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I think the last time I saw something slowly playing out on television and thought “this wasn’t supposed to happen” was the 2015 UK election. (Brexit, despite what people seem to think now, was always tight in the polls.) That was a mild version of this, because Cameron and Osborne cannot begin to compare to this. An election result that goes to the party you don’t support is a fluffy daydream compared to this. This is more like 9/11: watching something on your TV screen which you know cannot possibly be real. Something which, therefore, does not feel real. Something which makes you feel as though you’ve woken up in a nightmare. Something which makes you feel as though you are witnessing history in the making, and not in a good way; you are watching the dawn of a darker time.
We are all fucked. It is difficult to underscore how fucked we are. I am not American; by “we,” I mean everybody on the planet. Every human being.
This has nothing to do with being a left-winger. Of course I would prefer a Democrat in the White House. But this is not the same as if John McCain or Mitt Romney had won the presidency. This is a chilling, unprecedented catastrophe in the making. Every other Republican candidate in that race obeyed the norms and conventions of a liberal democracy. I’ve said throughout this election that if it were a vote between Trump and, say, Dick Cheney, I wouldn’t just vote for Cheney – I’d fucking volunteer for him. Donald Trump represents a historically unique threat to the United States and, therefore, to the world, and I am far from the first person to say this.
In the short term, I am frightened for the economy. Today the Dow Jones fell 750 points – more than the first day of trading after 9/11! I am frightened that the first year of Trump’s administration will usher in a global depression which will make 2008 look like a joke. I am frightened that now that Australia’s mining boom is over – and given that Trump has proposed 45% tariffs on Chinese imports – Australia will not, this time, be shielded from the worst of it. I am worried for my savings, my scant investments, my shitty job that I badly need. White male privilege, sure, whatever. Economic recession isn’t good for anybody anywhere in the world.
In the medium term I am worried about a man like Trump with access to America’s nuclear arsenal. Did you know that “the President has almost single authority to initiate a nuclear attack“? Is it beyond the realms of imagination that he might choose to nuke, say, Raqqa? Can you imagine him having a cool head to handle a potential crisis on the Korean peninsula? Would you be comfortable, as he apparently is, with an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia, with Saudi Arabia and South Korea and Japan developing nuclear weapons? This planet has gone 76 years without using a nuclear weapon in conflict. We all collectively came through the Cold War unscathed. Will that still be true in four years?
In the long-term, I am worried about society – human society, everybody’s society. The rise of populist nationalism across the Western world has been bad. Brexit was bad. Nothing has made me feel despair like this. Nothing has made me worry more that we are slouching towards a science fiction dystopia, a William Gibson novel, the end of The Bone Clocks, a dark and frightening world of inequality and hate and survival and despair. Americans have willingly voted for a man who ignores all democratic norms, who believes climate change is a hoax, who shows a disturbing love of authoritarian dictators like Vladimir Putin, who said he would only accept the election result if he won, who has called for the jailing of his political opponent for nonsensical reasons, who has willingly stoked racial division and bigotry in ways the Republican Party had previously only flirted with.
Trump is already a disgrace to his office and to his country simply by being what he is: an arrogant, bloviating, bullying, cruel, erratic, hypocritical, ignorant, inexperienced, lying, narcissistic, vindictive, racist, sexist, sleazy, swaggering, tax-avoiding, thin-skinned monster. He is a monster. Nearly every bad adjective you can say about somebody applies to him, and I literally cannot think of a good one. (He’s not even a good businessman, he just plays one on TV – if he’d invested his inheritance in index funds and played golf for the past 40 years he’d have more money than he does now.)
He is a man who has been caught on tape talking about committing sexual assault, and has been accused of sexual assault by dozens of women.
He is a man who appears to be running for president – who has won the presidency, Jesus fucking Christ! – simply to serve his own ego, his narcissism, his desperate need for fame and adulation.
I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t know why I’m linking to examples, when everybody already knows all this, after the last torturous year which turned out to be merely a harbinger for the horror about to descend on us.
Maybe I can’t fathom what has happened. I don’t understand how a country which voted for Obama twice could vote for this. I can’t believe that a majority of Americans looked at this self-entitled piece of shit; this dangerous, know-nothing braggart; this man who is plainly, obviously unfit for any kind of public office, who clearly never thinks of anyone else but himself, and thought: “Yes, OK. Let’s give him what he wants. Let’s let him live in the White House and sit in the Oval Office. Let’s let him have the nuclear codes. Let’s make him President of the United States.”
This is beyond satire. This is beyond nightmares. This feels like a rejected Hollywood script. This is a waking nightmare for intelligent people all over the world. I do not know what is going to happen in the next four years and I do not particularly want to find out. I do not want to see white supremacists given carte blanche to harass and assault African-Americans and Muslim-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. I do not want the economy to crater. I do not want to see nuclear weapons used. I do not want to see agreements on climate change rolled back, I do not want to see the world cope with billions of climate refugees by the time I’m in my old age. I do not want this horrid, awful man to feel the satisfaction of once again getting exactly what he wanted. I do not want to see the democratic norms of the United States undermined by voter suppression continuing, by Trump considering bullshit criminal charges against Clinton, by Trump appointing some crackpot alt-right judge to the Supreme Court. I do not want to feel the horrible, sickening sensation of my planet, my species, my lifetime, pitching forward off a cliff and into a dark and ugly void.
Kristie and I have left London. I meant to post this a while ago, but we’re travelling through Europe on the way home and amidst all the last-minute planning it fell by the wayside. We’re currently in a sunburnt little village somewhere in the cicada-droning scrubland of Andalucia, which reminds me strongly of Perth.
Leaving London in July fairly neatly marked our time there as a year, or just over that, although we decided that we’d leave this summer back around Christmastime, or about halfway through our time there. There’s no one reason for leaving, just as there was no one reason for going there in the first place. We went there partly from a desire to live and work in Europe, partly from an urge to seek work in the publishing and writing field in a larger job market than Australia offered, and partly because we (or at least I) had a need to do some more uprooting and travelling while still young, before settling down. On the work front I had absolutely no success, and spent the entire year doing the same job for the same company I worked for in Melbourne. It was certainly more lucrative than a lot of other jobs would have been, but also deeply antisocial, since I spent most of the day sealed inside a soundproof booth, and it didn’t exactly made me feel like I’d made a worthwhile career move. Kristie, on the other hand, was successful in landing a job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house – but she ended up hating it, because it was mostly admin drudgery.
