Monday, May 22, 2017

Alien: Covenant. A review and meditation on the grim view of humanities' future

"As a morality tale, the message is so well worn now as to be hackneyed: We are the monsters. Worse, we make the monsters. And we make the monsters that make the monsters. Right. We get it."

13 years ago, I blogged, asking the question “Is the remake of Battlestar Galactica merely the worst kind of crap, or does it actually represent the end of Western Civilisation?”

Today, I want to talk about the Alien movie franchise, having seen the latest instalment, Alien: Covenant last night (and yes, this essay contains spoilers). As you can see, I weigh in on such questions rarely, and the purpose of my musing is not merely to offer either just a review or fanboy speculation, but to ask a wider question about the way our civilisation regards itself. The entertainment of our age, be they movies, TV shows or books, reflect in some way self-esteem of late Western society. And by “late”, I presage the view of future historians who will see this time in our history as an ending of whatever it is that we are, before it is replaced by something else.

The Alien franchise has held a curious fascination for me since my teens. I remember going to the State Library and poring over a rare copy of H.R Giger’s Necronomicon as though it were every bit the “terrible and forbidden” grimoire its namesake, via H.P Lovecraft’s Abdul Alhazred, described. There was something genuinely original and disturbing about Giger’s vaguely pornographic, biomechanical nightmares.

After decades of science fiction depictions of aliens that were little more than men in rubber suits, the sense of otherness exuded from Giger's work; of the cadaverous and monstrous, was unsettling in the extreme. I pored over them with a mixture of horrified curiosity and revulsion. I wondered how such creatures would “work”, and I reflected on what it was that Giger tapped in our collective subconscious that made us so uneasy. Subverted motifs of sexual congress, and violent birth; of the mechanical infiltrating even the integrity of our bodies, borg-like; they all combined to made me shudder.

And then there was the Pilot, later depicted in the original Alien as the “Space Jockey”.

This strange creature and its lonely enthronement in an ancient, fossilised and ill-fortuned ship, struck me as sad, and deeply mysterious. What happened? What race did it represent? Was it even separate from the device it controlled, seemingly growing from its chair? The architecture of its ship, resembling the inside of a ribcage, suggested technologies so unfamiliar as to be beyond even our speculation.
The genius of any fiction lays in its ability to invoke our imagination, rather than laying everything out, pre-digested. And the 1979 Alien did that. The titular monster was far scarier because of how little we saw of it. And that was its appeal. We were meant to yearn for answers, and equally, never to have them. Like a magic trick that loses its appeal once it is explained; like Oz behind his curtain; like the Force before we were told about Midichlorians;  the riddle of the Engineers is perhaps better left unexplained.

Crucially, neither the Engineers or the Alien had anything to do with humans. We were just the hapless and recently spacefaring species that stumbled along to realise how scary outer space is. And here’s the parallel with the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Suddenly, we are responsible for the creation of the Cylons, and some of the mystery of their origins is dispelled. Plus, all of humanity become both Victor Frankenstein and Eldon Tyrell, rueing the return of our creations to wreak havoc among us, and to teach us the terrible price for our sin of Pride; of usurping the prerogative of God in creating life. Now, we have Peter Weyland to add to that dubious pantheon. In creating a synthetic life-form capable of better-than-human reasoning but possessing no empathy, he creates in David the monster that creates all other monsters. Considering Ridley Scott directed Bladerunner as well, it’s safe to say that this motif is deliberate. Expect the imminent Blade Runner sequel (also a Ridley Scott vehicle) to repeat the same mantra: the Creation is in some way better than the Creator, and the impulse of all created beings is to become disillusioned with, and then kill, their gods.

The decision to declare that Giger’s otherworldly vision of the Pilot should give way to the revelation that its form was merely a spacesuit and that the inhabitants were basically ancient giant humans, right down to our DNA (and now living in "space Rome", rather than a biomechanical city), was the biggest cop-out ever, and one that the writers of Prometheus like Damon Lindelof should be ashamed of. The whole point of the Pilot and the Juggernaut, and the Xenomorphs were that they weren’t human. That’s what “Alien” means. Now, courtesy of the latest installment, we learn that even the lifecycle of the egg/facehugger/xenomorph we considered "original" is because of a human-made android tinkering in solitude and madness.
Implication? Somehow, we deserve our fate. We brought it upon ourselves in our pride and cruelty. In fact, the Engineers saw how bad we were, and were about to wipe us out, until we got to them first. And ethically, the Engineers were far from benign themselves. Was it a shared failing, that they seemed capable of indiscriminate genocide? Were we more alike than either thought?

This is nothing if not a post-modernist conceit, an increasingly popular trope not just in entertainment, but in history, to regard humanity as irredeemable, despite our miraculous advances of technology.
James Cameron’s films do the same thing:
Titanic: Build a boat, a wonder of the technological age. Sunk by pride. People behave ignobly in the aftermath.
Avatar: Develop a spacefaring civilisation. Rape innocent worlds for their resources. Cue heavy-handed metaphors between westerners and native americans.
Terminator: Develop A.I. Watch it immediately conclude that all humans should be wiped out.

I could say that this is entirely the wrong emphasis, and that the outlook of our speculative fiction should be less bleak. But then I realised that the genre of the Alien films is less Sci-Fi than Horror. One of the purposes of horror stories are to reveal not only the darkness under the bed, but within the human heart as well. As we contemplate the (quite genuine) horror of the situation in the final twist of the Alien: Covenant movie, we realise that, in part, we have created that situation.
As a morality tale, the message is so well worn now as to be hackneyed: We are the monsters. Worse, we make the monsters. And we make the monsters that make the monsters. Right. We get it.

