All posts tagged the-monthly

  • The Monthly story: ‘Dogs On The Inside’, March 2015

    A story for the March 2015 issue of The Monthly. An excerpt appears below.

    Dogs On The Inside

    The BARK program at Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre sees prisoners taking care of dogs

    The Monthly story: 'Dogs On The Inside' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015. Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

    A handful of inmates are gathered in the library of the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre in Wacol, 20 kilometres south-west of Brisbane. The centre of attention is Kia, a boisterous young Staffordshire bull terrier. As the dark-brown dog does laps of the group, sniffing at thong-shod feet, gratefully receiving rough pats and gulping water from a plastic bowl on the carpet, the four men follow her with their eyes.

    “There’s a lot of bravado in here,” says Ricky, a muscular, tattooed man with a shaved head. “When we have a dog, it tones the unit down. To pat a dog, you’ve gotta soften your heart. You can’t be looking tough when you go, ‘Hello, good girl! Why’s your tail like that for?’” His voice rises an octave as he addresses this last part to Kia and forcefully pats her flank. The dog looks up at him, confused.

    “It’s good responsibility for us as well,” says the big, bearded Alex. “Cleaning up after poo and wee, picking up rubbish lying around. People throwing stuff in the unit – you’ve gotta stop that when there’s an animal around.” On the outside, Alex bred Shar Peis, a breed known for their wrinkled features. In here, his favourite is Pippy, a fluffy, white Maltese aged three. “She’s lovely all round.” He grins at the anxious animal as she’s led into the room on a leash, warily eyeing off Kia. “She’s perfect.”

    Pippy was donated to RSPCA Queensland through the Pets in Crisis program, indicating that she and her owner were fleeing domestic violence. Since early 2013, the RSPCA’s Wacol campus has teamed up with staff and inmates at Arthur Gorrie to run the Bars and Rehabilitation Kanine (BARK) program. During that time, 54 abandoned or surrendered dogs, some with behavioural or medical problems, have been placed in prison units of up to 70 men, who act as foster carers for the animals until they’re adopted in the community or can be returned to their owners. A similar program at the nearby Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre partners cats with female inmates.

    In the prison library, Ricky is the only one not wearing a uniform of green shirt and shorts; a red shirt denotes his role as a mentor for inmates struggling to adapt to their new environment. “There’s a lot of mental illness in here, believe me,” he says. “And most of us guys have trust issues.” He raises his hand. “I, for one. This program does help instil that little bit of trust again. It may be with an animal, but it’s a start.”

    To read the full story, visit The Monthly. Above illustration credit: Jeff Fisher.

  • The Monthly story: ‘Queen’s Man: Jarrod Bleijie’, March 2014

    A story for the March 2014 issue of The Monthly, and my first essay for the magazine: a profile of Queensland’s attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie. Excerpt below.

    Queen’s Man

    The crazy brave populism of Jarrod Bleijie

    The Monthly story: 'Queen's Man: The crazy brave populism of Jarrod Bleijie', March 2014, by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen

    One Friday evening last September, some 60 members of the Bandidos motorcycle gang descended on a busy restaurant in the Gold Coast suburb of Broadbeach to confront a man associated with the Finks, a rival gang. In the ensuing melee, four police officers were injured. Later, a smaller group of Bandidos assembled outside the nearby Southport police watch house in an apparent show of support for their 18 arrested peers.

    For Queensland’s attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie, that evening was a “line in the sand”. Three weeks later, just before 3 am on 16 October, the Liberal National Party–dominated state parliament passed three pieces of bikie-related legislation, including the bill that would become the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) Act. “Recent events have proved that certain groups have no regard for the Queensland public,” Bleijie said. “Enough is enough. By restricting their movements and operations, the community is protected and it prevents these groups from running their criminal enterprises.”

    Under the VLAD Act, a “vicious lawless associate” found guilty of any criminal offence listed in the legislation, from the smallest drug possession charge up, would serve a mandatory prison term of up to 25 years on top of their sentence. The Tattoo Parlours Act bans members of criminal associations and their associates from operating, working in or owning tattoo parlours. The Criminal Law (Criminal Organisations Disruption) Amendment Act amends various pieces of legislation to label 26 motorcycle clubs as criminal organisations and ban their members from congregating in groups of more than three or meeting at their clubhouses. The Queensland government would go on to establish a “bikies only” prison, where inmates may be dressed in fluoro pink overalls.

    Police have arrested dozens of people under the new laws, including a group of five men drinking beer at the Yandina Hotel on the Sunshine Coast and a group of five Victorian men buying ice-creams on the Gold Coast. Clubhouses were closed; interstate bikies called off their trips north. The United Motorcycle Council Queensland hired a PR firm. Tearful family members hit the airwaves. A High Court challenge was touted (and is in train). Meanwhile, protesters took to the streets, on motorcycles and on foot. The tabloid press, normally so keen to demand a crackdown, any crackdown, on crime, no longer knew which way to turn. Even the Queensland premier, Campbell Newman, appeared to waver for a moment, hinting that the laws might be a temporary measure.

    But Bleijie remained steadfast. As he put it in a radio interview at the time: “These laws are targeting these particular types of grub and thug to make people in Queensland safe in their homes at night. They don’t have to worry about these types of thugs on our streets any more … We’re dealing with a different type of criminal: the toughest of the toughest and the worst of the worst.”

    The VLAD Act, with its broad definition of “vicious lawless associate”, would target not only criminal motorcycle gangs but also organised crime gangs that are not “patched” – “akin to the Mafia in the States”, Bleijie said in the same interview – and paedophile rings “that are grooming and doing all sorts of terrible things to our young kids”.

    In Bleijie (whose Dutch surname rhymes with “play”), Queenslanders suddenly had a tireless warrior for law and order: a former lawyer who could debate the finer points of complicated legislation through the dead of night, then front up to a morning media conference looking no worse for wear. The Courier-Mail dubbed him “boy wonder”, Robin to Newman’s Batman.

    The night after the passing of the anti-bikie legislation, another populist bill was sped through parliament. This one was a response to the case of Robert John Fardon, a 65-year-old who had served time for a number of violent sexual offences against girls and women, including acts committed while on parole. In 2003, Fardon became the first prisoner to be detained indefinitely under Queensland’s Dangerous Prisoners (Sexual Offenders) Act, legislation introduced by Peter Beattie’s Labor government. Last year, a review by the Supreme Court of Queensland ordered that Fardon be released on strict conditions. In response, Bleijie introduced an amendment to the legislation that would allow him to ask the governor to make a “public interest declaration” to keep offenders like Fardon behind bars.

    In legal circles, the amendment was branded a publicity stunt, and Bleijie was ridiculed for not understanding the separation of powers – the courts, not politicians, send people to prison. Tony Fitzgerald, the man who’d led the inquiry that had exposed corruption and political interference at the highest level in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government 25 years earlier, was prompted to write in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail: “It is incomprehensible that any rational Queenslander who is even remotely aware of the state’s recent history could for a moment consider reintroducing political interference into the administration of criminal justice, even to the point of making decisions about incarceration.”

