Tag Archives: lecture

Summer reads 1: Mario Vargas Llosa in praise of reading and fiction

Mario Vargas Llosa, In Praise of Reading and Fiction: The Nobel Lecture, translated by Edith Grossman (Farrrar Straus & Giroux 2011)

I’m away from home for a couple of weeks over the summer, and I’ve packed a swag of physically small books from my overloaded to-be-read shelf. Some of these have already turned out to be unreadable. I’ll donate them to a Street Library without further comment. Others bring much pleasure, even delight.

I don’t have a lot to say about this beautiful little front-counter book. It’s Mario Vargas LLosa’s lecture accepting the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, translated into honey-smooth English by Edith Grossman. It was probably a gift close to its date of publication.

Vargas Llosa speaks of his early love of reading, of his identification with his native Peru even though he had lived most of his life elsewhere, of his early Marxism and his reasons for abandoning it, and above all of the importance of story-telling and the reading of fiction. What Roger Ebert said about movies, that they are a machine that generates empathy, Varga’s Llosa says here, beautifully and at more length, about novels. There’s a lot that’s quotable. Here’s one moment where he acknowledges some self-doubt:

At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were so few readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few. These doubts, however, never stifled my calling, and I always kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time. I believe I did the right thing, since if, for literature to flourish, it was first necessary for a society to achieve high culture, freedom, prosperity, and justice, it never would have existed. But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, to the desires and longings it inspires, and to our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilisation is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanise life with their fables.

(Page 7)

I love that, and think on aggregate it’s true, but I do wonder about the consciousness shaped by writers like the man who produced phenomenally popular The Da Vinci Code or the woman who wrote Atlas Shrugged. I suppose Mario Vargas Llosa would say those books aren’t literature. But then wasn’t one of the ‘monsters of Serbia’ a Shakespeare scholar? Still, a Nobel lecture isn’t the place for such quibbles, and those of us who are addicted to reading can think with some justification that it’s a good thing. Perhaps the lecture is an example of what he means: a beautiful fantasy of a world where reading makes the world more human.

Still on my shelf at home is another gift, a collection of 20 earlier Nobel lectures, which includes a number of writers whose work I know: Harold Pinter, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Dario Fo (who once called my older son a bambino terribile), Seamus Heaney, Wole Soyinka … I guess I’ll dip into it when I need a shot of hope.

Rumi in Strathfield and November Rhyme #12


On Friday evening at the Australian Catholic University, two Muslim scholars sat with an audience and discussed the great 13th century Persian poet Mevlana Rumi.

Ustadh Feraidoon Mojadedi, an Afghani scholar who now lives in the USA, was in conversation with Imam Afroz Ali, of the Sydney Seekers’ Hub, a place of Islamic learning.

They spoke of Rumi as a great spiritual teacher, not just for Muslims, but for all humanity. Ustadh Feraidoon Mojadedi wears his enormous erudition lightly, and had us laughing even as he explained the complexity and depth of Rumi’s vision. He argued that what non-Persian readers need is more, better commentary rather than translation, because all translation is misleading. There’s much more to Rumi than you would gather from the quotes you see on Facebook.

I went along for a number of reasons, but mainly because a friend gave me a copy of The Essential Rumi decades ago which has remained, literally, a closed book. I’m also aware that my ignorance of Islam can’t be a good thing in the age of Corey Bernardi and Donald Trump.

Well, I know a tiny bit more about Rumi, and I’m planning to go to another event next week. But possibly more significant is how the evening altered my sense of Islam.

The relaxed, affectionate  relationship of the two scholars was in sharp contrast to images I have from movies.

In question time, it was women who asked all the questions – so much for the notion that women are silenced in Islam.

And most interestingly we were all invited to join the sunset prayer part way through the event. I’m not at all religious, but I’d joined in the Our Father at an Anglican ceremony the previous day. I checked with a number of people and joined the prayers. I did a lot wrong: I hadn’t arrived in an abluted state, I didn’t take my shoes off, I joined a line that turned out to be the women’s line, and I’m pretty sure I failed to follow all the standing and kneeling correctly (though my Catholic youth and childhood was some preparation for that). And of course I didn’t understand what was being said by the prayer leader. But there is something profound in joining a group of people who humbly bow repeatedly in the face of the mystery of the universe, and I returned to the lecture with an extraordinary sense of our shared humanity. Which was also the content of much of the talk.

