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melbourne black and white

After three years in Melbourne, today I flew back to Perth for a summer sabbatical before moving on to the UK. I learned in my early 20s, first with Korea and then with backpacking, that life doesn’t always turn out to be as wonderful as you expect it to be. But I moved to Melbourne with zero expectations, having never been there before, based solely on the other people in my life who’d decided to go there. It turned out to be an absolutely amazing city, one I was proud and happy to call home, and genuinely sad to leave. I hope to live there again one day.

Until then, here are some of the memories of Melbourne that stick in my mind – some important, others random, all part of a self-indulgent reminiscence you will likely have no interest in:

Riding my 250cc Kawasaki dirtbike up the freeway from Geelong, the end of a two week roadtrip from Perth, and glimpsing in the summer dusk my first sight of Melbourne – a peachy sky, some wispy clouds, a full moon rising fat and ripe above the skyscrapers.

Listening to The King of Limbs the day after we arrived, sitting on the back porch of a townhouse in Brunswick and looking over the overgrown jungle of a backyard.

Seeing flying foxes everywhere, for the first year or so, winging their way across the stars, until the council moved their habitat further up the Yarra.

Riding out to a pub one night to hang out with Jamie and his friends, who called me a FOB, for “fresh off the boat.” The pub was somewhere in the inner north, an old Victorian building with an attached tower. I cannot remember its name, and although I’ve probably driven past it a dozen times now, I will never be able to remember exactly which pub it was and where it was.

Driving down Mount Alexander Road from Essendon in Kristie’s car to pick her and Susie up from work at the Joint Bar at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, parking across the road in Flinders Lane, sitting in the dark behind the wheel and listening to Triple J.

Playing all the way through Time Crisis 4 at an arcade on Bourke Street, costing Jamie $50 in coins, before drinking the afternoon away at my first visit to Rooftop Bar on Swanston, which would become (and remains) my favourite bar in Melbourne and probably the world.

Working at the airport up in Tullamarine. “Meeting” (serving) a raft of C-list Australian celebrities – Lara Bingle, Bert Newton, Chopper Read, Bob Katter. Standing behind the counter at the Qantas business class lounge watching the sun rise over the hills north of the terminal and the planes touching down from Malaysia and Hong Kong and India. Waking for an early shift one morning at 3:30am, midwinter, to find the street shrouded in fog, and riding my motorcycle up the freeway in -1 degree temperatures, wearing business pants. Running my hands under warm water once I got there for twenty minutes before I could feel anything in them.

Moving into the 1960s brick shithouse Jamie bought in Sunshine West in the middle of winter with the electricity company shutting off the power due to a clerical error, leaving us shivering our way through a candlelit settling-in period. The ragged old vinyl couch, soon replaced by the corduroy sofa set that Jamie and Dave purchased while visibly high, but which nevertheless served us well for two years.

Living in Sunshine West. Smoking not that much weed and drinking not that much beer, but probably mixing the two enough that it wasn’t particularly healthy. Our love-hate relationship with Geoff the dog. Watching Archer and Seinfeld and Breaking Bad on the plasma flatscreen. Cranking the living room heaters in winter, warming the one room in which we spent all of our time, shouting at each other to “SHUT THE DOOR!” whenever one of us ventured outside to take a leak or get a beer. Pissing in the backyard and looking up at the stars. Falling asleep on the couch watching Chris replay Final Fantasy IX on my ancient PS2. Coming home from a late shift at 10pm, crossing the West Gate Bridge and leaving the city behind, droning along the freeway in lashing rain, soaking wet and freezing cold, and arriving home to peel wet clothes off and stumble into the shower, becoming warm and dry and finally arriving in the living room, where Chris and Jamie would already be reliably comfortable and baked, sitting down in my armchair next to the bookshelf and yanking back that tab to make the seat fall back and the footrest kick up, the hassles of the working day washing clean, whiling away the rest of the evening with my two best friends drinking, smoking and watching TV, not realising until long after I moved out that this would be one of the happiest times in my life.