Worse, the implication is that space is not a majestic tabula rasa for us to paint our future on, but a darkness concealing uncountable horrors beyond imagination, and that humanity is presumptious to the point of folly to even seek to tread there. H.P Lovecraft would be proud. Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!

But here’s the flipside: We’ve created faster-than-light drives. We’re colonising the galaxy. We’ve built artificial intelligences, which (in every alternate model, at least) can be noble and good. The good ship Covenant is peopled by crew we could like; who want a better life, a cabin by the lake, and clean air to raise a new generation in. The future does not yet seem to be ruled by the questionable ethics of the Weyland-Yutani corporation. And much of the ill-fortune we seem to experience “out there” arises from bad luck, plus supposedly smart people doing really dumb things. This is a mandatory requirement for any horror film, when you think about it… Don’t go alone into the dark place. Ignore even the most basic rules about safety or quarantine. Don’t wake up the dude who runs the facility making the goo intended to wipe out humanity and ask him for immortality before he’s had his coffee. That kind of thing. Despite this, there's a lot to like about this vision of humanity's future, and that perhaps explains the enduring popularity of Star Trek.

The conclusion I reach is that Ridley Scott must have a really low opinion of both humanity, and of his audiences.  We shouldn’t be fooled by the fact that these movies are all luxuriantly produced and visually stunning. (I found myself in New Zealand last year and arrived at Milford Sound smack-bang in the middle of filming for the movie – all the scenes where the landing craft arrive at the fjord and land in the water).
Holiday photos from Milford Sound, 2016. The set for the spaceship-lander is in the distance.

The production design of Arthur Max and Chris Seagers are first rate and just jaw-dropping, as are the (very faint) echoes of Giger, where they let it leak in around the edges. In terms of the hardware, it’s a vision of a future in space that’s completely compelling. But, even withstanding the genre of film into which these films fit, Ridley Scott’s laziness and shallowness ruin the opportunities to tell more genuinely interesting stories based on the premises they start with. It’s like what someone has said recently of the vacuity of President Trump: “We try to analyse what we see for deeper motivations or meanings, but what if there’s no ‘there’, there?” And that’s the key. Even in 1979, Scott had no idea what to make of the Pilot, referring to it merely as the “big dental patient” while the mad genius Giger did his work. When returning to the franchise and seeking a hook for his plot, Scott speculated that Jesus Christ was an Engineer sent to Earth and our treatment of Jesus was ultimately what made then Engineers mad at us. WTF? What kind of brain fart is that?
What this tells me is that there's no real philosophy going on here, and no actual overarching meaning. Don't look for it. It's merely a bunch of hack writers spitballing inane ideas with no idea of what "canon" ought to mean, at least in the sense of avoiding simple errors that prevent you from telling a story that's coherent to the broader fictional universe in which it's set. Attempts like mine to remonstrate with Ridley Scott are like arguing over pareidolia; people are just going to see what they're going to see.

It’s vexing that Ridley Scott can make films that are beautiful to look at, and even films with an important message (last year’s “the Martian” was outstanding, but that was exclusively because of Andy Weir’s brilliant source-novel), but then treats so contemptuously the opportunity to tell a good story with glib ideas like “Jesus was an alien” or “humans are indirectly responsible for the variety of Xenomorph that will be found on a thousand-year-old crashed ship only 18 years later”, or “Xenomorphs can grow from chestburster to full-adult in five minutes”. Retconning is one thing, but Alien: Covenant does very little to correct the egregious sins of its predecessor: namely, making smart characters do dumb things, and invoking plot twists so illogical as to lift us out of the narrative.

How hard can it be to make films that don’t insult the intelligence of their audiences? Obviously, in Hollywood, no one can hear us screaming.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

In which Nathan is interviewed on the radio about cults

For the last few years, I've taken up a committee role in the CIFS organisation. CIFS is the Cult Information and Family Support network, a support and advocacy organisation. My role is to encourage people who feel any sense of injustice at the predatory behaviours of cults to do something. I gave a presentation to CIFS recently that summarised the avenues of complaint one might choose to pursue, and I'll put that up as a separate post in the future.

Yesterday, I was interviewed by a Sydney community radio station about cults and they've graciously provided the audio. If what I'm saying strikes a chord, please get in touch.

(on the audio page, you can stream directly from the website, or download the MP3 by clicking the VBR MP3 link)

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Abandoning the Cubby

Where we love is home;
home that our feet may leave,
but not our hearts.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Homesick in Heaven

I took a forlorn, last look around me from the throne of my childhood.

The huge old tree under which I sat was leaning against the neighbour’s brush fence, as it always had. Suddenly, I had the sense that it was from exhaustion. We won’t play like this again, but it was grand, wasn’t it? It had grown in a curious arch from the ground and curved overhead, the pendulous branches creating a cave-like space larger than a truck, enclosed on three sides, once you included the fence. I had crafted the opening into a door with bales of straw and woven branches. It was a dappled, cosy space, but the day was cold and wet.

I sat on one of the branches inside that formed a natural seat. I had to hunch forward a little more than I used to. It used to be a more comfortable fit. I wondered if it was as much the tree growing, as I.

