Setting the climate agenda

Recently I fired off my first letter to the editor. The missive was not published.
(Well, it was my first letter to the editor when I wasn’t in fact the editor and the recipient of my own ersatz correspondence).
In the midst of the awesome and awful bushfires engulfing Australia I issued a hastily worded epistle to The Age.
My point? The thing that had got up my craw was that it had taken Australia immolating for The Age to finally prioritise coverage for climate change as an issue worth reporting on and informing its audiences about.
In July last year (not long after the federal election) only a very small percentage of Australians were concerned about climate change. That figure has obviously changed now.
It wasn’t that nothing was happening in terms of the issue, was the point I was trying to make in my letter, merely that it hadn’t been reported very well. Contextualised. Framed.
I have read and heard so many people say since the fires tore through our country that the Earth’s climate is always changing, and the very hot conditions prevailing through bushfire season were merely a manifestation of this.
But do they realise the Earth is actually the hottest its been since humankind has been upon it?
Or that the level of carbon in our atmosphere is the highest it has been for 12 million years – back when Antarctica had forests on it?
Is your average Age reader aware that July 2019 was the hottest month on record?
These milestone tell a story: the narrative of a planet heating up.
Anyway, here’s the unpublished epistle in question:
Kudos to The Age for its excellent coverage of Australia’s heartbreakingly destructive bushfires. Chip Le Grand’s front-line reporting in particular has been as evocative as it is informative.
Where The Age has been less than stellar, however, is in its coverage of climate change in general.
This could be said for the past decade (the Earth’s hottest on record), the past five years (see above), and in particular over the past year (Australia’s hottest and driest on record).
Only now that the country is literally combusting are we finally talking about this crucial issue ahead of relatively trivial matters such as franking credits, Royal Family vicissitudes, or footy.
Meanwhile, over the past 12 months some major climate milestones have either been ignored or given low priority.
Consider that July 2019 was the Earth’s hottest month on record, with records dating back to 1880 in some countries.
June was the hottest June on record, and September, October, November and December either equalled or set new temperature records for these months.
August was the second hottest August on record (ref. Copernicus Climate Change Service).
In short, the world is heating up. Indeed, our planet is the warmest it’s been since humankind has been on it.
Harvard University Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry James Anderson says the level of carbon now in the atmosphere has not been seen in 12 million years.
Best known for establishing that chlorofluorocarbons were damaging the ozone layer (which led to the Montreal Protocol), Anderson says me must act, and act immediately.
To avoid the worst effects of climate change, an epic global mobilisation of resources is needed to halt carbon pollution and remove it from the atmosphere, and to reflect sunlight away from the poles.
This must be done, he says, within five years.
Perhaps I was being a bit harsh. The Age has certainly done a far superior job than News reporting on the issue. Unlike the papers in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian stable, Age columnists acknowledge climate change. The issue is covered regularly.
Coverage has certainly improved since the bushfire crisis unfolded, but this must continue to be the case.

And United is not a nickname

Sport maintains a critical position in Australian culture. Not only is it seen as a manifestation of our perceived defining values such as “having a go” “playing fair” and mateship, it is the lingua franca of our cities and towns; it’s how we talk to one another and express our fears and hopes. Our teams’ seasons help us measure out the years. And it’s big business, too. In short, sport is important to Australians.

That’s why it’s so confounding that the naming (or, if you will, the branding) of institutions to which we’re expected to dedicate our passion, time and money is often given meagre, unimaginative consideration.

Consider the case of Big Bash League franchise the Hobart Hurricanes, a name that gives the impression of having been conjured up as a last-minute replacement for something even less appropriate – the Hobart Hogwash, perhaps.

“Alright, how about Hurricanes, then?” you can hear a defeated marketing consultant ask.

We don’t, however, have hurricanes in this country – not in the tropical north (where such meteorological events are known as “cyclones”). And certainly not in the cold-climate capital of Tasmania.

Another sports sobriquet that rankles is basketball team Melbourne United.

Now, the NBL has some form when it comes to ill-thought-out monikers.

Indeed, apart from a brief period when the Townsville Crocodiles and Cairns Taipans came into being, franchises have tended to avoid proudly Australian nominative representation.

Perth (one of the competition’s most successful clubs) even selected “Wildcats” for its nickname. Though this is a popular choice for college sports teams (Kentucky, Arizona, Northwestern and Kansas State among many others), a wildcat is something of a pest – if not a scourge – in this country.

Adelaide’s “36er” nom de guerre refers to the city’s 1836 founding, but always struck me as somewhat derivative of the renowned Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA.

So, what’s wrong with “United”, you ask?

First, it’s a quintessentially English soccer naming device – Manchester United, Sheffield United and Newcastle United, for example.

Yet in each of these cases United is not a nickname as such, with these teams cheered on as the Red Devils, Blades and Magpies, respectively. Rather, the “United” component usually refers to the fact clubs were formed from the combination of others.

(Although it’s true that many NBL franchises have risen and fallen in the Victorian capital, United is the direct descendent of the Melbourne Tigers rather than a bastard child of multiple franchises.)

