Photo John Karpik.

Chased from the park.

I live in a dead-end – at first it was only a street with the advantage of being near a park. But I soon realised this sweet pocket was a village. All the neighbours know each other. The first thing you hear in the morning is children laughing, mothers calling out ‘careful!’ and ‘Hold my hand!’, the tinkle of bicycles bells or the bark of a dog. Many of my neighbours have become friends and I have grown to love this tiny bit of Australia. Well, a lobby of community gardeners are menacing to pull out the concrete, cut off the bike path, erect high wire fences, build compost bins, sheds and dig 84 plots for their gardeners. In other words annex a beautiful piece of public land.

Norm Gallagher and Mick Lewis went to prison to stop the park from becoming a Kleenex factory. Fred Hardy was the one to get the unions involved and put a black ban on what was to become the Hardy Gallagher Reserve. To them, we owe this beautiful park that the people of Melbourne enjoy. Here is Nature AND Memory.  Community Gardens are grand when they beautify but not when they destroy what it already beautiful. Jane Garrett, former Mayor of the City of Yarra; now State member for Brunswick and Stephen Jolly councillor for the City of Yarra showed up at a rally organised by the Friends of Hardy-Gallagher Reserve on Australia Day. I never thought to say that about politicians but the proof of their common sense and humanity was in the pudding, right there, defending parkland for the people – for the 99%.

These gardeners have tried to take over public parkland for their private use for years. They have been pushed to the tail end of Fitzroy and Princess Hill until they butted into the shores of Brunswick last year. They are trying again in 2011 and 2012 after the 2010 public protest which was in all the newspapers.

Someone floating in the park.

Photo John Karpik of Jane Garret and Stephen Jolly at the rally.

I have been told that parks are not legally protected. If one can get enough residents to agree, one can make use of parkland in another way than listening to the wind in the trees, speaking to strangers under the wide open sky or picnicking on the grass a book sliding from lazy fingers; one can cut the trees, dig up the grass, put in wire fences and make a concentration camp for vegetables. The will of certain individuals, by playing with council boundaries and different wards, can prevail over the will of the people by making a land grab on public property.

The word community in community garden is misleading. Private plots and fences are not a community activity but a push for more private land. The drive behind the project is quite surprising. From where and what does this passion stem?

Gardens are very precious. They sometimes seem to be our last refuge. A guy called Robert Pogue Harrison wrote a book called Gardens. He speaks of ‘homeless gardens’. He says ‘gardens are to agriculture what poetry is to prose’ and that gardens ‘are not bound up with our our biological survival’. In other words, they are an expression of our soul. Homeless people go missing and let themselves die when their gardens are uprooted. These community gardeners are not homeless. Many of them live in Carlton and have gardens themselves. Another inconsistency: to be eligible for community gardening one must be a low income family and have no garden.

They suddenly reminded me more of farmers slicing up the land in defiance of Aboriginal traditional ownership. The two ways of life in balance then, still seem to be in balance now. One was about progress, property and power, the other was turned within. It is hard to hear Aboriginal philosophy, its whisper is lost in the louder trends of society. It speaks of other voices. It refers to our soul.

Visions in the park.

Walking in parks is its own reward. Parks are our Aboriginal Cathedrals, they can’t be cut up and sold into plots. They belong to all. The parks of Melbourne are the last remnants of that spirit which, ever so subtly, gives Australia its grandeur. The parks are the big garden of the people.

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Picture I took this morning, a child must have dropped some stars in the gutter.

I was brought up to laugh indulgently at men’s misdemeanours. When I was a child, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, one of de Gaulle’s ministers, had so many mistresses, he was like the old woman who lived in a shoe; he didn’t know what to d0. Yet the more mistresses he had, more the French were proud of him. I think French women seem to expect men to be cynical and predatory. A sentimental man is an unsexy fool. Romantics of any gender are objects of contempt and need to keep a low profile.

My father explained it to me quite clearly when I was a child: ‘Men cannot be faithful, it is not in their nature’. My father adored women. He was courteous and gentle, but he was a woman hunter. You could feel it as soon he walked into a room. The air lifted; women touched their hair and cleared their throats. I remember a girl in my class was always asking me if my father would be at home when she came over to see me. My father was fifty-six years older than I. I accepted there was a Dr Daddy and a Mr Papa. I could sense his ruthless streak even in the stories he told me. His admiration for plundering Roman generals was a give away. It would be an understatement to say that my father was not a Puritan. ‘Look!’ he’d whisper to me, ‘there’s a crowd on the balcony!’ And there she was, sailing down towards us on the street, a woman with enormous double-barrelled bosoms.

