Tyranny and Television

Melbourne, 2006

The other day I watched the film “Good Night and Good Luck”. In the opening scene Edward R. Murrow, the famous World War 2 correspondent and television journalist stands at a podium to accept an award from his peers. The film then flashes back a few years to the time of the McCarthy hearings, and Murrow’s current affairs program exposing McCarthy, or more to the point, where he allowed McCarthy to expose himself. At the time CBS was under commercial and political pressure to toe the sponsors’ line.

The film is about a brief few years, a simpler time where truth seekers had a voice within the new medium of television, and where the forces that nourished and opposed them at the same time were easier to distinguish than they are now. But at the beginning of the film, at the podium accepting his award, Murrow laments the rot that has already set in. I am astounded, as he is speaking in 1958, soon after the beginning of the television age.

Today we still have the independent intelligence of the PBS network in the United States, and ABC and SBS in Australia, and shows such as Frontline, or Four Corners, amid the colorful and sugary riot on our screens, so TV isn’t a total narcotic, but these shows, though frank and well researched, seem less courageous and less effective than anything Murrow did fifty years ago, perhaps due to the heavily diluting effect of the garbage-choked media sea they swim in.

Bearing this in mind, I can think of two fundamental types of tyranny that exercise control through the medium of television. The first is a type easy to acknowledge as alien and hostile to our freedoms. It was the tyranny of Nazi and Soviet regimes. These days North Korea represents for us the nadir of this type of system. I call it Tyranny A.

Tyranny A is the old fashioned type: a regime that needs total control over information in order to remain powerful. All dissenting voices are suppressed.

In Tyranny A:

  • On television no one is permitted to make direct or indirect references to any kind of tyranny, except to those in enemy territory.
  • There may be no satirical references to power, nor any allusion to the state of things in fictional form. News organs are tightly controlled.
  • The tyranny is effective in silencing physical dissent and overt expressions of alternative views. For the most part the population knows what state it is living in, and shares that knowledge silently, though most people believe little or nothing can be done.
  • Nothing will change until this kind of tyranny becomes so vicious that effective dissent erupts due to extreme pressure, or the tyranny collapses due to economic and structural weakness, or defeat in war.
  • This form of tyranny does all in its power to prevent a loss of control over the population in all areas of public and private behavior and ideas.

Let’s liken television, and the information it offers, to a table on which food is served. In a family, or in a country ruled by Tyranny A, where nourishment may be scarce, whatever is laid on the table is eaten up and appreciated. It doesn’t take long for people to get an idea of what’s missing, and to know the difference between what is good and bad to eat. Whatever is good is digested, and the bad spat out discreetly by those who can tell the difference. In such a regime, truth, when it gets out, has power, even if it cannot yet be acted upon.

The second kind of tyranny is the kind that stays in control through abundance. Tyranny B is a regime that does not need total control over information in order to remain powerful. Lies are sweet, supported by wealth, and truth seems hard to distinguish.

In Tyranny B:

  • Dissenting voices in the news media are not suppressed, but not rewarded by the government or business.
  • In the arts and literature, everyone is permitted to say just about anything they want.
  • There is freedom to satirize the powers that rule us, which implies that these powers are benign.
  • There are constant allusions to the state of things in fictional form, including exaggerations of, and fantasy about possible real events. Television shows involving the government and security forces in conspiracies (even with creatures from outer space!) and fictional stories exposing corruption in big business and government abound. Real stories of corruption are permitted, but not promoted the way officially sanctioned news is. News organs are profit oriented.
  • This kind of tyranny does not need to silence dissent. For the most part, the population is sated with official news and entertainment. References to government conspiracy or official corruption that might trouble the mind can be dismissed as having no basis in reality.       After all, are they not the subject of fantasy in many films and television entertainments? It is commonly held that those who carp and worry have been watching too many conspiracy TV shows.
  • The population seems not to need to know what state it is living in. People mostly exist in social isolation, apart from the deluge of postings on social media sites, to be read or ignored, with little serious discussion going on between or even within social groups. The bulk of the population is so well fed that, apart from a frisson of concern at alarming news stories, it has little sense that anything might be going wrong.

In a country controlled by Tyranny B, where food is over-abundant, television is the cornucopia in the corner of our living room. Information is like the buffet table at a children’s party. The table groans under the weight of plates of junk food; hamburgers, chips, pizza, soda, cakes. On the table are also a few plates of celery and carrot sticks, apple slices, whole wheat bread with cheese, and other nutritious items that a few people have bought or prepared at home. Surveying the debris at the conclusion of the party, you see that nearly all the commercial junk food has been devoured, but the small plates of plain nutritious fare remain mostly untouched.

No one has been forbidden to eat healthily. But most people, especially children, wouldn’t consider doing so, and wouldn’t know what they were missing in terms of nutritional value until sickness set in.

Because this form of tyranny is apparently benign, nothing will change unless there is economic collapse and the formerly sated population becomes competitive and critical, and possibly fractious. At that point the tyranny will be forced to show its hand.

To prevent this, the tyranny does all in its power to prevent economic downturn, and may engage in activities and adventures that support wealth and distract the population.

Now that I have depressed myself with all of this, I am going to make a peanut butter sandwich and turn on the TV. There’s a new show on. It’s called Invasion.

Oh, and the following is a piece I scribbled out while watching the first night of the bombing of Bagdad in March 2003.

Shock and Awe

the clever men have had their say
the martial trumpet fades away
and now the curtains rise upon
the opera of shock and awe

a willing slave of our TV
anaesthetized by what we see
the promised firestorm begins
catharsis through passivity

it’s a precise and painless kill
claim the surgeons on the hill
and what we cannot feel or smell
might safely rouse a little thrill

night vision glowing black and green
fireflies circling on the screen
cloud stalks engorge as they explode
orgasms of sparkling gasoline

let these distracting flowers bloom
a thousand schools of thoughtlessness
contend for our attention span
to soothe away all sense of doom

complacency is our police
satiety our masterpiece
our freedom playing with itself
in this wasteland we call peace

yes, we are now the gods of war
but splendid gods have died before
and will again, the Goths* will come
and starving dogs will eat us raw

*By this I mean the forces popularly seen as the barbarians out to destroy our way of life, just as the Goths descended on Rome to destroy it.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org


Summer, 2007

After twenty-eight hours and four fully booked aircraft, the first originating in Sydney, this is the last leg from Copenhagen heading north. In the row behind me there’s a couple with two small children, a boy of about seven and his little sister. The children chatter away in Norwegian, asking question after question. I understand everything they are saying. I was the boy’s age when we left.