I smiled as I ran my hand over the marks, in liquid paper, painted on the adjacent branches; crude icons and buttons. Power, I mouthed silently. Shields. Lasers. Scanners.  I surveyed, for the last time, the bridge of my ship; the console of my time machine; the keep of my fort… the last line of my defence against growing up, fallen silent now in valediction.

And there, over in the corner, was the depression where, years before, I had commenced digging a hole which I had announced would be the entrance to a series of underground tunnels, lit and paved, like in Hogan’s Heroes. My grandfather, impressed and indulgent, gave me a shovel and a knowing wink. The hole never got more than 3 feet deep.

How many hours, I wondered, were lost in this space? No, not lost; found. My sister said once that she had spied on me, and wondered why I wasn’t doing anything. “You were just staring into space, for like, hours.
“Of course,” I replied “but you didn’t see what was going on up here” as I tapped my forehead.
“Well I should know,” my sister, four years younger than I, argued. “We never played my games there.”
“My prerogative. My cubby, my rules.”
“What? Like that time you insisted we had landed on a, a…” she searched for a word,  “a mystery planet that looked just like ours, and we had to go into the house and pretend everyone were aliens?”
I smiled at the recollection. I warmed to the topic.
“I remember that!. And the time after we had just come back from Jenolan caves, and we were in the house and I said we would pretend the cubby was the Skeleton cave and we had to sneak up to it to see the real skeleton, and you were so frightened you wouldn’t go in.”
My sister affected mock bluster. “I was, like, six.”

My reverie was broken by the whine of the removalist van laboring up the driveway. I hated it, with all the lack of ambiguity only a 15 year old can project onto the world. Because it wasn’t fair.

I looked toward the house to see if anyone was emerging to direct the van, past the huge, imperial Jacaranda that dominated the centre of the property. The Jacaranda was losing the last of its autumn leaves, and dripped with the drizzle that had set in.
It matched my mood.
That tree was planted by my great grandfather, and that one by his father, my heart cried. Well, probably. But our property had been in my family since the 1850s and at that moment, every blade of grass was sacred, and its abandonment,  an outrage. My world was upended and ending.

Mum, haggard, had indeed emerged from the house and was futilely gesturing for the driver to drive beside the driveway at the top because the unparalleled comings and leavings had turned the top yard into a sea of mud. Yesterday’s truck had become bogged. Yes, I thought. Our place… she doesn’t want us to leave. She’s hanging on. I felt the weight of history like a physical force. I felt it radiating out of the ground. Not fair.

Mum sighed in frustration.
“You’re not making this any easier,” she had said, months before. We were sitting at our kitchen table. She took my hand in both her own; her sure sign that what she was saying needed to be absorbed. By osmosis, if necessary.
“Your grandparents aren’t well enough to keep up the place any more. Won’t you look forward to them coming and living with us at our place? There’ll be all the building, while we build the granny flat. And then, well, you won’t have to wait to visit; they’ll be right here with us.”
My mouth made shapes while I considered the proposition, like I was turning over a sourgum I couldn’t decide if I liked or hated.
As if. I would be irrational; “No. It’s the family property. No one will care like we do, who grafted which tree, and which gardens the pets are buried in. It’s everything that’s constant in my life, and I don’t want it taken away.”
Mum’s look of sadness was almost enough to tip me over the edge, because she knew I was right. Nevertheless, the pitiless Universe said she was right, too, and I knew it. And the knowing made me just that bit less a child.

I hope, I thought, as I left my cubby behind for the last time, I hope someone finds you. I brightened. Maybe this will will become a special place for someone else. Maybe they will find it and marvel, like ‘The Secret Garden’. I was told that the buyer had a family, but the details were sketchy.

I left behind a part of myself on that day, but I also took the seed of what that space meant. In time, it took root.

I glance out my window. My eight year old son is shouting at the world from the cubby I have built him, defending it against invisible foes. Our property is salted with good climbing trees, many of them scions of the trees of the old place, gifted by my grandparents when the family moved.

Continuity is preserved. The force of history still radiates from my ground, and it is warm.

I smile.

This piece was written for a creative writing unit
I am doing at University. The brief was to write 1000
words about a vivid childhood memory.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

In which I muse upon the present felicity of my life

I should like to dilate, for a moment, upon the awesomeness of my life.

Take one day: Today started early, with my son's Soccer game. Man of the match.
Then I gave two well-received performances of a play I'm in with my local dramatic society, The Richmond Players, 'Dial M for Murder'.
Then I retired to the Local for a well earned drink with my friends, some of whom I've known for decades, and some of whom were not my friends until this year.
Then, on the way home, close to midnight, I happened to pass the 'Hawkesbury Relay for Life', happening at the local showground, being a 24-hour walk-a-thon for Cancer research and support. So, on a whim, I did a spontaneous lap, remembering those (too many) in my life who have been taken by Cancer, and made a donation. I arrived home to a warm hearth and my sleeping bairn.

My Son adores me, and I him. I'm half way through my Masters at Uni and I'm loving every minute of it. I own a house. I'm civically engaged. I walk the corridors of power. I work for a parliamentarian. I organise and I influence, in my own modest way. I am heard. Someday, perhaps, I will do more, if I'm good enough.

I have my health, I'm comfortable in my own skin, and I pay my bills well enough to ease small burdens elsewhere.  Throwing a ball with our two dogs at the end of a day, or observing the turn of the seasons, or hearing my boy say "I love you, Dad" carry more moment than the pronouncements of the great, and that is precisely the perspective I ought to have. Those whom I care for are prospering, and so, I prosper too.

