Alexis Wright wins 2018 Stella Prize for Tracker, an epic feat of Aboriginal storytelling

 Alexis Wright, author of Tracker: a book written in 
the mode and genre of Aboriginal storytelling. Stella Prize

Alexis Wright’s book Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth has won the 2018 Stella Prize. Tracker is, in Wright’s words, an attempt to tell an “impossible story”, using the voices of many people to reflect on the life of Tilmouth, a central and visionary figure in Aboriginal politics.

At one telling point in the book, Gulf of Carpentaria activist and political leader Murandoo Yanner relates an encounter between Tracker and Jenny Macklin, then Minister for Indigenous Affairs in the Rudd government. Tracker was helping Yanner to lobby Macklin over the Wild Rivers legislation in Queensland.

Notoriously, Macklin had persisted with the Howard government’s “Northern Territory Intervention”, and was regarded with suspicion by most Aboriginal leaders. Nevertheless, she was the federal minister and had to be dealt with.

Tracker by Alexis Wright, from Giramondo.

As they approached, Tracker called out, “How ya going, Genocide Jenny?”

Yanner recalls the atmosphere that followed: “You could have heard a pin drop and pistols drawn at twenty paces, and the whole thing went sour pretty quickly”.

It tells you a lot about the man. He had regular access to the corridors of power yet still called a spade a spade. He was capable of dealing with politicians of any background and station yet did not forfeit his never-back-down attitude.

He was able to gain the upper hand from the first with an irreverent comment. And, above all, he was a funny bugger. (Another memorable thumbnail character sketch, this one related by Tracker himself, is of current senator Pat Dodson as a “mobile wailing wall”: a place where white people go to confess and forgo their sins.)

It also tells you a lot about Wright’s epic tribute to Tracker. We do not read Wright quoting Yanner, but hear the whole yarn directly from the source. Born in 1954, Tracker was one of the stolen generation. His life spanned the latter years of the White Australia policy, when Aboriginal people were still legally part of the nation’s fauna, to the tumultuous period in Aboriginal politics following the Intervention, until his death in 2015.

This is not a book about Tracker’s life authored by Wright, but consists of stories and recollections told to Wright by the man himself as well as 50 others, from family and school mates, to Aboriginal and non-Indigenous leaders in our time. Wright brilliantly intersperses and weaves these together into an epic of stories and storytelling.

As the tributes to Tracker have flowed in the months since its publication, and many will surely follow as it garners further prizes and draws in ever more readers, so have proliferated the attempts to describe both the work’s genre and the mode of authorship it enacts.

In their award statement, the Stella judges call it a “biography”, but also “new way of writing memoir”. These descriptors capture aspects of the book – a birth to death tale does emerge from Wright’s layering of stories, and these are, of course, conjured from memory – but they also obscure.

Wright didn’t “write” the work but elicited the stories that comprise it through conversation. Towards the end of the book there is an unbroken sequence of nearly 100 pages of Tracker and Wright conversing, the contents of which are largely a mixture of philosophy and political economy. In these pages, Tracker’s voice is mostly serious, even earnest, as he expounds on the need to create a sustainable economic basis on which Aboriginal people can palpably enjoy their hard-won land rights and native title.

While it is no doubt true that readers accustomed to biographies in the European tradition will be struck by the novelty of reading a tribute to a storyman made up of many stories, Tracker’s strengths as a work are are not dependent on this putative departure from the biographical genre. It is simply remarkable to hear Tracker’s genuinely funny jokes and stories told repeatedly, often word for word and channelling Tracker’s unmistakable style, by such a range of different speakers. Over the course of the book, the repetition of these stories consolidates them and imprints them on the memory.

It is fitting that a book written in the mode and genre of Aboriginal storytelling should win a prize that encompasses both non-fiction and fiction. It is a work, epic in scope and size, that will ensure that a legend of Central Australian politics is preserved in myth.

This article was written by:

Image of Ben EtheringtonBen Etherington – [Senior Research Lectureship-literature, Western Sydney University]




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Indigenous voices are speaking loudly on social media but racism endures

 Drawing by Wes Mountain/The ConversationCC BY-ND

Social media are a vital resource for Indigenous Australians, connecting them to community and culture, helping identify those at risk of suicide or self-harm, and offering a powerful outlet for political activism. But racism is a major problem for Indigenous people online.

A new report, Social Media Mob: Being Indigenous Online, unpacks the complex role social media play in the lives of Indigenous Australians. The research, conducted via qualitative interviews and an online survey, found the most popular social media platforms for participants were Facebook (for family and community posts) and Twitter (for more political activities). Younger people also used Snapchat and Instagram.

Many said social media allowed them to feel more connected to their Indigenous identity — particularly those affected by historical disconnections from community and culture. More than 80% of participants said they openly identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander on social media. As one said:

My Aboriginality is the focal point of my identity both in society and online. Specifically, on Facebook, my photos and page, groups and friends all highlight my Aboriginality.

