Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device like a computer diskette. In reality, memory is dynamic—not static—like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information. Nassim Nicholas Taleb ‘The Black Swan’

I recently read Martin Gilbert’s The First World War – A Complete History. The book attempts to consolidate all the nuances of the war. Movement of troops here, defeat there. Gully taken. Gully lost. Another new front, another piece of new technology – gas, grenades, tanks. Another country a part of the war. Another secret deal. Another boat sunk by a submarine. Death, death and more death. Gilbert intermingles this all with accounts from major players in the war, such as Churchill, and minor players, such as Wittgenstein. In the end, I was left with the question though, how do we make sense of or even understand something as complex as the First World War?

In Australia, Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen is used as a part of commemorative services. This is ended with a response:

We will remember them
Lest we forget

This makes me wonder, what does it actually mean to remember World War One or even know?

Is it through film? For example, 1917 captures a particular moment of a long war where two soldiers cross enemy land to deliver a message to stop 1600 men being slaughtered. The two cross through no-man’s land, survey the way in which the German army retreated, as well as life in a town near the fronts. Through their journey they capture many facets of life at the time.

Is it through documentary? For example, They Shall Not Grow Old ties together voices from British survivors with archival film and images given new life by director, Peter Jackson. Similar to 1917, it brings together different facets of war, from enlisting, life in the trenches and returning home, a create narrative about the western front that seemingly existed for so many, but for no-one individual in particular.

Is it through primary sources? For example, 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War by Lyn MacDonald, collects together a range sources from newspapers, magazines, letters, diaries and photographs from the time. The book balances between different perspectives, whether it be those in command and on the ground often touch on the human level. Although there is some editorialising in collecting and ordering these various insights, it is still the task of the reader to connect the dots and progressively zoom out to form a wider picture.

Is it through fiction? For example, with All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back, Erich Maria Remarque explores the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental trauma during the war as well as the detachment from civilian life felt by many upon returning home from the war. In a similar way to 1917, Remarque uses narrative to take us inside the thoughts and feelings of what it must have felt like.

Is it through poetry? For example, the Penguin Book of First World War Poetry captures the imagination, feelings and experiences from a range of difference voices. According to Jon Silkin, they represent a conscious desire for change. As he suggests in his introduction to the anthology:

It’s no good, that is, hiding the actions of murder behind pity; only by showing forth the actions clearly do we stand a chance of understanding them, and changing ourselves.

Source: ‘Introduction’ to Penguin Book of First World War Poetry edited by Jon Silken

Is it by podcast? For example, in the Hardcore History series Blueprint for Armageddon, Dan Carlin zooms in and out to carve out all the extremities of World War One from beginning to end. He marries history and narrative suspense in his choices as a storyteller, as well as providing various insights throughout into the everyday to help the listener appreciate what it may have be been like.

Is it through painting? For example, Arthur Streeton’s paintings of the Western Front from 1918 help capture the life during wartime that serve to add depth to the burgeoning world of photography. Whether it be the scarred landscape or the changes in technology, such as the huge siege guns, these images provide a level of colour and detail that helps the viewer remember the war in a different light.

Is it through physical commemorations? For example, the Shrine of Remembrance was built to honour those who served in World War 1. It contains an inner sanctuary in which light passes once a year on the 11th of November at 11am. Alternatively, there are many towns in Australia with an Avenue of Honour, a memorial avenue of trees, with each tree symbolising a particular person.


In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests that memory is dynamic and continually recorded:

Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device like a computer diskette. In reality, memory is dynamic—not static—like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information.

Source: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

With this in mind maybe ‘remembering’ is simply doing something to maintain the legacy or else it gets overlay with some other piece of information?


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She had the odd idea that the terrorism question had become a fad, like body piercing or flares; a fashion that had come and would go like this season’s colours. Maybe, thought the Doll, if it was just like fashion, it was simply about a few people building careers, making money, getting power, and it wasn’t really about making the world safer or better at all. Maybe it was like Botox, something to hide the truth. Richard Flanagan ‘The Unknown Terrorist’

The Unknown Terrorist, the fourth novel by the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, tells the story of Gina ‘Doll’ Davies, a stripper who becomes embroiled in a terrorist plot. The various elements of her life, whether it be not having a bank account or the job that she chooses to do, mean that she is made the scapegoat for a terrorist threat.

Gina Davies, also known as the Doll, a 26-year-old exotic dancer in a Sydney, Australia, gentlemen’s club, undergoes this Kafkaesque experience. On the night of Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade, she sleeps with a man she has just met, an attractive Syrian computer programmer with a cocaine habit. A day later, after his sudden disappearance, she has been turned into Australia’s most hunted woman — or, as a newspaper would have it, the “Dancer of Death.” By following the desperate flight of this once normal, now supposedly lethal, woman, Flanagan suggests the accused herself has become the victim of an insidious institutional terrorism.

Source: Unusual Suspect by Uzodinma Iweala

The novel progressively unfurls from there, jumping between various interconnected characters, including her friend Wilder, the current affair host Richard Cody, ASIO spook Siv Harmsen, drugs detective Nick Loukakis, manager of Counter Terrorism Unit Tony Buchanan, and the man with a lot of money, Frank Moretti. Along with bouncing between the different characters the novel bounces between the constant noise of the media, the various vested interests associated with each of the characters, and the truth of the situation as seen by the omnipotent reader.

Through the novel, Flanagan explores ideas around power and terrorism:

I’m important to them, Wilder, because if you can make up a terrorist you’ve given people the Devil. They love the Devil. They need the Devil. That’s my job. You get me?”

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

Identity:

At the club you danced for money, and you danced because you were Krystal or Jodie or Amber. The one thing you never dared dance was yourself.

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

Media, truth and reality:

“It is horrifying,” Siv Harmsen agreed, “and we need stories that remind people of what horrifying things might just happen.”

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

And perception:

There could be no doubt about it; they were Australia and, looking around Katie Moretti’s grand dining room and its new furniture and its splendid view, it was readily apparent to them all what Australia was, and all of Australia was as splendid as it was obvious—it was them! It was their success and their prosperity; their mansions and apartments! Their Porsches and Bentleys and Beemers! Their getaways in the tropics! Their yachts and motorcruisers! Their influence, their privileges, their certainties! Who could doubt it? Who would question it? Who would wish to change any of it?

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

I originally read Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist in 2008. I was led back to it after reading Trent Dalton’s Lola in the Mirror and thinking about characters who exist outside of or on the edges of society. It is always intriguing to think about how the worlds differ, in particular living a life without a bank account in our progressively cashless society and the development of social media. Published in 2006, it is very much a reflection of a post-9/11 world before platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, came to the fore.

It was also interesting reading it after the recent stabbing attack at Bondi Junction and the way in which the media misidentified the killer. However, rather than being hunted down, the misidentified killer sued for defamation. In his review of The Unknown Terrorist, David Marr questioned the reality of the situation Flanagan portrays. Marr asks where the defamation lawyers are? Or why Gina Davies does not ring a lawyer?

Where was the defamation lawyer at Channel Six asking “What are our defences?” before Cody’s one-hour mishmash of guesswork and grainy footage – also called The Unknown Terrorist – went to air? And it doesn’t really help if the answer to that question is: stop being picky, this is a thriller. Without a sense that these horrors might happen, there’s not much thrill, either.

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by David Marr

When I originally read The Unknown Terrorist, I had not read any of Flanagan’s other books. However, I was curious coming back to the book after reading Flanagan’s Man Booker winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Although they are different books, what they share is a respect for the complexity of life and character. Flanagan sets the reader up for certain judgments, such as working as a stripper, only to then peel back layers to add details about past upbringing or past relationships that force the reader to reconsider these simplistic points of view. This is something that Peter Conrad touches on in his review.

Despite all this puffery, Flanagan’s homeland is no longer a community, hardly even a society. Its people, like the lap dancer with her craving for designer clothes, are mired in materialism, obsessed with mortgages, superannuation payments and the acquisition of the latest, shiniest gadget. Their venality makes moral cowards of them, and the government terrorises them into brown-tonguing Bush by appealing to their economic anxiety and to their skulking xenophobia.

Source: Days of thunder erupt Down Under by Peter Conrad

The only problem with this is that The Unknown Terrorist often depends upon the same clichés and stereotypes it is trying to critic in order to dig deeper into the truth. As Magdalena Ball captures in her review:

The book is full of clichés and stereotypes as brutal as those Flanagan criticises. The poll dancers who talk about the Doll are all utterly vacuous. The bad guys, Lee Moon, Frank Moretti, the anchorman Richard Cody, or the wealthy people at Katie Moretti’s party are all characters with no depth or dimension to render them realistic. Sydney itself is seen as a kind of game park with grungy areas like Kings Cross, suburbian areas like the West, or wealthy areas like Double Bay all fulfilling their stereotypical functions

Source: A review of The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan – Compulsive Reader by Magdalena Ball

Even with all these flaws, I enjoyed The Unknown Terrorist, I guess I bought into the suspense of Flanagan’s thriller and attempt to capture a world beyond the stereotypes, to explore the haves and have nots, even if that is problematic at times.


