Sydney Film Festival

June 16, 2019

I saw five films. Short accounts only of some of them as I have already gone to such length about the German film “festival.” I’ve linked to various reviews of each.

1. Pain and Glory – Almodovar .

Self-referential and likely as not destined to be a “late work.” Beautifully made as all Almodovar films are, which owes quite a lot to his “team.”  I enjoyed it; D, less so – too much talking. For a “gay” film there wasn’t much sex – everyone’s got too old for it. I particularly appreciated the fresh autobiographical angle cast on Bad Education –my favourite Almodovar film.

2. Never Look Away

A fictionalisation of the life the German artist Gerhard Richter. Richter (born 1932) emigrated from the East to the West just before the Wall went up and from Socialist Realism (Dresden) to “Capitalist Realism” (Dusseldorf). The film ends with his breakthrough in the West in the sixties. The German title translates as “Work without an author” which refers to Richter’s reputation-making works which were blurry paintings of “found” snapshots.

When I was watching the film the shadows cast by the third Reich seemed just too neatly invoked, but it turns out that Richter’s aunt, compulsorily sterilized as a schizophrenic as part of Aktion T4 and later starved to death in the final months of the war, really did pass through the clinic led by his SS gynaecologist father-in-law, though this was only discovered many years after the events of this film. You can see why this was an attractive scenario for a film treatment which ran to 189 minutes without seeming long at all.

3. This is not Berlin

A gay/bisexual coming-of-age film set in Mexico City in 1986. At first I thought the title was differentiation from the world of Herr Issyvoo but in fact the reference was to the 1936 and 1968 Olympics (which were a bit more of the same in terms of the domestic political circumstances in the host country) and then performance art protests during the 1986 World Cup (also, obviously, in Mexico). It was all a bit of a trial for me because the protagonists’ coming of age involved drug-enhanced punk-music of a kind which I find almost unbearable. My elder sister was in a similar scene (though more musical than performance art), a few years earlier, and I have mixed memories of my encounters with it – so much boring noise and younger-brother hanging around. If she’d given me some drugs it might have been a more positive experience for me.

4. So Long, My Son (地久天长)

A Chinese saga running from about 1975 to 2015 (and from about 8.35 to 11.30 pm).

Three couples become friends as “educated youth” banished to the countryside. Returning to their home town (a northern city) two of them have sons born on the same day (cue Il Trovatore or, parodically, The Gondoliers). One of the women falls pregnant again and the woman of the other couple, in her role as a “leader,” ensures that an abortion ensues pursuant to the one-child policy. The abortion goes badly – that is, worse than just an unsought  abortion: the woman can no longer have children. So what? She’s not supposed to have any more, after all.  Then, ten or so years later,  the son of the leader forces his playmate the other boy (a non-swimmer) to play in a reservoir where he duly drowns. (I’ve unscrambled the film’s chronology: the film starts with this event without fully spelling out the role of the surviving boy.)

The now childless couple, inconsolable and with nothing to say to their friends, emigrate to Fujian where they adopt an orphan whom they give the name of their dead son. Unsurprisingly, he rejects them as soon as he is old enough. Meanwhile, the younger sister of the leader visits prior to her departure to the US and falls pregnant to the now childless man. She offers the child to him but he says that won’t solve the problem. You just know that isn’t the end of the story but it’s left as a sleeper.

Time flies, everyone gets richer. The third couple, who have a bit of a subsidiary plot line of their own after the man is imprisoned for attending a “lights out” party early in the piece, overcome their offstage travails and have a son. The onetime leader, dying, seeks a final reunion; after the funeral her son, now a doctor, tells the other family what happened at the reservoir; the childless couple sweep their son’s grave; the doctor has a son; the adopted son comes home down in Fujian with his girlfriend; skyping from the US the younger sister of the leader (aunt of the doctor) reveals her son to the now not childless father.

D stayed away. He scorns films about China which he considers likely to have been made for foreign consumption. He couldn’t see how a drama hinging on the one-child policy could fail to be such a film. Certainly US reviews (Variety; Hollywood Reporter) rather superficially in my opinion zero in on the one child policy as the iniquitous source of the characters’ suffering.

Following some internet investigations after I recounted the film,  D reluctantly conceded his suspicions might have been misplaced. The film already has a China release; the State Theatre film festival audience was well-leavened by Chinese people. (Fewer of the whitey audience lasted the full distance.)

The Chinese title, which roughly translates as “So long as the world endures” an epithet relating to sentiments such as friendship or hate, is used as the chorus in the Chinese lyrics for Auld Lang Syne –which features in the film. Viewed from this angle, the theme is not so much the one-child policy as the endurance of the characters and their friendship in the face of the tumultuous changes and, yes, sufferings, of the past 40 years.

Presumably this is a more acceptable narrative for Chinese presentation.

The film was  a real tear-jerker. I went along with the flow but  afterwards was left with a few niggles.