However, more than half of respondents said they were “selective” about what they had posted online, for fear of attracting racist or violent responses. Over 50% said that sometimes they chose not to identify as Indigenous online. As one participant explained: “It’s sometimes safer to not identify as Aboriginal due to discrimination and prejudice.”

In the survey, 88% of respondents said they had seen examples of racism towards Indigenous people on social media. Most common was the doubting of identity and the use of memes depicting Indigenous people in a derogatory manner, often in the guise of a joke.

More than a third of respondents had personally been subjected to racism, 21% had received threats by other users on social media and 17% indicated these had impacted their “offline” lives.

Some respondents reported being questioned over whether they were “really Indigenous”, with critics drawing on stereotypical ideas — particularly about skin colour. As one put it:

I am not too open about my Indigenous background on social media sites because I am light skinned and have found that people pass judgment and make assumptions.

Many positives

Despite this, Indigenous people highlighted many positives to social media. These have become a significant avenue for both seeking and providing help, in areas such as employment, legal services, education, wellbeing and, perhaps most urgently, for those at risk of self-harm and suicide.

Indigenous suicide rates consistently rank among the highest in the world. In our research, 48% of respondents said social media made them feel more likely to be able to identify someone at risk of self-harm or suicide. Indeed several had followed up on social media posts by asking friends, family or police to check in physically on someone.

I remember one young man was writing some, well, it seemed quite suicidal thoughts on that [Facebook]. So, it ended up a bunch of us actually rallying together to make sure that police were sent around and went to that person’s place and it was all OK.

Social media also enabled some participants to reach out for help on issues relating to mental health. These kinds of online practices suggest social media offer a potentially effective platform for developing culturally appropriate suicide interventions and prevention programs.

While Indigenous Australians remain under-represented politically, 79% of our respondents indicated they were politically active online. Social media have profoundly redistributed power of communication, with mainstream media no longer having such a strong hold on the public narrative.

Recent Indigenous-led and social-media-driven campaigns like #SoSBlakAustralia, which sought to stop the forced closure of Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, and #IndigenousDads demonstrate how Indigenous people use social media to make their voices heard. Both trended on social media and were creative strategies for resisting, subverting and challenging the political status quo.

Karen Wyld@1KarenWyld
That year has gone by so quickly! But Australian media is still racist. And are still awesome 😊 
Embedded image permalink
 amber cunningham @CunningAmster
One year on this is the only thing worth remembering #IndigenousDads @malerajustice @Milbindi @drcbond @adieboy @ryangriffen

Our research shows social media are “different” for Indigenous people. For instance, whereas young people often dismiss Facebook as a place where their parents gather, we found that younger Indigenous Australians are using it to connect to older relatives.

Facebook has also provided an avenue to reconnect for people displaced from their families by past government policies and practices. This may be an important process in the future also, given the numbers of Indigenous children in out-of-home care.

Indigenous people are also bound by cultural protocols and norms and are not necessarily free to post without consideration for the collective. This is particularly the case for issues related to death.

Despite legitimate concerns about the impact of social media in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s important to acknowledge that these play a crucial role in the lives of many Indigenous Australians.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, who globally tend to fare worse on many social metrics — income, education, life expectancy, political representation, cultural safety — social media can help facilitate vital networks of support, care and knowledge.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Bronwyn Carlson
Bronwyn Carlson – [Professor, Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University]
Image of Ryan FrazerRyan Frazer – [Associate Research Fellow, Macquarie University]




This article is part of a syndicated news program via


Listen To Older Voices : The Life and Times of Mick Elliott – Part 1

 Welcome to Listen To Older Voices, a program produced 
by Rob Greaves for Uniting Melba and podcast through 
the Toorak Times and Tagg.
Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principle of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.

We present another Baby Boomers special program this one featuring the story of Mick Elliott presented 3-parts. This is the first part of a 3-part program featuring the Life and Times of Mick Elliott. Mick was another Baby Boomer who was bitten by the “music bug” at a young age and who went on to make a successful career as a professional musician. Over the three parts to his story we will follow Mick’s story from his early years. His first band that was formed in 1964 and we listen and learn how over the years he became part of some iconic groups such as Syd Rumpo, Southern Cross, the Wild beaver Band, Stars and many more.
We will also hear the stories of how he and his guitar came to support such music legends as J.J. Cale and Bo Diddley. Yet for all his success Mick is an unassuming Aussie who never shirked from working hard in jobs outside the music industry when times demanded and, he is not just admired by audiences for his guitar work, but by his peers.
Mick – circa 1964

Click to hear Mick Elliott – Part 1

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 



[Listen To Older Voices receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through 
the Commonwealth Home Support Program Program]


Sunday essay: on the trail of the London thylacines

 Thylacine joey, from the collections of the 
Natural History Museum, London. Penny Edmonds

On a cold, dark night in the winter of June 2017, hundreds of people gathered on the lawns of Hobart’s parliament house to join a procession that carried an effigy of a giant Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) to be ritually burnt at Macquarie Point.

In an act called “the Purging”, part of the Dark Mofo festival, participants were asked to write their “deepest darkest fears” on slips of paper and place them inside the soon-to-be incinerated thylacine’s body. This fiery ritual, a powerful cultural moment, reflects the complex emotions that gather around this extinct creature.

