The Auld Triangle

This post is a book review of Confessions of an Irish Rebel, an autobiography of Brendan Behan. Brendan is best known for his play The Quare Fellow, based on the time he spent in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

In Confessions Brendan specifically refers to the prisoner that inspired the play, a man sentenced to death for homosexuality.  Brendan was serving a 14 year sentence for attempting to shoot a policeman. He was released after serving 4 years under a general amnesty for Irish Republican Army IRA prisoners.

I first heard about the connection between the song The Auld Triangle and Brendan Behan when I sang it at a small singing session here in Australia. I had assumed that the song was about a prisoner in the 1700s and mumbled something to that effect before singing it. There happened to be an Irish gentlemen in the audience who explained to me that I should probably know something about a song before singing it. Fair call.

I am writing this some ten years on, and while I did do some initial research back then, it was only reading Brendan’s book that really brought the song and its subject into focus for me.

There are some fantastic versions of this song, Luke Kelly and the Dubliner’s version being my favourite. Some other notable versions include the Doug Anthony All Stars here, and Brendan singing himself here. My own attempt here. Brendan did not write the song but attributes it to Dicky Shannon, who he mentions in the video of him singing.

You can still get a copy of Confessions on Amazon. I was fortunate enough to pick my copy up for $1 at a local charity book fair last week. The book had to be dictated, as by 1964, Brendan’s fondness for alcohol made it difficult to write or type himself. The book was published in 1965, after Brendan’s death at just 41.

The debilitating nature of Brendan’s relationship with alcohol comes across strongly in the text. Whether in Dublin, Cannes or London, there is always a stop for a pint or glass of something, even on the way to prison. This aspect of the book had me wondering whether part of the subjugation of the Irish people by the English was achieved with provision of access to cheap alcohol, just as it was achieved with the original populations of Australian, America and other colonies.

When Brendan is taken on a pub crawl by his grandmother and a Mrs Murphy, on her way to a retirement hospice, it becomes clear that the taste for a drink was not a new pastime in Dublin.

I am surprised that this book was published in the 1960s at all, with its frank discussion of homosexuality, IRA operations, prostitution, swearing and blasphemy. As the book doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, I’m not sure whether it was banned (I did find a reference to it being banned in South Africa).

I don’t think Brendan was writing for fame or notoriety, I think this quote from an Amazon review on Borstal Boy sums it up well:

Brendan Behan may have been dead these 50 years but this book is like sitting next to him on a barstool telling this slice of his life story. As a teenager, Behan was arrested for his IRA activities and spent some time in custody at various English correctional facilities. He makes friends, he deals with prejudice, he deals with stupid rules. Really nothing happens in this book and yet it was entertaining. Wicked sense of humor and wonderful sense of the man both come through in this story of a young Republican serving his time. ARG – Amazon Reviews

I greatly enjoyed Brendan’s insertion of Gaelic throughout the text, I didn’t realise that The Quare Fellow had originally been called Casadh an tSúgáin eile, which means twisting the rope again, or twisting another rope, making reference to the hanging rope, but also the traditional song Casadh an tSúgáin (and in English). Brendan made good use of his time in prison to learn Gaelic.

The other enjoyable aspect of the book was spotting the names that so frequently come up in Irish song, probably mundane to those that live in Ireland, but of great interest to me.

It is timely that I am writing this on the day that Australian’s voted to endorse gay marriage. Of course we still have a conservative government in power and a conservative lobby engine that plans to do everything it can to avoid changing the law, despite a 61% yes vote and 79.5% participation.

This hypocrisy really irks me, all through the campaign the idea of marriage as a human right was dismissed by the religious conservatives, but now suddenly their right to be a bigot is a human right. I published my own, probably controversial, views here, but now that the people have spoken, the government should get on with making their will law as soon as possible.

Around the time that Brendan Behan was in Mountjoy and Borstal, 35 people were executed for homosexuality (between 1923 and 1954).

I highly recommend reading Confessions of an Irish Rebel, by no means high literature, but a raw and fascinating view into the events that shaped Brendan’s work.


For Brendan

Another drink, another glass friends,

Another song to the heros here and gone,

Let me sing the streets of Dublin, the cells of Borstal,

Drown them both in a fine dram.


Aughrim was lost, but Ireland fights on,

Fights with gun, and with a voice in song,

Devil take you haughty folks of pretence,

Give me a good solid girl and a bottle.


Though I am long from this world,

I lived full, and drew hard on the lit toitín of life,

Whether painting a lighthouse or a church,

I found the joy where it was to be found.

