Riders on the storm

It’s a verve, an edge, an ever changing constant. The moment the grasp of which is lost life becomes redundant. Such is life. Such is life as a journo and a backwater one at that.2865456-3x2-940x627

But for all the long hours, paid all the peanuts we can eat, the pursuit of the ever elusive now – nowness – the newsman’s most valuable currency, our Shangri La, its an appetite that’s insatiable as much as it it is insane.I am a peddler of the banal…

It’s the feeling of a hot lead, the story that will set the stage for this week’s edition of a tabloid about a corner of the world little have comprehension about – it’s just another byte of info overload to saturate the collective consciousness.

Nothing else matters to the hack, then when it’s written, printed and dumped on the news stand – it is completely meaningless. There is new column space to fill. It’s a psychosis – it never stops.

I should mention about now that it’s nearly 3am on a Thursday (on Thursday Island), I’ve polished off the stale dregs of a bottle of rosé and opened a bottle of chardonnay in the name of decompressing from putting one paper to bed before the next crawls up my spine and sits at the base of my neck – nagging me with that, “fuck you have nothing for next week, what’s the front page photo, what’s the gutsy lead, the colour piece, the community interest, social pages and the sport…”

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It’s been a big week, lots of politicians, federal senators and state ministers, in town all with their golden handshakes, memes abound, leaving glitter in the eyes of constituents that will no doubt wake up to discover it ain’t the yellow precious metal, but more piss in their pocket.

In a word Indigenous fishing rights, native title, that last round of the high court, the precedence of Eddie Mabo. Many promises made, expectations high. I just hope they get delivered the aspirations they deserve, the birthright that they have had to fight tooth and nail to get back. The old jaded, bitter part of me doubts it, I’d love to be wrong.

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Meanwhile Cyclone Ita, already claiming lives off the Soloman Islands creeps towards us from the east. The cyclonic sheets of grey rain, horizons bleaked out by low pressure systems that smite my back door.

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 There’s a killer on the road 
His brain is squirmin’ like a toad 
Take a long holiday 
Let your children play 
If ya give this man a ride 
Sweet memory will die 

There’s a killer on the road…

 

reading Strait between the lines

Editing a newspaper (that’s not owned by Murdoch), I never thought I would need to be censored, but in a strange way it happens often up here in the Torres Strait.

Now the media cherry-picking quotes to suit a particular end is common knowledge. Most people have a certain disdain for media hacks who subvert the truth to suit the flavour of the day.

Take this interview Dire Straits our ‘Aunty’, ABC, did with me just before the Federal election in 2013, when all the hyperbole was around “stopping the boats” in order to win the votes of a xenophobic, bogan sub-class in marginal seats of Westie Sydney. It’s about an expected flow of asylum seekers coming to Australia via PNG.

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Although Auntie gave a reasonable review of the situation, some of my comments were ‘not included’, in particular where I mentioned that the numbers of asylum seekers that year were no worse than last year, and that number being less than a dozen, it hardly constituted a big problem. But it didn’t suit the sensationalist angle they were pursuing.

There are other forms of censorship up here though. For one , it’s company policy not to mention the names of people involved in criminal activity, if they live here. Why? Well personal safety of me the editor, my boss warns me. With family and the family name of such significance here, the public shaming (and the fact we all live on a small island), may have nasty outcomes. (I do have a Louisville Slugger by the front door – company issued!).

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When prominent Torres Strait artist Dennis Nona was charged with raping an underage girl, a story splashed across National media, my story was pulled by my boss. I was muzzled only for my own protection.

One of the weirder forms of media muzzling I have not succumbed to up here is stories about the many stray dogs that cause havoc in the community. I wrote an article about how a 14 yr old fox terrier was torn apart by a neighbor’s dog, and although i did not mention the neighbor’s name, I sure felt the heat from the community. People (mainly middle age white women), would confront me hostilely about how I had divided the community and that the little terrier deserved the mauling.

As an Islander mate explained to me, there are layers of bitter bickering and politics on the island, but on the surface everyone is nice to each other because we all go to the same social gatherings and bump into each other at the only supermarket, bank and post office daily.

It make my job tougher than getting blood out of a stone at times.

Even the disenchanted youth can not express themselves like their more urbane counterparts, tagging toilet walls with graffiti is rarely anonymous. A recent youth AKA Squid, lasted only a couple of weeks before he was brought undone and busted.

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It’s part of maintaining that polite exterior under which lies the seething anger off isolation, racial vilification, domestic violence and the ‘gap’ between indigenous and non-indigenous, not to mention family feuds that may date back generations. But overall ‘Ailan’ folk are a happy, yet conservative bunch.