So I went to the event expecting a literary evening, and found something quite different.

I’ve set myself a task of writing a 14-line rhyme with each blog entry in November (originally inspired by those people who write a whole novel in November – not sweating over quality, just getting the words out). Here goes for this one:

Rhyme #12: On joining sunset prayers
I bow, I kneel, I touch my forehead
to the grass. I have no God:
no disrespect, I take these borrowed
gestures (like my childhood’s nod
at Jesus’ name, or genuflection)
not to seek some Power’s protection,
but to say: The world is vast,
my time here comes and goes so fast.
Right now I humbly pay attention
to what is deepest in my heart:
my loves, my challenges, the part
I choose to take past good intention.
We bow, we stand, we’re flesh and bone
and mind. We’re none of us alone.


Robert Adamson on Francis Webb

Someone emailed me a link announcing that Robert Adamson, UTS Chair of Poetry, was giving a public lecture on Francis Webb on Thursday night. How could I not go? As far as I know, UTS – University of Technology Sydney, whose main tower is Sydney’s monument to stark practicality – doesn’t offer any poetry courses, and the prospect of Adamson, anything but stark or practical in his poetry or his person, lecturing on Webb, ditto with bells on, was irresistible.

It turned out to be a fairly intimate affair in a shiny new building across the street from the anti-poetic tower. I recognised a smattering of poets and other writers, scholars, editors and UTS lecturers. I sat at the front, and my neighbours turned out to include Juno Gemes, Adamson’s photographer wife who discreetly plied her trade, Toby Davidson, editor of the new, excellent Francis Webb: Collected Poems, and Michael Griffith, who wrote God’s Fool, the best and only booklength introduction to Webb’s life and work. I’m not suggesting it was a family affair. The room was full, but I don’t think many of us were there without a prior connection to Webb, Adamson or UTS’s Centre for New Writing.

Adamson, whose CAL-sponsored professorship is for three years, began with a disarming list of thankyous – including to poet Martin Harrison for explaining to him what a lecture was. I hope the lecture is somehow made available, as it was a very clear account of Webb’s life and work, informed by a deep engagement with the poetry and a brief but significant personal relationship with the man. He read a number of poems. I’d say he read them brilliantly but that would give the wrong impression: he read them slowly, almost stumblingly, as if he was discovering them as he read them, or even encountering the language itself for the first time, mispronouncing an occasional word (couch in couch grass to rhyme with crouch, impotent with the emphasis on the second syllable), so that the listener was drawn in as a collaborator rather than being cast as a recipient. I find it hard to imagine a better way of reading this poetry.

In the excellent Q&A, freed from his written text, Adamson loosened up and spoke more personally: of how Webb was crucial to his own development as a poet, of how James McCauley looked him in the eye and said, ‘You’re on the right track with Webb – follow him instead of these Americans, of how he and his friends turned up like rockstar fans at Angus & Robertson’s bookshop the day the first Collected Poems was published, only to be told, ‘We publish it, but that doesn’t mean we have to have in here for sale.’ He gave a very funny, and accurate, account of A. D. Hope’s article on Webb: ‘Hope was a vitalist, and suspicious of Webb’s religious dimension, but he discusses the poem Canobolas, saying, “Look, he sees the mountain as a naked woman, so he must be all right, he’s one of us.”‘

SWF: A C Grayling, curtain raiser

‘The Private, the Public and the Line Between’, a lecture by A C Grayling

This was the start of my 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve become accustomed to starting the Festival with the Premier’s Literary Awards dinner, which is always a good night out, though the last two had become a bit corporate. This year the awards evening has been moved to later in the year (not, as feared by some, cancelled altogether), so my Festival begins with this 90 minute event at the Angel Place Recital Centre a month or so ahead of the Opening Address. I’m calling it a curtain-raiser because that ‘s how Peter Shergold (from the SWF Board) described it when introducing the talk, but really it was more of an advance scatterling.