Posted in Blog Post, Film, TV and Literature, Folk Music | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lessons from the Garden

Apart from my interest in folk music, I also love gardens. No so much the tame and manicured, but the rambling and full of life. Spring is one of the most beautiful times of year here in ‘cold-climate’ Australia, The irises are just finishing and the roses are in their first bloom. Fruit is starting to appear on the peach, plum, apple and pear trees.

I don’t pretend to be a spiritual nature guru, or a re-discoverer of ancient Druidic wisdom, but I feel that part of the answer to the question of a good human existence stems from our observation and understanding of the cycles of nature.

Two lessons in the garden this week are about judgement, patience and proximity. A stone-fruit tree of an un-known variety self-seeded by the chicken house about four years ago. Each year that it didn’t fruit my wife would suggest that it should be pulled up and replaced. I insisted that it be given another year to establish itself. Today I discovered one nectarine on the tree; enough to ensure its continued existence in the garden and confirm that some trees, and some people, just need a little longer to fruit.

Similarly, I was about the pull up the Ash sapling that I had planted two months ago because the apple trees that had been planted at the same time were already covered in leaves. Despite appearing lifeless, the leaves on the Ash just started to open last week, saving the tree from a premature and un-necessary death. I see this problem so often in parenting and in schooling, where children are compared to others in their year and judged against an irrelevant average or ‘high bar’. Each person is unique and grows at their own, different, pace. The only thing that enforced conformity achieves is false confidence in the early and false shame in the late.

Each tree interprets the signs given in the temperature of the air and soil, the rainfall, the frost and the sunlight and decides when to expend the energy required to sprout leaves. Some plants, like roses, can even have two or three attempts if the first is the victim of frost, mould or predators. As people, I don’t think we are any different. We each are suited to do things in our own way and our own time. Treatment that makes one person thrive, will make another wither.

I recently watched the film The Last Shaman, by Raz Degan, which followed the journey of a young man to South America in search of healing from depression through traditional medicine (including Ayahuasca). Whether accurate or not, the film leads viewers to the conclusion that pressure from an over-achieving father and mother was probably the cause of the situation. Bizarrely, this film, which I really enjoyed, has no Wikipedia page and has been slammed by Rotten Tomatoes. It could be the fact that the film points to the American Psychology treatment culture being largely ineffective; a very unpopular opinion in a country where billions is spent on medicating people for mental health issues. Normally this view would be dismissed as Scientologist style pseudo-science, but the parents of the subject of the film (described as a documentary) are both medical doctors and both criticize the psychiatric industry from a position of authority. If people have a mental illness and medication or electro-shock treatment has helped them live a life that they would otherwise not be able to, I think that is great. In the situation described in The Last Shaman, however, those methods hadn’t succeeded, and appear to have done more harm.

One theme in the Last Shaman that I found particularly fascinating was the way in which the traditional users of Ayahuasca (see this great JP video for an overview) say that the spirit of the plant spoke to them and told them the process for preparing it. Unfortunately, when I walk through my garden none of the plants speak to me, at least not in a way that I can understand as speech.

The second lesson from the garden is based on the reason for moving my raspberry canes away from the blackberry canes. For the past four year we have had magnificent crops of blackberries and almost nothing from the raspberries, despite both plants sharing the same spot along a wall and being almost the same species. I can’t find anything official, but the home gardener ‘vibe’ seem to be that you shouldn’t plant them together. It could be that when two similar things share a space, one has to shine and the other retreat. I think this is true about human relationships as well, we each influence those around us and it bears thinking about whether, in our ambition, we are dimming the lights of others. Similarly, if we are amongst people that are only interested in themselves, it might be time to find a new spot in the garden.

I will leave you with two favourite gardening songs, this one by Karine Polwart and my own cover of Dave Mallet’s excellent Garden Song.





Posted in Blog Post, Spirituality and Philosophy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Whose Thyme is it Anyway?

I have been singing the song commonly known as ‘Will Ye Go Lassie Go’ or ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ or ‘Purple Heather’ for many years as it was one of my favourite songs on an Irish Music compilation that I picked up back in 2001 (The Ultimate Irish Ballads, here on ebay for $50!). When I went to make this recording for my YouTube channel, I found out some interesting and annoying things.

This song was first published as a poem by Robert Tannahill, The Braes of Balquither (also Balquidder), in Henry Longfellow’s Poems of Place in 1876. Robert’s life fitted the tragic archetype of the poet, just without all the women and drinking. He gave up his working life as a traveling weaver to care for his elderly parents while all six of his siblings departed. He burned a large portion of his work before drowning himself in 1810.