First, though this is perhaps the smallest – in all the sufferings (including mass job loss on entry to a market economy) nobody ends up worse off. Everybody becomes rich. That, I’d say, is part of the acceptable narrative.

Secondly, in the film there are six mothers (the women in each of the original couples, the niece,the mother of the adopted child and the doctor’s wife) but none of them has a daughter – the children are all sons. So much for holding up half the sky and a suspiciously convenient sidestep of a major aspect of resistance to the one-child policy.

Thirdly, though really just a corollary of the second niggle, there is a neat plot device where the father of the childless couple is contacted on his mobile phone. Despite his apparent desire to escape his previous life, he hasn’t changed the number. It’s neat because this means that plot developments triggered by calls from old acquaintances are always signalled by the also unchanged and distinctive call tone – the opening theme from Mozart’s Symphony No 40. But we never saw his wife with a phone of her own.

5. Queen of Hearts

Anne is a Danish children’s lawyer with a beautiful house, a doctor husband, Peter, and two lovely twin daughters aged nine or ten. Gustav, Peter’s troubled son from his first marriage, arrives to spend the summer holidays with them before enrolling for his final year of school in Denmark. Gustav has run out of chances back in Sweden where he was previously living with his mother.

Gustav doesn’t want to be there, but, as Peter tells him, as a minor he has no choice – other than boarding school. After some initial difficulties, Gustav embraces his new family. A golden-lit idyll ensues – pony club for the girls; swimming in lakes; water pistols; long northern summer nights. Anne, Peter and Gustav take turns reading ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to the twins – which turns out to be the source of the title (in English at least; the Danish title “Dronningen” simply means “Queen”).

And then Anne embraces Gustav and more – there is some pretty graphic sex including fellatio with what I presume was a  prosthetic penis (it looked a bit thick and straight to be real). That’s hardly a plot-spoiler above the quasi-anatomic detail because the affair is the publicized premise of the film. I had to cover my eyes for some of this. It cannot end well and it doesn’t. The season shifts to a bleak but still gorgeously filmed winter.

Sentence first, verdict afterwards – the Carroll/Dodgson Queen is hardly a sympathetic character.

Peter reads to his daughters:

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.

It’s almost unthinkable that Anne should act as she does, yet how can such events (even if less “unthinkable” when a step-father rather than a step-mother is the adult party) be anything but unthinkable? The “unthinkability” is the horror. Reversing the more common genders casts a fresh light on all the usual tropes mobilised to force the younger party to keep the secret.

Trine Dyrholm’s performance as Anne is a tour de force.


That’s the film festival for me this year. It’s a special experience worth treasuring. A lot of this has to do with being in the State Theatre, and given a choice I always try to choose a screening there.  But it is also about joining with others, many of whom are diving deeper into a binge than I ever manage.  I didn’t spot any actual duffle coats and thermoses this year, but they were figuratively present in the  buzz of conversation, reunion and shared journey.  You rarely  get this from the sparsely filled late night arthouse sessions which are my normal cinematic fare.

German Overalls

June 15, 2019

[For title allusion, see here.]

It’s June so it’s film festival time.

That mainly means the Sydney Film Festival.  More of that later.

First, (starting in May) was the German Film Festival.  That is now one of the many “festivals” mounted by Palace Cinemas through the year.  It can be difficult to keep up with them.  They are these days not so much festivals as special promotions.  Ironically, now that almost all films are screened from DVDs, festivals have lost their logistical ontological necessity.

The equivalent French and Italian film festivals draw bigger crowds – the French because France is so chic; the Italian because there are more Italians here.

I went to:

Adam und Evelyn;
Sealed Lips
The Captain.

There’s a kind of theme, or perhaps double theme, at work here.

The first three are all about “die ehemalige DDR.”

Balloon is a “true story” about an escape from East to West made by two families in about 1978.  There was a Disney film made not long after. This remake could equally be a Disney film from a later age – it was fun though (justly, I’d say) it has been critically panned.

The main premise of the drama is that, one family having failed in their initial escape attempt, the two families must make their escape before the Stasi catch up with them by following the clues.  There is more than one dramatic cliche.  The local Stasi man lives just over the road and his daughter and the son of one escaping family have a romance (I’m thinking “I am sixteen going on seventeen” here).  And the chief escapee-hunter always chews some kind of peppermint or chewing gum, so you know he is a baddie – think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the opposite direction and Robert Helpmann as the child-catcher general.

Of the three I liked Adam und Evelyn the best.  It’s based on a novel, about a young couple who almost accidentally leave the DDR via Hungary in the summer of 1989.  The allegory is hardly subtle though amazingly I didn’t really pick up on the hint in the title  until a scene where Adam starts reading to Evelyn from the Gideon’s bible they find in a hotel room once they have crossed to the west.  Not everyone will agree with the implication that the DDR was paradise (it depends really on the very particular circumstances of Adam in this story).  One point I took away from the film was that the people who left in the summer of 89 had little way of knowing that a mere 4 or 5 months later the wall would be coming down. (As a corollary, nor had those who did not go: in the film, when Adam returns to his home at the end of the year he finds it has been emptied of its contents – probably by his neighbours.  Why not?  They weren’t expecting him back.)

