Review: The Australian Newspaper

The Hot Guy

By Mel Campbell & Anthony Morris

Published by Echo

 

Girl in Between

By Anna Daniels

Published by Allen & Unwin

 

 

Two novels penned by authors experienced in writing for film and television have hit the shelves recently, both of which could be categorised as similarly themed chick lit – their protagonists both funny, bawdy, 30-something women dedicated to finding ‘the one’. Yet between them, these novels prove this form of genre fiction is a broad category.

 

The Hot Guy, co-written by film critics Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris, is rom com 101 and sited firmly in the screwball film comedy tradition of the 30s and 40s.

 

Adam, the eponymous ‘hot guy’ of the title, is an earnest and unwittingly handsome movie nerd trying to raise finance to direct his next short film – a work that delves unpretentiously into the ‘Dark Side’. Provisionally titled Metadata, it’s about ‘the essential asymmetry of the panopticon’.

 

Adam works at a multiplex cinema with his two sidekicks: Steve, a wannabe actor, and Renton, a film reviewer for blog BackedUpToilet. Just three nerds in a kiosk, riffing-witty on movies and girls, and making choc tops.

 

Cate is a self-identified ‘funny lady’ and publicity director for a sports stadium, despite hating sport. ‘I hate sport,’ she says to Dave, the car park attendant.

 

‘Cate’s sense of humour … first disrupted her love life at the age of twelve.’, and now she has been dumped by her uptight boyfriend over a joke. Dejected and lost, she debriefs with her own sidekicks, Vanessa and Kirsty, while hanging out at their kite flyer and drone club. There’s some nice fast talk in these scenes, too: swipes at vampires, zombies, cat videos, a particularly sharp jab at the current trend for all things ‘bespoke and, of course, plenty of no holds barred boy talk. Think Bridesmaids.

 

Egged on (and set up) by her friends, Cate picks up Adam at a bar – there’s lots of alcohol saturated prose in both of these books – for a no-strings one-night-stand: to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Trouble is, they actually ‘like’ each other.

 

So far, so genre.

 

But Adam isn’t just any hot guy, he’s The Hot Guy; unassuming and drop-dead gorgeous. In fact, so gorgeous that there’s a Facebook page dedicated to the ambition of a ‘night-with-Adam’ – given that a night with this guy will allegedly cure whatever ails you – set up by Adam-obsessed women of the disturbingly named League of Icarus.

 

So when serial one-nighter, looking-for-the-gal-who’ll-be-there-in-the-morning Adam makes out with serial picker-of-wrong-guys Cate, assumptions and vested interests abound.

 

All of this makes for some entertaining and over-the-top set ups: a farcical hostage situation involving The League, followed by a road trip to Adam’s home town of Ladbroke – where the statue of the Unknown Soldier is of course modelled on gorgeous Adam – for the premier screening of Metadata at the town’s inaugural film festival.

 

 

Characters like Adam’s recalcitrant but gratis director of photography are drawn in brisk and vivid strokes – ‘grizzled, inebriated druid shambling’ and some of the best writing is in the three-way shtick on sex and celluloid between the blokes at work, although it does feel like the authors are having just a bit too much fun competing for best-bad film titles.

 

 

Girl in Between, Anna Daniel’s first novel was shortlisted for the 2016 Vogel awards. It’s the story of Lucy, who, at 32, low on love, luck and life, is suffering an extended mid-youth crisis. She’s chucked in her TV producing job in Melbourne and come home to Rockhampton (aka Rocky, ‘Beef Capital of Australia’), moving back in with her parents to finish writing her book, Diamonds in the Dust, and generally sort out her life.

 

Mum is an African-drumming Cher acolyte (‘Remember what Cher says…’) who spends an inordinate amount of time poring over handy home hints catalogues with Lucy’s zany bestie, Rosie. Dad goes to the jockey club every other night, or so Lucy believes. In actuality he’s battling the black dog and hanging out at the Men’s Shed.

