Fruitful day on Monday — 2 — Sunday night TV led to a journey into great Australian poetry and memories of Sydney High

Last Sunday night ABC premiered a riveting and scary miniseries set in a country town: Savage River. 9/10 from me!

On Facebook I wrote something just a bit strange:

I venture to suggest I was the only person in Australia (aside from perhaps this poet who may have watched) who instantly recalled Robert Gray’s “The Meatworks” — and I am delighted to find it online

Most of them worked around the slaughtering
out the back, where concrete gutters
crawled off
heavily, and the hot, fertilizer-thick,
sticky stench of blood
sent flies mad,

but I settled for one of the lowest-paid jobs, making mince,
the furthest end from those bellowing,
sloppy yards. Outside, the pigs’ fear
made them mount one another
at the last minute….

The poet had at one time actually worked in this place.

My note went on:

I did have some contact with Robert Gray over the years, starting with the time he was working in a Paddington bookshop in 1982 when he told me Patrick White had come in recommending Neos Young Writers, of which I was an editor, through to his generously coming a few years later to talk to my class at Sydney Boys High. Taught his work to the Class of 2000 as well.

Robert Gray 1978
Christine Godden

I think Robert actually spoke to a combined class and this was perhaps the class of 1986 when they were in Year 11. Or it may have been in Term 4 of 1999 when the Class of 2000 began their actual HSC year.

I do recall he did it at no charge, and also that he said “Some people take photos. I write poems. My poems are my photo album.”

Among the most moving of Robert Gray’s poems, for me, is “Diptych” — a pair evoking his mother and his father and their life in Coff’s Harboiur on the north coast o NSW. Here is part of the portrait of his father, an alcoholic and a rather irascible man:

… And yet, the only time I heard him say that he’d enjoyed anything
was when he spoke of the bush, once. ‘Up in those hills,’
he advised me, pointing around, ‘when the sun is coming out of the sea,
standing among
that lifting timber, you can feel at peace.’
I was impressed. He asked me, another time, that when he died
I should take his ashes somewhere, and not put him with the locals,
in the cemetery.
I went up to one of the places he had named
years earlier, at the time of day he had spoken of, when the half-risen sun
was as strongly-spiked as the one
on his Infantry badge,
and I scattered him there, utterly reduced at last, among the wet,
breeze-woven grass…..

This is discussed in the opening part of this wonderful interview done just two years ago by English Buddhist poet Maitreyabandhu (Ian Johnson).

Robert has aged — but so have I! Refers to some wonderful poems, starting with “Diptych”. Great interview by a well-informed English Buddhist and many shafts of dry wit from Robert Gray.

I then recalled the wonderful class of 2000, particularly one member of it:

That is Xiang on the left.

When I taught his poems (including “Diptych”) to the class of 2000 one class member, Xiang, was originally from China — in fact less than five years in Australia. He was on his mother’s side a descendant of the family of the last Emperor of China (“there is a hotel in Beijing that was my great-great-great-aunt’s palace”) and at that time a Tibetan Buddhist. His grandmother had been in the Ministry of Culture in 1989 and refused to endorse the crackdown. The family as a result were sent to Gansu Province where Xiang encountered Tibetan culture. Xiang related well to Robert Gray’s poems and saw the Buddhism instantly.

The class went one day to a HSC lecture day at the Sydney Hilton where Robert was speaking about his poems and of course Xiang was there and had a chance to talk to Robert. I asked him after how he had felt about it. He just said, “What can I say?” He was deeply moved. He achieved a good pass in English too, though his thing really was Maths — despite the fact that he had been speaking English for four years or less and the only way in Year 11 1999 he had been able to cope with The Scarlet Letter was by reading a Chinese translation.

Mind you he then told me just what was wrong with the translation….

In some Remarks on poems for the HSC Robert Gray wrote:

My poetry is full of images, because I want to particularize every natural thing that appears in it, out of respect, you might say. In my poems, nothing is a symbol for anything else. Everything has its own worth and is presented directly. The overall effect is one of clarity and light.

‘Journey, the North Coast’

You will notice at once the rhythm of this. The variety of line-lengths makes it an example of free verse. The poem imitates the swaying movement of an overnight train (but not too heavy-handedly, I would like to think).

Also imitative is the poem’s narrative plunges down the page, without the hindrance of stanza-breaks. The poet finds the experience of waking in the country exhilarating, as is shownin the sensuous imagery used.

There is fleetingly evoked a contrast between the country morning of a holiday and the rented room in the city, where he has lived out of a suitcase. The shadow of the furnished room is carried along with him.

Moments in my eBook Library — 11 — also read when I was 11-12: Ethel Turner

Some may recall the marvellous ABC-TV serial from the early 1970s. What quality!