Our cabin attendant is a big Norwegian queen ripped and stacked like Conan the Barbarian. He’s perfectly manicured and coiffed, with a military-style blond brush crowned with a little quiff like TinTin. He arches his neck leftward and down, like Dame Margot Fonteyn as The Dying Swan, smiles a Mona Lisa smile, and asks me “te, eller kaffe?” I’m sweaty, stinking from the recent humid rush of Sydney, with a 36-hour growth and slimy teeth. Our fingers touch as he hands me the burning paper cup. The cloud-sheet tears asunder and below it appears patches of vivid green and wet black rock. Then, a patchwork quilt of Nordic neatness: clean white houses and big red barns on brown combed potato fields, and a few minutes later, serried rows of apartment blocks on the hilly outskirts of Oslo.


There’s nothing left of Viking Norway in the way of buildings. The Vikings built no towns up here, and they didn’t need ditches and fortified mounds like the Danes and Saxons did. They had rugged cliffs and narrow inlets to defend them. They built rambling farmsteads roofed with turf, and sturdy jetties to tie their boats to. The Oslo museums house a few fiercely elegant wooden ships and a hoard or two of treasure, much of which is Saxon, Byzantine or stolen from somewhere else south.

The oldest ruins in and around Oslo are from the early Christian period: stone churches, cloisters and fortified halls. The only remaining church in use from circa 1100 is the Gamle Aker church, up by the Aker river which flows out of the Maridalen lake, far enough out of the old town to be spared fire and plague.

The old medieval town, tucked away to the east of the present city centre, still has a section of cloister under a 17th to 19th century edifice, and nearly all of the 16th century hospital building erected out of the remains of an ancient Franciscan hospice. You can wander in and out of the rubbly outlines of the old castle and several churches. Norwegians are proud of their ruins, and regretful that late medieval poverty and the subsequent reformation destroyed them all. The more mystically, musically inclined Lutherans sometimes hold candlelit church services in them. The first week I was here I missed the vespers in what remains of St Halvard’s cathedral.

The old town reached its peak 700 years ago under the rule of Magnus the Good, but the Black Death of 1349-50 took about half the population. Things fell apart and Norway became a joint kingdom with, then a mere province under, Denmark for several hundred years. The last stroke came in 1624 when another fire razed the town, and Christian IV of Denmark built a new administrative centre a little further west, around the 14th century Akershus fortress, and named it Christiania, a name which lasted until the 1920s, when the name Oslo was voted back in. There are a few blocks of barn-like official buildings and plain stone mansions from the 1600s and 1700s around this area, as well as a modest baroque cathedral with an enormous copper spire. The rest of latter day inner Oslo is solidly 19th century, with four-story apartment blocks painted pale blue, or pink, or rose, or light gold. The main north and inner-west arteries are austere canyons of cobblestones and tramlines, winding and rising from the centre of the city to the hills that surround it.

Oslo has a number of impressive parks and gardens, and many small squares lush with rhododendrons. Further out, the city is a moraine of utilitarian concrete blocks raised up since World War II, but the hills around the west end of town are built up with large houses of wood or brick, and back gardens with a tall white flagpole in every one.

The axis of Oslo is Karl Johan’s Gate, running from the railway station plaza in the east to the royal palace on the hill to the west, lined with neoclassical and industrial-baroque edifices. Ibsen had his own table at the Grand Cafe, where a three-course lunch with wine costs 750 kroner nowadays. The hungry character in Knud Hamsun’s novel would have wandered around the back streets to the north of the glittering promenade. The harbour is small, cleaner that it was when I last visited, full of old sailing ships and new ferries, and the old warehouses on the west wharf have become Oslo’s glitziest mall.


East Central Oslo, which has always been working-class, is full of Middle Eastern folk now, as well as other, poorer immigrants. The kids seem to be mixing, but I see very few inter-ethnic couples on the street, other than a few East Asian girls with Indian men, or a few Norwegians with Africans. You don’t often hear the Babel of language on inner city streets. Everyone speaks Norwegian, and it is a peculiar enjoyment to hear a Vietnamese, Bulgarian, or Urdu twang in it. Occasionally a couple of women might be heard speaking Somali, or a few older men might be smoking and drinking coffee and talking Arabic around a sidewalk table. Immigrants have the opportunity to assimilate well, with free and mandatory Norwegian tuition for asylum seekers, access to social services, plenty of jobs and small-business opportunities. You can get all the spices, unguents and reasonably priced fruit and vegetables you want in the inner city neighbourhood of Grønland, which has become Islamic land here, possibly chosen both because of the name and the relatively cheap working class rents. A short stretch of Tøyengata has five barbershops, four greengrocers, a couple of Bollywood-Lollywood (Lahore) video outlets and an Indian sweet shop.

On Friday I pass by the mosque in Grønland emptying after prayer. It sits between two old-style four-floor apartment blocks. It is an impressive edifice with a blue-tiled facade, a dome and two tall blue minarets which can be seen from my temporary bedroom window further up the hillside in Tøyen. This mosque, the main one in Oslo, sits across from the high concrete walls and gates of Oslo’s city prison (with interesting sociological implications). After Friday prayers the street becomes a mass of men, mostly young, and the atmosphere is supremely masculine and confident, as though everyone were pouring happily out of a football stadium after a big win.