A C Grayling is the very picture of an urbane philosopher. He spoke lucidly for an hour without notes, and fielded questions deftly and courteously. Sadly I slept for maybe as much as half the talk, so I’m not a reliable reporter. But I quizzed my four companions over dinner at the nearby Wagamama and my impression is that I didn’t miss a lot by dozing off. Basically, Professor Grayling told us, we are being watched by Internet corporations who track our online activities for commercial purposes, by government for security purposes, and by journalists for partly public interest and partly commercial interests, and that this isn’t a good thing. I have listened to his interview with Richard Glover on the ABC, which is an excellent 18 minutes of radio and includes everything that the $25 lecture had to offer, including the teasing references to the Professor’s impressive hair. What we got for our money was the sense of occasion, a chance to play Spot the Famous Person (both the Art Student and I saw David Marr and Annette Shun Wah, but some of our other companions hadn’t heard of either of them, which rather spoiled the thrill).

If the purpose of a talk by a philosopher is to prompt one to think, then this one was a big success for me. During the question time, Professor Grayling talked about a village in southern Italy where, when a husband and wife have a quarrel the woman runs out into the street and the couple proceed to shout at each other, while all the neighbours come to their doors and windows to listen. These people, he said, live with a strong sense of community but at the cost of losing their privacy. That raises a much more interesting question about ‘The Private, the Public and the Line Between’ than the question of intrusion by the state, corporations and the press. I would have thought that that kind of intrusion is obviously a bad and dangerous thing – and of course that it’;s a good thing to have the dangers pointed out. But don’t we then need to think carefully and precisely about what it is that we’re protecting. Are we protecting our right to be isolated individuals, to have secrets and present a conforming face to the world? Sure, those young people who give out far too much information on facebook or twitter may be laying themselves open to attack, but isn’t also worth asking if there’s not something utopian about that rather than simply foolish? That’s what I’d have liked to hear him talk about.

Talking about looking at painting about bombing Guernica

In my 20s, on my first trip overseas, Picasso’s Guernica and I happened to be in New York at the same time. It had a room to itself in the Museum of Modern Art. I wandered in and admired it with pretty much the same undifferentiated awe as I’d brought to pretty much everything else in MOMA. I suppose I was suffering a kind of low-grade colonial Stendhalism (you know, the condition where visitors to Florence grow faint from exposure  to too much beauty). The only other person in the room, a young man about my own age, spoke: ‘I’ve been wanting to see this all my life. Isn’t it amazing?’ I thought he was some kind of weirdo, either that or an art student.

I saw Guernica again in Madrid five years ago, this time in the context of a major Picasso exhibition, and, having read Alice Miller’s essay on Picasso in The Untouched Key, I saw it a little better.

Last night the Art Student and I caught a bus to town to hear a Sydney Ideas talk by Professor Timothy J Clark, art historian from the University of York in England: ‘Looking again at Picasso’s Guernica’. I came away feeling that when it comes to looking at something like this painting, I’m not much better than a day old kitten.

As the fast-talking professor who introduced the speaker said, we mostly hear Picasso spoken of in connection with erotic adventures and high auction prices. CJ Clark’s interest lies elsewhere. Guernica, he said, is a history painting, already an anachronism when it was painted in 1937, but a history painting that refuses to die: it crops up again and again in anti-war demonstrations. A tapestry at the United Nations building was covered with black felt at the insistence of Colin Powell when the US was bombing civilians somewhere. How to account for its enduring power?

