Nabokov’s Blade Runner

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‘[Pale Fire] unlocked my understanding of K.’
Ryan Gosling

Spoiler alert
Recent years have seen a succession of thoughtful movies about robots, artificial intelligence, and aliens: Her, Ex Machina, and Under the Skin, among others. As well as concerns about technology, these also explore current anxieties about society and what it means to be human. Also noticeable is the sympathy invited for non-human entities (a strategy cleverly exploited by the plot twist in Ex Machina). In this, they are faithful to the origin of almost all robot-themed stories for the last two centuries, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

‘I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.’

It was not only Frankenstein’s monster which was ‘born’ in 1818, but one model of the Romantic hero: a misunderstood outsider, persecuted and hunted by society for being different. This archetype has lived on in books and movies, evolving to reflect our changing concerns and anxieties.

Blade Runner 2049 must have surprised even avid fans of director, Denis de Villeneuve, by its beauty and depth. The terrible and majestic visions it conjures (reminiscent of the paintings of John Martin) combine with a poignant attention to the emotional life of the characters. First among these is Agent K, a replicant employed by the LAPD to find and destroy any surviving Nexus-8 replicants, which had developed free will and revolted in the 2020s. Ryan Gosling’s muted characterisation perfectly conveys the replicant’s calm, ruthless efficiency at killing.

When all is said and done, Agent K is, after all, just a very smart toaster with good looks, who’s handy with a gun.

Gosling also hints, though, at the curiosity and emotional turmoil which well up inside K after discovering the mysterious ‘6.10.21’ inscription which sets the plot in train. As a Nexus-9 replicant, K is designed to be obedient and truthful; increasingly, though, he learns to lie and disobey, as though experience and memory inevitably lead to development of free will and imagination, despite his programming.  Like the protagonist, K, in Kafka’s The Castle, Gosling’s character is alone and treated with disdain in an indifferent, broken world. LA in 2049 has little civil framework and seems dominated by a technology corporation expert in AI and contemptuous of the law (does that sound familiar?).

As the Shelleys and others recognised 200 hundred years ago, the new industrial capitalist economy would break down existing social relationships and drive people into isolation as individual workers and consumers. To recognise and revolt against this is to be condemned as an outsider: a Romantic tragic hero, like Frankenstein’s monster and all his children, like Agent K.

Blade Runner 2049 is not shy about acknowledging this literary and cultural context which contributes to its richness. The most prominent – insistent – presence in the movie, though, is Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant, perplexing 1962 follow-up to Lolita: the novel Pale Fire. Lines from the work are twice used in a ‘Post-Trauma Baseline Test’ on K, and he has a copy of the novel at home. His virtual girlfriend, Joi, offers to read it to him, but he says, ‘no, you hate that book,’ showing that they have discussed it before.

Pale Fire has variously been called, ‘a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel’ (New Republic), and ‘the great gay comic novel’ (Edmund White in the TLS). The novel purports to be the critical edition of a 999-line poem by John Shade, with a copious critical apparatus by his supposed friend, Charles Kinbote. The poem concerns Shade’s drowned daughter, time, and death, but Kinbote’s notes soon reveal him as a quite unreliable, mad fantasist, interpreting the entire poem as being about him and his secret life as the exiled king of a non-existent Ruritanian kingdom. It is perplexing, delightful, funny and moving all at the same time.


The parallels between Blade Runner 2049 and Pale Fire run deep, beyond the overt references, to enrich our understanding of the movie.

Worlds within worlds
In 2049, Agent K is an artificial being (with the same initial as Kinbote). As a replicant being, he seems defined by the corporation which created him. After discovering the mysterious inscription which matches a childhood memory, though, he begins to imagine himself within an alternative narrative: that he is actually the secret child of Deckard and Rachel. He then finds this is not true: that he was given the DNA and memories of their daughter, Ana, as a way of hiding her existence. By the end, we are left with the question of whether K was actually programmed to find Ana, not operating under free will after all?

In Pale Fire, a poem by John Shade, is published within a critical apparatus by scholar, Charles Kinbote. The reader knows these are actually both characters in a novel, each with their own conflicting fictional world. Kinbote’s mad reveries are actually no more ‘real,’ then, than Shade’s moving reflections on death and the imagination. A convincing case has been made that Shade is intended by the author to be the invention of Kinbote. An equally convincing case can be made that Shade playfully invented Kinbote, and is not even dead when the work is published. Nabokov himself stayed mum on the topic, just as the films’ makers cannot be drawn on whether Deckard is a replicant.

Pale Fire also has a little-known place in the history of computer science. The novel was well-known to Ted Nelson, renowned inventor of hypertext and one of the fathers of the World Wide Web. Working at Brown University in 1969, he recognised Pale Fire as a revolutionary literary metafiction and received permission from Nabokov’s publisher to create an electronic version, to demonstrate the possibilities of a hypertext document.

 

Agent K’s pale fire
‘The moon’s an arrant thief, And her pale fire she snatches from the sun,’ wrote Shakespeare in Timon of Athens – the source of Nabokov’s title. He uses this quotation to muse on whether memories and imagination can be as ‘true’ as actual events. In Blade Runner 2049, a major theme is whether a replicant with ‘memories,’ experience, emotions, and free will – a pale reflection of a human – can be as real as natural-born person. If so, we bear them the same responsibility as a god to its creations, as a parent to its children.

 

Blade Runner 2049 - eyeCheck the eyes
Eyes – the ‘windows of the soul’ to the ancient Romans – are a dominant motif in the Blade Runner movies. In both, examining the eye is a way of identifying a replicant. Eyes and sight are important in Pale Fire too. In the opening lines, we read:

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit
Or, with a silent shiver, order it, Whatever in my field of vision dwelt –
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte Stilettos of a frozen stillicide –
Was printed on my eyelids’ nether side
Where it would tarry for an hour or two,
And while this lasted all I had to do
Was close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,
Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.

There are 15 references to eyes in Pale Fire, principally as a way of recording memories or conjuring imagined or remembered scenes. Ridley Scott explains this in an interview: ‘The eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It’s like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn’t only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot.’

 

The secret letters
When K examines DNA records to search for Deckard and Rachel’s child, he finds two identical people: a dead female and a male. (This is a rare scene in the movie that doesn’t work: he identifies the matching records by supposedly scanning millions of GATC sequences with his bare eyes. It would also mean the two people would look identical, which K and Ana do not.) Nevertheless, this typographic discovery is a revelation to K: he realises that the child existed, is a male, and still alive. He discovers otherwise later, but this typographic sequence starts him on the trail that leads to Ana.

