Features & news

A write-off

Emerging Writers' Festival anthology

THREE make-up artists. Four producers clutching clipboards. Five cameramen. I’m sitting in the studio of SBS quiz show Letters and Numbers, trying to count how many people are working behind the scenes. The glare from the coloured stage lights casts everything in magenta and cyan shadows, like a 3D image before you put the glasses on. It’s hard to see, but I can spot at least 15 crew members.

When the episode goes to air, viewers will see only five people. They’ll be seated around a semi-circular desk against a blue background. One of the regular panellists will be David Astle, playwright, novelist and long-time freelance journo. Right now the cameras are rolling and he’s flicking through a massive Macquarie Dictionary propped up in front of him. He’s my first profile subject.

‘Borzoi,’ he says. ‘A Russian Wolfhound. Very tall, long nose, extremely quick.’ Remove the Russian reference and Astle could be describing himself. Lean and lofty, he has shaggy, salt-and-pepper hair, a rapid-fire wit and a dominant proboscis. In this, I’m sure he can weather the insult. This is a man who once described an Italian chef as ‘built like a gnocchi ball’.

Vict govt laws stifle democracy

Crikey

CONTROVERSIAL Victorian climate change protest laws breach freedoms of political expression and are “stifling democracy”, a prominent barrister and Greens candidate has claimed. Brian Walters SC, who is running for the seat of Melbourne in the Victorian state election on November 27, told Crikey that new penalties relating to “critical electricity infrastructure” specifically target climate change protesters.

The next wave

G Magazine

TWELVE days after usurping the Labor leadership, new PM Julia Gillard outlined her “boat people” policy to an anxious public. The plan? A “regional processing centre” on East Timor.

There was nothing new about the idea – regional processing has been part of Australia’s response to asylum seekers since the first wave of Indo-Chinese refugees in the late 70s. The only novel aspect of the policy was the astonishing speed with which it was cobbled together. A hasty call to Timor-Leste’s President Jose Ramos-Horta, a quick chat with the UN, and Gillard was ready to strike asylum seekers from her pre-election to-do list.

Yet the issue of “boat people” can’t be swatted away so easily. Australia needs to develop a considered, long-term approach to asylum seekers and refugees because they could be heading our way for a long time to come.

In transit

The Big Issue

The first problem is getting here. The second is getting permission to enter. Then asylum seekers living in the community must find somewhere to stay. Greg Foyster meets a group of people constantly on the move.

SORIYAN SPENT  a year and a half travelling on trains to nowhere. He would wake up early, haul himself off a bench at Cheltenham Station, in Melbourne’s southern suburbs, and shuffle, tired and cold, onto the six o’clock train. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a red-and-black jacket – a gift from a friend – he would stretch out on a row of seats and close his eyes while the suburbs whooshed past the windows.

He would spend three, four, five hours on the train, travelling on almost all the lines, passing all the stations. Craigieburn, Cranbourne, Sydenham, Glen Waverley, Lilydale, Pakenham – this 28-year-old man from India has criss-crossed the city more times than most locals. At night he would return to Cheltenham or Watergardens Station, in the city’s northwest, and lie on a bench, a backpack under his head for a pillow, a brown blanket over his body for warmth. Sometimes, neighbourhood kids would come and abuse him, shouting racial taunts or trying to grab his bag. Sometimes, he would be left alone. At dawn the cycle would start again: another day riding the rails to pass the time; another night chasing sleep at a train station.

Crank up the power

G Magazine
G Magazine

YOU might have seen the odd electric bike or two roaming around the streets (especially uphill), but you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a new trend about to explode – at least for the time being. Despite technology pushing ahead, e-bikes have taken a long time to gain momentum.

Patented as early as 1897, power-assisted pushies are only now taking off, with more than 120 million electric scooters, bicycles and tricycles zipping along the congested bike lanes of crowded cities, mostly in Asia. Not even the financial downturn halted manufacturing – last year electric bicycle production in China soared 8.2 per cent.