Conversing in basic Norwegian can be difficult because some folks speak dialect (a kind of East Oslo Cockney for instance), or won’t slow down at all (like my old friend and chief contact), and others insist on practising their excellent English on you as soon as you open your mouth, but I had a reasonably full conversation in Norwegian with some new acquaintances, a Peruvian and his Norwegian husband, when they invited me to meet some people over a home-cooked meal. The food was rich, Franco-Norwegian (Metro-Viking), served with copious amounts of interesting booze before, during and after the meal.

Everything in Oslo is absurdly expensive, and everyone, immigrants included, consumes vigorously. The bars and cafes are full. Things cost about double what they do in Sydney or New York, except for wine and spirits, which cost three times as much in the Wine Monopoly stores, and beer from the supermarket, which costs about the same. There is a lot of money floating around and people seem spoilt by the oil and gas wealth, although tax on goods and income is high. Norwegians, especially retired people, take bus trips to Sweden or mini-cruises to Denmark to go shopping as the prices are a lot lower in those countries. For someone without a job, money pours out like blood from your jugular vein.

I’m staying with my friend’s mother until I can afford the three-month rental deposit on a share, or a tiny place of my own. First she was iffy about having a paying guest. I give her 800 kroner a week for a small room, use of the kitchen and bathroom. I can prepare quick dishes, (the regular supermarkets sell more varieties of cured sausage than anything else) and keep costs down to a reasonable level by packing lunch every day. Joining both the City Library and the National Library means I can borrow books, DVDs and music. It’s free to join, but not free to visit. If I go to the National Library, it’s ten kroner to use the mandatory locker for my bag (but the toilet is free). At the City Library, you can take your bag, but the toilet token is five kroner (about a dollar). I’ve borrowed some organ music, and need to find an instrument to practise on and a choir to join.

Oslo people are breezier than your regular country Norwegian. But they can seem rather slow, even as they exude sophistication and modernist cool. It can take a while getting anyone to help you in a clothing or a camera store. Sometimes the level of service seems quite Soviet, but without the resentment. Norway is a nanny state, with enough social resources to give people the illusion of not needing others. Oslo has a huge workforce of civil servants. I have had several acquaintances and officials offer to help me with advice, or a word to others they know, concerning my legal status here, but several times I have got the sense of being an imposition on enquiring further.

I’m tip-toeing around my temporary landlady. She’s still not keen on a lodger and moreover, has a bad cold. Her attempt at giving up Marlboros lasted ten days. She hacks and groans for a large part of the day in swirls of smoke, sitting in her chair watching the TV or doing Sudoko. I keep out of the way, but watch a bit of soccer or news with her in the evenings before I go to my room to read and sleep. We have friendly little chats in Norwegian and English, and we’ve shared a couple of meals as well, but she did make it gruffly clear, “you’re not staying here for long.”


The days have been like mountain days, with warm sunshine on ones back, and a chill in the breeze. The flowers in the parks are bursting, and in a couple of months there’ll be loads of berries in the woods close by.

On a long evening hike around Oslo I go tramping through Frogner Park, around Gustav Vigeland’s bronze and granite sculptures of naked men, women and children. The statues depict the joys and sorrows of mankind in family groups and in solitude, surrounding a tall monolith of entwined and writhing figures. There are plenty of late-evening visitors. It is still bright at nine pm, and a couple of blushing, giggling girls in veils are having their photo taken in front of a virile stone torso. The park is huge and formal, like a French palace garden or a Mexican temple precinct. In the span of half an hour I pass by a dozen small brown men wielding large accordions. A few of them play Eastern European dirges, some with dexterity. But many trot out what sound like Norwegian tunes. Their little plastic pots have only a few coins in them and the men have subdued, resigned expressions on their faces. Are they waiting for their work permits to come through also?

Night, even well before the summer solstice, arrives tenuously after ten pm. The sun seems to recede toward the north, rather than go down over the hills. It rolls around somewhere below the horizon, and above it Venus circles the north as well, travelling eastward over the horizon in a curtain of blue and gold, over the mauve twilight which mists up the forested hills until the sun rises sometime after three.

At midnight, with still enough light to read by, I wander up the hill to the Fageborg Kirke where I was baptised, and around Bislett, a circular complex of apartment blocks from the 1950s, cream painted, austere but comfortable, with small clean windows and large bare balconies. This is what a communist utopia would have looked like, had that system flourished. Perhaps it has, here in oil- and gas-rich Norway.

I head back down Pilestredet to the centre of town, passing several Indian restaurants, and one that offers the best in Chinese-Norwegian cuisine. Do I want to save my kroner and try a Norwegian-Chinese meal? I let the thought go as I drop into London Pub, the main gay bar. It turns out to be a dark and dreary basement. Norwegian men are shy and cool. They seem to get drunk first, then try to make contact. I spend half an hour sipping a half litre of beer, surrounded by a few gossiping couples, a few sourly handsome lone Norwegian men. At 52 kroner (about US$9) one beer is enough, and I don’t stick around for any tipsy possibilities.

At two thirty in the morning the main thoroughfares and squares around the harbour are busy with Nigerian prostitutes, stepping aggressively into every male pedestrian’s way with cries of “hello darling, hey you, darling . . .” There are no longer state-regulated brothels as there were in Edvard Munch’s day. I’m told soliciting is legal, but picking up a hooker is not. The square around the central station is buzzing with little groups of Middle Eastern men conversing, drunk Norwegians arguing and vomiting, and weary, grimy gipsies huddled on benches trying to sleep. When I passed through here as a youth Oslo was said to be the acid capital of Europe. On my visit twelve years ago, it was supposed to be heroin. Not sure what the gangs are peddling to the locals these days.


In glorious weather after a few days of rain, I take an early morning train up to the nearest hiking trails. The Oslo T-ban allows pets, and you see quite a few adorable yard-dogs on the trains, as well as the trendier type like French Bulldogs and Jack Russell Terriers (apparently, the dog du jour for those who prefer to purchase a pet rather than be found by one). It’s making me dog-lonesome, missing my former desert puppy, now a dowager Brooklyn hound.

Frognerseter is the end of the line, up through the whitest and wealthiest area of Oslo (“bimbo land”, as one cynical Oslo east-sider put it to me), to a great view at about twelve hundred feet. Hiking trails criss-cross the fir-covered valleys that surround the city and fjord.