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There’s power in being nobody. When you’re nobody, you are free to be anybody. Astronaut. Actress. Archaeologist. Or even a lowdown, dirty, send-her-straight-to-hell, suburban drug-slinger. Because if nobody can see you, then nobody can see your shame. Nobody can see your sorrow. And nobody can catch you crying your heart out. Trent Dalton ‘Lola in the Mirror’

Trent Dalton is the man who wants to tell you who you really are. With Lola in the Mirror he demands people to notice a reality that often does not get portrayed or left invisible. A world masked by a ‘xanthous’ hue, ‘Tyrannosaurus Waltzs’, of the houseless (not homeless), debt to drug and so many names that one is left wondering which one is true.

The novel centers on a 17-year old moving from town to town seemingly on the run from life until we find her and her mother living in cars and showering in gyms. She is held together by her art and the dream of one day going to art school and having her work displayed at The Met. Similar to Boy Swallows Universe, she is embroiled in a world of drugs that drags her back in even when she tries to leave.

As seems to be the way with Dalton’s writing, the narrative is infused with magical realism which glues everything together, whether it be the stranger with the cricket bat at the right time or the character speaking back in the mirror. However, interestingly Dalton flips this magic and uses it to build out the protagonist:

The mirror was never magic,’ Lola says.
‘It wasn’t?’
‘Of course it wasn’t. Magic mirrors don’t exist.’
‘Then how come I can see you now?’
‘Because you are magic,’ Lola says. ‘You’ve always been magic. You’ve never needed a mirror to see who you are.’

Unlike Boy Swallows Universe which is set in the 80’s and All Our Shimmering Skies which is set in the 40’s, Lola in the Mirror is set in the present (2023/2024). However, it does not feel as if time matters as much as place. For example, the pop references are not necessarily of the now, as there are as many references to the eighties (including the quintessential Gray Nicholls double scoop) as there are to Taylor Swift, but the commentary on the ‘houseless’ and the Olympics is very much about Brisbane.

The artist said she worried about what the Olympics would mean for all the people she knew sleeping rough. She was concerned they’d be driven out of the city. She pointed out that the Olympics would start in winter and all the warm and safe spots to sleep in would be off limits.

Some critics have argued that there is a danger of trivialising the complexity of homelessness and domestic abuse:

Aside from reducing human behaviour to unhelpful categories of good and evil, it also implies offenders are easily spotted, when they often are disturbingly innocuous, everyday people. To dress abuse, however abhorrent, in a villainous costume doesn’t aid understanding – it impedes it.

Source: Lola in the Mirror by Trent Dalton review – a misguided bootstraps story drowning in sentimentality by Jack Callil

I can appreciate this concern with the optimistic tendency of rags to riches, but I wonder if there is at least benefit in raising it as a point of conversation? Or maybe I should just be reading more Christos Tsiolkas?

In the end, Dalton explains in his acknowledgements that the river is more than a place, it is a metaphor for “whatever stuff you carry inside that turns and stirs beneath your skin” that we are rescued from. Dalton talks about people pulling him out of the water, but I wonder, even with the triviality, if the strength of the book (or any book to some degree) is to pull us out from what is inside stirring. This is something Damian Cowell captures in his song ‘The Future Sound of Nostalgia‘:

That song will be her friend, what a wonderful thing to be.


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Music criticism is not a review of the album you just made, its a review of your career up to that point. – Caroline Polachek Source: This Generation’s Caroline Polachek by Switched on Pop

After doing a deep dive into The Go-Betweens, I was looking for a new artist to delve into their discography, so I decided to dive into the world of Custard.

In part, I was left intrigued by the cross-over between Custard and The Go-Betweens. For example, Dave McCormick and Glenn Thompson had served as Robert Forster’s backing band for a time in Forster’s post Go-Betweens era, while Thompson was a part of the reformed Go-Betweens line-up. They were also integral to putting together Write Your Adventures Down, the tribute album to The Go-Betweens after Grant McLennan’s death.

I was also inspired after seeing Dave McCormack perform an acoustic set supporting The Fauves. I have never seen Custard live and was not sure what to expect. What I was privileged with was a solo set of deep cuts, classics and a countrified cover of Taylor Swift’s ‘Blank Space’. Although I had read about McCormack’s country and western origins (COW) in Andrew Stafford’s Pig City.

Robert Moore had imagined COW as a musical collective similar to the Wild Bunch behind the first Massive Attack album, where a virtual reserve bench of musicians would be on call to play gigs or recordings. Often the band would be joined on stage by backing vocalists the Sirloin Sisters, twins Maureen and Suzie Hansen; at other times, former Go-Between John Willsteed and occasional Queensland Symphony Orchestra violinist John Bone would jump up to add their own flourishes.

SOURCE: Andrew Stafford – Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden

This never made sense with the image of Custard that I had from the 90’s.

Lastly, I was left wondering by Damian Cowell’s comment on the Take 5 Podcast reflecting on the 90’s zeitgeist. Talking about Custard, he suggested that it was important to leave listeners with something more:

Use your power wisely … Treat them to an anchovy.

All this left me feeling that maybe there was more to hear and that maybe it was time to give Custard the time of day.


Custard were formed in Brisbane in the early 90’s. Although they have had various line-ups over their time, the classic line-up has been Dave McCormack on guitar and vocals, Paul Medew on bass, Matthew Strong on guitar and Glenn Thompson on drums. As a member of McCormack’s other project COW (Country or Western), Thompson was actually always around. For example, he was involved with creating the artwork associated with Custard’s first release Buttercup / Bedford.

They have had two distinct periods, their initial time in the 90’s until they disbanded in 2000, and their reformation in 2010’s. Their time in the 90’s stood in contrast to the dour grunge sound dominant at the time.

Although they’ve obviously been listening to the Pixies as well as Pavement, unlike many other bands of the ’90s they studiously avoided the Seattle sound, preferring to indulge in pop hooks and resolute cheerfulness.

Source: Brisbane 1990-1993 Review – AllMusic by Jody Macgregor

Or as McCormack reflected upon, they wrote “melancholy song that you could listen to a few times.”

“It’s that whole realisation that people like The Go-Betweens can have on you,” Dave McCormack said. “On the balance of things, no one wants to hear a happy throwaway song. I don’t really. I wanna hear a sad, melancholy song that you could listen to a few times. That’s something we came to realise and therefore that’s what we wanted to do.”

Source: Classic Album – Custard – Loverama by ABC Listen

During this time they worked with producers such as Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, PJ Harvey, Pere Ubu, Augie March et al.) and Magoo (Regurgitator, Midnight Oil et al.) They were a part of the music industry being turned upside down.

The alternative boom of American bands meant Australian major labels and commercial radio were more willing to take a punt on Aussie bands, putting a guitar band like You Am I, who formed in 1989, in a prime position.

The alt-rock boom in Australia kicked off in earnest in 1994, building and bubbling to its own boiling point as it had in 1991 in the US.

Source: 1991 saw the music industry turned upside down, and 30 years later, its echoes remain by Matt Neal

In contrast, their later work is often a little more subdued and has largely been self-produced by Glenn Thompson, although it never quite sits comfortably within ‘Adult Contemporary’ even if it has come out through ABC Records.

Although it often feels like Dave McCormack is portrayed as the face of the band, one of the things that I had never appreciated is how the rest of the band all play their part, often contributing their own songs to the mix. When asked by Lindsay McDougall about what make a Custard song in an interview for Respect All Lifeforms, McCormack explained that it was everyone adding their piece.

There’s sketches of the song and you throw it out to Paul, Glenn and Matthew and then they play it back to you and you say “ahhh, it’s a Custard song” … that nice sort of organic interchange.

Source: Dave McCormack and Custard Respect All Lifeforms by Lindsay McDougall (SoundCloud)

In some ways that may seem self-obvious, but listening to some of the other projects that McCormack has been a part of, there is a similarity and difference. I think that there is something to be said about the chemistry of the band.

It was interesting watching Jonathan Alley’s documentary Love in Bright Landscapes and the pressures put on The Triffids by the record labels with Calenture. I was left wondering if something like this never happened with Custard as the band was always bigger than the individual and maybe that is why they actually initially disbanded?


Listening to the albums, I started with Buttercup Bedford. Although their ‘first’ album, it is both hard to find (not on Spotify) and possibly intentionally forgotten.

Due to its self-published nature, the album has not appeared on any streaming sites and has largely been a rarity to find online, with most sites links to download no longer working. Dave McCormack has expressed that maybe it should stay offline.

Source: BUTTERCUP (BEDFORD) by Custaro.fans

With the majority of the album recorded in eight hours after winning Australian Academy of Music’s Encouragement Award prize of $500 recording time, it felt to me like jangly pop on speed.

David McCormack: That’s when the drugs really came into play, around that time . . . In 1988–89 it was all speed, acid, ecstasy had just hit. And because we had nothing to do – we’d basically finished our degrees and were on the dole, and we were white middle-class kids from Kenmore – we could just get out of it forever. That’s why Who’s Gerald? broke up. We’d be speeding for days on end.