Buying a Triumph Bonneville, my first big bike, from a dealership on Elizabeth Street. Parking it nearby and then having lunch with Chris and Jamie at a tiny cafe with three little seats at a counter table looking out the window, a cafe which, like that inner-north pub, I’ve never been able to find again.

Spending my first Christmas Day in Melbourne at home with Chris and the dog. Making a roast dinner and playing video games. In the midafternoon a hailstorm passed over the western suburbs and coated every lawn with white ice, leaving us with a brief White Christmas in the half-hour it took to melt.

Getting my first speeding ticket because I was racing Chris home on the West Gate from a gig in Brunswick. Proudly putting it under a magnet on the fridge.

Riding out to the Grampians with Jamie and Maya. Eating ice cream by the creek. Fumbling around on the back trails as the sun went down, finding a place to surreptitiously camp just before the light leaked away.

Attending the 2012 beer festival at the Royal Exhibition Building, a magnificent, regal World Heritage site in which the Australian Constitution was signed in 1901 – a building which Jamie and I then got spectacularly drunk in, eventually taking a leak in the gardens outside before taking the tram up to Fitzroy and stumbling through the rain to Kristie’s house in Brunswick with a plastic bag full of pilfered beer festival “memento” pint glasses, which I still have.

Riding up into the Dandenongs with Chris in August, up to Lake Mountain where snow was covering the ground like it was no big deal. The mountainsides were still ravaged from the Black Saturday bushfires from three years ago, the trees dead and leafless, so it looked almost like a European winter.

AFL, a sport comfortingly nostalgic given my own Western Australian boyhood, the most recognisable Melbourne suburbs being those that had rattled around in my brain since childhood because they supported teams – Essendon, Collingwood, St Kilda, Richmond. Becoming more acquainted with the game than I ever thought I would be by having to cover two seasons of it at work. Going to Fremantle games with Kristie, drinking Pure Blonde out of plastic cups, perching up high on those vertiginous seats at Etihad Stadium. The MCG always seemed so small on the inside. Feeling genuinely excited when Fremantle made it to the 2013 Grand Final, only to be slaughtered by Hawthorn.

Sitting on the roof watching the sun go down on my last night in Sunshine, then drinking heavily all night so the next day I was abysmally hungover while dragging my furniture into a rental van.

Coming close so many times to winning Tuesday night trivia at the Great Britain Hotel with Adam. Drinking jugs of Piss and drunkenly playing pool until 1:00am. Taking a cab into the city to get oil-dipped bread at Siglo on an unseasonably warm night or, if we were feeling more local, wandering up to the Vine on Bridge Road and playing pool until 4am with morbidly obese alcoholics and sleazy middle-aged restaurant owners.

Wandering around the CBD until 4:00am with friends from Perth who had the good fortune to show up on a particularly warm summer night for the inaugural White Night Festival. Sitting at the edge of the Yarra texting love messages dedicated to each other’s mums to the Spheres of Love.

Shoving open my creaky old window in Richmond to sit on my bedside table, stick my head out into the rain, and smoke a joint. Finding that it wasn’t quite as pleasant as sharing one with two friends on a reclining armchair in Sunshine.

Having a heart-wrenching evening conversation with Kristie about the future of our relationship, then having my motorcycle break down on the Bolte Bridge on the way home. Spending an hour leaning against the concrete wall in the emergency lane, pulling my coat up against a biting August wind swooping in from the port, feeling miserable and waiting for my mechanic to come pick up me and the bike in his ute.

Drinking most of a bottle of gin while covering election night at the office, all of us shouting at the TV. Getting angry enough at Tony Abbott’s smirking face during his victory speech to punch a dent in the soundproofing panels on the wall.

Trams – something I’d always thought of as hokey and touristy, but which are surprisingly useful and an indispensable part of the city’s aesthetic. The dinging of the bell, the skating of the tracks, the squeaking of the doors snapping open. The cat’s cradle of electrical wires above each intersection. The sudden blue flashes sparking off the overheads.

