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September 2005

September 30, 2005

Latham as Samson


And Samson said, 'Let me die with the Philistines!' And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life. (Judges 16:30).

Samson fell in love with a Philistine once, and deeply. Their sex life isn't detailed, but Samson was divinely bequeathed super-strength and a hot-head, so I assume it was rough... but in the end she betrayed him, and Samson carved out a life of psychotic vengeance against the Philistines.
The Bible records one incident where Samson uses the jaw-bone of an ass to slay 1000 of his enemy, and in another incident Samson sets fire to Philistine farmer's foxes, leaving the flaming creatures to howl and die under the moon. Our Samson was pissed.
The secret of his super-strength was, in the end, discovered. His head shaved, the Philistines captured him, tore his eyes out, and set him in prison to crush grain. But the Philistines weren't careful enough, and Samson's vengeance was allowed to take its famous course, resulting in what may be the first recorded kamikaze attack...

I don't suppose there are any great myths of decency left supporting Australian politics, but, if there are, Latham has surely pissed on their shadows.
In his second appearance on Lateline since the publication of his diaries, a kinked Mark Latham spat his way through the interview, attempting to claw the eyes out of any number of politicians and journos. So much so, that the interviewer, Tony Jones, had to block three allegations of Latham's that surely would have resulted in slander suits. It was a wild exchange.
As notable was the savage way Latham went about destroying whatever hint of credibility he had left. Latham set about attacking the sexual lives and (alleged) soft-drug habits of ex-colleagues in a smarmy, juvenile fashion--this was the same damned man that screamed bloody murder against his old party for an alleged smear campaign. It was pure hypocrisy, and Jones called it, and so Samson finished pushing on those pillars.
Latham's approach was certainly Samson's, but whether it will be as catastrophic is another matter. Latham exhibits the same vengeful bent, but not the strength, and Labor should recover before the next election.
What's left, though, is this question: was the Labor party so bankrupt of leadership qualities that a paranoid misanthrope was deemed a suitable candidate for future prime minister? It boggles the mind, and we are owed a satisfactory explanation.
I'm sure it'll never come.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 8:11 PM

September 23, 2005

Suicide Eyes


Once when I was living in Seoul I saved a girl's life. That really may only be partially true--her act of sitting defiantly on the train tracks may just have been a dramatic gesture not intended to end fatally. I'll never know. I pulled her off a minute before the train WHOOSHED into the station.
Hemingway once wrote that exclamation marks should only be used every 30,000 words. Or I may have read someone attribute that to him. Or it may be apocryphal. Either way, it's sound advice, and the use of that little '!' should prove sufficient for the next six months. Ho-hum. Let's return to the aborted suicide...
All of what I will tell you happened in the above photo--Itaewon station, a tube station much like many others in the world, only its memories and Korean hangul signage are unique. Can you see me, and her, and her boyfriend in that shot? Can you see the torn jeans and the blue-blues and the echoed screams and the rotten meat? No? I can. It's in the walls, the memories. I should tell you, dear reader, just what it was that actually happened, eh?
But, before I do...

I had told this story many times before, in many ways and in many places, but almost always in my own head. I had also tried to write about it, to capture the... hue, and place it in a narrative. That's always the best place for wisdom--in a narrative, far away from hill-tops and podiums... I had written it placing the thrust of the story in the hands of the relationship between me and a close friend. I had tubed to his house after the aborted suicide--I was in some state. It was around 7 in the morning and so I woke him up, brushed past him, got a beer from the fridge, sat down and lit a cigarette. "What the fuck?" he said.
But I never finished that version. I don't know why. It's tough, this writing business. Bukowski said it was the worst. Ho-hum.
But we've moved very far from that photo, haven't we? Have another look at it. Go on. I'll place those people and that pain in it for you soon...

She was Canadian and very far from home. So far, in fact, that it seemed to all of us that she wanted to die. Damn it. This was kinda fun. Then I wrote that word--"die". Damn. It's not so much fun anymore, but that photo hasn't come to life yet for you, has it?