 

Daniels, herself a kind of latter day Bridget Jones, hails from Rockhampton and is a writer and producer known for her funny, quirky TV segments. ‘How Not to Interview Russell Crowe’, an edit of her potentially disastrous encounter with the notoriously volatile actor, is pure Bridget, and won the ABC Comedy Segment of the Year in 2004. The sketch is reworked in Girl in Between as an interview with a fading 80s rock star.

 

In Lucy, the author has created a heroine not far removed, seemingly, from herself. But the lightness and short -segment appeal of her earlier work does not quite translate here, where lots of heart-thumping, body-trembling, blood-boiling, stomach-lurching, pulse-racing clichés choke a narrative already weighed down with signposts as subtle as a Mallee bull. Nods to more serious issues – Mum’s cancer, Dad’s depression – feel tokenistic.

 

Aussie idioms and vernacular keep both novels tonally consistent, home-grown and comfy, maybe even a touch exotic, if you’re not a local. In Daniel’s novel we know we’re in Australia because we’re told we are, often, not because we recognise it. Rocky might feel like ‘a pair of Ugg boots – super comfortable, sturdy and secure’, but Porpoise Spit it ain’t.

 

What’s striking is the extent to which lists and labels (books, film titles) stand in for description or observation. Red UDLs, Rooster, KFC, Maccas and Subway are listed like product placements, standing in for character as if anything, anyone, can now be reduced to the brands they consume. It’s a short-hand, but a lazy one.

 

 

While both books are unapologetically populist and formulaic genre fiction and Girl in Between does contain some funny deft writing, it lacks sufficient irony or self-reflection to do more than simply fulfils the clichés.

The Hot Guy, written with relish and self-awareness; the authors’ playfulness with the genre smart, not smart-arsed, more homage than piss-take, fulfils the brief more successfully.

 

 

Elly Varrenti is a writer, broadcaster and critic. She teaches in the creative writing department at the University of Melbourne.

 

 

REMEMBERING PLAYWRIGHT MICHAEL GURR (1961-2017)

May 4, 2017

 

A best friend for more than 30 years, Michael Gurr came to live in my street in the regional Victorian town of Castlemaine three years ago. He loved the place. Occasionally I would protest its arty-folksy-smallness and he would just look at me, proffer another piece of onion tart or tea cake or some such other Moroccan or Mediterranean thing he had just made, and say something like: ‘El, negative is easy; try positive, it’s harder.’ Or, ‘I hope you are not on some bloody nonsense diet again, because I have made French custard poached pears.’

He loved to cook, to garden and, most recently, to walk home from town carrying big-ish new things for the house: an olde-worlde record player so that he could revisit his millions of Dylan albums. A large framed drawing/collage by some local artist: ’Take a closer look’, he said. ‘There’s more to it, the closer you get.’

Once I arrived at his place – a daily or double-daily visit, generally – and he announced that he had bought three quail. ‘Yuk. I can’t eat quail,’ I said. ‘They are far too small and delicate and it just feels wrong somehow.’ ‘Not to eat,’ he said. ‘To admire. They are magnificent.’ And there they were outside the back screen door, all set up in their new little double-storey hutch replete with straw matting, tiny pot-plants and an ensuite bathing area.

He was something out of the box: so smart, so funny, so generous, so wicked, so old-young, so singular, so confident without swagger, so unwittingly beautiful.

His little weatherboard cottage opposite the footy oval was a comfort and joy to him, poised as it was in perfect perving distance from the parade of locals on the way to the pub or train station or Botanic Gardens or pool. He relished the crispy night footy training and Saturday matches. ‘I love the sound of it,’ he said. ‘It’s the sound of place and belonging.’

He always had something or other to give to my mother or to me every time I left – The Guardian Weekly, usually. My 85-year-old mother was always grateful. She loved him like a son – and got cross with him like a son, too – but she never was able to read those papers for the tiny print. She never had the heart to tell him, though.

Michael also gave her the latest political biography he had just devoured, and once insisted she read one of his beloved Elizabeth David cookbooks. Mum was not interested in the cookbooks but took the other stuff happily. Last week it was a jar of pickled lemons. ‘They are not ready yet so don’t open them, just let them be for a while. Some things do get better in time, you know.’

