Politics and Protest: Voices of Youth

Youthful enthusiasm and optimistic visions of how to create a better world are not new in society and politics. There are countless examples throughout modern history of students and young activists around the world taking to the streets to demand change:

  • in the US Civil Rights movement, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in was carried out by four young men aged 17-19 and led to the creation of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), while the nine students in Little Rock Arkansas, standing up against their state’s refusal to integrate their schools in 1957, were aged between 15 and 17
  • in 1968, student protests rocked cities around the world, covering a range of issues including civil rights, gender equality, environmental protection, antiwar, anti-colonialism and struggles against repressive governments
  • in South Africa in 1976, protests against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools originated with school children in Soweto, Johannesburg
  • in China, the iconic image of the protestor facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, was part of a student-led hunger strike and pro-democracy movement in 1989, calling for freedom of the press and freedom of speech
  • starting in 2010, social media helped drive anti-government demonstrations from Tunisia across Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and the rest of the Middle East, in what became known as the Arab Spring

Youth people engaged in non-violent protest and civil disobedience have undoubtedly changed aspects of society but have also been met with repression, imprisonment, police brutality and military force, sometimes deadly. Government crackdowns on protesters are estimated to be responsible for 600 deaths in the Soweto protests, over 800 in Egypt’s anti-government demonstrations and 10,000 during the Tiananmen Square movement, while many others have been imprisoned in countries around the world for raising their voices. Even when governments do not use physical force, those in power who are wary of protests often attempt to suppress dissent and to demean the young who rise up, belittling their struggle for change.

Young activists today are leading the way in the efforts for climate change action. Youth-led movements such as Zero Hour and School Strike for Climate Action are using protests, school walkouts and legal action against governments to pressure politicians into taking more concrete measures to protect the future of the planet. The school strikes, which have now taken place in over 200 countries, originated with Greta Thunberg (16), who began with a weekly Friday protest outside the Swedish parliament until the government live up to its Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Her passionate, no-holds-barred speeches at Davos and the United Nations went viral and have given her a global platform. While the worldwide school strikes she inspired this March were met with support from the UN and many other world leaders, they also faced criticism, including from UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In an angry parliamentary session Morrison asserted, “we do not support our schools being turned into parliaments. What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools” . However, in the face of such criticism, Thunberg and thousands of school students have continued to argue that the strikes are imperative in raising awareness of the need for legislators to take decisive action now to protect the planet. For her efforts, Thunberg has been nominated by Norwegian lawmakers for the Nobel prize. To date, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace is Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she was awarded it in 2014. Malala was already renowned for her advocacy for girls’ education in the Swat Valley in Pakistan when she was shot and critically injured. The Taliban, who had banned girls from school, targeted Malala specifically to intimidate her and other girls who attempted to gain an education. However, she has used her international profile since the attempt on her life to continue to fight for equal rights for young women worldwide, and has refused to be intimidated or silenced by the violence wrought against her.

Around the world, youth movements are undeterred by criticism and threats, and are continuing to speak out for change. In the US, in light of the country’s record of violent crime, the quest for reform of the gun laws is being led by the survivors of shootings. March for Our Lives, which saw over 1.2 million people gather in Washington DC and around the US in March 2018, was organised by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland Florida, a little more than a month after their school had suffered a mass shooting. High profile figures from the group, including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who Greta Thunberg has credited as the inspiration for her own activism, have worked together with other advocates for gun safety, co-ordinating and promoting the cause on social media. For standing up to the powerful gun manufacturers’ lobbyists in the NRA, they have been targeted by right wing media and commentators, whose tactics include photo-shopped images and the propagation of conspiracy theories that the teens are ‘crisis actors’ or left wing puppets. Similarly, in the fight for environmental protections and indigenous land rights, much of the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock was organised by young activists. The International Indigenous Youth Council and Rezpect Our Water were integral to the pushback against the oil firms and criticism of the government for granting rights to commercial interests on native lands. 12-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes and 13-year-old Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer co-ordinated actions such as a 160,000-signature petition and a 2000-mile march on Washington DC. In response, security services set dogs on the pipeline protesters, soldiers and armed police were sent in to dismantle their camp, protesters and journalists were arrested and strip-searched, and water cannons and tear gas were fired upon them. Similar tactics have been used against the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter, whose protests have been met with riot police, and participants have been labeled ‘terrorists’ and ‘unpatriotic’. When the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick (29) protested against police brutality and discrimination by taking a knee during the national anthem, the attempts to demean and silence him and paint him as the villain reached the highest level of the nation. President Trump blasted the protest and angrily called for the NFL to take punitive action. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