It’s probably not a coincidence that we made the decision to leave during the depths of winter. It was actually a little sad to leave during summer, when everybody is keen to do things, to go out and get drinks and have dinner and soak up the sun, instead of trudging home from work in the freezing dark and pulling the covers over their heads until morning. Seasonal affective disorder was undoubtedly in play. But even at the height of summer, I think we both preferred our old lives, and our friends back home.
There are aspects of England that I’ll miss. The sense of history and heritage, and the ability to travel only a few hours and be in a wonderful town or city that you’ve barely ever heard of, both within England and abroad in Europe. We’ve had some wonderful weekend breaks here, and I’ve learnt more than ever (and this is a sentiment that leaked into my brain when I first properly visited Sydney while reading Oscar & Lucinda) that cities are so much more than dots on a map or letters in a word or photos on Google image search: they all have their own smells, their own flavours, their own character. Paris is not just a French version of London: it’s an achingly beautiful city of splendid architecture, possibly the only large beautiful city in the world, which curiously enough always looks very dull and generic on film. Stockholm is not just the capital of Sweden and the place where Stockholm Syndrome comes from: it’s an ancient maritime trading city spread across hundreds of islands, with gaily-painted houses, in the cold blue light of midwinter, the sun sinking beyond the ocean at half past three. Barcelona is not just the second-biggest city in Spain: it’s the capital of the distinct Catalonian region, with a baroque Gothic old quarter, and an artistic scene and ease with its status as second city that reminded me of Melbourne.
I’ve enjoyed my time scratching the surface of Europe, and regret that I will not spend my life in a place that has hundreds of worthy cities within a $150 return flight. But it’s also telling that my favourite memories of London are the times I spent outside it. I should mention that I quite like Britain itself. I’ve enjoyed my time rowing a boat in Stratford-upon-Avon, wandering the canals in Cambridge, tramping about the Chilterns, drinking tins of convenience store beer on the pebbly beach at Brighton at sunset. I just don’t like London.
It’s indisputably a grand old city. It’s big, it’s powerful, it’s second only to New York as the nexus of the human universe. (And I will miss that – that feeling of hustle and bustle and importance, the sense that you might not matter but the place you live does, an extended sequel to the feeling I had when I moved from Australia’s west coast to its east coast.) London was a great place to live once, and perhaps it will be again. But at this point in its history, on financial terms alone, London is not a good place for ordinary people to live. I was sick of flicking through Time Out and looking at all the awesome shit happening that I couldn’t afford to do. I was sick of living precariously, saving nothing, being ripped off on literally everything from housing to food to transport. When it came down to it, my day-to-day lived experience was far, far better back home than it was in London.
And beyond that, I think maybe big cities aren’t for me. We lived on the edge of Zone 1 because I was determined to live as close to the heart of the city as possible, without realising that this was a hangover from my university days in the suburbs of Perth, when I vowed to be quit of a such a dull and quiet place. 26 is hardly old age, but I quickly grew weary of the soot and the sirens and the screaming outside my bedroom window every night. I don’t want to move back to the Ballardian suburbs of Perth, but jeez, there’s a healthy middle ground. (It’s called Melbourne.)
Among the many things I learned living in London, mind you, was that it’s utterly impossible for anybody to objectively judge any city, ever. I will happily het my blood up and stride into the comments section whenever the Guardian publishes an article about the merits or disadvantages of Perth or Melbourne or London. But the truth is, the circumstances of your life are influenced by far more than the objective qualities of the town or city you live in. I moved to London and did not find success: I paid extortionate rent to live in a shitty neighbourhood in the East End, commuting clean across the city for an hour each way to work at the same dead-end job as I did back home, but for $12,000 AUD less per year. In an alternate universe, perhaps I landed a dream job with a publishing company. Perhaps I worked for a cool magazine in Bloomsbury with a generous paycheque and a clear path for progression in my career. Perhaps I lived in Hampstead, and only had a twenty-minute commute. Perhaps I earned 25,000 pounds a year and regularly hung out with a tight circle of friends at a charming Old World pub like in a Richard Curtis film.
That’s stupid, but you see what I mean – if things had gone a different way in London I very well could have had a brighter opinion of it. Conversely, if things had gone differently in Melbourne, I might not love it as I do. Your opinion of a city is coloured largely by your circumstances within it. I’ve met many people in London who hate living there but do so for the career opportunities; also several who only live there because all their friends moved there after university, so if they moved to a smaller city they’d have no social life. I’m glad, I must say, that Australia has two large and equally competitive cities, instead of one monstrous beast squatting in the corner which sucks up all the talent and energy.
Anyway, cities are big and complex and contain multitudes. I can fairly and truthfully say that I believe London is a grand, pulsating, fascinating and important world city, and also a polluted garbage pile which erupts from the skin of England like a cancerous mole.
So we’ve left. Maybe I’ll be back one day; who knows what might happen in life?
I’ll miss: Hampstead Heath, The Holly Bush, The Spaniards, Gordon’s Wine Bar, the Idea Store on Whitechapel Road, northern hemisphere seasons properly aligning with the months that popular culture has led me to expect from childhood, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, a sense of history and heritage, proximity to Europe, passenger trains in all directions to the countryside (and the best train network in the Western world, despite what the British think), the book market under Waterloo Bridge, the West End plays and musicals, the way that landmarks like the Shard or Big Ben have a way of creeping into your view down the edge of a street, the National Gallery, the Word on the Water, Galaxy chocolate, the Ship and Shovel, Foyle’s and Hatchard’s and the Piccadilly Watermark’s, broadcasters which actually commit themselves to ethnic diversity on the TV screen, the endless parade of human life that is the London Underground, the feeling of sheer joy when the long winter is over and spring begins to bloom, frozen puddles and the constant hope of snow in winter, English Christmas, Halloween.