Plus, let’s face it: there’s a space where the club’s nickname should be – the Melbourne United Somethings.

For me, great team nicknames involve the tantalising combination of originality (although not at all costs – the University of California Santa Cruz Banana Slugs is a tad silly) and geographical, cultural or historical appropriateness.

“Celtics” is a successful name for the storied Boston basketball institution because it calls to mind the Massachusetts city’s Irish history, heritage and continued links.

The Ravens of Baltimore references the famous poem by Edgar Allen Poe, who called the city home.

Essendon’s Australian rules Bombers links to the fact the northern Melbourne suburb was home to the city’s only airport until the 1970s.

The Rabbitohs of South Sydney refers not, as you might think, to the pesky but cute myxomatosis-affected fluffy rodent but rather the men who captured and sold them during the Depression early last century. Standing on street corners, these chaps would shout “rabbitoh, rabbitoh!” in order to sell their wares.

Many traditional sports nicknames convey aggression – think Eagles, Tigers, Bears, Rams – but there are other approaches.

The Temple Owls, Harvard Crimson, New York Liberty (great logo too), Green Bay Packers, Manhattan Jaspers, Stanford Cardinal and Centenary Gentlemen (alma mater of Celtics great Robert Parish) are all cool without being in any way tough.

The passage of time can bestow a certain authority on the most benign of monikers – the LA Lakers (Minnesota, where the team was originally located, was known as the “Land of 1,000 lakes”, hence Lakers), Geelong Cats, Sydney Swans and Everton Toffees (also known as the Blues) all have a certain something about them.

In place of Hurricanes, I’m suggesting the Hobart Hat-tricks, Hitters, Hammers, Devils, or Islanders might be better options. No wait, I have it: the Able Tas Men!

What about the Melbourne United True Blues, Mob (as in kangaroos), Larrikins, King Browns, Kookaburras, Goannas, Mistrals, or Thoroughbreds?

Since I am on a roll with my self-initiated re-branding exercise for Australian sports franchises, I may as well continue on to two club names that rankle every time I hear them.

The North Queensland Cowboys of the NRL are one. Here’s the thing: We don’t have cowboys in Australia – it’s an occupation most closely associated with the Old West.

We do, however, have jackaroos, drovers, ringers, jumbucks, even Wild Colonial Boys.

I’m also not a huge (get it?) fan of Giants as a nickname for AFL expansion club Greater Western Sydney. It’s just so … generic.

How about the GWS Great White Sharks – that way the “GWS” does double duty.

There are many precedents for sports teams changing their identity. When baseball club the Montreal Expos moved to Washington they became the Nationals; the SuperSonics of Seattle transformed into the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Thinking that his NBA basketball club’s nickname was not helping out-of-control gun culture in the US capital, Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin changed it to the Wizards.

It’s surprising that in a world so focused on marketing and brands that the powers that be behind new Australian sports franchises don’t have much in the way of new ideas. Makes you wonder what became of the old team effort.


There is no Laburnum

They have no official status, but they exist anyway. They are Melbourne’s secret suburbs.

Recently I met someone who claimed to reside in Laburnum. Laburnum? He was having me on, surely. Having spent some of my formative years living in a beautiful rambling house at 42 Laburnum St, within easy walk of Laburnum Train Station and the Laburnum shops (Mum and Dad had also briefly considered sending my brother and me to Laburnum Primary School) I recognised this claim for what it was: a bald-faced lie. A deception. An inaccuracy.

As anyone familiar with the area knows, there is no Laburnum: that part of Melbourne falls within Blackburn, in the City Of Whitehorse.

If you glance at a Melways (a hardcopy version, preferably) you’ll notice that official suburbs are listed in capital letters. It’s all pretty straightforward.

Look a little closer and you might observe that some places are printed in lower case. Rather than official ‘burbs with their own postcodes, these areas are pockets, precincts, neighbourhoods and localities that for various reasons have had a different, individual moniker bestowed upon them.

Some of these are semi-official titles thought up, it seems, by some rather unimaginative government apparatchiks or construction company marketers. I’d put Beacon Cove, NewQuay, Waterfront City, Digital Harbour, Victoria Harbour, Batmans Hill, Kensington Banks and Yarra’s Edge into this category.

Other locality sobriquets are merely geographically descriptive. Epping North, Macleod West and Ascot Vale West fit in to this sub-group. Given how big some of these areas are, it makes sense to informally subdivide them.

Indeed, other locales seem to evolve in spread-out suburbs, where a modicum of differentiation is helpful. Bellevue, Deepdene and Greythorn in Balwyn; and Newlands and Merlynston in Coburg North could be examples of this.

There are a bunch of pockets based around train stations that are not named for suburbs. Hartwell, Jolimont, Newmarket, Syndal, Westgarth.  (I’d always just assumed these were all official stand-alone suburbs), Glenferrie, Merlynston, Macaulay, Rushall and Anstey are examples.

