Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Not dead, just in Florence

Everyone who told me nearly a year ago I needed more than two days in Florence was entirely right.

My opening bid of four days may have to be upped: this place is unfairly burdened with history and art. Yes, it is worth climbing 347 steps to the top of the Duomo and it is worth paying 9.50 euro to see the original of Michaelangelos David (excuse the typos, I cant find the apostrophe key in Italy).

David, despite the "life" size copies littered all over Florence, still hits youl ike a hammer blow when you round the corner in the Accademia. Even better, the hall leading up to it is lined with the "prisoners" - Michelangelos unfinished, partly "uncovered" sculptures. Davids expression is just so richly ambiguous; is it the eerie calm of a man about to enter comabat against impossible odds, or a restrained and serious appreciation of his victory (or humility at the role of divine intevention/inspiration)? His expression is profoundly human, and yet touched with an alien nobility.

In other news, it is hot here. Damn hot. So much for my fears that it might be too cool in the evenings in a two man tent.

I also teamed up with a random buch of English speakers for nights one and two here, all but me were American. The oddest moment was undoubtedly drinking with Americans, in a Florentine Scottish-themed pub, being served by a Spanish waitress.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Graduation day Doug Posted by Hello
Graduation day (Part I)

I am now a graduate of Cambridge University. Wow, that is an odd sentence to write, though for “odd” value it pales in comparison to the day itself.

You graduate not by course, but by college. An “admission to degrees” day is one of a college’s flag-days, so you get to come into college seeing the old heraldry a flutter. Indeed, you’ll see a number of colleges flying their colours, as ceremonies run through back to back.

The ceremony begins with a procession from your college to the Senate House (a short walk in our case). You have to march up in graduation order, so in our case it was proceeded by much milling about aimlessly in Front Court, complaining about the cold and the wind and desperately hoping the rain would hold off.

“It’s all fine,” I muttered, “so long as there isn’t a lightning strike.”

Eventually porters and the charmingly dishevelled Praelector (a Classics don with a rumpled blue suit, black gown and mortarboard) lined us up in rows of four in the correct order (by degree, then alphabetically). Being a “law college”, the LLMs were first. I was in the front row, second from the right.

We were given the briefest of pep talks on the ceremony, and then we were off – marching up Senate House passage, the Praelector waving tourists and town citizens out of the way.

As we turned the corner to the formal entrance to the Senate, university constables in tailcoats and top hats pulled back the heavy iron-railing gates to let us pass. Inside the seats were filling up with relatives and guests. We were held in our little rows of four to wait.

I felt strangely elated. The guy to my right, was going first, was nervous about getting the procedure wrong.

“Look at us in the front row,” I said, “not a UK national among us.”

We were a Swiss, an Aussie and two French-Canadians.

“Not much better in the row behind,” he answered.

There was a sudden silence as a man and woman with tall, elaborate silver maces entered, followed by the college Master in a huge woollen scarlet PhD robe and hat (the Santa suit, I’ve heard it called). As he passed the representatives of the university, they doffed their mortar boards.

The Master took up a position on the low stage.

Before anyone spoke, they doffed their mortarboards. After a commencing passage in Latin, everyone was reminded (in English) to switch off mobile phones and not to take photos.

The Master was enthroned (in a small, fairly comfy looking chair) with a cushion in front of him. More hat doffing and Latin.

“Trinity Hall!”

The Praelector gestured for us to follow him, and we first four strode lockstep over black and white tiles. Halt, his hand gestured.

He spread the fingers of his right hand. Each of us took one. He introduced us to the Master - in Latin - as persons of learning and (more dubiously) virtue. Our names were then called. (Thankfully, in English).

On being called, you walked forward, knelt before the Master, assumed an attitude of prayer, and looked him in the eye. The Master clasped your hands in his, pronounced Latin over you and removed his hands. You stood, bowed, took a step back, and proceeded out a side door where someone put a degree certificate into your hand, clad in a little plastic sleeve.

On the steps out into the Passage, the college tutors were meant to assemble to congratulate graduates. We were out so fast the law tutors hadn’t yet arrived, though some tutors were in place.