I reckon I have detected a new stock figure.  In both films there is a sympathetic character from the mainstream – a bit like the legendary “Cossack who winked” of 1917, or (to draw a more tenuous bow)  the gay boys’ sympathetic (though generally also marginalised in some way) female friend (eg Beautiful Thing).  In Ballon it is a young child’s kindergarten teacher who keeps to herself what the child has blurted out at school; in Adam & Evelyn it is a Czech border guard on the way to Hungary who says nothing about the woman hiding in the boot of Adam’s car.

Sealed Lips deals with the predicament of German communist women who had gone to the USSSR in the 1930s, where they had become embroiled in various purges and ultimately consigned to the gulag.  On their return to the DDR in about 1952 (that’s to say, the return of the lucky survivors), they must keep their USSR sufferings secret.  They foolishly imagine that the death of Stalin might make a difference but find not.  I wish this could have been better.  Part of the problem was to attempt to deal with too much. We had to include a gulag atrocity AND a 1989 flashback which linked to a stymied romance with an idealistic young doctor who had returned to the West a mere 36 years ago – AND they were still talking to each other on the phone?  puhleeze!

Meanwhile, as to the fourth, it’s back to the SBS[the Hitler channel]-syndrome, cos after all we all know that Germans are either communists or Nazis, right?

Hence The Captain.  It’s a film treatment (not the first) of Willi Herold, a German soldier who in the last weeks WWII by means of an adventitiously found uniform impersonated an airforce captain. Proclaiming himself to be on a special mission authorised by the Fuhrer, Herold embarked on a spree of summary execution and mass murder of deserters, “traitors” and, as it happens, 5 Dutch “spies”.  The incident concerning the Dutch “spies” doesn’t make it into the film, though I suspect it was the original reason Herold was being looked for when he was apprehended by the Allies not long after the end of hostilities.

It’s a story which defies belief.  Herold wasn’t even twenty years old at the time.  How can anyone ever have believed his impersonation?  The film posits that it suited people to do so or at least pretend to.   In such dark times (and this applies to Herold himself) it may well be easier to join in committing atrocities than to risk being a victim of such atrocities oneself.  In a variant of the stock figure I have referred to above, just one man, urged by Herold at gunpoint to join in the slaughter, instead shoots himself.

It’s a visually striking film, mostly in black and white which carries its own reminiscence of WWII German newsreel.  At one grim point I had to go out for a cigarette.   Of the four films I saw in the “festival” this seems the most likely to have an (art house) general release.

Roger Covell

June 4, 2019

The Australia Ensemble and UNSW announced today that Roger Covell has died.

It doesn’t seem more than a year ago that I ran into him and Patricia Brown, his wife,  on a city underground train and we had a short but pleasant conversation about the opera du jour and the future of the Australia Ensemble.

Covell  made a great contribution to music in Australia and in Sydney, as music critic for the SMH and at UNSW – the Australia Ensemble is probably his monument so far as I am concerned, though that is not to belittle his other contributions, some of which, such as the UNSW Opera, have receded into the mists of time.

A relatively little-known fact is that as a young man Covell was one of four applicants for the role of founding editor of Quadrant.  James McAuley got the job.  Covell subsequently contributed to that journal from time to time. I forgive him for that [!], but I think he dodged a bullet and we can be grateful that his career took a more strictly musical turn.

Homeless in Mangerton

May 30, 2019

Just now there is an orgy of opinion-writing about homelessness.

The issue is topical because of the death of Courtney Herron, of no fixed address, whose savagely beaten body was recently found in Royal Park in Melbourne.

On top of the usual stuff about toxic masculinity, Catherine Lumby and a journalist weighed in with a piece sporting the headline: “Next time you have a meeting dominated by men, consider how it is affecting homelessness.”

The basic thesis seemed to be encapsulated in this passage:

Domestic violence is experienced by one in six Australian females – with an incident occurring every two minutes in this country. Domestic violence is also the dominant pathway to homelessness for women.

Ask most people why people are homeless and they are likely to say it’s because of drug and alcohol addiction or mental health issues. In fact, research initiated by the bipartisan Council of Australian Governments found that domestic and family violence is the leading cause.

It seems unbelievable, but one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence from the age of 15. It’s a tough statistic to get our heads around. And even tougher when you realise that most of that violence occurs at the hands of men they trust – those they are in an intimate relationship with or related to.

The most common reason women give for seeking support from government funded homelessness services is domestic or family violence.


There are women living on the street with their children. Living in their cars. Afraid to go to homeless shelters because they don’t want to deal with more violence and they want to protect their children.


Why are women still relegated to the lower ranks of organisations despite their educational and professional achievements? Why is feminised labour like childcare, primary school teaching and nursing still undervalued? Why do we accept indirect discrimination in hiring practices?

