Cultural Comment

Unique Water – Just What Did Happen to It?

Thinking of Paul Sheehan as I was yesterday, I cast my mind back to the early 00s.   I was working in the Sutherland Shire and reading the Herald every weekend.  I have vivid memories of Sheehan’s article about Unique Water in the Good Weekend of April 2002. It pointed to cures for a variety of illnesses. It was even called “the magic water” in the article.  All very Oprah and The Secret, really. This feel was underlined by the idea that scientists were sceptical about its properties – heightening its mystical and must-have powers.

I was mildly curious, because after reading the story, I was interested in visiting the factory of the obscure “Bert’s Drinks” in Taren Point, because it wasn’t that far from work.  In the next few days after the story, however, the frenzy and the queues to this new Lourdes were huge.  Among the number was my boss, who was driving there and waiting hours to get this water, to feed to his sick dog.

Soon enough, this “Unique Water” was at BP service stations, adding to the mystique of the product (as in, why can’t we buy it in shops?  Damn you, Coles and Woolies, you just want us to remain sick!). Walking out the door all over Sydney. All thanks to one article written by Paul Sheehan in the Good Weekend, reflecting the power of the media to convince and move.

And then it was gone.  Well, not gone, it’s still available – however, we haven’t really been swamped by stories of its miraculous healing properties in the last 9 years.  In 2005, however, the story had a curious twist, with this article from the “back streets”, which heightens the mystery and surmising that the whole saga to be a bit of a sham – especially in relation to the spurious claim that were made about the water’s properties. “Nick Possum” makes the suggestion that with the original story, Sheehan “rushed on, and he wasn’t unaware of the dangers”.

Then we had this Herald article by Ben Hills, which tells us in detail about the absurdity of the claims related to the “inventor” of the water.  Hills also tells us about the researching efforts by Sheehan here:

Although it did caution that no medical trials had been conducted to test the efficacy of the water, that endorsement by Sheehan – and the five other people, one dog and one cat (deceased) whom he cited in the article as having benefited from the water – was picked up by the TV networks and triggered a gold rush for the manufacturer of what was then called Unique Water.

But this story was not so quick to be published as Sheehan’s original piece. The story of its original non-publication and Sheehan’s part in that drama was also picked up by Media Watch in 2005, which commented on the fact the Herald did not, despite promises to the contrary, publish the Hills story at the time of broadcast –

Journalist Ben Hills is on contract to the Sydney Morning Herald, and has worked for Fairfax on and off for 40 years. But he’s having trouble getting this story in the paper. He says he expected it to appear in the Saturday paper two weeks ago. It didn’t.

The Media Watch transcript also tells us something about Sheehan’s style, when confronted with the reality of a fellow journalist about to cast a critical eye over his work. He wrote an article making dark suggestions about the inventor of Unique Water, in an attempt to distance himself from the original “frenzy” relating to the water.  He then made an accusation about Ben Hills – “I’ve complained to the Editor in Chief about an abusive phone call from Ben Hills…”  The Hills article was eventually published, but the conduct of Sheehan is revealed for all to see in the Media Watch story.

But Unique Water.  Millions of dollars spent by sick people looking for a miracle cure, all inspired by Paul Sheehan.  Just where did it go?  We know where Sheehan went.  He is happily munching on Sonoma bread and writing articles about Muslims “religious cleansing” in the Middle East. And probably not drinking Unique Water.


Go Back to Where You Came From and Paul Sheehan, Gullibility Expert

When I regularly read the Sydney Morning Herald, I always braced myself before getting to the opinion pages for the onslaught of whatever columnist was ready to spin about the wonders of John Howard and the evils of Kevin Rudd / Julia Gillard / Bob Brown / even Malcolm Turnbull.  Miranda Devine and Paul Sheehan lining up, making bald claims, most of them unsubstantiated or supported by very carefully selected evidence.  Now Devine has gone, there’s really only Sheehan to bark the crazy stuff.  And today’s article about the SBS program “Go Back to Where You Came From” was a doozy.

Even before the show started on Tuesday night I was predicting the froth laden comments that would come from talkback radio hosts the next morning – “encouraging terrorists”, “wanting our borders to be free” “taxpayer funded propaganda”, et cetera.  Sheehan doesn’t disappoint.  I sometimes wonder if he is angling for a gig at 2GB – or, in the current environment, 2UE.

Sheehan starts with making the claim that the “taxpayer funded” program is based on a falsity.  That “falsity” is called “enforced empathy” and in this comment, Sheehan refers to the one participant on the showwhose views have not substantially changed – Darren Hassan.  The same Darren Hassan who is also an “aspiring Liberal politician”, a point Sheehan conveniently leaves out of his piece.  Sheehan goes onto to say that what the show is doing is “lying” to its audience, and worse still, making that audience go on “an empathy forced march” – inferring that this show is doing to its audience the same thing armies do to prisoners.  It’s a strong and pretty toxic inference.

Sheehan goes on to bake the show’s creators for staging the boat sinking on the first episode, saying it was “only for the gullible”.  It could be fair to say that the trick was a little silly, and was ripped directly from reality TV shows.  It did, however, make a clear point to the audience and the participants about the dangers in a form with which we are all familiar – the simulation.  Sometimes these points need to be made on television. It also needs to be said that the producers could hardly put the participants in real danger, in terms of public liability.  The producers have taken extra special care into that every step of the way – the participants look very protected, even if they didn’t feel that way.  Sheehan doesn’t allow the producers the same leeway he would probably afford the producers of other reality shows.  But that’s because he has his axe to grind.

Sheehan next does a favourite trick – including a line like this “The narrator told us that only ”1 per cent of the world’s refugees are resettled by the UN”. Again, a highly misleading statistic.” And leaving it there.  Not expanding on it, not explaining it, not putting up statistics that “correct” it.  Just making the statement that the stat is “highly misleading”.  I wonder how many cadet journalists would be allowed to get away with that.