As well as protest movements, the younger generations also have an important voice within the political process. In the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, only 29% of 18-24 year olds voted to leave the European Union compared with 64% of those aged over 65. Some countries, including Austria and Argentina, have a legal voting age of 16, while in Scotland, it was lowered from 18 to 16 for the independence referendum in 2014. Other countries, including Australia and the UK, have also broached the idea of giving full voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. As there is still a tendency by many voters to cling to the image of the ‘elderly statesman’ as the ‘natural leader’, youth and diversity are vital in political representation, as well as in media and the arts, in order to reflect the full spectrum of society and provide role models for future leaders. The voices of all ages, abilities, races, religions, genders and sexual identities need to be heard, and there are signs that voters are beginning to place faith is younger, more diverse candidates. New Zealand has a 38-year old female Prime Minister and an opposition leader who is a 42-year-old Maori man. In Ireland, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is a 40-year-old gay man. When Justin Trudeau became Canada’s 2nd youngest ever Prime Minister, aged 43, he chose a cabinet divided 50/50 male/female, with most aged under 50, and including members who were Sikh, indigenous, refugees and with disabilities. Trudeau explained, “It’s important to be here before you today to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada,… Because it’s 2015″.  The US also seems to be becoming more receptive to younger, diverse lawmakers, with current high-profile political figures including Alexandria Acasio-Cortez (29, Latina), Cory Booker (49 African-American), Stacey Abrams (45 African-American), Kyrsten Sinema (42, LGBTQ), Ilhan Omar (37, Muslim), Sharice Davids (38 LGBTQ Native American) and Pete Buttigieg (37, LGBTQ). It remains to be seen how those running in the 2020 presidential election, where voters tend to have a conservative view of what a president should be, will fare against Trump (72), Joe Biden (76) and Bernie Saunders (77). However, their success in local and congressional elections to date signals a desire from many for a variety of younger voices in government.

Of course, younger doesn’t always necessarily mean better. Experience and historical knowledge are still vital in politics and diplomacy. A 38-year-old real estate developer with no experience in public office or international relations should not be given unfettered influence at the highest level of government and be placed in charge of negotiating peace in the Middle East, finding a solution to a national opioid epidemic and developing trade relationships with Mexico and China. (However, the same could be said of a 72-year-old real estate developer with the same deficit in government experience or public service). Similarly in business, innovation, ambition and entrepreneurship must come with a share of responsibility and consideration of real-life repercussions. The lauded young tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are now discovering this, as their careless disregard for the consequences of their decisions and actions mire their companies in controversy and investigations, and endanger ordinary people. And there are also some young people who feel threatened by the changes occurring in society, who are raising their voices against diversity and inclusion. They can be heard on social media, in anti-EU sentiments in the UK, amongst Trump supporters and high-level advisers, and in acts of violent extremism and terror. At its worst, their perceived loss of status drives a hatred of, and willingness to bar or destroy, the ‘other’. Their desire is to hold onto the power, privilege and influence they feel they deserve by excluding others, or to return to some promised but imagined halcyon age, where they have been told things would have been better for them.

Thankfully, today’s youthful voices calling for a cleaner, more equitable, more compassionate, kinder society show no signs of being silenced by the trolls, commentators and politicians who fear the change they desire. Rather than belittling, demeaning, suppressing or silencing demands, the older power brokers need to listen to the voices of all sectors of society, representing a full range of experiences of the world around us. Today’s issues will have an impact on the young long after the elderly leaders of today are gone, and so it is only fair that they have a place at the table, as an integral part of the decision making process, shaping policy and planning a better future for everyone.

 

April 17th 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

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Temper Tantrums: Don’t Appease the Angry White Men

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We all recognise it. The red-faced fury, curled lip and stomped foot of the toddler tantrum. Their whole being overtaken by an unfathomable fury they can’t control, sometimes even causing them to lash out at those around them. The removal of a toy or refusal of a treat enough to reduce them to a mass of unbridled destructive emotions. Thankfully, as time passes, with guidance, the little ones learn how to express themselves rationally, how to control the negatives feelings rather than being controlled by them, and how to share the things they have with others rather than losing their minds. They become fully-functioning members of their communities and society.

It is becoming increasingly apparent however, that some little boys (and yes, I do mean boys) do not fully develop beyond the tantrum stage, and as adults that is proving to have truly horrifying consequences. And to make matters worse, there are others who suggest we pander to the angry demands of those who feel slighted rather than accepting none of their nonsense and stating firmly that they need to grow up and learn how to share.

One obvious example of a public display of privileged victimhood and resulting tantrum is Brett Kavanaugh. At a hearing in which he was supposed to exude the cool, level-headedness and rational thinking of a judge worthy of the US’s highest court, he instead became indignant that he was a victim of ‘a circus’ and ‘a calculated and orchestrated political hit’. This defensive anger and self-pity came in the face of credible and powerful accusations that he had committed sexual assault. His outrage was matched by other men on the confirmation committee, such as Senators Lindsay Graham and John Cornyn, appalled that a man of Kavanaugh’s elevated position should be asked to address such accusations at all, calling it ‘a national disgrace’ and ‘hell’.(All the Angry Men of the Kavanaugh Hearings). Kavanaugh and his supporters argued that his reputation was endangered by a woman accusing him of sexual assault, that he was the real victim in the situation and therefore justified in his ire, merely lashing out in self-defence. Kavanaugh claimed that, ‘my family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed’ and Cornyn reassured the judge that his tantrum was justified, telling him, ‘You’re right to be angry’. Of course, there are countless examples of men facing down accusations of sexual assault by claiming victimhood, equating damage to reputation with the mental and physical trauma suffered by sexual assault survivors. Whether it’s Weinstein, Ailes, Clinton or Trump, such men will do whatever it takes to protect the position in society they see as rightfully theirs; countering women who bravely come forward to recount the most painful experience of their lives with anger, verbal attacks, belittlement or the use of their power to silence them.

