LOST INNOCENCE

In a verbal comment on yesterday's post "A Sandwich in the Sun" a reader is surprised that I should have been so frightened by an irate teacher ticking off "litterers" as to descend into tears. It doesn't sound very courageous, no, but I was unprepared for primary-school reality after two blissful years in a kindergarten where no one ever said a harsh word and the two female teachers were kindness itself. Mrs Boxshall was the senior; a handsome lady with the embonpoint of Hattie Jacques who lived in a big house across the road from St Agnes', the Anglican church in the Melbourne suburb of Glenhuntly in whose parish hall the kindergarten was conducted. Her assistant was Miss Ellis, who played the piano. The curriculum was stories, sacred and secular, songs, finger-painting and games. I was unaware of any imposition of discipline, except on the occasions when Mrs Boxshall - the two ladies were gifted entertainers - put Miss Ellis over her knee for an imaginary misdemeanour and spanked her. We loved it and laughed and cheered, a reaction which would be unlikely to be shared by Social Services and the rest of our arbiters of correctness today. Would they have disapproved too of the Vicar, kindly Mr Harwood, shuffling lamely into the hall to pat some of us on the head and call us his "chickies"? How would that be construed by a contemporary child-welfare worker? I  don't know what became of any of my fellow alumni of St Agnes', but at least none of them has emerged from the woodwork in later age to sour those happy memories of an age of innocence with accusations of "abuse".

28 January 2012

A SANDWICH IN THE SUN

A Victorian state-schoolyard day today, or what I remember as such, with the mixed scent of a peppercorn tree and warm browning grass. How the years roll away. The grass, already looking threadbare after a week or two without rain, was on the verge of a suburban street in front of a friend's house, the tree across the path in her garden. I was nowhere near a schoolground but the madeleine effect was the same. Warm grass and wispy fronds of peppercorn hanging languidly down brushing the gravel take me back to my first terrified day at primary school aeons ago. The cause of the terror was an elderly male teacher in a dark three-piece suit on a hot day shouting and growling his choleric way around the yard at lunch time. I daresay the effect was a bit like Christ causing that scene in the temple, though it was not money-changers (of whom I doubt that there were any present) who were the object of his wrath but "litterers" discarding the scrunched-up grey greaseproof in which their sandwiches had been swaddled or, equally reprehensibly it seemed, not picking up the papers discarded by others. When he shouted at a boy near me I began to cry and had to be comforted by a motherly older girl. The old teacher saw me and gruffly asked her what was the matter. "I'm scared of you," I blurted between the sobs. I was too, too scared to open my own greaseproof-swathed sandwiches. The old man softened and patted me on the shoulder and said something like, "No need to be scared of me, there there, eat your lunch." On the rare occasions that the aroma of a brown-bread tomato sandwich warm from the sun with the bread juice-soaked and squishy reaches my nostrils it is as effective as the grass and peppercorns in catapulting my memory back to Caulfield South State School, Bundeera Road, and an ancient teacher's bawled exhortations to pick up waste paper or be subject to the cuts competing with the loud and shrill childish chatter of a sunny schoolyard at lunch time.

Friday 27 January 2012

SUMMERS OF HER DISCONTENT

Like a paedophobic godmother from the pages of the Brothers Grimm, elderly feminist Anne Summers continues her campaign to eliminate inconveniently conceived children

No one can be "pro-life" and a feminist, writes the hoary harridan in an article in the Fairfax press. Why?  Because "feminism boils down to one fundamental principle and that is women's ability to be independent." And an essential precondition of independence is "the right to control one's fertility." Or to put it in less refined and more accurate terms, since it's not the fertility that's at issue as much as what the fertility has led to, the right to kill the unborn baby within you if it doesn't suit you to bring it to birth.

But how did the baby come to be in the womb of our independent feminist? Well, unless it got there by parthenogenesis she must have allowed a man access to her sacred space. She mightn't have wanted the pregnancy but she did want the thrill of a man inside her. Where is the independence in that? How can a woman consider herself independent if she needs a man to provide the pleasure that, if the "safe and effective contraception" referred to approvingly elsewhere in the article doesn't work, will lead to the object of inconvenience you require to abort?