The pickled lemon philosopher sometimes gave me the shits. He could be opinionated, and obstinate too. But kindness and largesse… Mate, he invented those words.

From the moment I met him, when we were 21 and 22 respectively, I knew he was something out of the box: so smart, so funny, so generous, so wicked, so old-young, so singular, so confident without swagger, so unwittingly beautiful. The first time I saw one of his plays I experienced a sort of dwarfing awe. The second time I saw one of plays, I forgot it was a play, I was so immersed in his writing’s signature rhythms; the ideas layered and demanding; the wit, rude and shocking; the characters flawed and magnificently conflicted; and the politics searing and prescient.

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We lived together for five years in our 20s and they were… (really, no nostalgia here, because, ‘Nostalgia is a conservative impulse. A retreat into what seems knowable is dangerous,’ he reckoned.) They were five of the most creative, instructive, hilarious, vital, delicious, domestically secure and exciting years of my life.

In recent months, Michael became ill. He never complained, he never asked much of me or others; only for me to be kind-of around and to sometimes drive him places, because he had always refused, perversely, to ever get a bloody licence and walking even short distances had become difficult for him. Our time together began to change, the balance to shift, as his fiercely resistant yet increasing dependence began to take centre stage.

A true autodidact, Michael was learning up until nine days before he died.

I have loved this extraordinarily gifted (yes, an unfashionable word I know) man. His loyalty to his ‘tribe’, as he would say, was breathtaking, if not sometimes intractable and stubborn.

A true autodidact, Michael was learning up until nine days before he died. ‘Did you know,’ he said to me, while we sat in his favourite cafe in the old gaol atop the hill at the back of his house, drinking black tea and eating apple slices. ‘I dreamt a new play last night. First time in ages. It’s called Karaoke. Did you know that I have been spelling the word karaoke wrong for years?’ And then I asked, as I have asked every single time over the past 35 years, even though I always get the same answer: ‘What’s it about?’ To which he says: ‘I never talk about what I’m writing. Why would I? Once I speak it, then it no longer demands to be written.’

Michael’s work was his life, his life his work, his family his theatre, his friends his family; his sisters and brothers, his nieces and nephews, my son, his god children, his students, his former partner of 23 years, his comrades, his colleagues, his actors, his pollies, his barber, his fish monger, his books, his newspapers, his quail and his cat… these were his life. His death feels like an amputation.

Who is going to call out my whingeing now? Who in hell do I give my miserable first drafts to for a brutal but fair edit? Who do I now visit most days and wish to god he would stop smoking inside the house like it’s still the 1980s? Who do I care about and for, because he has always, always cared about and for me? Who has my back now?

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A memorial service for Michael Gurr was  held at the Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank in Melbourne on Monday, May 15. A standing ovation.

Book Reviews  per The Australian 25.May.2107

Both The Hot Guy and Girl in Between, by authors experienced in writing for film and television, could be categorised as similarly themed chick lit. Their protagonists are funny, bawdy, 30-something women dedicated to finding ‘‘the one’’. Yet between them, these novels prove this form of genre fiction is a broad category.

The Hot Guy, by film critics Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris, is rom-com 101 and sited firmly in the screwball film comedy tradition of the 1930s and 40s.

The Hot Guy by Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris.
The Hot Guy by Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris.

Adam, the eponymous hot guy of the title, is an earnest and unwittingly handsome movie nerd trying to raise finance to direct his next short film — a work that delves unpretentiously into the “dark side”. Provisionally titled Metadata, it’s about “the essential asymmetry of the panopticon”.

Adam works at a multiplex cinema with his two sidekicks: Steve, a wannabe actor, and Renton, a film reviewer for blog BackedUpToilet. Just three nerds in a kiosk, riffing wittily on movies and girls, and making choc tops.

Cate is a self-identified “funny lady” and publicity director for a sports stadium, despite hating sport.

“Cate’s sense of humour … first disrupted her love life at the age of 12”, and now she has been dumped by her uptight boyfriend over a joke. Dejected and lost, she debriefs with her own sidekicks, Vanessa and Kirsty, while hanging out at their kite flyer and drone club.