We milled about on the senate lawns, ordered photos, got degrees on-the-spot framed and remembered to return our fetching salmon-pink rental hoods. We were Cambridge graduates.

Time for drinks and dinner.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

The President’s right to order torture

Politicisation of the public service is a bit of a theme in the blogosphere – but this takes the cake. The New York Times reports that a 2002 memorandum prepared by a government lawyer concluded “that the president's power to use torture to extract information from suspected terrorists is almost unlimited”.

The author was Jay S. Bybee, then the head of Office of Legal Counsel to the Attorney General:
The Office of Legal Counsel "is informally called the attorney general's lawyer," said Douglas W. Kmiec, who ran the office in the administrations of President Reagan and the first President Bush. "We used to call it the conscience of the Justice Department."

The Bybee memo basically defines torture, under US federal law, very narrowly and requires intent to cause permanent disabling injury, major organ failure or death (along with actually inflicting such injuries) for the crime to be committed. The memo apparently does not consider the much wider Convention Against Torture (CAT) definition relevant, even as a guide to interpretation of the domestic law’s wording. (It is normally accepted that domestic law should be interpreted consistently with international law wherever possible, even where international law has no directly enforceable status in “internal” law.) Article I of the CAT defines torture as:
“…any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession … when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

The memo went straight to White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, who commissioned it, and it apparently (though it strains credulity) never reached President Bush or the Attorney General.

Gonzales is the lawyer whose view that the Geneva Conventions relating to prisoner of war status (GPW) do not apply to the conflict in Afghanistan or Guantanamo Bay detainees, in a clash of memos, prevailed over Colin Powell’s view that they should.

The second Gonzales GPW memo can be found here. One of its reasons for denying GPW status is that it substantially reduces the risk of prosecution under domestic law of any Bush administration official for the war crime of mistreating POWs.

Incidentally, the co-author of the Bybee torture memo was Professor Jonathon Yoo, now a lecturer international law at the University of California in Berkeley, and an advocate of pre-emptive self-defence in his writings for the American Journal of International Law.

The Clinton head of the Office of Legal Counsel had this to say:
"What's depressing about the memo is not that parts of it appear to be wrong," Mr. Dellinger said. "What's depressing is that it's such a one-sided advocacy document."

This is entirely true. In law there is always a counter-argument, it’s seldom a game of absolute truth. That said, part of the profession must be rigorous analysis of all arguments, an analysis which should not be guided by a view as to the desirable policy outcomes. Indeed, a lawyer who fails to assess all arguments in a balanced way and provides merely instrumentalist advice is arguably in breach of their professional obligations as they may not explain all legal risks properly to their client.

Rather depressingly, this whole affair though seems rather more symptomatic of a culture in western democracy where the “frank and fearless” advice of the public service has been replaced with pressure to simply tell politicians what they want to hear and nothing else.

As for Bybee? He’s apparently a mild and pleasant character in person, and was appointed as a Federal Judge sitting in Las Vegas.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Being a good corporate global citizen

I am not anti-globalisation, or anti-corporations.

The market is a powerful tool for development, provided it is properly regulated. Otherwise, it will simply do what it does best: concentrate wealth in the hands of those who already have it. It does tend to have the incidental benefit of raising absolute standards of living (a good thing), but will often reinforce relative gaps in wealth.

This is exactly what has happened in global markets since 1945. Average developing-world standards of living have risen, but so has the relative North-South gap. Globalisation, unsurprisingly, favours the strong.

Superficially, at least, it is thus a good thing that the UN is launching (a second) corporate social responsibility compact – a set of voluntary core principles which corporations are encouraged to sign up to, including corporate partnership ventures, including MNCs helping to foster local eco-friendly businesses. It’s fine to acknowledge that to achieve real change governments will have to work increasingly with business.

The worrying aspect is the continuing, behind-closed-doors integration of the trans-national commercial classes with the trans-national diplomatic classes and their combined culture of secrecy or, more politely, “confidentiality”.

In focussing on “partnership” the UN is being constructive, but risks allowing MNCs to trade on the UN’s prestige. I would feel far more comfortable with a transparent certification process, a prestige-based UN stamp of approval on these partnership projects, which could be withdrawn if they fail.