The next line sounds almost reasonable –

“Because this debate is not about empathy. It is not about numbers. It is not about race. It is about principle: control the borders. The biggest beneficiaries of strict border control would be legitimate asylum seekers.”

He then goes on to claim that

“The Gillard Labor government could fall on this issue alone, given how badly it has been handled for almost four years”.

But just what does this phrase mean – “control the borders”?  The fact we have refugees in detention and that the boats are stopped before they get to the mainland is proof that our borders are, indeed, controlled.  And the supposed “bad” handling of the issue is also not expanded on, except in terms of cost escalations, which have as much to do with as escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the defeat of Tamils in Sri Lanka has it has with a supposed “failure” by the government.

Talking of catchphrases, Sheehan, quite ironically, uses material from the show to demonstrate that Australians are opposed to asylum seekers and immigration. He does this by quoting questions asked by the participants before they went on their journey.

“The bedrock opposition of Australians to the empathy argument is quickly evident from the questions asked by some of the participants in Go Back to where You Came from”

It’s a bit of a Captain Obvious statement – the point of the start of the program is to show that these attitudes are held by most of the participants.  Ones not unlike those composed by Sheehan.  The program then goes and corrects those misrepresentations. But of course, Sheehan dismisses any learning they do in the program has been written off as “an empathy forced walk” involving

“the guide, Dr David Corlett, who is immersed in the refugee industry, is highly political, and in 2003 wrote a Quarterly Essay, ”Sending Them Home”, with Robert Manne. This is the producers’ idea of dispassionate objectivity”.

I’m not entirely sure what the “refugee industry” is – this is something else Sheehan does not address. It’s probably something akin to the “climate change industry” that Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Viscount Monckton are always referring to. As if there is a multitude of people seeking to make a buck out of refugees and climate change.  What is clear, though, is that Sheehan thinks by just mentioning Robert Manne, his audience will go “ah, well, yes, this is just some leftie propaganda because a guy in it worked with Manne 8 years ago”.  Perhaps they will.  But this does raise the point of the past and what people have done in theirs.  This question certainly applies to Sheehan.

It is curious that at one stage in the piece (which I bolded earlier) Sheehan says “it’s not about race”.  If this came from anyone else, I would be inclined to believe that he was making a genuine statement about his intentions behind writing this piece.  But this is Paul Sheehan, who has form when it comes to matters race and matters religion.  He has written regularly about Islam and Muslim people and the dangers they have been said to pose.  Especially in Lakemba.  There was this article about Lebanese Muslim youth, where he claims that a “disconnected, violent, racist, criminal subculture has grown within Sydney’s Muslim community”, a conclusion based on incidents over an eight year period.  If he wrote an article about any area of Sydney, he could say the same thing about any racial group.  After all, many violent incidents involving youths and young adults happen at Penrith Panthers.  But Penrith doesn’t have so many Lebanese Muslims. We are still waiting for our article about the youths here.

Sheehan makes the comment at the start of his article about the SBS program that the “falsity” of the program is based on:

“that if you believe in stopping the small number of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, you are lacking in empathy, lacking in compassion, and probably anti-Muslim”

There is no probably about Sheehan being anti-Muslim.  He has often liked to write about Sheik Hilaly, using his statements as a representative of all Muslims.  The same article also provides a fairly astonishing justification of the Cronulla riots –

“Even though there was plenty of media sensationalism in the days before the event, interviews with dozens of people in Cronulla have shown that it was the inadequacy of the police response to incessant sexual aggression by young Muslim men that fuelled a build-up in community resentment”.

So, according to the Sheehan perspective, it was some kind of apparent “incessant” sexual aggression by unnamed Muslim men that caused them, not alcohol fuelled Anglo-Saxons.

Then there was this more recent piece that addressed a shift in voting amongst the Egyptian Coptic Christian group in Sydney from the ALP to the Liberal Party:

“These communities are tilting away from Labor, perceiving it as the party of appeasement of Muslim belligerence, and the party that has turned Australia’s refugee program into a Muslim immigration program, while Christian communities are bludgeoned in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon”.

Bald, outrageous generalised comments with no supporting evidence.  He also makes another reference to the now powerless (and certainly not mainstream) Hilaly:

“Australia’s most contentious mainstream Muslim cleric, Sheikh Taj el-Din al Hilaly, the former grand mufti of Australia, is an import from Egypt. He was installed as a permanent resident by the Keating Labor government, over the objections of the security service. His Labor connections are well known and self-advertised.

The Labor Party, locked into a political alliance with Muslim leaders in western Sydney, has said little of consequence about the problem of religious cleansing of Christians by Muslims. It has done even less”.

“Religious cleansing” – another phrase not explained.  But that seems to be the Sheehan way.

In terms of his response to Go Back to Where You Came From, Sheehan makes no comment about the appalling treatment of asylum seekers in Malaysia or the other massive problems with refugee processing that the show reveals is telling.  He says nothing about the cascade of facts that are presented – just casting doubt on one. Sheehan’s agenda in this piece is clear, based on his past writings.  It is to discredit any attempt to present a view that might allow more asylum seekers – especially Muslim ones – into Australia.  And call anyone who is motivated towards positive action on the issue as “gullible”.  If we all were so gullible, however, perhaps we would want to rush out and buy more Unique Water by the boxload.

Cultural Comment

The Steakhouse Challenge – The Hoot v The Outback

As the countdown towards us leaving Preston Towers races along (that’s now the name i have given our apartment building), there is time to reflect on us tackling three of the steakhouses in Penrith this past month. It is fair to say steakhouse eating has been more about the experience than it has about the food, well, at least in one case.