There’s some nice fast talk in these scenes: swipes at vampires, zombies, cat videos, a particularly sharp jab at the current trend for all things “bespoke” and, of course, plenty of no-holds-barred boy talk. Think Bridesmaids. Egged on (and set up) by her friends, Cate picks up Adam at a bar — there’s a lot of alcohol-saturated prose in both of these books — for a no-strings-attached one-night-stand: to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Trouble is, they actually like each other.

So far, so genre.

But Adam isn’t just any hot guy, he’s The Hot Guy, unassuming and drop-dead gorgeous. In fact, so gorgeous there’s a Facebook page dedicated to the ambition of a “night-with-Adam” — given that a night with this guy will allegedly cure whatever ails you — set up by Adam-obsessed women of the disturbingly named League of Icarus.

So when serial one-nighter, looking-for-the-gal-who’ll-be-there-in-the-morning Adam makes out with serial picker-of-wrong-guys Cate, assumptions and vested interests abound.

All of this makes for some entertaining and over-the-top set-ups: a farcical hostage situation involving The League, followed by a road trip to Adam’s home town of Ladbroke — where the statue of the Unknown Soldier is of course modelled on gorgeous Adam — for the premiere of Metadata at the town’s inaugural film festival.

Characters such as Adam’s recalcitrant but gratis director of photography are drawn in brisk and vivid strokes — “grizzled, inebriated druid shambling” — and some of the best writing is in the three-way schtick on sex and celluloid between the blokes at work, although it does feel like the authors are having just a bit too much fun competing for best bad film titles.

Girl in Between by Anna Daniels.
Girl in Between by Anna Daniels.

Girl in Between, Anna Daniels’s first novel, was shortlisted for last year’s The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award. It’s the story of Lucy, who, at 32, low on love, luck and life, is suffering an extended mid-youth crisis. She’s chucked in her TV producing job in Melbourne and come home to Rockhampton (aka Rocky, Beef Capital of Australia), moving back in with her parents to finish writing her book, Diamonds in the Dust, and generally sort out her life.

Mum is an African-drumming Cher acolyte who spends an inordinate amount of time poring over handy home hints catalogues with Lucy’s zany bestie, Rosie. Dad goes to the jockey club every other night, or so Lucy believes. In truth he’s battling the black dog and hanging out at the Men’s Shed.

Daniels, herself a kind of latter-day Bridget Jones, hails from Rockhampton and is a writer and producer known for her funny, quirky TV segments. How Not to Interview Russell Crowe, an edit of her potentially disastrous encounter with the notoriously volatile actor, is pure Bridget, and won the ABC Comedy Segment of the Year in 2004. The sketch is reworked in Girl in Between as an interview with a fading 80s rock star.

In Lucy, the author has created a heroine not far removed, seemingly, from herself. But the lightness and short-segment appeal of her earlier work does not quite translate here, where lots of heart-thumping, body-trembling, blood-boiling, stomach-lurching, pulse-racing cliches choke a narrative already weighed down with signposts as subtle as a Mallee bull. Nods to more serious issues — Mum’s cancer, Dad’s depression — feel tokenistic.

Aussie idioms and vernacular keep both novels tonally consistent, homegrown and comfy, maybe even a touch exotic, if you’re not a local. In Daniels’s novel we know we’re in Australia because we’re told we are, often, not because we recognise it.

Rocky might feel like “a pair of Ugg boots — super comfortable, sturdy and secure”, but Porpoise Spit it ain’t.

What’s striking is the extent to which lists and labels (books, film titles) stand in for description or observation. Red Rooster, UDLs, KFC, Maccas and Subway are listed like product placements, standing in for character as if anything, anyone, can now be reduced to the brands they consume. It’s a shorthand, but a lazy one.

While both books are unapologetically populist and formulaic genre fiction and Girl in Between does contain some funny deft writing, it lacks sufficient irony or self-reflection to do more than simply fulfil the cliches.

The Hot Guy — written with relish and self-awareness, the authors’ playfulness with the genre smart, not smart-arsed, more homage than piss-take — fulfils the brief more successfully.

Elly Varrenti is a writer, broadcaster and critic. She teaches in the creative writing department at the University of Melbourne.