Mont Albert (originally just plain old Mount Albert) was a train station before it was a locality and then later earned official suburb status.

Part of Frankston, Karingal, meaning “happy home” or “happy camp” in an aboriginal dialect, was given its name in the 1960s when land in the area began to be developed, largely as an AV Jennings housing estate.

Merlynston had similar commercial origins. When in 1919 Donald Bain bought the 31 hectares known as Station Heights Estate west of Coburg North railway station, he subdivided it into housing blocks and renamed it after his daughter Merlyn. The station was subsequently renamed too.

Some Melbourne places seemed to have been unofficially sub-classified in an attempt to lift exclusivity; to redefine by their difference. Perhaps Gardiner (Glen Iris), South Kingsville, Glengala (Sunshine West), Westbreen, Westgarthton and Regent (Preston) come into this category. The name “Regent” simply exudes exclusivity, even if the locale itself may not.

Others have names derived from natural features; consider Mt Cooper and Coonans Hill.

So is there any harm in telling folks that you live in an area that doesn’t really exist – in saying Paisley when you mean Altona North, or Darling when Malvern East is more accurate?

Well, if mail or emergency services not being able to reach your abode isn’t an issue, then possibly not.

For many years before it was finally made official in 1999, the area south of Richmond Station bound by Swan St and Punt Rd was known and referred to as Cremorne.

We are talking about a small realm of some historical and cultural significance, home to the sprawling Cremorne Gardens established in the 1850s. Referred to as a “pleasure garden” (what we might call an amusement park), the area housed a menagerie of exotic animals, a bowling alley, cyclorama, and offered balloon rides.

Here was the official departure point for Burke and Wills’ infamously ill-fated journey. Cremorne existed as an entity long before the powers that be acceded to acknowledge it.

Perhaps by 2099 it might be Laburnum’s turn. By the way, did I mention that I grew up there?

































Caught by a tag

Whatever happened to movie taglines?


Not so long ago in a cinema quite close by, I was leaving a Saturday night screening of a film (Midnight Special, an OK flick with a pretty ridiculous conclusion) when I happened to notice a poster for a forthcoming attraction.

The film in question was The Nice Guys, starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. What a cool poster it was too, boasting an eye-catching colour and interesting font to complement a picture of the somewhat-less-than-heroic leads. What really caught my attention, however, were the words towards the bottom: “They’re not so nice”.

A tagline.

A phrase usually comprising of just a few pithy words, a tagline is a neat, punchy device that works with other advertising tools – trailer, interviews and print collateral – to sell a movie. A slogan.

Yet it had been years since I’d even noticed one. The last time I’d really paid any sort of attention to taglines was before I even knew what one was, back in the 1970s.

I heard, read and had ingrained in my impressionable psyche, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, far away” well before I had a chance to see George Lucas’s sci-fi mash-up epic.

In those long-ago days of yore taglines had time to work their magic. They could filter down from the marketing types who invented them all the way to dorky suburban sci-fi fans such as me. They could percolate, infiltrate and resonate.

In the time before the internet, even before video, it took years before films of note reached television.  (Compare this with the situation now, where movies of quite considerable stature often make their free-to-air debut on minor digital channels, and then might screen regularly there for a while.)

There were less big screens in the 70s. The big movie houses were mostly based in the city, and the suburban multiplex had yet to have its day. Most cinemas outside the CBD were stand-alone screens, or at best, doubles.

This meant if you wanted to see a popular film and not wait a good while, it had to be at the cinema. But the good news was you had time to do this, because if a film was decent, or popular, or both, it might stay on the big screen for months or longer.

Word of mouth was the most important form of recommendation, ahead of the judgements issued forth from the avuncular film critics of the day, such as Ivan Hutchinson or Bill Collins.

I remember my nine-year-old self thinking of the famous Star Wars (sorry, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) tagline: “Wow, if that was a long time ago, imagine what the technology is like now!”

Nowadays, many films might have just a week in the cinema, and even by that time, they are readily accessible on streaming services for those willing to chance the FBI knocking on their door. And courtesy of a global commentariat, we usually know a lot more about a film than a mere tagline can tell us.

I wonder if that’s why the most memorable movie taglines seem to date from the 70s and 80s.

“In space, no one can hear you scream”. That tagline worked a treat, its warning (a promise well kept as it turns out) drawing many to Ridley Scott’s dystopian creature feature Alien in 1979.

Ditto for “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,” which ushered fans aplenty in to see Jaws 2.

And the same again for Poltergeist II’s “They’re back”.

“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” This said it all, really, about David Cronenberg’s icky The Fly, which really was rather gross. Here was a caution, but also a tease. “How bad could it be?” you might have wondered. A stunning performance made Jeff Goldblum’s career, and the film became a minor classic of the “mad scientist” genre.

It also brings to mind the taglines proposed by Dudley Moore’s character in Crazy People.

An advertising copywriter suffering a nervous breakdown (hence the film’s sensitive title), he decides the only way he can live with himself is to embrace a platform of extreme honesty.