I won’t miss: the depressing manner in which the streets have become a scrolling cartoon backdrop of the same Pret/Boots/EAT/Tesco outlets, overcrowded and sweltering tube rides with your face in a stranger’s armpit, paying 500 quid a week for a room the size of a prison cell in a house with five other people in London’s poorest neighbourhood, a failing and weirdly authoritarian healthcare system, the summer pollen count, the horrendous tabloid newspapers, David Cameron’s punchable face, the pervasiveness of the world’s dullest sport, dickheads high on ecstasy on the Central line on Saturday night trying to engage people in conversation, people getting stabbed outside my bedroom window at 3:00am, not being able to afford a motorcycle, constantly being accosted by homeless panhandlers and ignoring the twisting feeling in your gut which tells you that you’re only a few paycheques away from ending up like them, London’s horribly bleak yet frustratingly snowless winters, the worst air pollution in the EU, diesel fumes seeping through my bedroom window from a truck idling outside for twenty minutes, the infuriatingly slow walking speed of the average London pedestrian especially in the tube, endless fucking ear-splitting sirens, stifling summer heat which happens every year and yet nowhere has air conditioning because they don’t think it gets hot (which to be fair is much like Australian cities not having central heating because they don’t think it gets cold), and – more than anything else – a persistent sense of instability, of endlessly treading water and living paycheque to paycheque, knowing that in fiscal terms, like in so many others, you are going nowhere in life.
It has been an educational year. I don’t regret it, but I’m glad it’s over. All my memories get rose-tinted anyway, so in a few years I’ll probably look back on it warmly.
Britain goes to the polls tomorrow in one of the tightest elections in living memory. For a political nerd like me it’s been quite enjoyable living here during an election campaign. Despite having the same basic parliamentary system as Britain, Australia has certain key differences, and of course being a different country means that while you might have the same system, you have a different political environment. Both countries’ politics are fucked, but they’re fucked in different and interesting ways.
Labour and the Conservatives are neck-and-neck in the polls, which is to say they’re both on about 34% and, despite what both party leaders claim, they’re therefore both going to fall well short of the majority required to command the confidence of Parliament and thus retain or seize government. John Lanchester has been running an entertaining and informative election diary at the LRB, and he has a breakdown of the potential results here. Suffice to say that no matter how you cut it nobody will get a majority, just as in the 2010 election, when the Conservatives were begrudgingly forced into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Support for the Lib Dems has badly flagged in the five years since then, while north of the border, the Scottish National Party – despite the failed referendum last year – has grown so strong and popular that it’s not out of the question they might win every single seat in Scotland. By far the most likely scenario is that the SNP will be kingmakers, and there is zero chance they will support a Conservative government. Yet Ed Miliband has consistently ruled out a coalition with the SNP, even on an informal basis. This is bizarre. I know he needs to go out on the campaign trail and pretend Labour can win enough seats to form government, but he’s not stupid; he knows how this is going to play out, and his pre-election refusal to deal with the SNP will surely haunt him as much as Julia Gillard’s infamous words “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.”
Speaking of Gillard, one of the ways in which British and Australian politics are similar is that in both countries, the electorate is mortified by the concept of a coalition or a hung parliament, despite this being the norm in most of Europe. I wrote about this a few years back. I believed then – and still believe, in both Australia and the UK – that this is a symptom of the Americanisation of politics, and a sheer lack of understanding about how the nation operates and a childish desire for a “strong” leader. The Westminster system is not supposed to produce a extremely powerful executive like an American president. It’s supposed to produce a legislative assembly which passes laws, with Prime Minister and Cabinet being an afterthought.
The buzzword of the final week of the campaign, courtesy of the Tories and the right-wing press, has been “legitimacy.” People who should know far better have been talking on the BBC and writing in newspaper columns about how unfair it would be if the party with the most seats didn’t form government. That is not how Parliament works, and there’s no excuse for not knowing that, because it’s not a difficult concept to grasp. Nor can I fathom why anybody, apart from die-hard major party supporters, considers the influence of other voices in a diverse parliament to be a bad thing. Who would prefer a single-party government which rubber stamps its agenda, rather than a minority government which must negotiate and compromise with smaller parties and independents? Which of those options sounds like a healthier democracy?
Nonetheless, I have no doubt the British populace will be subjected to constant Tory whining about legitimacy for the next five years in the same way the Australian people were forced to endure Tony Abbott’s aggressive three-year campaign against the legitimacy of the Gillard government. At the moment the Tories seem to be focusing their spite at the SNP (the word “propped up” gets thrown around a lot), which if nothing else totally validates the Yes vote in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. The Scots are being treated like interlopers in their own country’s general election. Still, the Tories would be wise to stay focused on that, rather than arguing that they deserve to form government because they have the most seats; that draws to attention the unrepresentative aspect of the Westminster system, in which the Greens can get 6% of the popular vote but take only one seat, while the SNP can get 4% and take fifty-nine seats. It’s not a thread the Tories should pull. (On the other hand, it worked for Abbott.)
The most important reason this is a superior system than any other, to my eyes, is how entertaining it all is. Not only does Britain have a far larger and more diverse Parliament than Australia, so you can ponder, say, how Cameron might get over the line with the assistance of the Democratic Unionist Party, but the sheer closeness of this election has made it fascinating. It’s essentially a four-way race, with the minor parties holding more power in the post-election negotiating stage than the major parties. An election campaign, as in any country, is the most rigidly stage-managed and predictable part of any political cycle. The real battle for Downing Street begins on Friday. (Make your own majority with the BBC’s weirdly animated tool!)
I thought about whether I should vote or not. I’m entitled to, not only as an Irish citizen, but as a Commonwealth citizen residing in the UK – a courtesy which Australia, at least, doesn’t extend back towards the British. (Curiously, EU citizens residing in Britain are ineligible.) It seems a bit dishonest to vote in an election when I’m leaving the country in a few months. On the other hand, Britain is an important enough country to influence the rest of the world; I doubt Abbott and the IPA would be trying to strip away Australian workers’ basic rights if Reagan and Thatcher hadn’t made neoliberalism the new world religion in the 1980s. I also feel like it’s morally OK to vote because I live in a safe seat anyway – Bethnal Green and Bow, which will almost certainly go to Labour. Of course, this raises the point of whether it’s worth voting at all.