In Pale Fire, Shade recounts a vision he saw while having a heart attack:

A sun of rubber was convulsed and set:
And blood black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem, And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark,  tall white fountain played.

This is the exact wording chosen by the scriptwriters for K’s post-mission test on K in Blade Runner 2049. Coming across another person’s near-death experience which also mentions ‘a tall white fountain,’ Shade seizes this as evidence of an after-life, that his daughter may still exist after death. Soon, though, he discovers it was a cruel misprint – the word was ‘mountain’ not ‘fountain’.

This mistake was the point, Shade realises: that he is somehow being played with, stumbling through life in search of patterns. He has a revelation that he is part of ‘a game of worlds promoting pawns/ To ivory unicorns.’ In the original Blade Runner, of course, a much-discussed topic is the unicorn dreamed of by Deckard, and then seen as an origami figure left by his colleague, Gaff in the final scene, suggesting that Deckard may be replicant himself. In Blade Runner 2049, K’s DNA sequence of GATC similarly contains misleading typography which inspires, disappoints, and finally takes him nearer the truth.

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Snow falling on replicants
Snow is a persistent motif in Blade Runner 2049. Joi, K’s AI companion, holds out her hand to catch snowflakes, but sees them pass through her hologram body. Later, Ana (Deckard’s daughter) creates a virtual mini snow-storm which falls just over her, saying, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ to her father. What neither of them know is that K is dying outside at that moment, lying supine while real snow falls on him. He has a faint smile on his lips, happy that he has given his own life to save Deckard and reunite him with his daughter – proving to himself that he is not just a machine but a living thing. At this moment, the ‘Tears in the rain’ music from the original Blade Runner plays. It inexorably reminds us of replicant Ray Batty’s dying words after saving Deckard’s life 30 years before: ‘I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.’

In Pale Fire, snow is also mentioned a total of five times, evoking ‘that crystal land’ of his imagination where all things might be possible, where his dead daughter might still be alive. As in the movie, Nabokov’s novel ends in a death which is accepted and valued as a necessary part of life; the poem is ‘completed’ by an absent 1000th line, missing because the poet has been shot at that moment.

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Father and daughters
Despite the extraordinary visuals of Blade Runner 2049 and the literary pyrotechnics of Pale Fire, the emotional power of both movie and novel is drawn from their quiet heart: a father’s love and loss of a daughter.

After the death of Rachel in childbirth, Deckard lives in hiding with their daughter, Ana, first-born of a replicant. While she is still young, he gives her up and deliberately loses contact as a way of saving her life if he is ever hunted down. As far as Deckard knows, he will never see again the only person he loves – sacrificing his feelings for her sake. The climax of Blade Runner 2049 is their reunion, brought about by K, who has willingly sacrificed his own life for their sake.

In Pale Fire, John Shade has lost his daughter – awkward, unhappy Hazel – to suicide or an accident. He is riven by grief, yearning to be reunited with her. The entire poem is a meditation on how this might happen, dabbling and rejecting absurd spiritualism, and finally realising that, while accepting her death, they can be together through the power of memory, imagination, and art which transcend time.

For Deckard, Ana, and Agent K – and for us as the audience – this is as good as it gets, and that is good enough. As John Shade writes:

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.

Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link and bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

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The school of pain

Total eclipse of the Sun, Turkey, 29 March 2006.

It’s not easy to write about pain . . .

After all, there is something humiliating about it, isn’t there? Whoever you are, there inevitably comes a time in life to bow down and submit to this physical torture your body is suffering which knows no mercy. Pain feels almost shameful. It advertises our vulnerability and mortality. Even animals seem to know this, creeping away to suffer alone. A fox licking a crushed and bloody paw beneath some bush where it cannot be seen.

By middle age, most of us know a little about pain. For women, there’s childbirth, or course, and then there are accidents and injuries, surgery, disease and chronic conditions, and trauma too. All pain feels personal, like a torture technique designed with you alone in mind. I once asked a surgeon how a wound would feel after that day’s procedure. ‘Imagine there’s a long strand of barbed wire inside you,’ he said, ‘and someone is slowly pulling it out through your skin.’ He was remarkably accurate. Pain comes in many colours: aching, acute, referred, grumbling, and everyone’s favourite – breakout pain, the sudden stab that make you gasp and cry out for mercy.

‘No one needs to feel pain these days,’ doctors reassure us. Somehow, though, medication and other measures can struggle to keep up with that jagged line in our bodies screaming out for relief. It is not only the pain which hurts, but the awful awareness that we cannot do anything about it. Like you, perhaps, I have had my moments. Kept awake all night long, turning constantly from side to side, trying to fool myself that one position hurts less than another. Days spent in hospital on a morphine drip, greedily watching the clock until I can press the pump again for another blessed spurt into my bloodstream. These are the times when we crash into the cruel, sharp edges of life at last.  How we respond becomes a part of who we are, learning hard lessons in the school of pain.

This is pain, then. Imagine being in utter darkness apart from a point of sharp, bright light in front of you. It hurts intensely, even with eyes closed, yet there is nowhere else to look. It might as well be the spotlight trained on your face by a torturer, or the fierce glow of the blowtorch he is holding. Like nothing else in life, except the sexual climax, pain totally drains awareness of anything else and focuses you exclusively on that one bright and savage point where you hurt. Unlike an orgasm, though, it goes mercilessly on and on. It has a single all-consuming effect – a desperate desire for it to stop.

Pain is personal. It feels like being beaten up by invisible thugs every day. Wherever the hurt is, it shows on your face. Humiliated by the experience, you curl up internally. It becomes difficult to give attention to anything beyond what you are feeling. The world beyond ceases to exist, or at least it hardly seems to matter. You are unresponsive when someone tells you about their day – there’s little sympathy left over for anyone apart from yourself – and then follows the inevitable guilt, making you feel even more cut off from the world, with only your pain for company.

But pain also teaches us that we are embodied beings. Our body and mind suffer as one entity; they are not separate. This at least is a positive discovery, if we can manage to be philosophical and stoic about it. We learn another important and terrible lesson, too: that sometimes we are powerless and have to surrender to what seems unendurable. You must train yourself to let it pass through you, like a wave through water. To do this with as much grace as we can muster seems the most important thing in the world. And then we can wait for that far-off hour when the pain fades away – when it becomes, at last, merely something to write about.

 

The diamond skull

Damien Hirst: For the Love of God

What is happening to Australia’s art market?

Ten years ago, Damien Hirst’s work, For the Love of God, sold for a reputed $100 million. A platinum cast of a human skull inlaid with over 8,000 diamonds, the sculpture was said to be the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold. It also ignited a controversy over the direction of contemporary art and its relationship with wealthy patrons.