1. Outback Jacks. This is a pleasant enough place, Australian owned and the atmosphere would be good for a family get-together or somewhere to go after a Panthers match. The decor is fairly tacky, in that Steve Irwin style uniform and wall decorations. Not to mention the giant crocodile attached to the ceiling. The food, curiously, one orders from the steak counter, where they have examples of the cuts in front of you. Just in case you don’t know what steak looks like.

The steak I ordered was wagyu, but it was the most boring wagyu I have had – and not especially medium rare. The accompanying side was so forgettable that I can’t even say what it was.

2. Outback Steakhouse. There was no Jemaine Clement, nor was there an ounce of tackiness in the faux Australian chain from the US. Indeed, my partner in the challenge and in life wanted the light fittings to take home – they were subtle, with a hint of Aboriginal dot painting. This restaurant is more for couples and small groups, with its bays not having the same open feel of Outback Jacks. The lighting, too, encouraged a more intimate feel.

The food and the service were excellent, which surprised us to an extent, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. There was lots of talk of salads being made from scratch as well as a sense of relief and joy that we asked our waitress for a recommendation of which wine we should have. The wine list was very limited and featured mostly mainstream Rosemount / Penfolds stuff but she recommended a less well known one on the list – and it was a good choice. (Mind you, we ate there the night before we headed off to Canowindra, so the poor wine paled in comparison to what we were about to have). The steaks were not only actually medium rare, but had been prepared well and were very nice – as was the salad. In addition, we want to know find out just how they do their sweet potato.

3. Hooters. I was a little scared of this place when we first approached it, the night we tried to go without a booking. Scared because when you walk in, they greet you with a loud holler in an American accent, “Welcome to Hooters!”, just in case you don’t know where you are. The second time, we had booked through their phone system (a call centre), but that didn’t work. Fortunately, we weren’t there on a particularly busy night.

Hooters provided for one of the more surreal eating experiences of our lives. When you go in, you are assigned your own Hooters Girl, whose job is not only to take your order, but engage in awkward conversation. Well, in our case, it was awkward conversation. Actually, in my case, because she seemed really only interested in what I had to say. This added to the bizarre sexist feel of the place. What made it more awkward for me was that I look at a girl with a tight, thin white singlet and orange hotpants and think “she must be cold”.

The conversations were fairly limited and didn’t really branch into Arab Israeli relations nor the best carbon pricing model. Perhaps it should have. Though, she did provide a tempting opening with the question “what do you think Hooters is all about?” I wanted to say readings of Slovenian literature and outer Mongolian music performances, but I said something about eating food and giant televisions. Giant televisions that were beaming the image of a man who used to be Shane Warne. I do hope the plasticising of Shane is now complete – i really do think his name needs to change to Shane Smooth.

I didn’t go into the Shane Smooth discussion, because our Hooters Girl was talking about What Hooters Is About. Apparently, yes, it’s about food but it’s also about the Hooters Girls. Which is not something I really wanted to say. Yes, this place is all about breasts and orange buttocks.

As the food was getting prepared in the kitchen, by a man wearing a “Lord of the Wings” Tshirt (Hooters is apparently famous for their wings, not to mention their “More than a Mouthful” hamburgers), the girls were happily chatting away, taking orders and the like when the Gloria Estefan came on. And that was a cue for a dance routine by all of the girls – a jiggly bootscooting cavalcade. In fact, it was four songs, with the last one featuring an offer by the girls to men to dance with them. Our poor Hooters Girl was stuck in a space between the bar and our table, meaning that our table and the one next to us were in fairly close proximity, adding to the awkwardness. And no, I didn’t participate. I can’t jiggle or bootscoot as well as I used to in my heyday.

The food was pretty good, really – the steak was medium rare (the chef, who was male and not jiggly, though had sleeve tatts, seemingly surprised that anyone ordered a steak, came out and asked if it was OK) and better than Outback Jacks, though not as good as the Outback Steakhouse. In addition, it came out on a wooden slab which could have been a chopping block, accompanied by curly fries (no salad option). The desserts were also pleasant, though forgettable. We had ordered a key lime pie, but the manager (who was female, but was wearing a sensible polo shirt) came out to tell us it was gone. Maybe that Lord of the Wings bloke could be put into better use and become a dessert chef.

I do get Hooters – if you want an upbeat, entirely artificially happy experience, then it’s the place for you. I can also get why families go to the place – it has the feel of a cartoon land (even down to the costumes and dimensions of the Hooters Girls) and I’m sure the Girls are really friendly with kids and would enjoy interacting with them.

As we left Hooters, we were contemplating just what life would be like for a Hooters Girl in Penrith – they seemed pleasant people (and not necessarily full of silicone, which was a mild surprise) and we suspected that if any customer was too out of line, other patrons and the bouncer out the front would quickly sort it out. This is why the place had a friendly, easy going air, where the chat was light and harmless. But I also think we must have looked completely out of place in our work clothes.

But Hooters is not about the food, really – it’s about an experience that need to be shared by more than two – the place is designed for groups of 4 or more, to enjoy rugby league together as well as the Hooters Girls.

That isn’t quite it for the Steakhouse Challenge – there is the entirely more classy Osso next week inside Panthers. However, at this stage, we have been enjoying the challenge and think we may go to the Outback Steakhouse again. Or maybe not. I am getting more and more of an aversion to steak as this challenge has gone on. I am craving vegetarian cooking. Or whatever it is they do at The Taste of Canowindra and Sister’s Rock in Orange. That is more our scene.

Cultural Comment

Regionalising Australia – An Achievable Goal

As anyone who read my Monday blog about Canowindra would know, I had a great time there as an escape as well as being a culturally awakened experience.  We are definitely going there again.  It was also very encouraging that people from the community responded so warmly to my post, both on here and through Twitter.