SOURCE: Andrew Stafford – Pig City: From the Saints to Savage Garden

The ‘second’ album, Brisbane 1990 – 1993, combines the Gastanked and Brisbane EPs. It is full of ideas and influences. As soon as you think a song will be one thing, something unexpectedly disrupts this.

These songs capture Custard in lo-fi during the period when they were a group of Pavement fans writing quirky but straightforward love songs like “I Just Want to Be with You” and “Edie,” which has two chords — E and D. David McCormack‘s excitable little-boy tone can be heard taking shape while he sings oddball lyrics like “I had too much to dream last night” in “Satellite,” his rewrite of “Goodnight, Irene.” The self-descriptive “Short Pop Song,” which manages to cram in three tunes’ worth of material despite its 1:14 running time, shows the way toward later reflexive efforts like “Hit Song.”

Source: Brisbane 1990-1993 Review – AllMusic by Jody Macgregor

Wahooti Fandango continues the joyful chaos associated with pasting ideas together to somehow find some semblance of coherence. It often feels like each song is almost in contrast with itself.

Drawing on a vast array of influences (from the art-rock of Pere UbuDevo and Sonic Youth to country ballads and big band swing), Custard’s casual, whimsical approach to their own music often masks the degree of craft underlying songs.

Source: Wahooti Fandango by Wikipedia

Produced by Eric Drew Feldman in Hyde St Studios, Wisenheimer feels less contrasting than Wahooti Fandango, but each track still seems to jump between a different genre, whether it be the angular rock guitar one minute with ‘GooFinder’, to leaning back into the country origins with ‘Leisuremaster’. With sixteen tracks in under 40 minutes, you never really get to settle as a listener. Even the slower tracks fly on by.

Continuing on from the other albums in bouncing between pop, surf, stoner, country and rock, I feel We Have the Technology is best described as seriously silly. Although each track seems to make its own statement in itself, they feel like they are contrasted with how they are organised on the album.

We Have The Technology caught McCormack in an ornery mood. Heavily under the influence of Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, also made at Easley Studios, McCormack’s songs were growing ever more tangential and self-referential. And consequently, the music – as a review of another Brisbane band had earlier suggested – ‘disappeared up its own arse’.

David McCormack: I remember Eric Drew Feldman sitting me down in some diner saying, ‘Look, you’ve got to have a radio single, you’ve just got to have one . . . Go as crazy as you want, but you need three or four radio songs so the band can keep going, you can’t just ignore that stuff,’ and he was right. But I was just like, ‘No, man, we’re fucking artists!’ It’s maturity . . . If I could go back, there would be a lot of decisions I would make differently.

The release of Thompson’s Music Is Crap as a single in February 1998 painted the band into a corner.

Source: Pig City by Andrew Stafford

For me, there are just too many flavours on the plate with this album. It balances between genius, chaos and who cares. What remains after all is said and done is a certain catchiness that pervades throughout.

Teaming up with Magoo, Loverama is a case of ‘same, same, but different’. Although it is roughly the same length as previous albums, there are not as many tracks. Although the same ingredients are present, whether it be distorted guitar, slide guitar, weird effects, quirky lyrics, I feel it is the placement of the drums and bass in the mix seems to hold the songs together and provide a semblance of continuity.

“I was happy to do something that wasn’t as throwaway as some of the other ones [songs on earlier albums],” McCormack said, although he was aware his intentions might not land in the same way for listeners.

“I’m sure everyone else would think it’s an overtly happy and quirky Custard record. But I think for us, we could listen to it and go, ‘ah yeah that’s right, that was fucked when that happened.’”

Source: Classic Album – Custard – Loverama by ABC Listen

After this album, the band disbanded, with members going off in different directions and different projects.

They began playing odd concerts again in 2009, however their next album Come Back, All is Forgiven did not come out until 2015. Although it begins with a more laidback country rock feel – maybe Custard Goes Country – they still have the knack of throwing a spanner into the mix that extends allows it to pivot. Craig Mathieson described it as a ‘welcome visit’.

Despite the title, for Custard the new album isn’t so much a career comeback as a welcome visit

Source: Dave McCormack’s Custard comes back (and all is forgiven)) by Craig Mathieson

Similarly, The Common Touch is also bit more subdued than some of their earlier albums, but it feels like this space gives the opportunities for the hooks and harmonies to really flourish. For me, it is one of those albums that the more I listened, the more I could not help sing along with.

“In the ’90s it was much more of an ongoing concern that we were a professional music group, so you had to constantly think about how to make people interested in you again. How could we get people to our gigs? How do we get songs on the radio? And none of those factors really come into the equation now. Now it’s like, ‘What’s the most interesting songs we can write and record and release?’ “

And there’s no shortage of those on The Common Touch, a varied and focused record that shows the band’s eagerness to move beyond their quirky slacker pop “golden days”.

“This is the first time I sat in my spare room in Bexley and just went, ‘Right, every day I’m going to sit down and make myself available to write songs.’ So for about three or four weeks, five days a week, I’d just sit in the room and make stuff up.”

Source: From the ’90s to now, Custard haven’t lost their common touch by Bronwyn Thompson

In contrast, Respect All Lifeforms feels like a return to the ebbs and flows of We Have the Technology and Loverama. Unlike Come Back, All Is Forgiven and The Common Touch, which both open with slower more somber tracks and a touch of country, this albums kicks off with a bang with ‘Couples Fight’. The album then bounces around from there. Gone is the lap steel and harmonica. It also does not wear the criticism of ‘Adult Contemporary’ made against their last two albums so well. Noel Mengel argues that what makes a Custard album is this ebb and flow throughout.

But what is so enjoyable about Custard’s music is not that it can be defined in any neat way but that it can’t. Pop-rock with guitars it might be, but there is a lot going on that rewards play after play. And it always sounds just like them.

Source: Respect All Lifeforms. Custard by Noel Mengel

In addition to sounding like them, there is something to be said about their lyrics throughout.


In an acceptance speech for the Nashville Songwriters Association International award for Songwriter-Artist of the Decade, Taylor Swift shared three genres associated with her lyrics.

I categorize certain songs of mine in the “Quill” style if the words and phrasings are antiquated, if I was inspired to write it after reading Charlotte Brontë or after watching a movie where everyone is wearing poet shirts and corsets.

Fountain pen style means a modern storyline or references, with a poetic twist.

Frivolous, carefree, bouncy, syncopated perfectly to the beat. Glitter Gel Pen lyrics don’t care if you don’t take them seriously because they don’t take themselves seriously.

Source: Taylor Swift Explains Her Three Types Of Lyrics In Nashville Songwriters Association Awards Speech by Tom Breihan

Thinking about Custard, I feel that there are possibly three types of Custard lyrics:

  • Songs that capture a particular topic or situation (i.e. ‘Apartment’)
  • Songs about a person (maybe auto) (i.e. ‘Lez Pinball’)
  • Songs about … songs (i.e. ‘Hit Song’)

However, the more I listened with this framework in mind, it felt somewhat contrived to fit the songs into such rigid categories.

Noel Mengel suggests that what ties Custard’s songs together is an eye for the normal everyday:

You could say Custard have been writing about normal lives and everyday situations since 1990.

An easy hook but not entirely accurate. As with any songwriting the key to such local observations is to create something interesting and lively rather than banal. Or in Custard’s case, interesting, lively and sometimes outright hilarious. Which is in keeping with all the exuberance and energy at the heart of their pop-rock musical style

Source: Respect All Lifeforms. Custard by Noel Mengel

I feel that this is what Cowell was touching upon when referring to ‘anchovies’ in his discussion of Custard on the Take 5 Podcast.

Another element to their songs is that they always seem to enter halfway through a story or a scene. I remember reading something similar from Bono talking about U2’s song ‘One’:

“I like to start a song halfway through a conversation,” Bono says. “As with a lot of dialogue, you very often find yourself talking around the subject rather than through it.” The first lines came quickly: “Is it getting better or do you feel the same?/ Is it any easier on you now that you’ve got someone to blame?” The chorus emerged from an exchange between Bono and the Dalai Lama, who had invited U2 to contribute to a benefit concert called Oneness. Bono politely declined, signing the letter: “Lovely to correspond. One but not the same, Bono.”

Source: Why U2’s One is the ultimate anthem by Dorian Lynskey

For Custard, it is always a conversation, but where the listener is often left scrambling for any semblance of context. It is often akin to a story stripped of everything deemed as superfluous. Sometimes this can be disorientating. As Cowell touched upon with regards to ‘Nice Bird’, when McCormick sings, “Trey’s got the feathers and a 12-gauge shotgun.” We are left wondering who Trey is and why does he have a shotgun? As McCormack touched upon regarding ‘Min Min Lights’ with Lindsay McDougall.