More than a spectacle, the Dark Mofo event can be read as a strange memorialisation of loss and a public act of Vandemonian absolution in response to the state’s deliberate role in the tiger’s extinction. It led us to ask: what remains of the thylacine and what does it mean to come face-to-face with thylacine remains in the age of mass extinction?

The Purging at Dark Mofo 2017. Courtesy of Dark Mofo/Lusy Productions

Numerous “sightings” – and scientific research that seeks to resurrect the thylacine – attest to our longing to bring this species back from the dead. Our research takes a different path. We want to look for the traces of the thylacine in this time of great environmental uncertainty, in which species are becoming extinct at a rate never before experienced by humans. Facing our past losses is an important project in the Anthropocene, the age defined by humanity’s impact on the earth.

We have hunted for some of the 750 thylacine specimens in museum collections scattered around the world. These are a legacy of the period when Tasmania was a British colony, and the network of global trade that connected this small island state to the centres of colonial power.

In September 2017 we went in search of some of the creatures who had made the perilous journey to the United Kingdom: the London thylacines.

An archive of bodies

In search of what remains, we visited the Natural History Museum of London, one of the premier repositories of natural science collections in the world. In the storeroom, we were able to look through a cabinet containing trays of thylacine specimens, many with their original 19th century tags attached.

Amongst these remains were the preserved skins of Tasmanian tigers as well as skulls, bones and one thylacine pup. Stuffed and sewn, with a blind eye of cotton wool, this baby in its white protective tray was the tiniest of thylacine young.

Thylacine joey, from the collections of the Natural History Museum, London. Penny Edmonds

While our photographs of the visit to the museum show us smiling in the storeroom – as travelling Australians we were pleased to be there after our long journey – we were, in fact, overwhelmed with cross-currents of emotion. The palpable shock of seeing so many thylacine bodies in trays in this and several other collections was a profound recognition of loss.

Some 167 specimens of Tasmanian tigers reside in museums in the UK alone. As such, this small joey is made more poignant by the scale of what we saw. A museum visitor might see a single thylacine on display, where one body stands in for its entire species.

Yet in the storerooms of the museum we came face-to-face with the sheer volume of animal bodies that were evacuated from Tasmania. In a world where extinction is becoming all too mundane, the individual lives and deaths of these animals were palpable.

Thylacine skulls, from the collections of the Natural History Museum, London. Penny Edmonds

From the late-18th century, the new Antipodean colonies in Australia and New Zealand were homes for the strangest of new creatures, at least to European eyes. A furious trade began between the colonies and Europe. New animals of scientific curiosity were avidly collected and discussed at meetings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, founded in 1843.

Here, animals such as black swans, wombats, and thylacines were exhibited, examined, and circulated. The society members responded enthusiastically to requests from Europe’s elite scientists to send specimens from the colonies. In 1847, for instance, the society’s committee minutes show that members attempted to source an “impregnated Platypus or Echidna preserved in spirits. Also the brains of the Thylacinus [Tasmanian Tiger] and Dasyurus [Tasmanian Devil]”. These were to be collected for for the eminent British comparative anatomist and fossil hunter Professor Richard Owen, one of the forces behind the creation of the Natural History Museum in London.

The bodies of animals shipped from the colonies and held in museums have always been important for scientific research; they constitute vast repositories of natural heritage material of immense value. In the Anthropocene age, the value of these animal archives as arks of genetic material has become more apparent, but they are also repositories of loss.

Echidnas in jars, from the collections of the Natural History Museum, London. Penny Edmonds

Moreover, many collecting institutions the world over face financial difficulties and struggle to look after their collections. Some collections are deteriorating due to lack resources and staff, and this may ultimately lead to the final disappearance of the thylacine.

Dead on arrival

We visited the London Zoo Archives to find out more about the thylacines displayed there over the 19th and early-20th centuries. The London Zoo was the place to which the first and last recorded Tasmanian tigers were exported – the former in 1850 and the latter, purchased for the princely sum of 150 pounds, in 1926. The very last thylacine outside of Australia died at the London Zoo in 1931.

‘Register of Deaths in the Menagerie’, London Zoo Archives. Penny Edmonds

The long sea journey was harsh, and many of the thylacines shipped from Van Diemen’s land were simply declared “dead on arrival”. One animal died just eight days after arriving in 1888. In the hope of offspring, many thylacines were shipped in breeding pairs. Yet these hopeful reproductive futures were often foreclosed when one of them died in transit, as was the case of the final shipment in 1926.

We were lured to the London Zoo archives by the librarian’s mention of the “death books”, a remarkable set of “Registers of Death in the Menagerie.” Within these weighty volumes we found page after page of neat, looping cursive script listing the dates, names, “originating habitat”, “cause of death” and “how disposed of” for all the animals that died in the London Zoo, beginning in 1904.

As we turned the pages and moved through the years, we witnessed the deaths of the “Tasmanian wolf” amongst a veritable menagerie of animals from all over the globe and especially from Britain’s colonies – Egypt, South Africa, India, Ceylon, the west coast of Ireland, and Australia – reflecting the imperial networks of exchange and transportation through which these animals were shipped.

