One drink too many


The smell of Scotch makes me want to puke. That’s an astonishing thing for a Scot to say. Let’s call it a physical memory; traces of a bender with no recollections to go with the nauseating smell.

Our State of Origin friends gathered on Wednesday for food, wine, conviviality and (as it turned out), a fairly subdued evening as our team was soundly beaten. I’d forgotten to get some sparking mineral water or what we call “fake wine”. One of our guests brought a bottle of the latter and shared a glass. The alcohol-removed option is a rare treat because it is just as expensive as buying a bottle of wine.

It has been so long since alcohol touched my lips I rarely have to refuse alcohol when socialising.

“His is a ginger beer,” someone will say when we have choir wine nights. Most people just accept that I don’t drink. Years ago I went to lunch with a business contact who kept pressing me to drink, to the point where I said “Mate, you don’t need my approval. If you want another, have another.” We never went to lunch again.

Since I decided to stop drinking, circa 1984, I have never been tempted to start again. My (former) drinking mates would say “Oh well you obviously weren’t an alcoholic, then if you could just stop like that.” A couple of people I knew decided to quit around the same time. We never had the conversation because I rarely drank with those two. They had an enormous capacity while I was a two-pot screamer. If I started drinking wine or spirits after two or three beers, the night would be a write-off. As far as I’m aware, they did the 12 Steps and never fell off the wagon, which is universal parlance for starting to drink again.

I did go to an AA meeting once, in Auckland, circa something. The group comprised mostly rough-looking young men, a few teenage girls and a couple of middle-aged men and women you could pass in the supermarket and never think “Jeez, she looks like an alkie.”

One of the traits of a long-term alcoholic is to hide it from partners, children, extended family and friends. If friends and family enjoy a social drink, they will probably not notice you starting on the third bottle of wine.

AA impressed me because (a) it was anonymous (b) you could share your story and not feel as if you were being judged and (c) there was a cast-iron understanding that your story would not be told outside the room. I’d been an agnostic since my teenage years and decided that talking to God and following the 12 Steps was not going to work for me. I had a two-week break from drinking, decided to have a few at the weekly folk club and woke up next day not remembering anything from the night before. This was not a fuzzy, “Oh, now I remember” night. It was like someone had sliced a piece out of my brain and it never came back. Two weeks later (after another break) I got on another bender and the same thing happened. Next morning, the car was sitting in the driveway covered in mud.

It was so like the Paul Kelly song that emerged three or four years later:

“The sergeant asked me softly “Now do you recall?”
It all looked so familiar as though I’d dreamt it all;
I don’t remember a thing, I don’t remember a thing.”

(Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls – Under the Sun)

So I quit. She Who Likes a Social Drink was a bit pissed (sorry, annoyed), that I threw out the remains of a wine cask.

If I could recap the life I lived since that day 34 years ago, you could chart it on an Excel spreadsheet; my professional life, physical and mental health and creative life all on an upward trajectory. It was not, as I feared, that being sober would rob me of rich ideas for my songwriting and short fiction. The opposite occurred. I rediscovered the serenity which comes from long vigorous walks, during which I was writing things in my head. My performance as a husband, father and friend, however, was like Telstra shares, a good income provider, punctuated with periods of poor performance.

You may wonder what brought this on – it’s not an anniversary of anything, I’m not inclined to fall off the wagon, even though Queensland lost the State Of Origin and the Baby Broncos got thumped by The Warriors. Two things gave me pause to revisit my drinking days, where I’d get drunk quickly and cheaply, slowly beginning to understand (sometimes) that I was the only drunk person in the room and that my real friends were just putting up with me. A silly bore, but never obnoxious. We all know the obnoxious drunk; the kind who get in your face and insist that you (the sober one), must be some kind of wimp because you won’t take a drink.

The other triggering factor was a story in The Monthly which is ostensibly about AA (the organisation) but more about the author’s personal struggle with alcohol and how AA helps and maybe doesn’t help. The remarkable thing about Jenny Valentish’s story* is that it stands alone as critical essay about an 82-year-old organisation which is rarely scrutinised.

AA mean Alcoholics Anonymous, which means you can repent under a cloak of anonymity. You could be a big rock star or the chief executive of Very Big Inc and no-one knows or should know you are a recovering alcoholic. One of the precepts of AA is that you never ‘get over it’. You’re an alcoholic and one drink will bring you undone.