Five hours and twelve miles later I’m down by the old monastic ruins on the northern shore of the Maridalen lake, and after some lunch, head up the old road past the school and the cluster of houses and farms, all still recognizable to me.

Down by the river hollow there’s still the patch of fir forest into which, forty years ago, I had wandered as a small boy. Back then I stumbled upon a couple of elks in the murky shadows, and then fled in terror. This time I find refuge in the dense forest shade before heading up the little dirt track that crosses the valley. And again, there’s an elk in there, female, and bigger than a horse. After sniffing me out for a couple of minutes, it is she who takes fright at my presence, lumbering away in the green gloom.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Nimrut Dagi

Excerpt from Turkish Diary

Thursday 23rd August.

The van sways and heaves itself up though a small brown village. Everything has been worn down by poverty; the rutted, washed-out track, a scattering of stone and mud brick hovels, chickens and dogs waddling around mounds of dung, pecking and sniffing. Half a dozen chubby children squat in the dirt tossing pebbles at a wall. Two thin, worn women thrash wet clothes against flat stones by a small grey stream.

Further up the slopes we pass stubbled fields, a harvester and a couple of tractors with about twenty or thirty dark and wiry men standing around the machinery. Still further up, a grader digs into the flanks of the dirt road, and an excavator pours the rock into an old truck whose axles and fenders are weighed down with mud. High ahead, on the flanks of the mountain I can see two faint trails of wire, cross-hatched with black support towers and tiny hanging benches. This is a newly developed ski area, and the reason the road is being improved. The work is not being done for the villagers or the summer day-trippers, but for the money that will hopefully pour in during winter.

The Czechs sit in front of us, snuggling as the van twists and heaves over the stones. Achim and I sit up back, legs and shoulders getting close, hands between each other’s thighs. The Czechs turn and smile occasionally, half aware, uncaring. I have no idea whether the driver or his aggressive boss have anything in particular to notice. The road climbs to the summit, the rim of the crater, high above the lake stretching to the hazy eastern horizon. The crater blew out aeons earlier, blocking a river and creating Lake Van, which has no outlet. My heavy morning mood lifts and flies away.

We stop for photos at the rim, and a minute later, another minivan stops, with six passengers ushered out by the garrulous old man who had accosted us in the hotel lobby early this morning. He drones on about the view to a couple of Asian girls. The others in the van appear to be Turks. The view is spectacular, slabs of blue and yellow brightness stretching over the east and south horizons, with softer washes of red, green and violet in the cool scree within the crater. Below us, the large serpentine crater-lake is a metallic blue void, and the smaller warmer one, a muddy moonstone.

It’s eleven a.m. now, and we must negotiate a slow descent to the lake. But first, both vans brake, turn up a steep track and stop at a black outcrop of rock. It’s a steam vent. We all pile out to have a look, and the old tour guide goes on about it for a bit, before we all get back into our vans for the last fifteen minutes of bumpy drive to the base of the crater.

Below us in the distance we can see a large green tarpaulin tent and a wooden, canvas-topped shelter, with a few indistinct figures moving about. Achim thinks it’s a Bedouin camp. But when we get there we see that it’s a tourist camp, with stacks of cans of Turcu Cola and Fanta, and preparations being made for kebabs for those who want to buy lunch. Piles of rubbish and plastic wrappings smoulder in a fire in the gully at the back. A couple of other white vans are parked there, with a few elderly northern Europeans wearing sunbonnets and sensible khaki touring clothes. The two of us manage to escape. Our guide has become less bossy, realising we just want to enjoy some peace and quiet, and sees that we’ve bought our own picnic. He waves us towards the rocks, with “hot spring, hot water, very good.”

The smaller lake, which is supposed to be warm, is about as cool as an Australian lake in summer, but at this altitude – 2600 metres or so – it’s relatively warm compared to the breeze. I strip off, put on my bathers and dive in. It’s briskly exhilarating, then deliciously tepid. Achim strips off to his underpants and dives in too. We swim out to the middle of the lake, gazing up at the ravens and the multi-coloured crags, with tufts of cloud sailing over swiftly, the ragged black doom-birds circling and sinking. Time slows down and I forget everything else.

We swim back, and find the warm pool of water surrounded by a wall of stones, and wallow in it languidly. The water is quite dirty, and from the corner the stream from below is quite hot, stirring up the sediment. A smell like shit wafts around us. I try to imagine that it’s a sulphurous smell, from the volcanic vent.

We hear a cough from somewhere up above; just time enough to adjust ourselves modestly. It’s the Czech couple. The girl sits on a rock, quiet, perhaps a little bit melancholy, and her boyfriend tiptoes over the jagged rocks to reach the water’s edge.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to strip off naked,” he says.

We don’t mind at all. I would have stripped before, but I didn’t want to offend any Muslim eyes that might notice. He strips off, swaying on a steep rock at the water’s edge, and dives in. He is beautiful, with very white skin and fluffy balls like soft white apricots. Achim murmurs his appreciation into my ear as we sit there, nonchalantly not watching, but not avoiding him either. I strip off too, and dive back in. I call out to the girl, “come on, dive in.” But her boyfriend tells me that she is unwell. Maybe she’s having her period.

We swim around, laughing, and as we clamber out, a car comes into view in the distance, bumping along the track. It stops halfway around the lake, and a couple get out and walk down to the reedy edge of the water. The woman is wearing dark flowing clothes and a veil. They might be able to see us, but not any details. We laugh and hide behind some rocks, pulling our underpants on quickly. As I dress and find my socks, I see a used diaper wedged between some rocks at the water’s edge, and a bit further up, a large scab of dried human shit. I’m shocked out of my dreamy day. Why on earth would anyone relieve themselves here, right beside the hot spring?

A couple of other cars pass along the track as well. I guess we could have hitch hiked up here after all.