If one thinks of the successes of Fair Trade certified products, this might harness some of the power of consumer pressure and give the UN a little more arms-length distance from these projects.

There is already a worrying democratic deficit in the conduct of international affairs which diplomats and businessmen tend, naturally enough, to be blind to. If you’re used to brokering bilateral deals (be they a corporate merger or a cease-fire agreement) confidentiality is the name of the game.

However, in the exercise of public power on the international stage and multilateral projects that affect the lives of millions of real people, it’s hardly an acceptable way of doing business.

What’s worse is this is the way things are already done. Dozens of inter-government technical and standards-setting bodies are staffed by “industry representatives” not government officials and have often succeeded in universalising proprietary technologies as the relevant international standard.

Such an approach just doesn’t square with the calls from within the UN for civil society to play a more active role in international affairs.
Too many hours at the bar to be posting now

The fact that I have even found the keyboard seems an achievement. Call it a delayed reaction to the good PhD news. (Thanks all for the supportive comments and old-friend e-mails, it means a lot to me, honest.)

So yeah, today. Today was archive fun with the grad students committee VP and Mr Producer. Strange as it may sound, the Middle Combination Room (Grad Students Lounge) is an entirely separate space from the MCR Office, a small room off B staircase where few committee members dare tread. The VP as a committed medieval historian thought we should make the world a better place through effective finding.

Over the course of the day I helped dispose of decade-old lost property, managed some sage nodding, some removal of broken glass (don’t ask) and collated and printed an academic year’s worth of minutes by me and those brave enough to fill in on the weeks I couldn’t take it anymore.

Then I went and bought us sandwiches.

Then I went to have a medical for my new scholarship organisation to prove that I was physically fit to travel to, reside in, and conduct graduate study in Cambridge.

Yes, the Alanis-irony of the moment (and the 38 pound 50 fee) was not wasted on me.

Then another evening as a tele-fund raiser. Including the surreal experience of calling a head-master who was using the same firm of tele-fundraisers to provide infrastructure and training for his fund-raising campaign. A more profound moment of post-modern reflexivity I’m not sure I could have encountered outside of being an actor in “Being John Malcovich”.

Anyway, one of the experiences of the evening was drinking with Mr Producer, a second-generation Iranian immigrant from the People’s Independent Sunshine Republic of California.

It is a continual source of wonder that the most erudite, Wildean wit I have met in Cambridge is a US national (even if the world suspects his passport of being a fake because the page numbers are not in proper sequence).

When we realised a bottle of the house-white at the college bar would cost less split two ways than a pint (the first two times I typed that it came out “punt”) we basically went crazy.

Would that I had stopped there. Or that I had not had a gin and tonic within work hours with the director of development.

Um … where was this going? Oh, I forget. Merry Christmas one and all!

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Once more unto the boxes

For what seems the millionth damn time I am stuffing the material ephemera of my life (aka “possessions”) into cardboard boxes taken from the local supermarket.

As I have complained before this is a process that has taken me from: Curtin (Canberra), to Coogee and eventually Balmain via a house-sit in Drummoyne (Sydney), Northcote and then Brunswick East (Melbourne), then back home to the parents’ place outside Canberra before coming to Cambridge – where a tenacious cardboard box with strong homing instincts did manage to track me down eventually.

I have been reappraising the contents of that solitary box, kindly packed by the parents in the present process of packing up my room. It did arrive with my suit, which has been useful for all manner of less-than-black-tie occasions. It also contained an extra towel, two bathmats, two Floriade tea-towels and – a little mysteriously – two bright yellow cloth napkins.

In fairness, I had had some towel-related problems on arrival (see the old October 2 “Keys and Porters” tale of woe); but I have never quite found a need for two cloth napkins. However, I may yet wind up inviting some charming person with an obsession with bright primary colours to an intimate candle-lit dinner, in which case I’m set.

