Thursday, 31 July 2008

Good news on the Games front

Ah, something positive to talk about for a change:

Olympic fans who failed to secure tickets for the main events can now look forward to the next best thing: watching the Games on huge TV screens across the capital.

In a bid to ensure as many people as possible get to share the Olympic experience, screens will be set up at the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and in the city's 24 Olympic cultural squares, Zhao Dongming, director of BOCOG's culture and ceremonies department, said yesterday.

Even of you can't make it to the stadium, like me and nearly everyone else in the city, this looks like its going to provide a pretty good time.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

One world, different realities 同一个世界,不同的现实

Let the Games begin. Of course, I'm not referring to the Olympic Games, which are a mere sideshow to the Information Games. In my last post I linked to an article in The Oz bemoaning the Internet restrictions at the media village (and of course everywhere else) so I was curious to see what good ole' Xinhua had to say about the matter.
[Foreign journalists are] Impressed to see no more last-minute rush in Games preparations, disappointed by the missing "real Chinese food," and sometimes annoyed by the strict security measures.
I must admit the opening para looked promising - was this a new, more relaxed and confident Xinhua who wasn't too fussed if foreign journalists were peeved - and (shock) not afraid of reporting on it?

No such luck.
For those with rich experience covering the Games, almost all were impressed with the efficiency and preparedness they saw in the Chinese capital.
The preparedness part of this statement is probably true - if you exclude air quality and internet access, which was always going to be a pretty tall order. But efficiency, I don't think so. As was reported in The Oz yesterday:

AUSTRALIAN Olympic Committee members John Coates and Kevan Gosper have been caught in the impenetrable security network that has locked down Beijing for the Games, which start in nine days.

Mr Coates had to spend his first night in Beijing at an IOC-assigned hotel instead of the athletes' village, where he is the Australian chef de mission, because he could not get his accreditation validated at Beijing airport.

Security is so tight that the AOC and the Australian embassy are concerned one of the 433 Australian athletes or 5000 tourists may be swept up in the security net and detained.

Ahh I love it. And it hasn't even begun yet. Prediction: Before the end of the Games the old chestnut of "western media bias" is going to rear its rather forlorn head from the hole it has been hiding in since the earthquake.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Olympic events to watch: Western media v CCP

Disclaimer: This is not giddy advocacy of "western media" which is an overly simplistic label that applies to an incredibly large amount of organisations with competing agendas, points of view, and various standards of professionalism.

Before I worked in advertising, I studied journalism. And all through that awkward year as a student posing as a real journalist in order to get stories for university publications, the one thing that sticks out in my mind is our lecturers consistently on our backs about three things. 1) Information is good. Anybody who blocks information is your enemy. 2) Always get a second opinion. 3) It is your job to keep governments, business and institutions honest. Never believe anything somebody from one of these groups tell you at face value.

On the flipside, the Chinese Gov's relationship to the media seems to be more along the lines of 1) Information is bad. If anyone, especially a maverick journalist, has information, then they are your enemy. 2) There are no second opinions. There is only one opinion that every single Chinese person can hold, and that is the one that the CCP tells them to hold. 3) It is our job to govern the country. As such, we do not need to prove our honesty to you. You take what we tell you at face value.

These two groups don't just speak different languages. They live on different planets.

So due to my background, I can sympathise with a foreign journalist's brain almost going "pop" with indignation upon hearing they can't access a lot of important foreign sites such as the BBC at the world's biggest sporting event. But when I see a quote like the one below, I can almost feel the collective heart rate of the western world's media jack up to 180 bpm and their fingers twitch in anticipation of inflicting pain on the bodies most likely responsible.

"The Chinese Government has put in place a system to spy on and gather information about every guest at hotels where Olympic visitors are staying," Kansas Senator Sam Brownback said.

The event that will be most interesting to watch at this Games is quite possibly going to be the international media boxing the Chinese Government.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Monk meets McCain

From the WSJ

With the Beijing Olympics just two weeks away, Sen. John McCain brought China to the forefront of the foreign-policy debate Friday by meeting with the Dalai Lama.
I would dearly like to know why John McCain decided to meet with Dalai Lama at this point. Presumably, the McCain strategists crunched the data and came to the conclusion it would look good to American voters. Is he trying to project a more compassionate image? Is he trying to demonstrate his political will to be firm with China? Is it a bit of both? Is he really trying to drag America's relationship with China to the forefront of the presidential contest? I guess we'll never know for sure.