This explains a tagline for a Jaguar car ad – “For men who’d like to receive hand-jobs from women they hardly know” – and for a horror film called The Freak: “This film won’t just scare you, it will f*ck you up for life.” The campaigns, of course, are wildly successful.

The best taglines are so effective they are forever associated with the films they were coined to promote. In the next category down are those that although funny and clever, you probably haven’t heard.

“Does for rock ‘n’ roll what The Sound of Music did for the hills.” It’s just silly enough to be the tagline for This is Spinal Tap.

Chicken Run’s “Escape or die frying” and Scott Pilgrim Saves the World‘s “An epic of epic epicness” are pretty cute.

“Love is in the hair” from Something About Mary is a strange one in that it requires knowledge of the film’s signature scene to make sense.

When a studio’s high brass aren’t impressed with a tagline, you won’t see it anywhere.

Now that I have become re-attuned to looking out for them, I’ve noticed that those that have received a tick of approval from the powers that be earn prominent positions on soon-to-be ancient artefacts such as posters and DVD covers.

Though, “The longer you wait the harder it gets” is an appropriate double entendre for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it perhaps doesn’t quite do the film’s genuine hilarity justice.

Before I saw the film, I hadn’t noticed “Action. Lights. Abduction” for the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar! It’s brilliant!

Another tagline that passed me by was one for Central Intelligence, which stars the diminutive Kevin Hart and huge, muscle-bound Dwayne Johnson: “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson”.

How typical. Those Americans are always talking about their johnsons.






























































Life sentence

Subject, verb, predicate – what makes one group of words sound better than another, have more resonance, greater meaning or deeper impact? This post explores the sentences that sustain us.

Every year the cultural cognoscenti gather to award the literary arts’ most prestigious baubles: the Nobel, the Man Booker, the Miles Franklin.

There is criteria by which the awarded tomes are judged, but also intangibles. No one can say definitively what made one book prove more alluring, dazzling or intriguing than another. Yet a consensus is reached, somehow.

It’s certainly not judged solely on technical merit – on the quality, say, of individual sentences. And that makes sense. Sentences are writing’s basic building blocks, and you don’t assess the quality of a skyscraper merely on the impressiveness of its stone, steel and glass.

Also, what metric or index could be applied to assess sentence quality? Trying to explain what makes one group of words more memorable, meaningful or powerful than any other is incredibly elusive. Most people when asked can’t say why something sticks in their mind, or why it sounds “nicer” to them. They just know.

“I’m not sure how to describe what makes a good sentence for me,” says graphic designer Frank Ameneiro, a prolific reader. “I just feel it.”

Frank really likes this quote from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead:

“We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered”.

There is considerable restraint in that group of words, and as much power in what’s left unwritten as what’s penned. It’s also skillful in the manner in which it evokes smells and sensations and a sense of wanton destruction. Why were they burning bridges? Why only a guess as to lachrymose eyes?

Still working the Bard angle (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are side characters in Hamlet that Tom Stoppard put centre stage) Jonathan Irwin, a senior sub-editor at The Sunday Times, references a line from Shakespeare, a snippet from The Tempest spoken by Prospero:

“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”

Jonathan says, “For me it sums up the beauty, wonder and sadness of human existence, whilst inspiring by its genius and eloquence. I find the thought of sleep being our before and after very comforting too. It also implies an atheism that reflects my own.”

Sentences, Jonathan says, are good for different reasons. Text needs context. A group of words in isolation, however appealing, often won’t have resonance.

“My favourite sentence is wonderful on its own,” he says. “But seen in the context of the whole speech by Prospero, it becomes more powerful … as it does seen in the context of the whole play … as it does seen in the context of Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre. The Tempest is about a magician who creates characters, and was written near the end of Shakespeare’s career and life, so the poignant parallels with him as a writer are clear.”

Without explanation, Sophie Patrick put forward two nominations for this prosaic pantheon. They are two more from “Capital L” literature.

The first is from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

“This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.”

The second is from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

“The correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle let-down, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.”

Although neither of these offerings are what could be described as pithy – compare “Jesus wept”, and “Call me Ishmael” ― they both offer astonishingly perceptive observations on the human condition in just a few simple lines.

They both have a certain something: cadence, flow, rhythm; call it what you will, both of these examples “sing” for want of a better expression. Sure, the sentiment they express could be conveyed more simply. But these are not sentences extracted from news stories, and their aim is not simply to pass on facts.

To return to the building analogy again: a nice sentence must have form as well as function. And while the former serves the latter, they both do matter.

Publisher James Weston has always liked this:

“Fame is fleeting, money has wings, popularity is yesterday’s child. The only thing that endures is strength of character.”

“Honestly, I have no idea where I read it,” James says. “It was in the front pages of a book – probably sport – that I read long ago, and it stuck with me.”

He has since discovered it was a derivation from a quote from Horace Greeley (1811–1872), editor of the New-York Tribune in the mid-1800s: “Fame is vapour, popularity an accident; riches take wings; those who cheer today will curse tomorrow, only one thing endures, and that is character.”