The next question is where to store my four or five boxes of possession while I roam Europe, the UK and Australia over the Summer. I’m giving up my present room to save on rent, but other flatmates will be here through to October – so I’m strongly thinking about just stashing most of my stuff in the cupboard under the stairs and leaving my laptop with some PhD friends at their flat.

If, on my return in September, I have a new address, the stats since 1999 will break down as follows:

Number of addresses in the Canberra region – 2;
Number of addresses in Sydney – 4 (2 in Coogee alone);
Number of addresses in Melbourne – 2; and
UK addresses – 2.

It’s enough to make a man want to own property.

Coming soon: tales of a tele-fundraiser, the long wash-up of May Week madness and my initiation into a week-and-a-half old secret society.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Three year tour of duty

Marks are up. I got the First, I have the funding.

Looks like I’m here for another three years.

... Stunned only gets us into the territory.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Doom doom doom - go home now!

Law results are published at the Senate House tomorrow. Apparently some dude comes out onto a balcony, reads them out, then tosses a set of papers down to the ground where they are scooped up and posted on boards.

I am not entirely sold on this myth of how things happen.

I do know that results could be posted at any point between 9 am and 4 pm. (Apparently the faculty chair has hinted that it will be earlier rather than later, and I know the examination committee convened at 9 am Thursday to finalise results.)

I also know for a fact that the results are posted by name and division (first, two one, two two, third, fail). Everyone knows what you got. The slim saving grace is the results within divisions are published alphabetically, not by rank order.

You have to go to your college Director of Studies (or "doss" in the slang) to find out where you finished within your division.

Serious nerves about the whole process, especially as the ordinary requirement to stay on for the PhD is a first.

In other news, in my first two hours "live" as a telephone fund raiser I netted my college 1,600 pounds over three years. God bless the occasional generous law firm partner who's at home to take the call. (She even complimented me on my charm.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

May week, the best thing about June

Okay, I’m calling half time and taking a breather.

The birth of summer and the death of exams produces a hectic social round in Cambridge called “May Week”, occurring – naturally enough – in June.

May Week kicks off with the Garden Parties of Suicide Sunday: typically hosted by clubs and societies and featuring copious quantities of alcohol and finger food. These first of these starts at 10 am and they run staggered through the day, allowing people to get utterly slaughtered.

Hence, “suicide Sunday”.

Drinking or Boat (ie rowing) Club garden parties often have a dress code, so it’s not uncommon to see a lot of fairly rah-rah looking young Englishmen staggering about in fawn pants, club tie and blue blazers. (Or tie, blazer, shorts and sandals.)

As Sunday was closing night for “Golden Ass”, I kept it fairly restrained with two glasses of Pimms at the Amateur Dramatic Club garden party in the Bursar’s Garden at Corpus Christi (a bewildering maze of ‘courts’ – I stumbled across a full-period-costume rehearsal of “The Merchant of Venice” before I found drinks, and discovered half its cast had been in “Albert’s Bridge” with me).

Rather legendarily, our leading man arrived for the final night’s call 40 minutes late and still inebriated, but was word-perfect throughout the production.

Even if the producer did have to fish him out of the shrubbery before he went on.

It was a great closing night, and I felt I gave my best performances in each of my variety of small parts. However, for the second night running a “wardrobe malfunction” resulted in my taffeta dress bursting a shoulder strap and the audience receiving a flash of man-nipple.

The cast went to dinner afterwards (mmm … bento) and the cast party ran until 6.45 am Monday morning (full cooked breakfast served shortly after dawn), by which time some of the cast had been swimming in the Jesus Green pool.

After the daring pool-raid one friend of the production re-entered the cast party at the director’s flat by the window. A moderately impressive act, given she lives on the first floor (ie the one above ground level).

A refreshing one-hour nap later and I was pitching up with Mr Producer to telephone fund-raising training at college from 10 – 4, prior to our being callers in our college’s alumni appeal later this week.

After that I had time to go home, get into suit and tie and cycle to Wolfson to help judge a debating final for their intensive management-skills course and attend formal hall and make polite dinner conversation until around 10 in the evening.

(I was coherent enough on the clash between creating new vertical structures of international law and horizontally coordinating existing national systems for an academic working on issues in European police integration to demand my email and provide me with his card.)