This is where Britain and Australia diverge quite sharply. We have safe seats in Australia as well, of course, but we also have the Senate. Everybody in an Australian state has an equal say in the senators that state sends to Canberra, so your vote matters even if you live in the safest seat in the country. Britain, on the other hand, has the House of Lords. I consider myself a fairly well-read and knowledgeable person, but until I started doing work for the BBC a few years ago, I thought it was just a name. I hadn’t realised the House of Lords is actually an unelected upper house – in the fucking 21st century!
Furthermore, Britain doesn’t have preferential voting, although this is a case where Australia is ahead of the curve rather than Britain lagging behind. It makes the entire voting system deeply undemocratic. If you live in a swing seat, do you make a tactical vote to keep your least preferred party out of office? Or do you follow your heart and vote for the Greens or Plaid Cymru or UKIP? (If you’re a right-wing/libertarian American, think about the choice to vote for Gary Johnson or John McCain in 2012; if you’re a left-wing American, think about the choice between Ralph Nader and Al Gore in 2000.) A preferential voting system removes this undemocratic issue completely, and it still boggles my mind that the British people soundly rejected it in a referendum in 2011. I suppose you can chalk that one up to the power of negative campaigning and the Tory-dominated press.
So I can totally understand why so many British people feel apathetic and disenfranchised. The system is stacked against them. On the other hand, Australia’s compulsory voting changes the dynamics once again. In Australia, a safe seat is definitely safe, because virtually everybody votes. In Britain, the turnout was 65% at the 2010 election; slightly higher than the 58% turnout in the 2012 US presidential election, but still shameful. As long as voter participation remains so low, you can’t really argue that your vote doesn’t matter or won’t change anything, even if you live in a safe seat.
So I’m going to vote tomorrow. If I was in a marginal I’d vote for Labour, but I’m not, so I’ll vote Green. The Green Party of England is a little more soy-and-lentil than their respectable (and respectably successful) Australian counterparts, but I nonetheless feel it’s an important movement that needs support. Tim Winton once said that a hundred years ago it was a case of “Daddy, what did you do in the war?” whereas in the future it will be “Daddy, what did you do to stop our planet turning into a salt pit?” But, yes, really, I’m going in to vote because I’m an irredeemable nerd and I’m curious to see what the process is like in another country.
What can I say about Terry Pratchett that will add to the chorus of voices singing his praises today? A writer and a fantasist, a witty philosopher, an inspiration and an entertainer of millions of people. A wonderful person, an honest and humble man who faced down his premature death sentence with dignity, bravery and an unflappable sense of humour that I doubt many of us could muster. All I can do, as I’m sure so many of us are doing, is share my own memories and experiences.
The first Discworld book I ever read was The Fifth Elephant. This is the fifth book in the City Watch cycle and certainly not an ideal place to start, but as a kid I didn’t know any better. I must have been 11, I suppose, since it came out in 2000; although I borrowed it from the library rather than part with hard-earned pocket money on an author I’d always been dubious about. (Josh Kirby’s bizarre covers, with their crazily muscular heroes and ridiculously buxom women, always looked a bit off-putting; I was too young to realise that the covers themselves were parodies.) Like any memorable book I still recall exactly where I read The Fifth Elephant, in a caravan at the back of my aunt and uncle’s place down in Capel in the middle of winter. I can’t remember what holiday that was or what we were doing there, but I remember being completely enchanted by a cynical and savvy detective, clever political intrigue in a fantasy kingdom, and a thrilling flight from werewolves through a snowy forest.
That was what surprised me: just how much of a serious novel it was. I knew that Pratchett was a humourous writer, but The Fifth Elephant was so much more than a series of jokes and puns and silliness. It was a proper, serious, dramatic story, involving travel to a far-flung land, political conspiracies, murder, subterfuge, love, family. Although I was probably too young to properly appreciate it, Pratchett was making observations about topics ranging from geopolitics to modernisation to the nature of violence, and hundreds of little things in between; the Discworld books, as any reader will tell you, are peppered with sly and witty observations about the human condition. Dealing in fantasy and comedy, two things which are by definition not meant to be taken seriously, Pratchett was crafting some of the most realistic characters I’d yet encountered in my short reading life. And I was delighted, of course, to find that there were another twenty-three marvellous books like this to read. (Now there are forty, and it would appear that Pratchett completed a forty-first before his death.)
These days, what most people know about Terry Pratchett is that he’s a humourous writer; a comic fantasy novelist. But like most funny people, he uses humour because he wants to be taken seriously. And god damn it, I’m still instinctively writing about him in present tense, because for as long as we knew this was coming it still seems wrong that he’s gone. 66 was far too young for a man of this calibre, a titan of English letters and the finest satirist of the modern age, to be taken away from us.
If you’ve never read any Pratchett before and the collective wave of internet sadness over his passing is making you think you should, all I can say is: yes, please do. You won’t regret it. Start with Pratchett’s own suggestion of Guards, Guards, the eighth Discworld novel but the first of the City Watch cycle and the introduction of Sam Vimes, one of the greatest antiheroes of all time – or the most “fully realised decent man in modern literature,” as Andrew Brown puts it in a wonderful piece over at the Guardian.
After having read The Fifth Elephant, I hoovered down the rest of the Discworld series over the course of my early teenage years. I can honestly say that no other artist or writer – with the possible exception of Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes – had such an impact on my understanding of human nature and the messy, complex, funny, terrible, exciting state of the world. He was cynical, but not a cynic; exasperated, but amused. In some immeasurable way, to some degree, Terry Pratchett shaped my personality; certainly more so than any other books I read as a child. Like so many other young readers, I owe him a great debt.
All I can do to repay it is to urge everybody to read his marvellous body of work, which is a fairly pointless edict, since the public doesn’t need my instruction. Pratchett was popular enough as it was (the best-selling author in Britain, in fact, before JK Rowling nudged him out) and I have no doubt that with his passing, his reputation and his legacy will continue to grow. A comparison with Dickens might seem excessive – but only to people who haven’t read him.
In recent years, despite their misgivings, I put both my best friend and my girlfriend on to Pratchett, and watching them enjoy the Discworld series made me want to re-read it. Now, as a sort of Grub Street commemoration, seems like a very appropriate time to revisit the works of an author who had such a great influence on me. I’m already looking forward to it.
No-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away – until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.
– From Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett (1991)
Australia is a “nation of victims” with citizens unable to properly protect themselves with weapons, pro-gun crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm has said.