And why do we think it’s OK for women and children to be treated as property? This is at the heart of domestic and family violence. It’s a hard truth.

Which is why we should all take a turn participating in or supporting the Vinnies Sleepout and spending some time thinking about that truth. And thinking about how we might more urgently address female disadvantage in the workplace as a way to tackle the root causes of domestic violence and homelessness.

There has also been quite a lot of recent publicity of studies showing increases of homelessness amongst older women.  An instance here.

There are a lot of different kinds and causes of homelessness.

The homelessness of Courtney and her alleged assailant seem pretty clearly to have been an caused by a mixture of “drug and alcohol addiction or mental health issues” of the sort to which Lumby and her co-author refer.

Another quite common type of homelessness is that recounted by Wendy Squires in The Age, of which she writes:

I don’t want to dwell on how and why I ended up homeless. It was an escalation of parental circumstance from which I felt I had no choice but to flee.

That was when she was still at school. That strikes me as a kind of liminal phase not so remote from just “leaving home” and likely to be relatively surmountable – provided all other things are equal or a bit better than equal. You are young; you don’t have much ballast or stuff.

The growing homelessness of older women is mostly part of the general category of homelessness arising from poverty.  Whilst female disadvantage obviously contributes to this for women, homeless men still outnumber homeless women in all age groups, according to ABS 2016 figures.

Every private-rental low-income tenant is just a no-grounds termination or a tipping-point financially adverse event away from homelessness – and that’s a lot of people.  It is futile for most such people to even contemplate seeking public housing – the queues for that are as meaninglessly long as the “queues” for offshore refugees.

The statement that “domestic or family violence” is the “most common reason” women give for seeking support from government funded homelessness services has to be read in that light: the general homeless mostly do not even bother seeking such assistance. The figures must be skewed by women with children who do because they actually have a chance of receiving it.

In my own little sallies into the criminal law, I have seen more than enough of the vulnerability of the druggy and mentally disturbed homeless.  The lower reaches of the criminal law are awash with it.  Police know about it though they become hardened to it in their role as society’s garbage collectors and boundary enforcers.  The criminalisation of drug law has a large part to play.

A particularly grim example, though hardly in the lower reaches of the criminal law, is described in unusual detail in [2018] NSWSC 978 – in which, after a 7-week judge-alone trial, Justice Hamill dealt in agonising detail (as he was required to) with the last days of Mark Dower and the responsibility of Mark Jenkin for Dower’s death.

Dower had spent some years teaching English as a foreign language in Finland. You’d have to be a reasonably personable and educated person to do that, and also, one would think, quite adventurous. He had married; he had a daughter.  His wife died.  His life fell apart.  He became an alcoholic and also had mental health problems.  He returned to live in the Wollongong area where (I infer) he had grown up.

Dower became homeless and fell into a terrible milieu of drug users and ex-cons in a public housing estate at Mangerton,  an inner western suburb of Wollongong.

There was no need for Dower to be homeless on economic grounds.  Courtesy of his time in Finland, he was a man with two pensions.  This seems to have become well-known in Mangerton.

Dower was ripe for exploitation and he was exploited.  To his new protectors, and particularly to Mark Jenkin, he became a cash cow escorted to the ATM at milking time or forced to hand his keycard over for Jenkin’s use.

In 2015, aged just 53, Dower died in Jenkin’s flat where he had been for a bit under a week.

Jenkin claimed that he had been caring for Dower and that Dower didn’t want to be taken to hospital because he was afraid of being subjected to electric-shock therapy (which he had been in the past).  Hamill J did not accept this because Dower had  presented himself at hospital on numerous occasions, including on one occasion where he said he had been assaulted by a “martial arts expert” to whom he had lent money to to feed the assailant’s drug addiction.  (The hospital presentations had abated during a period when Jenkin had been in custody.)

Dower had told an old school friend that Jenkin was standing over him for his money but that he was scared to go to the police because he feared Jenkin would kill him if he did so.  He also told a shop-keeper about it one time when he was unable to repay credit he had been extended.

Dower’s fear that Jenkin would kill him had he gone to the police was not so fanciful as you might think.

RS, described by Jenkin in intercepted calls as “a fuckin’ street-working fuckin’ junkie fuckin’ deadset moll” had turned up at Jenkin’s flat just after Dower’s death.  Not long after this, Jenkin lost his key to the flat when he himself was assaulted in retaliation for a burglary he had committed of an ex-girlfriend’s place.  As a result Dower’s body, by this stage almost a week in Jenkin’s bath, needed to be taken out of the flat through the window. RS helped Jenkin do this.  The body was left in a laundry block at the flats which Jenkin had taken over as his own by placing a padlock on it.

Presumably Jenkin was planning to dispose of the body further, but before he got around to it he was arrested for the burglary.  A bit over a week later,  RS anonymously tipped the police off that there was a dead body in Jenkin’s laundry.