I probably read it at 11-12 in an edition like this:

And yes, thanks to Project Gutenberg, I can revisit it in my eBook Library on Calibre — now standing at 3,229 books by the way!

Chiefly Descriptive

Before you fairly start this story I should like to give you just a word of warning.

If you imagine you are going to read of model children, with perhaps; a naughtily inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately and betake yourself to ‘Sandford and Merton’ or similar standard juvenile works. Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.

In England, and America, and Africa, and Asia, the little folks may be paragons of virtue, I know little about them.

But in Australia a model child is—I say it not without thankfulness—an unknown quantity.

It may be that the miasmas of naughtiness develop best in the sunny brilliancy, of our atmosphere. It may be that the land and the people are young-hearted together, and the children’s spirits not crushed and saddened by the shadow of long years’ sorrowful history.

There is a lurking sparkle of joyousness and rebellion and mischief in nature here, and therefore in children.

Often the light grows dull and the bright colouring fades to neutral tints in the dust and heat of the day. But when it survives play-days and school-days, circumstances alone determine whether the electric sparkle shall go to play will-o’-the-wisp with the larrikin type, or warm the breasts of the spirited, single-hearted, loyal ones who alone can “advance Australia.”

Enough of such talk. Let me tell you about my seven select spirits. They are having nursery tea at the present moment with a minimum of comfort and a maximum of noise, so if you can bear a deafening babel of voices and an unmusical clitter-clatter of crockery I will take you inside the room and introduce them to you.

Nursery tea is more an English institution than an Australian one; there is a kind of bon camaraderie feeling between parents and young folks here, and an utter absence of veneration on the part of the latter. So even in the most wealthy families it seldom happens that the parents dine in solemn state alone, while the children are having a simple tea in another room: they all assemble around the same board, and the young ones partake of the same dishes, and sustain their parts in the conversation right nobly.

But, given a very particular and rather irritable father, and seven children with excellent lungs and tireless tongues, what could you do but give them separate rooms to take their meals in?

Captain Woolcot, the father, in addition to this division, had had thick felt put over the swing door upstairs, but the noise used to float down to the dining-room in cheerful, unconcerned manner despite it.

It was a nursery without a nurse, too, so that partly accounted for it. Meg, the eldest, was only sixteen, and could not be expected to be much of a disciplinarian, and the slatternly but good-natured girl, who was supposed to combine the duties of nursery-maid and housemaid, had so much to do in her second capacity that the first suffered considerably. She used to lay the nursery meals when none of the little girls could be found to help her, and bundle on the clothes of the two youngest in the morning, but beyond that the seven had to manage for themselves.

So it begins and so it continues — absolutely delightful even now.

And still available!

With ready to use teaching resources from Reading Australia too.

Note before beginning the unit:

The customs and language of the time period will be challenging for contemporary readers, so ongoing attention to the colonial context, vocabulary and archaic expressions used in the novel will be needed. The novel would be suitable for independent reading by proficient readers in Upper Primary or supported reading with less proficient students.  As well, it could be read in modelled reading sessions by the teacher. For different chapters, teachers would lead a general discussion of the events and encourage students’ responses and questions. The tasks in this teacher resource offer a study of particular chapters and excerpts (see list below) which would be taught in literature study sessions; these tasks are designed to draw attention to aspects of the author’s craft and literary techniques. Research shows that appreciation of how a text is constructed enhances personal enjoyment of that text. Other more typical and straightforward literary tasks, such as character profiles and point-of-view diaries, are not included as these are very familiar to teachers and can be included as activities where relevant.

In the novel, the children’s father, Captain Woolcot, uses harsh physical discipline on his sons, as was common at the time. Teachers need to be sensitive to their students’ personal situations and treat these scenes with thought and sensitivity.

Wikipedia includes a fact I have only just learned, thanks to them!

1894 Edition: Tettawonga’s Lost Story

There is an Aboriginal narrative of significant interest in the original edition that was omitted in all editions from its first republication in 1897 until its centenary edition in 1994.

The Woolcot children, while holidaying at the cattle station, listen to Mr Gillet telling an Aboriginal story he “got at second-hand” from Tettawonga, the station’s Aboriginal stockman.

“‘Once upon a time’ (Judy sniffed at the old-fashioned beginning), ‘once upon a time,’ said Mr. Gillet, ‘when this young land was still younger, and incomparably more beautiful, when Tettawonga’s ancestors were brave and strong and happy as careless children, when their worst nightmare had never shown them so evil a time as the white man would bring their race, when–‘ ‘Oh, get on! muttered Pip impatiently. ‘Well,’ said Mr Gillet, ‘when, in short, an early Golden Age wrapped the land in its sunshine, a young kukuburra and its mate spread their wings and set off towards the purple mountains beyond the gum trees…”

Clare Bradford suggested in her book Reading Race “The main effect of the omission of Tettawonga’s story is…to achieve a less problematic version of the Australian past than the one which prevails in the book’s first edition.” Brenda Niall has suggested that the omission may have been due to the extensive advertising in the first reprint, with the commercial editors capitalising on the book’s success by removing a digression from the narrative that was considered expendable, and replacing it with advertising space they could sell.