I just got this sketch of an idea. The more mysterious it is the better

Source: Dave McCormack and Custard Respect All Lifeforms by Lindsay McDougall (SoundCloud)

Inspired by McCormick’s comments in their 90’s zine about reading Cormac McCarthy, I was intrigued by Graeme Wood’s comment that “characters are what matters.”

The Shakespeare is no coincidence—and of course Shakespeare, too, was weak on plot; as William Hazlitt and later Bloom affirmed, the characters are what matter. McCarthy’s Sheddan is an elongated Falstaff, skinny where Falstaff is fat, despite dining out constantly in the French Quarter on credit cards stolen from tourists. But like Falstaff, he is witty, and capable of uttering only the deepest verities whenever he is not telling outright lies. Bobby Western regularly shares in his stolen food and drink, and their dialogue—mostly Sheddan’s side of it—provides the sharpest statement of Bobby’s bind.

Source: The Incandescent Wisdom of Cormac McCarthy By Graeme Wood

I think that in some respects that the same could be said about Custard. Although McCormack and Thompson may not be William Shakespeare and Cormac McCarthy, it does feel that they do have an eye for character and description over plot.


It is a strange experience slowly listening through a bands oeuvre one album at a time, I feel it is impossible by nature of the exercise not to judge each album against the previous. Sometimes I wonder if you start to hear ghosts after awhile, with one album bleeding into another. For example, I would find myself making assertions, such as this album is more straight-forward or has a different feel when it comes to instrumentation, only to then question myself as many of the ingredients are present in their earlier work. I think that this maybe what Caroline Polachek was touching upon in regards to the challenges associated with album reviews:

Music criticism is not a review of the album you just made, its a review of your career up to that point.

Source: This Generation’s Caroline Polachek by Switched on Pop

Growing up, I remember buying a copy of We Have the Technology at Cash Convertors. My guitar teacher was encouraging me to play the surf rock tune ‘Memory Man’ as a part of my Year 12 group music performance. I knew the singles, such as ‘Anatomically Correct’, ‘Nice Bird’ and ‘Music is Crap’ and feel that past me probably skipped to those tracks on my CD player or computer, but I fear that I never gave the album the patience it probably deserved or needed.

In a review of Loverama, the comment was made that if something was bad it was meant to be.

If something’s bad, that’s what they meant to do, it’s them having fun.

Source: Custard – Loverama (album review) by blueyxd

Maybe this comment is as much about the tendency for the band in the 90’s spending hours and hours perfecting their early albums in the studio. However, I also think that this could probably be read as “if something seems bad.” I feel you have two choices with Custard, you either accept them and their music and come to respect it for what it is or you do not. Younger me never quite reconciled with who they were, therefore I never quite respected it.

This left me wondering if Custard are one of those bands that are best considered as something of a Rorschach test.

The Rorschach test is a projective psychological test in which subjects’ perceptions of inkblots are recorded and then analyzed using psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. Some psychologists use this test to examine a person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning.

Source: Rorschach by Wikipedia

The music never gets too serious, but is serious none the less, while it never gets too silly, but is silly none the less. The interpretation of the music can then be considered a reflection of the listener. Some listeners take away with them the distorted rock, some the steel string, some the jangly pop. (Thinking about my group music performance, I feel that I could have just played Custard songs and I would have been able to tick all the requirements for my set?) With so much often going on all at once, there is always so much to take in.

I am glad I dived back into the music of Custard. It left me thinking differently about what music could and maybe should be. In the end, I learned to stop worrying and love Custard.


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“A bee sting smarts like a bitch until someone clubs you with a cricket bat.” Trent Dalton ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

Boy Swallows Universe is the debut novel from Australian author, Trent Dalton. Set in Brisbane’s violent working class suburban fringe in the 1980’s, the story tells the tale of Eli Bell, a child finding his way in an often chaotic world. Throughout, it explores ideas of family, friendship and fate in a fantastical world.

Whether it be the references to sport (“catching us mud crabs with claws that bulge like Viv Richards’ biceps”), music (“He played a cassette tape of Van Halen’s 1984 all the way home”) or television (“‘Which planet has the most moons?’ asks Tony Barber inside our fuzzy television, posing questions to three contestants on the pastel pink and aquamarine set of Sale of the Century.”), this somewhat strange story has a way of feeling normal. However, it is far from normal. This is something Dalton touches on near the end of the novel.

She looks out from the foyer to Mum, Dad and August, now waiting at the edge of King George Square.
‘I thought they’d look different, your mum and dad,’ she says.
I laugh. ‘You did?’
‘They’re so nice,’ she says. ‘They just look like any normal mum and dad.’
‘They’ve been working on normal for quite some time now.’

Source: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Whether it be children taken on drug runs, a father coping with alcoholism after nearly drowning his children, a mute child struggling with trauma, a child breaking into prison to see his mother, a child being pen pals with the head of a motorcycle gang or catching out criminals living double lives on a hunch, this book often feels more akin to ‘cartoon descriptions of a cartoon world‘.

Although Boy Swallows Universe explores a world of drugs and crime, this never feels like a brutal drama such as Animal Kingdom or Underbelly, although it has all the same ingredients. One reason for this is the perceived innocence of the adolescent narrator, something that reminded me of Marcus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger. The strangest thing is that many of these other worldly oddities were a part of Trent Daltons life.

It was interesting to read Boy Swallows Universe alongside Andrew Stafford’s book on Brisbane, music and its politics in Pig City. Seen from a child’s perspective, politics is often off the page in Dalton’s world, while also ever present through fraud and donations.

Also, I listened to Stig Wemyss’ reading of the novel. After a few chapters, I managed to stop hearing Wemyss’ reading of Andy Griffith and Terry Denton’s Treehouse series.


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In a world that moves too fast, and in which myriad exhausting decisions must be made at every turn, the small ceremony is, it seems, making a comeback. A new generation is discovering how soothing it is to blow imaginary dust from a beloved record – and a dozen other everyday sacraments besides. Observer ‘LPs are the antidote to a frenetic digital world’

I have given up smoking, well at least that is the excuse I give for my new found addiction, buying vinyl records. I feel that the use of the word ‘addiction’ might be hyperbole, but there is something about vinyl that feels like it is a want, rather than something of a need, especially when I often own copies of many of the albums on CD or am able to stream them. However, there is something about vinyl that has really captured my me.

I remember reading Doug Belshaw’s post a few years ago involving a letter to his future self.

You’re 23 years old now and this is you in 10 years time writing to yourself. I want to give you some advice and general pointers. Having already been you, I know it’s likely that you’ll read this and then forget about it, but I’m going to do it anyway. For better or worse, I’m still as stubborn as you are now.

Source: A letter from the future by Doug Belshaw

It is something that has haunted me since, what would I say to my past self that would make a difference today. I think I would probably say would be “don’t give up on your music.”

Saying I “gave up on music” seems strange, it is not that I completely stopped listening to or playing music, rather I feel at some stage in life I stopped engaging with music in a certain way. (Maybe Daniel Levitin might say this is normal, I really should read This is Your Brain on Music.) I have always listened to new and old music alike, but not in the same manner. I also sold a lot of my music equipment – MicroKorg, Roland MC303, audio mixer and reference monitors. In part, I think it reflected a change in life. On the one hand, Aphex Twin’s Drukqs is not really something I would be inclined to play with sleeping children around, while tinkering with music seemed like an indulgence. In addition to this, concerts and late nights no longer seemed like a priority.

I started buying back my my music equipment. This has included a Arturia MiniFreak, Roland MC101, Roland JX-08, a new mixer and monitors. I also started going to concerts again. With my effort to collect my crumbs, I started being more deliberate with my music listening, intentionally listening to albums and making notes of what I listened to. I also started purchasing some music via Bandcamp. However, I had not really returned to purchasing physical music. A part of this related to the fact that I simply do not get out my DVDs and CDs anymore, I was even challenged about whether I needed them anymore, whether they still ‘sparked joy‘. I do not think that this is anything new, as captured in a post from Rolling Stone from 2018:

As streaming gives the music industry its biggest profits in a decade, the CD business continues to plunge. CD sales have fallen 80 percent in the past decade, from roughly 450 million to 89 million. Since Tesla began manufacturing cars without CD players, other companies like Ford and Toyota have recently followed. Downloads – once seen as the CD’s replacement – have plummeted 58 percent since peaking in 2012, their profits now even smaller than physical sales. Artists have taken note; Bruce Springsteen released his latest box set, The Album Collection Vol. 2, 1987-1996, exclusively on vinyl, with no CD option, unlike 2014’s Vol. 1. “It’s a streaming world and a vinyl world with a quickly diminishing CD,” says Daniel Glass, president of Glassnote Records, indie-label home of Mumford & Sons and Phoenix.

Source: The End of Owning Music: How CDs and Downloads Died by Steve Knopper

One impetus to start listening to vinyl came when my dad gave me his record collection. I had always enjoyed trolling through his collection of crates when growing up, finding what felt like the weird and wonderful, whether it be David Bowie, Frank Zappa or early Cure. However, I soon realised that I wanted more than somebody else’s collection, I wanted my own music in the collection.