Pages from the ‘Register of Deaths in the Menagerie’, London Zoo Archives. Penny Edmonds

Among two black swans found dead within days of each other, budgerigars found “worried to death”, and a “black-faced kangaroo” that died of pneumonia in the cold, wet English weather, was the thylacine that died on January 17 1906. This was “Specimen 91”, a female purchased on March 26 two years before.

Yet while there is little information on the cause of her demise, the death books note she was “not examined” but was “disposed of” to “W Gerrard (of Gerrard and Sons taxidermist)” and “sold for 1 pound, 1 shilling.”

Armed with the 1869 plans of the zoo, we went looking for the thylacines’ cage. From the map we could see that thylacines had been kept in a far corner of the zoo, near the banks of a rivulet. Due to more recent building and development, pinpointing the exact location was a challenge. What we did find was a nondescript, brutalist building and an asphalt service road. Of the thylacine enclosure, nothing remained.

This site resonates with the abandoned Beaumaris Zoo in our home city of Hobart, the location of the “final” thylacine death, which sits on the banks of the River Derwent in Hobart behind locked gates. Both of these spaces are forgotten sites of death. They are where thylacines began and ended their journeys, places which link the colony and London through circuits of scientific trade and esteem, where animal lives and deaths were managed by bureaucratic processes, and where humans and thylacines came face-to-face. But what remains at these sites? Nothing that would tell the sad story of the thylacine.

Deliberate extinction

The “last” thylacine died of exposure after it was locked out of its sleeping enclosure on September 7 1936 at Beaumaris Zoological Gardens on the Hobart Domain. This death, now so weighted with significance, went unremarked at the time. There were no news reports to record the animal’s passing and its remains were thrown away.

The extinction of the thylacine is particularly resonant because it was annihilated through human actions; its death was sanctioned by government policy and deliberately and systematically enacted.

The thylacine was demonised by Tasmanian graziers as a blood-thirsty carnivore that liked to feed on sheep. While the Van Diemen’s Land Company had placed a bounty on the head of the thylacine in 1830, it was the parliament that signed the species’ death warrant. Between 1888 and 1909 the government paid one pound per adult and ten pence per young, during which time 2,184 bounties were rewarded. The public knew what it was doing. In 1884 a group of farmers on Tasmania’s east coast set up the “Buckland and Spring Bay Tiger and Eagle Extermination Society” with the explicit purpose of eradicating the species.

The cultural guilt that attends the thylacine is perhaps why it is such an important international symbol for extinction and why the date of the death of the last thylacine is now National Threatened Species Day.

The thylacine’s legacy

The spectre of the thylacine haunts the public imagination and there is significant scientific focus on the physical remains of this now infamously extinct creature. In 2017 there was a spate of highly publicised “sightings” in Queensland and Tasmania.

In December of the same year, scientists reported that they had sequenced the genome of a one-month old thylacine pup or joey, a curious and pale creature preserved in alcohol from Museum Victoria. In February 2018, researchers announced they had for the first time completed full CT scans of rare pouch young.

Thylacine joey preserved in ethanol in the collection of Museums Victoria. Healley, Benjamin/Museums Victoria

Indeed, they found a mix up: some specimens were tiny quolls or Tasmanian devils, not thylacine joeys at all. As an article in The Guardian noted, the research “all contributes to the ultimate end goal of bringing back a thylacine, a project that is technologically distant but theoretically possible.”

However, for scholars Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, de-extinction projects blind us to the finality of extinction. They advocate actively grieving extinction because it does important political work. They write: “The reality is that there is no avoiding the necessity of the difficult cultural work of reflection and mourning. This work is not opposed to practical action, rather it is the foundation of any sustainable and informed response.”

Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world. The thylacine is one of 30 mammals that have been lost here since European settlement. Thinking through the meanings and politics of the loss of the thylacine is crucially important in this context. Rare thylacine remains, housed in museum collections around the world, are precious archives that are part of our global heritage. We must take care of them. Moreover, facing this loss directly in the age of extinction is a political act.

This collaborative interdisciplinary project, “Extinction Afterlives”, brings together Associate Professor Penny Edmonds, Dr Hannah Stark and Adjunct Associate Professor Katrina Schlunke, University of Tasmania, to consider the cultural life of the extinct thylacine and other creatures in the Anthropocene.

We wish to thank Roberto Portela Miguez, Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals, The Natural History Museum, London, for hosting our visit to the museum and for his helpful discussions on this essay topic. Also, Mathew Lowe, Collections Manager, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge University, Kathryn Medlock, Senior Curator Vertebrate Zoology, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and Tammy Gordon, Collections Officer, Natural Sciences, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Tasmania.