AUE Column Dec 2016

My 84-year-old mother, who taught in Melbourne from the 60s through to the 80s, reckons that these days, school kids are too indulged and overstimulated. And she’s not speaking from the skewed benefit of hindsight because Mum’s been raising my late sister’s son since he was 15 months old. He’s seven now and in Grade 1.

“Every week there’s some kind of event or celebration, and every second week I get a note home asking for money for this fundraiser or that multicultural day or whatever.”

I tell Mum she sounds like a grumpy old woman, a Depression kid from migrant parents, stoic and frugal. She looked after them, as much as, maybe more than, they did her.

But Mum, surely things are better now than in your day when you and your little brother were at Fitzroy Primary. You know, when school excursions didn’t exist, when learning was by rote, and when shaming and fear were classroom management strategies.’

Clearly conditions have improved since Mum first started teaching in public education in her late 20s (she was a baby journalist for an Italian Communist rag in Sydney before that). Back then curriculums were less complex, varied and stimulating than what they are today.

‘Of course things are better today,” Mum pipes up. “When I went to school, the Aboriginal and migrant kids were lucky to make one day out of five a week and nobody sent notes home to the parents in those days.’

Mum’s on a roll. Always the journalist, providing background and context to a story’s still important. ‘It was tough for those teachers too with often 40 kids a class and lots of them struggling with the language. No ESL teachers in those days!

Since my sister died, Mum has devoted herself to her grandson’s rearing and education with enviable single-mindedness and energy. I wish my parenting were half as consistent.

But today after our usual morning walk around the Castlemaine Botanical Gardens, she’s irritated.

“It’s as if teachers are expected to be entertainers and festival directors as well as just teach, nowadays. I really don’t believe kids require a teacher’s constant attention and affirmation. A bit of benign neglect doesn’t hurt either, you know.”

“Yeah,” I say, “except that we know so much more these days about student engagement, multiple learning styles and authentic assessment. We have smaller class sizes and better teacher training so of course there’s going to be more going on at school all-round … more extra-curricular opportunities, more newsletters and forms to fill out for incursions and excursions to Sovereign Hill or Japan or wherever.”

“That’s my point. Japan! When I was at school, Japan was the enemy, not a bloody school excursion!”

“You want a coffee at that new place in town?” I suggest.

“No. Save your money. I’ll make us one at home.”

 

 

 

 

 

An Australian author based in France, Tara June Winch says: ‘I dredge the gully of what I know best’.

Everyone in After the Carnage has something to kick against. In Wager, a story in this collection about moving beyond your parents and your home place, a son is visiting his mother. Clearly it’s been a while. They go to the local RSL for tea. ‘‘I climbed into the Ute next to Mum and the whole world felt out of place.’’ Later, over rissoles and chips, the mother, drunk, tells her son the usual stories. ‘‘There’s only one story true, Tommy, I was a no good mother to you.’’ Tara June Winch’s characters all speak like real people, and that’s what makes you care about them.

It’s been a long time between drinks for Winch. Her first book, Swallow the Air (2006), a semi-autobiographical novel about a Wurundjeri girl in search of her father, won many awards and catapulted the young Australian writer into the emerging-talent literary coterie. No pressure.

After the Carnage meets expectations. Here Winch continues to explore themes that coursed through her first book like white water: intergenerational grief, cross-culturalism, racism, family dysfunction, children in search of ‘‘lost’’ parents. If this is all sounding a bit badges-on-the-lapel, it is not. Winch can pack a punch and break your heart within a few pages.

She now lives in France and in these 11 short stories she moves farther afield into new geographical territory, her characters pivoting on a moment in life when past and future collide in personal crisis, causing them to make some kind of a shift, no matter how subtle.

In A Late Netting, a young man is working as a deckhand on a French couple’s boat, and they appear to be lost. Winch’s use of metaphor is striking: “If we had been drawn down a river, at least that knowing river would’ve taken us towards its mouth; a city might have invited us in and set us onto the certainty of a bank. Here, though, all those odds had fallen against us in a panic of horizon.’’