However, one thing is certain. This is a political stunt. With all the problems the US is grappling with at the moment, a Tibetan monk with negligent political power is not even close to being a big concern of the next US president, even if he does attract a lot of respect worldwide.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Musings on the language

This is an unedited section of the guidebook I'm writing on calligraphy and contemporary Chinese art.

The essence of written Chinese

In 1899, China was in a state of turmoil. Different factions in the court were competing for influence, the Emperor was weak and sickly, the Boxer uprising was brewing, and China was about to plunge into decades of bloody warfare and unimaginable suffering.

Wang Yirong, however, had other things on his mind. The minor government minister in Henan was suffering from severe pains in the stomach, later thought to be malaria. He consulted his pharmacist, who prescribed one of the most effective cures known to the Chinese at the time – ground up dragon bones. These were in actual fact usually ancient animal bones, often from oxen, or turtle shells.

It was incredibly fortunate that this particular pharmacist prescribed this cure to his scholarly patient. Taking the bones, Wang Jung noticed the outlines of what seemed to be a kind of writing carved into them. This “dragon bone” medicine that was being carelessly used for stomach aches turned out to be one of the earliest known examples of writing that has a direct historical correlation with modern Chinese characters.

Since then, even older examples of early Chinese characters have been found, most recently in 2003. at Daxinzhuang, also in Henan. These are also thought to be from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100BC).

However, the uses of this “oracle bone” scripts was significantly different to what we understand the function of writing to be today. From what is currently understood, the bones and script were used in the practice of “pyromancy.” This funky name comes from the fact that bones were heated to obtain information from the spirit world. Ancient Chinese would write a question on the piece of bone, and after the priest or shaman would then ascertain from the cracks what the answer would be.

Historically speaking, writing was thought to be much more than a simple method of communication in all parts of the world. The elegantly written calligraphy in European bibles from the Middles Ages is a good example of this attitude. The reason why so much time was spent decorating and making beautiful the letters was because these words were not thought of as an abstract religious message – they were quite literally the words of God. Similarly, Scandinavian people believed that their system of writing, the runes, had supernatural origins.

It is quite fitting that these characters were used to communicate with the ancestors. Right up until very recent times, the ancestors have been worshipped and respected in Chinese society. In 2008, the government even re-introduced “Tomb-Sweeping Day” an annual event in which Chinese people visit the tombs of their ancestors to pay their respects. Because the study of written Chinese is so closely linked to the study of Chinese history, in a very tangible sense the ancestors are still talking to students of the language in the 21st century.

Through the several thousand years that have elapsed since the time of the Shang Dynasty, written Chinese has remained remarkable consistent in its appearance. It is still possible for Chinese people now to make some sense of scripts that may be several thousand years old.

In the last 1950s and 60s, though, there were significant changes made to the structure of Chinese writing.

Perhaps a thousand years after Wang Yirong’s oracle bone scripts were originally written, in around 600 BC, the mysterious Taoist sage Lao Zi left a legacy of unknowable and incomprehensible quotes for future generations to spend fruitless lifetimes trying to work out. At the root of his enigmatic principles were discussions of the Tao – an invisible force that flows through all things. The Tao, according to him, cannot be seen, touched, or understood. Yet if one is in tune with the Tao, one need not fear or want for anything. The following is a typically inscrutable quote from the great sage.

“The Tao begets one, one begets two, two begets three, and three begets all things.”

This is not a treatise on Taoism, and in any case, according to the sage himself the Tao is unknowable. We will therefore begin with a look at the Chinese characters for “one,” “two,” and “three.” Appropriately enough, they are written as (yi, one) (er, two) and (san, three).

As you can see from these characters, written Chinese, even in its modern form, is still basically ideographic. This means that each character contains a visual clue to its meaning. With regards to , , and , these clues are obvious. Some modern characters that still pictorially represent their meanings include (ren) person, (kou) mouth, and (men) gate.

The structure of written Chinese is the key to the beauty of its calligraphy and its poetry. If you have a basic comprehension of the theory of the written language, Chinese poetry, idioms, and even single characters take on an incredibly rich meaning of themselves.