    Weeks later, Queensland’s Court of Appeal struck down the new laws, agreeing that they would have required the Supreme Court to “exercise powers repugnant to or incompatible with [its] institutional integrity”.

    “To have any politician alone decide who’s going to be in jail or not is scary,” says Dan O’Gorman, a prominent Brisbane barrister. “I’ve acted for Fardon for seven years. He’s had a terrible life himself, which doesn’t justify his behaviour, of course. But Fardon is not the issue; the issue is the process. [Bleijie] just doesn’t seem to understand the role of an A-G. Unfortunately, not only has this fellow not defended the institutional integrity of the judicial process, he’s the leader of the cheer squad that’s attacking the courts. It’s an unbelievable situation.”

    To read the full 3,000 word story, visit The Monthly’s website.

  • A Conversation With Benjamin Law, author and freelance journalist

    Brisbane writer and author, Benjamin LawBenjamin Law [pictured right] is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist (for Frankie, QWeekend, and The Monthly, among others) who recently had his first book, The Family Law, published via Black Inc. I interviewed him for The Courier-Mail about its genesis and release; you can read that story here.

    What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which took place in late April in a New Farm coffee shop.

    Andrew: So I read the book, and found it pretty damn enthralling. The way you tell stories is quite engaging. I like how you switch between first person-like dialogue, then switch away to tell a story.

    Benjamin: Thank you very much.

    I saw you had your first review.

    Yeah, in Bookseller & Publisher, so that’s mainly an industry magazine, but that’s important and a relief because I know from working at a bookstore, Avid Reader, that magazine’s important to know how to sell things and whether to sell things. So yeah, pretty chuffed.

    How does your family feel about the book?

    It’s always the first question, isn’t it? [laughs] Well, I’ve written about my family a lot because I write for a magazine called Frankie, a lot of those first person sort of stuff, a lot of it is personal anecdotes, funny stories from your life, and pretty short funny essays that a lot of other writers write for Frankie as well, so not just me. I’ve been writing for them for quite a while now, so my family is quite used to me writing about them.

    They’ve gotten accustomed to it, and to be honest; we’re a pretty open family when it comes to most things. You’ll read the book and you’ll hear the stuff that my family says. It’s pretty outrageous. If you’re a friend of mine and you’ve met my mother for the first time, most of my friends have a story of when they met my mother for the first time. They can usually pinpoint the exact moment where she started talking about all of our births, in graphic detail. It’s not a very closed family. There is not much that’s too sacred, really.

    When I was writing this book, it was funny; I got a book contract, and I said, “Hey guys, I’ve got news for you all.” They were like “What?” I’m like “I’m going to write this book,” and they were all like “that’s amazing, what’s it about?” “It’s about you guys.” They were like “That’s … really good.” You can sort of see it’s really great because whenever my family, especially between the siblings as well, are completely different but everyone does really well in their field and we really celebrate everybody’s wins, so when I said I’m writing a book and I’ve got a contract for it, everyone was over the moon, thrilled.

    I think when I said, “Guess what it’s about,” they were like “cool,” but when I finished the draft, all 6 of my immediate family members – I sent a draft to all 6 immediate family members and they liked what they saw. I think because I’ve been writing about them for a while now, I’ve got an internal gauge of what I can and can’t… To be honest, the stuff that I wouldn’t be able to get away with wouldn’t be that interesting anyway.

    When they read through the drafts, it was mainly stuff like “Change some of your spelling, your grammar is wrong here, your syntax is a bit awkward here”. They were just like “You know what, this is totally fine.” There were some disputes as to how things happened. There were some discrepancies in memories as well, in terms of whether this happened, how it happened, what people said, and that’s because it’s so long ago. These are stories going back through the ‘80s and ‘90s, which is when I grew up. Beyond that there wasn’t too much of a problem. Everyone is pretty happy.

    So you weren’t taking too much creative license with these stories; you tried to faithfully recreate them as they happened.

    As faithfully as possible, totally. Names have been changed and I think there are some pretty obvious reasons why some names have been changed. All my family have been pretty happy to stand by their names and their dialogue. I’ve tried to make sure they sound as natural as they can; I obviously didn’t go back in time and record their dialogue. I didn’t take too much creative license and everything that happened in the book pretty much happened.

    It’s interesting to me that you didn’t actually talk about the act of writing about the family at any stage during the book, so it was all from a distance. You recounted a story instead of saying “I was thinking at the time I’m going to write about this afterwards.” At what stage did you start writing about the family in Frankie?

    I think I started doing a creative writing degree and I think I reached a point where I realised my family’s material was pretty good material. When I was doing my creative writing degree, everyone was writing fiction. I realized I’m rubbish at fiction. All of my fictional works were thinly disguised memoirs. I think that’s what a lot of people do for their first novel; they write a thinly disguised memoir.

    I thought I would instead write it straight because especially after you read this book and a lot of other memoirs, sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. I think with my family at least, that’s often the case. You’ll come across stories that defy belief a little; my dad meeting his dad for the first time after a decade and his dad dying that very day. That seems beyond anything any fiction – if you wrote that as fiction it would seem contrived.

    I think there is something cool about writing it straight. At what point did I decide to write about them? I think I’ve been writing about them in one say, shape, or another throughout the years, but I think Frankie sort of gave me the opportunity to write about the stuff that’s happened but also through a humorous lens as well. There is some stuff in the book that’s quite heavy but I think unless it’s coupled by humour, it doesn’t really work. I think that’s one thing my family is quite good at, all of us, we like laughing at horror, at least after a while. Everyone has a pretty black sense of comedy.

    What was it, that Minnie Mouse rape story…. “I was raaaaped!”

    [laughs] That comes early [in the book]. That’s dark. We weren’t sure whether to include that or not, but I just left it in after a while. If I wouldn’t have left that in I don’t think you would have gotten a very true sense of how inappropriate my family can become.

    Have you ever kept a diary?

    No, I’m really undisciplined. I’m incredibly undisciplined. You would talk to a lot of other writers who would say, “I’ve kept a diary since I was a child, and then I kept a lock on it under the bed.” I went back to my family house recently and I found an old diary and like all of my diaries from childhood, all of January is filled, and then the entries become bullet points, and by February I’ve given up.

    I don’t know about other people but I never thought as a kid that when this stuff was happening that it was incredibly interesting. I was born into a big migrant family, into a pretty odd family in a lot of ways, but I never thought it was that unusual or interesting to write about. I think you build up that self awareness later in life. I’m not a disciplined enough writer to write every day. It’s interesting; writing these stories has been – it’s not until you start writing them that you start remembering some of the details that come through.

    And your family’s feedback would have assisted along the way.

    That’s right, after the first draft.

    Speaking about heavy topics, the chapter about how parts of your mother’s family were deported to Hong Kong, that was heavy and to get that kind of perspective, for me as an Australian, I think that’s one of the most important takeaway aspects of the book.