Valentish observes that AA has made no significant updates to its doctrine, despite “a growing mountain of evidence-based research”. AA won’t change its literature without the approval of 75% of members worldwide. Three addiction experts reviewed the Big Book in 1985. Psychologist Albert Ellis was concerned by the lack of emphasis on self-management.

“By calling on God to remove your defects of character, you falsely tell yourself that you do not have the ability to do so yourself and you imply that you are basically an incompetent who is unable to work or and correct your own low frustration tolerance.”

Valentish starts her essay by confessing to a relapse after seven years sober. She says AA helped her a lot when she stopped drinking the first time. But by AA’s rules, if you have a relapse, you have ‘failed’ and have to start the 12 Steps all over again.

The organisation holds the 12 Steps (based on Christian principles), to be sacrosanct and it seems to work for problem drinkers (if they are determined to stop).

So go ahead and have a drink while you watch the Roosters give the Baby Broncos a pasting. If you can stop at 2, jolly good luck. I never could.

*One Step Beyond by Jenny Valentish, page 46 The Monthly, June, 2017

Trump, Clinton and the third candidate

Aussie tourist poses outside Trump World Tower, Manhattan. Photo by Laurel Wilson

Who, except Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, would want to be leader of a nation today? The manic, 24/7 pressure of life in the top job makes old men (and women) out of youthful candidates in no time. At home, we saw the pressure tell in quick succession on Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and now Malcolm Turnbull, who no longer resembles the debonair bon vivant who aspired to high political station. In the US, Barack Obama’s eight years in the job is etched into his face.

Yet the aspirant leaders keep coming. Hillary wants the top job, even though she saw what it did to her husband, not to mention Monica Lewinsky, these days engaged in anti-bullying campaigns.

Donald Trump wants to make America great again (though no-one has yet proven when the US was ever great). Former Australian PM Tony Abbott was cited (from afar), telling high-ranking people overseas he planned to make a leadership comeback. Whether he did or didn’t say this, on his return, Abbott and Turnbull clashed jousting sticks in the House, prompting gasps and gossip amongst Canberra lobbyists.

Who’d be a world leader? US presidents get asked to make awful decisions, to wit Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in 1945, killing between 130,000 and 226,000 people. Harry didn’t drop the bombs, but it was his head that nodded when the generals asked him if they should.

Even Australian Prime Ministers are asked to make unpalatable decisions which may come back to haunt future generations. Bob Menzies bowed to pressure from Great Britain, who wanted to test atomic bombs in Australia’s western desert. After all, they could hardly do it in Manchester or Liverpool. People would have complained.

Some impressions of this seldom-scrutinised period in our history are captured in Collisions, an 18-minute multimedia film by Lynette Wallworth. The Monthly’s Quentin Sprague reviewed the ‘immersive’ film which premiered in Adelaide and is playing as a ‘virtual reality experience’ at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image until mid-January. Nyarra Nyarri Morgan, a young man in the 1950s when he witnessed the mushroom cloud above the desert, recalls its impact: “the surrounding waterholes boiled and kangaroos fell to the ground under a drifting blanket of ash.”  Later, when people became sick after eating the fallen kangaroos, they mused: “What god would do such a thing.”

Harry Truman recalls approving the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a biography written by his daughter, Margaret Truman, Harry’s decision to over-rule the general who believed the Japanese would surrender under the onslaught of conventional bombs, was aimed at saving Japanese and American lives. Almost 80,000 died after the firebombing of Tokyo, part of a planned programme of incendiary bombing.

“It was not an easy decision to make,” Truman said. “I did not like the weapon. But I had no qualms if in the long run millions of lives could be saved.”

After a successful testing in New Mexico, Truman approved the bombing of four targets – Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki

Given the history, you do wonder about people like Donald Trump, a self-described multi-billionaire who has no material need, apparently, to live in the White House. There are bigger and better mansions and easier jobs than making America great again, or even for the first time.

Why would he want to be the one with the power to pick up the red telephone? There is no guarantee either that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t pick up the red phone.

The media is making much of the Clinton-v-Trump clash, mostly ignoring a third candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld. Johnson and Weld say they have a master plan to sneak the presidency from under the noses of Trump and Clinton.