Consider this character, 好,which is pronounced “hao,” and means “good.”

You will notice it is made up of two parts, 女and 子., pronounced “nu” means “woman.” , pronounced “zi” means “son.” Thus, a woman and a son combined means “good.”

This character gives the western observer an insight into the patriarchal aspect of traditional Chinese society, due to the fact having a son rather than a daughter is seen as “good.” In traditional society, a son was crucial to carrying on the family lineage. Since girls joined their husband’s family when they married, daughters were seen as transient members of their family and a drain on resources.

All 54 000 known Chinese characters, or “Hanzi” 汉字 have similarly interesting historical origins. If you have nothing to do for the next thirty to forty years, I would highly recommend delving further into this field!

With regards to poetry, the ideographic aspects of Chinese give enormous possibilities for clever plays on structure, many of which are unable to be adequately translated into English.

One such poetic device is the antithetical couplet. Since the number eight is considered fortunate by the Chinese, couplets are normally four characters in each line. Ideally, the parts of each character must also correspond to characters in the second line.

In the early twentieth century, furious debates raged about the structure of written Chinese and whether it was suitable for the modern world. There were those who believed a wholesale abolition of traditional writing and romanization of Chinese was the only way the country could move forward.

Thank god this movement failed. The structure of Chinese is so intrinsically different to English that systems of Roman letters will never be able to fully convey the depth of meaning that characters can.

The ideographic nature of Chinese characters means that there is a lot more detail in the written form of the language than the spoken. Consider the word “ta.” This word has many different meanings in English, including “he,” “she” and “it.” Spoken Chinese has no way of differentiating these words, but written Chinese does. In fact, Chinese characters have more detail than English. Not only do they have a character for “he” 他 “she” and “it”它, there is also a character that represents “it” when discussing an animal – . However, all these characters are pronounced the same way – “ta.”

Eventually, a process of simplification did take place in mainland China. Today there are two systems used worldwide. The one used on the mainland is known is English, curiously enough, as Simplified Chinese. The system used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, is known simply as Traditional Chinese.

If you are considering investing in some calligraphy as a gift or for your personal enjoyment, there are many things to consider. Chinese calligraphy is an art form in its own right. It encompasses historical, religious, societal, and aesthetic realms. Most people who buy calligraphy are partial to traditional characters rather than simplified, and even in China today there is a lot of nostalgia for traditional characters.

And as for Wang Yirong, the hero of our story who found the first Shang Dynasty oracle bones, there is some doubt regarding whether the story of a stomach ailment and being prescribed “dragon bones” is true. According to famous author and China-watcher Peter Hessler, the jury is still out on this particular tale. However there is no doubt that he was the first major modern collector of the oracle bone scripts. But Wang’s story ends in tragedy. In 1900, when the Boxer movement briefly swept the nation, Wang took command of some of their forces. In true patriotic spirit, he later committed suicide by jumping down a well after European, American and Japanese troops ransacked Beijing.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Has this spaceman eaten too many spacecakes?

Or is the truth so crazy society can't deal with it?
How cool is this story? (From The Australian)

Former NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell says aliens have contacted humans several times but governments have hidden the truth for 60 years.
The thing I want to know is, though, why is it NASA that the little green men always contact? This smacks of a conspiracy. I can see the Chinese headlines tomorrow: "Aliens are running dogs of the Imperialist West" "ET will not conquer China and her 5000 years of history" "Dalai Lama meets with Martians in an effort to split the motherland" haha. God I get amused by trivial things.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Juicing, gene therapy, and the Games

According to The Australian July 22:

Chinese doping scams exposed

A multinational investigation of the doping trade in China found:

* A hospital that was willing to perform gene therapy on an Olympic athlete;

* An easily accessible black market for human growth hormone, steroids and EPO;

* A banned coach who has returned to the national swimming team;

* A former Chinese swimmer who has revealed how she was doped in the 1980s.

The findings were broadcast on German television in a documentary titled Flying High in Middle Kingdom. Some of the research was conducted by The Times' swimming writer Craig Lord and published on the website

World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman described the revelations as "worse than my worst fears".

The investigators filmed the head of the gene therapy department of a Chinese hospital agreeing to give stem cell treatment to a fictitious American swimmer.