My father would have liked her.

Yet, in spite of all his complexity, he was a Romantic. For him, loving a woman was an epiphany that was not all about sex. When he was not hunting them down mercilessly, he had a deep respect for women. That’s one of the reasons he never quite fitted in the Parisian world.

Nothing made my father laugh more than Anglo-Saxon rectitude. He would quote Blaise Pascal: ‘True morality laughs at morality’. In that he was traditionally French. Those who sin with flair always seemed to have the Parisian world on their side. Wives and cuckolds were easily ridiculed. Yet, appearances counted too. Men walked on a tight rope and got away with murder, but there seemed to be a way to do things, a sort of code. There must be a temperature in the predatory nature of French men. I would say my father had a strong fever, but, ex-Socialist candidate and IMF’s ex-President, Dominique Strauss-Khan broke the thermometer.

Julie Szego found DSK’s behaviour ‘exquisitely gallic’ and saw America as ‘the maid in her fall from noble victimhood’. She cast each culture in a role. It made me wonder if all French men were like Dominique Strauss-Khan and all American men like Clinton in his hounded, humbled little boy role? DSK’s sexual behaviour seems to be about all men whether they be French or American or Jewish, English or Palestinian. All men can plunder.

Thick as thieves.

In his political behaviour however, he seemed as ready to jump into any imperialist adventure as Tony Blair. Something about him got under my skin. Instinctively, I believed the two women who were filing cases against him. I started reading everything I could about the subject. The IMF, another of those mysterious, polymorphous acronyms, is one of those enormous insubmersible international floating concerns that increase poverty in poor countries to benefit rich ones, with interest rates profiting banks rather than people. DSK, with a private fortune of his own, belongs to the Caviar Leftists or Truffle Leftists, (Gauche Caviar, Gauche Truffe). A closet Liberal with a sprinkling of concern for social issues. Socialist DSK and Sarkosy were considered by the French to be as thick as thieves. While Lionel Jospin, the conscience of French Socialism, has refused to speak to DSK in years, the playboy of French philosophy, Bernard Henri Levy, rushed to his defense. Then I noticed that Elizabeth Badinter, the famous feminist, was also his champion. She saw the DSK affair as attacking men rather than being in defence of women. The intellectual who freed women from their ‘maternal instinct’, was also freeing a man from his sexual responsibility towards them. Like Athena, father values seem to dominate for Elizabeth Badinter. Even her husband, Robert Badinter, who ended the death penalty in France rallied to his defense. Half of the French population, like them, believed in a witch hunt. When asked if he had a chance of becoming president of France, DSK said there were three issues that could stop him: his money, women and the fact he was Jewish. It is an understandable position to believe that antisemitism is instigating the legal attack against him, but it does not apply to this case. Jeremy Mercer, translator of Robert Badinter’s book Abolition quotes Gisèle Halimi, a famous French Feminist lawyer: ‘respect for women must come before friendship and political clans’. Just like DSK, Bernard Henri Levy, Robert Badinter and Elizabeth Badinter, Gisèle Halimi is Jewish. Like Antony Loewenstein in Australia, she obviously believes some moral issues are beyond belonging to a people who suffered a terrible crime in history, they are about the way we all continue to treat each other as human beings.

Jeremy Mercer says ‘the American Justice system has dealt with DSK ‘not as a famous man but as an ordinary man suspected of rape.’ When you read the police statements, the facts are unescapable: the semen on the walls, on the Sofitel chambermaid’s collar, her bruises, her bleeding. Yet, a deeply honest and dedicated man like Robert Badinter defends a public figure’s impunity. A man who was in fear of his life when also defending the abolition of the death penalty. Surely this kind of man would pass muster in the Stanley Milgram test. (Stanley Milgram was also Jewish.) Yet a man like this, let the fact he was part of the same elite, the same intelligentsia, the same culture influence him about a moral issue.

Hidalgo of French philosophy with his trademark open shirt in every season.

Thick as thieves.