This essay was co-written by:
Image of Penny Edmonds Penny Edmonds – [Associate Professor, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, University of Tasmania]
Image of Hannah StarkHannah Stark – [Senior Lecturer in English, University of Tasmania]




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Babylon Berlin and why our fascination with 1920s Germany reveals the anxieties of our times

 Babylon Berlin recreates the wild nightlife of 1929 
in Germany. Screenshot from Youtube

It is curious fact that certain times and places seem to have a particular hold on our popular historical imagination. Such is the case with Germany’s capital city, Berlin, during the short-lived Weimar Republic, recently recreated for TV in the critically acclaimed Netflix series Babylon Berlin. Based on a series of novels by Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin is reputedly the most expensive non-English language TV show ever made

Set in the dying days of the republic, its plot centres on a Vice Squad detective, Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), who is posted to Berlin to investigate a pornography ring run by an underworld syndicate. He quickly uncovers plans by reactionary political forces to thwart the disarmament conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, which settled the first world war.

Read more: Sunday essay: can art really make a difference?

The Weimar Republic was so-called because the German city of Weimar was where the first constitutional assembly of the Republic was held in 1919, after the collapse of the German empire. In the late-18th century it had also been home to great figures of the European Enlightenment such as Johann Wolfgang von GoetheFriedrich Schiller, and Johann Gottfried Herder.

 Liv Lisa Fries in Babylon Berlin. Screenshot from Youtube 

Any hoped-for association between the spirit of that Age of Reason and the Republic, however, was to prove chimeric. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, and specifically the passing of the Enabling Act on March 23 of that year, made him the effective dictator of Germany.

Understandably, we continue to seek possible explanations for this disaster in the culture that immediately preceded it. But there are other grounds for our continuing fascination with the Weimar Republic.

It was also something of a cultural “Golden Age” during which social and economic issues of the day came to be explored and debated through music, art, and literature of particular energy, acuity, and depth. And those issues, especially those originating in the social impact of new media technologies or the emerging global economy, seem close to many troubling us today.

Technology and liberation

This is not, of course, the first time that Weimar Berlin has found its way into mainstream popular culture outside of Germany. Many of us will have got our first “feel” for the period from the musical (and film) Cabaret.

Like Cabaret, based on on English-American novelist Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939), many of the clubs, cafes, brothels, and political personalities depicted in Babylon Berlin are based on actual historical places and people. With an unparalleled production budget and some 12 hours of broadcast time, however, the series is able to build up a more sophisticated picture of the physical, psychological, and geopolitical character of the city.

We also see techniques that particularly fascinated Weimar artists employed right from the show’s opening credits, such as the use of the cinematic device of montage (thought to approximate the similarly diffracted sensual experience of a bustling metropolis). Likewise, the plot that unfolds over the series’ 16 episodes fractures and splits in fascinatingly unexpected ways.

 Babylon Berlin Opening Credits.

Babylon Berlin offers windows into the private and professional lives of the city’s inhabitants: not just the professional and aristocratic classes but also the working poor for whom debates over competing political visions for the country took on a visceral immediacy. (Could they find a safe place to sleep? Did they have enough to eat?)

The changing role and status of women is another recurring theme. Article 109 of the Weimar Constitution declared that men and women had the same fundamental rights and duties as citizens, including the right to vote and to hold public office. In the series we see how women now sought not only employment, but also forms of pleasure, that had hitherto not been open to them.

Older patriarchal elites viewed such cultural shocks with deep suspicion. When Germany’s fragile post-war economic recovery was fatally undermined by the Wall Street Crash in 1929, they were quick to claim that liberalism represented a profound social ill only a return to imposed social order could cure.

Another constant of the series is the shadow cast by the first world war and how it damaged both the psyches and bodies of those who survived it. For Detective Rath, relief from his ills is found in illicit drugs. But everyone, it seems, is struggling with demons of one kind or another. One strength of the series is that there are no straightforward “good” or “bad” guys (or girls).

Defending democracy

In the series’ first 14 episodes, similarly, there is not a swastika in sight. This is perhaps grounded in the fact that at the 1928 general election, the Nazis had won just 2.6% of the vote. While this arguably underplays both the visibility and significance of the Party’s activities in Berlin at this time, it also makes it easier for the series to focus our attention on a broader message.

Whatever the time or place, democracy is fragile and requires collective political effort and civic courage to be sustained and nurtured. Or, as one reviewer put it, “Babylon Berlin is less anxious self-examination than knowing warning to others”.

The series remains, of course, a historical drama, not a documentary, and is designed to be rollicking good entertainment (which it is!) It is ultimately no substitute for an in-depth study of Weimar history and culture.

But at a time when young people across the West are increasingly sceptical about liberal democracy, it offers a timely reminder of why that history still has lessons for us.

This article was written by:
Image of Peter Tregear Peter Tregear – [Honorary Principal Fellow, University of Melbourne]




This article is part of a syndicated news program via


Listen To Older Voices : Elaine McGavin – Part 2

Welcome to Listen To Older Voices, a program produced by
Rob Greaves for Uniting Melba and podcast through the Toorak Times & Tagg.
Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principle of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.
This is another wonderful Golden Moment Repeat program, where we have dipped into our vault of treasured memories and retrieved a story from the archives that we believe deserves being repeated for those who may have missed it the first time. The story of Elaine McGavin was first aired in November of 2007. 
Continuing her fascinating stories, which are punctuated by an easy sense of humor, we learn of her life with husband Ron and other employment, which included working in what was one of Melbourne’s most iconic and well know bookshops – the Theosophical Bookshop. Elaine also talks about her work as the secretary to the Chief Health Surveyor in the City of Hawthorn.
Finally Elaine also shares tales of her trip to Thailand. Her life is full of activity and stories including one involving Bert Newton. Listen to the stories of a woman who has lived a rich life to its fullest.