Ahh... there's always something keeping me from telling the story of that girl's eyes. Let's have no more of it. Let's tell it. Let's paint that photo with the colour of suicide eyes...

When I first saw her, she was standing at the top of the tube entrance, cold, but not as cold as I, who had lost his jacket, shirt and scarf in some forgotten drunken blunder. Shoot me.
She stood, trembling, talking earnestly to her male companion, who avoided eye contact. The gates rose, allowing us down, the few of us...

Very quickly she began screaming raped elegies of unrequited love. It was a rotten business.
He avoided eye contact.
She dropped to her knees. They bled. She screamed.
He avoided eye contact.
The very rational Koreans, the few of them there on that damned platform, moved to the other end. Good for them.
I approached the couple.
I said something, I really don't recall what, and she turned to me with those fucking eyes--"He won't love me!'' she said, not realising her exclamation mark.
Her eyes were the Queen of Hearts, turned righteous and ruinous with the collapse of her Empire.
Or something.
I kept talking to her, she kept screaming, holding my hand very tight and bleeding from the knees.
It was fucking cold.
I'm going to fast forward, get to the bit where she jumps onto those tracks. Have a look above. She was there, sitting, her bright blue backpack still on. She was singing some devillish thing, and her boyfriend stood limply, more dead than her. I looked at the clock. Dangerously close.

Her friend wasn't gonna do anything. Nothing. Had his hands in his pockets. He looked beaten by some damn thing. My father once said that it's no disgrace not to be able to live in this world sometimes.

She was very heavy, and so are trains, but I pulled and she kicked, and I screamed, and she screamed, and I pulled her up. Phew. I was really shaking here, you understand, and I pulled a cigarette out, lit it. In Korea you can smoke in just near any damn place, except tube stations. The tube guard, who had done nothing in this devil's business, dutifully came over and gestured for me to put the fag out. He pointed to the "no-smoking" sign.
I swore at him, quite loudly, and threw the cigarette on the tracks. Damn Confucian fucks.

And so it goes, or so said Vonnegut, in a little book called Slaughterhouse 5. And so it goes.

What's your photo?

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 4:51 PM | Comments (1)

September 21, 2005

Four Years On: Remembering S-11


When I left the house on September 12, 2001, a strange solemnity stung the sky, and in the afternoon it was joined by heavy clouds. As I walked through Northbridge, the Mustang Bar had the Stars & Stripes fitted to a pole and it fluttered in a stiff breeze. By the time I had reached central station I had spotted two people wearing the same flag as a cape. The clouds were very dark now.
Against these clouds rose the modest sky-line of Perth, and images of plane-bombs entering the buildings inhabited my imagination. My poor imagination—it had been hijacked, like everybody else’s, by the grotesque bizarreness of a reality that could not have been imagined. My dream-state was exhausted and I had no time for flags—I caught my train and hurried home, determined to chew this all over with friends…

We got some good scotch and we opened it and we still didn’t believe in flags. We also knew that death was still there, will always be there, and that terrorism fell shy of, logically, cancer as things we should worry about. But that night, and for many after, cancer didn’t sit at the top of the table because we had seen—live—pictures of mothers and fathers leaping from their 87th-storey windows.
The symbolism of that day was heavy, and it was widely read, quite rightly, as an astonishing attack on each and every American. Unfortunately, the response was an equally heavy participation in symbolism and Wal-mart reported a half-million flag sales in the days following S-11, but I doubt if the majority of purchasers could discuss the Gettysburg address…
For my friend and I, who believed more in scotch than brightly coloured symmetrical shapes, not many questions were answered in the days following. Indeed, four years later much has changed, but very little has been answered except our fears.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 5:44 PM