The theme of men protecting what they see as rightfully theirs is all-pervasive. Even on International Women’s Day, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison could not entertain the idea of men relinquishing any power to aid women in their battle for equal rights and recognition. He made it clear in his, tone deaf at best, assertion that any societal progress made by women should in no way damage men’s status or position of privilege. “We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse. We want everybody to do better, and we want to see the rise of women in this country be accelerated.”

This sense of male entitlement reaches a horrendous extreme in the cases of the killers self-identifying themselves as ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates). In the dankest corners of the internet, the incels spew hatred towards women and the men that women choose to have sex with, in fact railing against anyone who prevents the incels from getting the sexual attention they feel they deserve. This has had deadly consequences, with six fatalities in an incel-perpetrated killing in 2014 in Isla Vista, California, which then in turn inspired the murder of ten people in Toronto Canada in 2018 by another man who saw himself as a footsoldier in the war against women who denied him what he wanted. Canadian psychology professor, YouTube philosopher and doyen of men’s rights activists, Jordan Peterson, explained that such violence was inevitable because, “the masculine spirit is under assault”. Peterson, who in most circumstances rejects any redistribution interventions as Marxist, seems to agree with the incels that enforced monogamy is required to ensure men’s success, stabilise society and prevent male violence. Speaking specifically about the murderer in Toronto, he explained; “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”

And it’s not just women that these dangerous men-children see as threats to their status. The President of the United States is indignant that the co-equal branches of government are able to conduct investigations into his election campaign, his potential profiteering from the highest office in the land, and potentially illegal activity by his business, his foundation and himself. Feeling cornered, he has been lashing out angrily at anyone he sees as a critic or a threat in a true adult tantrum. From petted-lip complaints about being picked on by comedians, to attacks on Congress, the media and the judiciary for investigating him, to veiled threats of political violence against opponents, the President seems to be having regular roll-around-on-the-floor moments of self-absorption. He has taken to justifying his behaviour in office and protecting his presidency by claiming that his removal would cause civil unrest;
“I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad”
and on being asked about his potential impeachment during an interview in the Oval Office, he said, “I think that the people would revolt if that happened.”

This type of rhetoric, attempting to justify bad behaviour when people do not get their way, is dangerous. It has also been present in the UK, where Brexit negotiations have seriously faltered and a smooth exit from the EU is highly unlikely. As some call for politicians to realise the folly of the venture and return the final decision on a deal back to the people in a second referendum, those pushing for Brexit under any circumstances have argued that any other outcome will result in far-right violence and therefore Brexit-at-any-cost is required to appease them. Pro-Brexit politician Chris Grayling caused controversy when he warned, “There’s already a nastiness and unpleasantness in our politics, more people with extreme views, more people willing to behave in an uncivilised way,” and cited the English Civil War. Blaming those who don’t give violent people what they demand rather than blaming the perpetrators of violence is a dangerous political road to take.

We cannot succumb to this kind of appeasement and justification of violence. An appalling example followed the terrorist attack in Christchurch, which specifically targeted Muslims during worship and was perpetrated by an Australian-born white man with connections to white supremacy groups. In Australia, Senator Fraser Anning, known for his inflammatory opinions on immigration, including a maiden speech calling for a “final solution” to Muslim immigration, sent tweets and released an official statement condemning the violence but blaming it on immigration rather than white nationalism: “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place”. While Anning is one of the more extreme examples, politicians and media in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US have all stoked a fear of immigration and of Islam for political gain, ideas then reinforced in social media echo chambers. Anti-immigration messages have been used to drive support for Brexit, Trump and his border wall, and Australia’s off-shore detention centres, where asylum seekers, including children, are being held for years without hope. Politicians and powerful media figures have created, and capitalised on, concerns that any help and opportunities given to people trying to escape the world’s worst war zones, will result in a loss of opportunity and privilege for others. And this ‘othering’ of asylum seekers is also applied to all people of colour, including the indigenous peoples of those nations. The discrimination and attacks against them by white people are driven by an unjustified fear that advancement for the marginalised will somehow cause the white population to lose out, and perhaps, as the Christchurch terrorist believed, even be replaced. Rather than condemning these racist ideas, people like Anning resort instead to victim blaming in an attempt to justify white men’s uncontrollable anger when they feel they are being robbed of what is ‘rightfully theirs’, and of being ‘replaced’. And Christchurch is just the latest example of how deadly this appeasement of white supremacism can be.