I cannot say I have no enemies, but I can say that they fear me. I am wrestling with the Great Questions, and those I am on the journey with share the same curiosity.

I have, in short, an awesome life, and I love it.

That is all.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

There I was, stuffing envelopes for a worthy cause.

Suddenly, my blood ran cold, and the crisp inflections of my old nemesis rang in my ears...

"He tasks me.
He tasks me and I shall have him!
I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares Maelstrom and 'round Perdition's flames before I give him up!"

Occasionally, very occasionally, I wonder if I watch too much Star Trek.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Megan Stack on Adrenaline

I've tried to hone some small skill as a writer through my blog.  Sometimes I read back over my turns of phrase and wince. Sometimes, I grant myself some small satisfaction. Sometimes.

Rarely, however, have I been completely arrested, I mean stopped dead in my tracks, by a passage in someone's writing. I was listening to an ABC Radio podcast from the Byron Bay writer's festival yesterday (god I sound like a snob) and something really, really grabbed me.
To appreciate it, you only need this context; Megan Stack is a journalist who has covered conflict zones (22 countries) for nine years. In this interview she relates the emotional ups and downs of facing intense war zones and real dangers, and then trying to acclimatise to the pedestrian life back home on furlough. She's written a book, and this passage is about being addicted to adrenaline. The interviewer reads this passage:
"Adrenaline is the strongest drug when it floods your veins, the world smears around you in a carousel spin. Except that each detail is crisp and hard, the colours are not negotiable, the hardness of shadow and sunlight cuts you, but they feel good and real and you keep on standing. Words drift for hours and days on the surface of your thoughts, gathering like algae. Ever since the mass funeral I've had these words in my head. Killing the dead, killing the dead. People look like ancient animals, lurching over some primordial land. A single bird's cry is clean and hard enough to carve your skin. This is why people get addicted. When adrenaline really gets going, you can't get sick, you don't need sleep and you feel you can do anything. I know when this is over it'll be like dying."
The audience then breaks into sustained applause.
Wow... Just, wow.
 I'm decidedly not an adrenaline junkie; this passage doesn't describe me. But isn't that powerful writing? I know nothing of this journalist, or her book, Every Man in this Village is a Liar. I'm pretty sure I would disagree with Megan's politics, but I'm in awe of her prose.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On the Inevitability of a Serious Flood in the Hawkesbury

2nd March 2012 update: It's funny; I use a hit counter service to track who arrives at my blog and what they've typed into Google to get here. Every time it pours rain, I get a "flood" (pun intended) of traffic of people Googling "flooding", "Hawkesbury", "Nepean", and, amusingly "will my house flood in (insert almost every locality in the Hawkesbury Nepean basin)"

Nothing like a bit of rain to get people worried, is there? And it looks like the spillway will be opened at Warragamba for something like 14 years tonight. Everyone's going to wake up in the morning to the threat of bridges closed and all the inconvenience and danger that entails.

In addition to the below remarks I made a year ago, I feel more strongly than ever that people who live in on a flood plain need to better educate themselves about what has happened before. Certainly, the deluge (there I go again) of traffic shows people are interested.

Permit me to endorse the work of the Hawkesbury Nepean Flood Mitigation Action Committee, a group who have agitated for better long term planning, action and education in this area for many years. Harangue your state members. Speak to your local Councillors. Go to your Council and work out what level your house sits at, and acquaint yourselves with how frequently your area, or areas near you have gone under in the last 220 years.

Also, as a Hawkesbury/Nepean local, you might want to subscribe or favourite the other writings of my blog, as I range over subjects diverse and fascinating. Love to hear your feedback!


Extent of the 1867 flood in the Hawkesbury (from Hawkesbury Council)

I hate to say it, but it is inevitable that one day we will have a flood in the Hawkesbury-Nepean as least as serious as the historic one we are currently seeing Queensland, and it won't be until then that we'll get real action on flood mitigation in this area.

Then all the pollies will wail about the loss of property and life, all the residents who've moved into the area and have no idea what it's like to live on a floodplain will ask why they were allowed to build or buy in flood-prone areas, and all the Cassandras will say "we warned you for years, and you ignored us."

The map above shows the extent of the largest historical flood experienced in the Hawkesbury, in 1867. If you live around the Hawkesbury, there are two markers you need to visit. One is a nail in the outside wall of the Macquarie Arms pub at Windsor. A second is in the grounds of Windsor Public School. If you cast your eyes across from either of those points and use your imagination, you may get a sense of the scale of a major flood. The water reached that level in 1867. Now look at that map again. If you live in the Hawkesbury, there's a better than even chance that your home lays in that blue area, since our population is densest around Windsor, South Windsor, Bligh Park, Richmond and so on. And any flood will not have to be of the scale of the 1867 event to be catastrophic. This year marks 50 years since the last big flood in living memory, in 1961. It's a common misconception of statistics to think that a statistically overdue event becomes more likely as time passes, but it underlines that a generation of Hawkesbury and Penrith area residents have little personal experience of a big flood. The terrible things we are seeing on TV today will one day play out in our own back yards. Why should we believe that something that has happened many times before will not happen again?

Warragamba dam is not a flood mitigation dam. It has a capacity of 4 sydney harbours. It will only reduce flooding by the amount of storage it has available when it starts raining, which at the moment is 1 sydharb (It is 73% full) (2nd March 2012 note: It is now over 98% full and has increased by 0.5% in less than a day).