    Absolutely, the family is really interesting because they’re supposed to be the family, the people you know most about but in so many ways, and I think this is the case for a lot of people, but you never really get the opportunity to get a full account of some of those stories until you start writing about them, or until you start asking certain questions, like exactly what did happen. I’d grown up in a house that was really full of stuff, and it wasn’t until I was a bit older as a child that I thought, “None of this stuff is ours. How did it actually get here?” That turned into me writing this story about my extended family being deported, this incredibly traumatic time for my family in the mid ‘80s and I only would have been 4 years old and pretty oblivious to what happened.

    I think writing that story was really important because it gave me a sense that I do come from pretty amazing stock, really resilient people who were really willing to take a bet on this country. My parents were lucky they got to stay, that they became citizens. I think that’s the case for a lot of children with migrant parents, as well. You really want to try hard because you constantly, whether you’re aware of it or not, you are constantly reminded of how much they went through just to come here and what they had to give up to come here. I think that story is probably an illustration of that.

    Benjamin Law - 'The Family Law' book coverIs there a story in the book that you’re most proud of, or a chapter in the book that you favor?

    I really like the story about my dad, and his dad. It starts off with me not knowing how to buy my dad presents because he works 24/7 and he doesn’t have any pastimes because he works so hard. That of course leads into the story of his dad as well and he’s not someone I grew up with. He died way before I was born. He died when my dad was a kid, so finding out that story was really important to me, getting a sense of who my dad was when he was young, as well, was really important to me. That’s probably one story I’m proud of because it’s the kind of story that none of my siblings had unearthed either, and I hadn’t really investigated it until I started writing this book.

    This really interesting process of “Dad, tell me what happened”; sometimes those stories aren’t told until you ask those questions. I’m not sure if it’s pride but I’m really glad and relieved that I got that story out of dad. He’s not the biggest storyteller. He’s not about to tell you stories for the sake of it. He’s a very practical guy but when you ask him questions, all these stories come out and that story wasn’t even half of it. It gave me a much clearer sense of who dad was, and what drove him to the guy he is now. All these interesting processes of finding out what were you parents like when they were your age; you sort of forget that your parents were your age. That was a really good, fun process.

    Another topic I found interesting was how you didn’t gloss over the divorce. You told time and time how unhappy your parents were. It was obviously a very frightening thing as a child but you kind of accepted it.

    Divorce is interesting. One of the things about this book is I think I’ve written it from a point of pride. I’m proud my family went through this incredibly difficult time of my parents splitting up and came out of it relatively okay. For all intents and purposes, we still like each other, probably not my parents, but everyone else likes each other. I think divorce is one of those things that, especially in the Chinese community, it’s not really talked about.

    You mentioned that in the dialogue, that the Asian community came and spoke to the kids.

    They totally feel it’s their right to come in and give their opinions. I always thought that was a bit strange. It’s not until you grow up that you realise how hard it would’ve been for your parents, like you always feel like “this is such a miserable time for me” when you’re a child who comes from divorced parents and the broken family. But, it’s only when you become an adult that you start to realise how difficult it would’ve been for them.

    My mom is a tiny woman. She had 5 kids, all school aged at that stage and she decided to say no to my dad, break off the marriage, and raise his children on her own. I don’t even know where that impulse would have come from. I don’t know how she could’ve brought yourself to that point to say, “I’m brave enough to do this”.

    I think writing the book has given me an opportunity to look back on that as well. I think writing the book has also given me the opportunity to see some of the humour in it, as well. When you’re in that situation it’s pretty grim. But in hindsight it’s sort of hilarious as well.

    There is this one story that I really like and it’s all about my dad taking us on his weekends, during the divorce. On paper, shared custody is supposed to be a pretty clean thing. Maybe the mother gets you Monday through Friday and the dad gets you every weekend or second weekend. It’s quite quarantined how everything works.

    The reality of it is completely different and it’s wild. We grew up in the Sunshine Coast, and of course the Sunshine Coast has these terrible theme parks, totally completely opposite to the Gold Coast, so Sunshine Coast – we went to things like the deer sanctuary and Superbee for my dad’s weekends, and Nostalgia Town as well.

    I went to Nostalgia Town as a child, too. I thought it was kind of cool at the time, but in retrospect, maybe it wasn’t…

    It was quite strange wasn’t it? You can’t help but laugh. My dad tried to take us to these places to show us a good time, but they were sort of lame. He wanted to have time with the kids but my mum insisted on going with him. We went to these places that were supposed to be fun, but smelled like urine. It’s sort of this tragic comedy, really. But at the time it just seems tragic. With retrospect you realise it’s actually a really funny piece. I guess that’s where most of the book comes from, black humour. I dig tragic comedy.

    I know the press release mentioned David Sedaris, so he’s obviously one of your influences. You did mention that when we first met. You described it as a ‘David Sedaris kind of book’. Are there any other kind of humour writers you enjoy?

    Sedaris is probably the main one. I remember reading him for the first time and thinking “this guy is pretty awesome,” and I identified with him because similarly he came from a big, sprawling family, had a migrant parent, gay, and had that perspective on grim humour that I quite liked.

    Augustine Burroughs probably does that, as well, Running with Scissors. I also like people who write good, straight personal essays, who aren’t necessarily in it for laughs as well, like Joan Didion and Zadie Smith. Michael Chabon’s essays, as well. I’ve read a lot of fiction, but I really like when people just write about themselves and I get to know them, probably, as people as well. I like that sense of intimacy. Those are probably the big guys for me.

    You’ve been tagged as a comedy writer, or a humour writer. There is some kind of danger associated with that because comedy is subjective. As soon as I started reading… for starters, I could picture your voice as I read it because I’ve met you, obviously. I could picture your deep, baritone voice. That made it funny to me, but then, your humour appeals to me.

    Brisbane writer and author, Benjamin LawIt’s not going to appeal to everyone.

    Maybe it’s a generational thing.

    I’ve already heard from various people that they really like the book but they also couple it with “It’s not going to be for everyone, is it Benjamin?” It’s a bit vulgar and crass but to be honest, that’s how my family is as well. My family often claims that I corrupted them with how disgusting I am, but when I look back into the family archives, and memories of what people were saying at the time, that’s the family. That’s actually the family dynamic, to be quite crass.

    The comedy writer tag is dangerous because I think anything that’s considered as comedy is dangerous as inherent failure associated with comedy because not everyone has the same sense of humour. The task of comedy is to make people laugh. You’re not going to make everyone laugh so I think this book is for a very specific audience. That audience probably has some familiarity with dysfunction, to some extent, with their own family. Maybe our younger audience don’t mind a bit of vulgarity and crassness as well. If you get all that you’ll probably like my family. You’ll probably like the book because it’s about my family.

    I really liked the chapter about how you met Scott at the end. That was really touching.