Rumours reached Jenkin in gaol that RS was “going crown.”  She was (unless others and Jenkin have remained stumm) the only person who had actually seen Dower dead in Jenkin’s flat.  Phone calls by Jenkin from gaol were intercepted in which Jenkin urged his step-brother to shut  RS up for good by giving her a “hot shot.”  The step-brother tried to source some heroin but the supplier told the court she wouldn’t sell it to him as she hadn’t sold to him before and wasn’t going to start then.

That seems a surprising twist of heroin-dealing ethics and you have to seriously wonder about it, though it could just have been prudence.  The dealer understood that ice rather than heroin was the step-brother’s drug of choice though she denied selling the step-brother anything.

Hamill J’s judgment includes an almost comical roll-call of the numerous witnesses who were potentially unreliable because they were drug users, alcoholics, suffered from mental problems or had drug-addled memories, who may have been concerned to minimise their own involvement in the circumstances surrounding Dower’s death or any conspiracy to murder RS or whose evidence for the prosecution might have been given in return for leniency about their own involvement or in relation to other matters.

There is a lot more forensic detail in the judgment about the indignities (and worse) to which Mr Dower was subjected whilst he was in the flat.  Videos probably taken by Jenkin were recovered from a phone which was in his possession at his arrest.  It must have been heart-breaking for his daughter, whose identity has been suppressed.

Justice Hamill suspected that Jenkin in fact struck a blow which killed Dower (in which case he would have been guilty of murder), but because it was a circumstantial case and other potential mortal assailants could not be excluded, Hammil J found Jenkin  guilty of manslaughter on the basis that Jenkin had assaulted Dower when he was in the flat and failed to obtain medical assistance for him, as a result of which Dower died.  It’s the same basis on which, for example, parents who fail to take their children to a doctor can be found guilty of manslaughter.

Jenkin was also found guilty of conspiracy to murder RS.

He received a total sentence of 19 years with a 14-year non-parole period.

Language fail

May 22, 2019

The German Film Festival, now more closely tethered to Palace Cinemas than to the Goethe Institut (which is a shame – I miss all those German taxpayer dollars staffing the foyers) started this week.

Meanwhile, this is (roughly) the script for Flight Centre’s current TV advertisement

Nein, Nee, Non, No

No matter how you say it

There are NO  online booking fees at Flight Centre..[usw]

That’s all very well, or maybe just as well, because the German “No’ in the adjectival sense as in “No booking fees” is (depending on gender of the noun)


as in (I got this off the internet so it must be right))

Keine Buchungsgebühr

Was there not one person at Flight Centre (a travel agent which you would think should profess some expertise in foreign lands and maybe their lingo) who could have put this right?


Fiddling while Rome burns

May 20, 2019

On Saturday to the SOH to hear the SSO with soloist Yulianna Avdeeva, conducted by Andrey Boreyko.

The program was:

Krysztof Meyer, Hommage a Johannes Brahms
Chopin, Piano Concerto No 1 (which is actually No 2) and
Brahms arr Schoenberg Piano Quartet in G minor (op 25).

The Meyer is definitely a rarity: Boreyko may be its champion.  Written in Poland in or for 1983 (Brahms was born in 1833) it started off very much like Brahms’ first symphony, but by the second half of the piece could just as well have been a tribute to Bernstein.  There were some interesting orchestral textures. I especially liked a kind of rancid squeezebox woodwind effect which cropped up from time to time.

In the background, votes were being counted.  As the piano was being wheeled onto the stage, mobile phones were checked.  News of Tony Abbott’s electoral demise trickled in. But that was hardly the main game.

The Chopin is a funny piece.  Its long orchestral introduction is notoriously stodgy and for me even after the piano came in the real Chopin didn’t seem to emerge until the E-major theme – before then it was just early 19th century noodling.  After that things got much better though I didn’t feel the orchestra really rose to Avdeeva’s rhythmic liveliness.  As an encore she played Bourree I and II from Bach’s English Suite in A (or “a” if you are adopting the major-minor nomenclature).

By interval, there was a distinct lack of encouraging news for ALP supporters. It was clear that the swing was not “on.” Considering we’d all heard such rousing music, the atmosphere in the foyers was subdued.  I suppose some were cheerful about the tidings but they were probably in the minority in this particular crowd.

I think I’ve dismissed the “Brahms” before as a bit of a vulgarity.  In search of necessary consolation I made a special  effort to appreciate it on its own terms.  Funnily enough this worked and I enjoyed it more than the last time the SSO played it.  The second movement remains my favourite.

D had gone to an election night party.  There had been some talk of my joining him there post-concert if the night proved a long one.  When I rang him on my way out he told me he was already home.


Twinks and Tipstaves

May 10, 2019

Bernard Gaynor is a conservative Catholic activist and blogger.  His conduct as such was too conservative (or more accurately, just too much) for the chief of Australian Defence Force.  He’s particularly down on GLBTIQ types.