BEFORE...

BEFORE…

AFTER.

AFTER.

On Goods island which is uninhabited since the second world war, where a scattering of deserted bunkers and artillery batteries are all that remains, I discovered this ‘tag’.

Is that a Banksy???

Is that a Banksy???

But when it’s something important to Islanders, the information flows. The QLD government, on its continued campaign of penny pinching decided to not publish the annual Tide Times Book, something regarded as a bible for Islanders. As the minister’s office said to me, “it is available fro free online to be printed or downloaded to your phone.”

However not everybody has access to the internet or a printer and there are black spots in mobile phone coverage, not great when the sea if their only form of transport. However, a couple of weeks of front page stories have seen the government break under community pressure and they are now preparing hard copies to be gived out to those who need – too bad if all 6,500 Torres Strait Islander decide to ask for a couple, could mean the government bean counters banked on a false economy not offering the book people previously happily paid for.

One happy reader even dropped me off a gift for my efforts a bottle of ‘Muralag Moonshine’ a homebrew of coconut milk, brandy and rum. The bottle has a quote by Oliver Goldsmith: “Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain with grammar, and nonsense, and learning. Good liquor I stoutly maintain, gives genius a better discerning.”

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Attached was a note that read: “may your automatic bilge pump or self-draining floor do you justice in the weather.” (its the wet season up here). I guess that’s a compliment…

Transcontinental fear and loathing…

One of the best things of living on a tropical island, surrounded by sharks, crocs and box jelly fish, miles from anywhere, is leaving – then coming back. Jetlagged before I left, pulling the red eye so my wife Vivi could run the paper in my absence, I was in a state of swirling sleep-deprived psychedelic madness by the time I hit the streets of San Francisco 48 hours later. In the space of a week I caught eight planes, two trains, three cars and a boat. I maybe got three half decent night’s sleep the whole time.

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My body clock all upside down, when day was night and night was day, I was living on a diet of beer, breakfast burritos, bagels, Beroccas, Advils, coffees as tall as milkshakes and adrenaline. I even managed a stop in Citylights Books, (who first published much of the Beat writers)

 DSCF1192 DSCF1194 DSCF1195 A perk of being a writer is occasionally I get invited to speak at literary festivals, and with the re-release of my book Shanti Bloody Shanti in the UK and the States, I was invited to talk at LitQuake last week, one of the most prominent events on the West Coast. Thanks to Arts Tas, who footed my travel expenses, and my US publisher, Roaring Forties Press, who organised my accommodation, a US book launch and bookshop appearance – I got a whirlwind, transcontinental whistle-stop sojourn that both exhausted and inspired. After three speaking engagements, a Hendrix’s Gin drenched opening night smooze (which ended up dodgy Latino bar in San Fran’s Mexican district, The Mission) and a new tattoo, I ended up on a bus to Reno, Nevada, to catch up with some mates I met in the Amazon a few years ago, for some much needed downtime – soaking in hotsprings, cruising in a 67 Mustang, Frizbee golf and generally submerging in Americana.

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Everything in moderation, including moderation. So the swirling madness, sleep deprivation and alcohol infused week in San Fran and Nevada was just what the doctor ordered, but its sure nice to be home with my girls again…

Getting priorities Strait

The Islanders have really got their priorities Strait up here. Some times the regional Councillors go missing for days, weeks sometimes. They may just drop everything to fishing, even though it’s annoying for me trying to get that quote I need, the ever grinding quest for the front page pic and the front page story, I can’t blame them. In the greater scheme of things, they may have their priorities right.

Let me illustrate island priorities with an anecdote.

I recently attended the 40th anniversary  lunch of the Aboriginal Hostel Association, and organisation that provides temporary shelter to transients, homeless, or people travelling fro remote communities on the outer islands.

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There were passionate speeches, dancing and feasting on kupmurrie wild pig, crayfish, prawns, sop sop and all the other amazing array of island food.

IMG_8491In comparison, a few days later Australia’s Governor General Quinton Bryce arrived up at the Strait, to grace us common folk with her ‘excellency-ness’ (at the expense of tax payers).

Now its not like the GG didn’t get a a genuine, warm welcome, she did, but…

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Let me put it this way, the canapes before lunch were spring rolls and deep-fried dim sims (Ok there was also smattering of California rolls and some curry puffs too).

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And the Kaurareg Elder who gave the ‘Welcome to Country’ did manage to still stick a knife in,

“We were driven from this land by gunpoint, but our connection to this land is through our blood and our culture survives through song lines and dance. Since then we have been put in the too hard basket.

“From human being to another, I appeal to you to help our struggle for equality as it still seems to fall on deaf ears.