I collapsed around 10.30, while braver soles participated in the “punt jam” on the river to watch the Trinity College May Ball fireworks.

Yesterday was another day of 10 – 4 training, a Marlowe Society Garden Party (Pimms, scones and jam, strawberries and cream served on the Pembroke Library Lawn) and then the St John’s College May Ball.

At over 100 pounds for an impossible-to-get-anyway non-dining ticket I was expecting a good time – and got it in spades. Along with Trinity College, St John’s is usually one of the “big two” balls and apparently makes the Newsweek top-ten world parties fairly often. Not hard to see why.

As ticket holders you queue at least an hour to get in, ID is checked, as is the UV stamp on your printed ticket. Once security-braceleted you enter the “reception area” (champagne and strawberries) through the amazing St John’s chapel. Beyond that?

Fireworks, a fun-fair and night punting on the riverbanks. A main event tent and three or four other music, cabaret and dance venues. A masseuse I never bothered queuing for. Basically unlimited food and drink. Punts full of ice, vodka drinks and Jamaican beer. The fairy-tale confection of John’s architecture lit up purple and white.

Highlights included old-fashioned “boat swings” at the fair, a Charleston lesson (there was a 1920s theme) and attending part of the Scissor Sisters set at the main event tent: not quite my thing, but they had an amazing stage presence, and it was worth it to see a rocking crowd entirely in black tie and evening gowns. (As was the student security staff, distinguishable only by a coloured sash across their dress-shirt, which amused the musos no end.)

Left a bit after 5, simply not having the stamina to make it through to the 6 am "survivors" group photo.

I could write a lot more, but I have to rest up for the Trinity Hall event this evening (not a ball per se, more a four-venue music extravaganza, but still enjoying a reputation as one of the May Week events) and the Darwin Ball (a graduate college) on Friday. Not certain who’s playing at Trinity Hall, precise details of bands and acts are usually kept under wraps. (That the Scissor Sisters were playing was something you only discovered upon being issued with your ball program.)

I start phone-campaign work Thursday, law marks are out Friday morning, and I leave on my travels on the 29th.

No wonder I feel busy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The Bear of Death, unexpectedly pursued Posted by Hello

Saturday, June 12, 2004

It’ll be alright on the night (Peter Oswald’s “The Golden Ass”)

After four months in rehearsal, you’d think a play would have a fairly smooth set of dress rehearsals. But with a cast of twenty-something, several score of freshly-made costumes, and only having access to our outdoors venue (a college garden) two days in advance of the play – and being told we could not make noise until the day of the first performance – there was plenty of scope for scares.

Especially given my propensity for forgetting half my lines in Act Two (strange the psychological difference actually having to deliver the lines in a taffeta ball-gown made to my ability to remember them).

We finished the dress rehearsal an hour before we let the audience in, and were still finding scenes we could not get through without corpsing (actors laughing at each other on stage) or things that needed to be re-staged for props to work.

And then suddenly, there they were.

The audience, on their picnic blankets. But from the opening cabaret number, they were entirely on board. There was the odd moment when an item of costume went missing and someone had to grab whatever was to hand, I inserted an extra line in a speech, slightly throwing someone else’s cue, but it all went off brilliantly.

Even the lines I deliver in the ball-gown before waltzing backwards with someone in a wedding dress.

Which was the perfect reason to be drinking until three in the director’s flat on the opening night. One shudders to think what the closing night party will be like – especially given that I and the producer have to go to telephone fundraising training the next day (possibly straight from a cooked breakfast at the director’s).

After a little rain this morning, the sun is out. I hope that holds for tonight’s show.

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Rough as guts, but finally up

I apologise that it's been a month (blame exams), but new installment Naylor's Canberra is finally up.

For those unfamiliar with the concept once a week (in theory) I publish 1,000 words of a crime novel in draft that starts over here.

Elliot Naylor, a semi-employed law librarian, refused admission as a solicitor following a culpable driving charge, has been hired to find his ex-girlfriend Marina by her father (David Carmichael, a prominent barrister).