Walking to work from Flinders Street Station, through the smell of chlorine from the fountains outside the NGV and the Chinese busker with the violin. The last 1am tram rumbling down Swan Street, audible from where I was tucked up in bed, followed an hour later by the humming of the street-sweepers. The reliable excellence of breakfast and coffee from cafes anywhere in the metro area. AAMI Park sprouting out of the grass by the Yarra like an enormous mushroom. The MCG lit up at night like a meteor fallen to earth. The bright night-time colours of 120 Collins Street, imitating its Manhattan forebear. Gelato on Lygon Street on a summer night. Rowing teams on the Yarra near Richmond. Widespread disdain for The Age going tabloid. Breakneck taxi drivers. Volatile weather. Autumn leaves.

Riding my motorcycle across the Bolte Bridge at night and always risking that lingering glance at the city lights, before begrudgingly turning my attention back to the road.

Melbourne was recently voted the most liveable city in the world by the Economist, whose liveability rankings have long been a joke because they obviously equate liveability with speaking English (there is no fucking way Perth is the seventh most liveable city in the world.) Monocle’s more opened-minded survey ranks it #5, and last year Mercer ranked it #18. So clearly it is a pretty neat city – as long as you don’t go more than ten kilometres from the CBD, beyond which it becomes the same bland Aussie suburbia that can be found from Bunbury to Bundaberg.

The Age recently conducted its own survey to see which is the most liveable suburb in “the world’s most liveable city.” Of 318 suburbs examined, my suburb of Sunshine West comes in at 233. Crime, lack of trees, poor public transport, distance from the CBD and the bay, and lack of shops and restaurants all hurt it.

There are two factors the survey didn’t take into account, which Sunshine West would rank poorly in anyway, but which I think were serious omissions. The first is pollution. Sunshine West sits at the edge of the largest industrial estate in the metropolitan area, and the smell is quite often “noticeable” (if we’re being polite). There is a pollution measurement station on my street, aerials and instruments humming away, which is kind of like seeing regular police patrols in your neighbourhood. It’s good that the authorities are concerned for your welfare, but the fact that they need to be is worrying.

The second is architectural aesthetics. By the standards of the study, an old-established suburb that has existed for hundreds of years has no benefits over one in which every structure was erected in 2010. Apart from trees, topography and distance to the city and bay, the study makes no allowance for things unrelated to infrastructure. Although it admits that “liveability” is a nebulous notion, it seems to argue that a vibrant city and a liveable neighbourhood could be scientifically designed and built.

Compare Southbank and Docklands to South Yarra and Collingwood. Compare Canary Wharf to Bloomsbury. Compare Atlantic Yards to Greenwich Village. Which of these areas are indisputably the heart and soul of their respective cities? Which of them, on the other hand, feel like generic committee-designed redevelopment projects where everything, even the roads and footpaths, was built from scratch and is unsettlingly new? A Ballardian landscape of skin-crawlingly clean modern architecture?

Architecture is something I’ve been thinking more and more about in the past few years. It’s a field in which I have no education or experience, merely a bundle of deep-seated feelings I find difficult to express. I instinctively lash out against brand new apartment buildings and McMansions, with their maroon-and-purple colouring and interior design dominated by straight lines and white space. It’s boring and ugly. I see more beauty in a run-down brick factory with graffitti stencils and broken windows than I do in a white Mirvac Fini apartment building in Docklands with a thousand identical balconies.

Why is this? Are new things objectively less beautiful? Buildings in bygone eras – Victorian, Edwardian, whatever – had a tendency to add decoration. The spires of the Forum Theatre, the brick pyramids atop each storefront along Sydney Road, the splendour of Flinders Street Station, the cornices and cupolas that adorn the buildings of the central city. Modern structures seem to be built with cost in mind – ease (and therefore cheapness) of assembly, of maintenance, of cleaning. The walls of Southbank’s towering structures are lined with plain white slabs; they remind me of China’s grown-overnight white-tiled cities. But surely capitalism was no less entrenched in the Victorian and Edwardian eras? Have we entered hyper-capitalism? Has the almighty dollar become even more vital than it was in times gone by? This is the intersection of two completely different sciences, neither of which I know much about.

