smut, the teaching of ‘new math’ and – infamously – a song about the German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun (‘once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down, that’s not my department says Werhner von Braun’.)

And then – tired of touring, tired of singing the same songs, and with real life becoming ever less funny, Lehrer basically retired from performing. His last gig, in 1972, was a fundraiser for the doomed Presidential candidate George McGovern.

He then spent 40 years teaching math and American popular music at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In 1999 the British historian Martin Gilbert named Lehrer as one of the 10 great figures of the previous 100 years. “Lehrer was able to express and to expose, in humorous verse and lilting music, some of the most powerful dangers of the second half of the century … Many of the causes of which Lehrer sang became, three decades later, part of the main creative impulse of mankind,”

Indeed, for a man who hasn’t really performed since 1972, Lehrer’s fan-base remains enormous (full disclosure: my one appearance on the UK ‘Mastermind’ hinged on my specialist round -the songs of Tom Lehrer.)  In 2012, when the rapper 2 Chainz, a rapper, asked to sample “The Old Dope Peddler” in one of his tracks, Mr Lehrer was keen to help. “I grant you motherfuckers permission to do this,” he supposedly answered. “Please give my regards to Mr Chainz, or may I call him 2?”

So, to celebrate this man, have a trawl through his (remarkably small number of) songs.

I guarantee there will be something to delight, horrify and amuse, as you slide down the razor blade of life…

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Nice power/authority distinction

I have been – by wiser heads than mine – warned off trying to bite off much more for The Thesis, and we all agree with the imperative to Get The Damned Thing Finished.  So, am not going to open up the box marked “power” more than a little peek…  That’s for a mythical post-doc…

Meanwhile, Gerard Henderson (I’m not really a fan, but “stopped clocks” and all that) had this to say this morning about the Barnaby Joyce fiasco (the latest one, I mean) on ABC’s Insiders this morning (18 February 2018)

“As we know in politics, politicians often think they have power.  They don’t really have power, they have legitimate authority. They may make powerful decisions, but what they have is authority. Once you lose your authority, once you’re de-authorised, like Barnaby Joyce is, it’s very difficult to hang on….”

Reminds me of Somerset Maugham‘s observation in Then and Now (his imagining of Machiavelli past his prime) about the thing politicians not being able to survive being ridicule/mockery….

Brilliant neglected book: “Ecological Pioneers” #Australia #environment

ecolpioneersI like to believe I’ve read a lot these three and a half years (even by my own somewhat Rabelaisian standards).  Specifically, on the Australian environment movement/climate change/climate policy etc.  I’ve read a few excellent books, a few stinkers and lots in between (thankfully mostly at the ‘excellent’ end, and towering piles of journal articles (I mean this literally).

And I seem to have inadvertently saves (one of) the best for last (or latest):

Ecological Pioneers: a social history of Australian Ecological Thought and Action  by Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill is an absolute delight (and largely neglected its seems – I’ve seen very few references to it anywhere else – so hat tip to William Lines’ Patriots, from 2006).

The authors have clearly been involved in various environmental battles, kept their eyes open and figured out who would be worth talking too.  But beyond ‘the usual [and deservedly so] suspects’ of Judith Wright, Bob Brown, the Dunphys, Jack Mundey, Val Plumwood etc, but also great capsule portraits of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Russel Drysdale, the folks behind ‘Keyline’ (a land management system that inspired the Permaculture people – and there’s a great section on David Holmgren too).

Alongside that is a very necessary, well-written and downright useful section on indigenous views of nature/landscape/country and “ownership”, all the way up to the Mabo decision.

Look, I could gush for hours, and quote liberally (I spent three hours today typing up some ‘must-not-forget’ bits.  The tl:dr is this: if you have any interest in ecological thinking, its provenance, Australia etc, then this is a must must read.