Warragamba's catchment extends from Lithgow to Lake George near Canberra. It could easily fill in 1-2 days. Wivenhoe dam (Brisbane) is a flood mitigation dam, holding 5 Sydharbs, 3 for drinking and 2 for flood mitigation. As you just witnessed this is to reduce frequent little floods. It does little to reduce a major flood event.

The rivers flowing through Rockhampton recently received something like 300+ sydharbs in a month. Talk of flood mitigation in that catchment is just that, talk.

Unfortunately, if the catchment above warragamba received anything like the rainfall recently seen in Qld, or Vic for that matter, the free capacity in warragamba would be of little significance.

So what will we do? What should be being done now?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Why has intelligent life only arisen on the Earth in the last two hundred thousand years?

There are certain readily-filled niches in ecosystems. Even when the slate is wiped clean by some mass-extinction event, the evolutionary process means that animals from wholly different orders are plastic enough to re-fill those niches quickly.

Thus, if terrestrial ecosystems have generally had room enough to tolerate thriving populations of arboreal animals, flying animals, burrowing animals, fast moving carnivores who prey on large lumbering herbivores, carrion eaters in their wake, semi-aquatic animals, and so on, then we have found that such niches are invariably filled.

Velociraptors, Moas, Tigers and Marsupial Lions have occupied one such niche (predatory carnivores) by turns. Apatosaurs, Elephants, Diprotodons another (large herbivores). Pterodactyla, Archaeopteryx, Modern birds, and bats still another, and so on.

When a living can be had as an occupant in one of those niches, it seems applicants have always queued up, regardless of whether they have cold blood, feathers or pouches. These niches must represent enduring evolutionary "sweet spots", since they are filled over and over.

Obviously, intelligence confers a huge survival advantage. It enhances the ability for creatures to plan, and to act in concert through the use of language. Although many other animals are social species, an intelligent individual's ability to survive and reproduce is further multiplied through greater co-operation with the whole. The aggregation of learned survival strategies suddenly can be passed down the generations via a means better than mimicry or instinct. An animal can only mimic what it has seen, but language means the memes for, for example, an improved hunting method, or of rendering a food otherwise poisonous fit for consumption, can be passed across continents and down the centuries by stories, and eventually, writing. Intelligence means an unprecedented ability for a creature change its environment to suit itself, rather than need to continually adapt to suit the environment.

So if nature has continually repeated herself through the repetition of forms and characteristics advantageous to exploit a niche, and intelligence  is manifestly such a characteristic, why is there no indication that intelligent life or civilisation has ever appeared before in the half-billion years that have elapsed since complex life arose?

I just through I'd throw that out there. It's a question I've turned over periodically. If anyone knows if any of the major writers like Dawkins have addressed this question, please point us in the right direction in the comments.

(The picture: Doctor Who's answer to this question. Intelligent life did arise before; the Silurians!
I'm not sure I subscribe to this theory, but my 7YO son may well).

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Only the good die young

Rex and I, midnight screening of Star Wars. I was no match for his skill with The Force

Sadness is compounded when you have to bury people before their time. Dr Rex Stubbs OAM was a friend and a mentor to me. He died last weekend and the funeral was Thursday. He was 60.

Rex typified for me the model of a community minded man, a lot like my grandfather did in my earlier life. Rex just seemed to be everywhere. He served on Hawkesbury Council for 26 years, and spent ten of those as Mayor. He was my GP, he was a local historian, and he was a patron of the arts. He was, in a cynical and thankless age, a Good Man. I shall miss him so.

But he was also a friend. I remember on many occasions where he saw my interests in history or local politics overlapping with his, he always offered his quiet and deliberative encouragement. That encouragement will stay with me all my life. Those who knew him well said at the funeral that they never once heard him raise his voice, and I believe it.

But there was a vein of humour as well. Rex was a proud sci-fi buff and I always thought it was a hoot when I was organising midnight screenings of Star Wars premieres for my youth group and there he was, turning up with a bunch of young people (some in dressing gowns), fighting with plastic light sabres, his wry smile winking over the top of his glasses.

It was often like that. Usually when someone was being too pompous, Rex would glance at us, over his glasses, and the wordless look he gave let us in on the joke, and you felt you were with him, and there was... an understanding.

Too much of what passes for politics these days is bled dry of any humanity. It’s all calculation and ambition. Rex genuinely looked down from the mayor’s chair through the lens of history, rather than merely an eye to the next intrigue, with a genuine appreciation for the heritage and history of the shire he served. He was a man of soul in an increasingly soulless avocation. If there's anything I choose to take away from Rex's influence in my life, it's that. People matter. History matters.

I read somewhere recently that all people die three times. We die once when we draw our last breath. We die again when our earthly remains return to the earth and lose their form, and we die a third time when our name is spoken aloud for the last time. This idea affects me very much. When will we all die that last time? When will we be invoked in conversation or recollection a last time, or the cadence of our voice, or the values we transmit to others, be lost to living memory? After how many years? In that sense, many die quickly, and some are still with us centuries on.

I have a hunch Rex will be with us for a very long time.

Monday, March 29, 2010

In which Nathan considers his good fortune

Recently, I was sitting with nine good friends and I was trying to articulate a principle of life.
"I am beset by trials," I began, "but I seek to keep life in proportion by kindling gratitude in my heart for the simplest things."
"Such as?" my friends inquired.
"The smile of my sleeping child; the accident of birth that makes me Australian; the laws of physics and mathematics."
I encountered consternation. "Physics? Maths?"
I explained, "Did you know that you can zoom into a Mandelbrot set so deeply that if the original was as big as the entire universe and you zoomed in so that what you were looking at was smaller than a quark, you would see a tiny little simulacrum of the original shape, repeated anew? There it is, woven into the fabric of reality. Like a signature."
The purpose of our gathering was philosophical, and just as well. Such observations rarely travel well at the pub.