Roger Ebert, in an article on the decline of architecture far more articulate than mine, seems to agree that finance is the one and only factor these days:

I walk around Chicago, and look up at buildings of variety and charm. I walk into lobbies of untold beauty. I ascend in elevators fit for the gods. Then I walk outside again and see the street defaced by the cruel storefronts of bank branches and mall chains, scornful of beauty. Here I squat! they declare. I am Chase! I am Citibank! I am Payless Shoe Source! I don’t speak to my neighbors. I have no interest in pleasing those who walk by. I occupy square footage at the lowest possible cost. My fixtures can be moved out overnight. I am capital.

Eureka Tower obviously shows some more thought and imagination than the rest of Southbank – perhaps a concession that, as the tallest building in the country, it was going to draw the eye, so they should at least put in some effort – and it’s not outright awful. But does it compare to an Empire State Building – or even a Rialto, or a 120 Collins Street? Stylistically it’s in line with Federation Square or those jutting sticks on the north-south Citylink. Modern architecture, when it does try to show flair or individuality rather than the cheapest available option, seems to embrace whatever looks the most garish or unnatural.

Yet I can’t help but feel that perhaps I’m biased, and in one hundred years’ time people will be doing their damndest to preserve the buildings I hate now, and decrying whatever monstrosities the architects of the day are putting up. Is it the newness itself that causes my dislike for these buildings and places? When the Age interviewed Robyn Annear for the liveable suburbs coverage, she had this to say:

If I were adding indicators, it would be something intangible about the past and a sense of what happened in a place before, and being able to see that authentically, not through plaques. There are still some really old, left-alone things among the multi-storey townhouses, some weird gargoyles, places that offer evidence that there was something quirky going on in the minds of the people who built them. There are these layers that speak to me about what the place was once like.

This reminded me of something William Gibson once said, regarding Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner vision of a realistic future city:

The simplest and most radical thing that Ridley Scott did in Blade Runner was to put urban archaeology in every frame. It hadn’t been obvious to mainstream American science fiction that cities are like compost heaps — just layers and layers of stuff. In cities, the past and the present and the future can all be totally adjacent. In Europe, that’s just life — it’s not science fiction, it’s not fantasy. But in American science fiction, the city in the future was always brand-new, every square inch of it.

Southbank and Docklands may be rich and desirable neighbourhoods, but there’s a certain stigma to them for their newness. More judgemental Melburnians look at them as they do Sydney – being all about glitz and money, lacking some certain vital aspect that makes old neighbourhoods like Carlton and Fitzroy more appealing. I can’t speak for everyone, but if I had a choice between a townhouse in Fitzroy or an apartment in Southbank, I know what I’d choose. Some places lack stories, legends, a past. They’re designed by committee, funded by private investors out to make as much money as possible or government bodies trying to “re-develop” areas to get re-elected. They are neighbourhoods created from scratch, by people who should not be in the business of creating neighbourhoods. Perhaps because nobody should, or can, be in that business. Neighbourhoods should create themselves.

Gentrification is an inevitable and not entirely negative process. But it bothers me when developers move into an old neighbourhood and demolish old structures. In Footscray they are tearing down factories and warehouses from the 1930s to make way for ugly, identical, brand new apartment blocks (you can have your choice of white, grey or maroon). In Fitzroy I once visited a warehouse apartment, with brick walls and catwalk balconies. It’s not necessary to throw away the past to repurpose the present. It can be preserved, and it is better to do so. Maybe not cheaper, but better.

I think the disconnect I feel with modern architecture is a combination of both factors. I think modern architectural design is objectively ugly. Even when something is clean and neat and not particularly offensive, it’s boring. White cubes are boring. Big glass windows, if they only give a view of a hundred identical Mirvac Fini apartment towers, are boring. Clean blank space is boring. And a neighbourhood in which absolutely everything was built a few years ago – no matter how well designed, no matter how many cafes and restaurants and bookstores it has – will always feel a bit too much like a hospital or a government office. Utilitarian, sterile, lacking that vital connection to what came before it.