Thinking About Richard Brautigan


Sometime in September 1984 writer Richard Brautigan adopted Hemingway’s end-strategy and blew his brains out in his home. I say “sometime'' because the writer had heavily bunkered down in his outback post in California—friends hadn’t seen him in ages, and police could only say, when they did discover his body, that the corpse had been there “for weeks''. Before his death though, the few friends he did have noted Richard’s taste for liquor and guns, and when his body was found, so too were hundreds of bullet holes in doors, walls and the ceiling. These were indeed strange times.
At the time of his suicide (he was 49-years-old) Brautigan was very far away from many things—after the success of his first novel, Trout Fishing in America (it sold 2 million copies), his later novels attracted little to no public or critical attention, and the last book published whilst he was alive, And So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away, sold just 15, 000 copies. Brautigan was also very far away from the hippie-milieu he was said to have led, at least literarily—he chastised the hippie-movement, and probably critics’ habit of including him as their chief.
His Beat badge also seemed redundant—the echoes he shared with Ginsberg and co. were light and superficial—a raffish life and rhapsodic prose, but he was very far from the experiments with acid and jazz and self and seemed content drinking strong liquor and living in the country. He was a romantic solipsist shooting at the moon, and he and his writing never appeared to grow up.

What Brautigan was is difficult to pin down, but very certainly he was an odd cousin to Kafka’s torture—the narrator/writer thwarted by the violent caprices of an absurd and unsympathetic world. In response, Brautigan attempted to anchor in childhood, populating his stories with the lush vibrancy of innocence, though his books are granted a menace by the understanding that the innocence is forever under threat.
Brautigan was always under threat from himself—from his gun-play, his depression, his alcoholism; traits that were constantly in battle with the whimsical word-play and obsessions with childhood that defined his books.
Poet and literary critic Lawrence Ferlinghetti said once that Brautigan could never be an important writer because he was naïf, naïve and had never grown up. This is true, but it is doubtful if Brautigan ever wanted to be anything but. He knew too much about his own demons, and seemed content, yet doomed, to live within his own worlds where innocence can be lost, but the worlds in which they exist are magical and precious.
For Brautigan, memory and imagination were important ladders out of his Kafkaesque gloom—but to keep writing he had to keep mining his own past, and it seemed that eventually the rent got too high.
No, Brautigan will never be an important writer, but we should read him for a few reasons—his skillful metaphor, his easy fusion of history and imagined memory, and as documentation of the strange experiment of trying to live within your own books.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 1:59 PM | Comments (4)

September 20, 2005

Latham's diaries


It’s difficult to know what to make of Mark Latham. The release of his diaries—400+ pages of a sort that may very well eviscerate the Labor party—has captured unfaltering levels of interest, and is now the biggest political story of the year. The release of the book was moved to yesterday, Monday the 19th, two days earlier as to utilize the super-inflated interest, and when News Ltd. took the ABC to the Supreme Court (for possibly breaching confidentiality between The Australian and Latham’s publishers), a very dirty bomb had been set-off by the former Labor leader.

So what to make of these diaries? They’re profane, ceaselessly vitriolic and paint a man who seems to have been very much on the outside of the Labor party. In fact, almost every senior Labor figure (Julia Gillard is the notable exception) is knifed by Latham’s diaries, either suggesting a deeply paranoid misanthrope, unfit for Prime Minister-ship, or of a Labor party defined by greasy subterfuge and Machiavellian ambition.
It is nice to side with Latham. His, well, grotesque picture of the Labor party conforms well to my cynicism of the party, of politics, but surely it can not be as simple as a man who just wanted to tell the truth. Latham’s diaries are problematic for many reasons:—For one, Latham compromises Paul Kelly, prominent political writer for The Australian, by publishing certain quotes which could seriously damage him professionally—no attempt is made by Latham to hide the source. Asked about this by Andrew Denton, Latham, an admirable intellect, teetered on the churlish in defending his position. “If the media can say whatever they like, then I will too…'' was the essence of his reply. Denton seemed unimpressed. So was I.
Latham’s diaries sit unwell for me for this other reason, too: Latham has taken great pride in painting the diaries as the work of an honest whistle-blower, sickened by a party fueled by machine-men and blind-ambition. Surely this is only a partial truth—Latham champions candor when it suits him, but when questioned about his own history of shifting allegiances, he seems to button up. When asked, for example, about his relationship with once-mentor Gough Whitlam, Latham responds that they “were political friends, and nothing more. We’ll never see each other again.''
They were more than that. And everyone knows it. For one, Latham’s oldest child bears Gough as a middle name.
Latham’s diaries contain some heavy allegations, each made with a peculiarly ribald-Aussie tongue, and reading them I thought of a time when Latham really dropped the load when campaigning for the national election. It was the night before the Big Day (when Latham would lead the Labor party to one of their worst-ever defeats) and Latham and Howard had scheduled some radio time. Latham was exiting the studio as his opponent entered it, and Latham, a much larger man, shook his hand violently while standing over him in a classic position of intimidation. I swear there was even something… odd, in Mark’s eye. Happily, Denton picked up on this too, asking Mark just what the hell it was all about. Latham subsequently told a story of playground revenge—Latham believed Howard to have a pumped-up handshake to make up for his small stature and, apparently, had hurt Latham’s wife with one of its implementations. Latham never forgot.
Here is a man profoundly damaged—he has lost faith in a party which once defined him, and eventually placed him as leader. He has lost what were once father-son relationships, dismissing them as now-irrelevant symptoms of a political career. We have a man who at every chance defends his book as the work of noble candor, and yet struggles to defend, or even talk about, a swarm of issues, including his violent mood swings, his reticence at the time of the Boxing Day tsunami, and what, in fact, Labor had given him.
Here is a very angry man—a very interesting man, no doubt, but one smart enough to realize the deep, deep effect this will have on his old party. Short of answering every question, the publication of Latham’s diaries seems to have encouraged a swathe more. And, what’s more, may well have further augmented the Lib’s indomitable position.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 12:13 PM