A couple of respondents to this article chose two samples of writing: one, like JW’s example, that means something to them, and inspires in moments when required – some words of wisdom. A maxim.

The other is an example of pretty prose that affects them in a way they can’t necessarily explain, in the same manner that great design might work its magic, even when you might not notice how.

Digital producer Finn Bradshaw provided two excellent examples, name-checking the great Dr J, non-fiction maestro David Halberstam, and the original gonzo scribe along the way.

“There’s a great quote by Julius Irving that went, ‘Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them’,”says Finn, quoting Halberstam on the high-flying hoopster’s work ethic.

From a purely “I like the sound of it” point of view, Finn gives us this from Hunter S. Thompson: “And that, I think, was the handle ― that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting ― on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave …
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark ―that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Perhaps it’s best not to try to analyse or deconstruct Thompson; one could go crazy attempting this. And you’d be ill-advised to attempt to mimic it. Thompson took his craft seriously (at least as seriously as his pharmacological experiments).

Yet his was an approach that was as self-styled as it was perspicacious. Your regular scribes should no more attempt imitation than a local ‘baller try to copy the balletic grace of Dr J on the hardwood. Best advice: master the basic moves first.

Like Finn, writer and owner of Resonance Communications Diana Elliott also puts forward two samples.

“From the time I visited Abu Simbel I’ve forever thought about the quote I heard there: ‘For you, the one for whom the sun rises every morning.’ It was the dedication by the egomaniac Ramesses I to his wife – well one of them – whom he loved the most, Nefertiti,” Diana recalls. “I always thought it was beautiful, and still do.”

The second sentence Diana nominates – “Planes are ships on borrowed time” –  is from her favourite book, Still, by Adam Thorpe.

“It’s a funny quote,” Diana says, “and one that I often think about when I board a plane!”

Sometimes a compelling word combination will stick in one’s consciousness in a way you can’t explain properly. It doesn’t need context; it might not even make much sense. But there it is.

Writer Melinda Sweetnam likes Top Gun’s “I feel the need, the need for speed.” It gets her going.

I encountered this while reading Murray Bail’s The Pages: “Hemmed in countries produce all manner of limps and missing limbs in their men.” There is a whole anthropology in that sentence, and yet it is offered with no further explanation or qualification. It is what it is. You deal with it as you will.

After much prompting, musician and teacher Angus Grant offered this, from liner notes by Julian Budden from The Operas of Verdi, vol 1.

“The instrumental palette is calculated to bring out all the velvet depths of the baritone voice-clarinets, horns, bassoons and pizzicato cellos. Flute, oboe and violins give an added sense of plangency to Gilda. The mood is cathartic, one of grief purged by weeping and transfigured into serene melody.”

Someone, somewhere must have done a collection of the best record liner notes. The combination of (usually) journalists writing about subject matter about which they’re passionate is often irresistible.

This quote from a recent newspaper article (Caroline James, The Age, April 16) about how life is changing for Australian circus families jumped out at me. It quotes Anna Gasser from Silvers Circus: “There were a few operators here in the 70s. It was tough. We only had our eldest son, three donkeys, two ponies and a midget, and did everything ourselves.”

You wonder how the midget and the Gasser boy like being including among the circus inventory. Still, I love the incongruous inclusion.

If you keep your eyes and ears open, there are wonderful sentences everywhere.

Using the examples of Finn and Diana, I’m offering two examples too.

For my “wise words” sample I like this from Seneca: “Count each day a separate life.”  When I’ve struggled to reconcile mistakes I’ve made, sometimes huge life-changing blunders, or if I fret about what’s coming, I come back to these words, or try to. What if today is all that there is? No past, no tomorrow, but only this moment?

As for word combinations that appeal, I could have chosen one of many from Stephen Marlowe, or Peter Robb, or Evelyn Waugh, or Elmore Leonard, but I went for this from Colin Harrison’s Manhattan Nocturne:

“I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh, Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapists fleeing into the dark. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black. To Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Muslims and transvestites and squatters on the Lower East Side. I sold John Gotti and O.J. Simpson and the bombers of the World Trade Center, and I’ll sell whoever else comes along next. I sell falsehood and what passes for truth and every gradation in between. I sell the newborn and the dead. I sell the wretched, magnificent city of New York back to its people. I sell newspapers.”

It’s more than one sentence, of course. Indeed, it’s longer than a standard paragraph, but I like Harrison’s playful use of language, and his obvious reverence of it. I like its craft and heft, its rhythm and tone, its authority and acuity. I get drawn in by its sweep and scope, its roiling images and evocation of time and place. New York City as a character? It’s right there. And the idea that the narrator may not be upstanding and sincere; that’s there too.

The quest for a choice combination of words is one that doesn’t have to cease. I’ll keep looking and adding so long as I’m above ground, I suspect. By noticing what’s good in others’ writing, I hope I can improve my own.

And learning from wise words can’t hurt either. I love this simple philosophy found in The Sea, The Sea, from Iris Murdoch: “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of them can be inexpensive and quickly procured, so much the better.”