"We have no experience with sports people here, but the treatment is safe and we can help you," the doctor told a purported American swimming coach. "It strengthens lung function and stem cells go into the bloodstream and reach the organs. It takes two weeks. I recommend four intravenous injections ... 40 million stem cells or double that, the more the better. We also use human growth hormones but you have to be careful because they are on the doping list."

A Toronto sports doctor, Mauro di Pasquale, told the documentary there was an ongoing trade in gene doping in China.

"I know of several incidences where athletes, and this is from talking to coaches and other people that have direct knowledge, that several professional athletes in sports such as soccer, football and several amateur athletes even on the elite Olympic level have gone to China and had gene doping performed," he said. "These doctors -- I can't give the names -- are involved in university clinics, they are involved in hospitals and they also have their personal clinics."

However, the Chinese sports ministry insists the government is determined to stamp out the illegal trade.

"On the issue of international criticism of the illegal trade in medication, the Chinese Government takes the issue very seriously and takes strong measures to fight that illegal trade," said Jiang Zhixue, general secretary at the Chinese sports ministry.

But Howman said the documentary's evidence made him "sick in the stomach".

"This is very distressing," he said. "It is very scary that health professionals should have such a lack of ethics and try what we know to be experimental on human beings for a vast amount of money ($US24,000).

"That doesn't match up to the standards that we ordinarily require of doctors and other medical practitioners. This is even more dreadful, because what they are proposing to do is a total breach of the prohibited list of the standards we have implied to make sure that cheating through the use of gene doping or gene therapy is prohibited.

"And it is very distressing to see that perhaps it's been used now or could be used in a country where the magnificent event (Olympic Games) will soon take place."

The investigators also approached a Chinese company, GenSci, which agreed to supply steroids and EPO.

"The substance is a doping substance according to our government and that is why we are not supposed to sell this before the Olympics," the salesman said. "But after the Games business will be much easier again."

The documentary also explored the history of doping in Chinese swimming, uncovering the case of former breaststroker Huang Xiaomin, who won the silver medal in the 200m breaststroke at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Huang is now a coach in South Korea and confirmed the Chinese national team was subjected to systematic doping in the 1980s.

"We were administered the substances at regular intervals," she told the documentary makers.

"It always happened in a room at our dormitory. I couldn't take it every day because the side-effects were too strong."

The researchers exposed the presence in the national team of a female coach, Xu Huiqin, who has been banned twice after two of her swimmers tested positive for drugs -- the female swimmer Wang Luna at the Perth world titles in 1998, and a male swimmer Xiong Guomin in 1999.

They confirmed she was with the Chinese team at the world short-course championships in Manchester in April.

Hmmm is this evidence of a conspiracy, or a witch hunt? It seems to me that there are conditions that allow athletes to procure performance-enhancing powers with relative ease, but that doesn't automatically mean that they will. Furthermore, it's not as if loads of other countries don't have athletes that are willing and able to do the same kind of thing.

I have an intense dislike for the term "China-bashing" but this could tentatively be called it.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Quirks of Communism

A great thing about living in Beijing is the numerous unusual working opportunities that are available to the wandering English-speaking writer.

One of my current projects is writing a guidebook on calligraphy and contemporary art - made all the more interesting by the fact that everything I write has to pass the beady evil eye of the censors before it gets published.

I'm still not that far into this book - but I can see that writing about contemporary art without mentioning its political content is going to be a challenge. However, even when discussing calligraphy this is a pretty tall order.

Take Chairman Mao as an example. The official line, as I understand it, is that although he made a few mistakes he was basically a great patriot and revered gentle giant among the Chinese people. His calligraphy is so admired it has even been made into a computer font. All of which is very interesting and nice.

But it doesn't change the fact that

Mao was a mass murdering prick!
He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of people!
If he was still in charge China would be so far up shit creek it wouldn't even matter if the country had a paddle!

Which is, of course, what I really want to write. So how to get around this curly question of ethics? The way I've done it is not mention Mao's name until the very last sentence of the text. In everything I've written up to that point the discussion focuses on the non-controversial aspects of his life and his particular style of writing. But I think this is particularly lame.

