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Suspended in the new normal

Something very big is happening in Australia right now as the entire eastern seaboard and the Great Dividing Range burns out, taking human lives, homes, farms, businesses, livestock, wildlife, threatened species and sacred places with it. I was in Narooma on New Year’s Eve with my partner Neill, having headed to the south coast of NSW in the hope of respite from the month-long anxiety of living between two big unpredictable fires in my Katoomba home. On the way down we stopped with mountains friends in their holiday home at South Durras. They said they’d had word of something happening near Narooma and warnings of extremely adverse weather conditions but we couldn’t find out much. We arrived to blue skies at Bateman’s Bay – the first blue I’d seen for a month. When we approached the road to our AirBNB near Corunna Lake there was a sign saying it was closed due to bushfires. Our hosts were mystified – they hadn’t heard a thing. There was nothing much on Fires Near Me. It was 22 degrees. There was no smoke. It seemed fine.
A massive thunder crack at 5.30am signalled the lightning strike on Cobargo, which was just 20km from where we were sleeping. We rose at 8am to sky so dark we thought it was dawn and found our hosts had pulled in their staff and kids to prepare for the conflagration. We decided we would get out of their way. We drove into town to find no traffic lights and that all roads out to the north and south were cut. By 9am we were settling into the evacuation centre at Narooma PCYC, with friends and safe, but without communications, electricity, access to shops, fuel, banks, or any information about what was happening in the hills around us. We are all such babies without our smartphones and EFTPOS – by 11am most of us had no reception and later that night the mobile services were all diverted to emergency services so phones did not work at all. Fires Near Me crashed completely (it links to 000 callouts, which were apparently coming every four seconds from Cobargo, Bateman’s Bay and Malua Bay) and Live Traffic and Google Maps conflicted. Everyone turned to ABC radio, listening in using the precious batteries in our cars.
We all sat there under a deep red sky, with the air filled with smoke and ash, and a light drizzle that put black streaks over everything. By 11am the sky was black overhead (that was Cobargo) but you could see the fire roaring through the hills to the west – a foreboding glow on the horizon. Puffs of white to the north-east were, we later found out, fires in Bateman’s Bay, Malua Bay, Rosedale. And to the north was Mogo and Lake Conjola and Bendalong. Lots of people had come in a hurry, woken by a knock on their door in the early morning and told they had to leave, and no one would be able to defend their properties. The day was long in the gloom of the PCYC but what else could we do but settle in. Suspended animation, literally.
I hasten to add here that we two were fine – we had cash, some food, and a car full of petrol so we knew we had the capacity to leave if the roads ever opened. We weren’t worried for ourselves and none of our kids were with us but we felt for those who had houses in the line of the fire and my friend with her young child and baby. Still, it was sobering to see how long it took for the state government agencies to arrive, and how hard it was to rustle up enough generators, fuel, water, medicines, nappies, blankets and foodstuffs to keep everyone going – even in a country area where properties are often equipped with such things. There was plenty of initiative on display – local butchers, bakers and cinemas came by with the stuff from their now useless freezers and community and church organisations whipped up tea and coffee and sausage sizzles (no vegans were catered for). Someone filled a car boot with dog food. Anglicare Disaster Relief and the Red Cross were there and began asking everyone to sign in. The ABC radio was a godsend and big thanks to Telstra for offering free use of the payphones and wifi points, where dozens gathered. Eurobodalla Shire Council did a superb job of keeping people calm and informed and the RFS were great at telling us what they did and did not know (the latter outweighed the former). Regular meetings outside the PCYC with the disaster liaison person, the police and the RFS were a key source of information and helped put paid to the whispers of what was really happening. We were safe but we were cut off and we knew nobody was really in charge.
We managed pretty well. The 500 or so people in and around the PCYC, and the couple of thousand in the town, were good and kind to each other. The dogs (so many!) were serene and seemed to understand the situation required them to be sensible and sedate. Cats sat silently in a line of boxes near where the tea was being made and horses ate grass on the foreshore. A friend in the mountains reached us via facebook in a rare moment of mobile reception and put us onto her mother, who had a waterfront apartment, and there we waited, safe and comfortable, wondering what would happen next. We got her gas BBQ going so we could eat and wandered about the town on New Year’s Eve, up to the candlelit golf club and down to the foreshore, where a disco mounted by the ‘Renegade Fire Services’ entertained a group of dancers and dogs, many of them stranded in town like us. A DJ spun tunes from the top of a demobbed fire truck to welcome in the New Year, sending laser lights through the smoke and making a sublime moment of people dancing and smiling despite everything.
Waking up the next day was a time to count the many losses. We heard of lost lives. We heard that other towns had no water or sewerage. People were still coming into the evacuation centre but the roads opened momentarily to the south, presenting the first opportunity for those who had petrol enough to get right away to Canberra or Eden. Of course the locals could not so easily flee.
We waited one more day and walked the town and its beaches. The shoreline was full of crumpled black leaves that looked like shards of silk; like widows’ weeds. We laughed with Blue Mountains locals who had also come to the south coast with the same dumb idea of escaping our own fires. We found new friends in Narooma and at a phone box I ran into a former workmate who lives there now. The next morning we headed out ourselves, driving south although the northern route was technically open (it turned out nobody got past Ulladulla that day). We drove through poor blasted Cobargo, through smoking black paddocks (not bush, just paddocks and scrub and open land that is normally green and should not burn like that). We climbed Browns Mountain, through the noxious gas laying over the bare-eaten Monaro Plains, and to family in the choking air of Canberra. The next day we threaded our way up through two more fires, and got home to Katoomba. At home we endured the disgusting heat of Saturday, watching the ABC as the disaster rolled over even more of the south, knowing the southerly buster we all used to pray for would bring more death and destruction. The tiny bit of rain we got yesterday only prolongs the agony.
If this fire season is the new normal, we aren’t ready for it. This country needs extraordinary resources to fight the fires but also to deal with the people displaced by their arrival. An emergency is only one lightning strike away from anyone and it’s going to be a challenge to keep communications up and maintain evacuation routes. And what do we do about the air that is poisoned and the black slicks in our seas and the animals starving because the whole land is burned?