Click to hear Elaine McGavin – Part 2

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 


[Listen To Older Voices is a Uniting Melba program and receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Commonwealth Home Support Program]

No laughing matter: Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin reveals the anxieties of team Putin

 Adrian McLoughlin meets his end as Stalin in 
The Death of Stalin. IMDB

Armando Iannucci’s dark comedy The Death of Stalin, on general release in Australia from March 29, has caused controversy in Russia. After a preview in the Ministry of Culture in late January, a group of politicians and cultural figures – including the daughter of acclaimed WW2 military commander Marshal Georgy Zhukov, played in the film by Jason Isaacs – wrote an open letter to the minister calling the film “slander”, “denigrating”, and “extremist”.

They asked Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky to withdraw permission for the film’s distribution in Russia. Putin’s man for historical topics happily complied. The one cinema that defied the ban was “visited” by police and dropped the movie from its program.

The film is a slapstick comedy about the power struggle after Stalin’s death, not a historical documentary. For example, the mass arrests and executions of 1937-38 have been moved to 1953 in the film for dramatic effect, forming the backdrop to Stalin’s death and the ensuing power struggle.

As far as historical films go, The Death of Stalin is more like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) or maybe Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) than Oliver Hirschbiegel’s historically accurate Downfall (2004). Nobody would dismiss these movies for not correctly depicting the historical Jesus Christ, or for misrepresenting the cause of Hitler’s death.

The ban is best explained by the Kremlin’s anxieties about its grip on power. In the recent presidential election, the government decided it needed not only 70% of votes, but also 70% voter participation to legitimise its rule. This was an ambitious target, suggesting there is a feeling in the Kremlin that holding power requires near-complete consent.

An anxious Kremlin

In reality there is barely a government in Europe as secure as Vladimir Putin’s. Independent polling has shown high approval ratings for the President, despite declining economic performance since 2013. The aggressive, Make-Russia-Great-Again stance in international relations has improved this popularity.

Team Putin left nothing to chance at the election. Various inducements were provided, from free buffets to games for the children. Free transport to polling stations helped to get the vote out. Stooges stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated election observers and at times removed them by force.

In a country that’s not a totalitarian dictatorship such desperate measures were reported instantly on social media. They made a mockery of the pretence to democracy and allowed the opposition, weak as it is, to claim that these were not legitimate elections.

Despite Team Putin’s effort, the result fell short. Not everybody, it turns out, loves Putin. While a record share (76.7%) and number of voters (56.2 million) elected the president, official voter turnout was 67.5%, the third lowest since the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991, although by international standards still a respectable result. In the victory celebrations, nevertheless, the target was no longer mentioned.

Skewering the politicians

According to the open letter to Medinsky, The Death of Stalin is “slander on the history of our country, a malicious and absolutely inappropriate, so-called ‘comedy’, which is denigrating the memory of our citizens, who defeated fascism”. Moreover, the film was “extremist,” tried to “humiliate the dignity of the Russian (Soviet) person” and propagated discrimination “on the basis of social and national identity.”

This critique is missing the point. The Death of Stalin is not denigrating Russia or the Russians. It is denigrating power-hungry politicians, as one perceptive young Russian put it. She tasted the forbidden cinematographic fruit during a trip to Riga in Latvia, easily reached by bus from St. Petersburg:

I really liked the film, it’s insanely funny. But I immediately understood why it’s is now banned [in Russia] … I cannot remember that in our cinema the topic of power in general has been treated with such an intonation, the topic of change of power and the mess which accompanies it.

The leaders are shown as “completely inhuman,” she continued, interested only in power “they completely forgot about the people, about the country”.

She is right. The movie is a political satire targeting politicians, not ordinary people. It depicts the ruling clique as brutal buffoons, power-hungry, vulgar, and pathetic. They don’t care about the people they govern, whom they happily kill in droves if it suits their purposes. Even the great Marshal Zhukov – whose depiction by Isaacs is my personal favourite but could not have pleased the hero’s daughter – is violent, arrogant, and foul-mouthed.

According to the official Russian version of the second world war, Stalin was a great leader whose firm hand led “Russia” to victory in war. In the film, he is shown as both nasty and vulgar, indulging in late-night cowboy movies and encouraging inane pranks among his entourage. After his breakdown, his body lies in a puddle of urine and gets manhandled by his henchmen, elated at his demise and terrified he might recover. Eventually he has his scalp removed and his head cut open as part of the autopsy. That’s hardly a respectful treatment for a leader.