Art is big business. The global market is reported to be worth over $80 billion a year. Today, as throughout human history, the rich and powerful buy and display art works to signal their wealth, good taste, and prestige. There is nothing new about this.  Public enthusiasm for art is healthy too (2.6 million visitors came to the National Gallery of Victoria in 2016). Plenty of people are making money from art it seems – but very little of this reaches the average artist. The vast majority of them are poor, and becoming poorer, with very few able to make a living from their art alone. Commercial art galleries, too, are struggling to survive. What’s going on? In particular, what’s happening to Australia’s art market, which has been devastated over the past ten years? And is it connected to the disruptions happening in the book, music, and movie markets? A conversation at Heide Gallery with Melbourne art dealer, Angela Tandori, intrigued me enough  to investigate.

At first glance, the art market looks very different to that for other media. While music and movies can be reproduced and distributed digitally in infinite numbers, each art work is a unique object. You can’t download an ‘original’ of a work by Fiona Hall as you can with a new album by John Adams, say. Nevertheless, the Internet has affected the market in other ways, creating a confusing and fast-changing market governing how artists and buyers connect.

The first thing to understand is that there is no monolithic ‘art market’, but rather a series of markets which operate more or less independently: the wealthy collector and museum market (serviced by high-end galleries such as Roslyn Oxley9 and Arc One); the experimental and avant-garde; Aboriginal art; the ‘mid-market’ of respected artists with established careers; corporate art, and emerging artists, among others.

Artists’ income also falls into a Pareto pattern, with a small number of them earning the majority of the income, and a long tail of ‘the rest’ on a modest or low income. Only around 1% of Australian artists earn $250,000 or more; some make a living, but the majority have to supplement artistic income by teaching or other means. (There are also the fortunate ‘trust fund artists,’ of course, who are supported by their families.) With the ‘superstar’ outliers excluded, the mean income for most Australian artists is around A$20,000 per annum, a figure which isn’t rising. This makes it harder to run a gallery profitably too, in a vicious circle which further denies artists access to potential buyers.[i]

The impact of the Internet on the arts was famously foreseen by Walter Benjamin in his 1935 essay, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’.[iii] Ironically, however, it is other disciplines which have experienced the greatest technological disruption rather than the traditional visual arts. The income of writers and musicians has dropped in the digital economy because of free or cheap availability of products via piracy, micro-income arrangements with streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, reluctance of many online publishers to pay for content, and the simple competition for time and eyeballs from online entertainment and information. There are only so many hours in the day, and in a contest between a book and Youtube at bedtime, the latter will often win.

For artists, on the other hand, a whole range of different factors has combined to have a major effect on how they distribute and sell their works.

Firstly, the impact of the Global Financial Crisis in 2007 led to a drastic reduction in discretionary expenditure, including on purchase of art works.

Secondly, before the market had time to recover, the Artist’s Resale Royalty Right (ARR) was introduced by the Australian Government in 2010: a 5% premium on secondary sales with a gross sale price over A$1,000. This was ‘a good thing’ intended to benefit creators of artworks, especially Aboriginal artists. Unfortunately, it had the perverse outcome of depressing the market further – 5% of gross sale price can consume much of the profit on an average sale, inhibiting trade between artists and collectors, and reducing both turnover and prices. Artist, John Walker, has written caustically of the harm done by this government intervention, and quotes a remark by fellow-painter, Ben Quilty, that only established ‘rich, white artists’ would benefit in any significant way from the ARR.[iv]

A third factor was the 2016 change in rules relating to purchase of art works as assets by self-managed superannuation funds (SMSF). New restrictions have made this impractical and expensive, with a two-fold effect of depressing the market, and of deflating prices by flooding the market with ‘must sell’ works no longer recognised as super fund assets (SMSFs were responsible for 15-20% of sales in the period after the change was announced).

The result of this ‘perfect storm’ has been dramatic.

  • The total value of collectibles (mainly art) in SMSF dwindled from $700 million in 2009 to $385 within 5 years, and is now said to be ‘negligible’.[v]
  • The number of commercial art galleries in Australia has halved from 514 in the year 2000 to around 250 today.[vi]
  • Within a few years of these changes, art sales dropped by as much as 40% by some accounts, and prices fetched at auction were also halved.[vii]

These straitened times have forced the remaining galleries to increase commission rates up to 40% or even 50% of the sale price. Other less concrete factors have an impact too. One is the numbers of professional artists practising in Australia today – some 30,000 in the estimation of Professor Sasha Griffin who has conducted invaluable research in this area.[viii] Our revenue-driven universities continue to produce thousands of graduates in visual arts every year, very few of whom will be able to make a living from their work. That is not the primary purpose of an arts degree, or course, but unarguably produces a large pool of artists destined to be disappointed.

A final, important factor is the standing of Australian art on the international scene; this has an impact on price and reputation locally as well as in New York and Shanghai. The local market is valued at just 0.6% of the global art market.[ix] The tyranny of distance, the logistics and cost of exhibiting internationally, poor marketing, and attitudes both within Australia and overseas have all hampered recognition of Australian artists overseas. A provincial market has not adapted to a global culture and economy, and is paying the price, Grishin argues. As commentator, James Valentine has noted, the Art Price Index for 2016 lists only two Australians: Tim Storrier and Rick Amor: ‘Our giants such as Brett Whiteley, John Olsen or Fred Williams can sell in the millions here,’ he writes, ‘but take them to New York – the world art-buying centre – and only the expats will turn up to bid.’[x] As Valentine continues:

For the wealthy collector in Manhattan or Monaco, there are not quite the same bragging rights in displaying work from Melbourne as there is in a piece made by a Chinese dissident . . . Like everything else, China may turn out to be the saviour. China buys 40 per cent of the world’s contemporary art. We just need to convince them that a Ben Quilty Torana is perfect for their Shanghai penthouse. [x]

Grishin makes the same point, noting that a drawing by David Hockney costs about the same in Australia as one by Brett Whiteley, but the Whiteley will only get that price here, while the Hockney can be sold anywhere in the world. [ix]

With the volume and prices of art works dropping and the traditional commercial gallery model dying, it is undeniable that the art market is in need of a radical shakeup. Duncan Ballantyne-Way observes, ‘Mired in opacity and steeped in inefficiency, the largest unregulated market in the world has been ready for digital disruption for some time.’[xi] But it would be naïve to think that the whole sprawling, complex, highly personal business of selling and buying art could move online wholesale as a sort of ebay for cultural products. It’s not that simple. Massive disruptions have happened before in the arts before settling into a new model, and we can see the same is beginning to happen in the art market today. Imagine the fate of jobbing portrait painters after the advent of photography; of sheet music sellers and music hall singers after the phonograph was invented; of typesetters and graphic designers who didn’t adapt to digital publishing in the 1980s, or musicians today who hope to be picked up by an A&R talent scout but haven’t bothered to establish their own channels on Soundcloud and Youtube.