It is illusory to describe a woman as independent who depends on men for anything. Whether she "chooses" to depend or whether society or patriarchy or whatever force her to she is still dependent. The woman who wishes to be truly independent will, for sex, not have recourse to men but to her vibrator, or perhaps to what I understand is termed "scissoring" with another (preferably independent) woman. Few of course take this option so the dependence on men remains, regrettable as nature's dispositions might be to the Summers and other cold-hearted relics of the great brassiere-burning revolution of yesteryear. No doubt if planning the human race she would have done a better job and not made men and women complementary to each other.

Wanting physical pleasure with men but not wanting what might result is not an entitlement to abortion. Another life, real or potential it doesn't matter which, has been created out of lust or love and its right to live is more important than a woman's "right" to do what she wants without accepting the consequences. A cynic might say it's not so much the fertility that needs controlling as the will.

The only justification for abortion I can see is if it spares us some unsavoury characters of the type we'd be better off without. Imagine no Stalin, Pol Pot or Mao Tse-tung. Indeed, but for fate abortion might have spared the world the presence of Anne Summers, but whether she would have regarded it as justified in that case is a moot point.

Thursday 26 January 2012

HAPPY AT THE BEACH

There is always a bumper crop of white (or "European" as we are supposed to say) guilt at this time of the year, with much talk about invaders and dispossession. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to read, when walking onto Balnarring beach on Victoria's Western Port the other day, a notice that managed to embrace Aborigines and whites within the history of the area without any hand-wringing or recriminations.

The notice was headed "BOONERWRUNG BEFORE BALNARRING". "Welcome to Balnarring," it began. "This was the ideal place for the Boonerwrung people to live. Fresh water from the Balnarring Creek, shellfish from the rock platforms, fish from the bay and reef, waterbirds from the nearby wetlands and shelter from the sou-westerly winds. They would have used this as a favourite camping spot for many thousands of years."

And that was it. The notice went on to give information about the characteristics of the area today, its wildlife, "habitats" etc. No further history, no dark mutterings about the end of the Boonerwrung's happy idyll, nothing about forced occupation of their land, though this must have taken place in one way or another. The tone was eirenic. It seemed to me to be saying, "Much happened in the course of Australia's early history that any humane person must sincerely regret, but it's happened and it can't be changed. Now all sorts of people come to this beach and it's there for all who want to enjoy it. Let's leave it at that."

The notice had been put up by the erstwhile Department of Natural Resources and Environment and had clearly been there for some summers. I thought its approach exemplary - and amazing, coming from a government department, usually places replete with political correctness. (In which context you might be interested in my account of the CSIRO and its smoking ceremonies in Quadrant, January-February 2012.)

BUILDINGS AT RISK

I posted earlier ("Developers vs. Architecture") about the loss of good 1930s buildings. One would like to think more people care about this than probably do. Surely not everyone is thrilled to see the glitzy replacements that rise on demolition sites - usually apartment towers with diminutive windswept balconies that give one vertigo from below. Residents' groups usually complain about these intrusive structures on the grounds of "loss of amenity" (too many cars competing for parking spaces) but when such groups represent only a minority of residents, as they generally do, they don't carry much weight with councils and planners. The heritage bureaucracy has power to intervene when older buildings are threatened but is not always able to prevent total demolition, though it is quite good at having facades preserved, with varying degrees of incongruity between old and new. Not every endangered building qualifies for the attention of the National Trusts. The Art Deco and Modernism Society (the Victorian branch of which is based in Camberwell) keeps an eye on interesting buildings of that era and participates "in the political process of building preservation" but has no statutory power. Would it be worthwhile starting a list of buildings at risk to cover all periods, with "at risk" meaning not just risk of demolition but of unsuitable alteration inside or out? Perhaps heritage departments already have one but if they do it is not widely known about.