Achim and I leave the Czech couple to themselves, but invite them to share our lunch if they want. We find a slab of rock to eat our picnic on. We’re busy on some peaches, and a group of locals wanders by. We smile and say hello, and one of the men gestures, showing us his camera. He wants to have his picture taken with us. He wedges his slight, muscular frame between us with a big grin, and Achim and I put our arms around his shoulders for the shot. How amusing, a local playing tourist and we being the exotic ‘colour.’

Our bossy tour guide wanders over too, quite mellow now. He asks if we had our swim, and we both look up at the sky and smile. He smiles. It’s become obvious that we are gay. “We go at three, OK?” He stands before us for a couple of minutes, silent, inscrutable, solemn, with his hands plunged deep into each pocket, his fly bulging. We pretend to notice nothing.

After lunch, Achim and I wander over the shrubby trail to the larger, deep blue lake, walking hand in hand. We find another hut, by the water, and two more white minivans parked nearby, with a dozen or so men, the guides and drivers, eating a substantial lunch. Further on amid the rocks and shrubs, families of locals are loudly enjoying their own picnics.

At half past two, the day ends, and we return to the van. On the return journey down to Tatvan, we see the field workers moving slowly through the dry mountain grass. Closer to the road two men carrying guns stand watching them. Why, I wonder? Are they out shooting foxes? Or are they guarding the workers in case they escape?

. . . and the Big Men Fly

A brief foray into Aussie Rules, for North American readers.

Melbourne 2007

Late Friday night I’m at the old Royal Hotel in Richmond with Andy. It’s crowded. I manage to push my way through the throng and get to the toilet to pee. There’s a drunk punter pissing copiously at the other urinal. He looks over, red faced, tubby and happy. It’s as if he wants to grab my eye and take it where it doesn’t really want to go, down to his frothy splish-splash. He gazes over, grunting proudly, “tike a look at that! That’s pure fucken’ alcohol that is. Pew-er fucken’ alcohol…” He’s got his left arm propped against the tile wall so he can’t fall in. Everyone’s just come from the footy, and Richmond has just won.

My poetry comrade took me by surprise when he invited me to tonight’s game. I’d thought Andy’d be the sport-shy type, being perhaps a tad intellectually superior (maybe this is why we get on well). He teaches Indonesian and writes wisps of cerebral verse. I’ve known him a few months, and had him pegged as a Young Fogey of the High Melburnian sort (as yours truly once was). But he says he’s been a Richmond (“the Tigers”) supporter for years. It was my team when I was a kid up in the country. I went for them because of the yellow diagonal stripe on the black jersey, manly, yet elegant. My brother Norbert has been a loyal Carlton (“the Blues”) fan ever since he was little. And tonight they’ve come together. Norbert, up in Sydney, has forbidden me texting him the score as he wants to catch the replay at 11pm.

Australian Rules football is played by two teams of 18 players, with interchange players in reserve. It’s ferocious and fast, with spectacular leaps as the men compete for the ball. To begin, a coin is tossed, and the winning captain selects the end of the field for their goals—and this will alternate every quarter. Players disperse across the relatively large oval—up to 200 yards long by 160 yards wide. After the first siren, the umpire bounces the ball hard in the center of the field, and the two ruckmen battle for it high in the air on its way back down.

Four banks of bright arc lights hover over this huge steel and concrete stadium, squatting on the banks of the Yarra River like a mother-ship convertible, very Spielbergian. We’re high up under the eaves of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, built for the 1956 Olympics, used for cricket in summer, football in winter, and recently remodelled with new stands, lighting and electronica for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Tonight the crowd is a bit over half capacity, at 55,000. From way up on the North East side the oval below is a grass galaxy scattered with fast moving stars, tiny molecules of men. To a blind man unaccustomed to new light, the first minutes of play seem brilliant and exciting. I have never been to a big game. I barely dealt with football at school, always picked second-last or last, trotting around the periphery trying to keep my self, my left foot and my wire-rimmed spectacles out of the way.

The object of the game is to score goals between two flagpole-tall goal posts. A goal is worth six points. Outside the two goalposts are two shorter “behind” posts, and getting the ball through either of these is worth a point. If a player touches the ball before it crosses the line, if it hits a goal post, or soars over them it’s only worth a point. Aussie Rules differs from other football codes in having no offside rule. The offside rule delineates an offence in which an attacking player is closer to the goal (thus interfering with the defense and making scoring too easy) than any two defenders—usually a goalkeeper and one other.

There are no limits on ball and player movement, but players must bounce or toe kick the ball when running and must hand-pass the ball by punching it. Throwing is forbidden. Running with the ball is allowed, provided it is bounced to the ground every ten paces or so. Bumping and tackling is allowed, and when tackled a player must get rid of the ball, or risk a penalty (at tackle points, the crowd erupts, roaring “ball”). If a player marks the ball after more than 15 yards in the air, the game pauses and he gets a free kick from that spot. Apart from those rules, the ball is fair game. Fast, ferocious and often confusing play with high balletic leaps, tackles, and spinning scrums of wrestling men is the result. The game is played without body protection, although these days all players wear mouthguards, as boxers do, to protect their teeth. Bruised ankles and battered knees get taped up. Bones are occasionally broken, but there’s rarely a serious injury.

When my friend extended the invitation I suggested smuggling in a bottle of Pinot Gris and a chicken salad hamper (and, fished from the back of my cupboard, a couple of pairs of opera glasses, with which to analyze the form). “Don’t you dare, you’ll be killed” said he. I’ve brought the two pairs of binoculars, but play is far too rapid on this vast field to follow the ball. I get some beers and fries between the first and second quarters.

The Tigers and the Blues seem to be playing quite different styles of game tonight. The Richmond players employ rapid hand passes back and forth, zigzagging around the Carlton players, and trying to get enough room for a decent kick. The Blues are playing a much more spacious game, and more often than not during the opening half hour their players are where the ball is falling. At the end of the first quarter it seems the Tigers, trailing by 19 points, are getting creamed. But for the rest of the game they manage to push ahead.