Putin is no Stalin, but their names are often mentioned in tandem. Putin is the longest serving Russian leader since Stalin. Stalin died in office at the tender age of 74. Putin will be 71 if he finishes his new term.

And if Putin is popular, Stalin is even more so. In recent times, he has become one of Russia’s favourite people, topping an independent poll that asked Russians to name “ten most outstanding persons of all times and peoples”. Putin tied with poet Alexander Pushkin in second place. Disrespect for Stalin and his henchmen implies to many disrespect to the Russian government, and hence disrespect to Putin and his team. It is no wonder the movie was banned.

This article was written by:
Image of Mark Edele
Mark Edele – [Hansen Chair in History, University of Melbourne]




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Online conspiracy theorists are more diverse (and ordinary) than most assume

 Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) in The X-Files is fond of 
joining seemingly unrelated dots to create a conspiracy theory 
– but in reality, the picture is more nuanced.

Conspiracy theories are known for connecting apparently unrelated events. Consider the X-Files’ Fox Mulder holed up in his office, frantically joining seemingly random dots. Or the American radio host Alex Jones connecting leaked Clinton emails and fuzzy rover pictures to conclude that NASA is running a child slave colony on Mars.

Cognitive psychologists have often claimed that conspiracy theorists possess a “monological” belief system, in which belief in one conspiracy leads to belief in others. Eventually, they explain every significant event, however unrelated, through the same conspiratorial “logic”.

On such a view, conspiracy theorists are fundamentally irrational, perhaps even pathologically so. But is this an oversimplification?

So-called “big data” approaches to psychology can give a unique perspective on these questions. By using large datasets gathered from social media websites, one can look at people interacting in everyday settings. Importantly, these approaches can capture everybody, not just the most vocal members of a community.

In a recent paper we used online comments to examine individuals who are interested in these types of ideas. We examined a complete set of comments over eight years from the conspiracy forum of

Our dataset included 2.2 million comments from roughly 130,000 distinct user names. Our analyses used topic modelling, a type of linguistic analysis that tries to find common themes across a large collection of documents.

We were able to identify 12 distinct subgroups of individuals who used language in different ways and who varied widely in their interests and their posting habits. What they talked about strongly suggested that they held different beliefs and attitudes about a range of conspiracies.

Eleven of these had consistent enough interests to be readily interpretable. We assigned each of them a name and created aggregate sample comments, as shown in this diagram.


We found that there were posters who fit the “monological” pattern (we dubbed them True Believers), writing at length on a wide variety of different topics. However, they were only the tip of the iceberg. Most posters had more specific interests.

Indeed, many seemed to be attracted as much to the social aspects of discussing conspiracies as the content of specific conspiracies. The group we called the Meta-redditors, for example, was most notable for their discussion of other forums on Reddit and complaints about moderation policies.

Similarly, there were subgroups (the Downtrodden) who appeared to be communicating about conspiracy theories as a way of expressing general frustration with authority.

Some were suspicious of US foreign policy (Anti-imperalists). Others may be using conspiracy topics as a way to express racist or otherwise socially unacceptable ideas (Anti-semites). There was even a distinct subgroup who appeared to be posting primarily in order to debunk conspiracy beliefs (Sceptics).

This suggests that individuals involved with conspiracy theories may have quite different motivations, beliefs and attitudes. It may not be useful to consider them as a homogeneous group.

What does all this mean for the study of conspiracy theories? It’s complicated.

On the one hand, it has long been known that online conspiracy theorising can have a variety of negative social effects, from political disengagement to actual violence. These are effects we should aim to mitigate.

On the other hand, our study also reveals something more surprising. The vast majority of posters were no more active in the conspiracy forum than they were on other reddit forums. This suggests that, for most individuals, conspiracy theories are not an all-encompassing obsession that overrides other interests, but just one interest among many. Even the most obsessed posters also spend a lot of time discussing Star Wars and trading cute cat photos on other parts of the site.

As noted, many members of online forums appear to use conspiracy theories to express legitimate doubts about structures of power, even if the details may appear striking to us. Reddit’s conspiracy forum links on its front page to a “list of confirmed conspiracies”, many of which are historically accurate. In the 1960s, for instance, the US FBI did infiltrate domestic protest groups to disrupt and discredit them. The public health service in Alabama did conduct long-term medical experiments on African American men.

Hence, we think that conspiracy theorising may be best understood as a symptom of a breakdown of trust in institutions like government and the media. Rebuilding that trust is, alas, a difficult proposal. However, our work suggests that recognising the varied and complex motivations and attitudes of conspiracy believers is an important step forward.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Colin Klein Colin Klein – [Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Australian National University];
Image of Peter CluttonPeter Clutton – [Australian National University]
Image of Vince PolitoVince Polito – [Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Cognitive Science, Macquarie University]




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Listen To Older Voices : Elaine McGavin – Part 1

Welcome to Listen To Older Voices, a program produced by Rob Greaves
for Uniting Melba and podcast through the Toorak Times and Tagg.

Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principle of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.