The book also has another scene that I read in my room with tears streaming down my face. Rather close to home in 1954 or 1955 when I was reading it, as my own beloved sister Jeanette had passed away only two or three years before in 1952.

Jeanette and I c.1947

There is a story behind the episode in the novel too.

Ethel Turner’s diary entry for 25th March 1898—small as it is–humorously and honestly captures the wiles of her capricious month-old daughter, Jean, as she learns to grapple with the novelty of motherhood alongside her husband, Herbert Curlewis. Ethel’s ability to describe children candidly is perhaps what most admire about her literary career that spanned six decades, embedding her name and her stories into Australia’s literary conscience. Born in 1873, Ethel is a much-beloved and brilliant Australian children’s author known for Seven Little Australians (1894), The Little Larrikin (1896), Three Little Maids (1900) and the wartime Cub Trilogy (1915-1919), among other works. Though much can be said of Ethel’s 34 volume oeuvre, a snapshot of her life and works—from her first and remarkably successful novel, Seven Little Australians (SLA) in 1894, to her almost forgotten novel, Mother’s Little Girl (MLG) in 1904 —reveals the various ways in which Ethel explored her ever-changing family relationships within ten years.

And in 2020 Clare Aston posted on Buzzfeed: Judy’s Death In “Seven Little Australians” Still Haunts Me To This Day.

Honestly, still can’t believe my mother let me read this as a kid. I dead set still think about it at least once a week.

And here is that scene:

Judy grew quiet, and still more quiet. She shut her eyes so she could not see the gathering shadows. Meg’s arms were round her, Meg’s cheek was on her brow, Nell was holding her hands, Baby her feet, Bunty’s lips were on her hair. Like that they went with her right to the Great Valley, where there are no lights even for stumbling, childish feet.

The shadows were cold, and smote upon their hearts; they could feel the wind from the strange waters on their brows; but only she who was about to cross heard the low lapping of the waves.

Just as her feet touched the water there was a figure in the doorway.

“Judy!” said a wild voice; and Pip brushed them aside and fell down beside her.

“Judy, Judy, JUDY!”

The light flickered back in her eyes. She kissed him with pale lips once, twice; she gave him both her hands, and her last smile.

Moments in my eBook Library — 9 — Black Gold (ANU Press) and miniseries New Gold Mountain (2021)

Only after the last post had me looking back through the free offerings from ANU Press in Canberra did I encounter Fred Cahir, Black Gold: Aboriginal People on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1850-1870 (2012) which I added to my eBook Library. I am looking forward to reading it.

Fred Cahir tells the story about the magnitude of Aboriginal involvement on the Victorian goldfields in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The first history of Aboriginal–white interaction on the Victorian goldfields, Black Gold offers new insights on one of the great epochs in Australian and world history—the gold story.

In vivid detail it describes how Aboriginal people often figured significantly in the search for gold and documents the devastating social impact of gold mining on Victorian Aboriginal communities. It reveals the complexity of their involvement from passive presence, to active discovery, to shunning the goldfields.

This detailed examination of Aboriginal people on the goldfields of Victoria provides striking evidence which demonstrates that Aboriginal people participated in gold mining and interacted with non-Aboriginal people in a range of hitherto neglected ways.

Running through this book are themes of Aboriginal empowerment, identity, integration, resistance, social disruption and communication.

Last year SBS showed an excellent miniseries — in October 2021 I see I shared about it on Facebook thirteen times! — called New Gold Mountain.

See an excellent essay on The Conversation by Professor of History & Director Future Regions Research Centre, Federation University Australia Keir Reeves.

You can imagine how startled recent arrivals from the bustling South China trading ports of Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau must have been on disembarkation. The flora and fauna – literally everything – was so different to home.

[Director Corrie] Chen explores this shock in a moment of brief magical realism with Wei Shing’s encounters with a kangaroo. It seems the bush sees all. The Chinese miners and their Indigenous and European counterparts were all coming to terms with a landscape broken by mining and colonised by a disparate society coming to terms with its own experiences and opportunities. New Gold Mountain evocatively captures this moment.

I wondered about the portrayal of First Australians and their place on the goldfields in New Gold Mountain but really had not read much history on that specific theme. In all that I read or was taught in the past about the gold rush period the Indigenous element had virtually disappeared, while the Chinese element (though usually distorted) was strongly present. So as I said, looking forward to this book.