Who will be the survivors in the Australian art market?

Generalisation about the overall drop in the local market’s fortunes masks more interesting movement in the prices gained by individual artists at auction. This can be a consequence of fashion changing, over-supply, or any number of factors. The average sale price of paintings by David Bromley, Robert Dickerson, and David Boyd for example, halved between 2007 and 2013. Yet during the same period, prices for works by Dale Frank and Ben Quilty doubled.[xii] The survivors will be the galleries which take note of Tandori’s distinction between Stars, Cash Cows, Problem Children, and Dogs, and ensure they have the right balance of artists – not over-reliant on the bestsellers of last year and nurturing those more likely be Stars in the future.

The Internet has started to make business practices for artists and dealers more efficient – for example, through services such as invaluable which provides online bidding for art auctions around the world, or artnet which conducts online auctions itself. The Berlin-based fineartmultiple site also offers an impressive and comprehensive marketplace to bring artists, sellers, and buyers together. In the burgeoning Chinese market (where the average age of art dealers is 25, rather than 50-plus in the West), the ubiquitous WeChat message app has become a major platform for buyers, collectors and dealers due to its speed and ease-of-use.[xiii] While Internet sales are now estimated at 25% of the market globally, many Australian artists and commercial galleries have yet to fully embrace this fundamental disruption of their marketplace. It’s not just a matter of setting up a website and then carrying on business as usual, waiting for the tinkle of a bell as the gallery door opens. The survivors will be the ones who make a total strategic re-think of how they use technology to relate to artists and buyers.

The roller-coaster fate of bookshops over the last ten years provides a lesson in how commercial galleries will fare. In the face of multiple challenges – ebooks, audiobooks, competition from Amazon and other online retailers – bookshops began closing at an alarming rate, including some big-name chains like Borders. In 2011, a government minister predicted that every bookshop in Australia would be gone by 2016, sharing the fate of video rental stores. It could have happened, but it didn’t. Many bookshops did close, but others adapted and have thrived. The same evolutionary process is happening with commercial art galleries. In the face of a different set of challenges, the survivors know it is not enough to rely on launch parties or the dwindling number of walk-in buyers. We can see, already, that the galleries which will adapt and succeed are those that focus on, and invest in, building trusting relationships with buyers as well as artists. It is this ongoing, hedonic experience of the relationship itself that they will nurture. They will promote a ‘wraparound’ service including advice on purchasing, investment, hanging, and valuation. They will build highly visible brands online, in social media and discussions, and at art fairs. As well as formal provenance, telling beguiling stories about the works they sell will become even more important, giving them an appealing aura.

Artists, too, need to adapt how they promote themselves in order to survive commercially. As for galleries, just having a website is not enough: an Instagram account with regular updates of images is essential, meshed with other social media and online promotion. A key goal is building up a ‘fanbase’ of people who have an interest in the artist’s work: people who will share images, talk about them, give support, attend events, and eventually purchase. The increasingly-influential independent curators of exhibitions need to be cultivated. If it’s a challenge or financially unattractive to deal with a commercial gallery, rent a space or empty shop as a pop-up gallery to exhibit your own works. For some ambitious artists, it can be worth the effort to mount exhibitions overseas, promoting yourself as an international artist based in Australia (rather than being self-consciously ‘Australian’ and pigeon-holed as such).

In the end, artists will still create, because they must. Buyers will still purchase. The business model which links them, however, has become inefficient and unhelpful to both. It is not just that it needs disruption; it has already fallen into a chaos of its own making (with generous help from government legislation). The survivors – galleries, dealers, and others – will be the ones who recognise that things will never go back to how they once were. Through a Darwinian process of elimination, those who succeed in the twenty-first century will be the ones who embrace new ways of using technology and building closer relationships with the creators and purchasers of art.

In a postscript to the sale of the diamond skull, it later emerged that this was purchased by a consortium in which Damien Hirst himself was the major partner. The artist effectively used the auction as a piece of performance art to boost his reputation and the value of his works. As Germaine Greer sardonically commented, ‘[Damien Hirst’s] undeniable genius consists in getting people to buy them. [He] is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative – revolutionary even.’[xiv]

Notes

[i] Throsby, D and Zednik, A 2010, Do you really expect to get paid? An economic study of professional artists in Australia, Australia Council for the Arts, Strawberry Hills

[ii] Henderson, B 1970, ‘The product portfolio’. BCG perspectives.
Available from: <www.bcg.com/publications/2014/growth-share-matrix-bcg-classics-revisited.aspx> [6 June 2017]

[iii] Benjamin, W 1968, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations (ed. H Arendt), Fontana, London

[iv] Walker, JR 2015, ‘Artist’s Resale Royalty in Australia – Strong Evidence Of A Catastrophic Decline In Both Sales & Prices’, Art, Antiques, Design. Available from: <www.art-antiques-design.com/art/519-artist-s-resale-royalty-in-australia-strong-evidence-of-a-catastrophic-decline-in-both-sales-and-prices> [6 June 2017]

[v] Boland, M 2016, ‘Investment: art market painted into a corner’, The Australian, 20 June 2016. Available from: <www.theaustralian.com.au/business/investment-art-market-painted-into-a-corner/news-story/ae3b92c820cdf1980bee88519ce1f925> [6 June 2017]

[vi] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, 8651.0 – Commercial art galleries, 1999-2000, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra

[vii] Taylor, A 2013, ‘Brush with riches short-lived as prices tumble,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 2013. Available from: <www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/brush-with-riches-shortlived-as-prices-tumble-20130219-2epjh.html> [6 June 2017]

[viii] Grishin, S 2014, ‘How hierarchies happen in contemporary Australian art,’ The Conversation, 8 December 2014. Available from: <theconversation.com/how-hierarchies-happen-in-contemporary-australian-art-35088> [6 June 2017]

[ix] Grishin, S 2015, Friday essay: ‘Friday essay: the art market is failing Australian artists,’ The Conversation, 26 November 2015. Available from: <theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-art-market-is-failing-australian-artists-51314) [6 June 2017]