“Due to the short notice of your arrival I could not organise the Kaurareg Elders to be present, nor did I dress up for this occasion as I thought it important for you to accept me the way I am,” he said.

Hmmm, need I say anymore…

After the speeches and dimmy canapes, GG ended up up at the army barracks for a late lunch with Defense and emergency services.

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Now here’s the kicker…

The Australian Defense force laid on a lavish lunch of corned beef and pickle sangers on a platter with a centerpiece to die for.

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YES That’s an orange speared with toothpicks of cocktail onions and artificial cherries. A far cry from Hostel banquet of crayfish and kupmurries roasted wild pig…

Living in a fish bowl

Since becoming the editor of a regional newspaper in a remote location, many hundreds of kilometres away from the metropolitan, I have  found myself oddly at the centre of a hub of activity.

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It’s very different to my time in the wilderness of freelance journalism in a city.

Previous to this job, I conducted most of interviews via the phone or internet from my kitchen table, usually in nothing but my underwear, a bottom feeder, jostling for contracts from magazine editors and digging around for leads on juicy stories.

Now, as an editor of a paper, I am constantly hunting for the new front page story, its like a drug, nothing else matters, then as some as the front page to the page page is laid out for the printer, there’s just enough time for a post-coital cuppa joe and a ‘arhhh’ of self satisfaction… But then it starts again, the chase – the next front page.

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I’m acutely aware of position of influence I have in this small community spread over an immense area on Australia’s only border with another country. People approach me to write stories far more than I need to look for them. I am even courted by ‘Big’ papers like the Australian and TV channels who want to pry on-the-ground info out of me…

I frequently have breakfast with a Parish Hall restoration committee, or the Rotary, have a coffee with the Police Inspector, talk with regional indigenous leaders on a first name basis and have candid phone calls with federal politicians. The Mayor leaves messages on my answering machine. A far cry from my previous Hunterseque past.

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But just as importantly I need to attend with the local parents and friends evenings, weddings, funerals, birthdays and school sports carnivals.

They have a love-hate relationship with me, everyone has an agenda, no one wants to be crucified by the press and in a small community. I have to walk a tight rope of attending to all these often opposite viewpoints, so I don’t get crucified – literally. The more earnestly I champion one cause, I so often have to champion the opposition to it to avoid appearing biased one way or another – despite what my own political leanings maybe. It’s a far cry from the drones writing for two third’s of the country’s press owned by Murdoch. My boss gives me a pretty free reign on my content and I try to honour that by being impartial as possible.

But I do take delight in following certain protocol of this family owned newspaper group.

“Never use the word honourable in prefacing a politician’s name, they are many things but not honourable,” my boss often says.

He also says I don’t need to wear a suit when dealing with dignitaries, in fact one of my bosses makes a point to wear shorts and thongs for the poli’s but dresses up for the local Elders.

It’s good to see my boss has his priorities worked out, similar to many of the islanders…

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From Strait to Strait

From Bass Strait and a boozy BBQ farewell with my old old crew in Van Diemen’s Land to Torres Strait, my life has gone from one polar opposite to another, from the deep south, or the arts end of the world (but I’m no MONA) to the top of the top end, as far north as you can go. The degrees of separation are about 20 (Celsius), nice to pack away my thermals and break out my board shorts – permanently.

The place were nobody worries about the sharks (because the crocs eat them all) and nobody can spell beer (four X’s will do).

Prior to the Strait, and in between writing freelance for magazines, journals, universities and whatever else I could pitch my copy to, I was also scratching out an existence as a self-proclaimed  tradesman (or blagger that would give anything a go). I can’t complain, it kept me at the level of poverty I had grown accustomed to.

Prisioner of life, myself and a mate type cast as convicts in a movie

Prisioner of life, myself and a mate type cast as convicts in a movie

another day at the office

another day at the office

Then one Monday morning I saw a job online for an editor of a newspaper. It said they wanted someone with 3-4 years newspaper editing experience – I had none. So I wrote an unconventional job letter, broke all the rules. I opened with. “to be frank, I would chew my right arm off for this job” (I’m left handed).

Two days later my ole faithful shitter died, a 1987 Holden Shuttle van, known as ‘off Centre’ (it had previously been the Coffee shop, Centrepoint, but most of the other letters had eroded away, leaving only its title.) This had been my tradie chariot, but with a blown head gasket and only the grime of three years reglect holding it together I could not afford another.

Two days after that I had a phone call to say I had the job. Serendipity or just bloody lucky…

A fortnight later I was on the job.

Photo by Robert D Phillips

Photo by Robert D Phillips

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohf52vAPszM