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.


  1. Howdy Neighbour Seasons Greetings and Happy NYE
    Thanks for the small write up and link to my site , I have put your link on mine.
    I've noticed your comments on the web in some of your posts and can agree some what
    Firstly , rest assured once a remote spam bot has found your site and commented , that indeed your site is crawlable by such devices and hopefully the Google bot will cometh , if not explore the " Webmasters " link in your dashboard and enable all the things they suggest
    Visit other blogs and comment leaving a discreet link back to your site - Blog at a frequently regular pace , weekly? fortnightly ? monthly ? let your readers know and try to stick to your schedule
    Add all your favourite links down the side bit , people like to look at other peoples links and more photos they like them as well
    Find your niche and own it - My site is all about Woy Woy and I target people who type Woy Woy into Google whereas Spikes blog is about walking the streets of the area and he has targetted walkers of various kinds around the world , coupled with the fact he is in Woy Woy
    Don't be afraid to use keywords , tags and spam a bit , it's how you attract the Facebook mob evidently these days and yes they don't read all the pages , but a large archive will be appreciated one day if the gates open ;)

  2. Anonymous12:29 pm

    Hi, this is Barista, aka David Tiley. I am going to rabbit on about myself a bit, but I am really sneaking up on your post, which is the point of the comment.

    You are me only a few years into the future. I've been thinking about some of these issues, since I now edit an online publication and the contrast between Barista and Screen Hub is stark.

    The blog gets the occasional wanderer, plus an audience off RSS feeds who are happy to follow my completely eclectic obsessions. Who else cares about George Washington's false teeth AND the startup program for the BBC after WW2? Oh, and the Human Fly acts in vaudeville..

    Screen Hub, by contrast, is read across the film and television industry and I am very aware of the responsibility and the scrutiny.

    Coming late to journalism from film writing via the blogosphere has formed my style and approach in a really particular way. "Real"journalists just shake their heads and tell me that what I do is great and I shouldn't stop but they wouldn't have the nerve or the permission. But no-one in the screen sector faults the accuracy of the work, or the facts beneath the breezy humour and sense of irony.

    I think I am just exploring the forms of journalism on the net, which relies on a really strong sense of story, and the ability to be personal without self-importance.

    So why do I continue with the blog? Partly because it is a personal diary of my eclectic fascinations and a source of ideas. Partly because I feel nutty if I don’t write something every day. But mostly because I am free to write whatever I want, and surprise myself with the foam of images and ideas that pours from my fingertips.

    In this way, the audience doesn’t matter a whole lot, although I do embrace the discipline of a notional reader and I felt better about the venture when I posted regularly, entered the dominant debates and generally advertised myself around the digital traps. Now I don’t have the time, and I know I have readers elsewhere.

    But my transition from blogger to reportage has reminded me, very forcibly, that journalism is a craft, honed over many years, which suits a certain kind of person. Suspicious, straightforward, curious, sceptical, combative and righteous. The skills of evidence hunting, running a story, digging out information and pushing people to quotable positions are complicated, exciting and valuable.

    Where does that get me in relation to you? A chance to be pompous, for a start. Beyond that, I notice that you are a retired journo, with all those skills. They are generally missing among bloggers, who replace them with personal experience, specialised knowledge and the ability to build an argument. You can see the difference immediately.

    I reckon that those skills can be very important in the blogosphere, in a space which uses the technology of a blog, or some content management system extension of this, but relies on good old fashioned journalism. This way, we can add yer actual facts and information and challenging combat to the daily flow. Blogger + phone = readers.

    I have often thought that the blogosphere, or at least the interwebnet, will be my natural home after I retire, which is code for that ugly time when the phone stops ringing. To do that, I will have to find a space and cover it systematically. If I am cunning and commercial enough, the audience will interest advertisers, or at least sponsors.

    I have several zones of obsession and/or expertise which I could build like that. They could involve my by then former profession, or the local neighbourhood, or a community of interest.

    Whatever, it would involve being a journalist publishing on the web with comments, tips from readers, and a Crappocam in my pocket for the illustrations. And I would have to trawl for my audience continually, and accustom myself to flagrant self-advertisement. Not just a hustler, but a huckster too.

    I wonder if this thinking could work for you as well. The upside is the fun and the excitement; the downside is the commitment and the (gasp) deadlines. At the very least, it takes us back to those pioneering newspaper people who first set hot type in towns across Australia and sold their papers to the settlers, one by one.



    oh, I can’t make your links work on Firefox. It could just be me, but maybe you should check....

  3. Ian Skinner (aka Grumpy Old Journo)7:25 am

    Thanks, Steve and David. You've offered valuable advice. I hope to have coffee on Thursday with a friend who is an accomplished webmaster, and I'm sure she'll endorse what you say. I'll come back with another post on this topic after I've thought over all your comments.