His stab at answering this question took focused on Picasso’s relationship to space. Picasso for him, he said, ‘is a history painter’, and the main history he painted was ‘the end of room space’, that is the traditional subject of paintings – a space built for human habitation, with a roof, walls, furniture and perhaps a window looking out onto external space. That subject would seem to be a long way from Franco’s bombing of the historic Basque town of Guernica. Yet, as far as I could understand the argument, CJ Clarke was saying that the struggle to resolve issues of space – both room space and public space – is at the heart of the painting’s success. The painting was completed in five weeks from its inception, and Picasso spent just 26 days working on the canvas. His ‘muse and lover’ (Wikipedia’s description) Dora Maar took a series of photographs of the work in progress, of which Clarke used slides to take us through his argument: we looked at the way classic motifs were introduced and then obscured, at the importance of the sheer scale of the painting, at the role of geometry, etc etc. We didn’t touch on Alice Miller’s key (she locates the painting’s emotional force in its connection to major childhood trauma) and the erotics of the painting, we were told in an aside, is a story yet to be told.  That is to say, a lot was said about the painting, but there is so many more important things that can be said from so many other valid perspectives, so much more to be discovered in this one painting.

Such close looking may be commonplace for art students – for me it was breathtakingly interesting. I couldn’t see how, or even if, the discussion actually went any way towards explaining the painting’s enduring power, but I’ll leave that to people with better equipped eyes to answer.

Clarke’s next book is Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. I expect it will be a good read.

Sydney Ideas: Spirited Muslim Women

We headed off before dinner last night to another well attended Sydney Ideas talk in the new Law School building: Dr Amina Wadud on ‘Spirited Voices of Muslim Women in Islamic Reform Movements’.

We hadn’t read the fine print on the web site, and didn’t realise that the talk was part of a symposium, ‘Spirited Voices from the Muslim World: Islam, Democracy and Gender Rights’, or that the talk was preceded by a performance by the University of Sydney Gamelan Orchestra. So we were pleasantly surprised to arrive at a very full auditorium that sounded like a Balinese night. Marie Bashir, the Governor of NSW, who is also the Chancellor of the University and acting Governor General, launched the Symposium before Dr Wadud took the lectern. The last time I saw her launch anything it was a book published by South Sydney Youth Services, and she brought the same respectful gravitas to that room full of pierced and tattooed young people as to this gathering of distinguished academics.

Amina Wahud is at the forefront of the ‘gender jihad’ – the struggle for gender justice within the global Islamic community. Actually, I just re-read the blurb about her on Sydney Ideas website, and realised that it gives a very adequate summary of the talk:

Dr Wadud’s writings and vision for gender equality, within an Islamic ‘tawhidic paradigm’, incorporate the wider struggle against other forms of oppression such as racism, bigotry, religious intolerance, economic exploitation and the erasure of human dignity.

She described how at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 the Muslim women met with the aim of coming up with a joint statement, but no agreement could be reached between those who talked in terms of a human rights agenda and those who talked in terms of Islam. She went away from that meeting determined to find a way of reconciling the two, of finding, as she said, epistemological, theological, and other kinds of logical grounds for a Muslim feminism. Like Professor Muhammad Abdel Hameen on the Book Show recently, she has a thoughtful, non-literalistic approach to the Qur’an and pretty much scorns the approach that would take isolated verses as prescriptions for living.  She takes the concept of ‘tahwid’, which is literally the notion that God is One, central to Islam, and argues from it that all humans are equal because each has a direct relationship to God the Transcendental.

I’m not at all engaged in Islamic theology, but it was a joy to hear this flexible alternative to the version of Islam that dominates the airwaves. Dr Wadud began her talk with an invocation of God in Arabic, and when she mentioned the Prophet she said something in Arabic, presumably the traditional ‘Upon him be peace and blessings’. It seems to me that to wage a feminist struggle from inside Islam in this way must be more fruitful in the long run than any number of feminist denunciations of Islam.

There were other, smaller joys. Dr Wadud, who was born in Maryland, USA, wore a shalwar kameez with an elaborate scarf tied over her hair, and a loose scarf over that. For the first quarter hour of the talk, this loose scarf kept trying to fall off. As we strove to follow her explanation of the background to her theoretical work, she had a struggle of her own, repeatedly hitching the back over her head. In the end, the scarf won. The other small joy only made itself known in the Q&A: Dr Wadud explained that some of her points would have been clearer if she had used her PowerPoint version of the talk, but she has moved to an iPad and wasn’t able to connect it to a projector. The joy: we had a person talking to us, instead of to a bunch of explanatory slides.