Garry Burns is a self-appointed gay activist whose specialty is making complaints about people who vilify gay people.  If you like (and others might say in his dreams) he could be described as a mixed avatar of Peter Tatchell and Quentin Crisp with a touch of John Inmans thrown in.  He likes to make jokes about his pussy – though of course that is really Mrs Slocum, isn’t it?

Garry has been going after public homophobia and anti-gay vilifiers for a while.  From memory, going back, it started with him confronting vilification from his neighbour in public housing, but after that and particularly with the arrival of the internet he widened his field of vigilance.  The public housing is not irrelevant.  As a pensioner in public housing Burns is the perfect complainer and plaintiff as he is practically speaking immune from fear of any adverse costs orders.

Burns makes complaints to the appropriate anti-discrimination bodies and as he is in NSW eventually hauls those he has complained about up before the relevant NSW tribunal – NCAT.  (Other states don’t all have such favourable laws for bringing this sort of complaint.  Under NSW law, apologies and compensation can be ordered.)

Or at least he did.  Eventually Gaynor and another of Burns’ targets scored a victory on a constitutional point.  The point was not that NSW law could not apply to Mr Gaynor in Queensland (for one thing, that would probably come up against the Gutnick case about publication on the internet occurring at the point of receipt), but rather that state governments could not establish Tribunals (which are administrative bodies rather than courts) and confer on them jurisdiction to deal with disputes between residents of different states.

Even before this finally went to the High Court, the NSW parliament enacted a workaround so that discrimination cases which could not be brought in NCAT could instead be “kicked upstairs” to the Local Court or the District Court, which undoubtedly were courts.

(In the meantime (unless it has now been resolved) there is still an incredible inconvenience that NCAT is no longer available as a low-cost forum for consumer disputes between interstate parties or even for landlord-tenant cases where the landlord is resident interstate.)

But back to my story.

Last Thursday, trumpeted in The Australian but nowhere else, Mr Gaynor had fresh proceedings before the NSW Supreme Court to stop Mr Burns from bringing cases against him in the Local Court pursuant to this “workaround.”  The matter was due to be heard before Justice Harrison.

But before the hearing could get under way, Gaynor’s barrister, Peter King, former member for Wentworth, son-in-law of Ian Sinclair and counsel of choice for out-there right-wing clients, had an oral application to make.

It was that Justice Harrison disqualify himself from hearing the matter on account of apprehended bias.

Apprehended bias is not a claim that a judge is actually biased, but a claim that a fair-minded observer would consider that there was a possibility (real, not remote) that the judge might be unable to consider the matter in an unbiased way.  It follows from the principle that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done, and also, in a practical sense, because of the almost-impossibility of proving actual bias.

It has to be raised with the judge.  Judges almost never disqualify themselves and indeed they are under a duty not to be wimps and disqualify themselves just to avoid the aggravation.  Then (provided you have raised it with the judge) if the judge finds against you you can raise apprehended bias as an appeal point.

First you need some background.  Supreme Court judges have two personal assistants.  One is the associate; the other the tipstaff. Tipstaves used to be retired military men wearing a long frock coat who knocked on the court door to announce the judicial entry and carried the judicial staff, though doubtless  they had other duties. Nowadays they are more likely to be recent law graduates – the positions are generally not advertised and appointments are made by the judge personally.

The starting point of the application was that, a few days before the hearing, Justice Harrison’s tipstaff had sent a series of emails to the parties inquiring about the status of the parties’ submissions – that is, were there to be any other submissions, are these the submissions, please provide them where there were none on the file, and the like.

It is generally assumed such messages are  sent with the authority of the judge, even if it is only a standing authority to attend to housekeeping matters in relation to impending cases.  Messages to and from the court are routinely copied to all parties to dispel any suspicion of private communications on the side.  Parties (especially litigants in person) sometimes fail to observe this but the courts are scrupulous.

Gaynor took exception to the emails on two counts.  First, the tipstaff emailed Burns and asked about his submissions, even though Burns was not taking an active part in the case and had filed a submitting appearance – (there’s probably a more complicated story behind this because it is hard to think  of Burns being such a shrinking violet).  So why was Burns being asked if he had any submissions?  Secondly, Peter King had already provided his submissions.  Wasn’t the tipstaff (and hence the judge) saying, in effect “Is this all you’ve got?””

This doesn’t seem like much to base an apprehended bias application on.  Justice Harrison said that, at the time the message was sent, neither he nor anyone in his chambers  knew that Burns had filed a submitting appearance as this had not caught up with the court file which they had just received.  Even where parties have already filed submissions, it is unexceptional to check that those are the final submissions and that there are not any more submissions or revised submissions or further submissions in reply in the pipeline.  It’s basically a kind of housekeeping.

But that was not all. Justice Harrison’s tipstaff has a very distinctive and hence readily googleable surname.  Gaynor is after all a man of the internet, so naturally he embarked on some sleuthing of his own.