Alteration is more insidious than demolition because less evident, especially if it takes place inside a building. Churches are especially vulnerable in this regard, partly because many people never see inside them. In Australia the officially sanctioned vandalisation of church interiors has been almost exclusively a Roman Catholic specialty, to accommodate changes to the liturgy supposedly mandated by the Second Vatican Council. There have been some shockers - St Stephen's Cathedral in Brisbane and St Francis's, Melbourne's busiest church, spring to mind - but the worst is probably over and there are even the first faint signs of a turn of the tide, something of which more in a later post. Nevertheless, church abuse (as we might define it in a word much heard in our age) is not a spent force. The prolific early twentieth-century architect A. A. Fritsch's Carmelite church in the inner Melbourne suburb of Middle Park, an idiosyncratic mixture of Romanesque and Baroque in red brick, has recently had some expensive but discordant and unnecessary new fittings installed in the modish font-ambo-altar sequence running down the middle of the nave. The design is by a Melbourne architectural studio with an inflated reputation but dear to "progressive" clergy. (Part of the attraction of this liturgical configuration, I suspect, is that it takes up space where pews used to be and thus helps disguise the fact that fewer people come to church.) Would objections have secured an improvement? Perhaps not, but at least they would have added a dissenting voice to the chorus of praise the Carmelites have received for their "restoration" of the church, much of it from themselves.

There are non-Catholic horror stories too.

Louis R. Williams (1890-1980) was a distinguished ecclesiastical architect who did most of his work for the Anglican Church. During his long career a stream of designs in a refined and highly personal neo-Perpendicular style, typically executed in red, brown or cream brick, issued from his studio in Brighton, Victoria. His work can be found in most Australian states but the suburbs of Melbourne in particular are full of his churches, of which among the more notable are those at Albert Park (never properly completed), Box Hill, Brighton (two and a half churches, one turned into a house), Camberwell, Glen Iris, Northcote (now non-Anglican) and Malvern-Caulfield. Some years ago this last, St Paul's, which Williams is said to have regarded as his best design, was disfigured by a dreary modernist addition that obscures much of its facade. All quadrants, curves and plate glass (through which the passer-by can admire the sight of the congregational coffee bar and marvel at how cool and unchurchy this church must be), it already looks dated and clashes with Williams's chaste and sensitively massed forms. This is one of the more egregious cases of church mutilation in Victoria and is compounded by the virtual gutting of the interior of St Paul's (now on the notice board outside renamed "Southern Cross Ministries") to adapt it for what is described on the church website as "passionate and anointed" worship, whatever that might be. No, I shouldn't be unkind. I'm sure the Ministries and its congregation are good and sincere people evangelising in the way they believe they should. But why can't they respect the building they have inherited, the pride of past generations of St Paul's parishioners?

20 January 2012

BENEFIT OF CLERGY

I was writing an opinion piece recently on "gay marriage" (not for the blog) when the thought occurred that an interesting parallel to the gay activists' demand for public celebrations of their unions was the campaign for the ordination of women in the Anglican Church. In both cases the necessary first step was the challenging of a hitherto universally shared assumption, that is, one of those undebated beliefs that make communities cohere and which, if questioned, can be difficult to defend by argument. In the case of marriage this is the belief that only a man and a woman can enter into the wedded state. In the case of the ordination of women it was that the clergy had to be male. The assault on the latter proposition came from feminism in the 1960s. Although most feminists couldn't have cared less about the church except insofar as its traditional practice presented a "glass ceiling" to be smashed there were shrill denunciations of "patriarchy" in the liberal secular press and demands that Anglican women be "empowered". Within the church the women's ordinationists were at first a small minority, as are those who campaign for gay wedlock. When these ladies asked why women could not be ordained the reply from "middle of the road" and liberal theologians and bishops was, well, precedent really. Christ had commissioned only men as apostles and the church had followed on from that. But, the feminists persisted, Christ had not explicitly excluded women from ministry. Further, as a product of his (supposedly) misogynistic times His choice of men was "culturally determined". It was up to us today, they argued, to do what Christ would Himself have done if He had had the advantage of living in more enlightened times such as ours. (On this reasoning, if selecting apostles today Christ would have ensured not only gender but ethnic balance. The Twelve would have looked like one of those group shots government social services have taken for their publicity blurb.)