“Aussie Rules” originated in Melbourne in the 1850s as a game to keep cricketers fit during the winter off-season. It borrowed elements of Gaelic football and Rugby, both played by British and Irish immigrants pouring into Victoria during the gold rush. It may also have been inspired by a local Aboriginal game, Marngrook, which used a ball of stuffed possum hide. The local native term for a high leap to catch the ball was “mumarki,” from where the term to “mark” the ball may have originated. The first code of rules was drawn up in 1859 at the Parade Hotel in Richmond, close to where we are at the MCG.

By the 1870s there were a number of competing teams in the inner districts of Melbourne: Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, St Kilda and South Melbourne. The Victorian Football League was established in 1896. The game soon spread to other towns and Australian colonies, then New Zealand and South Africa. Major league football has always been a Victorian game though. In New South Wales and Queensland rugby is king. There used to be few interstate Aussie Rules matches, but in the 1980s several Melbourne teams migrated to other cities, and the Australian Football League was established in 1989. If you want to see footy in North America you’ve got the Ontario Australian Football League, with a dozen teams competing this year.

I begin to notice how messy the performance is tonight. Rapid, with bone crunching contact, and high arching leaps to mark the ball, but the ball gets dropped enough times for me to become aware of the clumsiness of play. I’m excited to be here, but there are groans all around at the mediocre level of tonight’s game. Carlton hasn’t been good in a decade, and Richmond in more than two, says Andy. They were gods when my brother and I were young, but they’ve both been on the bottom half of the ladder for the past few years. The level of play seems to be infuriating a lot of the spectators. There are a few good precise, difficult kicks from both sides, but a lot of easy goals get missed. What the hell is going on?

The crowd is good-natured, there are plenty of women along, and kids with oversized football jerseys, clutching half-size red leather balls, wear team coloured war paint on their bright and shiny little faces. Booing and roaring erupt from all quarters. The jesting is rarely hostile (it’s ironic that cricket, the gentleman’s game, has lately been marred by racist taunts toward visiting African and Asian players). I’ve developed a high piercing finger whistle that gets angry winces from the guys in front of us—Carlton supporters obviously—so I better stop it. There’s not much noise from Andy though. He murmurs indignation at Richmond’s poor show, perhaps a sigh of resignation, or an occasional approving nod at a reasonable kick. I roar with red-faced plebeian gusto along with the rest, having a blast. Finally, I register a genteel yell from my friend, “pick em up you fucking idiots.” The game is getting slaughtered. In the end, Richmond stumbles forward to collect an undeserved win: 12 goals 20 points (92 – a goal being 6 points) to Carlton’s 11 goals 18 (84).

Two and a half hours have gone by fast. It’s raining as the crowd empties out of the stadium like water pouring through holes in the bottom of a steel drum.

And now, back to where we are at the Royal Hotel. It’s the pub where Richmond footy club was founded in 1908. It’s got topless barmaids now. The mostly male crowd is very loud, mooing and rumbling in beery satisfaction. I manage to get myself back to the bar without having been sprayed with “pew-er fucken alcohol.” Andy’s got a sparkly-eyed grin. Maybe the look on my face is just as boyishly callow as the look on his, as if the steel-smiling English backpacker barmaid just dipped her nipples into our pints of Kilkenny and proffered her frothy tits for us to lick.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Two Dozen Hearts

your heart is a crust of words.
yours is nailed in sentences.
your heart is a fist of sand.
and yours, a steel glove full of curds.

your heart is a throne of suds.
yours is champagne down the sink.
your heart’s a bottle of bitter beer.
and yours, a glass of frozen blood.

your heart is a cardboard cock.
yours is a shot of poppy-seed.
your heart is a rosebud welded shut.
and yours, a highly polished lock.

your heart is a demon playing nice.
yours is a saucer of milky plea.
your heart is a fig that has been bruised.
and yours, a smile at half-price.

your heart is a toad on an angel’s arm.
yours is a bird on an empty box.
your heart is a topaz hidden in turd.
and yours, a feather billowing balm.

your heart is a cherry that swallowed a worm.
yours has become your lover’s pram.
your heart is a mutating psalm.
and yours, a prayer book stuck with sperm.

Note: Relax. None of these are you. I wrote the above in response to the work of two dozen writers I heard regularly at a poetry venue in Melbourne a few years back.

Travels North

I’m on the Gold Coast just north of Coolangatta staying with family friends. Refreshed, well washed, well fed, with the car fitted with a roof rack, jerry cans for petrol and water, spare tires, radiator hose and fan-belt, ready to resume my travels in a day or two.

The “Gold Coast” is the most American looking region I have been in outside the United States. Vast prefabricated shopping malls of the neo-Etruscan order, motels and hi rises flank the ocean beaches, as though suburban San Diego had been bred with Waikiki beach. This mess stretches from Coolangatta on the NSW border, thirty kilometers north to Surfers Paradise. Another fifty kilometres north of that, Brisbane is hilly, clean and friendly, with a cluster of Victorian buildings and shiny towers at its center, on a bend in the river. I was in a sunny version of Seattle. The Gold Coast is mostly owned by American and Chinese business interests, which accounts for the urban style and the plethora of Asian gambling clubs and restaurants. But some old Aussie charm remains.

Arriving in Brissie, I parked at the Brunswick St. train station and shopping mall. The biggest space in the mall is a tatty looking bingo hall, the size of a large empty supermarket that looks as though it is about to be demolished. Hundreds of retirees, mostly old ladies with cups of tea and plates of biscuits and scones were busy, heads down, checking out the numbers. When I returned to pick up the car after an afternoon sightseeing there were still a few clusters of oldies waiting around for the suburban trains to take them home. It’s better than sitting on a recliner lounge in front of the television hooked up to a saline drip.


Two weeks earlier, after a few days with friends in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, I fired up the old wagon and headed North West to Lightning Ridge, an opal mining town on the edge of the outback.