‘Australia – news from home’, Baxter, George, (ca 1853), lithograph, ink on paper. Collection of the Australian National Maritime Museum, Image 00008756.
Visitors to the goldfields were often struck by the multi-cultural nature of the population on the Victorian goldfields. The exotic attraction of each other was often portrayed by goldfield artists. — Fred Cahir


By the time that gold was officially discovered in Victoria in 1851 the Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate (1838-1850) had been disbanded, Aboriginal people had been dispossessed of their land by squatters and sheep, and they were now facing a second invasion – gold seekers from across the globe. When, by the mid 1850s, it became clear that gold was literally strewn across Victoria, the rush to the diggings by a mass of humanity began.

This book dispels four common misconceptions surrounding Aboriginal people on the goldfields of Victoria during the nineteenth century: that most Aboriginal people were attached to sheep stations rather than townships; that those few at mining settlements were on the periphery; that those on the periphery were bewildered spectators; and finally, that Aboriginal experiences on the goldfields were primarily negative. This book reveals that Victorian Aboriginal people demonstrated a great degree of agency, exhibited entrepreneurial spirit and eagerness to participate in gold-mining or related activities and, at times, figured significantly in the gold epoch. Their experiences, like those of non-Indigenous people, were multi-dimensional, from passive presence, active discovery, to shunning the goldfields. There is striking and consistent evidence that Aboriginal people, especially those whose lands were in rich alluvial gold bearing regions, remained in the gold areas, participated in gold mining and interacted with non-Indigenous people in a whole range of hitherto neglected ways, whilst maintaining many of their traditional customs. There is also evidence that Aboriginal people from Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia were present on the Victorian goldfields…

…Without downplaying the extent of violent conflict that continued to occur between Aboriginal people and the newcomers, without denying the high degree of racial vilification and oppression that Aboriginal people continued to suffer, this book nevertheless documents a significant level of cooperative endeavour that suggests that life on the goldfields may have offered a rare moment of respite from the rigours of colonialism for Aboriginal people.

In praise of our ABC — the Australian public broadcaster — and also of SBS

How blessed we are, for all the faults these two may have — one a media giant, the other more a minnow — that we have in them some of the most reliable most honest mainstream media in the world today, and how important that is in these crazy times with a world of crazies and worse vying for our attention.

The ABC is mercifully commercial-free as well, unlike even PBS in the USA. Conservative governments and reactionary think-tanks and lobbyists who often drive such governments have forced SBS to have commercials, even if not quite as crass as the commercial free-to-air channels. SBS maintains however possibly the best news services on our TV, as well as the important NITV Channel — Indigenous Television.

And lately on the ABC one of the best documentaries about Ukraine that you will ever see:

And the best media literacy site you will ever see. The usual suspects hate it!

In that one the examination of Russian responses to the story of the bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol is a total treasure! A friend of mine who happens to have been in Bali at the time of the bombing there in 2002 and was awarded an Order of Australia medal for his work in the hospital and morgue had this to say on Facebook:

This is a clip concerning the bombing of a maternity hospital in Ukraine, from the ABC’s Media Watch program of 29 March, 2022. It is graphic and potentially distressing showing footage of someone who subsequently died.

Following my involvement in the relief effort after the Bali Bombings of 2002, I developed a keen eye for blast injuries. So, as soon as I saw this I understood that although confronting it was showing real injuries.

The clip explores the matter of propaganda and the fog of war.

Transcript of the Media Watch story,

But now to Ukraine and the well-known adage that truth is the first casualty of war.

Except truth may have triumphed for once, thanks to the work of Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka — two brave Ukrainian journalists from Associated Press — who have documented the brutal Russian bombardment of Mariupol, where 100,000 people are now trapped with no food, no power and no link to the outside world.  

Infamously, Mariupol was also the scene of the terrible bombing of a maternity hospital on March the 9th. And it was the AP team that captured haunting photos and video of bloodied pregnant women being helped out of hospital, including this badly-injured pregnant woman, being stretchered by rescuers across the rubble. 

In a war of daily horrors, those images did more than touch hearts, they provided compelling evidence of war crimes. And the Russians were desperate to deny what they had done.  

The day after the attack, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the media dismissively:

SERGEI LAVROV [TRANSLATED]: … it’s not the first time we see pathetic outcries concerning the so-called atrocities perpetrated by the Russian military.

– BBC News, 10 March, 2022

Lavrov insisted the hospital was empty, except for soldiers from the Azov battalion. 

So how to explain those photos of the victims?

The Russian Embassy in London had the answer to that — they were fake and the women in the pictures were merely actors. 