I saw the film Little White Lies by Guillaume Canet the other day. An unfeeling gang of friends play and wrestle with their emotions; yet stay quite oblivious to their hearts. Their cynical jokes are so French that I chuckled culturally. I felt a muscular reaction in my jaw like a dog kicking out when you scratch a nerve in his spine. I saw how easy it was to slip back into finding funny and free what is really a way of controlling emotion of any kind. An Australian friend, sitting near me with his wife, confided that he would happily have shortened the whole experience by two and a half hours. I saw how I had laughed in my youth at stupid, insensitive jokes. How strong, funny, charismatic men had made whole tables laugh under the shadows of wisteria laden pergolas while summer burnt Provence to a cinder.

In feudal times, le Droit de Cuissage, or literally the Right of the Thigh, meant a Seigneur could walk into a village of serfs and take any girl that suited his fancy. Some French men may still believe this in their subconscious and French women are trained to find it amusing. For the non-French, the French are grumpy, condescending and sexually predatory. However power is a known aphrodisiac and those who wield it seem to suffer from that syndrome more than other men. The Seigneur and serf village seems a good simile for Pascal de Sutter’s description of the politician as alpha male. Sutter explains that sex relaxes male politicians. Their sycophantic entourage, the cartloads of available beautiful women and the obedient press have relaxed them to the point of thinking that Droit de Cuissage towards any woman they meet is their due. This is a fact, but is it an excuse? French women seem to have taken a stand. They no longer find amusing what makes Athena smile and caresses male ego.

Strauss-Khan was brought up in sunny Agadir in Morocco in a freethinking family where ideas where tossed to and fro across the table. He had a mother who was a journalist and governesses who never stayed more than two years. But what sparked my attention was DSK’s father’s very strange story.

It contained an element of incestiousness. Dominique’s grandmother had an affair with a cousin called Marius Khan who was accepted by her husband, Gaston Strauss. After her understanding husband’s death, Marius Khan married her and adopted both the firstborn son and his own daughter. This first born was Dominique’s father, who from then on was called Gilbert Strauss-Khan.

Dominique thus inherited his two family names from his philandering grandmother. Do the French media call him Dr Strauss and Mr Kahn because of this or because it suits him so well?

Could his boundaries be so hopelessly blurred that he introduces a pattern from his past into his present? Is his unconscious re-enacting an old story? If Dominique Strauss-Khan were a woman he would be called a nymphomaniac. As a man, the French press unanimously consider him as highly sexed or predatory. There are more excuses for DSK’s behaviour in this story than in the fact he is Jewish.

Many years after his ‘brutal’ sexual encounter with Anne Mansouret, her daughter Tristane Banon sues him for attempted rape. He is quoted to have said that being alone with T.B. made him ‘blow a fuse’. T.B was his second wife’s goddaughter and a childhood friend of his own daughter Camille – in other words T.B was home ground. Did it make him safe to poach there? Did he think he could commit a kind of social incest in his ‘village’ where waves could easily be smothered?

For me, the strangest coincidence in DSK’s actions was rushing out to have lunch with his daughter Camille immediately after his encounter with her childhood friend Tristane and immediately after seeing the chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo. I asked my friend: ‘Wouldn’t a normal father wish to keep his child as far as possible from his fornicating moods?’ My friend wondered how I could be so damning. I didn’t say it out loud, but it reminded me of a cat dropping a dead bird on the home carpet. I tried to explain my intuitive conviction after hearing the radio and reading the French newspapers, but her clear Australian brow stayed perplexed and open minded. Then, I thought, he comes back to his wife Anne Sinclair – a journalist – just like his mother. Maybe this man need psychiatric help rather than a Presidential seat.

My Australian friend still cannot understand why I am so convinced of his guilt. Listening to French journalists talk in French about DSK was like seeing an uncontainable truth bubble up in every one of their comments. His behaviour had been going on for years; these two last events were but the tip of the iceberg. The fait accompli that everyone accepted had burst at the seams – because one man’s impunity had just gone too far. The international media panders to people in power. Inexorably, instead of being windows of freethinking, they appear to have become the corporate kings’ jesters. In what seems like a cultural shift, the French press have started talking about the elephant in the room at last.

Both Tristane Banon and the New York maid, Nafissatou Diallo waited before reporting anything. One stayed silent for eight years, the other just the time to clean two hotel bedrooms but it invalidated both their testimonials. Diallo was afraid to lose the job she loved, Banon was afraid of losing her mother’s job. Both were afraid of power.