Marina works for the Minister for Justice and Customs, a high-profile crusader against the trafficking of women into Australia for sexual slavery. Her father is keen to avoid any embarassment to himself or the Minister, and hope Elliot can find her quickly and quietly.

Elliot's research suggests more is at stake. Carmichael seems to have lied to his wife and daughter about his dealings with a corrupt local businessman (Bob Mitchell). Carmichael, Mitchell and a third man, Ryder, are involved in a property development of dubious environmental impact.

Elliot suspects Marina of absconding with documents. Meanwhile, he discovers the death of Marina's colleague Jenny and Ryder's connections to pornography and prostitution.

A naive attempt to ascertain whether Carmichael was a known face at one of Ryder's brothels earned him bruised ribs (and possibly worse). Frighteningly, the flat next door to Elliot's - mistaken for his - has been trashed.

It is possible the Minister is influencing the police investigation into both Marina's disappearance and Jenny's murder, and that a leak from his office is somehow responsible for Jenny's death.

Leads on Marina's whereabout remaining scant, Elliot (with new girlfriend Danielle and flatmate Eva) returns to Marina's house to interview her flatmate Ted. He suspects Ted of having slept with Marina recently, despite both of them sharing a roof with Trish, Ted's girlfriend.

With that recap in mind, read on ...

Sunday, June 6, 2004

A personal boast (or, “First lines”)

The play opens next week. After rehearsals today we went for drinks, then to “Gala Bingo, Cambridge” (a blog in itself) and then wound up back at the director’s to play “Ex Libris”.

“Ex Libris” is a game where you’re given the title of a novel, a summary of its plot and the name (and dates of birth and death) of the author and then have to write a plausible first line to the novel.

Then you vote on the most convincing opening line submitted (and get double points if you pick the real one). I won the game on the strength of my proposed opening line for Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” (which snagged six votes).

My thinking went like this: British modernist/surrealist, known for long, tortuous gothic passages of description, a man who will set the scene for pages before introducing action.

My first line: “On the north wall of the hall hung a helmet rusted scarlet and dun, presiding over cobwebs and abandoned silence.”

Peake’s Line: “Titus was seven.”

I refused to vote for Peake’s line on the basis that he would never have written a sentence that short …

I also came up, during rehearsal, with a fairly melodramatic opening line for what could be the third Naylor novel, if I ever get that far:

“The English Spring had unfurled around us, but for the body in herringbone tweed nudging against our prow it would have been a fine morning for punting: horse-chestnut blossoms standing like candles against the leaves, gently stirring wires of willow falling in cages across the sluggish green water, the college backs along the Cam stained bloody with poppies”.

There will be more Naylor soon, for its few (and deeply appreciated) readers.

Saturday, June 5, 2004

A plague of angels best avoided

Please, please, please do not waste your life on “Angels in America” on the ABC next week. It will bring you no rewards, no profundity, it may even trash your opinion of the excellent HBO (“The Sopranos”, “Six Feet Under” and “Sex and the City”).

Emma Thompson should be amazing as the archangel with personal oversight of the American dream, but she’s just kinda shouty. Which sums up the package: so self-consciously over-the-top it hurts.

It should be so much better. With its themes of AIDS, gay identity/solidarity, religion and corruption it could be “Six Feet Under” as a contemporary Biblical allegory. The concept of a HIV positive gay man in New York as the Lord’s prophet is brilliant.

A shame the dialogue is so melodramatic you spend the entire experience flinching.

The best line is: “Her? She’s my ex-lover’s new boyfriend’s Mormon mother.”

Thomson (as a hospital nurse with a Brooklyn accent): “Even for New York in the 1980s, that’s weird.”

Despite the huge billing given Thompson (frankly, disappointing), Al Pacino and Meryl Streep the production stands or falls on the performances of Patrick Wilson (a right wing Mormon judicial associate who drafted critical anti-gay rights judgements who’s in the process of coming out of the closet), Justin Kirk (drag queen and prophet) and Ben Shenkman (fairly unlikeable character who runs out on dying lover and spends a lot of time whining about how awful he is for doing so). And they don’t have it, at least not with the lines they’ve been given.