The innovators got their way. Only the shared assumption had preserved the traditional practice and now the assumption had been challenged and found impossible to defend in a synodical church where votes can determine doctrine. Evangelicals and some Anglo-Catholics who said women's ordination was against God's will were outvoted in most first-world dioceses, although where they were especially strong, or agreed to form alliances, they were able either to block or delay the enabling legislation for priestesses (and later bishopesses). But for other Anglicans it was a case of applying the legal principle that if something is not statutorily forbidden it is permissible. A formula was devised that there were "no fundamental theological objections" to the ordination of women. No specific warranty, no, but no Biblical prohibition either: a victory by default. In time the majority, which generally in cases of radical change demanded by minorities, once it gets bored with or worn down by the incessant campaigns of the innovators, comes round to accepting whatever is proposed, came to terms with priestesses as part of the Anglican landscape, though the price has been a permanent division in the church.

So, in the wider community, will the advocates of gay marriage get their way. Their most persuasive argument against the assumption that only men and women can marry because only men and women can procreate is that since marriage is available to male-female couples who can't have children it is unjust to deny this right to same-sex couples. And there is always IVF or adoption to turn to to render the gay marriage a parental union  as well. Proponents of the rights culture are doing their bit by claiming that it is "discriminatory" - a cardinal sin in our times - not only not to allow gays to marry when other non-procreating couples can but to deny them the opportunity to "celebrate" their love in public.

Gay marriage will in due course contribute to the thriving divorce industry with attendant rows over property and (if there are any) children from which only lawyers will benefit. But that happens already between unmarried couples when their idyll is rent asunder and is irrelevant to the debate.

At a time when marriage between heterosexuals is in decline one suspects that the campaigners for gay marriage are interested not so much in marriage per se as in the seal of community approval of their lifestyle that the right to get married will confer. If and when they get that right will it be a nine-day wonder? Will marriage eventually become old hat for gays as it has for many straights? Will the passage of time reverse the demand for public recognition of gay love so that from gays too we shall hear all the anti-marriage arguments about not needing ceremonies or pieces of paper to live out their commitment to each other? Probably. But before that can happen one of the shared assumptions on which our civilisation has rested will have been lost and our already confused sense of who we are and what we believe weakened that little bit more.

20 January 2012

OUT OF THEIR WAY

I have no way of proving it but I would be prepared to bet that the passengers pushing and shoving others out of the way to get to the lifeboats on the sinking Italian liner Costa Concordia a week ago (13 January 2012) are aggressive drivers. You can read a lot about people's character in the way they drive. Cocooned by our cars from direct contact with fellow human beings we all tend to be at our most misanthropic on the road, but aggressive drivers turn their misanthropy into an art form, displaying their belief in "me first" as clearly in their driving as if they had it printed on a sticker on their back windscreen. Most are in a perpetual state of impatience, trying to get ahead of everyone else by any means they can get away with short of metal to metal (though it sometimes comes to that). Some treat the road as a Dodgem rink. I have seen a driver rocket up a left-turn-only lane to push into the straight-ahead-bound mainstream at the last second. Others thread a perilous course in and out of a parking lane past traffic waiting at the lights to arrive level with the head of the queue and almost jump the lights to take off again back into the mainstream ahead of the traffic that's been waiting. Then there's the weaver from one lane to another to get ahead on a freeway, clearly the type who is not to going to let anything stand in the way of his ambition. Egoists aspire to possess the road. Cursing and muttering, they regard all other drivers as trespassers on their territory. In the semiotics of driving horn-blasting and fingers poked in their air are the language of their displeasure, as they are of the frustrated sales reps in company cars who drive recklessly with what they imagine is panache because it is their only way of showing that they too are free spirits when, after a day of knuckling under to exigent bosses and indifferent clients unanxious to buy, it is obvious that they are not. Sneaks by nature slow down when a police car comes into view and speed up again once it's gone. People in cars can be capable of acting with a disdain for other travellers most would not have the nerve to show if face to face with the same people on public transport. Unless of course they're on a sinking ship. Though I should probably add in defiance of my theory that none of us knows how he would behave in a state of panic. We know only - or those who try not to be aggressive drivers do - how we would wish to behave.