For children younger than four, tantrums are common and a natural way to deal with the frustrations of being unable to communicate what they need. “However, if children have learned that tantrums are an effective way to get what they want or avoid what they do not want, tantrums may remain a significant problem for parents and teachers.” (National Association of School Psychologists). Pandering to an older child’s tantrums only leads to further selfish behaviour and a false sense of entitlement. “Giving the child what he or she wants will likely end the tantrum (much to the relief of parents and teachers) but will also teach the child that having a tantrum is an effective means of getting his or her way.” Similarly, we cannot appease the angry men, who perceive themselves as victims, trying to protect their position of privilege by denying opportunities to others. They cannot be allowed to justify their mistreatment, attacks on and murder of anyone they perceive to be a threat; be it women or other gender identities, people of colour and indigenous communities, or adherents to religions other than their own. We must ensure that such behaviour is never normalised, justified or accepted as a reasonable way for angry, violent white men to demand they be given everything they want.

22nd March 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

 

 

 

Women’s Rugby: Levelling the Playing Field

The lightning pace, the strength and stamina of the athletes, the skills involved in handling and kicking an inherently unruly and unpredictable ball, the short game time and swift turnaround allowing for multiple teams to compete in a single competition, and the creative costumes and carnival atmosphere in the stands, all make rugby sevens a highly entertaining sport.

The seven-player game dates back to the 1880s in Melrose, Scotland but it took until 1973 for the first officially sanctioned international sevens competition to be held, at Murrayfield in Edinburgh. Shortly after, in 1976, the Hong Kong tournament was initiated, then the Rugby World Cup Sevens was first contested in 1993 and the annual Rugby Sevens World Series in 1999. The women’s sevens game also slowly gained popularity and recognition through the years, being included at the Hong Kong tournament from 1997. The inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens was held in 2009, and in 2012 they joined the Sevens World Series. Both men and women competed when sevens was introduced to the Olympics in Rio in 2016, and the women joined the men for the first time at the Commonwealth Games this month on the Gold Coast, Australia.

While women’s presence at these competitions is excellent progress, they are still often seen as the second string to the men’s matches, as dictated by the usual format of the tournament. In the case of the Sevens World Series, the women’s teams do not compete in all the locations where the men’s contests are held. When the women do share a venue with the men, they are generally scheduled to play all their games on the first two days of the event, with the men’s matches played afterwards, being seen as the prestigious headliner matches. A similar format was used at the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, there are signs that this could be changing and Australia are leading the way. At the Sevens World Series event in Sydney this January, the men’s and women’s games were interspersed throughout the weekend, at each stage of the competition, with the women’s and men’s finals being played consecutively on the final evening. This format was replicated last weekend during the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. This makes a lot of sense practically in terms of giving players longer rests between matches, but also is a great boost in exposure for the women’s games, allowing a larger audience to appreciate that the level of skill with which the women play the game, and the excitement and entertainment value, is equal to that of the men’s game. It can only be hoped that the other series venues see the value of this format and follow suit. Unfortunately, this year the New Zealand Rugby Union, who prides itself as the spiritual home of all things rugby, neglected to even hold a women’s sevens competition at the Hamilton Sevens World Series event, citing funding limitations. This was a very disappointing decision and one which NZ rugby superstar and try scoring genius Portia Woodman was quick to condemn. 

The Australian Rugby Union are also currently leading the way in support for the women’s XVs game. While other unions, including England, are moving their funding away from the longer game and into sevens, Australia are looking to increase the exposure of women’s XVs. As well as voicing its interest in hosting the 2021 Women’s World Cup, they have established a new domestic competition, the Super W. This coming weekend sees the final of the inaugural Super W, in which five teams representing five states have played in this round robin tournament which has been broadcast by Fox Sport. While there are still ongoing issues surrounding players’ pay for this competition, the ARU, under its new CEO Raelene Castle, is determined that players should all be supported, with access to elite level training and sports science. Meanwhile, other developments are being made in terms of player salaries, with a collective bargaining agreement being reached with the ARU guaranteeing pay parity for sevens players and payment for the women’s national XV squad for the first time. A deal has also been struck in New Zealand for the national squad, the Black Ferns, with 30 women players being offered a base salary and contracts including a maternity policy. Black Fern Kendra Cocksedge, who also performs a development role for Canterbury Rugby, highlighted the importance of the deal in encouraging girls to take up the game and see a viable future in sports.

Interest in women’s rugby is increasing and will continue to do so with further exposure to wider audiences around the world. There has been an increase of 150% since 2013 in the number of girls and women playing the game and globally 25% of all players are now women. Meanwhile, those already playing at the highest level are beginning to receive recognition for their skills and hard work. The Black Ferns, winners of the Women’s World Cup for the 5th time last year, were awarded the 2017 rugby team of the year award, the first women’s team ever to receive the title. While the playing field may not yet be totally level, things are certainly moving in the right direction for women’s rugby and it has an exciting future ahead.