Sydney Ideas: Gregory Crewsdon

Sydney Ideas is a program of public lectures presented each year by Sydney University. The Art Student* and I have attended sporadically, always to our benefit. Tim Flannery on global warming, Sara Roy on Palestine and Margaret Levi on trade unions and social justice in the US and Australia, for instance, stand out. All of those lectures were at the Seymour Centre, on the edge of the university’s sprawl. This year, the program seems to have migrated across City Road into the grounds of the University itself. On Friday night we went to see US photographer Gregory Crewsdon in the new Law School building. At least it’s new to me, and as I approached it from the west, I was gobsmacked by the way it opens out onto a view of Victoria Park and the city.

This was probably the best attended talk that we’ve been to in the series., possibly because it was co-hosted by the Power Institute and attracted Fine Art students, possibly because Gregory Crewsdon is a celebrity among those students. Certainly, it was a young crowd.

The talk was interesting, with slides of Crewsdon’s work and books on sale in the foyer. His photographs were described in the publicity for the talk as ‘disturbingly beautiful, large-scale, small-town American landscape narratives’. He chatted interestingly about them to an Art Professor and then answered questions. We left  half way through the inevitable question using words like eidos and had an animated conversation over dinner about artists and entitlement.

You see, ‘large-scale, small-town’ images require enormous resources in the making. Crewsdon started out with what he called a ‘renegade’ process. Without any kind of permit, but with the cooperation of the local people, he took images from a high crane of people doing odd things: laying turf in the main street, planting flowers like traffic calmers and so on. He moved on to creating works on sound stages, that had David Lynch or Hitchcock–like neurosis hovering in the frame. And then, he took ‘the work’ outside again, and here’s where questions of entitlement came up for us. To create the image he wants, he might need to have a house on fire – the local fire brigade supplies him with a dozen houses they are willing to burn down for his purposes. He needs snow but not enough has fallen, so he brings in a snow machine. To create a single image, he has a huge crew, including a Director of Photography. The ‘renegade’ work involved engagement with a community. Once he had official status and access to more resources (no one said where the money came from, but he is a professor at Yale), the process looks much more like big business – all the paraphernalia of a movie set. The Art Student and I had been listening earlier in the day to Naomi Klein’s TED talk about advanced capitalism’s reckless plundering of resources. It was hard not to see Crewsdon’s artistic process as part of that recklessness: ‘I want this image to show a certain psychological state of alienation, and I’ll do whatever I need to do to make it.’ Carbon footprint? Social impact? Cost–benefit ratio? Not relevant. I remember Richard Wherrett saying decades ago – yes, I am a Baby Boomer – that theatrical productions like Jesus Christ Superstar were of dubious morality because of the human cost of mounting them: more than one person died building the sets of the Sydney production. As far as I know no one has died for  a Gregory Crewsdon photograph, but houses have been destroyed in a nation where homelessness is a significant problem. But then, how do you calculate the cultural benefit created?

Sadly, the Art Student, for whom these concerns were most vividly in mind, was too cranky to put them as a question rather than an attack.

* She insists that one journalist calling her an artist doesn’t change anything. She’s still a student, and arguably still in kindergarten.

Peter Madden on creating sustainable cities

Peter Madden, Chief Executive of the UK not-for-profit organisation Forum for the Future, has just visited Australia for a series of public lectures. The main event has been his part in the Deakins – the Alfred Deakin Eco-Innovation Lectures, an initiative of the Victorian government – and I gather his Melbourne lectures were well publicised and will soon be up on the web. On his way home, he spent a couple of days in Sydney , and I went to his lecture, ‘Creating Sustainable Cities’, at UTS on Thursday night. Although it was technically public, this lecture seems to have been a well kept secret, advertised pretty much by word of mouth,  with notes on the UTS staff bulletin board and the Sydney Cyclist web site. As far as I’ve seen it went unnoticed by the press. And you thought sustainability was a hot subject!