Breakfast with Dan Bourchier, ABC666 Canberra

This morning I had the pleasure of doing breakfast radio in Canberra with the wonderfully clever Dan Bourchier, to talk about my work here as writer-in-residence on The Level and Endeavour House, where I am hosted by the Australia Institute. It was a great interview and if you care to listen, it’s about 1:45 into this segment.

On The Level at Endeavour House

I’m really pleased to announce that I’m starting my new year in Canberra, where I’m the inaugural writer-in-residence for the Australia Institute at The Level, in Endeavour House. It’s a funky co-working space in Manuka, and I’m very happy to be here.

I’m working on my long-cherished project about Musquito, and I can’t begin to tell you how encouraging it is to receive this support from the Australia Institute, which is an organisation devoted to progressive ideas and social change. Great people, and as well as that the food in Manuka is to die for!  It’s quite strange to be entirely alone and have no one to look after, but also wonderful.

Vale Inga Clendinnen

A writer who taught me that there is so much more to exploring history and the self than what is in the academy. I have never felt so giddy as I did when I got to hold her hands when she won the Premier’s Literary Awards for Dancing with Strangers. That book, which I return to again and again, I loved for showing me new sides to material I already thought I knew. Here is Text’s obituary.

Open letter to Turnbull and Dutton about asylum seekers

Dear Minister Dutton and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull,

I am a historian who has spent nearly two decades studying the history of child welfare in this country. My PhD ‘“Such a longing”: the treatment of black and white children in welfare in NSW and Tasmania 1880-1940’ (UNSW History, 2007) was written while the previous Liberal government asserted that the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were separated from their families was in accordance with the welfare standards of the time. In 2008 the Parliament of Australia, with the support of Malcolm Turnbull as leader of the opposition, reversed that position and apologised to the Stolen Generations for what had been done to them. Since then, the Parliament has apologised to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants and to those affected by Forced Adoptions. In each of the three apologies the stakeholders have felt they were supported by Malcolm Turnbull – I know this, because I spent three years working with those stakeholders as part of the team which put together the Australian Government’s Find & Connect web resource.

As the conditions for detained asylum-seekers on Nauru and Manus Island deteriorate I am moved to remind you both that the damage being done in your names will have a high cost. The adults you have detained there are suffering and so are their children. Small children and babies. Our own very recent history shows us that this sort of ill-treatment wreaks havoc on the current generation and their descendants, leaving very real scars on the people affected. The shame for our own community is incalculable and you should not be doing this in my name. 

I would like you both to answer the following questions to ensure immediate improvement in the lives of people on Nauru and Manus Island:

1. What will you do to ensure that medical attention, to Australian standards, is available at Nauru and Manus Island (or that speedy evacuation systems are in place)?

2. What will you do to ensure women and babies receive Australian-standard prenatal, post-natal and infant welfare care? 

3. What will you do to ensure Australian-standards of child protection are in place on both Nauru and Manus Island and when will you do it?

4. How and when will you improve security for asylum-seekers on both Nauru and Manus Island?

Finally, when will you resettle people found to be refugees from both Nauru and Manus Island?

I would appreciate a prompt answer to these questions. Please do not write back saying that this is the responsibility of the PNG or Nauru governments. You are party to contracts with these governments and you remain responsible for this situation.