17th April 2018

Short Story: An Ear of Grain Reaped in Silence

She checks the mirror again. No-one’s following. Her fingers drum on the steering wheel as she waits for the suspended light to click over from red to green. She takes a right turn, then a left. Parallel now to the main artery, on a narrower street lined with 1920s stone apartment buildings. Here there are fewer behemoth malls with their attendant fields of parking, or used-car lots with fluttering flags, or drive-through liquor stores. Fewer brightly lit eateries with plastic furniture, plastic cutlery and plastic conveyor-line service. Fewer hanger-like hypermarkets with eternal aisles of frozen goods, day-glo packaging and geometrically stacked tins of fruit. There are fewer people here. Fewer cars. Fewer cameras. Yet still she checks her mirror again after crossing each intersecting road; assessing the traffic behind her and checking her precious cargo on the back seat. Her cellphone left behind on the bedside table, her other car charging in the garage, Eddy motors on in her rusty old Ford. Untracked.

 

The leg has been hanging there for 270 days. It has lost almost one third of its initial weight but inside its blanket of muslin it has been absorbing, maturing, ageing, waiting.

A beast was selected for its broad, straight back, its curvaceous buttocks and thighs. It was granted a final meal then gently led from the paddock to the wooden shed where a rope was loosely, discretely looped around a hock. A single, sudden expert bolt to the brain brought oblivion. The pulley overhead squealed as the rope tightened and the load was hoisted aloft. A swift, scooping motion with a sharp, double-bladed knife skilfully severed the main pathways to the heart. For several minutes its sanguineous sacrifice flowed while the long-dead creature twitched, final cortical disturbances triggering lifeless muscles. The drained brute was lowered into a tub of tepid water where scourers repeatedly scraped and abraded its skin until the flesh concealed below was exposed. Back overhead, and a delicate, skilled hand and knife slid inside, unzipping the carcass, allowing the entrails to spill and fall off. Meanwhile, fortifying organs were carefully stored for future use. The remaining shell was hosed clean and taken to a chilled room where it hung overnight, solitary in the darkness.

Cleavers, hammers and saws; rendered into its constituent parts. A rear leg, severed from the pelvis, was placed into a box. Gentle hands pressed on the arteries, drawing away any persistent blood, before massaging seasonings into the flesh. Inundated with curing salts, then pressed under a heavy concrete slab, where two weeks of pressure and sodium chloride drew out any moisture which remained. The plump, pink limb transformed into a shrunken, mummified stump, ready now to begin its long wait.

Eddy drives towards the city’s outskirts, senses still tingling, hyper aware of her surroundings. Cautious and ever observant. She passes industrial complexes; mazes of shiny piping and anonymous, unbranded silos. High overhead chimneys belch fumes, and she rolls up her window as the acrid smell catches in her throat. She glances anxiously in the mirror at the rear seat. A little further, where the road is now fringed by soaring concrete walls topped with savage razor wire and indiscrete cameras. Pointing inwards, they do not concern Eddy. All that rises above the barriers is a cloud of dust and, even in the closed car, the unmistakable stench of digestive waste. Eddy knows that merely a few metres away, doomed beasts wallow ankle-deep in their own mess, thousands in a grassless wasteland. Further still and the direct heat from the dipping afternoon sun forces her to roll down the window again. Now the landscape has begun to green, but not verdant; monotone. Stretching on, minute after minute, row after row on either side of the road, an endless rippling ocean of corn. Mile after mile without variation. Until, eventually, on the distant horizon, trees. She is getting close.

They have trafficked with gods and been sacrificed to them. They have been revered, feared, demonised, mythologised, castigated and domesticated.

Amalthea, mother of Zeus, was a goat nymph who fed her divine son on a diet of her milk and honey. Later, the creature was honoured at the Festival of Dionysus, where the skills of the scribe producing the supreme “he-goat song”, a tragōidia, were rewarded with a live animal. In more northerly climes, the sacred honour of drawing Thor’s chariot was bestowed upon hircine helpers. In both hemispheres, celestial systems of astrology have reserved a place for caprine beasts. Cultures separated by thousands of miles and years have revered these creatures as symbols of fruitfulness, and bones in Neolithic, Ancient Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian graves bare testament to their sacrificial past. It was such service in pagan fertility ceremonies that captured the attention of Christians though. And the Greek Satyrs, mischievous woodland men-goats with permanent erections and a lascivious reputation for lustful rutting, drew the Church’s ire. Hence, the cloven-hoofed, bearded, be-horned incarnation of the devil was born. Meanwhile, it was the Hebrew faith which provided the parable of lots cast between two of the beasts; one to be ceremonially sacrificed, the other cast out into the desert bearing the sins of humankind: a scapegoat.