In fact, said the Russians in a second tweet, there was one actor — whom it misnamed — playing two parts:

… it’s the indeed pregnant [Ukraine flag emoji] beauty blogger Marianna Podgurskaya. She actually played roles of both pregnant women on the photos.

– Twitter, @RussianEmbassy, 10 March, 2022

After Twitter took those tweets down, Russia’s ambassador to the UN repeated the claim to the Security Council. 

And the Russian ambassador to the Netherlands then took up the story, telling Dutch television:

ALEXANDER SHULGIN: World media’s published sinister photo of maternity ward in Mariupol with … 

… pregnant women, lots of casualties. Actually, we are faced with huge disinformation effort.

MAIIKE SCHOON: You’re saying it’s not true?

ALEXANDER SHULGIN: It’s not true …

… actually this is only one woman. She is featured here, rushing down the stairwell, here she changed clothes and she is being brought on the stretcher … 

– Buitenhof, 13 March, 2022

Russian state TV also spread those ridiculous claims that the pregnant women were fake and the hospital was empty, apart from soldiers.

And so did a bunch of Twitter accounts, including some claiming to be on the American far right:


– Twitter, @AnnaTay59833185, 22 March, 2022

And over in the US, the Trump fans at One America News were certainly buying the line:

PEARSON SHARP: There are numerous reports of the hospital was actually abandoned, that there were no patients inside. That’s because, and this is according to locals and even hospital staff, the hospital was actually cleared out weeks ago and was being used as a base of operations for the Ukrainian military.

– OANN, 17 March, 2022

But amazingly, some people in Australia were also convinced or confused. And how do we know? Because people asked me if the women were fake.

It’s a sad world when you need to debunk crazy conspiracies like this. But let’s do it. 

The AP team who witnessed the carnage say they saw no soldiers in the hospital, only doctors, nurses, women and kids. And, yes, they were real. 

But in an attempt to convince the doubters the team tracked down Timur Marin, the surgeon in Mariupol who treated the woman on the stretcher, who reported her pelvis was crushed, her baby was dead and she died soon after. 

The AP team also located the beauty blogger with her new baby, who told them: 

MARIANA VISHEGIRSKAYA [TRANSLATED]: We were lying in wards when glass, frames, windows and walls flew apart.

– The Guardian, 14 March, 2022

By this stage the AP team were the last international journalists in Mariupol — finding it harder and harder to get their story out:

… the only link we had to the outside world was through a satellite phone. And the only spot where that phone worked was out in the open, right next to a shell crater. 

– AP, 22 March, 2022

And they were still stuck in the city last week as the Russians closed in. Then, as Chernov recounted:  

Suddenly at dawn, a dozen soldiers burst in: “Where are the journalists, for fuck’s sake?”

I looked at their armbands, blue for Ukraine, and tried to calculate the odds that they were Russians in disguise. I stepped forward to identify myself. “We’re here to get you out,” they said.

– AP, 22 March, 2022

A Ukrainian officer then explained why they had to flee — Russian troops had orders to get them, to bolster their fake news claims:

“If they catch you, they will get you on camera and they will make you say that everything you filmed is a lie,” he said. “All your efforts and everything you have done in Mariupol will be in vain.”

– AP, 22 March, 2022

The AP team did then escape and were able to tell their story. 

So, does anyone still believe the Russian version? No doubt some do, that’s how powerful fake news is. 

And of course Russia is still maintaining the lie.

And an update

File under #codswallop #axegrinding #selfinterest #envy #vestedinterests

News Corporation co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch has taken aim at the national broadcaster and “media elite” in a keynote speech delivered at the Institute of Public Affairs last night.

In launching The Centre for the Australian Way of Life, Murdoch espouses the virtue of our country, before launching into an attack on the ABC.

“To listen to our national broadcaster or much of the media elite is to hear about a uniquely racist, selfish, slavish and monochromatic country,” he said.

“The reality could not be more different – we are one of the most tolerant, generous, independent and multicultural countries in human history. Not without fault, but without peer.

“How can we expect people to defend the values, interests and sovereignty of this nation if we teach our children only our faults and none of our virtues?

“We must arm our young people with the facts and not undermine them with false ideological narratives.”

See 30 March 2022: Lachlan Murdoch Slams ABC, YouTube, ‘Media Elite’ In IPA SpeechLachlan Murdoch Slams ABC, YouTube, ‘Media Elite’ In IPA Speech. The IPA is utterly committed to the destruction of the ABC. Lachlan of course we know about. This groovy love-in is a bit like a convention in Moscow discussing the appropriateness of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Go back to last year to see the pattern: How the Australian and the IPA’s attack on the ABC went horribly wrong.

A key reason the Murdoch empire is increasingly focused on the ABC is its expanding footprint in digital news.

ABC News has been Australia’s top digital news brand since January 2020, when it overtook in terms of overall monthly unique audience.