    Yeah, I wasn’t sure if I was going to write that because you don’t want to write too earnestly about love. Of course, throughout that story, because that’s one story of a few stories in that section, of course I throw in some fart jokes as well. I think that story is sort of important to be in there because growing up gay, it’s still sort of a big deal, and no one was open about it when we went to school, as well. There is always this arrested development involved, especially if you’re someone of my age. I’m in my late 20’s now. You only start finding love a little bit after everyone else, as well.

    It’s funny, I interviewed the former Justice of the High Court, Michael Kirby, the other day for Frankie and he was talking about how he didn’t find love or even start looking for it until he was in his late 20’s, early 30’s. There was this whole gap in his life where he didn’t look for love. I hope that a story like that, some young homo might read it and think, “That’s cool, and I might find my own partner one day.” You aren’t particularly vocal about how you are at that young age because you’re vulnerable. That really cuts off your chances in finding someone you might want to be with as well.

    Certainly in the book, there is that whole section where I’m 12 years old and already wondering whether I’m going to die alone, that whole fear, crazy things for a 12-year old to be thinking about but that’s the type of kid that I was, completely neurotic. If I was a young teen and I read this book at that young age, and nothing like that existed for me at that age, I think I would get something positive out of it. At least as the writer, I hope young people would.

    You mentioned in the book how your fellow high school students didn’t suspect that you were gay. To then, there was no way that you could be both a racial minority and gay.

    It scrambled their radar. It scrambled up everyone’s sonar.

    You were invisible to them.

    Totally, but I think a lot of the people who read my work, like Frankie readers especially, they’re probably in their late teens and their generation sort of has its shit together. I don’t think we necessarily did.

    The book kind of goes through the full range of emotions. I just realised that, at the end, when you were speaking about how you were despairing that you might be alone for your whole life, to finding someone; to being unhappy with the family situation, to that breakup happening and people being happier; you kind of nailed the full range of emotions, I think.

    I like that. I never really thought about it that way but it probably makes sense, as well. My parents’ divorce started when I graduated from primary school, and only really ended when I graduated from high school. I had my whole teen years just smothered by these feelings of tension and not wanting to belong to this family at all. I don’t think everything is solved, necessarily, at all, but I do feel like it’s only at this stage of my life that I’m quite happy to be a part of my family. I’m quite happy, proud to be a part of this shambolic, odd family.

    And when other people read my work, one of the loveliest things that people say is “Your family is so awesome, I wish I could have been raised in that family.” The 17-year old side of me thinks “What the hell are you talking about? You would not have wanted to belong to my family at all” but I can sort of see in another sense that my family is sort of strong and funny people and nowadays, especially, I enjoy their company immensely. It takes a while. It’s taken a while at least, but I like how you sort of described it as starts in one place and ends in another. That’s probably the chronology of the book, as well; starting in one part of my childhood and ends in a more positive time.

    The book ends with the destruction of the house.

    Which hasn’t happened yet.

    Oh, that was the one creative license that you took?

    It hasn’t happened yet. I speculate on what’s going to happen. That’s in the process of happening now. I think it’s going to be incredibly traumatic. I never moved as a kid. I have a lot of friends who say their whole childhood was defined by moving from house to house, from school to school, and they never got that sense of security. I was sort of the opposite. We never moved.

    I was born into a house and when I go visit my mum that’s still the house that I go back to. It is the “childhood home”. I certainly don’t want to destroy it. If I dream about a house, it will be that house. It’s a really old house now. It’s sort of falling apart by the seams and I think there’s going to be some total sense of devastation when it’s gone because I’m coming up to my late 20’s, 30’s now and to know that’s been the one house, your family house. Those are where your roots are; I think it’s going to be sad to see it go. It’s a long process to make it all happen.

    I like how in the end you acknowledged your editors for encouraging you to write along the way. I wonder how much your journalistic tendencies from your freelance work informs how you wrote the book itself.

    Journalism skills came in handy for some of the stories. Interviewing is an obvious one, but also stuff like…  It could have been one of those montages from a detective film: microfilm blurring over your face, zooming in and printing out copies.

    That was really interesting and that’s not just from journalism but because I’ve studied for so long, as well, that I know how to use all that stuff, and get into the archives. It wasn’t until I did that that I realised how big news that was. Obviously, my family being deported was big news in my family and it’s a pretty defining era in our history, but it was sort of defining to the whole community, the whole Sunshine Coast community at that stage. It was front-page news for probably a few weeks, and continued to be news for two months, broadcast news, and newspapers. It was really interesting and it was interesting knowing – listening how the tone of reporting those issues changed as well.

    This was in the mid ‘80s where my extended family got deported and most of the coverage was incredibly supportive of my family, whereas I think now if that story happened, I’m not sure it would be that supportive of a migrant family who had stayed here illegally and were now being deported; most of the editorials that were written were in favour of them staying. Most of the headlines were in favour of them staying, as well. My baby cousin was born and she was born a citizen but her parents were illegal immigrants. Everyone really rallied for that loophole to be taken advantage of where hopefully her parents could stay because of her. It was really fascinating reading my family story as news. I’m trying to think if there are any other ways journalism came into it. Probably those are the main things, skills wise, at least.

    I hear you’re going to South-east Asia for your next book project.

    That’s right. A completely different book project, the first book is all about myself and my family. The second book is a travelogue. In another way, the second book will sort of be about myself. I’ll tell you what the concept is.

    The concept is traveling throughout Southeast Asia and profiling different gay, lesbian, transsexual, queer communities. One of the fundamental questions at the heart of the book is; here I am as a young, gay Asian dude in a relatively tolerant society of queer rights, when it comes to the world at large; we’re relatively good here in Australia. I’m going to be traveling throughout China, Thailand, Japan, India, Nepal, Singapore, some regions where homosexual conduct is illegal, and asking what would have happened if I’d been born anywhere close to where my folks are actually from; who would my life be different.

    Brisbane-based author Benjamin LawIn one sense, the second book is going to be quite different in tone and subject matter, but in another way it’s still asking some fundamental questions about what would life have been like for me in a different place. I guess that’s what a lot of children of migrants ask of themselves as well; what would my life have been like if I’d been raised as my parents had been raised. I’m looking forward to researching that.

    Are you keeping a diary on that trip?

    I will be. I’ll be more disciplined this time. I think there are reasons to, as well. I’m about to attend the world’s biggest transsexual beauty pageant in Thailand. I think keeping a diary for that would be a good idea. I’m looking forward to it.

    Thanks for your time, Benjamin.


    More Benjamin Law on his website and Twitter. Go buy The Family Law via independent retailers like Avid Reader [Bris], Readings [Melb] or Glee Books [Syd].