Stories vary in tone and style, and they can be funny. In Baby Island, a second-generation Chinese woman — ‘‘I was an amalgam: the union of my voice and face didn’t sit well with people” — is in China selling overpriced Australian education and mourning her childlessness and a recent break-up. We follow her down the empty streets of Guangzhou into a kind of surrealist baby-buying cafe.

‘‘Everywhere there were newly rubber-stamped babies, hundreds and hundreds of babies being quiet, screaming, crying, squirming, throwing food, giggling, staring blankly, rocking, rolling, crawling, climbing shoulders and booster chairs and the fabric of strollers. I pointed to an omelette.’’

In Easter, a brother is stationed in Paris on a Stanford journalism scholarship. His sister has come to visit him. It’s been nine years since they last saw one another, and as they wander around the city together, sibling intimacy re-surfaces, as do memories of childhood.

The power of memory to both comfort and disturb permeates these stories. Sometimes the memory of a moment in a character’s life is so vividly drawn you can just smell it.

I remember precisely being too young and riding the fair dodgem cars … with the night’s linger of boiled and fried meats, the warm wafts of powdered sugar on doughnut batter, even the damp smell of turned gravel underfoot, from night coming on the wet earth of a gullied town oval — each smell was rotated, propelled through the carnival; night from a flashing, jerking car.

Occasionally a story feels just a bit too abbreviated or there is an unnecessary data dump, but overall each is satisfyingly complete unto itself, with Winch’s prose supple and potent. At their best, these stories offer vivid insights into our complex humanity, pivoting on that moment when we realise things cannot continue as they were.

In Failure to Thrive, a young Nigerian student doing an internship at the UN is determined to break through the glass/class ceiling and get a foot in the door at Goldman Sachs. ‘‘They had their own entourage, those … rich kids from the European private schools. Did we all hate them? I think I hated them the most.’’

In the titular story After the Carnage, More, one of the collection’s finest, a man wakes up in a hospital corridor. There has been some kind of explosion. A terrorist attack? Where is his wife? Dazed and confused, the man summons images from his childhood in Lahore, his wife, his kids, their move to the US; snippets from the past collide with the present.

“That was the sound, at the restaurant, the sound of the car going into the pool — it was just like the sound of propane bombs on the cherry farm to scare the birds, birds hungry for ripe May cherries.’’ This is a layered, richly textured story about violence and hate and about a victim trying to understand it. ‘‘One can rationalize most things in life, except this — one cannot rationalize hate; hate is irrational.’’

The personal-is-political worldview flexes Winch’s considerable literary muscle. The stories in this book may be about some tough stuff but are never didactic or sentimental; Winch’s voice is more poet than prophet.

‘‘When I write,’’ she has said in an interview, ‘‘I dredge the gully of what I know best: what burnt me most, what wakes me in my sleep — the value of life.’’

Are you a Feminazi, Mum?

Incredibly revealing, the lines we’re prepared to transgress and trample, and the ones we’re not. Women are still totally fair game.

On YouTube, there’s an animation series called ‘Feminazi’. Have you heard of it? The episode #GlassCeiling scored over a million views. There are lots of other episodes: Feminazi Getting Owned. Feminazi Fail. Feminazi Gets Triggered. Feminazi gets Reckt.

Note the use of gaming language; predominantly the province of adolescent boys.

I scrolled through a few of these clips which tend to depict plump, bespectacled, trouser-wearing ‘feminazis’ raging away about their rights and gripes to some passive cartoon-bloke. Most of these clips are accompanied by a male voice-over pointing out how extreme and hilarious such women are, how hysterical and irrational.

When I hear my 14-year-old son guffawing from his room and then calling me in to watch one of these types of clips, what do I say?

“How did you find this misogynist crap? …. No, it’s not a joke, it is SEXIST. Don’t they teach you anything at that school of yours?”

I tell him that I’m a feminist, that he comes from a long line of feminists and doesn’t he realise, by the way, that feminism is about equality and equity between the sexes.

You know, things like equal pay and respectful treatment all-round.

 

“Well, who’d be against that?” he responds simply. “ Now can you get out of my room please?”