But maybe the unconvincing over-emoting (you can almost here the director yelling “Don’t hold back, emote some more – except you Meryl, just try and look stunned and vacant darling, there’s a dear”) has to do with the script's origins on Broadway where it was originally entitled: “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”.

I suspect Alan Ball should have been hauled in to handle the TV movie adaptation.

High points? Pacino as a compellingly corrupt lawyer – not that we’ve seen him in that role before – delivers brilliantly the exchange: “I may have sex with men, but I’m not a homosexual, homosexuals are powerless. I pick up that phone and dial sixteen digits, you know who I got on the line?”

“The President.”

“Better, his wife.”

But these moments do not relieve an otherwise unengaging failure of a production with special effects that don’t live up to the average episode of Buffy (you can almost see the wires holding Thompson up).

Okay, it’s amusing to have a travel agent hiding in your fridge.

Still, shame on The Age for just recycling The Washington Post’s delusional ramblings.

Friday, June 4, 2004

Only in Cambridge ...

Could it be said that on the one day I was drinking since noon (LLM farewell drinks at the faculty) and wound up crashing a Law Lord's garden party before going punting.

I can now honestly say I have been off ferretting for a lost croquet ball in Lord Mustill's undergrowth.

I am also in the peculiar position of still not having a confirmed PhD place, but having both funding and someone who is not yet my supervisor advising me to change my topic.

(It seems that Big Names are muscling in on the ole WMD proliferation territory and there may be nothing original left to say in 3 years. Am not yet convinced personally, but will need to do some reading over summer.

It also turns out my LLM dissertation supervisor was on the committee that put my name forward to the scholarship organisation that accepted me. It's who you know, kids ... )

It's a little scary two weeks ahead of results to have people treating me like a sure thing.

Thursday, June 3, 2004

A new set of photos are up Posted by Hello

Soon, but not now ...

Went to see an astonishing play in London on Tuesday. (God bless ten pound tickets.) Will need to write soon, reflecting on Shakespeare and the ideas of law, justice, tyranny and abuse of public power.

Listened to jazz (Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue") discreetly on the iPod while visiting these old friends I'd not seen since 1998 in the US, where I had to chase them down across Washington DC, Chicago and New York. Convenient to be able to catch up with them in one place.

My punting is improving.

I had recent good fortune announced to a college bar after closing-time by a friend from Queensland.

Faintly heartbreaking farwell drinks with Professor Allott at "The Lawyer" yesterday. We gave him a globe and I was asked to "say a few words". He described us (essentially a collection of Australians plus a South African, a New Zealander and a Jordanian), kindly, as the most memorable History and Theory class he taught. It was a privelege to be in his last class, and possibly the last History and Theory class ever as no-one is taking over the subject after his retirement.

(PS surely this is too ridiculous for words: outrage over "Play School" featuring a story about Brenna and her two mums going to the amusement park?)

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Playing devil’s advocate

There’s something in the air again about the academic and young professional “brain drain” and the “unpatriotic” expat intelligentsia. Beth’s had some great posts on the debate, and I basically agree with everything Beth’s had to say.

But the more I think about it, as young professional expat hopefully about to start a PhD in the UK, the more I think the debate risks being fundamentally misconceived and – in a word – parochial.

First off, from where I sit, I do not see people leaving Australia forever. Sure, some do. More, I suspect, gain skills and experience overseas and return with them to Australia – surely a plus.

I also don’t understand why we now have a reverse cultural cringe about expat intellectuals and feel compelled to denigrate any efforts by the likes of Greer, Hughes or Carey to contribute to Australian debates as “out of touch” or as having let the side down by working overseas (especially when like most people working in foreign countries, they probably repatriate a chunk of their income).

Okay, a blogosphere example. Beth, Lyn and I all went to uni and lived most/all of our childhoods or high-school days in the Canberra region. I am now in the UK, Beth is in Melbourne (as I was happily for some time), Lyn is in Sydney.

Is moving inter-state a betrayal of “local” roots in Canberra? No-one would make that argument. But the nation is a “natural” community, isn’t it?