  • A Conversation Between Robert Forster and John Willsteed, November 2009

    This is a conversation between Robert Forster, co-founder of Australian pop band The Go-Betweens, and John Willsteed, formerly of The Go-Betweens. It took place in Brisbane’s Avid Reader bookstore on November 9, 2009 to promote Forster’s first book, The 10 Rules Of Rock And Roll, which is a collection of his music writing for The Monthly magazine between 2005 and 2009. John: Hello there, I’m John Willsteed. Robert would like to do a song. [Forster plays ‘Pandanus’ from his 2008 album ‘The Evangelist‘; audio embedded below] I met Robert a little over 30 years ago. This is the first time we’ve been on the stage, I think, in 22 years. It’s not a stage. It’s a book shop. It’s very interesting. I think it’s intriguing that there is music; I like music in a book shop like this; it’s fantastic. It’s the meeting of these two things, music and writing, that we’re here for, because we’re talking about the release of Robert’s book. Why don’t you tell us what these 10 rules are? Robert: Alright, the 10 rules of rock and roll, which is the first section of the book and what the book is obviously named after, I’ll tell you them now.

    1. Never follow an artist who describes his or her work as dark.
    2. The second to last song on every album is the weakest.
    3. Great bands tend to look alike.
    4. Being a rock star is a 24-hour a day job.
    5. The band with the most tattoos has the worst songs.
    6. No band does anything new on stage after the first 20 minutes.
    7. The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.
    8. Every great artist hides behind their manager.
    9. Great bands do not have members making solo albums.
    10. The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.