Since my return, I have ground my way back into urban life, managing the great trick of driving through semi rural areas of Sydney to get to a workplace that is just at the edge of an urban sprawl nightmare.   There is no way I could work closer to Sydney, as my profession really does require a car and the M4 is murder.  It was with interest, therefore, I read Ray Dixon’s blog written in response to an article by the IPA’s Chris Berg, published on The Drum about the Federal Government’s policy encouraging people to move to regional areas.

The concept of governments encouraging people to go to regional centres is not new. There were old schemes designed to use Albury/Wodonga, Bathurst and other places more attractive for city based people, as well as moving government department officers to those regional centres.  And now, faced with very real problems of urban sprawl and poor infrastructure, the Federal Government is again looking to the rural areas for a pressure valve.

And there is a desperate need for a pressure valve.  Berg, in his article makes a comment that

“Trains and trams seem packed. Infrastructure has not kept up with demand – or, if it has, no voters seem to believe it”.

There’s no “seems” about it.  Infrastructure hasn’t kept up with demand.  Favouring the private car over the public train has been transport infrastructure policy, at least in Sydney, since after World War Two.  This is why very few new train lines have been built in that time, whilst a proliferation of motorways have sprung up, choking up at a faster rate than even the most pessimistic traffic projections.  The M4 past the Lighthorse Interchange is a horrible nightmare from after 6am pretty much every morning.  Not seems at all. The other difficulty is that suburbs have been built around these motorways, rather than around train lines.  I would invite Mr. Berg to come out to Glenmore Park, a suburb built in the 1990s, to see just what a problem private vehicle-biased urban planning has caused.  And that’s 60 kilometres from the centre of Sydney – right at the edge of the Sydney Basin.  Sydney, for most intents and purposes, is almost built out.

Therefore we return to the idea of encouraging people to move to regional centres.  To develop employment, cultural and social hubs for people to move to, in order to help them start out in life.  This is not baby boomers “tree changing” that I am talking about – I am talking about people starting out in life.

When I was in my 20s, I hated Sydney and its sprawl and wanted to start out afresh.  So, I went to Wagga Wagga.  There are plenty of employment opportunities in a range of industries and professions there, as well as a population of 65,000.  And in my profession, teaching, the salary is the same there as it is anywhere.  Thanks be to awards.  Rent was much cheaper in Wagga in Sydney, as were houses.  The sums, really, are obvious.

But life in Wagga was hard, I will admit – there is, as Berg points out, “conservatism”, “narrow-mindedness” and “lack of ethnic diversity” present in the city.  Curious enough, that was mostly restricted to my work colleagues, not people in Wagga on the whole.  And, as I found out later, those kind of negatives was mainly restricted to my workplace – it wasn’t in all the schools in the district.  All I really needed to do in order to feel more comfortable in the area was make a bit more of an effort to find different interests to pursue.  Perhaps the people Berg selective quotes from in his article could have tried harder to find a niche.

However, there was one major barrier to enjoying an extended life there, which was a lack of doctors in the town – which was an issue for us, with a new child.  Only new patients could be added to the waiting list of a GP – you weren’t allowed to switch.  But this isn’t the fault of the town, it is the fault of doctors, who don’t seem to mind setting up practices in cities where they compete for patients.   Whenever I see a GP set up a new shingle and pay for advertising in a city area, I just think of the great people of Wagga not having the choice of doctor.   I think new doctors should be, like teachers in olden times, made to start their careers as members of the GP practice in a rural centre, as to make such medical services available.

Ironically, any new doctor in a rural town is treated like a crown prince by the townspeople – they are treasured and appreciated.  I’m not sure doctors in medical centres would feel the same level of acceptance and affirmation.  The same goes for country teachers.

But, the question remains, why do professionals gravitate to major cities instead of these rural places.  I think it’s partially down to perceptions, not realities.  These perceptions are neatly summarised in a number of quotes from Berg:

“After all, an urban population is a richer population”

“City dwellers aren’t only richer – they’re happier too”

“Successful cities, Glaeser uncontroversially says, are those which attract smart and creative people, and allow those people to interact in close proximity to each other”.

Firstly, the inference there is that money is what drives people’s happiness – to be prosperous is paramount to the Berg and Glaeser thesis.  This is a fairly narrow definition of “rich”.  The concept of “happier” is also curious, in that it’s a large generalisation to say all people in cities are happier than all people in rural areas.  Whilst Berg peppers his article with “to each their own”, it is clear that he believes that city people really are happier than those in rural areas, partially because they are economically prosperous. This discounts any possibility that rural areas have lower pollution, which relates to physical happiness as well as provides a number of pathways to happiness that cannot be equated to economic prosperity.

And then there is the last point, which seems to infer (probably accidentally, to be fair) that rural areas don’t attract smart and creative people. Berg does not make the attempt at any time in his article to talk about regional universities, cultural clubs and the like in rural areas.  This is a particularly galling point, because most regional centres have a great heritage of having smart and creative people as a part of their communities.

One thing I found in Canowindra this past weekend is an emerging cultural community that has grown into a long lasting, viable group.  We visited two art gallery spaces and talked to people who were spoke of a long tradition of community theatre groups.  The winemaker we spoke to was very up to date with contemporary issues and it is the case that locals are technologically savvy and engaged with the opportunities afforded by the internet.  40 minutes away is Orange, which has a network of great restaurants, a university campus and music school.  Classical music.  So, the idea that people in rural areas can’t engage with a wider cultural milieu and are instead stuck in some kind of cultural backwoods is fallacious.

For my own time in Wagga, I was more culturally engaged than I have been in my more recent urban life.  I simply don’t have the time here and cultural groupings are more scattered and find it hard to connect.  In contrast, I wrote and acted in a play in Wagga Wagga.  I can’t see that happening anywhere near as easily in an urban centre.