And he found out that the tipstaff was gay.  Not only was he gay, but he had written a letter to Honi Soit  (the Sydney University student newspaper) in 2013 defending the Mardi Gras, volunteered for ACON, published a few more articles including a scholarly article about whether transmitting/contracting AIDS should still be considered grievous bodily harm in the criminal law, been an extra in a film “Wear it Purple” and participated in a group including a Mardi Gras float of that name, and on his Facebook profile timeline had posted a copy of a flyer for the Sydney University 2013 Queer Revue “Peter Pansexual.”

A review of “Peter Pansexual” had described it as follows:

“Directors Tom Murphy and Bro Reveleigh brought together a loud, proud, fabulous and unashamedly crude hour and a half worth of consistently laugh-out-loud funny skits. Highlights included the ongoing storyline starring Captain Cock and her dildo hands, the beautiful Fran Gianpanni’s rendition of ‘I’d Gaffa Tape My Balls’ (sung to ABBA’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’), and a Julius Caesar/Romeo and Juliet/Mean Girls mashup sketch.

Head Writer, Blythe Worthy, stole the show with her consistently excellent performances and lovely voice. One of the show’s real strengths was its diverse, nuanced portrayal of the many shades of sexuality. While there were, of course, the requisite gags starring dildos and twinks, the show roamed far beyond stereotypes and sequin jokes and even came perilously close to salient social commentary in parts.”

And there was more.  In October 2018, during the storm over the joint letter from the heads of Sydney Anglican Diocese schools claiming that they needed to be exempted from anti-discrination laws, somebody, now Justice Fagan’s tipstaff, had posted somewhere a comment to the effect “Thankfully my school didn’t sign this ridiculous, backward letter. But many did. [plus a bit more].  And Justice Fagan’s tipsfaff was now Justice Harrison’s tipstaff’s Facebook Friend!

So I suppose the application boiled down to:

  1. The judge’s tipstaff had sent the emails;
  2. The judge had chosen a tipstaff with pro-gay and therefore anti-Gaynor views;
  3. The tipstaff had a Facebook friend who in 2018 expressed other “anti-Gaynor” views.

(1) can hardly have amounted to much on its own; (3) was almost nothing; did (2) take things to some kind of tipping point?

As to 2, Harrison J said:

The personal views of my tipstaves are largely unknown to me, except to the extent that they are revealed in the context of the relationship I have with them as my assistant in chambers. My current tipstaff’s employment was neither influenced by nor dependent upon his social or political views. It was, in contrast, significantly informed by his outstanding academic and employment credentials.

So the answer is no.  The application was dismissed.  (Gaynor v Local Court of NSW & Ors [2019] NSWSC 516)

One publicaton by the tipstaff that Gaynor did not choose to complain about was a rather good submission to the NSW parliamentary inquiry into historical gay hate crimes in Sydney – which I guess was based on a research project for his law degree.  (Correction: google tells me probably his honours thesis for his BA.)

Postscript: others have commented here.

Australia Ensemble 2019.2

May 4, 2019

Saturday before last with P to the second Australia Ensemble subscription for this year.

This was an all-winds (plus piano and percussion) affair.  Contrary to my post on their first concert, Geoffrey Collins appeared.  The string members, aka The Goldner Quartet, were otherwise engaged at the Musica Viva festival at the Con. The concert was therefore wittily titled No strings attached.  It could equally have been dubbed  “Four strings  detached.” – or 16 if you want to be pedantic.

The program was:

Wolfgang Mozart | Quintet in E flat K452

Martin Wesley-Smith | Janet for flute, percussion and piano

Francis Poulenc | Sextet

György Ligeti | Bagatelles

Ludwig Thuille | Sextet Op.6

The Mozart is for four/fifths of a wind quintet (ie sans flute) and piano.  Shefali Pryor replaced the previously advertised Huw Jones on oboe and the other ‘extras’ were Lyndon Watts (bassoon) and Rob Johnson (horn).  Funnily enough, the opening largo has a figure which sounds a bit like something in a Beethoven symphony – a commonplace, I suppose.  After that, it was unmistakeably WAM.  I enjoyed it though I felt it somehow a little under-characterised.

Who or what was the eponymous Janet?  Martin Wesley Smith has given conflicting accounts – variously a woman he had known, no person he had known,  and a male alpaca later known as Kerry.

Geoff Collins claimed to be in possession of the facts.  He went with the alpaca – in this case a youngster misplaced (because mis-sexed) into a field of female alpacas and  found dead two days later.  An unlikely tale but a plausible scenario for the music.

We had one of those music-joke chuckles at the end.  I’m actually not crazy on music jokes and I’m still scarred by the ombly-gombly (obscure reference to MW-S’s youthful songs for schoolchildren).  Alison Pratt was the percussionist.  It was fun even if it suffered a bit from being Fun.

I loved the Poulenc.  The sextet was a wind quintet plus piano.  Sometimes you feel that Poulenc can write this sort of thing by the yard (or metre) but, as P said to me after when I made this observation, that’s his style.

