SUE JACKSON Therapist/Writer/Photographer/Activist

Last year, as the unofficial blogger/photographer to the anti-East-West Link campaign, our battles were my blog's entire focus. But by Christmas, with the electoral win for people power and the dumping of the dud Tunnel, I was suddenly at a loss. What to write about now? Not sure yet. But there will be ongoing musings and images from this Australian life. So please leave a message. (No need to sign into an account. Simply comment as ‘anonymous’; then leave your name within the comment itself.)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Firsts!


Ploughing in beautiful Vinales Valley
I'm delighted to report that the picture above is now adorning the cover of Earth Garden magazine Number 162 December 2012 - February 2013. (Look out for it at your newsagents or contact Earth Garden direct for a copy). I also have a photojournalism piece in the magazine about some wonderful sustainable farming practices in rural Cuba.
I am thrilled because this is my first ever cover. And the icing on the cake is that my hero, Bob Brown, also features in the issue. He has written an inspiring article about the struggle to save the mighty humpback whales of Walmadan from the depredations of Woodside, which plans to build a huge gas factory on the Kimberley coastline.
Emboldened by this photographic coup, I decided to spend Thursday, my writing day, practising photographing moving subjects. And I lucked on the perfect occasion - the Dance Sports extravaganza at Hisense arena.

Ballroom peacocks
For the uninitiated, Dance Sports is an incredibly popular event, attracting numerous competitors to the vastly different areas of Ballroom and Latin dancing over a marathon 4 days and nights.
I had never attended the event before but the advice of our dance teacher, Hooman, prepared me perfectly. He suggested that if I simply imagined the delightful Strictly Ballroom was a documentary rather than a fictional story, I would be primed for Dance Sports. 
And he was spot on. I have never seen so many sequins (or more correctly, Swarovski stones) and 'support teams' (often obviously mothers) hand-sticking sequins onto clothing, shoes and headbands in the breaks between cheering on their stars.
I witnessed plenty of ruffled feathers, fouls, and one dramatic spill on the dance floor, and even the occasional dancer having a good time. I watched fascinated as a mother spent two full hours laboriously oiling and arranging her charge's hair, with precise corn rows decorated with - you guessed it - sequins, so that not a hair moved the whole time her daughter danced.
It's obviously all about perfection. I have never seen so many scrulpted bodies and sculped hair both on head and face, and fake tan is de rigeur. I watched as female partners painstakingly applied make-up to their partners' exposed chests and the backs of their hands. The sheer volume of make-up adorning competitors left Ab Fab's Patsy looking au naturel.
During the 6 hours I waited to see Hooman and Dalena perform in their first set I had ample opportunity to experiment with action photography, as you can see.

Spinning, spinning



Hooman and Dalena - worth every minute of the wait




Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Circus Comes to Town

What a week! The Nonfiction Melbourne 2012 circus, last stop University of Iowa, landed at RMIT's wild-looking CBD campus on Wednesday. Hordes of writers, American and local, gasped at the risk taking of the tight rope walkers, laughed at the clowns and tried hard to avoid the elephant pats. But more about that in a moment.
Because on Tuesday evening, in company with my friend Anne, I participated in a writing event of a very different complexion, when forty Melbourne Pen members met at the North Fitzroy Star to write cards to imprisoned writers, something we do around Christmas every year.

Writing and sorting at North Fitzroy Star 

As I laboured to say something non-trite to fellow writers from Bahrain and Cameroon, who had been incarcerated for years for offences as minor as participating in peaceful demonstrations, I was overwhelmed as usual by the comparison.
There we were, meeting in delightful surroundings, listening to music, sharing a laugh and enjoying the company of like-minded people, utterly free to write whatever we wanted. And next day I was off to an international writers conference just down the road. How lucky is that.
There were many class acts at the conference, but undoubtedly my favourite was a modest offering by a group of Alaskans, who read from their own works and those of colleagues. I listened enchanted to stories of wild places, of deer, bears and tundra, of pipelines, snow and whales. Alaska couldn't be more different from Melbourne, and yet many of our preoccupations are identical. I loved the community feel of these presenters, the lyricism and directness of their work and their generosity. At the end of the presentation they showered me with books and so even though I will no doubt spend this summer sweltering as usual, in my heart I will be eased by Arctic cool.