September 16, 2005

Talkin' 'bout the Blue-blues: Watching Garden State & Prozac Nation


Andrew Largeman enjoys an astonishing arc--by the end of Garden State he has, to my eye, discovered two life-altering things. The first one is this: to live is to be free to feel, even if there is much sadness in this world, and much pain to be felt--and there is and there is.
But Andrew hits on this higher license of an un-medicated existence, and sums it up concisely to his father: "Maybe it's best just to be who we are. Maybe that's best.'' Andrew discovers that to live is to feel, and be damned suppressing the blue-blues because suffering is existence. It's a valuable but idealistic lesson; idealistic because there are grades of suffering, and if we are to accept the deepest forms of depression as a disease, not as a disposition, then we must also accept some forms of suffering as insufferable. And so perhaps there's something else to add to Andrew's discovery--to live is to feel is to suffer, and it's worth it, but baby, you gotta be brave. Maybe ol' Doc Thompson said it best when he wrote: "Buy the ticket, take the ride''.

Andrew's arc contains another discovery: the importance of wriggling free from the various platitudes that regulate our lives, masquerading as wisdom. In other words, Garden State's quiet charm is defined by a warm and gentle fuck-you to received advice. When Andrew attains both grief and happiness--and eventually love--through the playfully persistent Nat Portman, he then temporarily abandons her in yet another moment of sterility--a pre-determined observation of the platitude "I've gotta go find myself''. He realises his error quickly though (who, exactly, is the author of this wisdom?), and grasps that to live is to feel, and to feel now, to feel all the time. He returns to the source of his happiness, determined, this time, to live. And so they kiss and hug and return warmth to the airport's lino floors, white walls and the inaudible buzz of bumble-bees.

While Garden State humbly challenges our faith in science and family, and has the skill and heart to ask "how are we to live?'' Prozac Nation is its opposite. Too keen to record its maniacally ill narrator, the film only has time for a self-martyring documentation of self-destruction. It is, ultimately, a violently narcissistic film, much too self-obsessed to observe anything larger than its own protagonist's fall. At the very end of the film, Prozac is introduced, and its narrator comments, quickly and clumsily (she is supposed to be a writer) that it seems that everybody is taking this shit. End film. This, surely, is the firmest sign of the film's self-obsessed nature--at a point when some larger observation could have been made, the film ends, seemingly too exhausted for social observation after the fervor of self-documentation.
Prozac Nation's an awful film about an awful person, but, in Garden State, bless it, Braff's given us a charming reminder that we can still be astonished with this world. We just gotta be brave enough to take it.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 11:41 AM | Comments (6)