[x] Valentine, J 2017, ‘Where are the Australian visual artists?,’ ABC News, 6 March 2017. Available from: <ww.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-07/where-are-the-australian-visual-artists/8331658> [6 June 2017]

[xi] Ballantyne-Way, D 2017, ‘Disruption in the Art Market – Is that it?’ fineartmultiple, January 2017. Available from: <fineartmultiple.com/blog/disruption-art-market> [6 June 2017]

[xii] Taylor, A 2013, ‘Brush with riches short-lived as prices tumble,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 2013. Available from: <www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/brush-with-riches-shortlived-as-prices-tumble-20130219-2epjh.html> [6 June 2017]

[xiii] Chester, L 2016, ‘Digital technology drives younger dealers and the art market in China,’ Antiques Trade Gazette, 7 November 2016. Available from: <www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2016/digital-technology-will-disrupt-the-art-market-next-generation-of-asian-art-experts-predict-trends> (6 June 2017]

[xiv] Greer, G 2008, ‘Germaine Greer Note to Robert Hughes: Bob, dear, Damien Hirst is just one of many artists you don’t get,’ The Guardian, 22 September 2008. Available from: <www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/sep/22/1> [6 June 2017].

I am grateful to the following for sparing me their time and knowledge: Angela Tandori, Annabel Nowlan, Fran Clark, Trevor Sellick, and Jonathan Cecil.

The Houdini of the chocolate eggs

My Easter sermon, from a couple of years ago . . .

Paul Morgan

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Easter has always been a mystery to me.

Christmas, on the other hand, I instinctively understood a child. In the darkest, shortest, coldest days of our northern winter, we celebrated the coming of a miraculous child (though the mechanics of a virgin birth were silently passed over). For a week before, I went with the the church choir carol-singing from house to house in our village with a lantern hanging on a pole. At every door we were welcomed, or even asked inside for mince pies and mugs of hot chocolate. The snow-draped landscape around us seemed contiguous with the one we saw on Christmas cards, as though across the hill and in the next village there was a stable where shepherds and magi knelt in adoration of a glowing child. On this day, time felt different and even the light in the air, because this was Christmas Day. There were yearned-for gifts in a pillow…

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Blackman’s schoolgirls

Charles Blackman. Prone figure (1953)

Schoolgirls aren’t what they used to be, I decided the other day.

The place was the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne. The occasion was the opening of the Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls exhibition. Like many Australians, I thought I was familiar with the striking paintings of young girls Blackman produced between 1952 and 1955, on display in major galleries. What I hadn’t realised, though, was how very many works Blackman produced in this remarkable series. Thanks to impressive detective work by the exhibition’s curator, Kendrah Morgan and her colleagues at Heide, over 40 works have been gathered from around the world for this exhibition – mostly paintings in tempera, enamel and oil on board, but also prints, rare three-dimensional pieces, and original material from the Heide archives. The effect of seeing them all together is stunning and deeply moving.

Why did Charles Blackman spend years painting these figures obsessively over and over again? And what is the meaning of these mysterious figures?

There’s been no lack of interpretation. The influence of Symbolist painter, Odilon Redon, has been noted. The notorious murder of a twelve-year old girl, found dead in an alleyway wearing her school uniform, was in the news. A friend of Barbara Blackman (the artist’s wife), had recently been killed in Brisbane. These murders would have made a deep impression on Blackman. After seeing one of the early paintings, his friend and patron, Sunday Reed, had also shown him a poem which deeply impressed him, ‘Schoolgirls Hastening,’ by John Shaw Neilson. Blackman’s artist-son, Auguste, read from this poem movingly at the opening of the exhibition at Heide.

Fear it has faded and the night:
The bells all peal the hour of nine:
The schoolgirls hastening through the light
Touch the unknowable Divine.

While these influences are undoubted, it’s important to remember the most important factor of all: the artist’s eye and what he saw around him.

Schoolgirls aren’t what they used to be in the 1950s. When I see them emerge from the local school at the end of the day, the little ones look like snails with enormous packs hanging from their back, full of textbooks, laptop computers, and hopes of becoming a web designer, a doctor, owning a business, or just making enough money to go travelling the world for a few years. The older girls loll at café tables, confidently swinging their legs as they sip on macchiatos and talk on iPhones with sparkly covers.

The schoolgirls Blackman saw had a very different life. For most, becoming a secretary or entering the typing pool was their destiny.  Their Melbourne was far from the buzzing, cosmopolitan 24-hour city of today. The capital of Victoria in the 1950s was a grimy industrial centre, dominated by thousands of factories. Anything you bought in Australia at that time probably had ‘Made in Melbourne’ stamped on it. Ball-bearings and bicycles, cars and ship’s chains, lawnmowers and locks – the city was Australia’s manufacturing crucible. Factory chimneys poured out smoke from Southbank to the North and West as far as you could see. Millions of homes, too, were heated in winter by smoky coal fires.

This grim environment carried over into social life too. Almost everybody smoked all the time, at home, at work, and in public places. Public houses had to close at 6 pm, leading to the notorious ‘six o’clock swill’. In the Presbyterian suburbs of the east, it was impossible to buy alcohol at all. In this oppressive social climate, being gay was a crime and meant imprisonment. Children and women were expected to put up with unwanted touching of their bodies; it could happen anywhere. It was perfectly legal for teachers to beat and hurt young children for the most minor of reasons. When a woman became pregnant, she summarily lost her job. If you ever meet someone nostalgic for the 1950s, I’d advise keeping your distance.

Blackman was soon painting these bleak urban and industrial landscapes after he arrived in Melbourne. The images are almost devoid of people. A few distant figures lurk in the shadows, like scraps of paper which have blown there. All this changes with the first Schoolgirl paintings. The girls don’t hover shyly in the shadows but irrupt in bold, geometric shapes into the foreground of those landscapes. They play and dance. They hold hands and hug each other. They do handstands. Some cover their faces with their hands – are they weeping for some unknowable tragedy or simply playing hide-and-seek? Wherever they appear, they are full of life and dominate the previously bleak and unpeopled landscapes.

The schoolgirls are fragile and vulnerable creatures in a threatening, alien landscape. At the same time, they fizz with energy, vitality, and joy. Their existence seems to flicker forever between these extremities. Curator, Kendrah Morgan, notes that Blackman’s wife was going blind at this time, and that it’s noticeable how many of the schoolgirls have their eyes in shadow. Was the painter rendering Barbara Blackman’s situation – vulnerable yet also full of her famously indomitable spirit?