Tom Uren and the class war

So, to my shame I don’t know enough about people like Tom Uren.  That shall be rectified #afterthethesis.  For now, this, from a speech he gave in 2007, which touches on his time as a POW working on the Burma railway.  Talk about natural experiments…

“There are many people and experiences that have nurtured my life. But my experience serving under Weary Dunlop has had a lifelong and lasting experience on me. We were at a place called Hintock Road Camp or, as Weary called it, Hintock “Mountain” Camp. “Weary” is a name of respect. He would tax our officers and medical orderlies and the men who went out to work would be paid a small wage.

“We would contribute most of it into a central fund. Weary would then send some of our people out into the jungle to trade with the Thai and Chinese traders for food and drugs for our sick and needy. In our camp the strong looked after the weak; the young looked after the old; the fit looked after the sick. We collectivised a great proportion of our income.

“Just as the wet season set in a group of about 400 British camped near us for shelter. They had tents. The officers took the best tents, the NCOs the next best and the ordinary soldiers got the dregs. Within six weeks only about 50 of them marched out—the rest died of dysentery or cholera. In the mornings when we would walk out to work, their corpses would be lying in the mud as we passed them. Only a creek separated our two camps. On the one side the survival of the fittest – the law of the jungle – prevailed, and on the other side the collective spirit under Weary Dunlop. That spirit has always remained with me.”

Oz at a distance #1; podcasts and Insiders

Minimal biog bit – I am from Adelaide. Just spent a lovely 7 weeks there bludging of my parents and doing research for The Thesis. One ritual we got into, mater and I, was watching ‘The Insiders’, an ABC TV show on a Sunday morning for politics junkies. The format’s the same each time – an intro, a snarky montage with music of some scandal-de-la-semaine. Then a round-up of the Sunday papers with three hacks (never all male or female at least not in my time watching). Then an interview with some political worthy. Then more hack chat, and a spoof-y video with talking heads literally inserted (perhaps the classic recent example is the Monty Python/Theresa May mash-up, thought the Twilight Zone one was pretty good too). Then someone reviewing the best political cartooning of the week, then final comments. If ever there were a show that exemplified the old saw that ‘politics is show-business for ugly people’ then this is it.

It’s variable, of course, depending on whether the hacks hate each other (by far the most fun is to see David Marr and Gerard Henderson having to restrain themselves in each others’ company). So, the plan is to just note down (more for me than anyone else!) the “best” bits. Because, you see, you can watch it on youtube (bless!).

So, 10 September.

Still no Bazza (sad emoticon)

Treasurer Scott Morrison was a fluent performer, almost making the inattentive viewer believe the Coalition has an energy policy (it doesn’t). But can’t get the lump of coal out of my head.

While the show was on air, the Nationals, at their conference, voted down a burqa ban. As one of the hacks said, it’s all so George Christensen can shore up his vote with One Nation waverers…

Michael Stutchbury ,  editor in chief of the Fin talking nonsense on (who is to blame for the catastrophe that is Australian ) energy policy and Katherine Murphy of the Grauniad interrupting repeatedly to correct him (if the gender dynamic were reversed it would have looked awkward, tbf).

The judge video spoof/hacking thing was good, but not a classic.

Meanwhile, a new podcast with Richard Denniss (full disclosure, he’s a friend) of The Australia Institute has begun. It’s called The Lucky Country, after Donald Horne‘s seminal book on Oz. If the first one is anything to go by, it’s going to be compulsory listening, clearly. In this one, the personal highlight was Laura Tingle (writes for the Fin, is generally brilliant) from about 20 mins in (though the whole thing is worth listening to, natch)

She has written on this stuff for Quarterly Essay (esp Political Amnesia). Her she gives the example Canberra Bureau of the Fin. It had 12 journos in 2013. There are 4 now. So therefore all have to become generalists, “jump in with broadest of general knowledge.” This means they don’t have as good contacts/know as many experts. It means they see/report the world through a political prism – is it good/bad for Government, rather than through a policy prism. Generally dumbs down issue, because can’t give history/wide range of views. And thus everything becomes a horse-race. And given that, the death spiral of traditional media risks accelerating… What is to be done??