We then come to another part of Berg’s thesis, which is based on an unlinked article from the Sunday Age in 2009 –

“A report in the Sunday Age in 2009 found a substantial proportion of people moving to quieter parts of the country regretted it – 90 per cent planned to leave within the next five years”.

“As one academic said at the time, “People bought the dream about the idealistic country life, then they moved there and were confronted by the reality: poor health care, poor road quality, fewer work opportunities, expensive food, lack of entertainment, obesity, lack of ethnic diversity, difficulty making friends, conservatism and narrow-mindedness. They expected to find an enjoyable life with less work and less traffic. But they found a lack of stability, lower pay and longer commutes.”

The thesis here is that rural areas are unattractive places to live and people from the cities want to run screaming back to the cities. However, one survey about which we don’t know the terms of reference and provenance in addition to one unnamed academic, who may or may not have been a sociologist or cultural historian, really cannot form the basis of a solid criticism of lifestyles in rural communities.  It has the same weight as my recently gathered anecdotal evidence that there are many great, unclogged rural roads, great quality and value food, good work opportunities, excellent entertainment and the like in Canowindra and Orange.  And much shorter commutes. The point here is that any well rounded response to the Federal Government’s plans for regionalising needs more support than just one article from a Melbourne newspaper. It would be just as absurd to base a Federal Government policy on one of my blogs.

Finally, this is not to say that the future of the nation is to have people from Sydney being relocated to Canowindra.  Not all regional centres have its advantages, for sure.  It’s also not for everyone. However, what is needed from the Federal Government is a systematic plan for making a regionalisation work.  The solution cannot be just throwing money at people so they’ll move.  I suspect that is an area on which Mr. Berg and I would agree.  I believe, though, that any regionalisation plan must focus on getting the services right first, such as hospitals, doctors, schools and the like as well as following through with the NBN promise.  There seems to be a cynicism amongst many rural communities about the actual delivery of the NBN – it promises much, but it will be hard to deliver.

A successful regionalisation program is also a matter of creating the right atmosphere for new people to arrive – culturally, socially and economically.  That way, the stereotypical experiences and attitudes experienced by the people referred to in the Sunday Age article are not repeated across the country.  That is why communities should be involved in such a regional program – have a Community Welcoming Committee, showing new arrivals what opportunities are available in the various facets of a community’s life.

But I think it would be great for Australia to stop clinging to our overcrowded major cities.  I think we in the urban areas need to see regional centres as more than holiday destinations and as a viable way for Australia to grow.

Classical Music

Preston Classical Radio – Shostakovich Part One

This week’s classical radio blog is the first in an occasional series about one of my favourite “classical” composers of the 20th Century – Dmitri Shostakovich.  There are many reasons he is one of my faves – but it’s largely because there is a mixture of the sarcastic, the driven, the humorous, the edgy, the fearful and the desperately sad about his music.  To me, the character of the 20th Century summarised to a tee.  You’ll never hear his music played at a Liberal Party function nor have a special Glee episode dedicated to him.

One of my favourite Shostakovich symphony movements is the 3rd movement of the 8th, which we wrote as a response to the machine like passage of the war, trampling on the spirits of the Soviet people.  Just who the machines were driven by is not said.  But it’s oft been said that Stalin has more of a presence here than Hitler.  It’s performed here with an entirely undemonstrative air by the man who conducted more premieres of Shostakovich than anyone else, Yevgeny Mravinsky.

Shostakovich’s life story followed the mood swings of the Soviet Union experiment, as he was 11 when the revolution occurred.  He started as a favoured son of the new cultural growth, encouraged to write whatever he liked and the state looked after his wellbeing. And so he did.  Whole ranges of wild, vivid music that was unlike music of the old Russian composers like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov.

Unfortunately, for Shostakovich, like the Soviet Union in general, Stalin came along. And Stalin had strong ideas of what his people should be creating – like any person with power over cultural production.  And Stalin knew he didn’t like this opera – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

So, after years of success in Soviet Union and Europe, Pravda featured a review that many attribute to Stalin, or at least one of his operatives –

“Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all. This music is built on the basis of rejecting opera – the same basis on which “Leftist” Art rejects in the theatre simplicity, realism, clarity of image, and the unaffected spoken word – which carries into the theatre and into music the most negative features of “Meyerholdism” infinitely multiplied. Here we have “leftist” confusion instead of natural human music. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, “formalist” attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly”.

Yes, leftist.  Sound familiar?  Have resonances for our time? As a result of this review – and especially the “may end very badly”, Shostakovich packed a suitcase with some belongings next to his door, ready for the time when the NKVD would take him off to Siberia, just as had happened to his friends, including Vsevolod Meyerhold.  He also put one of his wildest symphonies – the 4th – in the drawer, leaving it unperformed until after Stalin’s death.

The 5th Symphony was quickly written and with it came a subtitle – “A Composer’s Response to Just Criticism”.  It was a success, because it was seen to emulate an older style, more relevant to working peoples.  It is still one of his favourite works – especially the moving 3rd Movement.  But, like a lot of Shostakovich’s work, it was seen to have two meanings.  One was the public meaning, about pleasing working peoples – and the other was the private one – which on this occasion was the pain and suffering of people under Stalin.  Either way, the Largo is a moving piece of music.

It was after the Soviet Union suffered through the Second World War and Shostakovich produced the 8th Symphony, which started this blog. And that will do for this week.  At some stage down the track, I’ll go through his piano music – more complexity, more beauty.