For 10 millennia, a provider to millions around the globe: warm clothing, bone tools, fuel for fires, hair for calligraphy brushes, sustenance as meat and milk. And now, a bundle wrapped in cloth, stored in a warm kitchen, reaches the end of its journey from raw milk, left to curdle, drained and pressed on its way to its soft, fragrant final destination.

The narrow twisting road has an easy familiarity, each bend and turn measured by repetition. The flanking trees comforting in their concealment, each recognisable despite their apparent uniformity. The impenetrable undergrowth and towering canopy cooling. The contentment of a destination almost reached. The succour of a road travelled many times since her first visit. Since Eddy’s life morphed into one of stealth and suspicion. At one time, she had been a foot soldier, helping fight many winning frays: a proposed reduction in government subsidies to corn and soy farmers overturned; the prohibition of antibiotic use in concentrated animal feeding lots rescinded; a farmer successfully sued for saving seeds, risking contaminating the company’s patented GM grains developed to increase yields; a co-operative of producers successfully restrained from making farm-gate and outdoor market sales which were in breach of new health and safety regulations; record damages paid to a meat processing firm by a local newspaper who broke the food libel laws by publishing a photograph taken inside one of its plants. Although a soldier in their battles, she had never been fully conscious of the war that was being waged. And then everything had changed.

A fruit of love, growing millennia ago in the lush warmth of Tenochtitlan. Its skin a seductive, shining scarlet and its hidden internal cavities containing moisture and the possibility of new life. A symbol of desire and fertility presented to newlywed couples.

Then 600 years ago, its seeds were ripped from their native home and transplanted over the ocean by covetous conquistadors; the seeds, but not the name. It became an apple: of love, of gold, of paradise. To mystics who believed in its power to aid lupine transformation, it became a peach; lycopersicum, the wolf peach. And just as it was revered by many, elsewhere it was feared. Encumbered by its superficial similarity to the mythical, biblical fruits of temptation, the apple and the pomegranate, it was seen as a powerful threat to moral values. And while actually innocuous, its familial ties to the mandrake and deadly nightshade relegated it for many years to an ornamental position, with pleasure taken in its yellow five-pointed corollas and crimson orbs, but not in its taste. Then came the cases of wealthy casualties, unable to resist the lure of the luscious berry, falling victim to its acidic juices forming a deadly elixir when combined with the lead contained in their tableware. Meanwhile, those without the means for pewter plates survived unscathed.

Over the years though, acceptance grew and this creeping vine fruit finally assumed its rightful place: nestled in salads, chopped onto bread, atop pizzas, in sauces, in soups, in hangover cures, in tin cans, glass jars and bottles. And, with the fullness of time, the Aztecs’ “plump fruit with a navel” had regained its true name, tomatl.

A veil was lifted on a hidden underworld: obscured, preventable outbreaks of food poisoning; epidemic levels of childhood diabetes; sickening animal cruelty; exploitation of undocumented workers; lobbyists in positions of legislative power creating toothless regulatory agencies; the crushing of all competition and suppression of all investigation. A pastoral fantasy masking a toxic, self-serving production line. And Eddy, a blind enabler. At first there had been a sliver of doubt, then a nagging suspicion, until some gentle probing brought her into contact with the exposers of secrets; mainly farmers unable to match the legal might of the wealthy corporations and unwilling to be beholden to those who display little concern for the beasts, workers, suppliers or consumers they hold sway over. The war for complete control would wear on regardless but now, confronted with that normally buried, Eddy could play no further part. A recent divorce and a newly discovered respect for the custody courts prompted the establishment of her own family law practice. And now business is healthy, and demanding, but she still undertakes the fraught, draining journey two, sometimes three, times a week. The journey to this isolated, unsealed road through the forest, hours from the city. She briefly checks her mirror once more before pulling over. Out of the car, she approaches an unremarkable tree on the edge of the tangled undergrowth. Hidden behind the trunk is a lever which operates a simple pulley. A blockade of bushes and ferns lifts just high enough for a car to pass under, then lowers, and once again the entrance is concealed.

Buried, in the darkness, underground. Slowly gaining strength, nourished by minerals leeched from fertile soil, nurtured by the empowering moisture from above. Anchors thrust down deeper while tentacles explore skywards in search of the restorative, photosynthetic
power of the sun and air. Ever upwards until strong enough to produce a head of encased berries: bran, endosperm and germ. Crunchy packets of energy on fragile browning stems, ready for harvest.

Guillotined blades of grass, bound into bundles, stacked to dry before being brutally beaten. The freed heads then tossed between baskets until the passing breeze carried away all the feathery husks to expose the kernels enclosed inside. These crushed between two stones and ground to dust. The pulverised grains then combined with a single-cell fungus. An alchemic process activated by warm water; starch molecules broken down into sugars, metabolised and converted into carbon dioxide. The result; a bubbling, expanding, elastic putty. Pounded and rested, pounded and rested, ever swelling. And finally engorged, spilling over the edges of tins, fresh and steaming from the oven.