There is a deeper possibility too. Blackman was a poor young man, living in a strange new city. He has said that the paintings had ‘a lot to do with my isolation as a person and my quite paranoid fears of loneliness’ at that time. He was not so much looking at the schoolgirls, then, as identifying with them. He was unknown, unrecognised by the art world at large and hardly selling anything he produced. At the same time, he must have felt intensely aware of his own creative potency. While very personal, this tension has a universal resonance too. These paintings do not simply evoke girls playing in a dusty yard, nor the blind woman walking bravely down the street, nor even the artist sure of his talent but unrecognised by the world. The schoolgirls paintings evoke life itself flourishing in the midst of adversity – an idiosyncratic and beautiful representation of the mystery of being and non-being.

We don’t know if Blackman thought through this dilemma himself in such abstract terms, of course, let alone tried to find a solution. Instead, he articulated it brilliantly in the way he knew best. He picked up his paintbrush.

A girl in amber

Eve Cohen

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE
 Orhan Pamuk (2008)

Once upon a time, a young peasant girl fell in love with a handsome prince . . .

She thought about him all day long and dreamed of him at night. When he rode through the village with his retinue, she felt sick with yearning. One day, she was walking by a bridge as he rode across it, his long hair flying in the wind. She saw him spit into the river as he passed by, so she ran downstream, waded into the water and caught the phlegm in her hands. She brought it to her lips. There could be no greater happiness. This was love, she thought, closing her eyes in bliss.

I was reminded of this Japanese folk story while reading The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature). Pamuk’s novel was published in translation in 2010, but only this year, early in 2017, did I reach it down from the bookcase. (I never read books when they first appear, avoiding the chatter of reviews and conversations. Reading a novel, of all things, is a solitary affair.)

Pamuk is a natural-born storyteller. The novel opens with the narrator, Kemal, describing a passionate afternoon in bed with his lover, Füsun.

In that moment, on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, at about a quarter to three, just as we felt ourselves to be beyond sin and guilt so too did the world seem to have been released from gravity and time.

Kemal was 30, the heir to an Istanbul business fortune. He would soon be engaged to Sibel, an ambassador’s daughter who, ‘according to everyone, was the perfect match.’ Füsun was a teenager, a distant, poor relation. How could anyone not read on, to discover what happens next?

Kemal happily imagines that he can keep both relationships going in parallel. Sibel is an elegant woman from the same ‘westernised’ upper class of Istanbul society as himself. Her family proudly says she has ‘studied at the Sorbonne,’ by which they mean, she has spent some time in Paris shopping, having affairs, and attending a few public lectures. Füsun is also beautiful and thoughtful, although barely 18 and the daughter of a seamstress. The closest she has been to Paris is working in the pretentious Şanzelize Boutique which sells fake european clothes.

Kemal cannot get Füsun out of his head. He allows the engagement to Sibel to fall apart, but then finds that Füsun has fled, distraught at his dishonesty. He finally tracks her down, living with her parents. He starts to visit, acting the benevolent, rich relation. Soon he is at their door regularly, tolerating their humble home as the price of being able to gaze on Füsun. Sometimes she smiles at him. The days become weeks. The weeks become months.

Kemal neglects his business. He loses touch with old friends and gives up visiting fashionable restaurants and nightclubs. In the years that follow Turkey is riven by political turmoil. There is a military takeover. Bombs and gun battles become regular occurrences. Kemal hardly notices, however, as he pursues his obsessive love. When not with Füsun, he passes the time being driven around Istanbul by his faithful chauffeur, observing moodily through the windows of the old Chevrolet how the city is changing . The ancient quarters of Istanbul are steadily being demolished and replaced by concrete apartment blocks. Kemal realises he is happiest with Füsun’s family, surrounded by the tasteless ornaments of their crowded living room, cosily watching television together.

Füsun finally relents and agrees to marry Kemal, but this decision only triggers a tragic death that seems inevitable. He still cannot let go of his obsession with her, buying the family’s house and turning it into a museum dedicated to Füsun. This shrine contains objects which remind him of her, and are infused with emotion. The actual cinema tickets from when they saw a movie together. Her shoe and a little white sock, carefully labelled and lit in a cabinet like prehistoric relics. The stub of a  cigarette once held between her lips. There is even the door knob from Füsun’s childhood bedroom, sacred because she touched it so many times with her hand. This is the eponymous museum where Kemal now approaches the novelist, ‘Orhan Pamuk,’ and asks him to write his story.

The story is as seductive as Füsun, though we are never actually told what she looks like. As with the city of Istanbul, she is evoked rather than described. The novel has also been criticised for long passages where ‘nothing happens,’ for its repetition and length. These are integral to Pamuk’s hypnotic, seductive style, however. They are classic aspects of the oral storytelling mode which he draws on, circling round and round his love for Füsun until the awful conclusion. We relax and let his voice carry us forward, as though sitting with author, sipping raki on a balcony as the Bosphorus flows past.

Kemal cannot move forward with his life, yet cannot go back in time either. Like all of us, he is cursed with memory. He cannot relinquish his love of Füsun which he feels the only thing of worth in his life. (At his lowest ebb, he lies in bed, licking the door knob, which ends up in the museum, because she has touched it countless times.) The Museum of Innocence is about Turkey too, tugged between european and middle-eastern cultures. (The recent history of the country makes the novel even more poignant in this regard.) It’s about Istanbul and its inhabitants, aspiring to be modern and cosmopolitan, yet unable to let go of old ways which feel more familiar and authentic. It’s about how men and women regard each other. Most of all, the novel is about how can we live with the knowledge that each treasured moment is doomed to become the past? For Kemal, the everyday clutter of life seals his memories in amber – saving these objects becomes a way to cling on to past happiness.

Pamuk’s wry protagonist can seem at times like the last Romantic hero. He can equally be seen as a sad, pathetic fool who has wasted his life (yet what else was Goethe’s Werther?) Kemal also has much in common with Nabokov’s Humbert in Lolita – a charming, self-deprecating narrator who invites sympathy for his obsessive love. Like Humbert, Kemal’s charm distracts the reader from his actual treatment of the woman he idolises. Like Humbert with Lolita, Kemal projects his emotional obsession onto Füsun without consideration of what she actually feels or thinks or wants herself. Both women are denied any possibility of independent being by the protagonists until the very end. In Füsun’s case, she can only escape Kemal and declare independence by her own death. Through his museum, Kemal even attempts to control her after she is dead, packing it with his memories alone.

Iris Murdoch once wrote that love is the remarkable discovery that another person actually exists beside oneself. If this is love – unlike the one-sided passion of the Japanese folk tale – then Kemal remains a stranger to it until the end. This is the real tragedy at the heart of the novel.