Cultural Comment

Canowindra – A Beautiful Getaway and an Opportunity

We’ve been away for a couple of days, escaping the pressures of Sydney, slipping into that lovely temporal state, the Mind of the Traveller, where peace and centre is at the heart of one’s existence.  That’s been my view of travelling for a long time now, that it is about the mindset travelling provides, rather than the destination.  Unlike many in my generation, I haven’t had the opportunity nor the means to travel overseas, due to my father’s view that he preferred driving in Australia and being the only salary earner in my marriage made it hard to go on any holiday, let alone one overseas.  Hence, I have long liked visiting NSW.  Where we went this weekend also raises some challenges for us as city people who visit the west of NSW.

This weekend it was Cowra and Canowindra that was the place to be.  Both towns are interesting places to visit, even without the wineries, which was the main motivator for us.  Cowra has the unenviable position of being the home of a POW Camp during WW2, from which Japanese POWs staged a breakout, killing 4 Australian soldiers and losing 231, with a combination of suicide dashes towards gun placements and suicide out in the fields of Cowra.  It’s still an eerie place to visit, the field in the middle of virtually nowhere.  However, what it did create was a dedication in Cowra towards peace and reconciliation with that past.  This culminated in Cowra, not Canberra, receiving a replica of the World Peace Bell and building Australia’s largest Japanese garden – which really does provide a piece of zen calm.

Cowra is also a rural hub, pastorally significant, all part of the rural megabusiness written about so enthusiastically by neo-liberal champion Chris Berg.  Possibly as a result of this, Cowra has a sameness about it, when compared to other rural regional hubs. Because the two of us are more of the mushy romantic type, we were left a little underwhelmed with the rest of the town.

I had booked accommodation at The Old Vic Inn in Canowindra for a couple of basic reasons.  The main one was that I was a little slow in planning the holiday – six weeks before, and my plan to get somewhere in Orange (a favourite from last year) or Mudgee (we haven’t been there yet) yielded few good accommodation options.  I later found out from one vigneron in Orange that this is an emerging problem for Orange – that the city faces an accommodation problem, where there won’t be enough beds for the increasing number of Sydney tourists who have realised that the area is beautiful and worth visiting.

What I didn’t realise was how beautiful Canowindra is.  It’s almost the opposite of the flavourless, colourless megabusiness hub that we normally associate with the Central West of NSW.  It’s determined to stay stuck in the past, with its lack of chain stores, takeaway joints and other economically prudent choices.  The Old Vic was more like an old style guesthouse, where people didn’t stay in their rooms (there were no TVs in those rooms), instead chatted around the open fire.  Or, like us, chatted or surfed the web on our free wifi-powered electronic devices.  The main street, Gaskill St, is made of buildings still from Victorian and Edwardian times and feature small shops filled with nice household items and jewellery – as well as good coffee.

The wines of Canowindra, while possibly uneconomically sound, are an undiscovered gem and easily as good as any we have had from wine factory regions like the Hunter or the Yarra Valley.  We spent time visiting one winery – Wallington – where the attitude of the winemaker, Margaret Wallington, summed up on one level what Canowindra can be seen to represent. She only had the wines that were in her shed, so it was a limited range.  She put into bottles wines that she thought would work, based on the quality of that year’s vintage.  She has also installed solar panels as well as biodynamic practices – not to save money or to provide a point of difference – just because it is the right thing to do for the environment.   And the wines are indeed special – and that’s an objective view from two people who have gone to most of the wine regions of NSW and Victoria these past two years.

The other wines of Canowindra can be tasted at The Taste of Canowindra – which is also a great place for lunches and the occasional dinner.  The birthday dinner we had was wonderful, because not only was the food fantastic – and locally sourced – but the chef was cooking everything from scratch and was ranting and raving in the kitchen, oblivious to the outside world.  As far from Masterchef as I can imagine.

But there is something instructive in Canowindra for people interested in cultural trends. I have long suspected that people who have the money to spend for holidays away might be getting sick of the sameness of world cities and the dullness of homogenous globalised centres.  This is where towns like Canowindra can work as a tourist destination.  It has a gallery, it has new shops run by locals – locals who can see the value in getting a web presence like Bendy Street Emporium.  With the Old Vic now starting to get booked out, there is room for more accommodation options, a bakery, a pizza restaurant, a bookshop, perhaps a brewery.  There is a future in harkening back to the past – we saw quite a few people in their 20s having a wander through Finn’s Store, as well as people in their 40s and 50s.

Another positive of not flying off to New York, London or Bali and instead going to Canowindra is that after you come back, the money you’ve spent hasn’t gone to an airline company, instead it’s gone into the pockets of people you now know, with the products ending up in the wine cellar and jewellery box.  Certainly beats trooping off to Dan Murphy’s to buy a bottle of the 20 or so fake brands they have made up.

Yes, Canowindra is about as far from modern economic wisdom as you can get.  And I love it.


Sack Hilditch, Not Katich

There has been many supporters of the Australian Test Cricket Team that have been steaming for a while about the current selection panel, headed by partially successful SA and Australian opening batsman, Andrew Hilditch.  This is the man whose selection panel has been responsible for the sacking of Jason Krejza after one poor match in Perth – not a good spinners wicket – despite getting 12 Indian wickets in his previous test; leaving Stuart MacGill on the sidelines in the 2005 Ashes series, whilst Warne was confusing the Englishmen.  And then there was the Johnson In – Out of Adelaide shemozzle.  And Michael Beer.  Remember him?  I’m not sure Hilditch does.  Indeed, there have been so many changes, stuff-ups and poor choices from this selection committee that I really can’t name them all without wanting to throw this nice keyboard at the wall.  Perhaps others can name some.

But this takes the cake.  And eats it, in the fine dining rooms, far above the tragics who pay good money for each day of cricket.  And then throws it back on that poor punter who has paid the $96 for a decent seat in the Victor Trumper stand at the SCG.  Simon Katich has been dropped from the contracted players’ list because they are concerned about the opening partnership for the 2013 Ashes series. 2013!