Over the years I have incidentally purchased some vinyl records, such as Radiohead’s In Rainbows and The King of Limbs, as well as Go-Go Sapien’s Love in Other Dimensions. I had some friends who bought vinyl. However, I never really appreciated them. I think I was caught up in the debate about audio quality, rather than how I actually listened to music. I spent years listening on poor headphones, it seemed a moot point to be arguing about the difference between streaming and vinyl records.

Another other inspiration of sorts has been Jim Groom’s VinylCasts, where he would play vinyl on internet radio. I think this may have planted the seed for vinyl being about more than just audio quality. Associated with this, Damian Cowell spoke a lot about searching for records and his love of listening as a part of his podcast for his album, Only the Shit You Love. Also, Austin Kleon often talks about playing particular records in his studio.

One of the things that is often said about records is how good the artwork is and how this is often lost in a world of streaming.

Album artwork today has a comparatively minimal role. It no longer serves as the focal point of an artist’s release, instead, it is one part in a much broader visual whole. Creating consistency between an artist’s social media posts, press photos, tour posters and any other visual elements serves the same purpose that album artwork once did: to build a world around an artist and contextualise their music for the listener. However, I can’t help lamenting what we might have lost. If less people are looking at album artworks, less resources will be allocated to them, and less people will put effort into them.

Source: The Lost Art of Album Artwork by Max Bloom

This is something that Damian Cowell discussed in regards to Roger Dean’s design for Osibisa.

Osibisa is the self-titled debut album by British afro rock band Osibisa
This is the cover art for the album Osibisa by the artist Osibisa.

Covers are often references as being the stimulus for purchasing a record. (This is something that my dad said that did.) For me though, this side of things is an added bonus. Of course covers look better blown up, but it is not what draws me to an album. (Although, I did spot Methyl Ethel’s Triage while flicking because it is such a unique cover.) Other than a handful of occasions (The Fauves Driveway Heart Attack and High Pass Filter’s Nice Coordinated Outfit), I have not bought a record without having already listened to it a number of times first.

When I buy a record, I do not necessarily want surprises. Even though I can connect my headphones to my turntable, I usually listen while doing things, therefore it is a very public medium. I am more inclined to listen to a range of music online, but when it has reached vinyl, it feels like a statement of intent. On the Take 5 podcast, Ed Droste discussed how it usually takes five listens to form a judgment on an album. My purchases can therefore be understood as a confirmation of my judgment. (Ironically, Droste felt that growing up with vinyl and being unable to skip helped with that judgement process.)

A strange thing I like about listening to vinyl is that it forces you to listen to a whole album. I like this constraint. There is no skipping and no pauses. If I have to stop an album for some reason, then it means I need to start that side all over again. In a world where being interrupted has become standard, missing a part of an album makes this more concrete. (I have actually taken the album approach to long drives. Instead of worrying about playlists and/or individual tracks, I have started queuing albums, one after another.)

Here is a list of my vinyl purchases so far:

  • Methyl Ethel – Oh Inhuman Spectacle
  • Methyl Ethel – Triage
  • Methyl Ethel – Are you Haunted?
  • The Panics – Cruel Guards
  • Sarah Blasko – Depth of Field
  • Massive Attack – Blue Lines
  • Portishead – Dummy
  • Portishead – Portishead
  • Jeff Buckley – Grace
  • The Avalanches’ – We Will Always Love You
  • DIANA – Familiar Touch
  • Joseph Shabason – Anne EP
  • Beach House – Teen Dream
  • Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
  • The Fauves – Driveway Heart Attack
  • Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine – Only the Shit You Love
  • Client Liaison – Divine Intervention
  • Montaigne – Complex
  • Washington – Batflowers
  • Kimbra – A Reckoning
  • Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
  • Depeche Mode – Violator
  • Radiohead – OK Computer OKNOTOK
  • High Pass Filter – Nice Coordinated Outfit
  • Tortoise – Standards
  • Autechre – Tri Repetae
  • Boards of Canada – Geogaddi
  • Lorde – Pure Heroine
  • Lorde – Melodrama
  • Taylor Swift – 1989
  • Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

I must admit, I have not started buying vinyl that maybe scratched to have on the shelf. I know some buy some albums just to have them in their collection, whether they are playable or not. I am also circumspect about buying expensive second hand records or expensive records in general. For example, I saw a used copy of The Triffids’ Born Sandy Devotion for near on $100. Although I love the album, I feel there needs to be a limit. (I am not buying four versions of the same record for four album covers.) I have bought many of my records when on sale and would rather have three different albums than one really expensive one. (If Jamie Lidell is right in his desire to purchase and play an original Can record, then I might be wrong about listening to original recordings. However, for now I will live with that.) I also prefer albums that a single records. I accept that some albums are actually quite long, but there are others that end up with on a couple of tracks on each side, which just seems frustrating. Oh, then there are albums like Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi which is three records.


As always, comments welcome. Oh, and I only used giving up smoking as a reference. I find it interesting the idea that if I had given up smoking that it would be somehow justified.


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When the political debates of our age are past, there will always be our country. Our challenge – all of us – is to live here and call it home; our nation this thing of the soul. Stan Grant ‘Australia Day’

With Australia Day, Stan Grant continues on from his previous book Speaking to my Country, collecting a range of pieces and ideas tied together, addressing land, family, race, history and nation to answer the question: who are we? The book is a mixture of personal memoir and philosophical exploration.


The book begins with a reflection upon the act of looking on at Australia from a distance. Grant explores the different between the head and the heart, that is Australia as a great place versus the feeling of rejections when it comes to reconciliation. He highlights this conflicting sentiment with different perspective on the idea of Australians being ‘young and free’:

Australians all, let us rejoice for we are young and free.

My people die young in this country. We die ten years younger than average Australians and we are far from free. We are fewer than three per cent of the Australian population and yet we are twenty-five per cent, a quarter, of those Australians locked up in our prisons – and if you are a juvenile, it is worse, it is fifty per cent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school.

Grant talks about living space between the dance and the destruction:

Between the dance and the destruction is the Australian dream. It is here I find myself. I live between the dance and the destruction. I live between the ship and the shore. It is here that the dream remains unrealised. In this troubled space we all live our lives.

Part 1: Home

In the section on ‘home’, Grant explores the strangeness associated with the place where we live. He discusses how we try to tame the country with roads and towns, marking the ground and drawing borders to give a sense of certainty. Such acts involve living with absence and loss, “the stranger in ourselves.”

This doesn’t mean we all become Indigenous or that we become more homogeneous but we can dwell in this ‘uncanny’. We can as psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva says discover our ‘incoherences and abysses’ to come to terms with the ‘stranger in ourselves’.

The stranger in ourselves.

That’s what I was coming to terms with at Lake Mungo; it is what has drawn me to the work of Jonathan Jones: not my Aboriginal ancestry or my European heritage, something else, something more elusive that can’t easily be measured in DNA. It is that part of me where black and white meet and how what has happened here between us, has happened on this land. This is our home: unsettled and uncanny.

What interests Grant is the possibility of the space between. Michel de Certeau suggests that we use stories to fill the void. Some examples of literary stories include Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The story of Australia speaks to us from the dry shores of Lake Mungo. Forty thousand years ago, the waters were full, sustaining a thriving community. Here a man was laid to rest with full ceremony, his body smeared in ochre. In all of humanity this was rare, among the earliest examples of such ritual. The mourners sang a song in language now lost.

As modern Australia celebrated its birth at Federation in 1901, the historical inspiration for Jimmie Blacksmith, the real Jimmy Governor, sat in a Darlinghurst jail cell, alternating between singing songs in his traditional Wiradjuri language and reading the Bible – the synthesis of the old and new worlds that collided here so violently, given form in a man soon for the gallows. It is a synthesis Keneally saw as contradiction; and yet it is the essence of being Australian.

Joan Lindsay wrote the book of the missing girls of Hanging Rock, and director Peter Weir fixed it in our imaginations. The land itself, a potent character in an ethereal tale of place and being.

These are Australian stories, ancient and modern, and all efforts at recognition – a need to be seen. It is indeed a fleeting project, an attempt to capture a people – a people always changing – in a time and place. A drawing on a cave wall preserved for antiquity, to tell future people: ‘This was us.’

It is so human, and it is essential.

Part 2: Family

In the section on ‘family’, Grant explores the complicated nature of ancestory. He wonders who to embrace and deny in his past. Is it Frank Foster? Is it Otho Gherardini?

We are all of us a part of each other. We step into many rivers and are inevitably changed: a process of becoming. A Chinese friend once said to me that we are the last stop on our ancestors’ journey. What does that make me? I have been a nobleman in old Florence; part of the Norman conquest of England; an Irish baron and then a cast-out peasant farmer. I have been a Catholic rebel, striking back at the harsh hand of Protestant England. I have been a Wiradjuri warrior defending an invasion by strangers with muskets. Yet I would be today unrecognisable to my forebears; someone who doesn’t speak their languages or practise their ceremonies. I am a pinwheel of colours spinning into one; a kaleidoscope of history that came to rest on the shores of Botany Bay.