On the other side of the globe, Europeans have also caught the battery-powered buzz.

Trouble concentrating?

YEN (cover story)

CHANCES are you’re reading this magazine with your mobile nearby, switched on and ready for action. The second it beeps your attention will be yanked from this page, pulled by the invisible cord that connects us to friends and family, work and the web. It’s an electronic lifeline that nourishes with texts and tweets, news and gossip. It’s infiltrated every aspect of our lives and, according to some experts, it’s driving us to distraction.

So if your mobile beeps, just ignore it. Better yet, switch it off. Because for the next five minutes, we’re going to look at how technology saps your focus and what you can do to get it back.

Doing good in bad times

The Big Issue

THREE o’clock at the office. The sounds of clerical work reverberate through densely packed cubicles. The familiar clackety-clack of fingertips on keyboards, the laboured breathing of printers under the duress of impending deadlines, and the mechanical slurping of a hungry paper-shredder form a percussion track that’s been playing since morning. Among it all sits a young woman, attuned to the rhythm of industry. She types, files, tends to chirping phones. She’s a typical office worker in a typical office, except for one important distinction: she’s not getting paid.

Talulah is a volunteer; one of a growing number of laid-off workers looking for something to fill the empty pages in their yearly planners. You might expect the recently redundant to be confirmed misanthropes, oozing spite from every pore. But, in some cases, the opposite has occurred.

The meditation myth

The Words We Found: The Best Writing From 21 Years of Voiceworks, Hardie Grant 2009

I KNOW two serious meditation practitioners. Half an hour after the first told me meditation gave him a calm and balanced mind, I heard that the second had been committed to a mental hospital.

Passing paramedics spotted my flatmate meditating on the footpath of Swanston Street and called the police. Recently he had been suffering from psychosis tinged with Buddhist altruism and had come to the conclusion that moving through the world ‘killed molecules’. He would suddenly freeze, mid-stride, to avoid colliding with nearby atoms. When the police found him he was rooted to the sidewalk, gawking at his own shadow.

I didn’t find out about his episode until returning from an interview with Mr Siladasa, the chairman of Melbourne Buddhists Centre, days later. During the session Siladasa, a respected neurologist, had spoken eloquently about the benefits of meditation. He was lucid, logical, sane and happy. How could the same technique have contributed to both mental states?

The new generation of readers

Harvest

I’M a writer who can’t read. When I plunge into a novel, I don’t stay submerged in the fictional world for long. After a few minutes some snag in the text will deliver me back to the present, and I’ll find myself staring at the page, confused. Sometimes I’ll feel a sudden need to check my email or send a text message, watch television. Reading makes me restless, thirsty for fresh stimulation.

Wed and buried

The Age (A2 section)

IT’S a Chinese tale to gong the heart: two young lovers, taken before their time, are married in the grave. But beneath this story’s romantic surface rots a putrid secret. The couple never knew each other in life. He was a bachelor who died alone. She was a peasant from a neighbouring province who was murdered and then sold to his family as a sacrificial bride.

This is the macabre plot of minghun, Chinese afterlife marriage. Grief-clobbered parents, desperate for their dead son to escape the shame of eternal singledom, arrange for a female corpse to be buried next to him. They then marry the couple post mortem. She becomes his wife in the spirit world, his ghost bride.

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Single-minded obsession

Voiceworks

THE governors of the country with the largest population, longest wall, largest dam, biggest Buddha, longest sea-crossing bridge, highest railway, largest airport terminal and soon to be tallest tower (the Shanghai World Financial Centre) tend to take a single idea just a bit too far.

We’re all familiar with some of the schoolbook examples of Chinese single-mindedness. The Great Wall was a 2000-year-long obsession that cost millions of lives and made a better courier path than barricade. Then there was the Cultural Revolution from 1969 to 1976, when the entire population became possessed with the urge to modernise. Students tore about the country trashing temples, tearing up ancient texts and tormenting the elderly.

But few people know that this organised insanity also extends to the environment.