At the same time News Corp has transitioned to a primarily digital news business: it has 117 mastheads in total but only 15 of those are in print. The ABC’s free news service is a barrier to its subscription business.

With ABC News the No 1 Australian news brand on Apple News (3.6m monthly audience), Instagram (700,000 followers) and No 2 on Facebook (4.5m page followers) competition is intense. In June this year 12.8m Australians, or 51% of people aged 2+, used either the ABC website or the app to access ABC news.

Five years ago this time — March 2017

So much there!

Inspiring — teachers and schools, and terror

Posted on  by Neil

Great opinion piece in today’s Sydney Morning Herald by Dr Michael Anderson, Professor of Education at The University of Sydney.

This is what we call 4C schools, and these schools exist. The 4Cs are creativity, critical reflection, collaboration and communication. In their classrooms and staffrooms, 4C schools are transforming learning and teaching through this quartet. But in these schools it takes will, energy, inquiry, courage and determination.

The 4C evolution is only just beginning in certain schools but it is always characterised by a climate of re-invigoration, excitement, challenge, difficulty, uncertainty and possibility.

However, this is not always the climate across all schools.

The onward march of NAPLAN, testing a limited set of ‘basics’ with its teach-to-the-test oppressions, and league tables, have transformed education into a much-reduced experience for teachers and students alike. This is professionally disappointing for teachers and it is a profound threat to the students in schools.

While we chase ever-increasing ‘accountability measures’ we are relegating the aspects of schooling that will prepare students for the realities of work and life in the 21st Century….

Compare my thoughts at This is the Naplan post that wasn’t… (2015).

It is Naplan season again and all those boring things that always get said are being said again. I was so pissed off by The Drum last night that I turned the TV off to prevent the wittering of some hack regurgitating the right wing propaganda about charter schools in the USA. Compare The truth about charter schools: Padded cells, corruption, lousy instruction and worse results.

So on Facebook I vented thus:

Naplan = craplan? I thought of doing a blog post about the annual stupidity that breaks out as so many who should know better think the Naplan ritual actually “measures” something. It does not. Even if it did, the fact there hasn’t been enough “improvement” means very little. Why not just say the the truth: things turn out pretty much as you can expect, and all the agonising is just pissing in the wind. I pretty much said this in 2008.

Better just to concentrate on substantive teaching and let all this politically motivated bureaucratic “measuring” crap die the death it should.

Oh and that blog post I proposed? I am sick of the idiocy and really can’t be bothered any more. Time to let go, and let others wake up and shout out.

Now if I were writing up the issue in a sober manner I would doubtless be a tad less nihilistic about it all. Those of you who can read my Facebook will see that Thomas has commented thoughtfully and extensively, greatly improving my post. A small part of what he added:

Naplan contributes very little, I feel, to the overall education process. I won’t say it contributes nothing because, being concerned with my students’ progress, I appreciate getting feedback and “indications” as to what my students need. Obviously literacy and numeracy are key skills that students need not just to succeed in school (whatever that looks like?), but to be life-longer learners. Is this the best way to get the feedback? No, not at all. But I do enjoy getting feedback.

Finally, to recycle that 2008 post: Memo to Julie Gillard and Kevin Rudd

Last night SBS’s venerable Insight looked at some of our most inspirational teachers.


While the declining academic performance of Australian school students in international rankings may have captured the headlines, for some students the influence of their teachers goes far beyond test results; teachers have changed their lives.

Denzyl Moncrieff grew up in a tough environment. By the end of year 9 he wasn’t interested in going to school or making friends. The moment when Suzy Urbaniak singled out his performance in a year 10 science test changed everything.

Donna Loughran was an absent high school student. She was bored and didn’t see the relevance of what she was learning at school. By Year 11, Donna had a decision to make about the kind of future she wanted. Luckily, she had Steve Duclos for legal studies and he showed her the possibilities.

Omar Sawan was an angry student. He says he lost count of the number of times he was suspended from school. At one point he challenged the principal to expel him. That principal, Jihad Dib, refused and managed to see potential in an angry school kid.

See also Some thoughts on Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl (2014).

Listen to the guy! [Jihad Dib.] Carefully!

This has been one of Sydney’s least promising schools, on the face of it. Just a few years back it was getting the media treatment for other reasons:

Adam Shand: Today on Sunday, second generation Lebanese Australians, speak of life as foreigners in the land of their birth. They tell of the growing racism they perceive, their feelings of alienation and the price we all pay for this. They explain why they are angry.

Adam Houda: I see the situation escalating. I can tell you there is simmering tension within our community and they are just sick and tired of the relentless attacks upon our people and our community.

Dr Jamal Rifi: When you have people marginalised, pushed into a corner, they are going to bite back and they are going to do it in very unpredictable ways and very unpredictable fashion.