I seriously hope not. The vibrancy of Australian culture comes in large part from a rich migrant tradition. We embrace multiculturalism (and skilled migration) but still see “leaving” as some sort of personal failing. Again, there could be a parochialism at the root of this: “Well, of course people want to come here, but why would they want to leave?”

Also the debate is essentialist. It treats people as having only their national identity and ignores other aspects of the importance of location: moving to a city (wherever in the world) and falling in love with it, or someone in it, or simply reaching a point in your career where (in the small-to-mid sized Australian market) there is nowhere left to go but overseas.

We also undervalue these people as ambassadors for the vibrancy of Australian business, culture and academia.

The real question is not why do people leave, the real question is whether they return – and whether we are doing enough to attract movement in the other direction. Where are the voices we have lured to Australia to enrich our debates, and if there aren’t any, what are we doing wrong?

If Melbourne is the best city in the world for expats to live in, where are the professionals and intelligentsia we’ve lured from overseas? I suspect they’re already there, though we could do more to pull them in – starting with ditching the chip on our shoulder.

(PS The comments on this post have moved over here. My apologies.)
A place called home

Last week Beth wrote on the Australian intelligentsia and those who’ve left home to pursue careers overseas, especially in the 1970s. I found this post quite provocative, not least through being mentioned by name as part of the large Australian professional diaspora. Another reason was that I had something kind of extraordinary happen on Saturday.

I stumbled in from a day’s play rehearsal, punting and drinking to find a letter from this organisation waiting for me. I’ve been offered three years PhD funding. It's an incredibly generous offer.

I have to stress that my Masters marks are not out and the Law School has not accepted me yet (significant unhatched chickens) – but funding is usually the hard bit, so it looks like I have the option of staying on 3 years for my doctorate.

And I’ll take it.

But why? Couldn’t I do a PhD at home?

I’d love to do a PhD in Melbourne, I love the city and it has some great international law research centres. So why will I stay on in the UK if I’m given a chance?

I’ve been unpacking my responses cautiously. The prospect of four years in a foreign country (even speaking the language) scares me. I am a long way from old friends (with a few noble exceptions) and family. If I went home to corporate law or government service I’d be earning and could get a foot on the property ladder. As it is, I may return at 31, broke and with four degrees in tow.

Why stay then?

The biggest draw-card is, to be entirely frank, something my Australian undergraduate supervisor (now head of a major UK law school) said to me over lunch recently: “It’s sad, and it shouldn’t be the case, but you’ll find having a Masters from Cambridge opens doors for you nothing else would.”

The same goes for a PhD. If I want to go into the underpaid, Alice-in-Wonderland world of academic teaching and research (which I do) a PhD is more-or-less vital, and doing a PhD here is potentially career-making.

Is that a sell-out? Well, no. As I commented at Beth’s site – I don’t think the present Australian young-professional-expat community sees itself as turning its back on home, and it comes abroad with a fairly assertive national identity.

In my field, international law, it is hard to imagine being taken seriously If you had not spent some time studying overseas. Further, being based at a European institution, you get to see guest-lecturers and speakers who just don’t get to Australia.

Personally, I also distrust the “easy” option – the thing I would find easiest to do. And, in the lead-up to exams, I would have liked nothing more than to just pack up and come home for good. (As I still intend to do eventually.)

As a small, proud country do we risk missing something? Surely we should be over by now thinking that leaving home is an act of betrayal (not that Beth’s post in anyway suggested this). It’s just as bad as treating those who “made it” overseas as inherently superior (though in some industries, there may only be so far you can go in Australia given our limited population).

Where does the individual fit in this debate? Is Peter Carey less Australian for writing novels with inherently Australian concerns, but while he is living in New York? Or is it the case that “exile” is sometimes the thing that reveals our national identity to us? (It's easy to think of a long list of historical celebrities who did their best work in exile: Ovid, Locke, Grotius, Einstein, Mary and Percy Shelley, Byron, etc.)

I find it amazing how fiercely (almost pardoically) Australian the Australians abroad can become, and anytime I go drinking with Queenslanders, I’m no exception …

(PS due to the joys of technology half the comments on this post are over here.)