And I am surely not the only one who thinks that. I’ve quoted from several above, and the existence of preservation groups and the price of 19th century townhouses in Melbourne must be evidence that this opinion is, if not majority, at least widespread. Why can we not build old buildings that look like new buildings? I see the refurbishments and conversions of old, dilapidated buildings into new apartment blocks, which is good, but when something is built from scratch it’s either a McMansion or a glass and steel Southbank rectangle. Where has the vision gone? Have we lost our ability to design beautiful things? Or do we just not care?

Alva City (Cowboy Bebop)

Bolt City (Copper)

City 17 (Half-life 2)

Dark City (Dark City)

Emerald City (The Wizard of Oz)

Fisherman’s Horizon (Final Fantasy VIII)

Gotham City (Batman)

Hortown (Tales from Earthsea)

Imperial City (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion)

Junon (Final Fantasy VII)

Koriko (Kiki’s Delivery Service)

Lindblum (Final Fantasy IX)

Mos Eisley (Star Wars)

New Crobuzon (Perdido Street Station)

Osgiliath (The Lord of the Rings)

Port Blacksand (Fighting Fantasy)

Qo’nos (Star Trek)

Rapture (Bioshock)

The Sprawl (Neuromancer)

Tar Valon (The Wheel of Time)

Undertown (The Edge Chronicles)

Vivec (The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind)

Waterfall City (Dinotopia)

Xanadu (Kubla Khan)

Yarimura (Fabled Lands)

Zanarkand (Final Fantasy X)

When the Republican Party harps on and on and on about how the United States needs to “cut government spending,” they are of course referring to the government spending money on stupid, useless things like education and health. Money spent on anything related to the military is money well spent, as seen last week when Boston Dynamics was awarded a $32 million contract to develop a prototype robotic pack mule:

Within the next three years, the U.S. military will test the feasibility of sending a quadruped robot out into the field as a trusty pack mule to carry supplies for its troops, wherever they go… The military already uses unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance or to attack enemy targets, and DARPA has sponsored several contests in recent years to determine the feasibility of developing autonomic ground transportation. Automation has been much more difficult to introduce to the infantry, however, because of the need to traverse rough terrain where robots operating on wheels or tracks cannot go.

Maybe you could, I don’t know, use actual mules? Crazy!

December 2009 marks five years that I’ve been writing End Times, the foundering ship which I am riding all the way to the ocean floor. I began writing the first entries in December 2004, and publishing them online in real-time format on January 1, 2005. The real-time format lasted for about three months before inevitably slipping away from me, and now I’m staring at my stranded characters across an ever-widening fissure of time.

I posted a new entry a few minutes ago, and given my track record, we all know it’s the last one I’ll be posting in 2009. This was an entry for October 10. The first entry I published in 2009 was for October 1. Some days have more than one entry, so that’s a total of fifteen, which is still abysmally low.

The reason I don’t post nearly as frequently as I used to is, shock horror, because I don’t enjoy writing End Times anymore. When I started it (in high school!) I had no idea where it would lead. A few other people were writing apocalyptic journals online and I thought it looked like a bit of a lark, so I figured I’d write one myself until I got bored with it. It proved to be quite popular, with – at its peak – maybe twenty or thirty regular readers. That made me feel good, and encouraged me, and I kept going.

Somewhere along the way I began to gradually lose interest in it. I have no idea where in the five-year saga that happened. The result was that I posted less frequently and that there was (in my opinion) a noticeable decline in the quality of writing. As a result less people read it, which meant I had less incentive to write it, and with that the negative feedback loop was up and running. And now we come to the close of a year in which I posted, on average, once every 24 days – a span far too long to keep all but the most devoted reader’s attention. Even assuming I were to post more frequently, and only have an entry for every couple of days of storyline time, that would mean an optimistic finish date of late 2012.

I do have an outline for the rest of the story. I know how the rest of October plays out, I know what will happen in November and December, and I know how it’s going to finish. The only thing preventing all this from happening is my deep loathing of actually sitting down and doing it.

