Wednesday, December 31

Even in the down times, we can make this a bright new year

Louis Nowra is a successful, prolific, widely published writer, playwright, screenwriter and librettist. But despite his success, he feels down at times. In the Sydney Morning Herald the other day, he told of some of these times.

In his late 30s – he must now be 58 – Nowra began to live with an Aboriginal woman who had been removed as a child from desperate conditions, taken from her mother, placed in a Catholic girls home, and at the age of 14 forcibly sent to a distant country town to work as a maid.

Justine Saunders overcame those circumstances to become a model and then an accomplished stage, film and television actress. In his SMH piece, Nowra wrote:

There were many things that Justine taught me about the awful, dismal things Aborigines have had done to them and in many parts of Australia still have to endure: the cruel remarks, the constant belittling, the poverty and the cold indifference of government authorities.

On the other hand she grew tired of those white people who sought her out as some sort of spiritual guru, just because she was Aboriginal. It was as if she did not exist as a person but as an answer to these white people's lack of their own identity.

Perhaps her greatest scorn was for small 'l' liberals who seemed to be merely parroting platitudes about their love for Aborigines; but it always seemed to be talk and no action. "Sometimes I prefer rednecks," she would say after a meeting with such people, "because at least you know where you stand with rednecks."

Nowra doesn't have to spell it out. In my own way – after a much, much more modest interaction than Nowra's – I too treasure the understanding which came from the hospitality and the friendly discussions I've enjoyed with indigenous people over the years. Sometimes, too, I question whether whitefella do-gooders achieve much of value.

But there were other issues which made Nowra depressed, and they're ones I can understand. He tells of becoming involved as scriptwriter of an eight-part documentary series for SBS on Aboriginal history.

These four years proved to be exhausting, profound, exciting and at times depressing. When you study the history of Aboriginal and white relations since the First Fleet, the great difficulty is dealing with the distressing information that confronts you. It seems that wherever white men appeared in Australia, Aboriginal dispossession, deaths from violence and disease, and suffering followed. It took me some months to be able to deal with such horrific matters.

Nowra is not a bleeding heart, small “l” liberal white do-gooder. He saw the terrible social conditions in many indigenous communities and felt compelled to write about them.

The combination of history, government inertia, welfare dependency and alcohol had created a perfect storm of community dysfunction. So last year I wrote a slim book about it called Bad Dreaming.

The book was based on government reports, anthropologists, historians and journalists and Aborigines themselves. I can claim no originality. I wanted non-indigenous people to understand just what was happening to our indigenous population. Writing the documentary series convinced me that we owed an obligation to help a people we have treated so badly too much of the time.

Nowra's scriptwriting was for the SBS television series First Australians. Nowra acknowledges that when a documentary series goes into the can, the scriptwriters' work may be overshadowed by personal interviews and the visual material. So it was with First Australians – but it all came together magnificently.

And as Nowra says, SBS publicised it brilliantly. The reviews and articles about it were excellent.

It was so good it won this accolade from a Quadrant contributor: “ . . . another example of the constant reaffirmation of 'the invasion/genocide/stolen generation/racist version of Australian history' ".

Nowra says he thought the publicity would result in big audiences.

But I was wrong. The numbers generally hovered around the 300,000 mark . . . a bland middle-class family drama, Packed to the Rafters, attracts about 2 million per episode.

Before Christmas, your grumpy old blogger felt a bit down.

I tried to tick off the reasons. An unwise choice of festive season reading – Sebastian Faulks's novel Charlotte Gray, with the round-up of Jews in occupied France as the bleak backdrop to a rather unconvincing love story. Distressing news about an old friend's illness. Forgetting to count my drinks at several functions.
But for the major reason, I kept coming back to the failure of Grumpy Old Journo to win a wider readership. Is the blog irrelevant? Daunting? Or worse, boring?

I've scrolled through my old posts, and I remain proud of some of them and reasonably satisfied with most others. Most are well-written, some light and bright, and others – on, say, the Intervention or the Haneef affair – offered insights which stood up well in the ensuing months.

Like Louis Nowra, I'm dismayed that what I believe to be quality work can fail so dismally in the ideas marketplace.

For GOJ, one impediment may be a disconnect between the stories and the medium. If my yarns were printed on dead trees and thrown on to the front lawn in the morning, they might be picked up by more potential readers.