The Liberal Democrat said he wanted a calm, measured discussion about the right to “practical self-defence” in the wake of the deadly Sydney siege.
The Senator goes on to claim that: “What happened in that cafe would have been most unlikely to have occurred in Florida, Texas, or Vermont, or Alaska in America, or perhaps even Switzerland as well.”
I stayed up until 3:00am London time watching ABC24’s online feed of the Sydney cafe siege with a mix of unease and fascination, and followed it further at work the next day as it unbelievably dragged on for hours and hours. I also watched with contempt as a number of Americans with a political axe to grind descended on the Twitter hashtag and proclaimed that such a thing would never happen in America, with its prevalent gun ownership; a sentiment one of our politicians has decided to adopt, even before funerals are held for the two Sydneysiders who were murdered.
Put aside, for a moment, the notion that America is never visited by mass shootings or terrorist attacks. At the same time the siege was unfolding in Sydney, a gunman in Pennsylvania killed three times as many people. Rarely does the world provide such a stark, timely example that perhaps people should reconsider the logic of their beliefs.
The concept that armed citizens are the best way to stop gun violence has become a popular argument in America in recent years, despite the fact that in the extensive annals of American spree shootings, it has literally never happened. Someone came close during a shooting in Las Vegas earlier this year, but was instead killed by one of the perpetrators.
I’m slightly off track when it comes to Australia’s gun laws, which have broad community support, whatever libertarians like Leyonhjelm say. I believe people have a right, within reason, to own weapons for self-defence; the concept of the state removing that right makes me uneasy. But not as uneasy as I would be to live in a country in which 30 people die from firearms violence every day.
Since drastically tightening gun ownership laws after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, Australia has had no further mass shootings. It’s worth mentioning, however, that in 2002 a mentally disturbed student entered Monash University and shot and killed two students (this limited death toll is apparently why the incident is not generally considered a “massacre” or “mass shooting.”) He was prevented from killing any more because a lecturer and some students tackled him. He had six handguns; the Virginia Tech shooter only had two. If it wasn’t for the bravery and quick-thinking of those in the room with him, the incident could have been far worse.
I mention this not to say that our gun laws are ineffectual or useless or that they should be repealed, but as an example of how random mass shootings are – as we all know, the worst in history didn’t take place in the US at all, but in Norway, a bastion of liberal, left-wing gun control. There are more factors involved than the accessibility of firearms, and while we can control them to some extent, we can never truly prevent them.
But gun control isn’t about mass shootings – or at least, it shouldn’t be. The issue is always viewed through that big, lurid prism of body counts and police stand-offs, which make global headlines and bring the pundits into the studios to talk about how this might be a catalyst for change. But the vast majority of America’s gun violence victims don’t go down at the hands of a crazed mass shooter. They die in ones and twos, on street corners in black neighbourhoods, in botched armed robberies, in domestic disputes or arguments that turn violent.
Those are the facts of the matter. Senator Leyonhjelm doesn’t want “a calm and measured discussion” any more than the Americans on Twitter who saw a hostage crisis unfolding, attached it to one of the only things they know about Australia, and decided it was a good time to push their own political agenda. Leyonhjelm is a libertarian purist who bases his beliefs on abstract philosophy rather than real-world facts; what he wants is guns back in people’s hands, irrelevant of the plain statistics which prove that Australia’s gun laws have saved lives.
Like so many Americans, Leyonhjelm wishes the statistics told a different story. But they don’t.
David Michod’s debut Animal Kingdom was always going to be a hard act to follow – in my opinion it’s oneof the best crime films of the last decade, and one of the best Australian films ever made. The Rover is a messy failure, but I’m still glad he made it. It takes place in the Outback “ten years after the collapse,” and stars Guy Pearce as a grizzled anti-hero trying to recover his car from a gang of thieves. The story is weak and and ultimately doesn’t add up to much, but the world Michod has created is a compelling one. At first glance it appears to be in the same vein as the original Mad Max – a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse, already bad but about to get worse. Gangs rule the highway and the only law is the barrel of a gun. This is neither original or compelling, unless you consider an alternate interpretation.
Most reviewers assume the “collapse” in the title cards is a global one. But nothing in the film actually confirms this. The overheard Chinese radio advertisements and Chinese-branded train carriages guarded by armed mercenaries imply that everything is going fine in China, which is now a dominant economic and cultural power. An assumption of China’s inevitable domination is par for the course in a lot of apocalyptic scenarios these days (see The Bone Clocks), but the second intriguing detail is that everyone in the film who wants to sell something demands US dollars as payment. This suggests that maybe things aren’t too bad in the US, either, and reflects the real world practice in which many impoverished countries, such as Cambodia and Zimbabwe, use the dollar as a de facto currency.
The developing feeling I got throughout the film was that of Australia as a failed state, the kind of violent and dangerous country you can find all over Africa. A land where once the minerals flowed and everybody was well-off, but where the good times have come to an end, and law and order has broken down. The use of foreign currency, the cultural and financial presence of an overseas superpower, corrupt and underfunded soldiers acting as police – all of these things have real-world equivalents, little post-apocalyptic states which grind away with brutality while the rest of the world is still watching Netflix and reading the Wall Street Journal. The Rover is a far more disturbing film when viewed through this lens, as a film which forces the viewer to conceive of their own country as a failed state.
One of the lingering images of the film comes as Pearce’s character stares through a chain-link fence at an open-cut mine’s enormous superpit; an iconic image for modern Australia, one that Australians associate with wealth and prosperity, but which symbolises in The Rover a land of vanished happiness and, perhaps, of squandered opportunities. To that extent, at least, The Rover is a cautionary tale; a rebuke to complacent Australian viewers who assume our economy is untouchable.
London is a hard place to live. Kristie and I already have our eyes on the door at the end of her two-year visa; financially speaking, Australia has come to represent the land of milk and honey. (It does for many Britons, too.) But it’s important to remember that while Australia has always been a prosperous country, its recent wealth is unprecedented. Young adults of my generation, who graduated high school in the middle of a time of unparalleled wealth and economic growth, have to remember that this is the exception, not the rule. In the next decade or so, as the mining boom begins to wind down, life is going to be a lot more like it was for my father’s generation in the 1970s and 1980s – still comfortable, but harder and more uncertain than the Australia we grew up in. Either that or we will in fact utterly squander the mining boom, end up as a banana republic, and engage in blood-spattered gunfights with Mad Max style bandits for our territory’s remaining petroleum resources.