David Shields - scoping the future of writing?

The American, David Shields, in his plenary address, outlined his radical approach to writing. Called collage, he describes it as 'the juxtaposition of shards with other shards, the yielding to inchoate intuition'. Although some of what he said sounded like gobbledey- gook to me, I struggled to concentrate and keep my mind open, because he is clearly an original and amazingly creative thinker. He argued that since the beginning of time writers have always borrowed from each other and we should feel free to use each other's works without attribution. This radical idea is most liberating - at least to flirt with.
Another plenary speaker, Margo Jefferson, was simply a delight. Of African-American origin, she encouraged us to go deeper and deeper into the mines of ourselves in our writing, to keep challenging ourselves to take risks. I will never forget her reworking of the beloved 'Little Women' and her eloquent and startling conclusion that she is most like Beth.
Hardly able to see over the podium, yet Helen Garner is a huge presence

Our own Helen Garner as usual produced a wonderful, modest and thought-provoking presentation. Undoubtedly most audience members agreed with the organisers that hers was the perfect choice of local voice. Especially because I am uncertain at the moment about what to write next, I was heartened by Helen's reminder that you can't force things. Sometimes you just have to be patient and wait for them to unfold.
I had some reservations about the conference. At times it seemed too academic, with people reading papers, barely glancing up to make eye contact. And I attended one particularly dismal session where 3 boys strutted their intellectual stuff, oblivious to the yawning and nose scratching of the audience.
Sometimes the American origins of the conference were overwhelming, especially when assumptions were made about our knowledge of American literature. Jose Dalisay from the Philippines, who suggested many of us had attended his plenary address because we had never heard of him and knew nothing of his country's writings - was fantastic. I'm sure the programme would have benefited greatly from involvement of speakers from different, and poorer, countries.
Having said that, I have been absolutely a-buzz all week, my mind full of fantasies and possibilities about what I might write next. And I now have a vastly expanded view of what is subsumed under 'Non-fiction'.
Even though my preference is still for the modest, flawed home-grown Circus Oz, I nevertheless appreciate the opportunity to experience the artistry and excellence of Cirque du Soleil.



Saturday, November 17, 2012

Enlightened


Cape Otway Lighthouse

Yesterday turned out to be a day of illumination - some of it bad, most of it good.
We headed with our friends Alison and Marion to Opera in the Otways down the Great Ocean Road - surely one of the wonders of the world. 
But I was shocked to see unremarkable signs at various points along this most narrow windy dual carriageway casually reminding travellers to 'Drive on the Left in Australia'. If this came as news to any driver, surely it was far too late. 
I'm certain there were no such signs last time I ventured down that Road. And back then I never gave a second thought to the possibility that drivers from other countries might have crucial memory lapses. Yesterday, as I negotiated each new bend white-knuckled, I concluded that for once I would rather have been left in the dark.
The stunning Cape Otway Lighthouse at the Lightstation, the venue for the Opera, did its thing, illuminating my darkness in a much more positive way. This had nothing to do with the fact that the show featured the talented Jonathon Welch (Choir of Hard Knocks) and was ably compered by the anarchic Rod Quantock. 
I'm ashamed to admit my ignorance, but what totally blew me away was something I'd never even heard of before - Pecan Summer. In case you share that ignorance, Pecan Summer is Australia's first Indigenous opera, which premiered last year to sell-out audiences. Unfortunately there was insufficient time at the concert for anything other than highlights, but even that was enough to leave many audience members, including myself, in awe, as well as in tears. 