Forum for the Future was founded roughly 13 years ago by to members of the Green Movement in Britain who realised that Greens seemed to spend most of their time protesting – their activities had a predominantly negative feel to them. They decided to organise on a positive footing, and the Forum was the result. It has been working with business and government to persuade them to take environmentally responsible initiatives, and show them how.  The opening slide of the lecture showed the logos of maybe a hundred organisations that have worked with Forum for the Future. The idea is to help them think through ways to change their practices in response to climate change – to reduce their own carbon footprints and then to make their activities benign rather than destructive in relation to the environment.

I won’t try to summarise the lecture, but I have two thoughts to inflict on you.

The level of public conversation about climate change is very different in Britain from the one here. Prominent Australian politicians proudly declare themselves to be climate sceptics, failing to realise that the science of climate change is based on systematic scepticism and that they are actually identifying as denialists, and debate often gets bogged down there, pretty much at kindergarten level. Meanwhile the question of whether to pass the tokenistic CPRS legislation gets to be seen as the be-all and end-all, with Kevin and Penny saying, either disingenuously or idiotically,  that since they’re being criticised from both left and right they must have it about right. That is to say, climate change is hardly treated seriously at all, for all the lip service it’s given. In Britain the conservative opposition has more far-reaching policies about climate change than the Labour government, and there are significant commitments from Government – for example, by 2015 to have every new house built be carbon neutral.

Peter Madden guesses that the issue is taken seriously in the UK because so many of the leading climate change scientists are British , and speak with authority. It strikes me that the reason the science is treated with such disregard here is a legacy of the Howard years: just as the Howard government dismantled ATSIC and deprived Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of a national voice, it also set about discrediting CSIRO, once looked to as a reliable source of information on scientific matters, now able to be dismissed by the likes of Nick Minchin, along with the vast majority of climate scientists, as left wing propagandists.

The other thought, more or less unconnected, is that greenies fail to communicate their message because they/we fail to listen. According to Peter Madden a recent study shows that green activists tend to have a weird and atypical psychological make-up, in which abstract, altruistic concerns rate high. Their/our attempts to communicate often come off sounding like preaching or even haranguing. What he and the Forum for the Future try to do is reframe the conversation in the positive: here’s a major problem we’re all facing, and here are some ideas for how we can address them. Business can do this thing and still be profitable. Governments and do that thing and still be re-elected. Individuals can do the other thing and still live well. So Tesco, the huge, many would say rapacious, supermaket chain, has a green strategy with teeth; the NHS is exploring ways to reduce its carbon footprint and at the same time deliver health services more intelligently.

About individual action to reduce carbon footprint, he said you could cut through a lot of the agonising over details by addressing these key questions:

1. What forms of transport do you use?
2. Where do you go for holidays?
3. How much red meat and dairy do you eat?
4. How do you heat or cool your home?

I’m sorry the audience for this lecture was so small, mainly because it gave a glimpse of possibilities. During question time, one man evidently a green activist, asked Peter to talk about bullshit moments – that is to say, moments when he realised that he was listening to someone talk about their green credentials in a completely disingenuous way. Peter did mention a bottled water company who claimed to be carbon neutral – the Forum had refused to work with them because bottled water is an environmental disaster, end of story. But he was adamant that while almost none of the companies he worked with could claim to be completely clean, they were all going on a journey. Even in the most profit-motivated corporations, there are people who, given half a chance, will have a go at sustainability.

How not to reach the masses

Yesterday afternoon, in our customary sybaritic manner, Penny and I trotted off to a public lecture at the University of New South Wales: Deborah Cameron on the Myth of Mars and Venus. Since I blogged about the book on Thursday, and the lecture covered the same material, I won’t say much about the lecture here, except that I was fascinated to observe the way DC compressed the substance of the book to fit a one-hour time slot and reshaped it to fit her mainly academic audience. On the one hand (sadly) she left out most of the more colourful examples; on the other, with the help of a handout, she gave us a map of modernist and postmodernist takes on gender and language and of current challenges to the latter. One of the challenges she’s all in favour of, and in some ways amounted to the point of her book: it’s all very well to discuss linguistic diversity, but you have to include the concept of power as well. The other, which didn’t feature in the book, is the challenge from the recent renewal of arguments that differences between women and men are biologically based. ‘It’s no good,’ she said, ‘saying, “Oh not that old thing again. I thought we got rid of that in the 70s.” We have to engage with it. We may even learn something from it.’ In response to a question about the politics behind the resurgence of biological psychology, she was refreshingly blunt: “It’s the new academically respectable face of sexism.”