Spent the first afternoon driving north west on the road to Gunneda and Narrabri, undulating hills with low rugged mountains in the middle distance, and at dusk, turned off the main road at Narrabri, and headed up to the Mount Kaputar National Park, and found a quiet spot to sleep. A cold frosty night, and next morning got ready for a hard hike up to one of the rocky outcrops, remnants of old volcanoes, as many of the small mountain ranges in the eastern part of Australia tend to be. These ranges are similar to the Warrumbungles, which my former partner and I visited a few months back, but about three hundred meters higher. Decided to hike up to the Yulladunida crater, through dense eucalypt, and tall bushy “blackboys” dark stumpy prehistoric looking plants with a big tuft of spiky green grass on top, to the base of the rocky escarpment, where there’d be a one hundred and fifty meter scramble up the steep rocks, with lots of foot and hand holds. The rock resembled the dark crinkly folds on the back of an elephant’s neck, and closer up, patterned and plated like the skin of a crocodile, or Stegosaurus.

About half way up these rocks, I saw a couple of eagles wheeling around the main peak. Ahh, my favorite bird – from a distance. Pretty soon they noticed me, and more had wheeled into view, proceeding to sail over to where I was rather gingerly perched. Birds and feathers have always left me queasy, and in a moment, I grew giddy and un-nerved as eight big brown wedge-tailed eagles wheeled and flapped overhead, and around me, close enough for me to see their eyes. An irrational fear of being clawed to death descended, and I scrambled down a couple of meters to a safer foothold, from where I could look up and around in all directions, wishing for once that I were not alone up there.

I then got a hold of myself and realized that I was more in danger of slipping and falling in a moment of panic, than I was from these curious but wary birds. They soared off towards the summit, wheeled around its rocky mount a few times, and then flew back towards my perch again for another look, lazily wheeling around each other, a couple of them “dogfighting” in mid-morning play, each time getting up the courage to fly a bit closer; though I am sure they never got closer to me than twenty meters, it was stomach churning nonetheless. I could hear the whoosh and crackle of air through their great bronze splayed wings as they flapped and adjusted, much like the crackle of breeze in a flapping sail.

Managed to allow my racing heart to calm down, and after five minutes or so, they wheeled and flew back to the summit for another circuit, and finally all headed west for the day’s hunt and forage. After that, it was an easy scramble up to the topmost ridges, for a full view of the hills to the east, and the great flat disc of the Australian plain to the North, West and South, like a dead and dusty ocean, with the faint blue Warrumbungle mounds and ridges a hundred and fifty kilometers away to the south west. Panglossian ecstacy, after such turbulent emotions.

A late-coming eagle flapped over and soared around me, checking me out for a few minutes, me still wary but not so freaked out, before it too headed west to join the others.

It was now a glorious morning, after having had a good chance to take a look at one of my phobias before the hike down to the road again, coffee, and the rough drive back down to Narrabri for petrol, and the road to Wee-Waa and Lightning Ridge.

The void is dripping with stars. There is enough light from a crackling fire to scribble by.

Lightning Ridge

I spent a day in Lightning Ridge, a dusty collection of trailers, tractors and mounds of opal tailings, like a broad brown tablecloth scattered with the crumbs and rubbish of a good meal. A few streets intersect, with general stores, opal outlets and shanty cafes. There’s a section of town where those who struck it rich have build large bare suburban homes. There weren’t many folks around; a few lean, leathery looking men and women in big hats, and some urban oldies in shiny new 4-wheel drives checking out the opal displays in the rather pricey and touristy looking shops. Opal is not my kind of stone, though I did see some gorgeous blue and purple “black” opals, for rather more money that I would have thought, out here.

I met a big ruddy German fellow living in the local “Caravan Park” as trailer parks are called in Australia. Ollie was trying to get his visa extended before trying his luck digging for stones. He’d spent time in Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, dreaming about finding gold there, but then moved east. He told me I could probably find work helping small claims holders with the laboring brunt of digging, but that it would take a few days to build up trust with anyone I might meet in the local pub. No one admits to finding anything and few make a living at it – the piles of rock and rusted abandoned equipment littered around the town attested to that. Ollie seemed a bit nervous of me. The caravan park lady with whom I’d been chatting about life had introduced him to me. Perhaps he took me for an itinerant immigration agent. He reiterated earnestly that he was studying mining techniques, and didn’t plan to make any money at all. Fair enough I thought, but I was obviously welcome company over black coffee in his hot little caravan. His English wasn’t good, and relaxed and candid company hard to find in this hard bitten, wary place.

On the road leading east out of town there’s an artesian spa, with hot water pumped up from a depth of fifteen hundred metres or so. There’s a big circular pool with shower stalls built to cater to locals and visitors. Had a great soak in the hot sulfurous water, and a couple of smokes in the sun waiting for my shorts and towel to dry. The late afternoon light got some color to it, and the breeze got cooler, so it was time to head back through town and onto the highway north to Queensland.

Desert Night

I needed to find a quiet spot to camp before sundown. I’d been driving North West for a couple of hours through unfenced land; flat, red and ochre earth with eucalypt and pine scrub. After slowing several times for a likely hideout during the last half hour’s drive I chose a dusty track trailing off to the left and into a scrubby waste of abandoned mining claims. Big red kangaroos bounded out of the way through white mounds of quartz and small scabby trees.

The cirrus clouds began shading to pink. It would grow dark quickly and I had little time to waste. I managed to gather enough dead wood for a decent fire next to one of the piles of gravel, and settled in for a good dinner of curried veggies, bread, and wine. Over the next couple of hours the fire died down. The piney blaze, bright and chattering, began to nod off and slumber in its soft warm glow. As the night stretched westward the stars awoke and began to blaze.

In the quiet intensity of solitude, you begin to feel very small in the face of the universe above and around you. At first the sensation was peaceful, perhaps a kind of thanksgiving. But then from the road half a mile to the east, I heard the sound of a vehicle slowing down and stopping. Had someone seen the glow of my fire between scrub and the trees? I could see no headlight, nothing at all. In the moments of silence, before the vehicle (I imagined it was a pick-up truck) started up again and drove south towards Lightning Ridge, fear crept into my sense of peace. Had a passenger, or passengers, got out of that vehicle, perhaps to sneak up on my camp?