A process ever overseen by the watchful eye of Demeter: the goddess of the harvest who separates the grain from the chaff; a goddess honoured for her gift of fertility, and celebrated in an agrarian cult and festival of women; a goddess whose grief for a daughter taken whilst gathering flowers was capable of causing drought and famine; a goddess whose mourning and determination led Zeus himself to intervene; a goddess whose abducted girl was returned to her by deceitful Hades, but only periodically. A life lived in two worlds. Bountiful reunions followed by months of arid anxiety. The seasons and their harvests evermore dictated by a handful of pomegranate seeds and a mother’s love.

The car bumps along the rough, confined track hewn through the dense forest, headlights searching the way. And then Eddy re-emerges from the gloomy tunnel into low evening sunlight, morsels of dust caught suspended in the air. In the centre of the large grassy clearing stands a grand timber barn and several smaller outhouses. Around this focal point radiate wedge-shaped paddocks, some containing pigs, or chickens, or goats, the stacked boxes of beehives, others with ordered vegetables gardens, crawling vines or orchards with heavily laden trees. Eddy pulls up behind the large structure and lifts Dionne from her booster seat in the back of the car. Taking the girl’s hand, they start walking towards the barn when Dionne spots Terry in the berry patch. The young girl releases her mother and runs to the elderly man who greets her with a quick hug before she too begins delicately, expertly placing blueberries in the hand-woven basket that lies between them. Eddy watches for a while, her daughter instantly absorbed in the task, before continuing around to the front of the barn. Here, the overhanging roof creates a shaded veranda, and a long table is flanked by two wooden benches. Others have already laid a plaid tablecloth, plates, cutlery and glasses, and are flitting between the various outhouses and internal rooms within the barn. Eddy is greeted warmly and then joins them in ferrying goods to the table. Clear glass jugs brimming with creamy milk. Bottles of raspberry wine, stored since last year’s harvest. Small lidded clay pots holding sticky golden nectar. A dish of steaming boiled potatoes, dotted with parsley, butter beginning to dissolve down into their midsts. Sliced sausages, as black as coal, and a whole chicken, its golden skin crispy and crackling. A wheel of quiche filled with fluffy eggs and recently-picked capsicums and eggplant. A large bowl abundant with leafy greens and nutty avocado, topped with the scarlet, golden, and maroon orbs of heirloom tomatoes. On a wooden board rest three uncut loaves of fresh wheat bread, the smell drifting the length of the table. Beside them, a crumbly block of goat’s cheese and delicate tissue paper slices of cured ham. Others begin to gather from their various tasks, joining together in lively conversation, basking in the nurturing companionship, savouring the abundance their combined efforts have yielded. Terry and Dionne arrive hand-in-hand and the girl adds her basket of berries to the bounty before sitting next to her mother at the table; joining together in appreciation for all they have.

January 2017

Flash Fiction: Dust to Dust

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(Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma)

It infiltrates everywhere. Coating windowsills and forming precipitous piles against skirting boards, present in every corner. Tightly-sealed drawers are thrown open to reveal lightly-coated cutlery and tablecloths and t-shirts and hairbrushes. Books, untouched for years on crammed shelves, are opened to release sooty cascades from their spines. Each morsel of food, a beach picnic of old; every attempt to wash, a gritty exfoliation. Rubber seals around window frames and under doors are redundant, as it flows through keyholes, drifts through air vents, presses up between floorboards and rains from the cornices; a powdery invasion.

Outside, there is the perpetual battle against the grimy mounds that accumulate on the front porch, a daily struggle against absolute entombment. It’s easier now though. No longer the clamber up the rickety ladder, the mask narrowing vision and amplifying deafening asthmatic breaths, to sweep clear the roof panels. Not since distant, perpetual fires weakened the sun to a hazy, tepid shimmer.

Time is now marked in weeks. The hazardous journey to town along roads marked only by inactive pylons, the tyres sinking in fine powder, leaving behind a stilted wake. Waiting silently: the charging of the truck and the sole battery tasked with preserving life; the dwindling pages of tickets exchanged for plastic bottles of murky water and metallic vacuum packs. Waiting passively in a line that diminishes week by week.

Rushing home now, ahead of the approaching storm. A whirlwind of particles eddies across wooden floors as the door is slammed shut against the growing gusts. From the sofa in the front room, wrapped in grimy blankets, listening to the gale screech through the eaves, watching as the minuscule grains impatiently coat the glass. The drifts rising higher and higher until the dust blocks out all remaining light.

 

April 2017

Flash Fiction: Beware the Sellers of Snake Oil

The painted cart rolls into town. A cloud of dust, kicked up by weary horses, and the jangling of tiny bells herald its arrival. Pulling up in front of the stone fountain, brightly-dressed men emerge. The curious townsfolk gather. Drums beat and tambourines jangle. Sparkling hoops tumble through the air, fiery blasts are shot towards rapt observers, objects disappear into velvet cloths only to reappear in a townsman’s grimy pocket, a hard-jawed wooden doll yells bawdy tales at entranced listeners. But these are distractions, a mere prelude to the main act.