However, the only other option i can think of is going in completely the other direction and speak in terms of
“the people’s glorious struggle against the capitalist-imperialist invaders and their vanguard, the religious missionaries.”
(Thankyou Granite Studio) Possibly, I could also mention the fact that Tibet is, was and always has been a part of China. At least if I follow this line some savvy readers may pick up a whiff of sarcasm.

Does anyone have any other ideas?

Friday, 18 July 2008

Western media with Chinese characteristics

Yes, folks, it’s what you’ve always wanted. A take on the world from an ever-so-slightly satirical version of the China Daily. The story below is based on events reported, among places, here and here.

On China-based blogs it’s not too unusual to hear trolls (and clowns) talk about western media and Chinese media as if they were two sides of the same coin. In an attempt to highlight the differences between the two it is my pleasure to bring you the first of what will hopefully be a series of articles from the Western Daily.

Note: The idea behind referring to “The West” as one country also comes from the China Daily. This publication is guilty of a multitude of daily over-generalisations and incredibly simplistic conclusions (among other things). One of these habits they have is to refer to “The West” as if it is one entity where everyone acts and looks in tandem – often as part of a plan to tear China apart. Sigh. They give me so much to work with.

April 25th 2008

China hijacks torch relay in Australia Autonomous Region

The Sacred Flame, historically seen as a symbol of unity, peace and hope around the world, was hijacked by aggressive Chinese nationalists in Australia Autonomous Region (AAR) yesterday.

Patriots from the autonomous region turned out in force to support the relay, but were mobbed by hordes of fanatical international Chinese students, some frothing at the mouth in apparent pseudo-religious ecstasy.

Despite repeated assurances from the Chinese Government that the Games were to be used a symbol of world unity, most of these running dogs of the CCP, here as guests of The West, waved Chinese flags and sang so-called “patriotic” songs.

In actual fact these songs have been propagated by the ruling CCP, an evil political party with the soul of a dog and the spine of an iguana that has been responsible for the deaths of possibly hundreds of millions of Chinese people over the last half-century.

Attacks on the peaceful patriots of the region soon followed.

"We were being pushed and spat on, abused. We were kicked in the back and punched. We were hit with flagpoles. They pushed me to the ground," John Price said. (from The Australian April 25)

In a cunningly insidious move calculated to increase the outrage of the patriots of The West, the Chinese Embassy gave material and organizational support to the aggressive rabble, including arranging buses, field marshals, and communications equipment.

They even sent thugs and goons to attack anyone who came close to the sacred flame itself, although Kevin Rudd, Governor of the AAR had repeatedly assured the Chinese Government that the region’s crack police force would ensure its safety.

This despicable act, which interfered with the affairs of our nation, strongly hurt the feelings of the patriots of The West, who have invited hundreds of thousands of these Chinese hooligans to study and live in our various provinces and autonomous regions over many decades.

Following the occurrences, the Chinese media reported the event as a happy occasion where people exchanged lollipops and pandas and kangaroos danced together on rooftops.

It just goes to show how biased the Chinese media is when reporting what happens in The West.

These events are examples of the rise of ugly Chinese nationalism in recent years, with racial abuse of the Japanese being the most common outlet of their pseudo-nationalistic loathing.

We Westerners thought that most overseas Chinese students were just here to study hard and get good grades. This disgusting anti-western farce has seriously hurt our feelings. We just want to ask why does China send so many of its students overseas if they are going to take advantage of the freedom to protest in other countries, when they can’t even do it in their own?

We all know the answer to that one. China is trying to split The Western motherland apart. Don’t they know that can never happen? The West has been a country for hundreds of years. That’s far longer than the PRC has been in existence.

Randy religious youth run wild

Consider this heart-warming tale from the sunny shores of Sydney:

Brothel reports WYD boost

July 18, 2008

A BROTHEL offering a special discount during Pope
Benedict XVI's visit to Sydney said business had more than doubled since the
pontiff arrived.

Sometimes religion just warms my heart.
Would somebody please, please buy these poor Catholic youth a packet of GOD DAMN CONDOMS?!

Thursday, 17 July 2008

We really need a wai guo ren

One of the trickiest aspects of living in China for a westerner is negotiating the potholed track of Chinese etiquette. When this is combined with the language barrier, the path becomes even more treacherous. At times it could be likened to a steep mountain pass with a sheer cliff face on one side, off which the unwary westerner is doomed to blindly stumble, and scream all the way into oblivion.