This is still 2011, as far as I can see, and there are a whole host of test matches between now and 2013.  So, is Andrew Hilditch telling us that the 2011 / 12 test season doesn’t matter?  That’s it’s simply a training run for the 2013 Ashes?  That you leave out Australia’s best performing batsman over the past two years, put in the underperforming Phil Hughes, because you are worried about 2013? If you doubt that there is no form related reason with this sacking – look at this graph (courtesy of @grogsgamut).

This is proof that it’s Hilditch that has to go – that the selection panel has lost touch with any semblance of professionalism and respect for the cricket supporter – that it shows it doesn’t care for what will be a tough season, by leaving out one of the toughest Australian players available.  And, by the way, leaving in two players the same age as Katich – Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting – who have not performed with the same consistency as Katich has in recent time.

So, people, get behind a campaign with a hashtag suggested by NSW Liberal Premier, Barry O’Farrell – #sackhilditchnotkatich.  Boycott all games organised by Cricket Australia until it decides to include Katich in the contracted players’ list and remove Andrew Hilditch from the chairman’s role.  I’m certainly taking much less of an interest from now on.  Pathetic.

Cultural Comment

The Steakhouse Challenge – Not Quite Masterchef

This week I posted about the Two Kilometre Challenge, where we are seeking to buy most of our housewares and plumbing supplies, etc, from places 2kms from the front door.  This post is about a similar challenge – instead it’s about eating out at restaurants within 2kms of our front door.

And just what does Penrith offer, in a 2km radius?  Steakhouses.  Everywhere, steak.  And we are going to attempt to eat at every single one before we leave Penrith for the relative culinary variety of the Blue Mountains.  Here is the challenge.

1.  Silver Spur

First cab off the rank in the Riff was Sizzler, which is now no more (and, arguably, not a steakhouse, more a food trough) – which was replaced by a place called “Silver Spur”.

I’m not entirely sure what steak has to do with Native Americans, but it does in Penrith. It is situated between a Maccas and a KFC, and next to the Krispy Kreme in the Panthers’ carpark.

2. Outback Jacks

Next Steakhouse is the Australian attempt at an “Outback” franchise, Outback Jacks.

The restaurant has the distinction of being across the road from the now dubiously named “Centrebet Stadium” – or, as I still call it, Penrith Park. Outback Jacks promote themselves frequently during Panthers games – and members of the Panthers team were photographed taking the unique “icon” of the restaurant inside –

That rubber croc has been glued to the ceiling of the establishment, waiting to gobble up your steak that you left uneaten, no doubt.

3. The Outback Steakhouse

This odd franchise was initiated by and is wholly owned by American concerns – so, expect a lot of cheesy “Australianisms” in the menu.  In Penrith, the location, in the Panthers carpark (near the Silver Spur), used to contain that long unlamented Lonestar Steakhouse and Saloon, infamous for the embarrassing bootscooting birthday singers and barrels of peanuts near the bar.   The Outback Steakhouse is famous for many things, but two rather stomach curdling ideas.  One is the Bloomin’ Onion, an onion deep fried in batter…

as well as the American TV ads, with a supposed “Australian” – Jemaine Clement, from Flight of the Conchords

4. Osso, in Panthers

Amongst all of them, Osso Steak and Ribs looks by far the best option, steak wise – in terms of the cuts and the way it is cooked.  The prices reflect that, as well as the fact the Sydney Morning Herald did a pretty good story on them when they moved from their Lawson St address to inside the newly renovated Panthers.  It will end the Journey du Steak, because we would like to end it on a high note.  However, this introductory blog will end with the tackiest entry into the Penrith Steakhouse Pantheon.

5.  Hooters

When I drove past the Hooters’ sign a few weeks ago, I took it as a sign that it’s a good time to leave Penrith.  The most Orange restaurant in the world now has two operational outlets in Australia.

It’s even got itself, rather bizarrely, into Media Watch –

As my beloved says, going to Hooters will be just like watching a car crash – you know you shouldn’t look, but you know you want to.  She does, however, want to ask questions of the Hooters girls, such as:

1.  Was there a tape measure produced at your interview for the job?

2.  Do you dye your skin deliberately to match the colour of the logo?

3.  Do you have tofu on the menu?

4.  What is the capital of Bulgaria?

So, the challenge is a fairly simple one – go to each steakhouse, order a medium rare steak, see how it cooked, order salads (or tofu) and then assess the vibe of each place.

Wish us luck.  There will be updates as we go.  As well as me eating a Bloomin’ Onion.

Cultural Comment

The Two Kilometre Challenge – Buying Locally

In recent times, we have heard about two interesting and quite different phenomena in terms of consumption – of food and of household items.  In food, we have a new desire to shop locally, as in, source our food from somewhere local, preferably organic, at a market or even buying direct from the farmer.  I have found this movement fairly intriguing, as we now have the phenomena of farmers from the Nepean and Hawkesbury districts – as in, near me, travelling to inner city markets – but we have only one per month in Penrith.

In shopping for clothes, electronic items, books, etc, the internet has ensured cheaper shopping online for most things, as well as the ease of online research, which ensures, reportedly, the lowest possible price.  Hence, whilst many are determined not to import cheaper, packaged food from nations in which it is often cheaper to grow the food – those same people are more than happy to shop from those same nations for our clothes and electronics.

We are moving from this apartment building in the coming month and we are looking at two things – buying furniture, whitegoods and bedding for the new place and sprucing up this apartment with new carpet, shower screen and other things.  I don’t want a tenant to put up with yuck grey carpet.  However, such things as I have been looking for are rather tricky to get online – they offer their own peculiar demands to be looked at, felt, touched.