Here’s the kicker: I don’t really have much of a desire to write anything these days. There was a time when I felt obligated to write End Times before anything else, so that it was holding me back from other projects; there was a time when I had abandoned that notion and worked quite often on other projects; and now there is a time when I have dozens of ideas for novels and short stories floating around in my head, and this enormous barnacle-encrusted leviathan sitting unfinished on Livejournal, and yet I devote less than a couple of hours every few weeks to working on any of them at all.

That worries me. Writing is pretty much the only thing I’m good at. Why don’t I want to do it?

The best explanation I can offer is that perhaps, in my early twenties, I’m in the period most writers spend actually exploring the world. Explaining it and telling stories about it comes later – though no doubt they spend these years constantly writing anyway, even if none of it comes to fruition.

I do write, though – I write a lot of book reviews, and when I go abroad I keep travelogues. Who says I have to write fiction? Apart from the fact that I want to be a fiction writer.

That’s the thing, really. I’ve become one of those writers for whom the actual writing is an unfortunate and unpleasant step on the way to the accomplishment of having written.

I didn’t always used to feel like that. I used to love it. I used to get excited when I was writing End Times, when I was pounding through a particularly action-packed entry and the words were flowing like water. Now… nothing. The most recent entry is quite eventful. But I felt nothing writing it.

Am I over the whole idea of swashbuckling boy’s adventure stories? Do I want to write something more mature?

I don’t think I can. If I’m really lucky, I might have it in me to be another Stephen King. But I will never be another David Mitchell or Michael Chabon.

I’m starting to ramble and it’s getting late, so I’ll finish with the same topic I started: I have been writing End Times for five years now. While I may compare it to a stinking albatross hanging around my neck, I do not regret it. It has been an interesting experiment, an absolutely epic work of fiction, and regardless of its dubious quality as a piece of literature I will feel quite accomplished when I finally finish it. And I do still intend to finish it, even if nobody wants to read it and I don’t want to write it, because I am an exceptionally stubborn person. I am a person who read the entirety of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series, who watched an entire season of 24 in a single sitting, who spent months longer than he had to working at a hellish kindergarden in South Korea. Partly because I feel that I owe it to the few remaining readers, and partly because I have come too fucking far to give up on it now, I WILL FINISH THAT DAMNED NOVEL OR DIE TRYING.

I put up the free map that came with my gap year travel book and have started throwing darts at it. I have no intention of going to Greenland, but it’s fun to do.

Last night I went to Mike’s house and helped him plan out what he’s going to do on the way home from his stint at Camp Schodack. We hooked his laptop up to the projector and, in MS Paint, put red dots and lines all over the CIA World Factbook Map that was now emblazoned across his entire living room wall. New York, Orlando, London, Paris, Munich, Barcelona, Cairo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the myriad air routes in between.

I wonder how many thousands of commercial aircraft there are in the sky at any given moment. I wonder how many ferries and trains and buses, how many millions of people in transit.

There’s in island in the Andamans, an Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, called North Sentinel Island. Anyone can find it on a map. It’s inhabited by a tribe of uncontacted people, who are hostile to the outside world, who still hunt with spears and bows and arrows. In the 1980s a container ship washed up on their shores after a storm, and helicopters had to be dispatched to rescue the crew because the Sentinelese were attacking them. After the tsunami in 2004, the Indian government sent a chopper to see if they were still there, and the pilot responded in the affirmitive, because wooden arrows were bouncing off the undercarriage.

My cousin Georgie is a flight attendant for Qantas, based out of London. I was taking to her on Facebook at 1 am the other night, and announced that if I decide I hate Korea, then I’m taking a ferry from Incheon to Tianjin, a train to Beijing, the Trans-Siberian across Mongolia and Russia, and then a plane from Moscow to London, where I will sleep on her couch until Mike shows up and we can all bum around Europe together. I did the calculations this morning, and taking the Tran-Siberian would only cost about fifty or a hundred dollars less than a direct Seoul-London ticket. But then, it’s not really about saving money.

The longest non-stop flight in the world is Singapore Airlines Flight 21, an eighteen hour haul from Singapore to Newark. Because of the curvature of the globe it doesn’t cross the Pacific, but goes north/south, directly up over Asia and the Arctic Ocean and then down across Canada. Imagine being a pilot on that flight. You get up, shave, have breakfast, go to work, and ten hours later you’re above an iceberg choked sea with the rainbow colours of the Northern Lights playing across your cockpit windshield.