The Ligeti was an eye-opener to me.  It’s pre-emigration Ligeti, so you could call it Ligeti-lite (afterwards I was told that Ligeti later disowned it) – based on some piano pieces by him.  I especially liked Bagatelle 3, which features a song-like air above but coming through what I think of as a pattering-raindrop accompaniment. It made me think of looking at some highland landscape through a rain-streaked window.  Afterwards I found a great internet program note here which gathers scored recordings of the original piano pieces as well as a brilliant choreographed video by a Danish group, Carion.

And then the Thuille – sextet as per the Poulenc.  Janet aside, this was the rarity for the night (last heard by my by the AE in May 2009).  If you look up Thuille on Wikipedia you are told at the outset that he:

was an Austrian composer and teacher, numbered for a while among the leading operatic composers of the so-called Munich School of composers, whose most famous representative was Richard Strauss.

That’s a kind of faint praise – defined in Richard Strauss’s slipstream.

The sextet is Thuille’s only work which remains in the repertoire.  As with all “minor” composers, there is a kind of game – unfair, I know – in slotting the movements into the styles of more prominent composers.  It’s all the more unfair given that this was an early work of Thuille’s, but here goes: the first movement could (if a little more Gallic) be Saint-Saens; the second moved to slightly sub-Brahms (without the rigour); by the third, ostensibly a Gavotte, Thuille seemed to have wandered into Dvorak territory; the last is a helter skelter tarantellish scherzo.  A cracking pace was set.

I enjoyed it all, especially the first movement.  In the car with P on the way home I mentioned that that afternoon D and I were in a “Home Centre” where, after buying a new espresso machine (they always fail in the end – I now have more metal milk-steaming jugs than I will ever need) I spent a while trying out a monstrous massage chair.  It was warm, it was cosy, it was all enveloping – you could sink into it.  The first movement felt a bit like that.

P didn’t actually snort in derision, but that was just the problem as far as she was concerned.  And she was even less keen on the last movement, which I thought quite fun even if it went on a bit. “Composers often have problems with last movements” she pronounced.  P is a tough critic.

The attendance seemed down a bit on usual numbers, maybe because of the rival event at the Con.  The thing I’m now turning over in my head is:  is wind ensemble music generally “lighter” than the equivalent string ensemble repertoire, and if so, why?


April 25, 2019


Election posters are going up.  As I walked home from the station last night I spotted this young man’s picture fastened to the railings on the bridge over the Cooks River.

He is Connor Parissis, Greens candidate for Barton.

I’ve got a lot of respect for Linda Burney, the ALP incumbent, but before I vote for her I doubt if I will be able to resist expressing a prior preference.

Explanation of the title of this post is here.

The tram to nowhere

April 24, 2019

On Saturday, with my Chinese-Australian friend Z, I drove to Canberra.

The purpose was to shift some stuff in my late father’s house which was too bulky for me to deal with on my own.

We reached Canberra about an hour after sundown.  We had paused on the way to view the Easter moon as it rose over Lake George.

We came in down the now tree-denuded Northbourne Avenue.  The avenue of trees was felled to make way for the light rail.

Hang on!  Wasn’t Saturday the first day of Canberra’s new light rail?  I knew some festivities had been planned.  A quick internet check revealed that it was to be a fare-free day.

This was our moment to help make history!  We left the car in the car park of the former ACT motor registry and sauntered to Dickson light rail stop.  The first tram which arrived was headed to Gungahlin and we hopped aboard.

It was a bit silly really. From the brightly lit carriage we could scarcely make out any scenery.  We resorted to people-watching.

The tram was liberally staffed attendants clad in red with dinky Akubras.  It’s the bush capital, y’know.  From time to time there was a bit of fussing around about one thing or another: they are still on a learning curve.

Canberra has its fair share of bogan elements but on the light rail we were more a mixture of would-be urbanites/public transport nerds and families of subcontinental background with small children.  I pointed out to Z examples of a special kind of Canberra youth which you hardly ever see in Sydney.  I’ve had a theory about this ever since I met boys from Canberra when I first went to university.  They seem gentler than their Sydney counterparts; sometimes a little precious.  I’ve wondered if it was the lack of the example of the very poor before them in such a middle-class city; an ex-Canberran friend offered the view that it is more to do with Canberra being a very large country town.  At 440,000 on last announcement I spotted, it is just under twice the population it was when I lived there fresh out of uni, now more than 35 years ago.

Z shared with me a code he and his (“Western”) friend use when wishing to point out to each other beguiling (I guess young) men in public places.  If “Asian,” “panda;” if “Western,” “kangaroo.”

Z wanted something to eat at Gungahlin, but the restaurants he liked the look of were all closing, even though it was scarcely 8pm.  An enormous Coles was still open.

Time to linger was short as we still needed to get something to cook for dinner.  We took the next tram back to the other end of the line in Civic, stayed on it and rode back to Dickson.  By pressing my face closer to the window I was able to get a better view of the scenery, such as it was.