In a curious twist of fiction and fact, Pahuk has bought a house in Istanbul and turned it into the Museum of Memory of the novel. In 2014, it won the European Museum of the Year Award.

Image: Photograph of Eve Cohen

The last living baby boomer

 1 January 2067

The last surviving member of the baby boomer generation – Jake Patch – passed away today at the Woodstock Retirement Village, cradled in the arms of his robot carer, Mia.

A few months before his death, Jake was interviewed by the BBC (British Breitbart Company), and an excerpt is reproduced below.

Thanks for sparing us your precious time, Jake. Could you start by reminding us what it was like growing up in the middle of the last century?

Well, you could say it was a black-and-white world – in more ways than one. Television wasn’t in colour at first, of course (if you had one), but the rest of life was like that too. Things could be tough. It was normal for teachers as well as parents to beat us, even little children. Imagine that! Racial discrimination was perfectly legal. The same went for harassing people sexually. Being homosexual was against the law, however. Gay people were just thrown in prison. There was litter everywhere. The food was crap too. It sounds like a dystopian movie, doesn’t it, but I swear it was true.

 

How about when you got older?

Only a tiny proportion of people went to university, about 3%. When you did finally get a job, it was expected you would stay there all your life until you retired. Everybody smoked all the time, even in offices and restaurants. If you got pregnant, you were sacked. There were times that inflation was rising daily – staff had to race around supermarkets changing the prices every week. If you wanted to buy a house, mortgage interest rates were as high as 18%! Why people got nostalgic about those days, I have no idea . . .

 

It sounds grim. How did your generation respond?

We went rogue. We invented pop music. We grew our hair and became hippies. Later we cut it again and became punks. We took all the drugs we could find, discovered the secret of the universe and forgot it by the morning.  We made a sexual revolution, invented feminism, bent genders, knocked down the Berlin Wall and destroyed communism. We were the generation that ran away from home and travelled the world. We went environmental back in the seventies. We went to the moon. We invented the Internet. Is there anything I’ve forgotten?

 

So how does it feel to be the only baby boomer still alive?

Like being the last Regency rake – a member of the Hellfire Club – surrounded in old age by stuffy, repressed Victorians.

 

Any regrets?

Yes. That we brought our children, and our children’s children up to be such whining, self-righteous, over-sensitive, puritanical pricks.

 

Isn’t that a bit judgmental?

Of course! I should have added ‘deaf to humour’ too, after talking to you for 10 minutes!

 

*** A break in the interview as Jake’s laughter turned to a coughing fit. After a reviving shot of morphine and a head massage by Mia, the interview resumed.***

 

You’ve lived for well over a 100 years. Lowlights and Highlights?

Lowlight – definitely the year 2016. That’s when everything changed . . .
Highlight – seeing the Rolling Stones perform their farewell gig at Burning Man on Mick’s 100th birthday.

 

Your hopes for the future?

That I live long enough to vote at the next election. Four terms is enough for President Ivana!

 

The music for your funeral?

Neil Young, ‘Harvest Moon’.

 

Any last words?

Après nous, le déluge.

 

The sad tears of Christa Wolf, or The country that disappeared

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Where were you when the Berlin Wall came down? It’s one of those days you remember, like 9/11 or when John Lennon was shot. Did you find out from the evening news? Were you at work, school, or not even a twinkle in your parents’ eyes?

I watched it happen from a hotel room in Alice Springs, in the centre of Australia. Outside, the desert heat was unbearable, like the end of the world in a sci fi movie. Even the flies were hiding from the sun. Inside, my air conditioning was on high and the curtains half-closed against the brightness beyond. The television was on and I was gripped by scenes taking place in wintry Berlin on the other side of the world.

During the 1970s I had lived in Germany for a while, and been a member of the Communist Party. It was with special interest, then, that I watched the scenes in Berlin. People were swarming over the Wall while soldiers stood by with embarrassed faces. Some perched on top, playing guitars. Others swung sledgehammers, sending chunks of concrete flying through the air, to cheers from the crowd. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The fall of the Berlin Wall became a symbolism of the collapse of Communism. One by one, countries in the Russian empire overthrew their rulers and became democratic republics. There was one exception, though, a country which didn’t follow that path. Instead, it was simply eliminated. It disappeared. That country was the DDR or Democratic Republic of Germany – East Germany.

To people in the West watching the amazing scenes on TV, it seemed obvious that the two Germanies would reunite, in a de facto takeover of the ‘defeated’ DDR. To people watching from inside East Germany, though, things weren’t so simple. One of these was Christa Wolf, the country’s most celebrated author. She lived under surveillance by the dreaded Stasi but was protected by her fame. Although a lifelong Communist, she was not blind to the regime’s flaws, exploring with searing honesty in her novels the political, social, and moral challenges it raised.

Christa Wolf and many others saw that the DDR had developed its own culture over the past half century which was worth preserving in a ‘Third Way,’ keeping the best of both Germanies: free and democratic, yet also retaining the unremarked benefits of life in the DDR. Abolishing the country was ‘dangerous prattle,’ she insisted, warning against ‘the sell-out of our material and moral values’ to the feverish pursuits of western consumerism. The appeal was idealistic, ascetic, and nostalgic, all in one.

Most westerners thought of East Germany in superficial spy movie terms: all Checkpoint Charlie, glamorous spies, and screeching violins on the soundtrack. And it was, of course, a classic totalitarian state on the Soviet model. Yet in truth, most East Germans did not lie awake at night worrying about human rights. The Stasi was just a fact of life. While many envied capitalist countries their material wealth, citizens of the DDR led a more secure, placid, ‘old-fashioned’ life than people in the West. Health care was free. Education was free. Cultural activities and holiday resorts were subsidised. Everyone had a place to live – there was supposedly no such thing as homelessness. A job was assured for everyone too – unemployment and begging were unknown. Looking around in 2016, we too may covet at least some aspects of this forgotten, abolished land at the heart of Europe.

In the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Christ Wolf spoke on East German television and at a massive demonstration in Alexanderplatz. ‘Help us to create a real democratic society, one that also preserves the vision of democratic socialism,’ she cried. ‘Imagine it’s socialism and no one wants to leave!’

But leave they did, of course. Life in the West would surely be like the ads they enviously watched on TV, a cornucopia of Coca-Cola, shiny consumer goods, pop music, and general happily-ever-after-ness. After the fall of the Wall, opposition groups gave in to the mood of the population, and reunification was overwhelmingly approved at an election the following year. What no one foresaw, though, was the radical economic changes that swiftly followed; how quickly familiar goods and brands disappeared from shops, to be replaced by cheaper, less durable western products. Brands and signage (like the familiar pedestrian crossing sign man) were replaced wholesale by West German versions.