After playing around with the map, Mike and I went to Ranger Camping and Anaconda to look at backpacks. I need a good solid one for Korea and whatever comes after. I’ve sworn off Denali after the duffel bag I bought for Japan split open on the last day of the trip and ejected my possessions across the train station in Hiroshima. Right now I’m eyeing off a Black Wolf Cuba, for around $220.

There are cruise ships to Antarctica. Package tours to Mt. Everest. You can get dunked into the water with great white sharks in South Africa, swim with humpback whales in Tonga, hike into the mountains to see silverback gorillas in Uganda.

Chris has made it through the wall of adjustment up in the Kimberley, and is starting to enjoy himself. He sent me a photo of him sitting in a tree that was leaning out over a pool in a rocky red gorge, that classic Australian outback image. We’re spinning out wild ideas about travelling overland from Cape Froward to Murchison Promonotory. Via Central America or the Caribbean? There isn’t an unbroken chain of ferry services across the archipelago arc, but someone with enough time, money and determination could hang out in the ports waiting to hitch a ride on a private yacht or freighter. We’d have two of things. Central America has its own problems: the Darien Gap, a vast swathe of undeveloped jungle and swampland connecting Panama and Colombia, no roads or railways, inhabited by several different groups of guerilla fighters with a penchant for taking Western hostages.

There’s a guy called Karl Bushby who is walking overland from Cape Horn back to his house in England, an enterprise he calls “The Goliath Expedition.” He started in 1998 and he’s currently in Russia. He walked across the frozen Bering Strait.

By the end of this year I will be a dual citizen of Australia and Ireland. The way things are going, I’ll soon be able to live and work anywhere in the European Union.

The fabled snows of Kilimanjaro are shrinking, and in twenty years they’ll be gone. The islands of the South Pacific are slowly sinking beneath the waves. Cuba can’t stay a stronghold of socialism forever, and when the embargo goes, so will all the vintage cars. Last year the King of Nepal was forced to abdicate the throne, and one day there will be no more kings and queens and emperors, just bland presidencies and parliaments.

Zanzibar and Timbuktu and Xanadu are real places.

There are 203 sovereign nations in the world. I can name all of them, even the obscure ones – Bhutan, Burundi, Cape Verde, Nauru, Kiribati, Moldova, Azerbaijan – and I can place them on a map. But I’ve only been to three of them. I don’t know shit.

I still haven’t swum with whale sharks. I’ve never crossed the equator while awake. I’ve never set foot on the mainland of any continent except Australia.

I’m really tired of Perth. I’m tired of these endless suburbs, of the same people, of the same places, of the thousand kilometres of concrete curbs and roads and footpaths, of the eucalyptus trees and the shopping centres. I’m tired of my routine. I’m tired of having nothing to challenge me. I’m tired of the feeling that my life is being stripped away, second by second.

If everything goes well, then in a month I’ll be sitting in the departure lounge of Changi Airport as a stopover enroute to Seoul. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to teach kids, or live alone in a foreign country. But I’m damn well going to give it a shot. And if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll fling myself on my cousin’s mercy. You don’t have to stay anywhere forever.

I like this stage in my life. I like the fact that the people closest to me are scattered across the globe – in the outback, in London, in America. I like the fact that we are at a stage in our lives where we’re travelling wherever we want, doing whatever we want, broadening our horizons and seeing as much as we can of this enormous, incomprehensible world. You can tell when you’re entering a new stage in your life: I knew I was when I started uni, and I know I am now. It’ll certainly last for five years. It might last for ten years. It could last the rest of my life.

“We all live in cages. We don’t want to admit it, but a lot of us walk in there voluntarily, cause the stuff outside can be really scary. We have these reasons why we can’t do stuff and they limit our options until we’re forced into whatever’s left. So we sit in there complaining about what we ended up with, and eventually we forget that there’s no lock on the door.