When people asked me how long Kristie and I were moving to the UK for, I’d usually say “indefinitely,” which was technically true. I have European citizenship, so I can stay here forever if I so please, and while Kristie is on a two-year visa you never know what might happen with employment sponsorship etc. What I meant was that I haven’t decided what I’m doing with my life or where I’m going to settle down at all.
But we’ve been in the UK for about six or seven weeks now, and secured employment and a place to live, and although you should avoid making long-term judgements based on a short experience, I think we’ll both return to Australia eventually simply because our standard of living there was higher. It’s hard not to feel, as an Australian in London, that you’re late to the party; even the BBC has noted that the one-way flow of young jobseekers has reversed in recent years. One reason for this is that Australia is no longer the cultural backwater it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A more important reason is that the economic advantage has been flipped; it is now much, much easier to make a buck in Australia than in Britain.
Part of this is London, of course, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world. We wouldn’t be haemorrhaging cash anywhere near as much if we lived in Bristol or Birmingham or Glasgow. But just for comparison’s sake:
Rent in London: £974 ($1,769 AUD) a month, for a room in a sharehouse in a nice house (with a garden) with nice housemates, including bills, relatively close to the city but in a bad neighbourhood. This is split between me and Kristie, so my share is actually £487/$884.
Rent in Melbourne: $900 AUD a month for a room in a sharehouse in a nice house (with a garden) with nice housemates, not including bills, much closer to the city, in a fantastic neighbourhood. Critically, though, Kristie and I didn’t live together in Melbourne; if we’d shared this room it would have been $450 AUD each.
Rent is the hardest part, the thing that makes your mind go to dark places if you start imagining what you could afford back home (or elsewhere in England). Pay is also painful; I’m doing the same job for the same company that I was in Melbourne, and earning somewhere around $42,000 AUD a year (pre-tax), whereas in Melbourne I was earning around $55,000 AUD a year pre-tax.
Of course, we moved to London for a life experience, not to miserly count out our precious dollars. I just find it interesting to compare. People have notions about places being cheap or expensive, and you can throw around how much it costs for rent and what the exchange rate is like, but the only meaningful comparison is how much things cost as a proportion of one’s wage, i.e. how many minutes did you have to work to earn that discount case of Budweiser you’re lugging back from Sainsbury’s. I thought New York was incredibly cheap compared to what everyone told me to expect, but I probably wouldn’t if I was living there and earning $2 an hour.
So that’s what I mean, when I say that we’ll likely treat this time like every other visa-bound Australian does – as a jaunt overseas with a time limit on it. In Australia I could afford to own and insure a motorcycle, I ate out and drank out regularly, and I still saved money without particularly trying to. London, on the other hand, is hard. Surviving here is easy, but living is hard. When you’re a kid imagining the things you might do in your life, money is never a factor, but that’s because kids are idiots. I don’t regret coming here and I’m not unhappy here, but there is simply no question that we had a better standard of living at home. This is why, incidentally, young British people have it better at the moment – because they get to have their overseas experience by going to the land of milk and honey, whereas we have to come up to a continent that’s only just recovered from recession. It will also be quite funny if, in two years time, Kristie and I go back to Australia and the mining boom has ended and/or the Abbott government has driven the economy into the ground with unnecessary austerity.
My parents both asked me, separately, what I liked about London. I don’t want to come off as a whinger. It’s not so much about “liking” things, as though you’re picking out a suburb to live in. It’s about travelling elsewhere, broadening your horizons and experiencing new things. I may have been better off in Melbourne, and I certainly wasn’t unhappy there, but I also felt like I was stagnating and that my late twenties were approaching and I needed to change things a bit. Change is good. Change is healthy. Five years ago in August I was teaching English in Seoul; four years ago I was dragging Chris around south-west China; three years ago I was working in a bookstore and living with my best friends in a delightfully crappy sharehouse in the western suburbs of Melbourne. If I’d stayed in Melbourne this year it would have been largely the same as 2013. Kristie and I could be living in a spare room below a tapdancing studio in Zone 7 and working at McDonalds and be miserable and I still wouldn’t regret coming here. You only get one life, and more importantly you only get one twenties.
I’ve only been to London once before, in autumn, when it wasn’t particularly rainy but it was nice and crisp. London in summer feels wrong; it doesn’t conform to its stereotypes. It actually reminds me of winter in Perth, but the other way around – it’s so clearly ill-equipped for the temperatures of this season even though it comes around every year. Many buildings aren’t air-conditioned, despite London’s ambient temperature often passing 30 degrees. A lot of tube lines aren’t – TFL claims it can’t be done, even though we put a a man on the moon in 1969. After six months of summer (aside from a brief interlude of freezing nights in the western US) I’m kind of over it. Bring on autumn.
I had this notion that big cities were full of busy, bustling people – that a suburban bumpkin like me would step out onto the pavement and immediately be bowled over by a businessman with a briefcase, that I’d get swept away in the crazy torrent of human traffic. It’s actually quite the opposite. In both New York and London, the thing that irritated me more than anything else was the agonising walking pace. They’re both cities of slow-paced dawdlers – people just sauntering along a subway corridor as though they’re out for a Sunday stroll, rather than stuck in a sweaty, suffocating, 38-degree crush of humanity. What I suspect happens is that in a crowded place everybody gets stuck behind the weakest link. For every elderly woman and French tourist wandering along and stopping to consult their maps, there are six or seven impatient people like me stuck behind them, trying to squeeze past, fondly remembering the days of small-town life where you can actually get where you’re going in a hurry.
A few weeks ago the New York Times published a travel article called “Catching Perth’s Wave in Western Australia,” a gushing puff piece you could be forgiven for thinking was financed by Tourism WA. Amongst the article’s more amusing claims were that Perth is “eco-fabulous” (it is the least sustainable city in Australia), that it has “spotless subways and free public buses” (Perth’s terrible rail network is entirely above ground, and the buses are only free in the CBD) and that sometimes it seems “as if everyone in Perth was under the age of 30” (I would argue that it seems as if the city is controlled by the elderly, who dislike noise and disturbance and would like to be in bed by 9pm.)