Deborah Cheetham, Yorta Yorta Soprano, Composer and Founder of Short Black Opera Company

The opera was composed by Deborah Cheetham, whom you might be unsurprised to hear, I was totally unfamiliar with. Deborah, who is a Yorta Yorta woman and a beautiful soprano, starred in the concert. She is a wonderful story teller too and treated us to the story on which the opera is based. It is all about the stand taken in 1939 by the people of Cummeragunja, who packed up their possessions and left the mission where they had been forced to live.
I was most intrigued by Deborah's description of her creative process. Especially by her assertion that she didn't find the story; the story found her. And by the fact that Deborah, one of the Stolen Generation, via her research for the opera, unexpectedly discovered links to her own personal history and even to lost family members.

Sunset at Apollo Bay
Last night, staying at Apollo Bay, we lucked on a light show of our very own. I couldn't help thinking back to the people of Cummeragunja, who I hope were treated to just such a sunset as they crossed the Murray and disappeared into the bush.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Star Struck

Me with my hero, Senator Bob Brown

It's true! You can believe your eyes. That's who I was with, for a nano-second at least, last night on the day after my birthday. How's that for the ultimate birthday treat?
Here's how it happened:
We were at a fund-raiser - more later - where Bob (we are obviously on first name terms now) was a guest speaker. I have been in awe of his intellect, courage, independent-thinking and altruism forever. I had my camera with me and summoning all my chutzpah, I decided: 'If not now, when?' So I asked if I could have my photo taken with him for this blog. He was utterly charming in response and when I joked with the photographer about taking a distant shot to hide my wrinkles, Bob made an amusing retort, which I promptly forgot as I was so star struck.
Peter wasn't though. He talked at length with Bob and his partner, Paul, about our discoveries in Cuba, and especially how ingenious people have been in adapting to the virtual absence of oil there. He was obviously inspiring in that Bob said to Paul that they will have to visit.
The fund-raiser was a curious mix held appropriately enough in the somewhat incongruous venue of the Meat Market.
Entitled Climamania, before interval it featured 3 great speakers: Bob, the renowned climate scientist David Karoly and a young man called Patrick from the Beyond Zero Emissions organisation.

Patrick, Bob and David

The speakers covered a vast terrain and fielded a lot of questions from an obviously well-informed audience. The take home messages for me were:
In the current dire situation, we must stay optimistic, because we all need to keep on keeping on trying to make a difference. (Bob)
Although it is true that Australia is sitting on a fortune in coal, for which we are the world's number 1 source, equally we have more sunshine than anywhere else. We could substitute solar power for coal and in so doing make a huge positive impact world-wide. (David)
And a single country can make a difference. Germany is devoting enormous resources to alternative energy production, especially solar, and is inspiring other countries to do likewise. (Patrick)
Why I found the event curious was that the surfeit of riches on offer left me feeling fuzzy about the overall focus. For example, after interval we shifted to a live performance by 2 actors of a scene from a play about a scientist and his Inuit assistant out to take climate readings. This was followed by a talk by the author/scientist Peter Hardy about his time living with the Inuits. Then Yarra Councillor, Amanda Stone, shared some of her insights. Although all these contributions were worthy and interesting in their own right, I was reminded of the saying that sometimes 'less is more'.
All this happened in what by day is a wonderful venue, but at night with its minimal illumination, ancient arches, vast empty spaces, bluestone floors and decorations of decapitated cows, had a most eerie quality. 

Past occupant of the Meat Market
And for what was undoubtedly a heavily vegetarian audience, the incongruity of the unadvertised sausage sizzle that greeted us on arrival, together with the many images of animals past and the sense of their distressed ghosts prowling the corridors all reinforced the somewhat oddball quality of the evening.
But what do I care? - I got my photo with Bob.