Younger and more lively-minded people don't use the internet to read essay-length pieces. They exchange ideas and information at a breathtaking pace, often on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter.
I don't know how I'd go posting “tweets” to Twitter, but perhaps I should find out.

Elsewhere, a wonderful family Christmas restored my optimism and cheerfulness. I'm now confident the new year will deliver more opportunities, more adventures and more satisfaction, albeit in a rapidly changing and more challenging world.

I hope your path also leads you into a bright new year. Perhaps, now and again, we'll meet along the way.

Wednesday, December 10

Old and new, cultures meet in a schools festival

Photo of Aboriginal elder Bob Randall
Multiculturalism's big day in Woy Woy! It comes together next Tuesday at the Brisbane Water Secondary College senior campus (formerly Woy Woy High School), with three main components:

  • End-of-year reports and awards from the Yarn Up project, in which indigenous people people guide primary and secondary students from Woy Woy peninsula schools through their country, and explain the first Australians' relationship to it.

  • A visit by Uluru elder Uncle Bob Randall (pictured above) and filmmaker Melanie Hogan, producers of the film Kanyini, which was used to stimulate understanding and discussion at the start of the Yarn Up project.

  • Ten students and five teachers from Granville Boys High School – a school well endowed with ethnic cultures – will complete a two-day walk raising funds for prostate cancer research.

When I watched the 53 minutes of Kanyini last April, it hit my emotional buttons so strongly I feared my comments would be over the top. But I've just re-read my April 8 post, Kanyini – understanding Aboriginal culture, and I wouldn't change a word.

In a letter seeking sponsorships, Granville Boys High School captain and vice captain Berhan and Dean Kassem said:

Our school reputation in not good at the moment and we want to change this. This reputation is portrayed throughout the media and is not accurate. We know that this image is created by such a small number of students but it affects all of us.

To improve the image of our school and to let the community know that there are many great students at Granville Boys High School we have organised a WALK FOR CHARITY event.

At the Woy Woy school, the Granville boys will perform an Arabic drumming routine and a Pacific Island dance. You may learn more from their post on EverydayHero.

Here on our Woy Woy peninsula, Yarn Up is a worthwhile project, and I expect to learn on Tuesday just how successful it has been.

With plenty of activities, plus a sausage sizzle, the festivities begin at noon next Tuesday, December 16. I understand visitors will be welcome. If you'd like to come along, call Steve Collins at 02 4341 1899 or Jo MacGregor at 02 4341 1600 by this Friday, December 12. I'm told the best entrance will be from Greene St.

Monday, December 8

Does Woy Woy really need ten more ducks?

The scene: Woy Woy, not too long after dawn. Cars fly along North Burge Road and Brick Wharf Road, near the waterfront. The commuters know there's no time to be lost – for every few minutes' delay, they'll have to park all that much further from the railway station.

Then suddenly, everything freezes. Brake lights go on and off as drivers try to creep forward, but there's little point. Ducks are wandering along the road, many with a string of ducklings scurrying to keep up.

If you blow your horn, the ducks just stop and look at you.

Woy Woy has no shortage of ducks. Even a busy local magazine and web publishing company calls itself Ducks Crossing.

So how does your grumpy old blogger explain the ten little ducklings running round and round the mulberry tree, thwarting his best efforts to take a reasonable photo. Well, we'd had this Khaki Campbell drake for a while to keep the snails down and Merry thought he looked lonely.

Off to a poultry auction somewhere in the backblocks of Wyee, and we came home with the bird you see above – it's a Muscovy, albeit with a lot of black feathers with a greenish sheen.

After a while, she was sitting on eggs in a nest tucked behind a sheet of corrugated iron. For five weeks she sat, until the other day she emerged with ten little ducklings.

She a great little mother, wonderfully protective, is our Momma Duck. But alas, she can never be Nanna Duck from this brood.

She may look like a duck and act like a duck – indeed, she may think she's a duck – but she's really a goose. So our little ducklings are "mules", unable to have progency themselves, as this NSW Dept of Primary Industry advice makes clear.

Still, they beat painted concrete gnomes as a garden ornament. Just separate them from newly planted seedlings.

But ten of them! They'd look delightful on a hobby farm dam. Any offers?