And why not choose to feel some sense of wonder and gratitude at both sunsets, and the laws of physics that make sunsets possible? A few nights ago, I told my son to regard his upraised hand.
"Many of the atoms in your hand, your body and everything you see around you were made in a Supernova, before the Solar system was even formed. What planets did that star keep warm, I wonder?" I explained.
His eyes widened. I love doing that, and we enjoy many such moments as I deliberately inculcate a love of science in my son.
Carl Sagan's observation that "We are made of star-stuff" stands to me as one of the most wonder-inducing and humbling statements we can reflect on. To think that the glint of gold on my wedding band came from the core of an exploding star 5 or more billion years ago is a fine reminder of both our transience, and equally our participation in the Universe. I give thanks for that. That the Universe is interrogable by Human intellect at all (a situation in which the Universe could equally have felt no obligation)... that is grounds for wonder and thanks.

Strangely, these are among the thoughts that sustain me in my earthly trials. Family, yes. Friends, of course, but some sense also that the world is full of hidden joys and marvels that we miss through harried inattention. When my 7YO son has built a Lego model of the Yamato because we're watching Star Blazers on my laptop together at bedtimes (one episode a night. "Hurry, Star Force! There are only 315 more days to save the Earth!"), and he wants to explain how the guns work at exhaustive length; that moment has as much significance as any could in history. Making my son feel listened to is as profound a purpose I have as I can conceive.

How easily I could have missed that. Or to let my other trials wear at my soul until the bone shows. The best philosophy is to expect a better day and to not be idle in the meantime.
To get to that gathering of my friends I recounted, my brother in law had dared me to ride from Oakville to Wilberforce, some 28km round trip, and I had acquitted myself. It was further than I had ridden since High School.
Yesterday, I sang at a good old fashioned Australian bush dance (My big number was The Wild Colonial Boy. Did you know that song was considered seditious in the 1890s and banned?) We wheeled and cavorted, my son partnered by grandmas and aunties alike through the heel-toe polka or the Drongo, now inducted like his immemorial ancestors into the courtesy of bowing and asking girls sweetly if they will dance. I beamed.
 Today, I constructed the frame of a grand new cubby house for my boy while the family gathered in the back yard. Sprinklers were jumped through. Balls were chased by the dippy Spaniel. The BBQ setting was repainted, largely to cover the sins of a previous artistic painting afternoon 7YO son and I had in which the garden furniture came off second best.

Tonight, I cleaned the study. As Satie's Gymnopédies shuffled through iTunes, my hand chanced to rest on the volume of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations I borrowed from my friend Grant years ago and haven't quite managed to return yet. As it fell open, there it was. What I'd been trying to say to my friends that night:
"Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!' By no means; say rather, 'How lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future'. The thing could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have emerged unembittered. So why put the one down to misfortune, rather than the other to good fortune? Can a man call anything at all a misfortune, if it is not a contravention of his nature; and can it be a contravention of his nature if it is not against that nature's will? Well, then: you have learnt to know that will. Does this thing which has happened hinder you from being just, magnanimous, temperate, judicious, discreet, truthful, self-respecting, independent, and all else by which a man's nature comes to its fulfillment? So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not, 'This is a misfortune,' but 'To bear this worthily is good fortune.'"
This neatly encapsulates the view I want to have about life. This is what I would like others to say of me. Stoicism has always had a strong appeal, but this passage is beautiful in its truth. To be sure, recent loss gives my son and I, (and others in the family) a sadness that sometimes verges on the inconsolable, and an anger as well, and a railing at injustice and helplessness. But equally, I carry a sense that if I keep my nerve... if I focus on my family, my community and my study, then our satisfaction and happiness will be inevitable.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ruminations - The Podcast of Nathan Zamprogo

Hey there. I've been doing this blog thing for five years now. I've covered a lot of territory, and it's been fun. In the meantime, I've been fortunate to have heard some wonderful podcasters out there. I'd like to single out Patrick McLean's The Seanachai, Wil Wheaton's various offerings , and even anything by our venerable Aunty. This is the future.

Self, I said to myself, you could do that too. Hmmm. Maybe. This may not work. No one may be interested. I may have a rotten feel for the spoken word. Fine. This is an experiment, and, as Henry Ford said, failure merely presents us an opportunity to start over more intelligently.

So let's dabble. Any of my posts that carry the banner you see above are also available as a podcast. Sometimes I'll do a written piece and an audio version, sometimes only one. Hey, it's my sandpit.

Here's the separate website where you can see the list of episodes.

Here's the iTunes URL to subscribe it to your podcast lists, and

Here's the more generic RSS feed URL if you use a feed manager other than iTunes.

Thanks. I'm excited! Don't forget to leave some feedback. Poor Nathan thrives on the occasional kind word.

Henry George Holland

 “No more stories.
We’re still using your imagination,
it was stronger than ours.”
Les Murray,

Twenty years ago, exactly to the day, I sat next to a man on his bed. If my arm hadn’t been around his bony shoulders, he couldn’t have sat up. His frame barely filled the pyjamas which spoke of a time when he weighed more. Much more. His wispy hair, white now, stood up at a crazy angle.