Adam Shand: The Mufti of Australia Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali has unwittingly revived a damaging debate about the sexuality of young Muslim men. His comments likening women to uncovered meat were widely interpreted as encouraging, even inciting sexual assault.

Prue Goward: This is incitement. He should be deported.

Adam Shand: Such views reinforced the notion that Australian Lebanese men can be mobilised to criminal action by their religious leaders — that the Koran comes before the law of the land.

Mohamad el-Assaad: I don’t think anything he said incited, I can listen to Tupac if I want to, I can listen to Nickelback if I want to, if I want to follow what this guy says, that’s up to me.

Adam Shand: And you also go to the mosque and listen there as well?

Mohamad el-Assaad: I go to the mosque, here and there.

Adam ShandMany of these young men attended Punchbowl High School in Sydney’s south-west. The school is notorious for producing a notorious group of rapists who terrorised young women in 2000. The leader of the gang Bilal Skaf, now serving a 32-year prison sentence for his crimes, is always identified as Lebanese Muslim.

Back in 2003 The Sydney Morning Herald offered: Guns, gangs, poison: a principal’s battlezone.

This was life at Punchbowl Boys’ High School for its former principal Clifford Preece: a gang member came into the school, put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him. Students armed with knives threatened their classmates. Teachers had a toxic chemical put in their kettle, were assaulted in class and faced gang invasions of classrooms.

The school’s students were to become notorious: one was convicted of murdering schoolboy Edward Lee. Three other students were jailed for gang rapes – along with their gang leader, Bilal Skaf – who was a “regular intruder” at Punchbowl Boys’.

After five years as principal of the “Punchbowl school battlefront” between 1995 and 1999, Mr Preece says his 30-year career as a teacher ended with a breakdown.

In the District Court, Mr Preece is suing the Department of Education, alleging that it failed to protect his safety, and that as a result he has developed chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and cannot work as a teacher.

Mr Preece, 53, told Judge Christopher Robison he had nightmares when he read about former students M, who killed Edward Lee, and gang rapists Tayyab Sheikh (who was sentenced to 15 years in jail) and brothers Mahmoud and Mohammed Sanoussi (11 and 21 years’ jail)…

Edward Lee, incidentally, was once a student where I worked, and many of his associates I knew well…

My point: work out for yourself how this turnaround has happened. Note what the intriguingly named current Principal had to say. People like him have the knowledge that is needed, and I am pleased Julia Gillard seems to have noted it….

Jihad Dib is now a member of the NSW Parliament and Shadow Minister for Education.  He, and what we witnessed last night on Insight, remind us that in this respect Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is right and The Revenant and the self-appointed “patriots” are utterly wrong.

He rejected “entirely” a comment by Senator Hanson, leader of One Nation, that all Australian Muslim should be treated with suspicion, and criticised as dangerous attempts to “demonise” Muslims.

“Which is the good one?’ You can’t tell a good Muslim from a bad one,” she had told the Nine network.

Mr Turnbull said “the vast majority of Australian Muslims are patriotic hardworking, seeking to get ahead, committed to peacefully living in Australia and abiding by our laws”.

He said: “One of the arguments that those who seek to do us harm make — this is the terrorists — is they say that there is no place for Muslims in Australia.

“And that’s how they seek to radicalise and mislead young Muslims, Australians.”

And in a comment which indirectly included the One Nation leader he said: “What I must do as a leader, and what all leaders must do in Australia is emphasise our inclusivity, the fact that we are a multicultural society where all cultures, all faiths are respected and that is mutual.

“So, trying to demonise all Muslims is only confirming the lying, dangerous message of the terrorists.”

He repeated a quote from his host, President Joko Widodo: “Indonesia is proof that Islam, democracy and moderation are compatible.”

Mr Turnbull said: “The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Muslims in Australia are utterly appalled by extremists, by violent extremism, by terrorism.

“We have to remember that the vast majority of the victims of ISIL, or Daesh, are Muslims.

“Islam is practised by about a quarter of the world’s population and in this country we see — a country with which we are building closer ties — we see that democracy, Islam, moderation, tolerance are compatible.”

Related is my current reading, Gabriele Marranci, Wars of Terror (2016). More about that later, but do look at his blog, Anthropology Beyond Good and Evil. Thought-provoking in the best way:

Australia is under attack. There is no doubt about it. Yet what exactly is attacking it remains unclear: it is not a country with an army, it is not even an organised movement such as al-Qaeda, but instead it seems a dark magma of different forms of frustrations that are sometimes channeled into fascist religious ideas. We have a chaotic reality that harms community relations and polarises opinions.