As time/bandwidth allows, I’ll keep up with these two, and be a bit choosier about watching ABC’s Monday night ego-fest Q and A, which is really just dumbed down and shout-y.  Much more heat than light, sadly.

What would a genuinely “empowering” #OpenState look like? @JayWeatherill

On Wednesday morning Jay Weatherill and 200 or so of Adelaide’s soi-disant cognoscenti gathered at Adelaide Oval, scene of triumphdisaster and foreigners hurling dangerous things at locals.

Everyone was there for the launch of the programme of the second ‘Open State’ festival, which will chart the potential triumphs and disasters of our species as it careens into the 21st century, with no brakes and a wonky satnav.  At the Open State festival – a series of talks running from 28 September to 10 October, some foreigners will hurl some possibly dangerous ideas.

Jay’s speech was everything you’d expect (and sadly not the alternative one I had suggested).  The words and themes were all there – innovation, inward investment, challenges of ageing, putting Adelaide on the map.   He extolled the use of citizens’ juries (without mentioning that the last one hadn’t gone the way he would have liked). He bigged up the attendance of international luminaries such as Richard Watson, Tia Kansara and Beth Simone Noveck.

He was followed by two presentations by entrepreneurs who had been given a boost during last year’s inaugural Open Event. The first, Daniels Langeburg arrived at the stage in one his Eco-caddy vehicles.  He explained his own heritage (ineligible at present for Federal parliament, thanks to Swedish and African heritage) who has been building up momentum for a couple of years

Eco-caddy has been transporting people and goods, and at the launch Langeburg announced the latest custom-built vehicle, which has a capacity of 350kg, and is designed for hauling things around the CBD.  (There is, of course, an app for people to order pickups and pay for them at the touch of a screen.)

He also referred to a recent foray into Melbourne to provide passenger transport at a local festival, at which his vehicles collected real time data on the travels and attitudes of attendees (anyone who saw Wednesday’s episode of Utopia, with Tony’s car survey difficulties will shudder at this).

There are, of course, reasons to be cautious.  Firstly, since so far eco-caddy has been replacing short journeys that would have been conducted on foot, the amount of carbon dioxide saved so far – and it is only early days – is, well, small (6.5 tonnes).  More seriously,  you can see them doing all the hard ‘proof of concept’ work and then being pushed aside by a fleet of electric vans with autonomous machine drivers with bigger capacity, longer range and deeper pockets to loss lead competitors into oblivion.

A bug not a feature

Second up was the founders of Post Dining.  Hannah and Stephanie.  With verve and humour, they took the audience through some of their work, in which they  “merge food with music, art and performance to create immersive and interactive eating experience” and  “meet the palate with an environment of possibility, through creativity.”  This then segued into a brief practical demonstration of Conversations around food entomophagy– eating bugs.  The attendees were treated to rocky road sprinkled with… crickets.

It was all tasty enough, but in the back of my mind was an excellent book by an American anthropologist, the late Marvin Harris. In his book Cannibals and Kings he argues that you can construct a story of humans eating all the easy to get protein, exhausting the supplies and then having to hunt up-and-down the food chain, developing new techniques of hunting and management.  And this is where – in a world groaning under the weight of Western excess and global overpopulation, we seem to have come to.  Earlier this year a shortage of lettuce in the UKwas treated as one of those jokey end-of-bulletin stories, a relief from tales of bombs, fires and elections.  But should it not have been seen as something sinister and full of foreboding. Next step Soylent Green?

The real problem with the launch though, was the programme.  And I don’t mean the glossiness of the impressively thick booklet that was handed out to all the well-heeled attendees.  I mean instead the superficiality of the ‘radicalism’.  It strikes me as a giant series of TED talk, where those with university educations, leisure time and the confidence to come along to listen to various actually-not-as-system-challenging-as-they-sound ideas without ever being able to connect in useful ways with the other attendees.  It’s the hub-and-spoke model, where the speakers are the stars and the audience is, well, ego-fodder.