Sincerely, Dr Naomi Parry

The end of a working class pastime

Working class pastimes are always complicated, aren’t they? Gambling, in all its forms, is destructive, whether it’s cards or betting. Ancient “sports” like cockfighting, dog-fighting, bull-baiting and bare-knuckle fighting have all been so brutal they have been banned in English-speaking countries. Then again, “sports” favoured by the upper-classes, such as horse-racing and the betting associated with it, have been heavily regulated to standards of what some consider to be safety.

Greyhound racing in Australia arose from the ancient practice of coursing, which involved setting fast hounds in pursuit of small prey.  Scratching Sydney’s Surface has a great piece about the origins of coursing, which I drew on when I wrote about Lithgow Greyhound Racing Track for Lithgow History Avenue. The electrified greyhound racing track (the tin hare), which we now know as part of the sport now, was introduced in the late 1920s and both reduced the (public) cruelty of the activity and increased its popular appeal. Greyhound racing was accessible, low-cost (compared to horses) and became part of the fabric of many working class communities. There was many a working class household with a racing dog in its backyard.

And now, with Mike Baird announcing the banning of greyhound racing, it’s all gone. On the one hand, too many dogs live intolerable lives, too many small furry creatures are sacrificed and too many beautiful greyhounds die horribly. But it’s another element of working class life that is biting the dust, taking much that is positive with it.

And what will become of those hounds? They won’t all be converted to pets or rehomed. It’s a big change. Necessary, but big.

Neighbourly fun

This year’s Speaker Connect programme for History Week has the theme of Neighbours and I am trying to think of something I have worked on that might make a substantial presentation but I am stumped. In the meantime, as it’s election time, my current-day neighbourhood is always good for a laugh. The defacing of my Liberal-voting neighbour’s corflutes with some very silly symbols has led to media interest!

Art versus history, and vice versa

imageThis weekend I’ve been at home, in Hobart, and at something new(ish), which is MONA. The annual MONA Foma festival (MoFo) is entirely located at the site of the gallery this year, which means some of the transformative power of its former location in the middle of Hobart city is lost. Overall, mMoFo is low-key, quiet, attenuated because it now sprawls over the whole site and because the lineup this year is a tad obtuse. What I’ve seen has been good but you do get considerably bigger bang for your buck at mainland festivals like our very own Blue Mountains Music Festival. The MoFo App is dreadful (no cross-referencing) and I’ll be writing to suggest they copy the Sydney Film Festival’s app, which is a delight, as well as their ticketing system. I enjoyed the SA Theatre Co’s Beckett mightily though – if enjoy is the right word.

Still, I’m home and with my dearest friends. Had a great stay down south that culminated in finding the author of a Great War diary my dear girlfriend Sue, collector extraordinaire, had scavenged from the South Hobart tip. Via Facebook she was alerted to a picture of the author and what a cheeky cove he was. It’s never long enough here.

And while at MONA, a chance to think about art versus archaeology, and art versus history. Gilbert and George, cheeky critics of social mores, old, new and future. imageA giant installation of books formed by lead leaves and glass bindings – which makes me think I’d much rather read the archaeology and built heritage of, say, the Pasminco Zinc Refinery than a constructed piece. Then a piece on Hiroshima that recollected archive boxes and got me, but of course you couldn’t touch it and what use are archives you can’t touch? When boxes evoke things lost, as they did in the show today, I can get it, but tell a historian to keep their hands off it and you’ll get a very erudite tantrum. Then again, perhaps my son is right to say, if you let everyone touch archives they will be destroyed. Oh yes, but I am not anyone.

This is also the week David Bowie died. An archivist (of himself), a songster, a historian (of himself), a storyteller magician, a Black Star. Vale and RIP.



The end of 2015

I’m really looking forward to the New Year. This last one, 2015, was hard, although it had its riches. Too many changes, brutish and unexpected, although not all of them were bad. Friends filled up and warmed what might have been a cold space, my house and Katoomba became my home again, and my son and I grew even closer. Most of the time I felt as precariously balanced as the stones at the top of this pylon, but I made it. And I did some cool things – I saw whales, watched Sylvie Guillem dance her last performance in Sydney and Lucinda Williams rock out at the Enmore, danced with my kid at the 40th anniversary of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and went to a disco, bought funky furniture and enjoyed being social again. Although the bad bits were very bad, it wasn’t all like that. Onward.

Lockley Pylon, September 2015
Lockley Pylon, September 2015

We will remember

It is Remembrance Day so I shall be thinking about the men and women who have, for complicated and varied reasons, served this country in overseas conflicts over the last 116 years. I will also be thinking of the wars that continue around this world, for reasons only the powerful know, and the people displaced by them, including those who have tried to stagger to our shores. I will remember.

And it’s a day to reflect on the titanic struggles of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. Gough was a WWII RAAF veteran who brought our conscripts home from Vietnam. Fraser was a child of wartime who threw our country’s borders open to refugees from that conflict. I’ll remember that too.