Sunday, November 04, 2012

Avoiding Obscurity


As I've said elsewhere, I have always had great luck finding a home for my travel articles in The Australian. So on return from Cuba I submitted this piece with some confidence, only to be told that the budget has been slashed since I last wrote and freelancers need no longer apply. Just to see how far the rot had spread, I sent the article to a range of 'old' media, from whom I received either no response at all or the same dismal message. 
I decided to give myself 4 months to try for on-line publication. 
Perhaps Cuba simply lacks holiday destination appeal, especially to Americans who can't get there easily. Or else my total ignorance of likely on-line publishers showed. Whatever the case, I had no luck at all. And rather than consign this story of Ernest and I in Cuba to obscurity, I decided to publish it here. I hope you enjoy it.

AVOIDING ERNEST HEMINGWAY IN CUBA

Ernest Hemingway wrote like an angel, but lived like a devil. He loved fishing, shooting, fighting and carousing. A bombastic man’s man, he is no fit travelling companion for this timid, ‘social drinking’ female – or so I thought. Arriving in Cuba in May, I realise immediately I mightn’t have much choice; the celebrated writer’s inky fingerprints are everywhere.
Even in the taxi travelling from the airport, the driver, a self-declared ‘Hemingway fanatic’, jokes that the writer had fallen over in most of the city’s bars. So wherever you drink you are bound to run into his ghost.Arriving at Ambos Mundos, a hotel and bar/restaurant in the centre of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), I avert my eyes from the many photos of the famous American expatriate adorning the walls. Yet as I sink gratefully into the cane-sided lounge chair beneath the ceiling fan and order a mojito, I have an uneasy feeling that somewhere nearby Hemingway is giving me the thumbs up.
My eye is drawn to an elevator with a vintage grated door. The attendant tells me that it was frequented by ‘Papa’ himself, who not only drank at the hotel but actually lived there throughout the 1930s. If so desired, I could even visit his room. Before I know it I am knocking hesitantly on door 551.
It is thrilling to spot the typewriter on which Hemingway tapped out the opening chapters of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. But otherwise the room is a paean to drinking sprees, full of Hemingway’s writings on the subject as well as photos of celebrities like Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman sharing his passion.

Typewriter in room 551 Ambos Mundos hotel

Several days later, standing awe-struck in the foyer of the magnificent 1930s Hotel Nacional de Cuba, I notice a prominently-positioned tribute to Hemingway. Apparently, in 1955 he had protested vociferously when American mobster Myer Lansky pressured Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista to let him in on the action at the hotel casino. Unfortunately, Papa was ignored. But it was an impressive demonstration of loyalty to a treasured watering hole as well as his adopted country’s best interests. Obviously the Cuban love affair with Papa cut both ways.
Next day I somehow find myself in Cojimar, a tiny village east of Havana and Hemingway’s base for his pursuit of sailfish, kingfish, swordfish and marlin in the deep currents of the Gulf Stream. Stopping for lunch at Cojimar’s La Terraza (The Terrace) I am no longer really surprised to see a table permanently reserved for the writer – and laid freshly each day - in his favourite position overlooking the bay. 

Hemingway's table at La Terraza, Cojimar

The waiter explains how Hemingway spent many an afternoon at that table chatting with local fishermen like Anselmo Hernandez, the model for the old man named Santiago at the heart of ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. The writer also named the young boy in this wonderful story after the son of the bar owner. Finally, hearing that Hemingway donated his Nobel prize for Literature, which he won in 1954, to the Cuban people, I can’t help warming to him.
I spend my final night in Cuba at Havana’s Floridita, the famous fish restaurant/bar, which was reputedly the writer’s favourite haunt. Following Papa’s advice, famously scrawled on the wall at the nearby Bodeguita bar: ‘My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita’, I am enjoying an unaccustomed second daiquiri.
Throwing avoidance to the wind, I schmooze up to the life-size bronze statue of Hemingway lounging on a stool at the bar. Confiding my embryonic literary ambitions to the statue’s attentive ear, I reflect that Hemingway is not such a bad travelling companion after all.