This is not surprising, given who is sponsoring the event, and how it fits into the wider marketing of South Australia as a ‘happening place.’  If you think I’m being excessively undergraduate and self-proclaimed ‘radical’, well, maybe you’re right.  But incremental changes, which repair or recalibrate the existing patterns of behaviour and ‘governance’, are not going to get us out of the messes we’re in.

There’s nothing on the need for a post-growth economy, for example –that is still the topic that dare not be mentioned, even as we accelerate past 410 parts per million of carbon dioxide, as the Arctic melts and the reefs die.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the sessions on ‘new foundations for social change’ and ‘effective advocacy – what does it take’ will address the issues, but wouldn’t it be great if we had sessions which explored topics like, oh….

Citizens as Mushrooms – how bureaucrats and politicians use corporate public relations techniques and their own obfuscation techniques to prevent citizen oversight: and what to do about it.

How to make social movements effective –  how can social movement organisations overcome spin, secrecy, burnout and betrayal to be effective creators of good public policy that actually gets implemented.

Or something on how academics end up not being quite as useful to social movement organisations as they could be, and what is to be done about that.

Tell me I’m dreaming.

Turnbull’s Judgement – of Keating, Katter and Crabb #auspol

Annabel Crabb, in her book ‘Stop at Nothing’ about current Prime Minister (correct at time of publication) Malcolm Turnbull, recounts a phone call from ex Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating to then PM Kevin Rudd. The story originally comes from Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald (27 June) and here’s the grab-

When Malcolm Turnbull took the leadership of the Liberal Party, Paul Keating decided he had some useful insights into the man. He decided to offer them to Kevin Rudd.

The previous Labor prime minister told the incumbent Labor Prime Minister on the phone that he had studied Turnbull over the years. Rudd had to understand three key things about Turnbull.

First, he should know that Turnbull was brilliant. Second, that Turnbull was utterly fearless.

At this point Rudd, an irritated Rudd, demanded to know, ‘Is there any good news here?’ Keating replied with his third point: Turnbull has no judgment

Well, Turnbull famously came unstuck in late 2009.  He couldn’t get his party – nor the Nationals – to back his backing for Rudd’s monstrous ‘Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.’  Already having kicked himself hard in the credibilities (over ”Utegate”) Turnbull was turfed.

Apparently, after being convinced not to quit politics, he spent some time worked on his arrogance and his peremptory nature and somehow convinced enough of his colleagues that he was the only alternative to Tony ‘People Skills’ Abbott in September 2015.

But judgement is, it seems, not something you can work on so easily.  Because his response to Barnaby Joyce’s dual citizenship foul up has taken a crisis and turned it into a catastrophe.  He and others tried to accuse Labor of treason for having had some minor discussions/info-seeking with New Zealand’s Labour Party.

To see the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, gamely but disastrously trying to hammer this home was uncomfortable viewing in the extreme.  But presumably she was following the agreed script to the hilt (one of her strengths). But then you have to ask yourself, what was Turnbull thinking in signing off on the batshit crazy script.  Because he is surely the one who dreamt it up, or signed off on Operation Tinfoil Hat.

Meanwhile, his tolerance of fools does not seem to have improved all that much.  This from today’s Saturday paper article by Paul Bongiorno

Katter’s immediate beef was with Turnbull’s treatment of himself as a potential kingmaker on the crossbench. Promised regular meetings, there has only been one. “It was scheduled for one hour and lasted 20 minutes,” according to Katter, who says the prime minister got quickly bored, frequently checked his watch, and called the meeting to an abrupt halt. “I mean, to do that to a person whose vote you might need to survive?”

So, not quite as much change as everyone pretended to believe, then….

(For more on Bob Katter and the skills needed for dealing with him, have a read of Rob Oakeshott’s memoir ‘The Independent Member for Lyne’ – especially on Katter vs Oakeshott/Windsor and his ability to drive even Treasury officials to distraction.)