And one more from Seneca: “As long as you are alive, keep learning how to live.” That’s a good one.

The League of Couth and Shevelled Gentlemen, a manifesto

A new society calls for a redefining of masculinity and gentlemanly behaviour.

The renowned essayist Michel de Montaigne once wrote that he liked the kind of manly friendship that rejoices in sharp, vigorous exchanges, “just as love rejoices in scratches and bites which draw blood”.
“If I am sparring with a strong and solid opponent he will attack me on the flanks, stick his lance in me right and left,” Montaigne wrote. “His ideas send mine soaring.”
One wonders just what sort of friends the Frenchman cultivated if literal and/or figurative scars were the metrics by which he assessed the value of the bond.
Not ease of company or allied sense of humour. Not a chum who’ll be there when the chips are down, not a confrere with whom to shoot the breeze or to share a comfortable silence, not a trusted pal with whom to watch a game or roll a few frames, but rather a conversational sparing partner. A bête noire. A debating opponent. A protagonist rather than bosom buddy.
Yet he is not alone I don’t think. We men are not always the best at friendship with our fellow hombres.
There are reasons for this, of course, and we all have other priorities. Work intrudes.
“One of the devastating consequences of the constant and hectic froth of the activity in our lives is that we have less contact with our friends,” says Meditations for Men Who Do Next to Nothing (and Would Like to Do Even Less).
“Friendship is a time for letting our hair down, for revelling in the differences and similarities that have drawn and kept us together. Friendship is a time to remember common histories and to be young bucks frolicking in fields once more.”
For reasons unknown, we men just don’t seem to be as good as maintaining friendship groups as women are. We forget birthdays, and let too long go by without making a call out of the blue for no other reason than to say hello.
There are, however, consequences for not maintaining friendships. The number of quality connections we have can have a profound impact on our mental health; there is evidence that random contacts from friends can boost feelings of connectedness and wellness. Lose those connections (without finding adequate replacements) and you lose the very tangible benefits they provide.
“Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life,” wrote the philosopher Epicurus, “by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.”
Our friends know us best; their company makes life more pleasant.
As George Santayana put it, one’s friends are that part of the human race with which one can be human.
Surely there can’t be too many opportunities for this state to arise. That is why I have formed the League of Couth and Shevelled Gentlemen.
Our mission statement is a simple one: to several times a year provide a convivial atmosphere for a bunch of friends – new and old – to catch up.
The League is up and running.
We are couth. We are shevelled.

Common goal, common vision

Back when things were still being made in Australia, Ford developed its four-wheel-drive vehicle, the Territory. At the time, it was the most market-researched car in this country’s automotive history. This article is a historical piece, written when it looked manufacturing might have a future here, and when we might still keep making our own cars.

If we can believe the stories, breakthroughs often occur either through happy accidents or epiphanies. Yet that’s not how Ford vehicle line director Russell Christophers conceived the Territory.

There were no eureka moments. The concept for the sports utility vehicle (SUV) didn’t come to him fully formed in a dream. The basis for the Territory didn’t begin in idle doodling, or come in a blinding flash of inspiration.

“The idea for Territory began – as all great cars do – by recognising a customer need,” Christophers says.

In practice that means the concept for the Territory was actually inspired by its potential customers, and was exposed to an unprecedented level of market research.

“We researched appearance, we researched function, we researched interior flexibility, we researched everything,” Christophers says. “So the final product we had we knew was what the customer wanted. The Territory was simply about having a really disciplined, detailed market research process to find out what the customer wanted, and then building it.”

Christophers took the lead in developing and researching the Territory concept in 1999, five years before it came to market; that’s how long it takes for a car to be researched, designed, tested and built.

As chief program engineer he was the CEO of the program, the owner of the total business, and responsible for making sure team members were on the same page.

Traditionally, the Ford of choice among Australians has been the Falcon, which generates most of Ford Australia’s profits.

When time came to invest in the latest Falcon (the BA, launched in 2002) Christophers and his team began to wonder if doing the BA Falcon made sense, if the large car business was going to continue to be sustainable, and if there was a market beyond the Falcon.

“Good questions,” Christophers says. “And we certainly weren’t going to ask for half a billion dollars to execute the BA Falcon without knowing the market need was going to continue to be there towards the end of the decade.”

So in order to validate the development of the BA Falcon, Christophers decided to do extensive market research, talking to those buying large cars and finding out what their future buying intentions were. Realising that four-wheel drives were being bought as substitutes for passenger cars, they spoke to those drivers as well.

“And that started to ring alarm bells with us,” Christophers says. “Going forward, the large car business had been in decline slowly over time. The market research told us that that decline was likely to continue. Large cars would still be a very important market segment, but there was risk in the rate of decline. Large car passenger owners said, ‘Yeah, we’ll probably buy another large car, but we’ll certainly look at four-wheel drives. We like the image of them. It says I lead an active lifestyle, I do things in my life. And I’ve thought about it, but the thing that’s stopping me from going there is that I know they’re expensive to buy, they’re expensive to run and they drive like a truck’.”