    That’s the ten rules. I think they’re contentious rules. Robert Forster's 10 Rules Of Rock And RollYou can take umbrage with any you wish to do. Rock and roll needs rules, and I’m glad that you’ve finally laid them down. I like the idea of the two things coming together because rock and roll, theoretically, it’s supposed to have no rules. That’s what it is founded on, to an extent, or the myth is that it has no rules. Obviously, the point of the rules and the point of the book being named that is to bring these two things that normally don’t go together, rules and rock and roll, together. Is it true that in writing about music, which is what you now do, that’s not saying you don’t continue to make music; you obviously do, but in writing about music, do you apply rules? Are they similar? Yeah, one of them is I try not to put myself too much in each piece, or go to ‘I’, which is a great, great temptation. I pull myself out, because sometimes I have connections. In one of the pieces in the book, which is on Delta Goodrem, I review her last album Delta, and it’s her third album. I reviewed the album. I did that about two years. What I don’t put in the article is that when The Go-Betweens were doing their second to last album, Bright Yellow, Bright Orange in 2004 in Melbourne in studio, she was in the studio. I didn’t know who she was because I’d lived over in Germany for a number of years. You didn’t know who she was? No. I’d lived over in Germany for a number of years, and she’d sort of come through Neighbours and things like that. I think she’d had one or two hits at this stage. It was a studio complex and we were in the main studio and she was in a room mixing a single with an engineer. When we were taking breaks from recording, we’d been out playing ping pong and she was sitting over on the piano. There was an old upright, a bit out of tune, and she’d sit and sing; not in any sort of flashy way, but a really nice way. She could play piano. She had a really good voice. It sounded really good. I only found out who she was later, but she would sit there and play, not try and impress, just because she felt like she could do it for hours. I only discovered who she was at that moment and I only heard her records later, but a couple of years later when I came to hear her record and it seemed like an odd choice to review a Delta Goodrem album, I remembered that I’d had that experience. I didn’t put it into the review because I didn’t think it was needed. One rule is when to put myself in and out of the reviews. I suppose an earlier rule, in a sense, then, is what to choose to review. How do you get to a point of choosing what you want to write about? Perversely enough, it seems to be the ones that I think I know something about, or that I have personal experience with. A band like Franz Ferdinand, who I really liked, like right from the first album. They’re a Glasgow band. The Go-Betweens, in the very early ‘80s, were on a label called Postcard in Glasgow. We were around Glaswegian musicians like Orange Juice, Josef K, Aztec Camera; we knew these people. And so when Franz Ferdinand, these sort of four Glaswegian arty, hipsters came along in 2005 with the great first album, I loved the album and I would have loved it if I hadn’t have known that they were from Glasgow, but the fact that they were just brought it a little bit closer. When I was thinking of an album to review, I reviewed their second one. I put that in a review and there is a paragraph about Glasgow. It’s just from personal experience. That is part of the thing; that I have a connection, that I think I know something about the record, or the concert, helps. Delta Goodrem, yo It doesn’t explain Delta Goodrem [pictured left] yet, though. I always end up talking a lot about Delta. We can let it go. No, I’ll add to what I was saying. My niece had some of her records in the time between I’d seen her in the studio. She’d become a big star so I was aware of her and I actually quite liked a single of hers called “Born to Fly”, which I think is on her first or second album. If I had to choose ten great Australian songs over the last decade, I’d put Delta Goodrem’s “Born To Fly” in there. It’s a great MOR, big ballad. It’s a fantastic song, which she co-wrote, to her credit. It seems like there would be a danger in reviewing when there was no connection, and that would be the point where there would be a danger of bringing yourself into what you’re writing, or purely being about the technicalities of what you’re listening to if there is no connection. I would imagine the connections go way back with you into your past. That’s the reason why you choose Nana Mouskouri, to not only to see but to write about, and Glen Campbell, to listen to and write about. Is that a fair thing? It is, but at the same time, my ear and my eye goes to new things as well. Even something like Vampire Weekend, who I really like and I reviewed their debut album, and Vampire Weekend are 22 years old. I hear Talking Heads. It’s a New York band and I’ve loved New York bands since the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Velvet Underground, or New York Dolls, or Television. Vampire Weekend, although they’re 22 year olds and doing something really fresh, they go back. There is a myth about a New York band so that sort of plays in as well. I do try and have a sense of adventure in what I choose. I do try and not be predictable, which again plays to Delta, I guess. I came across Robert’s writings by just subscribing to The Monthly when it started, just because it was a great magazine. It not only had good cultural reviews, but it had good political stuff in it. I was really pleased; there are some choices that I was really pleased with the way you wrote. It was very familiar to me, for some reason. Maybe there is a familiarity that comes from you as a lyric writer, and you as a critic. There is something in your language which resonates between those things. There is a lot of me in what I write. I have a romantic view of rock and roll. I also have a sense of cynicism, perhaps. I know those two things don’t normally go together, but that helps me with my writing. I think they’re very common bedfellows, romanticism, and cynicism. I think people are passionate. I think people project fantasies onto bands and fantasies onto songs, and they always have. I think a lot of – and I’m not trying to do a critique of critics – but I think sometimes it can be quite dry. I think my feelings towards music are quite passionate, and I think people have records and songs that are all about a place, a time, and I think people are quite perceptive about music in terms of the structure of songs or choruses, or people just have a great knowledge about music and I think often reviewers don’t acknowledge that. I think also that there is a huge fantasy level. I think people do think about what it would have been like. When they hear a Velvet Underground record, they throw themselves into it in some bizarre way, or they hear a U2 record or whatever. I think people place themselves in those records. When music arrives, there’s something about context. There is something about what you feel when you hear something. There are historical points that I can follow back in time. This music comes from these places. Do you think it’s your role to point some of that stuff out, as a critic? I can’t help myself. Without sort of having a tone in what I’m write as though I’m lecturing, but when I hear a record, it does set off a sense of associations. Normally, even if I don’t put them down on paper, I follow those associations to see where they’re going to take me. The beautiful associations, they kind of put music in a history of songwriting and music-making. I suppose it becomes more like the folk music that it is, rather than the pop music that it seems to be. Robert Forster serenading, poolsideExactly. I am fantastic. That was brilliant, John. I’ve been bullshitting at the university now for a number of years. It’s being taped by the way. You can try it in your lectures. I found a typo on page 249, would you like me to – Tell me later. I wrote here, “There are things with which I concur.” Nash Chambers did a great job on that album [Rattlin’ Bones, by Kasey Chambers and  Shane Nicholson]. I’m really glad that you point things out like that sometimes, that people who were listening to something might not necessarily think in that way, and they might not necessarily look to a producer and think this person is intrinsic to this process. The reason I love listening to this thing is it’s not just about the song or the singer, but it’s about the way things sound, as well. I think with Nash Chambers, who is Kasey Chambers’ brother and he’s a record producer in Australia, where I think there is a lack of great record producers. When I hear one and I think he does good work, it’s like fairly country/alternative country field, but he makes really good records as a producer. When something like that happens, I like to mention it and he’s just done the new Angie Hart album, the former Frente singer, so he’s sort moving more now into pop, in a way. People are starting to see that can produce records, because his records are so well put together in a country context, that they could work in a pop context. [More “things with which I concur”] The Monkees are up there with the Velvets and the Beach Boys. Rick Rubin could be that caretaker at the caravan park. I think he probably is the caretaker at the caravan park. I have an observation. I’m full of observations. I’m really pleased that you wrote specifically about a song and specifically about “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” which I really love. It reminds me that you have a song called “Clouds” that I played guitar on. We both played guitars together. That song was in my mind as always being about the same sort of rhythm as what is in “Have You Seen the Rain”. I just really love the fact that you can pick a little thing like that and say this thing here is embedded, this rhythm can move from song to song, and generation to generation. Would you like to play another song? I will. I just want to say something about Creedence Clearwater Revival. There is a bit in the book, one page, where I wrote I was asked by The Sunday Times in London to write about a song. I wrote about “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Creedence, to me, have always been a touchstone for what I’ve done, as you pointed out, because to me they’ve always been a little bit like a Brisbane band. There is something about their rhythm and hearing Creedence in Brisbane; Creedence sounds different in Brisbane than it does in Sydney or Melbourne. Driving around in the car in Brisbane and hearing Creedence, to me they sound like a local band. I think it’s just that rhythm, the easiness of the music, the realness, the funkiness of it just… they always sound like they come from, like Toombul, or Nundah, to me. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, it’s a compliment! I sort of see them down by the canal there. On the way to the airport, hanging out under the railway line. It’s a good point. Creedence are at home in Brisbane. Are there other bands that are at home in Brisbane, do you think? Not so much as Creedence. A famous band – my other theory is that Brisbane reminds me a lot, now, of LA in the ‘60s; the climate and the layout of the city. Especially when I’m at The Gap, where we live, I half-expect to go down to the shopping center and see The Byrds. Not that Hitchcock sort of thing. No! There’s actually a photo in the latest edition of Mojo that has just come out. There is this big photo, double-page photo of Brian Wilson in 1965 or 1966. I pointed it out to Karin, my wife, last night. He’s got a baseball bat and he’s on a concrete front drive, and behind it is just a really dry hill. There are these funky sort of ‘60s low-set houses and cars on the street, and you would swear it was on the back streets of Brookfield, or The Gap. It’s amazing. I’ve often thought The Gap is like L.A. in 1965, and then I see Topanga Canyon and the whole thing. This is the fantasy we live out there! You’ve gotta have something! I know, and I saw this photo and it was like: evidence, there it is. Anyway, I’ll play a song. [Forster plays ‘He Lives My Life’ from The Go-Betweens’ 2000 album, The Friends Of Rachel Worth. It’s embedded below, but note this is not his performance from the bookstore.] I love Fiona’s shop [Avid Reader] and always have. You talked before about how there are connections between writing songs and writing words. My memory of you is that you were always a letter writer, as well. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I just have an abiding memory of you writing letters home at a time when there was no email, and phone calls were expensive when we were traveling. Is there a progression? Do you feel that writing in this way isn’t something you would have done 20 years ago, but at this point in your life this is the right time for this? If so, is there a place with writing where you’re heading? Is this part of your journey now? Very good question. Thank you. I’m happy to do reviewing at my age. I think I’d have been unbearable if I’d have had this power and this access when I was 28. I think I would have been unbearable and I would have shot myself in the foot and I would have been going all over the place. I’m pretty happy that it’s come. I started reviewing when I was 48. It’s actually a good time for me to be doing this. It was a leap. I keep a diary and I keep books that last about a year and a half, filled with everything, like poems, what I did that day. I don’t write in it every day, but it’s a real mish mash that I keep, that I have these books. There are a lot of starts over the years, like a fantasy, it was a novel – or short story. I’d read it the next day and put it away. There are all those starts, and in a way, when I started to write for The Monthly it was great because it was nonfiction. I found I could write these paragraphs for these reviews. Right from the first review, when I sat down and wrote the very first review on Antony and the Johnsons album, I found that I could write paragraphs and live with them the next day, and keep on writing, and then live with what I wrote the next day, which is something I could never do with anything else I ever wrote in terms of fiction and short stories. So there is a real freedom in that, then? There is, and amazingly enough, I’ve always been – I was blind to it, but I’ve always been a non-fiction reader. Whenever I come to a book shop, it’s biography, history; I’ll read anything. Some of my favorite books are just off-beat; Sammy Davis Jr.’s first autobiography, Gloria Swanson’s autobiography, Swanson on Swanson. This sort of stuff, I’ll read. I lent you a book on Willem de Kooning, which you gave back to me… I've come to believe that Forster wears a black suit everywhere he goes I didn’t read it. You looked at the pictures. I didn’t even look at the pictures. It was a door stop. You sat on it maybe as a cushion? [laughs] I’ll read a really thick book on Willem de Kooning, that’s got really good reviews. I’ll read that, and I have a passing interest in his art, but I love the story and things will come out to me that will be a lot like de Kooning, one of the great 20th Century artists; he didn’t have his first solo show until he was 45. I found that amazing. I found that enriching, and a great fact to know. I’ve always been a biography reader so it’s really no surprise that I enjoy dealing in facts with a little bit of imagination as opposed to, you know, “Cecilia Page lived down at Redcliffe Pier and had 15 children…”. I don’t just leap off into a story. It seems beyond me. The biography thing, one thing I particularly like in the book is the Normie Rowe piece, which is one of two pieces of fiction in the book. The other piece of fiction is quite light, and almost a little folly, or something. I feel like the Normie Rowe thing I really quite substantial in some ways, yet at the same time, it’s almost a mock-autobiography or something. Is that something that you think you would pursue more? I do, I can imagine writing an ‘I’ – first person biography – that you would think would be my life, but would be entirely someone else’s life. I like playing with that idea. I’ve got another one that is similar to “The Coronation of Normie Rowe”, which is in the book, called “Art World”, which places me as an artist in New York. And I know Robert Hughes, and I’m painting people up on the Upper West Side, and I have nothing to do with the downtown art scene. I started [writing] this, and it has nothing to do with my life, but I do all of this and I’m hanging out with people, and they’re real names, so that it feels real and that it’s historically correct, but the whole thing is a pretense. And I like that. I like that too. I’d read that, unlike that Willem de Kooning book! That’s great. There was something else I was thinking. It’s a bit like a song, in a way. It is. With my songwriting, it stays quite close to what I do. I don’t have any songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby‘. There isn’t anything like that in anything other than my back catalogue. There is nothing. I have to be careful with this because I’m scared that I’m just throwing my life at people all the time, so I try and disguise it and play with a little bit so it’s not just one long 30-year confessional. I try to play with it. I don’t really do leaps off into characters. One of the pieces that was in The Monthly, reasonably recently, was a review of the two David McComb books. Would you like to talk about him, and those for a minute? That was a beautiful piece. I really liked that. David McComb from The TriffidsDavid McComb from The Triffids [pictured right]. Amazingly enough, they were one band that Grant and I, in the late ‘70s, we didn’t feel like there was any other band in Australia that was really close. We read about in Ram Magazine or something – this is 1979 or 1980 – about this band over in Perth who were into The Velvet Underground and Dylan, and also Talking Heads and Television, and Grant and I went “okay!” This is years before we met them. We had a feeling about the band before we starting playing shows with them. We played a lot of shows in Australia with The Triffids when they lived in Sydney in the early ‘80s. I wasn’t really all that close to David. I played tennis with his brother Robert, and that’s a strange way. I guess it’s history now, but you play tennis with Robert McComb, the brother, and I was a lot closer to him than I was to David, although David was the other songwriter in a band like myself. Yeah, not particularly easy to know, either. He was a little aloof. Yeah, he was, but I liked David a great deal. There’s a book about David McComb called Vagabond Holes, and I write a remembrance of it. It’s based on three songs. I once ran into David on the streets of Darlinghurst in 1983, ’84. The Triffids had just put out a record, I think it was an EP, and it had a song called “Red Pony” on it, which I loved. When I ran into David, it was very early in Darlinghurst Streets. I’ll play “Darlinghurst Nights” next. I ran into David on the street at about 8:00 in the morning and I said to him how much I liked “Red Pony”, if he’d show it to me on guitar. I was at a house about two days later and he knocked on the door and he had a guitar. He played me the song and it was a beautiful moment that he just remembered, and he came around, and he found out where I was, and he played me this song. There was a drunken party about three years later in London. It was a drunken party and I was drunk, and I went up to David and they’d just put out ‘Born Sandy Devotional‘ and I said, “I really love ‘Wide Open Road’. Would you play it to me sometime? He said, “Now!”. We walked into a bedroom, this crazy ‘Australians in London’ party, and he just sat on the bed and I sort of crouched down and he played me ‘Wide Open Road’ on a guitar. Then it was like, “Okay, we can go back to the party.” I was just watching his hands. I can’t play it now, but it was these big strummy chords. And the third song is in 1995 or 1996 I was playing down in the Continental Café, which is a venue down in Melbourne. He was DJing that night and I was playing acoustically by myself. I knew David was DJing on that night, and just before I went on he played this song called “Mississippi” which is off an album and he and I both loved. It’s by John Phillips from the Mamas & The Papas, who put out a great solo album called “Wolf King of L.A.”, which he wrote a biography many years later which he devoted half a page to this record. It’s a fantastic solo record. I love the record and so does David. We used to talk about it. He played a song from it just before I went on stage, which was a really lovely “hello”. That night, after the end of that show, ’95-’96, I was staying at a hotel in town and he and his girlfriend drove me into town because I was going to get a taxi and he and his girlfriend said, “No, we’ll drive you into town.” We went into the city and I got out of the car to say goodbye and said I’d take my bags, thanks for driving me into town. I walked around the back of the car, and I got my guitar – this guitar, actually – and my bag out, and David was standing there. I said, “Thank you for dropping me off, thanks for DJing, thanks for playing ‘Mississippi’” and he got in the car, and that was the last time I ever saw him. He died about three years later, but he was great. I’ll play ‘Darlinghurst Nights‘, dedicated to David McComb. John: Maybe I should open it up a bit and invite questions. I’ve talked enough. Would anybody like to ask Robert a question? The Go-Betweens' Send Me A Lullaby cover art, by Jenny WatsonAudience: My name is Jenny Watson, and I did the album art for [The Go-Betweens album] ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ [pictured left]. Robert, I want to ask a question about when