Well I figured out about the lock. I went outside and nothing bad happened. I got some weird looks from people, but no one tried to stop me and I’m still prancing around outside the cage. I don’t want to get back in.

Planet Earth is a hoot. It’s not all hidden lagoons and virgin rainforests; there’s lots of awful shit to deal with. But that can be fun too.”

– Matt Harding
www.wherethehellismatt.com

I was channel-surfing just now and reached some documentary on the ABC about Bhutan, and the first sentence I hear as it changes over, with an image of a peasant woman looking over a valley, is about how the Bhutanese live “a content life, free from the trappings of the Western world.”

What a load of horseshit. I can’t stand it when Westerners get all disillusioned with their lives and look at people in the Third World as some shiny paragon of the human spirit, living a romantically idealised life. 80% of the people in this world – the ones that you’re looking at with naive envy – spend their days squatting in ditches to take a shit, building mud bricks under the unforgiving sun, and watching their children get kidnapped by the local drug lords to be sold off as sex slaves in Eastern Europe, until they eventually die of cholera at age 41. They would trade their rustic rural life for yours in a fucking heartbeat. The “trappings” of the Western world, all that consumerism and bustle that you find so hard to deal with, you poor little things? Those “trappings” include stuff like medicine, clean drinking water, electricity, central heating, and the ability to walk down the street without being caught up in the crossfire between rival clan militias.

There’s also the entirely unrelated fact that it is an insult to their dignity; one of the more benign cases of categorising foreigners as Others, but an example of narrow-minded orientalism nonetheless. There is something immensely frustrating about watching a group of clean, healthy Europeans traipse through a Himalayan mountain village and croon about how the life of the villagers is so simple and pure, and oh my god they must know the amazing secrets of the world, before promptly returning to South London and their oh-so-evil consumerist lifestyle.

I saw an episode of Oprah a while back where she went on a roadtrip across the country and spent some time in Amish territory, and upon showing that segment she turned to her audience and said “100% happiness – they are one hundred per cent happy – and how many of us can say that?” The hive drones nodded and murmured in assent and I felt like kicking the TV screen in. If that life is so perfect, why don’t you go join them? Yeah, didn’t think so.

To sum up, it is incredibly ungrateful and inappreciative to look at Third World citizens with that kind of ultimately insincere envy. There are people who risk absolutely everything to bring themselves and their families into the sanitised corporate bubble of the West (where they are then thrown into a detention camp on Christmas Island and called “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” in newspaper editorials), so show a bit of gratitude that you were born in this clean, safe paradise instead of in a squalid refugee camp in the DRC, by not making stupid blanket statements about the “trappings of the Western world.”

SWOOSH

1. Bush has surprisingly good reflexes for a 60-something old man.
2. Lol at the Iraqi PM angling for brownie points by trying to block the second shoe.
3. Secret Service was awfully sluggish in responding.
4. I’m glad to see I wasn’t the only person who thought of this.
5. Despite stern reprimands from the Iraqi government, the Arabs love this guy – hope he doesn’t get punished too harshly.

ironic juxtaposition of the decade

I know I always argue against paranoid internet conspiracists who think the US is only a few constitutional amendments away from a totalitarian police state, but this was just too good to resist:

Dr. Lawrence Britt* outlines the 14 characteristics of fascism:

1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.

2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.

3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.

4. Supremacy of the Military
Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.

5. Rampant Sexism
The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and anti-gay legislation and national policy.

6. Controlled Mass Media
Sometimes to media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common.

7. Obsession with National Security
Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.

8. Religion and Government are Intertwined
Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.

9. Corporate Power is Protected
The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.

10. Labor Power is Suppressed
Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed .

11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to fund the arts.

12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment
Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.

13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.

14. Fraudulent Elections
Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.

REPUBLICANS R F*CKIN NAZIS MANNNNN!!1

Not quite that bad, obviously, but disturbing patterns emerge.

*Who will probably turn out to be some whacko who thinks 9/11 was an inside job.

Here’s a tip for the women out there. As far as I can tell, none of them are privy to this little bit of arcane law. Ready?

If you are under the age of 40, you look just as good without makeup as you do with it.

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