Four-wheel drive owners confessed their switch from cars was prompted by imagery; they wanted to do things with their weekend and get away. But of course, they’d never driven it beyond the local mall or school.

Christophers and his research team found that interesting.

“So four-wheel drives aren’t totally meeting the needs of the customer; large cars aren’t totally meeting the needs of the customer,” he explains. “And then we decided to validate where people-mover owners had come from. And we found they were life-stage people – they had large families and needed this vehicle to carry the kids around – they hated the car in terms of what it said about them as a person. It says, ‘I’m a boring person, I cart a lot of kids around. And they all said, ‘As soon as my kids grow up, I’m going to get out of this vehicle and buy something that suits my ego a bit better’.”

Christophers said Ford created a triangle with a family sedan at the apex, a people mover in one corner and a traditional SUV in the other.

“Somewhere in the middle was a product that combined: ‘I don’t look like a truck, I look like a futuristic four-wheel drive, with its smart styling. I’m nimble and agile around town, because of these people drive their vehicle in an urban environment. I’m still fun to drive, I don’t drive like a truck. And I’ve got a lot more interior flexibility; I can do things with my life on the weekends’,” Christophers says. “So we started to research what this vehicle might be.”

There was also a business need: Ford’s manufacturing plant in Cambellfield in Melbourne’s northern suburbs has had many millions of dollars of investment pumped into it so that it can make cars – large cars. Another plant in Geelong makes engines, also for large cars. At the same time, the large-car market was and continues going into decline. Question: is there a way to use the assets that are already in a place to make something Australian customers want to buy?

Searching for the answer led the team back to the triangle, and the possibility that in the middle of it lay a “sweet spot”: a hybrid vehicle that could be made using the assets in place.

“In life, if you can get a customer need and a business need aligned,” Christophers says, “you’ve really got a strong thing going for you.”

One of the early difficulties Christophers had was selling the Ford Australia high brass on the idea. After all, there were already plenty of SUVs in the local market. Ford even had its own, the Explorer.

“A lot of people were really sceptical,” Christophers says. “To give the customer what they wanted was going to cost a lot of money, close to half a billion dollars. Not to give the customer what they wanted was going to be compromise and in my belief it wouldn’t deliver the volume and wouldn’t justify the investment. But if you got it right, you hit the sweet spot, the customers would come and you’d get return. If you tried to do the thing by half measures, you would fail, and that was really difficult.”

As might be expected from a large-cost and sophisticated piece of machinery manufactured from parts sourced globally, automobiles have a very clearly delineated, detailed production process.

In the Ford system, each point of the journey is marked by a milestone, with Job One when the first car rolls off the assembly line.

After research reveals a program might have merit, it’s given kick-off, or KO, and approval is given to start spending engineering money, say $50 million. A design is developed, its feasibility tested and detailed costing completed.

An early design version based on the Fairlane was deemed too big by respondents, who wanted a city-friendly car that was agile, nimble and easy to park as well as versatile for weekend use.

A shorter version based on the Falcon platform was developed.

“And we kept on going to market research events asking the customer what they wanted, going away and analysing the data and then going back again,” Christophers says. “We never said, ‘We know what the customer wants’. We said, ‘We think this is what you told us, so we’ll go back again with a new proposition or a new property’.

“And each time we did this – and we did it 12 or 13 times – we got closer and closer to what it was.”

This is not standard operating procedure. Christophers needed compelling data to convince the local and international Ford management that the Territory was the right thing to do. The market research data had to stand up to close scrutiny; there needed to be a lot of it and it needed to be statistically valid.

Every car attribute that could be researched was, and then it was prioritised according to customer rating. Appearance, safety, dynamics and performance were all considered in this process.

“If you’ve only got a finite amount of money to spend, you want to spend most of the money on the area of the car the customer says is the most important to him or her, and then you cascade down through the priority process,” Christophers says.

Then followed benchmarking against the best in the market, the Lexus RX300 and the BMW X5.

“We go through a detailed benchmarking process,” Christophers says. “Who is the competitor we are competing against? Get their vehicle. Tear it down, drive it, understand it, benchmark it. Then we have objective measures. If we want to be ‘as good as’, we know what it’s going to be … if we want it to be ‘better than’, we know what we have to do.”

About 18 months into the Territory program, Christophers and Ford Australia president Geoff Polites went to the parent company’s US headquarters in Dearborn outside of Detroit, seeking approval.

A hierarchical company, Ford has a monthly forum attended by senior vice- presidents called product matter meeting (PMM) at which all major investments are discussed and accorded a yay or nay.

Polites handled the overall pitch, Christophers talked the powers that be through the specifics of the Territory, using a 40 per cent scale model and virtual animations that showed the workings of the car’s interiors.

“But it wasn’t just about getting Territory approved, it was about the ongoing viability of Ford Australia,” Christophers says.

Following the “show and tell” the Australians were grilled about the program’s business specifics. How many are you going to sell? How do you know you’re going to sell that many? How much is it going to cost to make? What are you going to sell it for? How much money are you going to make? Does the business structure make sense – will you get appropriate returns?