In Lightning Ridge that day a local store owner and her husband had insisted I stop for no one on the road, as there were occasional dangerous characters prowling around. She made a blunt reference to local aboriginals.

“Some of em’ll hit you on the head for anuff money furra bottle a’ booze”.

When I started up my innocent urban mutterings about what a shame that was, and that one really mustn’t judge people, the woman gave me a dusty and patient look with her much older and experienced eyes.

“Yair, it’s sad,” she said, “but it’s a fact of life out here Love.”

Her prejudice aside, I knew I should heed her warning. The papers we full of stories about a murderer who had flagged down a couple in their Kombi van north of Alice Springs a couple of days earlier. He was still at large; having most likely killed the English traveler, and tried to kidnap his girlfriend. She had wriggled free from her bonds at night and fled – the killer had tried to track her with his dogs, but failed, and she had reached the road and been found the next morning. The police were hunting for the killer with heat seeking helicopters, and for the remains of her companion using aboriginal trackers.

So there was incident and story to inflame my fear at night. A cold curl of unease licked down my back. Something told me with icy clarity “get out of here within ten minutes or you’re done for.”

I sat a while longer, aware of my shadows, the fear pouring out of me and dancing in the blackness between the dimly lit bushes and pine scrub. I’m aware enough of these things now to realize that intuitions and insights are sometimes misleading. All I could do was rest with the fear for a while, and let the fire die down to the coals. With only the leaky little kerosene lamp for light the car loomed, a flickering bulk a few yards from where I sat.

But what about “discernment” I thought. What is really going on?

Nothing was going on.

“Stay alert,” said common sense.” If you notice anything unusual occurring out there in the dark, then you have reason for alarm.” I then remembered that the vehicle I heard an hour or so earlier had pulled up, stopped, and driven off; sounding quite distinct in the semi-desert silence, but with no sound of any doors opening or clicking shut.

But shadows of fear continued to reach in to this little circle of warmth and light.

I had to get up and walk away from the fire, treading quietly over the gravel to sit on one of the cold piles of quartz. Looking up at the thick wads of stars I felt much safer in the darkness. I was hidden from the firelight by the car’s shadow. The smoke rose from it in a thin blue column. It spread out as a broad, drifting platter of silver fog at treetop height; that and the soft glow of fire and coals on the foliage, and the intensity of the Milky Way above, rendered the scene unearthly, almost ludicrous.

Fear vanished into absurdity for a while, over an hour the two sensations flickered back and forth like red light and shadow across my face. I slept in the car with the doors locked.

A few hikes, nights spent sleeping by a campfire, another thousand kilometers of narrow sealed highway slowing for numberless kangaroos, emus and mobs of sheep have been followed by well-laundered rest and a visit to Brisbane. I’m ready to head up the coast to Cooktown, or at least Cairns for some sun, and maybe a bit of snorkelling, before making my way across to the tropical North to Darwin, where I will have a chance to freshen up at my uncle Terry’s place, before taking up any seasonal work that might be available, and heading to the Kimberleys, and the arid wilds of outback Australia, of which I have had the first dusty taste.

I hope that in forty years I’d want to end my days camped under a tree, under the stars by a warm fire, age having faded my fears of being stalked and attacked by dark-hearted strangers, or big, curious birds.

Lorentz Lossius

June 2004

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

On Time and Death


  1. Time is entirely dependent on movement.
  2. Space is entirely dependent on outward movement, from a non-space-time origin to the dimensions resulting from outward movement.
  3. If there is no movement, there is no space and no time. Even if there had been movement, and thus space-time, when movement stops, our ability to comprehend it will cease also.
  4. Our experience and comprehension of space and time is based on the regular occurrence of natural movement, the repetition of movement: the cycle of the sun, and the cycles of the moon, the length of the day, the steadiness of the resting heartbeat.
  5. If movement were chaotic, and irregular: a stream of ever changing movement, we would not be able to measure or comprehend duration, because a sense of duration depends on the yardstick of regularity. Without being able to measure duration, we would not have a sense of space either.
  6. If there were no movement at all, there would be nothing to compare with anything else, nothing to measure, and thus there would effectively be no time. Non-time cannot be comprehended, but it can be experienced as infinity.

Time and Death

  1. Towards the point of death, human body functions slow down. As functions slow down, the sense of time changes. The sense of time speeds up, relative to the slowing of psycho-physical functions.
  2. But concurrently with this effect, the innate sense of time slows as well, relative to the speeding up of the dying psyche’s experience of phenomena.
  3. Which is why those reaching the point of death seem to experience everything (“my whole life raced before my eyes”), as well as sense of “timelessness.”
  4. At the ultimate moment of human life, the last microsecond of consciousness everything is experienced, and it is experienced infinitely.
  5. The nature of this total and infinite experience depends on the psyche either accepting everything experienced, or resisting something that has been or is being experienced.
  6. This is the difference between the “yes” of “heaven”, and the “no” of “hell”.

My personal take on point 6, is that everyone gets to experience the “yes” at the very end, even the “worst” humans.

Why do I think this? People who subscribe to religious belief have their own ways of explaining this: redemption after a single life, the final end to the cycle of illusion after many lives, and so on.


  1. Having been invited to stand outside and embrace the entirety of existence, which is huge, but also, infinitely small, (the universe is space, but this dimensional space is contained within “no space”) and
  2. having observed dispassionately the entire workings of what we consider good and evil – and in my experience, on approaching the experience one fights against it, thinking “I cannot be dispassionate in the face of evil and suffering and I fear the moral outcome of being so”, but then the experience is granted again, and one allows oneself to say “yes” to the unity of all experience – then,
  3. everything we so rightly as humans judge as good and bad (we must, innately make these distinctions, in order to be human), is, at a non-human level, seen as the “way things are.” Not seen coldly, but seen with an accepting but non-emotive empathy.
  4. So, as our human existence slips away, we experience an infinite moment of this unbound acceptance.

Note: The approach to this experience is terrifying in its implications for a human mind. The experience itself is inexpressible other than in vague terms, and whilst still being alive, on returning to normal human consciousness, shattering to contemplate after it has passed.