September 9, 2005

God Bless America


Like most nights out in Seoul we had descended with vulgar enthusiasm upon a hof, or pub, determined to take full, and unfortunate advantage of the local mekju, beer. And, like most nights, we ruthlessly monopolised the internet jukebox, ensuring no half-bred, hyper-real Korean pop fucked up our night. It was always an easy conquest—we simply beat the Koreans hands down at obnoxiousness. It was a bitter-sweet victory.
And so, like many other nights, and many more to come, we each sat at our table—a little piece of cultural geography annexed from the East—and danced and laughed and spent our (seemingly) fake money at the bar. But, unlike most nights, it got serious real quick.

He was 19, and piqued by such a large bunch of Westerners. Usually the shyness overcomes any chance of encounter, but our young guy had some moxie—and a full belly of rice wine.
“Hello,'' he smiled at us.
Most ignored him, but I invited him to sit down.
“Thanks,'' he said.
“Sure. Have some soju,'' and I poured him a shooter of lemon-tinted rice wine.
He smiled.
“Many thanks.''
He stared at us, kinda dizzy-like, while we each tore apart the night. Others would ask him questions about Korea.
“It’s, ahhh, it’s okay,'' and he would turn and look at his friends who were envious.
Someone yelled kombei, the Korean drinking salutation, and so we drank.
The kid spoke up: “I go to war soon.''
“War. I go soon.''
“War? Whaddaya mean, ‘war’?''
The kid dropped his smile, and turned anxiously to his friends. He pointed. “Him, too. He go to war.''
South Korea had just pledged troops to Iraq. South Korea had a mandatory two-year military service. This kid was going to war.
“I’m sorry,'' I said, “I’m embarrassed.'' The truth was, I was embarrassed, I still am embarrassed. This damn crooked cultural hegemony of the US has got it so that every US kid, in the eyes of the Korean youth, has triple, quadruple the cool points that he does. The Korean kid can’t win.
“I’m scared,'' he was certainly drunk now.
I drank more slowly this time, staring at his eyes, thinking that first and foremost this kid just wanted to hang out with older Western guys. He would rarely get the chance. What was so acutely embarrassing was the fact that this kid felt genuinely proud to be hanging out with us—a group comprised largely of Americans. He felt good about it. Damned fucking chipper. And yet the fact that he was going to war… our war… fell in his reverence’s shadow.

I bought him another drink and explained, once again and in terrible Korean, the concept of regret.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 11:10 AM | Comments (7)

September 7, 2005

The Fifth Test


Much has changed since I last wrote about the cricket. America’s grim racial politics were exposed in one fell, cataclysmic swoop, prompting one BBC journalist to comment on the fact that nothing has changed since the Watts riots 40 years prior. President Bush’s presidency has never been under so much pressure and Karl Rove seems stumped as to a successful spin strategy.
In Australia, the young, brash, and supremely confident leader of the NSW opposition party, John Brogden, resigned in disgrace after admitting to the sexual harassment of female journalists. Brogden also admitted to a racial slur directed at Bob Carr and his Malaysian wife, and apologized for it. Carr did not accept the apology.
Less than 40 hours later police were called out to Brogden’s electoral office in Sydney, where Brogden was found to have survived a suicide attempt involving a blade.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Tony Abbott is under pressure after being heard making fun of Brogden’s suicide attempt. In response to a suggestion that the government adopt a certain health proposal, Abbott remarked that the government would be as “dead as the former Liberal leader's political prospects''. People weren’t amused.
Since last writing about the cricket, Matthew Hayden’s form fell from bad to dreadful, and England discovered the golden potential of a young all-rounder that one day may well size up against Ian Botham. Ricky Ponting complained long and hard about England’s use of specialist fielders, and star England bowler Simon Jones was ruled out of the fifth test.
Aussie bowler Glenn McGrath, on the other hand, passed a fitness test, while nationwide plans were being drawn up should England reclaim the Ashes—if they do it will be for the first time in 17 years. London police are also organizing: an unprecedented level of security will be in place for the fifth and final test starting tomorrow.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 2:58 PM | Comments (3)