So, as a result, I have set myself a 2km Challenge – as in, buy everything possible within a 2k radius of our front door.  Visit local shops, draw upon local experience, do things like they used to be done.  In this challenge, I am also trying to avoid going to the “big box” places like Harvey Norman and Bing Lee, though Bunnings is virtually unavoidable.

This challenge is not as difficult, admittedly, as it could be for others – we do live near a mixed light industrial / commercial zone and not that far from Homemakers centres. Parts of Penrith doesn’t delineate clearly between residential and commercial, which is good for this challenge, at least.  So, how has it gone?

1.  Carpet.  There are 7 carpet stores within 2ks of here – one of them being Harvey Norman.  But HN wanted $15 per square metre for installation and another place, carpet Call, wanted $20 per square metre.  That would mean for a 40 square metre apartment either $600 or $800.  Thoroughly absurd, unless they were laying it on underlay with genuine gold thread.  The opposite approach is achieved by Bunnings, who quote a higher price for the carpet, then claim they will install a houseful for $139.  Hmmm.  I preferred the approach from Carpet One, which had the advantage of being 500 metres from the door, who included the installation price – which was reasonable.  The experienced female salesperson also gave sound and honest advice of the wearability and impact of Britex machines in rental properties.  Her husband will be the installer.  I prefer that to someone from Bunnings, to be honest.

2.  Beds.  My son needs a new bed and mattress.  There are a heap of bed shops within 2ks.  However, I found by walking inside that there is a vast difference between the types of beds about.  There are the shops that just make their own beds – like the Original Mattress Factory, which has good beds, but not a variety.  Then there are the ones with the elaborate bedroom suites out the front – Snooze, Forty Winks – the ones that do TV ads.  They put a premium on beds, though I did stand through a very entertaining explanation of why pocket spring beds are better than the old style springs.  It was entertaining because the salesman told me that he was cutting down from 8 coffees and a packet of cigarettes per day to 6 coffees and no cigarettes.  As a result, he was bouncing off a number of beds.  Literally.

We ended up going for an outfit called BedsRUs – tacky name, but a smaller shop with no elaborate bedroom ensembles, just good mattresses made in Australia and China (we went for the Australian one) that were pocket spring and cheaper than Forty Winks – some $200+ cheaper.   It helped that the staff were experienced, female staff who were not pushy, just helpful.  I liked the mattress deal so much I decided that my daughter really did need a better mattress than the elcheapo $200 one I bought when moving into the apartment, so I got another one.

I will continue with this quest in later blogs.  It has been an intriguing and rewarding idea so far.

Classical Music

Preston Classical Radio No.3 – Daniel Barenboim

For this week’s Classical Radio Blog – at the suggestion of Malcolm Farnsworth, I am focusing on Daniel Barenboim.  The Argentinian born pianist of Jewish heritage has had a life and career that would dwarf any number of musicians of which we have had biopics.

Moving to Israel when he was 10, he had met and played for the Berlin Philharmonic’s music director – Wilhelm Furtwangler – by the age of 13 and had impressed him so much that Furtwangler invited him to play a Beethoven Piano Concerto in Berlin.  Barenboim’s parents thought it too soon , however, after WW2 for a Jewish child to play in Berlin.  On that topic, though, Barenboim was one of the first Jewish artists after WW2 to sign a recording contract with famed German record company, Deutsche Grammophon.

Before I go on – where I discovered the playing of Barenboim was when the ABC played videos of him playing the entire set of Beethoven Piano Sonatas.  It was magical.  And here is a reason why – with Barenboim playing the first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata.

Barenboim was also famous for marrying the full-on English cellist Jacqueline Du Pre.  At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, days after it had been captured by Israeli troops in 1967.

Du Pre’s story is one of the most tragic in music, as she was considered the most brilliant cellist of her day (and considered by many today to still be the best ever) – yet she was cut down by Multiple Sclerosis at the age of 28.  However, the story turned messy, as Du Pre had an affair with her brother-in-law and after Du Pre had to be placed in permanent care, Barenboim started and continued an affair with a fellow pianist.  These events are represented – perhaps not truthfully, if participants are to be heard – in the film Hilary and Jackie.  Barenboim, when asked about the film said “Couldn’t they have waited until I was dead?”

Here is Jacqueline Du Pre, playing the Elgar Cello Concerto – one of the most moving pieces ever – with Barenboim conducting.

Barenboim went on to continue a great piano playing career, as well as a conducting career, which is now his main focus.  He is known, amongst other things, for mentoring Simone Young, the Australian conductor who gained a great opera conducting reputation in Europe, came home to direct Opera Australia – only to be told that her productions were too expensive and that she should leave.  But more on her another time.  I’ll throw in some more Barenboim playing Beethoven – the first, dramatic movement of the “Pathetique” Sonata

Just as you’d think this was enough of a life for a man to have, Barenboim has become an outspoken critic of the state of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian lands.  He stated in an interview in 2003 that the occupation was “morally abhorrent and strategically wrong”, and, “putting in danger the very existence of the state of Israel.”  He struck up a friendship with Palestinian academic Edward Said and became the first Israeli citizen to accept Palestianian citizenship.   Here he speaking of the need for peace

He has also gone on to perform in the West Bank and Ramallah, forming the West – Eastern Divan Orchestra, that features Palestinian and Israeli players as well as concerts in the occupied lands featuring players from European countries – concerts that have required United Nations support to put on.   His political views are explored on his website – musician websites are usually just ads for records.  Not Barenboims.  This is his Palestinian / Israeli orchestra performing at the London Proms – one of my favourite symphonic movements, the last one from crazy man Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

To end with, more Barenboim and Beethoven.  Here he is, playing the last parts of Beethoven’s last piano sonata – one of the more profound pieces of music going around.

And thanks again to Malcolm Farnsworth for suggesting Barenboim.  Not only one of the great musicians of the past half century, but one of the most important musical political figures.