For Grant there are problems with describing Aboriginal culture as somehow ageless. This is particularly captured in the work of Australian anthropologist, W.E.H. Stanner, and the idea of a people caught between the ‘dreaming and the market’.

Stanner’s essay [Durmugam: A Nangiomeri] has helped set Indigenous people in the Australian imagination: a people for whom change spells doom. It has all the hallmarks of the ‘noble savage’, the European ideal of a people unsullied by ‘progress’. Stanner – for all his good intentions and empathy – robbed Aboriginal people of a future. His idea of people caught between the dreaming and the market exerted a powerful hold on policy makers as they sought to find the balance between economy and identity; between what is ‘mainstream’ and what is ‘Indigenous’. It has helped shape ideas of identity, some Indigenous people embracing the idea of timelessness and rejecting of what is seen as modernity.

Grant warns that identity risks being “a cage in search of a bird”

To borrow from Franz Kafka, identity can be a cage in search of a bird. I was born into that ‘half-caste’ community that emerged from the Australian frontier; a hybrid society formed out of the clash of old and new

In the end, what it means to be Aboriginal is varying and always in a state of flux. With this in mind, regarding those who have ‘made it’ as being somehow less legimate is not true. Being indigenous is a birth right, not something that can be means tested.

Part 3: Race

In the section on ‘race’, Grant explores the ways in which race is constructed. He begins by recounting his first memory of being labelled as ‘black’ while at school.

Black. It wasn’t just a colour and it certainly wasn’t just a word. No, not a word: it was a world, a world unto its own, a world apart. It was a world to which one was banished. Black was a judgment.

Only to then be denied.

You’re not black, you have lovely olive skin.’

There it was. In one day, Owen and I had been called black and then told we were not black. Black was in the eye of the beholder, it was nothing we could own. Tim had spoken the innocence of childhood, but knew more than he realised

Grant explains how race is a learnt behaviour. The challenge faced is balancing between the ‘better angels of our nature’ and the reality of indigenous lives today.

Doesn’t my life tell me that race is not a prison? Unlike Baldwin, I look for the spaces in between, those questions that defy easy answers. My instinct is to soften the blow. Even knowing what I know I struggle to accept that my country should be condemned by the worst of its history. Are we – black people – still in Baldwin’s words ‘worthless’? Is this my country? Today, at this time, is this who we are? I think of my fellow Australians of goodwill – those who have loved and cried with us – and I say surely this, the better angels of our nature, is the true measure of us.

But then I think again how 97 per cent of kids locked up in the Northern Territory are black kids. I think of their parents too likely to have been behind bars. I think of their grandparents likely gone too soon, dead before their time. In this country Indigenous people die ten years younger than other Australians. I think of how suicide remains the single biggest cause of death for Indigenous people under the age of thirty-five. I think of Aboriginal women, forty-five times more likely to suffer domestic violence than their white sisters. An Aboriginal woman is more than ten times more likely to be killed from violent assault.

I think of lives chained to generations of misery.

The problem is that indigenous people are rendered invisible by the white gaze.

I am born of deep traditions. My footprints trace the first steps on this land. I am born too of the white imagination – this imagination that said we did not exist. The imagination that said this was an empty land – terra nullius. It is not just a legal doctrine, it is a state of mind. We were rendered invisible, our rights extinguished. If we existed at all, we were just as likely dismissed as the fly-blown savages unfit to be counted among the civilised races of the earth.

However, the black gaze can also be just as restrictive. One of the problems is that there is often a difference between language and understanding. Extending from this, language is often contested and tells you where you are, as much as it tells you who you are. Interestingly, Grant reflects on the fact that English is his first language:

Yet English is my first language – in truth my only language. To learn Wiradjuri is like learning Chinese, or French or Italian; I can speak the words but never truly hold the thoughts. That may be my loss, but in English I find the words to describe myself.

Race is a lie that we give power to. It exists in the eye of the beholder

Race exists in the eye of the beholder; just like magic what we believe we see. Black can be whatever we want it to be, Jews have been ‘black’; Irish, Greeks, Italians have been ‘black’. Funny thing, the more familiar we become – the closer we get to white – the less black we are.

DIscussing Barbara and Karen Field’s book Racecraft, Grant eplains how race is often used as a way of deflecting our attention away from racism.

Race matters, even if the evidence tells us it should not. Shifting our language is not some ‘Kumbaya’, all-hold-hands fantasy; it is urgent: race exacts a terrible human toll. Barbara and Karen Fields, remind us that ‘race is the principle unit and core concept of racism’.

Part 4: History

In the section on ‘history’, Grant explores the relationship between history, memory and forgiveness. When considering history of ideas, he pushes back on the abandonment of ‘dead white men’. For Grant, if we want to understand the world we are in then we need to engage with the figures that laid the platform for liberalism, democracy, human rights, globalisation, patriarchy, white privilege, and structural inequality. With this said, it needs to be appreciated that liberalism has sown the seeds of both destruction and liberation.

It is inarguable that the revolutions – technological, industrial, philosophical – begun in eighteenth-century Europe have transformed our world. Democracy, capitalism, freedom of expression, universal rights, individualism, rule of law, separation of church and state, accelerated change in a way never before seen in human history. We are today more literate, more materially wealthy, and healthier than ever before. We are more connected to each other, borders have come down and trade moves more freely. Peoples have thrown off the yoke of imperialism and have looked to bodies forged out of Enlightenment principles of liberalism, like the United Nations, to enshrine the rights of previously colonised or indigenous peoples. As I will write later, liberalism has sown the seeds of both destruction and liberation.

Turning back to history, Grant explains that memory is not history.

As David Rieff said, ‘The takeover of history by memory is also the takeover of history by politics.’

Memory can provide belonging or poison the soul.

Memory is a chain linking us to a past from which we forge our identity. At its best it has given me a place to belong and a pride in my heritage and my family’s resilience. But there is a downside. Bitter memory can poison the soul; at its worst it can feel more like a noose, strangling us, choking us off from the world.

Associated with memory is the Importance of forgiveness. As Desmond Tutu stated in reference to Apartheid, “without forgiveness, there is no future.” The opposite of this is resentment. This is epitomised by the life and work of Jean Amery, where resentment turns inward until vengeance destroys us. Amery is Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Ressentiment Man’, a prisoner of his past, defined by historical grievance and driven by hatred and desire for revenge.

Where Hegel saw history as progress, the quest for recognition and freedom, ‘Ressentiment Man’ is caught in a time warp, returning always to the source of injustice that he cannot fix and does not want to fix. History, for him, is a festering wound, to be picked at over and over, never allowed to heal. His suffering is his strength; his weakness the greatest weapon he has over his oppressor. Nietzsche saw this as the morality of the slave, an inversion of power where the downtrodden emerge triumphant. But to Nietzsche ‘Ressentiment Man’ is a loathsome character.

His soul squints; his mind loves hidden crannies, tortuous paths and backdoors, everything secret appeals to him as his world, his safety, his balm; he is past master in silence, in not forgetting.

Grant explains that forgiving and forgetting is not amnesia, rather it is a choice to ‘acknowledge, commemorate and put aside’. In the end, forgiveness for the past offers a greater opportunity for justice and peace.

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur says forgiveness has a ‘poetic power’, it shatters ‘the law of the irreversibility of time by changing the past, not as a record of all that has happened but in terms of its meaning for us today’.

Part 5: Nation

In the section on ‘Nation’, Grant explores the way in which nations are constructed. He explains that a nation is an ever evolving story. For Australia, this story has been that of ‘terra nullius’.

That’s what a nation is: a story. Stories are how we explain ourselves to each other. It is a story that we imbibe, and a story we so rarely question. What is our story? It is terra nullius. Historian Stuart Macintyre calls it a story of ‘a sleeping land finally brought to life’.

However, there is always other elements in the margins, which sit outside the dominant narrative. For Australia, one such element is the plethora of Aboriginal names used when naming the land, names which offer a constant reminder that Australia was not ’empty’.

Where I grew up there was Narrandera, Wagga Wagga, Cootamundra, Gundagai; it was as if the settlers were reminding themselves whose land this was even as the local people were being forced off.

A sleeping land, brought to life – empty land – the legal fiction struck down by the High Court in the Mabo decision, but so deeply lodged in the Australian consciousness that for much of this nation’s history it rendered Indigenous people invisible.

The challenge indigenous people face when it comes to Australia and nationhood is, “how to live as people with rights and dignity in a country that has historically denied those rights.”

We cannot separate the land from murder. But when we put down our books we return to our daily lives of family, work, school and sport, and push aside those dark thoughts. It is a privilege that other Australians enjoy. I wonder what it must be like to know contentment. It eludes me. Modern Australia was not built for Aboriginal people, my black ancestors were expected not even to survive.