18 January 2012

PRIVATE ROADBLOCKS

Mention in a previous post of property developers reminds me to wonder how it is that as private citizens they can get whole streets and parts of streets blocked off while building their grand designs. Roads are public property, not builders' yards. Don't councils have responsibility to all the community? In Melbourne at the moment there are at least three big building sites - in St Kilda and Camberwell - where lanes of major roads are closed off to facilitate what are always mendaciously described as "road works". At one a queue of traffic is banked up for nearly a kilometre every day. It seems to me that the rule should be that if you can't build a building on its site without spreading out into the street and disrupting daily life the project must be too big and you shouldn't build it. If you insist, you should build it in the wee small hours and pay penalty rates. Motorists' patience is subsidising developers' budgets.

16 January 2012

DEVELOPERS vs ARCHITECTURE

After years of demolitions, mainly of office blocks not tall enough to be "economic" and cavernous cinemas for which which no new use can be found - there's a limit to the demand for antiques markets and bowling alleys - Melbourne is no longer so rich in 1930s buildings that it can afford to lose many more. Bethesda Hospital in Richmond, an excellent example of the streamlined Moderne style, was recently torn down. Now planners have signed a death warrant for the columned facade of the former Capitol Bakeries in South Yarra, designed in 1937 by the eminent and then fashionable architect Harry Norris. This handsome piece of streetscape with its elegant lightly curved corner sweep is not to be preserved when a meretricious 38-storey tower rises on the site. Why is it that when the greed of property developers - or speculative builders as they used to be called - clashes with good architecture the former usually wins, our extensive "heritage" bureaucracy notwithstanding? I am grateful that the Age published a letter from me on this subject last Saturday (14 January 2012). Even when a cause is lost one might as well make a squeak of protest.

Leading modernist architect Nando Pollarrosto writes: "The above post shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between new buildings and old. While you at least recognise that the new South Yarra tower block is meretricious, which I take to be a misprint for meritorious, the "building" it replaces is merely a piece of pastiche from an anglo-imperialist era in which pillars and columns symbolise the rigidity of exploitative society. Modern architecture must engage with this society by tearing down its oppressive structures metaphorically and literally. The replacement building in its aspirational height goes some way towards representing a new paradigm but not far enough, begging the question of what I would have designed for this site. To start with I would have created a structure entirely separate from the ground, suspended above the street from a cable attached to a permanently on-site crane to symbolise the ongoing nature of the process of constructing a new society and also to enable the land beneath, free of built structures, to be reclaimed by its traditional owners the Tomanjeri people. Access for stakeholders of European descent would be by ladder or helicopter. This being a multicultural country I would have made free use of faux-brick cladding and louvred windows to celebrate the vernacular architectural tradition of my Greek grandparents when they modernised their nineteenth-century cottage in inner Melbourne in 1951. My design would not have had doors and windows of rectangular form because I believe that horizontals and verticals symbolise, respectably, the extended mass of oppressed minorities such as LGBTI people and racial minorities and the racist downward pressure on them by the one per cent at the top as represented by Coalitionism. All lines and surfaces would have been curved and slanted to make us question our inherited notions of proportion. I expect that some enlightened property developer will soon commission this design of mine to be built, but meanwhile it is really great to see that quite a few of the Australian architectural community must have been inspired by seeing the sketches on my website to apply the latter characteristics I mention to their own work."

13 January 2012