I’ve lived in Melbourne for the past three years, and came back to Perth this summer to relax for a while and see my family before moving on to the UK. I am something of a Melbourne snob now, but I still don’t hate Perth as much as I used to, because I know that I can leave now; I no longer feel trapped. I can understand why it appeals to a certain type of person, particularly older British migrants who want peace and quiet and warmth, or young Australians who don’t care about the isolation or lack of culture, and just love the hot weather and the beach. Whatever floats your boat.
Many people – usually people who have never lived elsewhere – have been keen to tell me that Perth has changed, by which they usually mean that the liquor licenses have been relaxed somewhat and there are some small bars now… but they still have to close at midnight on Friday. The CBD is still a ghost town on a weeknight after 6pm, it’s still near-impossible to get a restaurant meal after 9pm, and public transport is still virtually non-existent. It’s still a worst-case scenario in terms of suburban sprawl, stretching nearly 100 kilometres from Port Kennedy in the south to Alkimos in the north.
But I’m not interested in bashing Perth anymore. It’s a suburban wasteland, sure, fine, whatever. Some people like that. “If you don’t love it, leave,” as they say, and fair enough. I did leave. What I want to do is point out that the local media frenzy about a single NYT travel article is evidence that Perth still hasn’t outgrown its inferiority complex; its anxiety about its place not just in the world, but in Australia.
A rose-tinted travel article is not proof that Perth is now the equal of Melbourne or Sydney or, as the NYT writer on the all-expenses-paid junket says, Brooklyn. It is proof that travel writers have a certain number of column inches to fill each year, and need to attract a certain number of eyeballs. When writing about an Australian city, you can either churn out another article about Sydney or Melbourne, cities every foreigner has heard of, or you can look a little further, find a lesser-known city, and talk it up a bit. It’s the same reason Lonely Planet listed Adelaide in its top ten cities for Best In Travel 2014: not because Adelaide is genuinely a better destination than Sydney or Melbourne, but because Lonely Planet needs to keep things fresh and avoid repeating itself so that it can sell more books. That’s how the travel writing industry works.
Working yourself up into a lather about a travel piece – whether you’re local media gushing excitedly, or a self-congratulatory expat sneering at it – is silly. Perth was not praised in the New York Times because it has become a great city. It was praised in the New York Times because such articles serve as good clickbait.
I’ve been back in Perth for about eight weeks now, though it feels like less, since I spent some of that time down south and then in Bali. It’s amusing that all my jaunts have ended with me crawling back to Daddy: teaching in Korea, backpacking the world, and now living in Melbourne. I mean, the first two made sense, but I thought I’d really cut the apron strings and become a grown-up this time. I had an office job and a rental lease and dental insurance and everything.
That’s part of the appeal, of course, something that was joyously swishing around in my head as I counted down my last days at work. I am 25 years old. This is likely the last time in my life I’ll be able to throw myself back on the mercy of my father and live rent-free, without working, for several months. I can, however briefly, recapture those glorious university-era years where I could stay up until 3:00am every night playing video games, sleep in until noon and go to the beach every day.
Of course, reality often fails to meet our daydreams. My Dad’s house isn’t the same as I left it; my younger sister lives here now, for a start, and she took my room. That might seem like a minor thing, but the room I’m now living in has a window that faces east. When you are a night owl living in Perth, you really do not want a bedroom window facing east. The sun rises at 6:00am, with nothing standing between its fiery surface and my bedroom window. By 7:30am the temperature in the room is up to about 35 degrees. Yesterday I papered the window with alfoil, which seemed to work to block the light, but it rustled in the wind all night. My sister also took my desk, which impacts on writing. The most important tool a writer has is a door which he can close, and there was no way I could write in my 35-degree bedroom, sitting on the bed with my hot, whirring laptop on my legs. I went to the tip and bought an old desk for $15.
But it’s not just those mild changes; I still feel restless. I haven’t been able to slip into my lazy endless summer the way I thought I would. One reason would be that now I’ve seen the grim tedium of the workaday world, and realised that if I ever want to break free from it I need to forge a writing career, so I’ve internalised a nagging guilt that sits inside me every time I have leisure time I spend doing something other than writing. Another reason would be that I’m not 17 years old anymore and time goes faster than it used to and this summer doesn’t feel endless – it feels like it has two months left in it at the most, because it does. It was all well and good to look forward to it in Melbourne, but now London looms in April, which also involves returning to the aforementioned grim tedium of the workaday world.
It’s funny, the work thing. People are uncomfortable that I’m spending four months wilfully unemployed. Never mind that I have a plan at the end of this summer sojourn, that I have virtually no expenditures, that I have over $20,000 in cash, stocks and assets, and that I’m trying to use this time (at least in part) to practise what I really want to do for a living. All of a sudden everyone’s a Calvinist. How I spend my days has no effect on them personally, but it bothers them that someone would willingly spend any amount of time outside the economic machine. It goes to show how deeply our society has internalised the supposed value of capital. It’s also interesting that their response when I ask who would hire somebody who’s leaving in a few months is that I should simply not tell my employer; this concept that we’re all just trying to wring as much money out of each other as we can and there’s nothing wrong with dishonesty. It’s also interesting that – depending on the employer in question – I totally agree, from a worker’s point of view. But I would personally never be able to lie like that. Good thing it’s a moot point.
Meanwhile I’ve been at the beach. Perth’s metropolitan beaches are marvellous. In three years in Melbourne I went swimming exactly once – an uninspiring wallow in brown water near Portarlington, which took Chris and I hour to drive to. In Perth I go almost every day. The stretch of coastline between Trigg and Hillarys is as close as you will come to paradise on Earth. Limestone reefs weaving a patchwork of dark indigo against aquamarine water, powder-white sand, the sun sparkling on the waves… I can’t describe it. Its beauty is literally indescribable. You can’t even take a photo which does it justice (I know, because I’ve checked Flickr), because to truly appreciate it you need to stand at the lip of the road and look out over it with polarised sunglasses and feel the warm easterly breeze on your arms. I will never, ever get tired of looking out over the Indian Ocean, and I pause to survey it every time I arrive and every time I leave.