Grant states that a referendum around constitutional recognition serves as both an opportunity and a threat. An opportunity to say, “we are now one people”, recognition of the First Peoples of the land, to have a voice on matters that impact them, and to complete what was started in 1967. However, it is also a threat to the dominant narrative about who we as ‘one people’ are. Because of this, such changes will always depend upon conservative support.

One of the challenges with change is that the expectations around recognition are not reciprocal, rather it often asks more of indigenous people.

Recognition has always appeared to me to ask more of black people than white, Aboriginal people feel strongly the expectations that they will forgive their fellow.

Philosophically, liberalism is tougher for people of colour.

Liberalism asks easier questions of white people; it poses tougher questions of someone like me. I have to work harder to embrace it; I have to push the limits of liberalism until it bends to include me.

Quoting from a lecture by Peter Yu in 2018, Grant explains how politically substance has been traded for symbolism.

Reconciliation, Yu said, with a commitment to a full political settlement ‘no longer exists’, it has ‘lost its moral and political gravitas’. As a nation, we have traded substance for symbolism. This was a devastating appraisal of the abject failure of Australia to heal its deepest wound, while Indigenous people continued to fill our prisons and cemeteries.

The question Grant is left wondering is whether liberalism a big enough idea to liberate Aboriginal people?

In his 2014 Quarterly Essay ‘A Rightful Place’, Pearson challenged Australia as to whether its ‘system of democracy enables an extreme minority to participate in a fair way.’ Pearson wrote:

The scale and moral urgency of the Indigenous predicament far exceeds the power of Indigenous participation in the country’s democratic process.

Pearson had belled the cat. Here was the fundamental question of Australia, it is the question that turns over and over in my mind – it is the question that has hovered over my every thought in this book – is liberalism a big enough idea to liberate me from the chokehold of race, identity and history? If liberalism works for others, can it work for me?

One of the problems with liberalism is that, as “a philosophy of progress, it doesn’t cope well with the past.” Borrowing from Tommie Shelby, Grant suggests that a move would be a focus on ‘thin blackness’, where the emphasis is on justice, rather than identity politics.

African-American, Tommie Shelby, says we can pursue justice without reverting to the divisive politics of identity. He walks a delicate line between what he calls ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ blackness. As the labels imply, thick blackness emphasises racial solidarity; thin blackness puts the emphasis on justice.

For Grant, recognising the inherent rights of First Peoples is actually a means of setting everyone free.

Coming back to the idea of ‘Australia Day’, Grant explains that more than a day or a date, it needs to address who we are as a nation, even with all its tensions. Regarding the idea that a nation is a story, Grant chooses to believe a story of hope over indifference.

The story of this country asks us to choose: what do we believe? Must I be cursed like Sisyphus, forever doomed to roll the boulder of our history to the top of the mountain only to return again to the bottom? A nation is a narrative, it is a story, it is what we imagine, it is what we choose. For me, I choose the historian, Inga Clendinnen, and the ‘springtime of trust’ over the anthropologist, Bill Stanner and his ‘history of indifference’. Is this naive? No, it is hope. This is the hope of the storytellers who have shaped my life.


I spent a long time with Australia Day. I listened to Grant’s reading of it twice and spent a lot of time reflecting upon it. I had also read parts of it previously in The Australian Dream. Although it is structured around five key themes, the book is very much a wrestle. In some ways it feels this way as Grant tries hard to find space in the in-between. However, it also feels like a book very much written for readers. To borrow a quote from Richard Flanagan in conversation with Claire Nichols:

Books are created by readers, not writers. So the more space you leave for the reader to create the story, the more chance you have of writing something that might have meaning for readers.

Source: Richard Flanagan on the atomic bomb, HG Wells and a kiss by The Book Show

With Grant, this space often comes in the form of ideas that are seemingly complete and incomplete at the same time. Ideas that often lead you as a reader to dive down rabbit holes.

One such rabbit hole that I was left thinking about was Grant’s discussion of stories and notions of truth. In Truth and Truthfulness, Bernard Williams discusses the relative way in which we choose truths to form narrative:

There is no way in which the king’s death could have happened “for” the Anglo-Saxon chronicler and not happened “for” us, or the Germans have invaded Belgium in 1914 “for” some cultures and not for others. The same holds for many small-scale explanations: if the king was murdered, someone killed him, period. What is relative is the interest that selectively forms a narrative and puts some part of the past into shape.

Source: Truth and Truthfulness by Bernard Williams

Published in 2019, I cannot help but think about this in regards to the failure of the referendum and what it means for the story of our nation.

I think that Australia Day is one of those books that I will continue to come back to in the way I think about things and what it means to be an Australian.


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Fiction puts you in shoes that are not comfortable. Christos Tsiolkas

The In-Between by Christos Tsiolkas captures the relationship between two middle age men, Perry and Ivan. Both are seeking love again, but also carry with them their own histories of regret that forever haunts them. Structurally, the novel is divided into a number of days spread over a several years. Through these glimpses into the everyday, we are given an insight into the challenges of balancing life in-between the past and the present.


I remember watching Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, one of the many films that makes up the Marvel universe. At the start of the film, there is a bus scene where the hero is confronted by a group of thugs. One of the things that always seems odd in this supposed ordinary situation is who are the other people in these scenes? For example, what is on the laptop sliced in half by a sword? Did it have a PhD on it in draft format? Was it backed up in the cloud? None of this is ever addressed. Ordinary people do not matter when there are superheroes around. Whereas for Christos Tsoilkas, these other people standing on the edge of the stage are often placed front and centre and given prime place with the narrative. Whether it is an old couple on a train returning from remembering a relative’s passing or a palliative nurse looking out her window after a long shift in which her patient passed away, these moments not only add perspective, but remind us that there are people who exist both in and beyond the book. This is something Michael Williams touches on in his review for the The Saturday Paper:

There’s a trick Christos Tsiolkas does in his eighth novel, The In-Between. At several points in the action, as the central drama plays out in the foreground, the focus drifts away. Tsiolkas brings our attention instead to a passing youth on the street or the gaze of another commuter.

Despite these glances away, The In-Between is an intensely interior book with Tsiolkas’s trademark unflinching intimacy and access to the thoughts, fears, rages and lusts of his characters. It makes these other moments all the more acute when they occur. They offer us an external view of proceedings, giving us the distance to see our protagonists afresh

Source: Christos Tsiolkas – The In-Between by Michael Williams

What I like about Tsiolkas’ writing is his ability to capture the seemingly everyday. In The In-Between, he manages to make reference to everything from responses to Brittany Higgins rape allegation, changes to places like Preston and Frankston, Classic FM playing Talking Heads and Split Enz, the turn away from news and talk back, or capturing a situation on a smartphone. These various choices feel less like polemical statements, than being moments for the reader to ponder. As Tsiolkas stated in an interview with Raphael Epstein:

What I want from fiction is that it sets up questions.

Source: Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel The In-Between – ABC Listen by ABC Radio Melbourne

Sean O’Beirne picks up on this in his review for The Monthly, when he talks about the unstable nature of our senses and perceptions.

Though of course plenty of writers can supply the smaller details, what makes Tsiolkas exceptional is his ability to show how excessive and unstable our senses are, how we never just enjoy our perceptions in some benign way, but find them turning continuously into greed, and then shame, and then greed again.

Source: Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘The In-Between’ (Review) by Sean O’Beirne

Although the two central characters, Perry and Ivan, are in-between in so many ways, whether it be language, place, class or age, I feel that when it comes down to it, the book highlights how we are all in-between in some respect. For example, relationships are in-between, whether it be as a friend, a parent, a sibling. We are always in-between regarding the public and private. Conversations exist in-between. Knowing someone through social media, by ghosting them, exists in-between. As an extension of all this, I feel that the author too exists in this in-between, not dead, but not defined. Caught between characters, perspectives and points of view.


In a conversation with Tsiolkas, Rafael Epstein talks about how The In-Between allows readers to walking inside someone else’s shoes and see people more clearly. I am not sure if I all of the sudden know what other people think or feel after reading it, rather for me the novel provides a deeper appreciation of the other. For example, after rain, the grass often looks greener, while the smell of eucalyptus often perfumes the air. I felt the same after reading The In-Between, my world was not magically transformed, rather I was made more conscious of the world around. In response to Epstein’s comment, Tsiolkas suggests that,

Fiction puts you in shoes that are not comfortable.

Source: Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel The In-Between – ABC Listen by ABC Radio Melbourne

I like this point. When you have uncomfortable shoes, how become aware of every step.


I saw The In-Between come up in my new releases in my local library app and decided to unwittingly dive in. I was not disappointed. I think this is one of those books that will linger with me for a long time.


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Ultimately, the essence of being a Stolen person is that you’re always trying to find out who the hell you are. Jack Charles ‘Born-again Blakfella’

I was recently speaking to someone about the referendum whether to change the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. They complained that indigenous people have had the same opportunities as the rest of us, including the right to vote, therefore they did not know why they needed a special ‘voice’. I must admit, although I disagree with their point of view, I was somewhat lost for the words to say in response and decided to just leave the conversation at that.