Nowhere was this more apparent to me than one evening in 2006 when a long-lost language partner gave me an unexpected call. It was great to talk to her again, even if the speed at which she was speaking Chinese was a little disconcerting.

“It’s been a long time,” she said. “Tonight we have a concert on. Would you like to come and join us?”

“Yeah sure,” I replied. “Is it ok to bring my girlfriend?”

“Of course.”

Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the meeting point. There was my friend, and a suited, bespectacled man standing anxiously by her side, hands clasped and a nervous tick.

“But where is your guitar?” she asked after the initial introductions had been made.

“My guitar? What for?” I asked, a slight premonition of foreboding in the pit of my stomach.

“Oh, we want you to perform in the concert,” she said, with all the offhandedness of someone asking the time. “Didn’t you understand me on the phone?”

Of course, this is an entirely casual request to make of a Chinese person. My own Chinese teacher was not averse to asking her adult students to get up in class and sing a song for the benefit of their classmates if they failed to complete their homework. On a tour bus in Sichuan once I had also been put in the position of singing to a bus half full of Chinese tourists and half full of my friends. But that was in the spur of the drunken moment. This was different. Really, really different. Westerners, especially Australians, are not in the habit of casting aside their insecurities and hang-ups for a sing-a-long on stage in front of a group of strangers.

“Ahh, but I haven’t played for a long time,” I lied. “And I can’t sing at all.”

Incidentally, the second part of this statement is agonizingly true.

“Oh, but we really need someone. And I told my friend you would be able to perform,” she said, indicating the man in the suit. “We have many Chinese students performing and everyone is having a lot of fun. But we told everybody we would get a wai guo ren to perform.” They both looked at me with big, beseeching eyes.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my girlfriend doubled up with silent laughter at my situation.

“Umm,” I stammered trying desperately to think of a way out, “I am really out of practice. I’m not sure if I can do it.”

“Oh, it’s very relaxed,” she assured me. “How about you came and take a look?”

“Please come,” added the suited man, who turned out to be one of the concert organizers. “We really need a wai guo ren to perform.”

Against my better judgment I allowed my girlfriend and I to be escorted to the concert hall. My condition was that I would need to assess the situation before I would perform, but I knew then it was already almost impossible. Walking behind my language partner and the suited man, we discussed possible escape routes very quickly in English so they would not understand. My girlfriend happily came to the conclusion very early that I was doomed to severely embarrass myself. But I knew that neither my language partner nor her suited friend understood my situation. At that moment, I was the poor dumb foreigner perched on the cliff face of the cultural and linguistic divide. A lamb to the slaughter.

Arriving at the concert hall only increased the sick sense of foreboding deep in my gut. Word had got out that my friends were coming with the singing, guitar playing foreigner….. who for some reason had arrived without a guitar. A group of men in identical suits gratefully and earnestly shook my hand outside the entrance. “Thank you so much,” they said, oblivious to the churning mess in my stomach. “We really need a wai guo ren to perform.” They ushered me into the hall…… and there it was; four hundred odd people sitting in darkness with their eyes glued to the bright lights of the stage. Nobody was even talking. To say I felt faint was an understatement. At that point I seriously considered abandoning my girlfriend to run screaming out the door. It would serve her right for her lack of sympathy.

“It’s ok, right?” smiled my language partner. I wanted to punch her.

The next few minutes were a blur of miserable anxiety and frenzied, whispered instructions. There were guitars on hand but none suited to my style of playing. Worse, was only one song I could think of singing off the top of my head – “Old Man” by Neil Young. I know, I know, it’s a ridiculous choice. Preposterous, even. But it was all my befuddled brain and loose bowels could come up with.

The MC was introducing me. Despite the short circuit occurring in my cerebral cortex, I could grasp the words ‘wai guo ren’ and felt the weight of several hundred pairs of eyes, along with several hundred people’s expectations, lift me to my feet and drag me screaming into the void. The stairs up to the stage were a rocky mountain path. There was a cliff face at the edge of the stage. The stage lights in my eyes blinded me to the safest path forward. Hands shaking, I accepted the microphone from the MC.