The problem these days is sharks. Regardless of what you may think about the Barnett Government’s cull, it’s hard to deny that the water feels a bit different these days. The statistical likelihood of a swimmer or snorkeller being taken at North Beach (as opposed to a surfer or diver further out) is minuscule. That’s what I know up on the cliffs, looking down on that maze of reefs. Out in the water, though, when you’re snorkelling in the maze, and you look out, underwater, into the limitless blue distance of the ocean… it feels a little different. I don’t venture out too deep. I’m not afraid to admit that when I put the snorkel and mask back up by my towel and just go swimming back and forth (I’m trying to get in shape) I keep a wary eye on the dark shapes beneath me even though I know full well that they’re just rock formations. There was a time back when I first returned, in January, and I was swimming above a patch of sand when I was unnerved to see a blurry dark shape beneath me which seemed to be moving. It took me a moment to realise – and I am slightly ashamed to admit this – that I was literally scared of my own shadow.
What else have I been doing, aside from fruitlessly trying to treat writing like a 9-5 job and lazing around on the beach? I’ve been clearing out the shed, since Dad has grand designs of building a granny flat to live in in the backyard and renting out the house, and he ordered me to get rid of my shit. When I moved to Melbourne I threw some clothes in my backpack and rode my Kawasaki off down the road; apparently Dad later faithfully put all my belongings in waterproof containers and stacked them up in the shed. I have a significant library of books which I need to cull on eBay; I’m fighting a losing battle to convince Dad that books furnish a room and belong on a shelf rather in the shed. Less difficult to toss in the trash were the dozens upon dozens of folders and schoolwork from high school and university, which for some reason I kept. High school feels like a distant dream now, and even university has faded into a dull memory. I spent some time flicking through these old files out of curiosity, and it was startling to realise how much of a colossal waste of time and money my pretentious, infantile university degree was – and how I could have failed to realise that at the time. On the other hand, one of my old creative writing assignments had a character spitting out his line of dialogue by “exclaiming angrily,” so at least it hacked that out of my system.
Speaking of writing, I’m ploughing through End Times, for anyone who still cares. I went from November 21 to December 7 in the space of a few weeks, and I’m confident I’ll finish it in the next month or two.
I could add my outrage, disappointment and weariness to the collective gnashing of left-wing teeth across Australia today, but we don’t need to see any more than that. What I do want to do is address the perception of “stable government,” since Australia’s perceived lack thereof is partly what led to Labor being ousted from office despite keeping us out of recession in 2008 and continuing to deliver an economy that Europe and the United States can only dream about. (I also believe, by the way, that we live in a society and not an economy – but this is how the debate is framed these days, for better or worse. Well, worse, obviously.)
Tony Abbott’s promise to bring us “stable government” and his attacks on Labor as being a government of “chaos” and “mismanagement” stem from two things: Labor’s leadership changes and the hung parliament of 2010. The leadership knifings were absolutely Labor’s own fault, but arguing that two leadership changes in six years of government constitutes “chaos” is ridiculous. Gillard knifing Rudd and Rudd knifing Gillard did not make us lose our life savings, did not dramatically increase the rate of soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan, did not result in the rolling blackouts across major cities. It made us roll our eyes. That’s all. If you want an insight into chaos and mismanagement, go speak to the people of Greece or Spain or Ireland.
The notion that a hung parliament resulted in an unstable government is even more irritating, given that it reveals the extent of Australians’ misunderstanding of our political system. Although the papers and nightly news bulletins treat us to unlimited images of our glorious Prime Minister and Opposition Leader under the barrage of photo flash bulbs, arriving or departing from endless photo opportunities at small businesses, this is not America – and no matter how much the press wants it to be, this isn’t a presidential campaign. The Office of Prime Minister is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution; neither are any of the Cabinet positions. This is why there was a lot of sneering in certain circles at the widespread outrage after the first knifing, when Australians believed the faceless men of the Labor Party had robbed them of their democratic right. This sneering was misplaced, because while we may not directly elect a prime minister, we walk into the booth knowing full well that whether we vote for a Liberal or Labor candidate will determine who becomes prime minister, and that’s what most people are really thinking about when they put a number next to a box, regardless of whose name is next to it.
So, yes, your vote does elect a prime minister. But more importantly, what it does is determine which party will control the House – a democratic body of representatives who vote on the passage of legislation. An insistence on “stable government,” and distaste at a hung parliament, suggests that Australians have been bewitched by American elections into thinking that individual candidates matter more than a party’s policies. Labor received a bounce in opinion polls of almsot 10% after reinstalling Rudd in June. That’s a big number. 1 in every 10 Australians apparently decided to change their vote based purely on a personality. There was not a single policy difference between either leader; whereas the differences between Labor and Liberal, despite narrowing under Rudd and Gillard’s stewardship, remain stark.
In a hung parliament, the balance of power is controlled by minor parties and independents, and the passage of legislation is dependent on debate, discussion and compromise. In a majority government parliament, the ruling party will rubber-stamp whatever legislation they want through the House. Which sounds more democratic to you?
Australians seem to understand the concept of checks and balance, and why it can be a good, tempering influence for a minor party to hold the balance of power – that’s why the Greens historically do much better in the Senate, and have held the balance of power there for the past decade. When it comes to the House, though, Australians don’t like that, because the make-up of the House determines who’ll be the faux-presidential figure to “lead the country” – and never mind something as boring and trivial as, you know, legislation.
The House of Representatives is the heart of our democracy, not the office down the hallway where the Prime Minister sits. We are not at war. We do not require a figurehead to make critical, immediate decisions for us. Belgium went 18 months without a government a few years ago, and the earth did not open up and swallow the nation. The trains still ran, the grocery shops were still open, you could still apply for a passport and you still had to pay your taxes. The Labor government of the past six years was no more “unstable” than John Howard’s was or Tony Abbott’s will be. If you want to see instability, go to the Middle East.
What it ultimately comes down to, beyond ignorance, is that Australians don’t like change. We hadn’t had a hung parliament in living memory, and the populace recoiled from this new experience like a vampire emerging into daylight. Australia is a deeply conservative country that wants things to stay just as they always have been – which is why we now have a prime minister who is going to halt any efforts at stopping climate change, dismantle the work that had begun on a badly-needed national broadband network, and continue the deeply racist immigration policies of his forebears.