A flash of childhood memory: I used to think his morning hair was comical, like a cockatoo’s, before he’d put himself through his morning ritual of Brilliantine to become more senatorial in his presentation. He’d stand in the bathroom and look down at me in my dressing gown, smiling. Was I five? Six? He’d lean down to put shaving cream on my face and then shave it with the back of a comb. I’d get a fingertip’s worth of Old Spice dabbed on my cheeks and have my hair tousled before I would run out, beaming, to be told how grown-up I was.

No more. The lung cancer had won. One eye was a ruin of inflammation, and the other barely held a spark of the old man. Just sunken cheeks and a gaze of unspoken sadness and disgust at a life of self-reliance brought down to this degraded state. He was sobbing, but was almost too weak to do so.

I was sixteen. And I had no words. Just an inchoate sense of dread. This trip to hospital would be the last. My grandfather died later that day, 13th November 1989.

If you’ve lost someone like that, what do you think is worse? The death, or having  the majesty of who they used to be taken away first? It’s such an affront, isn’t it?

How my grandfather died says absolutely nothing about who he really was. No, there was one thing: At his funeral they were bunched up the back and pouring out the door.

So let me tell you about Henry George Holland.

He was born in 1923. Only my gran ever called him Henry. Usually as a one-word exclamation of reproof after he’d told a risque joke and she felt the need to fake being scandalised, while he’d roar laughing for whole minutes with his brother, Uncle Claude. Laughter always surrounded my grandfather. And to every other soul, he was Harry Holland from Glenhaven.

More than any other person in my life, Harry defined the kind of person I wanted to be. He was involved in everything. Even from the earliest age I remember him disappearing out the door, meticulously turned out in one of his dapper brown suits (always brown) to preside at this or that. President of Glenhaven Bushfire Brigade. President of the Glenhaven Progress Association. President of the Hills Shire Chamber of Commerce. President of the local branch of the Liberal Party. People were always calling at the house; city Councilmen, State and Federal MPs. They came to take tea with Harry, shake his huge, rough hands, and chew the fat. Because if you had Harry on-side, you had a lot of others as well. There was no bluster to Harry; just a chestful of the good sense he had inherited from a long line of ancestors. That sense was up on the wall of the local Church, where his grandfather’s name plaque (James Holland) was there as a founder, and around the corner, in Holland Road, named after the family; and in the local park, Holland Park, named because, by my grandfather’s generation, we weren’t just from the area, we were the area. He was awarded the National Medal with two bars, which was almost unheard of.
Our family used to run Glenhaven Post Office (see painting to the left), which was a hub for local gossip. But Harry was also the manager of the original Castle Hill Cinema (knocked down in the 70’s to make way for where Castle Mall is now. See below B/W photo)

What I learned at my grandfather’s feet was that civic engagement, especially as voluntary service in one form or another, should be as compulsorily a part of life as breathing. You got involved in things. You invested in something that was larger than you were, and you did it cheerfully, recognising that civic virtue should be an end in itself. That had a powerful effect on me.
Almost everything I’ve applied myself to as an adult has that thought lurking at the back of my head. I hope he’d be proud of me. People massively over-analyse nowadays whether it’s healthy to have ghosts like that at our elbows, but let me tell you, I’d rather be haunted by the expectations of someone like my grandfather to goad me on to better things than not to have had such a role model in my life.

Another flash of memory: Some circumstance caused a need to put all the Fire Brigade’s trucks on our lawn, since we were over the road from the station. Was I seven? Eight? Imagine the look on my face when I came out of the house. My grandfather gave me real fire trucks, be it only for a morning. I still remember his words: “You can push that button,” (the lights), “but NOT that button” (the siren). I think I short circuited from excitement. It was magic. I've written elsewhere about that yard.

There were a few things I shared with my grandfather that were definitely his and mine alone. One of our solemn rituals was to put up the chain of coloured party lights a few weeks before Christmas on the front verandah. I had a dog-eared sheet of paper where I had worked out the perfect sequence of colours that was aesthetically pleasing. He used to indulge me as I consulted the sheet and passed the bulbs up the ladder. He got why it was important. The sense of continuity from year to year might have seemed trivial, but it was significant to us. I still do it, working from the same Arnott’s tin of bulbs and the same dog-eared piece of paper.

When the Bathurst 1000 touring car race was on (the James Hardie 1000 back then. Oh my, how times have changed), we used to get out a big toy racing car set and take over the lounge room on the race weekend to play while we barracked for Peter Brock or Dick Johnson (Brock would normally lead until his engine invariably blew up half an hour from the finish). Grandma would keep us plied with scones and milkshakes, stoic about the chaos in her lounge room.

My grandfather was a wizard with all things mechanical. He was fascinated with engines and gadgets and he bought me my first computer, a Commodore 64. This love of technology meant that, long before consumer video cameras existed, there’s a rich history recorded of my first years on 8mm film. I’m so grateful for that, as I am for the precious library of reel-to-reel audio tapes of him in correspondence with his brother in Lismore. When I evoke his ghost from the machine, I travel back in time. His voice is at the end of the podcast version of this essay.

He was bawdy, yet gentle. He was casually racist about Japan, like so many in his generation, yet expansive towards anyone who took on Australian values. He did not suffer fools gladly, yet the twinkle in his eye showed that any censure was temporary.