Here’s what I have to confront: sexism isn’t something that only exists amongst sociopathic, violent, shady men – it’s much more insidious than that. It’s often part of lovely, kind, open-minded boys and men in our own families, who would never think of themselves as anything other than supportive of equality. And yet there is this kind of disconnect that persists within the moral compass of many of them.

Hear it in the quiet chuckling between the fellas, enjoying Eddie Mcguire’s ‘joke’ about drowning his colleague Caroline Wilson, and hear it in the snorting laughter of my son and his friends watching Feminazi-type clips on Youtube.

See it in the plethora of sexually explicit material that covers billboards and magazines and the internet, including the vile Instagram account started up by a few Brighton Grammar students, featuring photos of girls as young as 11 (who had not consented).

The thing is, once upon a time, our culture would’ve belly-laughed at all manner of racist jokes which would now be seen as being utterly not OK. It’s incredibly revealing, the lines we’re prepared to transgress and trample, and the ones we’re not. Women are still totally fair game.

There are great, well-established programs working to engage students with issues around bullying, sexuality, racism, mental illness … and the roll-out of programs like Respectful Relationships Education gives me hope. One day, I’d love to see the history of feminism taught as a mandatory unit in history, alongside other key social justice movements like Aboriginal land rights and industrial rights. I’d love to see more schools have explicit value statements and mottos around equity, and see more English classes study feminist texts.

Helping young ones to become more self-aware is part of it too, and helping them understand the links between attitudes, language, objectification and violence against women – because we’re swimming against a mighty media current with some nasty little rips. Maybe then my son wouldn’t think that lambasting feminists on YouTube is so funny after all.

 

Cause You Gotta Have Friends

(June AEU Column)

Until Bette Midler’s Trash and Flash toured Australia in the late 70s, I was a live concert virgin. But that night as I sat with my best friend in the second back row of The Palais Theatre I came of age.

Middler might have been barely discernible as a beached mermaid, zooming on and off stage in a motorized wheelchair, but my friend’s and my mutual excitement moved between us like an energy circuit.

‘Cause you gotta have friends/that’s right/ friends, friends.’

Later when we took the tram home we were so hyped up we missed our stop.

These are the four things I remember from my six years at secondary school:

  1. My friends
  2. My drama teacher
  3. My first boyfriend
  4. My friends

In writer Vivian Gornick’s recent collection of essays, The Odd Women in the City she describes friends as ‘Those with whom we can be our best selves.’ Maybe. Sometimes friends fulfill other functions other than making us look our best.

Do today’s adolescents do friendship differently in a world of hyper connectivity, virtual intimacy and Facebook de-friendings?

Well they do and they don’t. Sure friendship is mediated and arguably skewed via technologies but who am I to say that my son’s friendships are any less real or by extension, of less value than mine were?

The adolescents I know seem to get just as passionate and engrossed, hurt and infuriated by the seismic shifts within their friendship universe as we did.

The adolescents I teach and the ones that sometimes hang out at our house, are just as uncommunicative with adults and hyper relational amongst themselves as we were.

I watch my son being excluded and feel his inarticulate hurt. I hear my son’s voice heighten when he is with a friend and I feel all’s right in the world

Unlike Muhammad Ali’s famous remark that ‘Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain and not something you learn in school.’ making, cultivating and losing friendship is a significant part of the school’s ‘hidden curriculum’. It is there amidst the subterranean social hurly burly that kids learn the lessons of friendship – and we all know they are often the hard ones because navigating friendship is a bloody minefield even for kids.

I am careful not to be too obvious when I advise my adolescent son in matters of friendship. For example, when he told me that his friends said he is sometimes too loud, I just stopped stock-still and quoted Alice Walker at him. ‘No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.’ My son looked at me and said that I was weird and embarrassing.

Maybe next time I should go for something more relatable because I did used to read the Pooh books to him when he was young and he still let me.

 

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.

“Pooh!” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

 

My new boyfriend is my oldest friend. We met when we were in high school.

The friend I went to see Bette Middler with is picking me up later to go to some party. ‘Come on’, she urged. ‘It’ never too late to make new friends.’