The Washington Times reported on Monday the pair say they can change history and win the election through a combination of quirky political circumstances, voting variables and polling inaccuracies. Polling data shows Johnson and Weld have greater support in 20 states than the margin between the Republican and the Democrat, neither of whom will find it easy to snare the necessary 270 votes. One or two states could determine the outcome.

Former Republican adviser Bill Whalen agrees there is a scenario where neither Hilary Clinton nor Donald Trump wins the presidency. He told ABC Radio’s Eleanor Hall on Wednesday much hinged on the outcome in Utah, where candidate Evan McMullen has snared enough votes to win that state. It could be that the House of Representatives will decide who is best suited to the Oval Office: Trump could be deemed ‘unsuitable’ and Clinton’s election risky, as it could spark a constitutional crisis if a Federal investigation finds against her. Enter stage left, Evan McMullen, an inscrutable former CIA operative who has a theoretical chance at the White House.

Here is yet another reason to cite The Simpsons. “Citizen Kang(season 8), still rules as the best piss-take of the two-party political system. Homer is abducted by aliens Kang and Kodos who demand he takes them to his leader. When Homer explains about the (1996) election, the aliens kidnap presidential candidates Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, placing them in suspended animation and assuming their forms through “bio-duplication.” The one-eyed aliens plan to ensure one of them will become the next leader succeeds, despite their alienating habits of walking hand in hand, drooling green slime and talking in robotic voices (“Klin-ton”). Kang is subsequently elected, enslaving humanity into building a giant ray gun, to be aimed at an un-specified planet:

Meanwhile, the global media obsession with Trump vs Clinton, which promises to continue until January, provides perfect cover for our conniving government, which seems intent on homogenising the arts and making sure people who tried to get to Australia by boat go (somewhere else), and never return. Comedian Lucy Valentine suggested they should make this law retrospective to 1788.

Of lesser significance, maybe, but mean-spirited nevertheless, Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced cuts to student loan funding for 57 creative arts diploma courses including circus, screen acting, stained glass, art therapy and jewellery. Additionally, the government capped loans for creative diplomas to $10,000 compared to $15,000 for agriculture and engineering.

Birmingham said the changes were made to focus on courses which would ‘benefit Australia economically in the 21st century’.

“Currently there are far too many courses that are being subsidised that are used simply to boost enrolments, or provide “lifestyle” choices, but don’t lead to work.”

Predictably, this decision brought forth a torrent of commentary on social media, ranging from reasoned debate to outright vitriol.

This issue, however, has slipped behind the international smokescreen which is the US presidential election campaign; a litany of (alleged) lies and counter-lies, insults and counter insults, accusations of defamation and one lawyer’s letter, published in the New York Times, which is very much worth reading.

If Donald Trump does not win the election, he has promised to sue everyone who has accused him of behaviour unbecoming of a US presidential candidate. It will be a long list.

He should probably just go back to building high-rise towers, hotels and golf courses and making money. He claims to be pretty good at that.

Simple as ABC Part 2

ABC HQ South Bank Brisbane

If journalists tend to have a universal blind-spot, it is their inability or disinclination to follow up on a story. When it comes to writing about budget cuts at the ABC, I plead guilty to said offence.

It is almost two years since I wrote about the Federal Government’s edict to the national broadcaster to trim $254 million – 20% of its then $1.22 billion operating budget – over five years. The media in general was having lots to say about this in November 2014. Petitioners were petitioning, GetUp was getting up; the ABCFriends group was lobbying and raising funds. They should have seen it coming.

A Senate Estimates hearing in February 2014 asked ABC managing director Mark Scott a hypothetical: if, given funding cuts, could he guarantee he would not have to cut services to regional Australia.

Scott said inter alia that nothing would be spared from that kind of review, and he could give no guarantee that any services would be spared, including rural services.

“But I am not expecting that, because a clear commitment was given to maintain the ABC’s funding.

The above was gleaned by what is known in the trade as fact-checking, also a reminder that the ABC’s renowned fact-checking unit was one of the casualties of the internal review that followed. We turn to the ABC itself to report on this story, because that is what bloggers do – they research and cite the work of others. Not that we’d suggest the axing was an ideological ploy, but it was Kevin Rudd’s government who provided $60 million over three years to fund ‘‘enhanced newsgathering services”. In the May 2016 budget, this funding was cut to $41.4 million over the next three years.