It’s an odd experience, being put in a position such as this. Nobody in the crowd really gives a damn too much about the quality of the performance. It’s not like you are experiencing something truly dreadful like a car accident or being fired from you job. And yet you feel as if the eyes of the world are on you. They are waiting for you to make a complete and utter jackass out of yourself, so they can dance and laugh in unholy glee on the rotting corpse of your self-respect.

“Old man, take a look at my life” I croaked into the microphone….and the next few minutes dragged by in excruciating slow motion.

When the dismemberment was finally over, the crowd was polite enough to clap. My language partner was supportive, if somewhat “surprised” by my singing skills. My girlfriend thought it was the funniest thing ever, and couldn’t wait to tell everybody, yeah! The suited man invited me to stay and watch the rest of the performances.

I declined. My heart was still thumping, and my hands were still shaking. Guitarless, talentless, and now also self-respect-less, I left the hall and the cliff face behind me. With my oh-so amused girlfriend in tow, I walked away from that graveyard of music and vowed never to get caught on that rocky path of cultural misunderstanding again.

An interview with Kev Carmody

‘Cannot Buy My Soul’, the Paul Kelly inspired tribute album to the music of Kevin Carmody, is now on sale. It is a double cd that features a selection of Carmody’s songs in their original format on one, and covers on the other. Artists on the album include (hold your breath and say it as fast as you can) Augie March Claire Bowditch, The John Butler Trio Troy Cassar-Daly The Drones Bernard Fanning Missy Higgins The Herd Dan Kelly Paul Kelly Steve Kilbey The Last Kinection Tex Perkins Archie Roach Sara Storer Dan Sultan Scott Wilson The Pigram Brothers The Waifs. Whew….

“I was traveling out on the motorbike. I’m hauling down the highway one night, about 11’o’clock, and argh, I just thought it was the wind, and I didn’t realise the bloody bag had dropped off, but the bungee cord was still connected to the bike and shredded it for 26 miles. So the next day I went back, got the old troop carrier land rover that I had, got the boys, and we went along the road and we picked up every bit we could find, and put it into plastic bags. As a postgraduate student I had a room in a university house, spread it out on the floor, called me supervisor over and said look, there’s me thesis mate…”

Such was the improbable finale to the university career of Kevin Carmody, singer/ songwriter, Aboriginal activist, environmentalist, social worker, nuisance to the political establishment and one time Phd history student. Reviews of Carmody’s albums are often almost reverential of his songwriting abilities, and the esteem in which he is held is reflected in the cross section of the cream of Australian talent vying for attention on his tribute album, ‘Cannot Buy My Soul.’ Over the crackly connection from his Queensland home, there is a hint of amusement in his voice as he recounts this footnote from his turbulent life journey. One gets the sense that Kevin is a character not easily fazed by such minor details or pitfalls, he has different work to do and a more profound message to impart.

The winding path of this life has it’s roots in a reality all but relegated to romantic history for the vast majority of urban Australia. It began with a nomadic droving lifestyle, in the post war period, living largely off the land. Carmody’s father was an Australian born drover of Irish heritage, “one step above the Aboriginals” as he notes of how the Irish were treated, and his mother a Murri woman whose country lies in the far north of Queensland. His early life was “surrounded by sensory perception” and the “phenomenal sounds of the wildlife.” The world as it appeared was a vast classroom of nature and the bounty she provides. Kevin can vividly recollect the smell of incoming rain, the meanings of different bird calls, and traditional stories, laden with meaning, taught to him from the “huge blackboard” that was the night sky. He learnt the ancient art of tracking from family members at the age of four, and helped out by shooting roos at the waterholes that the family camped near. “Everybody lent a hand,” is how he describes the spirit of mutual care and dependence from his early years. Contemplating that time, Kevin seems somewhat baffled by how later white ‘explorers’ such as Burke and Wills could possibly starve in this Garden of Eden.

However, the forcible removal of indigenous children was an ugly specter in the background of this happy family life, and as a result of that his parents had only two children, Kevin and a brother six years his junior. Although they were not ‘stolen’ in the sense that they were ripped from their screaming parents arms, as he recounts, “well we had to go.” On the first day of ‘school’ at, somewhat disturbingly, a former army barracks, as his parents left “They (the nuns) surrounded us and held us… held us down actually, in the corner of the dormitory.” Kevin was a child of ten. His brother was four years old.