Nafissatou Diallo’s story in Newsweek didn’t make her a squeaky clean victim. Yes, she probably had problems with Immigration and Justice. She was accused of being a dishonest immigrant who tried to take advantage of her situation. I wonder what my immunity to lying would be when trying to escape a dictatorship like the one in Guinea. She is also accused of lying in her testimony. A conversation with her boyfriend in Fusali, her native tongue, is under suspicion, but the translation is faulty.

Why would this women suddenly consent to have sex with a client of the hotel? In which case, if it was consensual intercourse, why are bruises photographed on her vagina by the doctors?

Even if she were the great whore of Babylon, the intimacy of every woman is a precious thing. Two comments in her account of the scene struck me. One was poignant : “I loved the job. I liked the people. All different countries, American, African, and Chinese. But we were the same here (at the Sofitel).” The other bursts out with the spontaneous truth  : “A naked man with white hair suddenly appeared”.

The inconsistencies in her account, her silence before reporting the facts, reek of an immigrant’s fear of authority. Nafissatou Diallo’s reaction is different to other women’s. This made the American police doubt. Contrarily to victims taking refuge in silence and shame, Nafissatou Diallo used the offended organ to speak. She made a ‘coming out’, a bit like homosexuals going public. This has inspired another victim to break her silence.

The American press, like an inverted ‘J’accuse!’, turned away from the imperfect victim. If she had been killed like Iphigenia, she would have been a heroine. I am happy Nafissatou Diallo is imperfect and alive. ‘I want him to know’, she said, ‘that there are some places where you can’t use your power, where you can’t use your money.’

The psychologist Pascal de Sutter feels that it was folly for DSK’s entourage to leave him alone in a hotel bedroom. Why? Is he a wild animal?

Is it the theory of the hundredth monkey, Malcold Gladwell was talking about? When the hundredth monkey has learned how to break a coconut with a fallen branch on one island, a monkey on the next island starts doing it out of the blue. Has the hundredth French woman been harassed once too much?

DSK’s alpha male brutality suddenly seems to have stopped amusing French women. It has changed the way they look at men.

Everyone wonders what made Tristane Banon speak out after such a long time. Suddenly people wake up, speak up, instead of accepting a status quo Men are predators. Men create wars and rape women. Are these becoming less than acceptable things to do? Things women no longer admire? With a rapidly diminishing public could cave man ethics be receding at last?

Photo i took yesterday of a pink felt graffiti in Melbourne.

When you are a child you are told to say Hello, Please and Thank You. Yes, it can be wearisome and conventional for us when we are four, but later on this oil in the wheels of human interaction proves to be fundamentally necessary. How would we fare if we breezed in without a sunny ‘G’day’ and all those soft ‘No Worries’ that welcomed me on my first days in Melbourne? I was so used to French brusqueness and patronising impoliteness, that I felt like saying ‘Really? No worries?’ That was my welcome to country.

I am now an Australian citizen but people keep asking me how could you possibly leave Paris? All that culture, they breathe… If only they knew how easy it was. Stone and mortar are not the only culture. The trees, the hills, the deserts of Australia are its cathedrals, its halls of fame. Awe for the spiritual nature of a place, whose presence precedes us all, is very different from patriotism that can degenerate into perverse ownership of the land. One shudders at people swathed in US flags hugging each other to celebrate someone’s death.

The Aboriginal’s know the inner language of this country. Respecting, learning, including their rites as much as possible in urban, western ceremonies can only knit this nation together in a way that can’t be explained but that every Australian (even very new ones) understands in his or her gut – even if they don’t agree with it like Ted Baillieu.

When Jeff Kennett congratulated Ted Baillieu‘s courageous decision on resisting Political Correctness, I felt sad and ashamed.

Ted Baillieu

Of course, a Welcome to Country can be stilted, especially if the person making the speech does not believe in what he or she is saying. Like the child rebelling against the shackles of courtesy at an age where he wants to grab and plunder in the same way he grabbed his mother’s nipple such a short time before, we need to accept the Welcome to Country as a thank you, an acknowledgement of the spiritual identity of this country. Nearly every time I hear an Aboriginal Elder say the Welcome to Country, I feel the sting of tears in my eyes, but I also have been moved every time a non-Aboriginal speaker means what he or she says.