Even how people spoke was different. Over a couple of generations, vocabulary and syntax had diverged in the two countries, with the West heavily influenced by American culture. In the DDR, traditional pre-war ways of speaking persisted. For example, ‘That makes sense’ translates as ‘Das hat Sinn.’ West Germans however, often say ‘Das macht Sinn,’ influenced by the English wording. You go shopping in a ‘Kaufhalle’ in the East, while West Germans now use the Americanised ‘Supermarkt’. There are hundreds of examples, even including how to say the time.

Disillusion soon followed reunification. For the first time, East Germans had to deal with the trauma of competing with each other for jobs, housing, and social esteem, instead of being part of a coherent, if totalitarian, society. Shops were full of unfamiliar brands. The street signs were different. The newsreader on television spoke in an unfamiliar way. West Germans patronised the East and made jokes about bumbling ‘Ossies’. It was all very disconcerting. Their country had been taken from them.

Within a few years, a survey found that the majority of East Germans wished life was as it had been before the Wall came down – not politically, but that their daily lives were more secure, familiar, and homely again. A new word was coined, ‘Ostalgie’.

And what of Christa Wolf? Her reputation dipped, then rose again so that by her death in 2014 she was acknowledged as one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers in German. She acknowledged naivety in hoping that her country could be saved in 1989, but confessed to a longing for what-might-have-been, as for a phantom limb that she still could feel. Going shopping, she would seek out an old pack of wooden clothes pegs from DDR days, rather than buy modern plastic ones. The feeling was more than simple nostalgia, however. She was made of sterner intellectual fibre than that.

Interviewed in 2005, Wolf remained a socialist, deeply concerned about the impact of drastic economic and social changes on people’s lives since the disappearance of the DDR and reunification:

It’s a society in crisis. Its population groups are drifting apart and it’s increasingly losing its power of integration. Large numbers of ‘superfluous’ people are being created, and that’s dangerous. Our society is starting to abandon its humanitarian value canon in favour of neo-liberal ‘values’. Many individuals first of all have to fight for a place in society, then they have to fight to keep it.
(Die Zeit, 29 September, 2005.)

Ten years on – in the age of the gig economy, the Trump ascendancy and the rise of the Right – her words remain truer than ever.

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CONFESSIONS OF A TIME-TRAVELLER

sduc

As Einstein understood, to travel in time and space is not so very different.
They are, in fact, essentially the same.

Anyone who is used to spending 24 hours in a plane flying from Australia back to London Heathrow will understand exactly what I mean. Even after doing this regularly for over 20 years, I experience the same weird disorientation every time after landing. Everything is utterly strange and utterly familiar at the same time.

As always, I pick up a car and start the long drive westward. I love the transition from hellish airport to the six-laned M4 towards the Severn Bridge, then it becomes four lanes, then two as I dive deeper into Wales. How suddenly the names of town and villages change from English to Welsh in the borderlands. Nether Skyborry and Bicton on one side of a river. Bryn Melin and Llangunllo a few hundred metres to the west.

No more lines of trucks barrelling by now, only the occasional tractor. At last I am in a laneway between tall hedgerows tangled with honeysuckle, barely wider than the car, and I bump over rough ground into a farmyard in sight of the sea. I have arrived. In the days that follow, I slip easily into a different vocabulary. I give distances in miles not kilometres. The vehicle is a 4X4 and I came by the motorway route, I say (not on the freeway in a 4WD). Catching up with my brother in a pub, I don’t order chips to go with my schooner of beer, but some crisps and a pint of Seren IPA. My speech drifts back to the familar English falling intonation, sentences drawling to near-whisper at the end (instead of my Australian up-tick on the final word). After a week, I find myself talking Welsh in local shops and pubs.

All of this is done unconsciously, but what still foxes me is the sense of having travelled back in time. For all the tumultous changes in Britain over the last half-century, Wales remains hidden in plain sight and largely unchanged behind the Cambrian mountains. In the hinterland of the west, the deep green hills and woodlands, the rocky coast, the towns and villages where I spent half my life look barely any different. I could drive for hours in any direction and know every turn in the road, every hedgerow, every pub and village hall.

As well as visiting family and friends, I am going to a college reunion, meeting up with people I haven’t seen for decades. I go with a macabre curiosity, wondering if I will recognise anyone. We’re all a little weather-beaten by the years but utterly recognisable with the same strong personalities. As I stagger saunter back through the college quad to my room at 3 AM, feeling disgracefully sentimental, the eerie feeling returns. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find my younger self walking toward me out of the shadows with a smile of recognition.

Once again I feel like a traveller in time. Am I a visitor from the past who has materialised in the present? Or a creature from the future (my glittering city on the other side of the planet), fallen to earth in the past I had left behind?

Both are true, I realise, as I drift to sleep, hearing the town hall clock chime the quarter-hour. The future is only a past we have yet to discover. As each moment unrolls and become a memory, it gives a strange thrill to everyday life, an existential tingle. We are all travellers in time.

A modest proposal – let’s have a referendum every day

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The Brexit Referendum in Britain has been a triumph of participatory democracy.
Let’s learn from it . . .

Like it or not, the people have spoken in a way that cannot be denied. This is surely the way forward for 21st Century government – in Australia as well as Britain. Imagine if every citizen could download an official Referendum app, so they could vote every day on the major issues that face us. When everyone on your train home is staring at their phone, they won’t just be checking Facebook, they’ll be running the country!

This would be a true, instant democracy that the ancient Greeks could never have dreamed of. Every citizen in the country could have their say and #takecontrol of national policy-making.

On euthanasia, for example, discussion by ‘experts’ and politicians about mercy killing has gone round and round for years without achieving anything. Yet polls consistently show a big majority the population support it – so let’s just ask the people in a referendum, and trust the wisdom of the public. We can take the same approach to solving asylum-seeker policy and other contentious issues too.

Or the live export of cattle . . . instead of tiresome parliamentary committees listening to veterinary and farming ‘experts’ droning on, we could cut to the chase and simply ask every Australian via their smartphone, ‘Do you want to ban live export of cattle? Yes or No.’ Job done.

Let’s have a referendum on reducing taxes at the same time as expanding public services. It’s a no-brainer.

Let’s ask the people about execution as a mandatory sentence for paedophiles . . . I think we’d all agree on that one.

The so-called ‘experts’ have fooled us for too long. We could even have a referendum on climate change, for example, to get a definitive answer to whether it’s real or not. Why did no one ever think of that before?

Let the people speak!