 

Screen Time all the Time

(ABC Radio National)

 

My Year-8 son gets home, issues a barely perceptible Hi Mum, hurls his ginormous school bag to the floor, yanks open the fridge for something edible, chucks off his school shoes, (laces still tied), exchanges the top half of his uniform with a back to front tee-shirt and, in this one ritualistic adolescence dance, somehow manages to take a gulp of water from the kitchen tap. And all the while maneuvering his iPad from hand to hand, couch to chair to kitchen table, where he does his homework, on, yes, you guessed it, the iPad.

 

Half an hour later my year-8 son moves, with the clumsy stealth of a Labrador to his room, where the ipad proceeds to function as a virtual mall. He plays games, chats with friends, shares 10-most lists, makes videos of himself narrating games and browses PewDiePie on YouTube.

 

What an intrepid and compact little traveller the ipad is: it’s on the train to school, it’s in the classroom, it’s in the schoolyard and then it’s back on the bus at the end of the day. The ipad may look like an innovative teaching tool, a very ‘moving forward’ education initiative, but the thing comes home every night after school for a sleepover as well!

 

Research surfacing now about the rise and rise of in-class technologies across the private and public spectrum, (except maybe within those non-mainstream schools and I don’t like the word ‘mainstream, it’s very us and them, but you know what I mean) indicates that the learning and teaching efficacies of such technologies are dubious at best.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. I procrastinated writing this column and watched the final season of The Good Wife on my laptop instead.

 

But I remain unconvinced that students do any better at school or function any better all-round, with an iPad at hand. And I’m a teacher and a parent.

 

Now when I ask kids to open their books at the start of a class, they open their laptops instead. Now it’s a landscape of small silver squares unfurling before me, the students’ heads all lowered in homage to the screen.

 

Having conducted exhaustive anecdotal research with other parents – who all feel they are failing somehow in not being able to control their kids’ screen use adequately – we all agree that the situation is getting out of control.

 

Someone has suggested I put my son on a ‘technology fast’ because apparently it reverses much of the physiological dysfunction produced by daily screen time. It’s probably too late for me to go cold turkey but his frontal lobes aren’t even switched on yet. But how can my son go on a fast when he has to go to school where his drug of choice is mandatory?

 

In Reset Your Child’s Brain, American psychiatrist, Victoria L. Dunkley explores six major effects of screen-time on the developing nervous system:

  1. Disrupts sleep and desynchronizes the body clock. Check
  2. Desensitizes the brain’s reward system. Probably.
  3. Produces a light-at-night. Check.
  4. Induces stress reactions. Absolutely.
  5. Overloads the sensory system, fractures attention and depletes mental reserves. Um…
  6. Reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.” No comment.

 

And this, from Australian adolescent psychologist Andrew Fuller:

 

‘Addicts crave things. A computer-addicted teen when denied total access will throw every trick in the book at you. It will take some hard headed parenting for teens to turn off their digital identity and turn on themselves instead. Don’t expect much change in a month and expect no gratitude.’

 

 

What did I do when I was fourteen that got my mum so exasperated she’d say things like: Go outside and play with the hose. And if you continue to watch so much junk on T.V. or talk on the phone to friends you’ve spent the whole day with at school already, you’ll end up with square eyes and a dummy who’ll never be able to get a decent job later in life.

 

Are things harder for adolescents these days? Is their world more distracting, complex, and spirit sucking than mine was in the 70s? Yes.

 

One of my son’ teachers recently emailed me this:

            ‘To concentrate more in class I would suggest that he put his iPad on my desk       so that he won’t be tempted to use it.’

 

Hello?

If iPads were not an integral part of his school’s culture, then he would not have to put anything on his teacher’s desk except for maybe an apple.

 

Apparently in one of those Scandinavian countries whose education system we wish we had because it’s more equitable, the salaries higher and the teachers more respected and the teacher graduates are more high achieving, they are pulling students’ personal devices out of the classroom.

 

I don’t know… I don’t have the answers…I can’t finish this column right now. I’ll get back to it as soon as I update my Facebook status from single to currently in a hyper-stimulating relationship with my Smart Phone.