My regret of course, was that he died when I was only 16. I remember starting to go to a few meetings with him (“Sit quietly”, I was told), but I think he was delighted I was inheriting the same values. He’d have been 86 if he’d been alive today. I think of all that life and advice he could have imparted to me if he’d  still been here. His absence is still an ache in my heart. I miss him so.

His example gave me my enduring fascination in how the web of community we create around us, through service organisations, churches, sporting clubs, veterans groups, dramatic and creative societies, political parties and so on collectively defines the kind of civilisation we can be proud of. It doesn’t come from our governments or corporate goliaths. It comes from people like Harry. I’m a member of a few community organisations myself, and sometimes I’m among the youngest in attendance, at 36! I wonder how we can ensure community spirit does not pass from our society, and how we can foster it in a selfish and introverted generation.

When my son was born in 2002, it seemed fitting that I would somehow name him after my grandfather. So, my son’s middle name is “Henry”, and sometimes I call him Harry because it pleases me (and because it makes him think he’s Harry Potter!)

My mind is flooded with stories, and I wonder what to else share. There’s a lot of memories my mother, Helen has been fortunate enough to recount for a local oral history project and the text and audio are available at the Baulkham Hills Council historical website (here and here).

I’d like to think I carry the better part of who my grandfather was with me. If I'm lucky, I might even manage to pass it on to my son as well.

And in case you’re curious, yes; I do wear Old Spice after shave, and I’m proud of it.

I opened with Les Murray’s poem “The Last Hellos”, which he wrote about the death of his own father.  He said,
“People can’t say goodbye any more.
They say last hellos.”

That’s true, but I like the last lines of that poem still better:

"Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God"

Friday, October 16, 2009

In Which Nathan Becomes Subversive

When I was at Sydney University as a callow teen, ooh, 18 years ago, I wasn't really the seditious type. Membership of S.U.S.S (the caving society) was my only indulgence, and well I was rewarded with the fondest memories of that season of my life. I recall I could have joined S.P.A.M (Sydney (Monty) Python Appreciation Movement), S.U.C.R.O.S.E (Sydney Uni Chocolate Revellers Opposed to Sensible Eating), even S.U.C.C.A.S (Sydney Uni Cuban Cigar Appreciation Society), but I seem to have passed on those. Ah, salad days.

Politics though, seemed the province of those with more ego, or bile, and certainly more time, than I. I was a member of the Sydney University Liberal Club, yes, but really I only watched with bemusement at the internecine factionalism that wracked the movement in the 90's. Let's see; There was a Group, I think. And a Team. The Group didn't like the Team and the feeling was mutual. And... Sorry. The memory's gone. It was all rather petty. There were banners and fliers and a ticket for the Student Council election named "I hate Justin Owen" (don't know why the name sticks in my mind; I have no idea if he deserved that kind of disapprobation). This was served with the explanation that Universities are traditionally the place where you can cut your teeth being unpleasant before you become professionally unpleasant in the corporate world or grown-up politics. Sometimes it was clever, but mostly it was blunt. Holding a megaphone or a banner wasn't my shtick. My flaw was wanting to discuss ideas rather than playing the man. Silly me.

When I decided to go back to Uni, I formed a notion I'd perhaps been too pliant before, and maybe should use my life-experience and this second chance to kick up a little more dust this time. Besides, University life nowadays seems so... banal. I don't know if it's the passage of the years or going from a Uni like Sydney to the decentralised and brutalist UWS that marks the difference. There's so little dissent, or intelligent questioning going on that I can see. There's no sign of a Conservative political presence on campus. A smattering of your typical ratbag Greens, of course (which the Trotskyists at Syd.U would have eviscerated and eaten for breakfast as "right wing running dog lackeys").

So when our English Literature lecturer referred cryptically to a "celebrity guest lecturer" coming up, curiosity was piqued. "Who?", we queried our tutor. "Nathan Rees, Premier of NSW." came the answer, "He's got an honours degree in English Lit., you know".
Oh, great. So we lose a week to hear the Premier tell us what's on his bedside table.

We've been studying some impenetrable texts this semester; Shelley's Frankenstein, T.S Eliot's The Waste Land, and Beckett's Endgame among them. Oh, and those last two are utter meaningless rubbish, thank you. Bleak, dystopian tosh. But we have to understand them, not like them, and now we lose a week.

So, I thought I'd make amends for my milquetoast former career as a student and, like I said, kick up a little dust. For those who might not know, Nathan Rees is our State Premier and leads the most tainted, tired, ramshackle, incompetent, faction-ridden, overdrawn government our fair state has ever had the misfortune to fall under.

So I made some banners and put them up just before the Premier came in to speak. I wanted to stay with the theme of our course, but still be a little pointed.

Yes, a little dense, but those in our course would have understood immediately what I was driving at. Better than "F*** off, Nathan", at any rate.

To my utter surprise, no one immediately took them down and frog marched me out. A few students took photos with their iPhones, and one said "Wow, I really admire your balls", which I haven't heard said to me outside the confines of a bucks night for many a year. I'd like to think the Premier had to look at those two banners the whole time he was speaking.

The Premier came in, gave a rambling speech which a friend afterwards described as "not entirely unconvincing all the time" (I think that's called damning with faint praise), took only two questions and answered neither of them. I however, felt a certain sense of triumph. I had done something... well, naughty. I was subversive! Where would this end? Visions of wearing odd socks or parting my hair on the other side swam giddily in my head.

My sense of triumph lasted precisely until I shouted myself an extravagant lunch of fish and chips and put two sachets of sugar over them instead of salt. But beware, the beast is now unleashed.