“Ford is a global company, we make and sell cars everywhere in the world,” Christophers says. “Everybody has an idea to make money. So your proposal needs to stand up to scrutiny because not all the proposals that go forward to PMM get through. It came under very close and detailed scrutiny.”

But of course, the Territory was approved.

As chief program engineer Christophers was held personally accountable for delivering a flawless product when it was launched, on cost, and capable of generating the profits he’d committed to make.

He estimates there were 500 lifetime heads (500 people working for a year) on the Territory program, with about 120 personnel dedicated to the project in the peak year.

Christophers met weekly with the senior heads of project development, engineering, sales and marketing and supplier quality assurance for about three hours.

Known as the Program Steering Team meeting, the forum was a chance for Christophers to assess how each department was tracking towards its targets.

“In each milestone there are very specific deliverables, things that must be achieved before you can say, ‘I passed that milestone and I’m ready to move on to the next milestone’,” Christophers says.

“And it’s very detailed. It’s about confirming that I have secured the resources to do the work. It’s about confirming that design has got to a point where it needs to be at. It’s about confirming that I’ve done all the test work that I need to do to verify the design will meet the intent, meet the target – the part won’t break, it won’t vibrate, it won’t malfunction, it will do what’s required.”

And as much as each department understands it’s working as part of a team, sometimes there are conflicts.

“You never know what you need to know at the start,’ Christophers says. “You find out a lot of things along the way.”

There might be conflict over the use of geographical location, two different teams wanting to use the same place for a different component. There are trade-offs, usually between attributes – handling and ride, for instance – but very often cost.

In these instances it was Christophers’ job to arbitrate.

“On the journey from program approval to Job One there are a number of trade-offs that the chief program engineer has got to make to get there,” he says. “And he’s continuing to make those trade-offs all along the journey.”

Yes, there are egos involved in the manufacture of cars, disagreements from time to time, and the inability to compromise. At the same time, there is an incredible amount at stake each time a new vehicle is developed, which only serves to underline how crucial it is each part of a unit is performing its function.

“The most important part of working as a team is alignment: common goal, common vision,” Christophers says. “In a car program that’s really complex, keeping everybody aligned as things change and things move.”

With the Territory, though, maintaining team focus was no arduous assignment, and Christophers has described it as the best car ever to roll off a Ford assembly line.

“One of the great things about the Territory program was that the people who have worked in this business for a long time in Australia, this was the first time we’d ever got to design a car from the ground up,” Christophers says. “So it really wasn’t difficult to engender and develop passion and commitment from the team. It was something everybody wanted to do; it was a product everybody could relate to.”

Kind of a dream, really, even if the project didn’t begin that way.


A version of this article originally appeared in INTHEBLACK magazine.


In search of ‘Snowy on the tram’

Years ago, not long after I started my first full-time job as a journalist, my boss dropped an expression into the conversation that I’d never heard before: “Snowy on the tram”.

He used it in the sense of “even Snowy on the tram” has heard that, or knows that. I imagined Snowy as a not particularly well informed individual, spending most of his time, as he did, in transit. He’s kind of an average fella, and not especially bright or curious.

In this sense he’s a bit like Blind Freddy, Fred Nerk, Joe Blow, Joe Bloggs, Joe Average, or John Citizen. He doesn’t ask many questions. So for Snowy on the Tram to know something, it must be pretty damn obvious, or have been widely promulgated.

Recently I asked the Macquarie Dictionary whether there was any reference to Snowy in their records.

The answer was affirmative: researcher Susan Butler found some evidence that Snowy on the Tram is (or was) a Melbourne term for “the average bloke”.

There was this reference from the Sporting Globe (Melbourne, Vic. : 1922–1954) Wednesday May 4, 1949 p.12 article:

“Those who won the distance events at Stawell this year, also had to survive the fight. Everyone, except ‘Snowy’ on the Ballarat tram, saw one runner deliberately punch another man and effectively ruin the victim’s chances of winning a Stawell mile. The crudity of the act must have blinded officials. There was a time when scientific elbowing in packed distance fields was an accepted fact. It was cleverly done and …”

And this from the Sporting Globe (Melbourne, Vic. : 1922–1954) Saturday, January 6, 1951 p.10 article:

“But when the Austral comes around even ‘Snowy’ on the trams knows there’s something big going on. Public interest responds to that magical name – Austral. There’s a wealth of tradition behind the race. Inaugurated in 1886 as an amateur event it become a professional event in 1890.”

In 1984 there was a horse called Snowy on the Tram that enjoyed a measure of success.

But since then, nothing.

On this most Australian of days I’m calling on my fellow Melburnians to bring back into use this charming expression. Next time the conversation takes a turn where you feel the need to reference Blind Freddy or Joe Blow, name-check old Snowy on the tram instead.

Thanks to Macquarie Dictionary for the generous help in researching the term, and to Andrew Johnstone for introducing me to it in 1994.