This is another wonderful Golden Moment Repeat program, where we have dipped into our vault of treasured memories and retrieved a story from the archives that we believe deserves being repeated for those who may have missed it the first time. The story of Elaine McGavin was first aired in November of 2007. 
Welcome to part 1 of a 2-part program featuring Elaine McGavin. Elaine was 72 years of age when interviewed in September of 2007. She takes us on a journey starting from what are amazing recollections of her life at only 18 months old. As a teen she played in the Victorian Junior netball squad, a game she continued to play even after having children.
She is a wonderfully warm person with a great sense of humor. Elaine speaks at length of the closeness of her family and the things they did together. Her life is full of great events and some surprises, including having a famous musical brother, Athol Guy, who was a member of what was probably Australia’s greatest trio the Seekers.

Click to hear Elaine McGavin – Part 1

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 


[Listen To Older Voices is a Uniting Melba program and receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Commonwealth Home Support Program]

A beginner’s guide to the foggy wilderness of ambient music

 Clouds and sun glint over the Indian Ocean. 
NASA on The Commons/flickr

Brian Eno’s Music For Airports celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. This record is widely regarded as formalising ambient music as we know it today.

To those of us used to the repetitious rhythms and hooks of pop music, ambient music may sound a little sparse. Often devoid of lyrics, a hummable melody and pop song structures, it is about the creation of an environment around the listener. Ambient music floats in the air like a fog, creating a kind of acoustic tint that can be truly affective.

Music For Airports proposed a new way of approaching music, not as something to whistle or sing along to, but to be gently consumed by. Attached to the record was a short essay by Eno that laid out the groundwork for this approach:

Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

While ignorable music might seem a touch redundant in the age of effortless distraction, Eno’s initial notes on ambient music still hold weight. Specifically, his ideas on accommodating the varied listening states we each bring to our musical encounters have flourished and allowed ambient to become a music of lived moments.

Each time you encounter a piece of ambient music, it shifts and alters ever so subtly as the sounds around you merge with it. Similarly, our capacities to listen and focus (or not focus) greatly affect our encounters with it.

To mark this anniversary, here’s a chronological selection of ambient recordings that have helped map out its sonic geography. It is by no means exhaustive: plenty of other records have been equally influential, genre-expanding and commercially successful. Consider this a way to wade into the foggy wilderness that is ambient music.


Harold Budd’s Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is second in Brian Eno’s Ambient series. This record, along with The Pearl, came to epitomise the open musical structures that form the basic building blocks of ambient. Budd’s fingers navigate perpetual cycles across the piano keys, the tones reflecting some imagined walk in a place you might never have been.


Pauline Oliveros remains one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Accordion and Voice captures her creating vast spaces from the simplest of inputs: voice and a single instrument.

While not as celebrated as his ambient music debut, Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land is the first record to significantly explore the influences of land and place in ambient composition. It’s also a record that captured a distinct sense of the “eerie”, as cultural theorist Mark Fisher recently observed.


Best remembered for their publicity stunt involving the burning of a million pounds, The KLF’s Chillout typified ambient’s rising popularity and shift into the mainstream early in the 1990s. Indeed at that time, the term was overused to the point where its meaning became opaque at best. Chillout spaces dotted most raves and other underground dance parties, providing music that expressly shunned hard rhythms and fast beats per minutes.


Thomas Köner’s Permafrost spearheaded a new, so-called isolationist thread of ambient music, one concerned with icy sound fields and harrowing, low-frequency explosions, which felt like the listener was tapping into the songs of tectonic plates.


If there’s one record that solidified ambient’s continued relevance into the 1990s, it was Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II. It remains a touchstone for the more accessible end of the genre, a gently sweeping collection of warm harmonic phrases washing over pulsing bass lines and filtered downtempo grooves.


With the simple introduction of a pulsing kick drum, Wolfgang Voight (under the moniker Gas, perhaps a reference to ambient’s nebulous musical form) marked out a new territory for the music with a series of recordings including Königsforst. In this fresh terrain, a low-frequency heartbeat could pump energy through uneasy clouds of sound and melody.


William Basinski’s extended work Disintegration Loops stands as one of the most quietly powerful executions of ambient music this century. With the literal sound of magnetic materials falling off decaying tape loops, the singular simplicity of this work never fails to astound.


Whilst her work exists in excess of what some might consider ambient music, Éliane Radigue’s L’île re-sonante crystallises so much about the capacity of the genre to be deeply affecting without becoming didactic in any way. Radigue’s pieces, which often drew from her interest in Buddhist philosophy, were largely made with the legendary Arp 2500 synthesizer, which was adept at creating wavering electronic tones.


Grouper’s Dragging A Dead Dear Up A Hill is another record that recontoured the boundaries of ambient. Its use of blurry, cavernous spaces, within which Grouper buries her songs, creates a unique realm of indistinct beauty.


Félicia Atkinson’s Hand In Hand is one of many recent examples that further extend the possibilities of this music, by recognising the subjectivity of listening. Atkinson is part of a generation of artists whose work is set to push ambient forward into its next 40 years. 


 This article was written by:
Image of Lawrence EnglishLawrence English – [Adjunct Lecturer, The University of Queensland]




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