you walked into my flat and saw those small canvas paintings, and I’d only had five exhibitions and you said, “You’re doing our next album cover”. Are you usually that decisive in your business dealings? Because you were more decisive than any top-notch art dealer, I can tell you! Thank you, Jenny. I try and follow my instincts. That has got me into trouble at times. John: Are you impetuous? Not impetuous, but it’s like the idea of Brisbane is LA 1965, 1966; how far do you take that? John: All the way, baby! Oh well, it can get you into trouble and you can find that you’re trying to do something that the rest of the world doesn’t understand, which could be difficult. No, I try and – also the other thing is when I see great work before me, I always hope that I recognise it. I did on that circumstance, and I try and do that whenever I can. John: It’s a big thing, isn’t it, Jenny, having some of your work put on somebody’s album cover and spread around the world. Jenny: It was fantastic. It was in a book called ‘The Best 500 Record Covers in Rock and Roll’. Thanks for the publicity! John: Anybody else have a comment, statement, or a question? Audience: I’m really interested in the fact that the writing in this book is so beautiful. Just if you pick it up and read the first essay, you’ll realise that you’re in the hands of a master writer here. Stuart Glover, who is head of creating writing at the University of Queensland, said exactly the same thing. I wonder when you said that you will read any non-fiction; do you have non-fiction work that you won’t read? Do you have a filter where you say the writing has to be of great quality, or is it just the subject for you? No, there has to be quality with it. A great biography writer is someone like Richard Elman, who wrote a very good book on Oscar Wilde, and James Joyce. He’s one of the masters. John Richardson, at the moment, is writing a great biography. It’s his third volume on the life of Picasso. They’re fantastic books. There has to be a certain standard to keep me there, but I think it can also go – and something that I’ve always been interested in, is going-high brow and low-brow. It’s not indiscriminate taste, but I see value broadly, but there is a limit. I do have an autobiography of Shaun Cassidy, which I bought at an art shop, which I refuse to read. This was published in the mid ‘70s. I don’t touch it. Knowing you have it is enough. It is. No Alain de Botton, any of that sort of stuff? No, no. What about the Dylan book? That’s an interesting autobiography, isn’t it?Chronicles‘? Yeah, I leapt on that, and that is a great book. In a rough way, I template if and when I write something that’s biographical about myself; that would be a book that I would always have in mind. I think Dylan’s done an astounding job on that book. There is something surprising about it, in that style. It is. Would you like to be that unpredictable, I suppose, or it’s not impetuous. No, I think if I did write – I wouldn’t write my autobiography, I don’t think, but if I wrote something biographical I think I would have to, in a way, break the mold or play with the form the same way I have done with The Monthly, the same way I have with that song I just played, “Darlinghurst Nights”, which doesn’t really conform to many rules as a song. It’s melodic and has a sense of poetry and information giving about it, which are all important to me, but if I did write something like that, then I would like to certainly play with the form. It’s not going to start, “It was a blue day in Brisbane in the 29th of June, 1957 when Robert Forster came into the world.” I can’t do that. I’d buy that. Do you ever feel like you have nothing to say? Sometimes, do you ever feel, “I have nothing to say”? No, unfortunately I don’t find myself in that position. John: That was very quick. [laughs] Anybody else out there have a question? Audience: On ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, I want to thank you, because that’s such an evocative song. Thank you for playing it. As a long-term resident of Darlinghurst in those years, I saw the Go-Betweens play their first show there in 1980, at the Paris Theatre, where Grant played with his back to the audience most of the night. Jeffrey Wegener and Ed Kuepper of Laughing ClownsReally? See, this was the first show that the Go-Betweens ever played in Sydney at the Paris Theatre in 1980. The Paris Theatre has now been demolished. The bill for this night was The Go-Betweens on first, the Laughing Clowns on second, and The Birthday Party on third. It was a great bill. We’d actually headed down by train – Lindy [Morrison], Grant [McLennan], myself – and we went to the back of the Paris Theatre. We didn’t know anyone and we sat in the stalls in the darkness and watched the Birthday Party and the Laughing Clowns [half of the band pictured right] sound check. We were completely spooked. We just wanted to crawl out of that theatre and get back on the train and come back to Brisbane. We stayed and played, but I did a signing yesterday in Newtown and I met someone else – the first time, in almost 30 years, I met someone that was at that show. That’s the first time in 30 years, and now you’re the second. That’s amazing. John: I’m surprised you remembered. Was there a question? I’m sorry, I’ve just taken off. Audience: I’m glad to hear that. I’ve just wondered if you’d been to Darlinghurst in recent years, and what it evokes today when you go there? I have been. It’s quite different because in the early ‘80s, the roads coming up on the hill, like Taylor Square, a street going down to Williams Street. Crown Street had one-way traffic that was like a blitz going through all hours of the day. There is a lot more traffic, life, and noise in Darlinghurst. I’ve been there 5 years ago and it was very quiet. Is it better or worse? I don’t know, but it was the early ‘80s when we were there. It was very active, and there were a lot of people that I knew living around that area. Audience:Two weeks ago I walked from Central up through to Taylor Square, through all these old streets and lanes that I used to walk through. It’s very quiet now. It’s quite dull, really. It is. There used to be “No-Names”, the restaurant, but it used to be the place outside The Cross in Sydney where you could get a coffee. Reggio…? Audience:Reggio is still there, I think. They used to sell very, very strong coffee there that would keep you up for about three days. A lot of people create a lot of work on this; it was high-octane coffee. It was like one or two cups of this stuff and you’d honestly be chain smoking ten cigarettes and you’d be up for about three days. John: Babbling in Italian. Ed Kuepper used to drink a lot of those! A lot of Laughing Clowns material was written on this coffee that Ed was drinking down there. John:I gave up alcohol and drugs at one point, and the thing that I survived on for the next few years was ‘duplos’, like double, short, blacks from Darlinghurst. I didn’t mean to say that thing about the, you know, with the ‘D’… Has anybody else got any questions they might like to ask? We’ll make this the last question. Audience:It’s kind of two questions. Is there something you won’t review, and also how did you make the selection for what when into this book? There are things I won’t review. I was very wary of Australian artists for the first two or three years when I was reviewing for The Monthly. I was almost scared. If you look at the reviews that I did in The Monthly for the first couple of years, a lot of it is overseas. It’s almost like I was careful and as I said before, I didn’t want to come in with this ‘boots ‘n’ all’ attitude. I feel a lot more comfortable with it now, like this year I wrote a big review on Paul Kelly’s double CD about his career, which I would have never done the first two years. I wouldn’t have had the confidence. It was quite natural. I saw the record in Rockinghorse, on the wall, and I went, “I can do that,” which I wouldn’t have been able to do before. There are certain areas I don’t go within Australian music because I know the people and I don’t really want to go there. What’s the second part of the question? Audience:How did you make the decision for what when into the book? Some of the things I left out were the reviews I wrote in the first year. I re-read them and I think I started settling into a rhythm about eight months in, where I thought I was writing well. I started to keep them. There is not much from the first eight months. I dropped quite a few things. I think also, at that stage, when I started writing for The Monthly in April 2005, The Go-Betweens were just putting out ‘Oceans Apart‘ which would be the last album. The Franz Ferdinand piece, I remember I wrote a lot of it in a hotel in Madrid, a day off. I had to send it back to Melbourne. I dropped the Bill Callahan one, which is all over the place. It’s about a Smog album. Right now, it takes me two weeks to write them. I don’t know how I did this, but I wrote the complete Smog review in a hotel in Canberra, and we were playing that night. I wrote the whole thing; woke up, knew I had to do it, spent the whole day in a motor inn, in Canberra in my pajamas, and just had people delivering coffee. I knew I had to be at the sound check at 4:30pm. I got out of bed around 9am. I listened to the record quite a few times and I just wrote the whole day. I think William Holden could play you in a movie! Robert Forster one of his 230 ties. I just made that up, btw. There’d have to be a couple of whiskey bottles then, I think. But no, I left that out [of the book]. To me, when I read it again, it read like it was written in pajamas on a lot of coffee, in a Canberra motor inn, in one day. I just thought “no, that can’t go in”. I think after the first 8 months, I think I’m a lot more consistent. There are a couple of pieces that I left out after, where I just failed. The other thing that I have to admit is I started this at 48. I wrote a piece on Lucinda Williams’ ‘West’ album about two years ago. I just didn’t get it. It was messy when I handed it in, and I just failed. That happened one other time as well. I’m not a journalist that’s had 15 years experience, done university, worked at The Courier-Mail, worked at Sydney Morning Herald, done stuff overseas. I’m not that journalist. I’m still failing. I’m still messy, and I still miss what I’m trying to get at, every now and again. You’re getting better. I am getting better, but it’s still scary. Month by month. Thank you very much, Robert Forster. Thank you. Thank you for coming along. I appreciate it. John Wilsteed, everyone! Fiona: Robert, Avid Reader would really like to thank you because you had a sell-out session last week, and because of the sell-out you agreed to a second session. You’ve had 200 people in Avid Reader listen to you, which has never happened in the history of Avid before. Thank you so much for your generosity. Thank you for coming along! More on Avid Reader at their website; more on Robert Forster at his.