A thunderous bang, and from a cloud of smoke he emerges; the weaver of great yarns. His breathless listeners are inextricably reeled in by the wonders of the wide unseen world, death-defying adventures and terrifying tales of mortal plagues bringing about excruciatingly slow deaths. The crowd impelled to the verge of hysteria. “But fear not,” he reassures them, producing a cloudy green bottle from the depths of his patchwork cloak. He presents tidings of wondrous protections and miraculous cures. A voice in the crowd rears up, confirming that, yes, he himself had been returned from the very doors of death by this man’s marvellous medicine. The mob clamours for this extraordinary elixir.

A foolish, unconvinced man in the crowd holds back.
“Don’t be an idiot. Don’t you want to be protected? We certainly don’t want to be infected by you.” He succumbs, parting with hard-earned coins.

In the morning, amidst the hangover of faded euphoria and clearing heads, the townsfolk look to each other with sinking realisation. A mob approaches the square seeking the colourful, flamboyant, mountebank; the charlatan who exploited their fears while bombastically claiming only he held the cure. But, as quickly and suddenly as the travelling show arrived, it has gone.

Jan 2017

Women’s Rugby World Cup: Refreshing Refereeing

 

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worldrugby.com

The women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland came to a thrilling climax this weekend with New Zealand’s Black Ferns XV reclaiming the title from holders England. The competition was an entertaining sporting display by highly-skilled, well-trained, committed amateur athletes, juggling the commitments of daily life while training for sport at the highest representative level. For the nations still developing women’s rugby, it was an opportunity to have quality game time with the top tier teams and a chance to raise the sport’s profile. Hopefully the rugby associations of all the nations involved will provide their full support to the women’s fifteen-a-side game, with development schemes which encourage women and girls to play. This is particularly important at a time when there is a danger of fifteens being neglected in favour of the sevens format, due to its inclusion in the Olympics and its perceived marketability. Hopefully too, more television networks and sponsors will recognise the value of the long game, lending financial assistance to clubs and players, and helping attract interest and viewers. But with any injection of support, and raised financial stakes, come changes in expectations, transforming aspects of the sport. One of the positive features of the current women’s amateur game that I hope can be preserved is the refereeing seen throughout this latest World Cup.

During this tournament, the on-field referees placed limited dependence on the video referees (TMOs), confidently relying on the assistance of their touch judges, and only asking for video confirmation in the most difficult of calls. There was a liberal application of penalty tries for goal-line infringements, and a sensible application of ‘benefit of the doubt’: an attacking maul marauding half a metre across the goal line before piling onto the ball should be awarded as a try even if the referee, or cameras, cannot ACTUALLY see the grounding. Contrast this with Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup match where an All Black’s try was granted by the referee on the ground only to be disallowed after the TMO interceded as there was no footage which showed a clear grounding of the ball. The referees and touch judges in the women’s competition also seemed to place a greater focus on one of the key fundamentals of the game, the forward pass. Too often this is let slide by touch judges and referees in the men’s game in order to keep the play flowing, perceiving that this is what the crowd wants.

Video referees undoubtedly have an important role in rugby, particularly in terms of safety. They have the ability to pick up dangerous tackles and foul play, often off-the-ball where incidents may escape the attention of the on-field officials. However the current situation in the professional game now sees TMOs intervening in the action on the field and making calls on sequences of play and tries without being requested for assistance by the match referee. This is resulting in long hold-ups but, more seriously, an undermining of the authority of the on-field referee. Team captains now regularly try to pressure the referee to send a decision to the TMO when they are unhappy with the on-field decision.

Undoubtedly, the financial investment in the professional game has put pressure on the sport to keep supporters happy, and the use of the TMO is a means by which to make the game seem fair. Viewers, all with their own opinions and analysis about every aspect of play, make a heavy investment through tickets, merchandise and betting, and are viewed as customers who must be kept satisfied. However, the frame-by-frame replay of portions of play take time and give an unrealistic view of what occurred. The grounding of a try which looks perfectly fine in real time may show a hand slipping from the ball in the final fraction of a second. What is the point of such pedantic distinctions? And while this situation all came about from a fear of the on-field referees making mistakes and receiving criticism, viewers regularly disagree with TMOs’ decisions too. For the future of the sport, professional rugby needs to look to the current amateur game where the balance of control remains very much in the on-field referees’ hands, with the TMO focussing on player safety and lending assistance with match decisions only when requested by the referee. And this also requires an acceptance by audiences, as well as coaches and players, that the authority of the referee is absolute, and the ultimate decisions they make are final, whether they are correct or made in error.

27th August 2017

WATCH: Top 5: Insane tries from finals day at WRWC 2017