Life in the barracks was full of alien customs for the Carmody boys. In their former existence it was considered “absolutely breaking the law” to defecate in water, yet puzzled, they noted that there was water in the toilets of their new home. Responsibly, they went outside to relieve themselves on the first night and received a flogging for their troubles, and not for the first time. Flogging was a routine punishment that could be meted out for a variety of crimes such as “getting your sums wrong” and “spelling something wrong in English.” Being physically abused in this way in public in front of a hundred odd other students was par for the course. The country boys were also put to work, collecting eggs, (which were subsequently sold rather than be fed to the students) washing dishes and helping out in the kitchen, so “there wasn’t too much time for school.”

Kevin’s voice is a matter of fact. It is a tale he has no doubt recounted on many occasions, and not the most gut wrenching account of the scarred recent history of indigenous people. Yet one can still get a sense, from these memories, of how experiences such as this shaped the character of an artist who can at times pack a hefty punch to the solar plexus of the listener.

From the age of thirteen, Kevin found employment in a variety of different jobs. The sudden turn in direction came with the ascent of the Whitlam government.

“At the night time I was always just interested in music, so I started to study music (by himself) and got to a standard, when I moved to Toowoomba and got a proper music teacher. And she said to me, ‘you know, your miles ahead of the standard they’d require to get into the music course at the University of Southern Queensland.’

“So that’s the first time it occurred to you to go to University?”

“Well it was better than the bloody welding sheds,.but the point is that I’d never been to a bloody library in me life, but I went out and auditioned, I’d been teaching myself out of a book, but they didn’t have a classical guitar teacher of the standard that the course required, so they said do a third of it history and philosophy.”

Due to his shoddy schooling, Kevin’s reading and writing skills were not initially up to the required university standard. Undeterred, he suggested to the history tutor that until such a time as his writing was up to scratch, he would present his research in a musical format accompanied by his guitar. It may have sounded like a novel approach but this was keeping in line with the far older indigenous tradition of history being transmitted without the use of books. Although he had extensive historical knowledge, learnt from his oral traditions, much of it could not be found in library history books and therefore technically cold not be cited in university assignments. His way around this was to attribute his sources to “unpublished works.” His academic career progressed until that fateful night on the motorbike, and then, “By that time, it must have been about ’87, I’d signed the record contract (for his first album) and that puts you on the bloody treadmill then so I deferred the Phd.”

The first of Kevin’s albums ‘Pillars of Society’ was cut, not coincidentally, 1988 and was designed to give “the other side of the fence” to the Bicentennial. In a real sense his career as a historian continued after he left university, “To me, the object of the music is to put down the oral history.”

It should be difficult to juxtapose the anger in some of Carmody’s lyrics with the ebullient enthusiasm and positivity projected through the voice on the line, yet somehow it is not. To talk only about the anger in some of his work would be to grossly misrepresent the message. Kevin speaks passionately and optimistically about his hopes for the future, and for his love of the country. These days his playing career is severely hampered by “Arthur Rightus,” yet he is honoured and delighted that his lyrics have found their way to a new generation of artists and different musical formats, seeing this as a strength of the oral tradition which he upholds.

“Tear it up, put your own bloody lyrics in, but make it relevant to your generation. Therefore the record becomes a collective, not Kev Carmody. We, all together, are saying this is what we think, this is what we feel.”

One can envisage that the lessons of this great Australian oral historian, who began his studies under the Queensland stars all those years ago, will continue their singing long after he has gone. Ironically, it was merely the path of the ill-fated thesis that ended in tatters on the highway from Brisbane.

‘They taught us

Oh Oh black woman thou shalt not steal

Oh Oh black man thou shalt not steal

We’re gonna civilise

Your black barbaric lives

And teach you how to kneel

But your history couldn’t hide

The genocide

The hypocrisy to us was real

‘cause your Jesus said

You’re supposed to give the oppressed a better deal

We say to you, yes whiteman thou shalt not steal

Oh ya our land you’d better heal’

(From Thou Shalt Not Steal sung by Kevin Carmody and the John Butler Trio on ‘Cannot Buy My Soul’)