Jack Charles’ autobiography Jack Charles: Born-again Blakfella helped clarify to me why the changes outlined in the the Uluru Statement from the Heart are so important to aid in the healing process.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation to the Australian people from First Nations Australians. It asks Australians to walk together to build a better future by establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission for the purpose of treaty making and truth-telling.

Source: View The Statement – Uluru Statement from the Heart

A child of the stolen generation, Charles talks about being taken away from his mother at two months age (only because she left the hospital before they could take him away after being born). Instead he was brought up as the only indigenous child in Box Hill Boys Home. There he and the other boys were abused by the Salvation Army officers. The legacy of this experience led Charles to a life balanced between the world of theatre, and a life of drugs, crime and homelessness.

Published in 2019, a few years before his passing in 2022, this book is written with the hindsight of a long life. Although frustrated with politics, the prison system, at Australia’s ‘unique racism’ and the failure to bring about treaty, this is never offered as some sort of excuse to some of the choices made in Charles’ complicated life. Instead, this book can itself be considered as a form of healing.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give to anybody struggling with the trauma of past abuse is to talk about it. It’s difficult to open up, but I try to encourage folks to reflect on themselves during those moments of suffering – without a sense of blame and shame. What you were subjected to is a part of your lived experience and, as unfortunate as it is, it happened. Come what may, you have to relegate it to a section of the old grey matter up top. Leave it there, until you wanna talk about it in a group session or it comes up naturally in conversation.

I think that what makes this book so powerful is Charles’ (and Namila Benson) storytelling. I often found myself unsure whether to laughing or cry. Whether it be writing letters home for fellow inmates in prison.

It was always whitefellas getting me to write their letters. I don’t remember any blakfellas asking me to write for them. I’d make sure to use just the right language and phrases so these unsuspecting women back home would know they were number one. And the payment for my efforts? Tobacco and chocolate. This letter-writing business held me in good stead. I always rolled out of prison having gained a few pounds.

Collecting rent in the form of burglaries.

When I discovered my connection to this traditional land, I started thinking of my burgs as ‘collecting rent’; taking back just a small piece of what had been cruelly stolen from me and my people.

Performing naked at the Opera House in response to sexism.

The Opera House waited until the very last moment before finally calling me and agreeing to pay all the girls the correct fee. I told them, ‘I’m so pissed off with you, ya bastards. Y’know, making those girls wait so long.’ I paused but there was no response. Time to pull out the big guns. ‘Okay, I’ll stay, but I’m going to do Bennelong naked. Fuck yas.’ It seemed like a fair exchange for the stress we’d been put under. And so I did it. Wandered on stage and performed the show with me willy dangling on the Opera House stage.

And faking it as an ‘actor’.

They had to know full well that I, Jack Charles, was too far up meself to audition. It’s true. When it comes to acting roles, auditioning and getting knocked back just won’t do. I’m very lucky to be in the unique position where I’m not forced to audition in order to be seriously considered for roles. The great Australian actor Bill Hunter never auditioned either, so I take my lead from him. He told me once, ‘I get away with it so often, Jack. Thing is, I can’t act but everybody reckons I can.’ It was a relief to hear someone of his calibre say that, not to mention his advice that I should be more assertive. I responded, ‘Well, I’m in the same boat, Bill. So long as we know our lines and create the illusion of being someone else, then we’ll get across the line. You know, if it works for us, it’ll work for the audience.’

Maybe this book was not about me (clearly not, it was about Jack Charles), however I cannot help think about my own experiences and how I might have behaved differently. I was, in hindsight, lucky enough to teach at a Koori school. I remember being frustrated at times with how I was treated. For example, I would walk down the street and hear ‘pinky’ hollered at the top of one of my student’s lungs. In hindsight, I think this was actually there sign of respect. Often having been somewhat rejected by the mainstream school, I imagine there were many teachers they would not have given the time of day to, let alone called out to. Even with my academic awareness of ‘The Stolen Generation’, I feel that autobiographies like this and Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why help to appreciate the ongoing legacy of such a decision and who change is so important.


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Our history is an aggregate of last moments. Thomas Pynchon ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’

I am not sure if I bought Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or was gifted it, either way it has sat on my shelf for years. Haunting me, maybe even mocking me. I remember reading The Crying of Lot 49, but never got around to Gravity’s Rainbow. In my recent dive into the world of audiobooks, I found a reading of it by George Guidall via Open Culture. I thought this might be a compromise.

To be honest, although I knew Gravity’s Rainbow was ‘about a rocket’, I did not really know much beyond that. I wonder if this alongside the size of the book is what held me off. After finishing the novel, I kind of know why I did not know much. It is not a novel easily summarised. Take for example this collection of attempts:

Gravity’s Rainbow reads like a kaleidoscopic fusion of violent history, conflicting socio-political and economic interests, scientific and metaphysical notions, collective and individual fantasies and dreams, that merges fact and fiction, which are created and supervised by controlling systems of various origins, including film industry, where artificial prefigures the real, implementing psychological manipulation to constitute desired perceptions of reality and history.

Source: “Cinematic” Gravity’s Rainbow: Indiscernibility of the Actual and the Virtual by Lovorka Gruic Grmusa

To describe any novel is to do it a disservice, and in some cases, you shouldn’t even bother. Thus, having failed on numerous occasions to describe Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s colossal, parabolic wonderland of a novel, I’ve simply stopped trying. Not only because it is essentially unsummarizeable, but because now, 50 years after its release, it still evades our understanding. (The only 20th century novel less penetrable is perhaps Finnegans Wake, and at times, Pynchon gives Joyce a run for his money.) Now, when asked about the book, I simply tell people what they can expect: rocket physics, sex, coprophagia, pedophilia, giant octopuses/adenoids, riffs on thermodynamics, Pavlovian conditioning, speculative chemistry; secret cabals, Nazi-mysticism, drugs, sea shanties, an acid trip of a last chapter, and a whole lot else.

Source: Beyond the Rainbow by Jared Marcel Pollen

Can Gravity’s Rainbow be difficult and obscure? Sure. Does it contain an unusually large amount of sadomasochism, pedophilia, and coprophagy for a literary classic? Certainly. Does it have a grim view of Western history? How could it not? But Gravity’s Rainbow presents its dark materials with such an unremittingly innocent flamboyance, and wears its prodigious learning with such a democratic exuberance, that it continues to attract not only serious scholars and critics but also enthusiastic fans, a cohort of readers whose relatively small size is more than made up for by its intense devotion.

Source: History Is Hard to Decode: On 50 Years of Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” by M. Keith Booker

Each attempt captures a particular perspective, but never the whole. Interestingly, the rocket is often considered as something of a red-herring. Instead, it maybe better appreciated as a dive into the experience of being paranoid. This is framed around his ‘Proverbs for Paranoids’:

  1. You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
  2. The innocence of the creature is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
  3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.
  4. You hide, They seek.
  5. Paranoids are not paranoids because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.

When paranoia is our means of making sense it leaves one wondering whether sense matters. What is and is not fact. As reader we experience this sense of paranoia through the act of reading. As Craig Getting and Andrew Cunningham capture in their discussion:

Sometimes it’s hard to tell when his making something up and when his referencing something real. Similarly it’s hard to tell if an event is actually occurring or if somebody is hallucinating. Also Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a character died or not.

Source: Ep 319 – Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon by Overdue Podcast

For me, Gravity’s Rainbow is a chaotic reflection of a chaotic world. To borrow from Peter Goldsworthy,

Cartoon pictures how else to describe a cartoon world.

Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy

Like Paul Auster with his New York Trilogy, Gravity’s Rainbow is about trying to find a language to describe the world. As with writers such as Samuel Beckett and Joseph Heller, absurdity is at the heart of this language.

Another thing to stand out in the world created by Pynchon was the primacy of the image. I often found myself remembering scenes, rather than any sort of ‘narrative’. Lovorka Gruic Grmusa explains this with reference to the place of cinematography:

Cinematography was the first medium which created the illusion of motion by manipulating and animating still images so that motion-picture photography is perceived as continuous movement, disseminating the creative capacities of the medium and generating immensely original and multifaceted realms that alter existing conceptions of reality. Pynchon unravels these permutations of image manipulation in Gravity’s Rainbow, exposing film as an apparatus and a thematic composition, but what is more, the novel’s cinematic ambience captures the shift in human consciousness at the close of World War II.

Source: “Cinematic” Gravity’s Rainbow: Indiscernibility of the Actual and the Virtual by Lovorka Gruic Grmusa

This discussion of cinematography is not just the way of seeing, but also the endless cultural references.

In the end, on finishing the novel I appreciated the Pulitzer Prize jury concern about the novel. I often found myself one minute loving Pynchon’s turn of phrase, while the next minute cringing at some piece of absurdity. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Martin Flanagan says,

A good book leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.

Source: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Martin Flanagan

With this in mind, I was left thinking that Gravity’s Rainbow was a great book as it left me thinking about my own thoughts and responses to so much. I can appreciate why people talk about rereading this on a regular basis. It therefore serves as a great source of meditation.


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