If you have faith in my calculations, this means the ABC has to trim $2.039 million a year from its ‘enhanced newsgathering’ budget over the next three years. This is when managers start eyeing their underlings, looking for value for money, identifying functions they could live without.

The end result is redundancies – that is, abolishing positions or roles and making people who occupy them eligible for a payout.

ABC redundancy payments totalled $9.33 million in the year to June 2015 (annual report, notes to the accounts P.172)

In 30 or so years working in the Australian media, inevitably I know people who work for (or used to work for) the ABC. Not so many decades ago it was a job for life and I know a few who have survived under successive managerial identities (the latter known by some as ‘carpet strollers’). But the Liberal government’s insistence that Mark Scott cut that very large number from his operating budget has, over the last two years, seen redundancies, early retirements, centralisation of news and the scrapping of high-profile units like The Drum and the ABC Fact Checking Unit and the closure of ABC Shops.

If you did not know what the unit did, it included checking the accuracy of politicians’ public comments, tracking election promises, along with other historical and statistical investigations. Labour-intensive work, naturally. But despite being shortlisted for a Walkley Award in 2014, the ABC Fact Check team was chopped.

As ABC news director Gaven Morris said in May, Unfortunately, having a standalone unit is no longer viable in the current climate.”

As it happened, The Conversation, an online news and commentary portal operated and funded by Australian universities and its readers, started its own fact-checking unit.

There has been a paucity of follow-up stories on the closure of the ABC Fact Checking Unit since the story broke in mid-May. The Australian had a stab at globalising the story, citing Duke University’s censuses of international fact-checking units. More than 100 sites are operating in 37 countries, Duke said. The Australian implied we are falling behind.

My photographer/author mate Giulio Saggin was one of the casualties of the ABC cutbacks, with his position as ABC online photo editor made redundant, along with two other positions at the Brisbane headquarters. He’d held the job since 2007. Fortunately, Giulio is versatile and has been free-lancing long enough to cope with its feast or famine cycles. The redundancy coincided with the launch of his third book – a manual, if you like, for free-lance photo-journalists.

What might worry ABC fans more is speculation that ABC Classic FM may be in danger of more cuts and structural changes.

Former Senator Margaret Reynolds has already started an ABCFriends campaign.

One of the key issues with the ABC is the perception, rightly or wrongly, that it caters to intellectual snobs. This attitude can be encapsulated in two observations I made in my 2014 piece.

“Hopefully they will axe Upper Middle Bogan and It’s a Date” I wrote, intellectual snobbery exposed for all to see. So I was wrong. It’s a date is into season two this year and season three of Upper Middle Bogan starts in October. ABC management appears to appealing more to the mainstream, putting up with shots across the bow from those who find such shows cringe worthy.

In 2014-2015, the top ABC episodes by peak viewing were headed by the Asian Cup Australia v Korea (2.137 million people watched a game of soccer), followed by Sydney’s New Year Fireworks (at midnight), 2.075 million.

Of the top 20 TV shows commanding an audience of 1.32 million or more, only three could be described as news and current affairs. Q&A, despite a huge social media profile, did not make that list.

So people prefer New Tricks, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries or Dr Who? Well, TV is escapism at best, so why the hell not?

Whatever else ABC management tinkers with next, they ought not to rock the boat too hard with Radio National or Local ABC Radio, lifeline to people in the bush and those with vision impairment.

I attended the funeral of an old mate last year; he’d struggled with various levels of blindness for the previous 20 years or so. His son told me his Dad had a radio of one kind or another in every room in the house, even the laundry. They were all tuned to radio national.

Vision Australia estimates there are 357,000 people who are either blind or have low vision. For many of these people, radio is literally the only way they can keep in touch with what’s going on in the world.

I don’t actively listen to radio in the house, but I’m always tuned in when driving. I’ve made about 20 trips to Brisbane and back these past two months and it has become apparent what I am missing by not having RN on at home. This apparently makes me one of the 17 million Australians the ABC reaches across all platforms.

The ABC’s new managing director, Michelle Guthrie, a corporate lawyer with experience working for News Ltd and Google, has an ambitious target: she wants to increase the ABC’s reach from 71% to 100%. Just how she will do that remains to be seen, but as Margaret Simons writes in The Monthly, one of the early pointers is an internal memo that states Guthrie wants 80% of the budget spent on content and only 20% on administration.

Carpet strollers beware.