Among Muslim communities there are a majority who are silent and may fear both to become a victim of terrorism and victim of right-wing anti-Muslim propaganda and who condemn terrorism and the killing of innocent people. There are also Muslims whom point to the double standards of the West, yet they use very similar rhetoric to that of extremists except they do not advocate violence.  Finally there are those who, openly or latently, support Daesh and wish to see the black flag, hijacked by the group as symbol of death and destruction, flown in Australia. Unfortunately, many who hold such views are very active in the social media sphere.  Since these extreme messages attract attention, the people on the fringes of Muslim communities who create them and spread anti-Australian and anti-Western hatred will shape perceptions of Muslim Australians despite that a majority want nothing to do with such discourse.  This sad fact may increase the anxiety among non-Muslim Australians who are unaware of that and believe instead that there exists an ‘enemy within’.   

This dynamic reminds me of what people told me in Northern Ireland about how the paramilitary organisations, in particular within the Protestant communities, started to form. It was fear, and a fear which spread from one side to the other, that brought such disaster to NI. People want security and security is paramount to normal ordinary life. Security, however, does not exist per-se, as it is a cognitive category, an idea. Hence security, or the illusion of it, can be achieved through action, since inaction can make people feel even more insecure.

When a community feels threatened, and especially if the community is in the majority, it is not unusual that vigilante groups develop. As NI teaches us, the jump from vigilantes to paramilitary groups is easy.  Daesh calls for random attacks on soft targets. This, when there are evidences that some are listening, creates a deep and diffuse suspicion and fear towards anything that happens to be Muslim or Islamic. Organisations such as Q-Society provides the “intellectual” background to the less intellectual and more hooligan style organisations such as the Australian Defence League, and more recent anti-halal movements have shown to attract fascists. Of course, these movements claim to be peaceful and simply exercising their freedom to oppose what they dislike — but so does HT in Australia, which the Australian government wants to ban

However, if the above mentioned groups never transform into paramilitary organisations, they are the kind of group which may facilitate the creation of vigilantes and paramilitary groups through their line of thought and become the pool from which members may be sought. 

The risk that Australia and, in particular, the state of New South Wales are facing in the medium term is to see the formation of anti-terrorist paramilitary groups that inevitably will target innocent Muslims, and this will produce the counter-effect of Muslim paramilitary groups, which however will not be directly linked with international terrorist organisations.

Are we today doing enough to prevent such a trajectory and is such trajectory even preventable?  I have the impression that not enough is done. It is clear that the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims is widening in this period. The responsibility for this does not lay with one single side. I think also that a different approach to the issue of terrorism is needed in Australia. Yet we must also re-discuss how the ideology of multiculturalism has been implemented (or not implemented) and the confusion that it has created among the generations who grew up with it. Yet this topic is for another post to discuss.

Update: I note the recent vicissitudes of Punchbowl High, but do not trust the Telegraph spin/reporting on the matter. See New principal takes reins after predecessor’s sacking. That Andrew Bolt is on the case makes me hesitate to assert where the truth really lies. Too many axe-grinders on all sides!

Proud of my old school/workplace

Posted on  by Neil

I mention the old place quite often, but there is a special reason to do so today, thanks to the class of 2017:


Chances are you have seen the story and the video, as it has gone viral. George Takei featured it on his Facebook page, for example, taking it from UK Channel Four News.

SBS reported thus:

A Sydney Boys High school student stands on the school’s grounds and looks into the camera.

“Feminism is important to me because a few months ago a guy decided for me that I wanted to have sex with him,” he says.

“I didn’t want to.”

For a moment the audience may wonder if he’s referring to his own experience.

Text appears across the screen: “We asked the women in our lives why feminism is important to them.

“This is what they said.”

The video, which students at Sydney Boys High School posted to Facebook for International Women’s Day, then cuts to another male student.

“Feminism is important to me because despite being a fully qualified vet, a woman recently told me I would not be able to go out to her farm and pull a calf because it would be too hard for me.

“I went out there and I pulled that calf.”

Another student says: “Feminism is important to me because when I give directions at work I get called a bitch rather than a leader, and bossy rather than assertive.”

And another: “Feminism is important to me because my Dad doesn’t think I can be an engineer and my Mum doesn’t think I can be an economist because that’s too hard for a girl.”…

Student leaders decided to produce the video to raise awareness about gender equality, deputy principal Rachel Powell told SBS News.

The boys were in a sport class at the time of publication and were not available for comment.

Ms Powell said it was disturbing that the boys were able to come up with such “shocking experiences of sexism so easily from talking to the women in their lives”.

The students have been taking part in ‘One Woman Gender, Inequality and Feminism’ workshops this week.

Sydney Boys High School will be fundraising for programs sponsored by UN Women by selling purple ribbons and holding a breakfast on Thursday.

Do also watch this video from the same school in 2011.