I was glad I’d read the book beforehand, because it equiped me to understand a lot of what got said during the Q& A at the end about gender as performance rather than something that simply exists in the real world. ‘I am completely free to decide how I speak, but I have no control over how I will be understood.’

There were 32 people there. I counted. About five men. Also sandwiches, red cordial, teabags and biscuits.

This morning, DC’s comments about the necessity of engaging seemed relevant to this spectacle:


It’s Saturday morning, when this locality comes alive because of the Orange Grove Markets across the street. A coffee shop is doing a roaring trade jus a couple of metres from where I was standing to take the photo. People are  everywhere, and in a buying mood. But even when the Feminist Bookshop opens at 10.30, two hours or so after serious activity starts, its shop front is hardly inviting. Even if the permanent bars on window aren’t as paranoid as they seem, surely the frosting can only be read as deliberate discouragement of casual shoppers. Of course, there’s no reason a feminist bookshop has to court customers. But wouldn’t an invitation to engagement be a better look?

Sydney Ideas: Margaret Levi

I’ve been slack in my self-imposed duty to be a blog of record – that is, to keep you informed about what I get up to by way of going out to stuff in the evenings, often stuff you won’t hear about from the newspapers. Could it be that newspapers are dying because they don’t report on events like Tuesday night’s lecture in the Sydney Ideas series, A Challenge to the Hip Pocket: Evoking Commitments to Social Justice by Margaret Levi. After all, there were nearly 50 people at the Seymour Centre to hear her (the myriad other people seemed to be there for a children’s show in one of the other theatres).

All limp attempts at irony aside, it was a really interesting hour.

Professor Levi is joining the US Studies Centre at Sydney University and there was a sense that a fair whack of the audience was made up friends and colleagues from there. In acknowledging this, she looked around cheerfully and expressed the hope that there were new friends in the audience as well. Unusually for a visitor from the US she was remarkably well informed about things Australian, casually dropping John Howard’s name and referring affectionately to the Wharfies , the BLF and Australians’ love of acronyms, at least when talking about trade unions.

Her talk, which is promised to appear on the web soon – here – addressed the question: what is it about the culture and organisation of some trade unions that has their members willingly take on broader goals than the preservation of wages, conditions and so on? What was it about the BLF that made the Green Bans possible? How come the Wharfies (and the Longshoremen on the West Coast USA) went on strike to prevent pig iron being sent to Japan inthe 1930s after the invasion of China? In other words, she said, it’s the Lenin question, from his What Is to be Done? How does one induce workers to look beyond economist self-interest to broader, in Lenin’s case explicitly revolutionary, goals?

I didn’t take notes, but her answer boils down to a couple of things: genuine commitment to democracy in the union (or other organisation), not necessarily in the sense of rotating the main leadership, but in having plenty of openings for membership to have their say, and having had their say to determine policy; membership given accurate information about the world; opportunities for discussion. She’d given a talk at (I think) the MUA recently, and afterwards an old man approached her to say that back in his days on the wharves he didn’t have much time for Communism, but when the Communist leadership told them what the Dutch were doing in Indonesia, and that Dutch ships were passing through Sydney, he and the membership were outraged and willing to take action: they didn’t have an ideological position, but they stopped the Black Armada.

This stuff isn’t taught in history classes. It’s clearly not a huge crowd-drawer. But you know, there was something very sweet about being addressed by a US academic who didn’t shudder when she used the word ‘Communist’, and who responded with respect to questions from the floor from men who I’d guess were old truckdrivers. In fact, one of those men spoke at some length about the importance of workers getting together to talk about their situation, to learn from each other, about how email was no substitute. When he’d wrestled what he wanted to say into some kind of rough question as per the chair person’s instructions, Margaret Levi said, ‘That wasn’t a question. It was a statement, with which I agree.’ She got a laugh, but it was at no one’s expense.