Maybe everyone does not mean it with the same intensity, but the courtesy to the motherland that we grabbed and stole from its original inhabitants is necessary even if short term, short-sighted corporate-minded politicians find it wearisome and conventional. Maybe they think it cramps their style. One thinks of Stephen Jay Gould’s ideas on ontogeny and phylogeny. By extension the rate at which a culture and a generation grow up is not always in sync. This land is ageless. We are a thin layer on the outer crust of its story. The wealth of Aboriginal spiritual knowledge and appropriate behaviour is what has kept this place unlike any other country on the planet, a country that people swarm to because they are beckoned by something inexplicable.

The land of Australia is so old. For a European, just sifting the silky earth through your fingers, touching a Paperbark, looking up to the gigantic sky, walking through the tormented bush or gazing into the arrogant eyes of a kangaroo, is enough to sense the wise and ancient presence of this continent.

Old, old Australia.

We have to grow up too.

Unexpected visitors

08/05/2011

My father loved generals. Caesar, Hannibal, Constantine, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Julian the Apostate… Their soldiers and their banners filled my bedroom, their elephants and their slaves lurked in the playground at school, their cities and their women dwelled in the endless hours of class. In my father’s stories fruit trees were hacked, villages were burnt, heads were sent spinning off shoulders, people were tortured and women were raped, but somehow something shone through, like a tiny lamp in a dark cave. It stayed long after the story was finished, long after everybody had died. This secret light made those generals triumph even in their defeats. My father’s favourite was Napoleon. He  was a gamester, took incredible risks and only needed two or three hours of sleep a night. He could nap anywhere, even straddling a chair with his forehead on his forearms –  just like my father. (In every story, some element of my father’s life was hidden). My favourite was Julian the Apostate who hated the Christian establishment (like I hated school) and tried to bring back the ancient gods (like I believed in fairy tales). Julian was always reading and his soldiers sniggered at him the first time they saw him. That was before he started winning all his battles.  But, one day he was shot by an arrow. The doctor was called. If there was no blood in his urine, my father explained in a medical voice,  it would mean no vital organ was damaged and he would survive. So, surrounded by his soldiers who loved him (and me), Julian the Apostate waited. Eventually he called for a bowl. He urinated and the liquid splashed bright red against the bowl’s golden copper. Julian knew this was the end. There was only time to say goodbye. I begged my father: ‘But couldn’t the doctor try to do something?’ My father was adamant: ‘No, nothing at all. Julian died in his soldier’s arms.’ I couldn’t bear letting Julian the Apostate die. Yet, I always asked for that story and, like a miniature Sheherazade, delayed the arrow with cunning questions for as long as possible. But in the end, I had to give in. Death was knocking at Julian’s door that day. You always have to welcome your unexpected visitors.

Generals strike at the right moment. They have the whole battlefield in their head. They always know when the time has come to make a move. They are sure and sudden. They never hesitate. Whether they chew straws meditatively on distant hills or gallop down them on their horses, they often win the day when everything is lost. They know how to accept the unexpected, how to ride the wind. They are artists.

Mongol shaman

Creative ideas like the generals of my childhood are unbidden, unexpected visitors. Sometimes they knock on the door when we are hammering a nail on its head or standing on the top of a ladder; when we are on the loo, running for your life or even in your dreams. That’s when we have to stop everything, wake up and take notes. If we don’t let them in, ideas will vanish without leaving a name or an address. Just like dreams themselves.

We have to be as swift and sure as Caesar crossing the Rubicon to hear the whisper of the unknown. Like Julian the Apostate reneging on the overfed Christian bishops, we have to follow the gloomy Mongol shaman on the edge of our world. There, of course, we can die and be exposed to scavengers that will circle around our corpses mercilessly. My father’s generals were very clear about that. Facing defeat and death is the only way to push through.

My father carefully prepared me for his own death. ‘Julian the Apostate’s time had come,’ he insisted, ‘as surely as mine will soon. I am an old father and you will lose me early. You have to prepare yourself.’ I would squeeze his hand to push his future absence away, to keep his presence in that moment as intact as I could. When we walk in parks, he would suddenly lie down on a stone bench, just like a Roman emperor on his death-bed and I would shake him and shake him. But, for long minutes, he would remain, without any sign of life, motionless as a granite statue. Then, out of the blue, came a battle cry: he had suddenly woken up and seized me – the unexpected visitor of my childhood.