Thanks to the wonders of copyright lapses, the full text of The Poems and Songs of Robert Tannahill, published in 1874 with notes by David Semple, is available here. Including the Braes of Balquither. In the notes by the editor, it is mentioned that Robert probably grew up hearing this song sung by his nurse, Mary McIntyre, who had been born in the parish of Balquither. Balquither is around 60 miles from Paisley (yes, where the pattern comes from), near Glasgow, where Robert spent most of his life. So it isn’t really clear whether Robert just heard this song and wrote it down, or whether he developed it from what Mary had sung to him.

The discussion at Mainly Norfolk talks about the fact that when the industrial revolution started to destroy the towns, it was common for lovers to flee the cities to the cleaner air and prettier skylines of the highland heather in the Summer.

So this is a beautiful song that has been popular for over 200 years at least. Here is a rare version by the Dubliners.

Now to why I am annoyed.

Wikipedia says that Wild Mountain Thyme is “a Scottish folk song that was collected by Francis McPeake the First, who wrote the song himself for his wife”. If I was Francis’ wife I would be asking for my money back.

Some would say, “but if I take someone’s idea and put it to my own tune, then it is a new song”. I say rubbish. I couldn’t find a YouTube recording that claimed to be the original, but fortunately this book (Songs of Scotland, 1854) is available and I transcribed the tune into MuseScore to confirm the direct similarity between the original tune and the new tune claimed by the McPeakes. While it isn’t 100% the same, the McPeake’s wouldn’t be winning any lawsuits.

There is a Bob Dylan connection in all of this, as he recorded the song himself. Here are Bob and Joan Baez playing to a rowdy crowd using a melody which relates to neither song. This book, discussing the copyright of Dylan’s songs, notes the McPeake family (Francis McPeake the Third) claimed copyright under all three song names in 1996. It also suggests that there are versions as early as 1742. As the industrial revolution didn’t really kick off in Scotland until 1790, this date would question the whole basis of the song.

I have to say that this makes me very annoyed, when people three generations on are claiming money for work that their great grandfather borrowed (or if you are less generous, plagiarised) from a poet from the 1800s, who himself was probably only writing down what he had heard.

Bodleian also comes to the rescue with this broadsheet from the early 1800s with the Braes o’ Birniebouzle suggesting that at least the theme and some of the lyrics were in common circulation as a song when Robert was writing his poem.

I guess that back in the 1950’s, before the advent of the internet, instantly searchable databases of 1700-1800’s broadsheets and freely available copies of tunes, poems and songs from the 1800s were not a thing. It was much easier to find a copy of a rare old book, steal a few lines, match them up with an equally obscure tune and pass the whole lot off to your wife as your own song. Then your nephew can record it and start charging copyright royalties for the next 60 years.

To be honest, I like my recording of Tannahill’s original words much better. And don’t even get me started on people who misplace ‘tower’ for ‘bower’. Who has time to build a tower in the summer?

Errata: Thanks to Jack Campin for pointing me to this mudcat post where it is mentioned that a shorter version was published by John Hamilton in 1792. To be honest, I don’t think the Hamilton song resembles the Tannahill song enough to claim direct decent via the folk-process, but the subject matter is the same. 1876 was not the first published version of Tannahill’s song, just the one I referenced.



Posted in Ballad Analysis, Blog Post, Folk Music | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Faery Exodus in 1530

I have been reading Rudyard Kipling’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill, after being prompted to look at his poetry after hearing some of Leslie Fish’s recordings (Oak and Ash and Thorn in particular). Earlier in the book I read Sir Richard’s Song and this melody immediately sprung into my mind while reading.

I am usually sceptical by nature, but it felt like some hidden magic in Kipling’s words carried inherit music that was just waiting to be sung. I had sadly assumed that the Disney version of Jungle Book and a ‘mildly offensive in current times’ poem about Mandalay was the extent of his work.

How mistaken I was. The story of Dymchurch Flit appears at the end of the book and tells the tale of how the Faery Folk departed England for France in the 1530’s. The story largely stands on its own, but this guide from the Kipling Society provides some useful context. I had always assumed that Henry VIII’s fight was with the Catholic Church over his penchant for new wives. After seeing the ruins of the Glastonbury Abbey firsthand, it seemed clear that he was also after some of the wealth that the Monasteries had amassed. Kipling’s story implies that a big part of Henry’s purge was actually against the remnants of the Old Religion (Druidry?) in England. This article goes into some detail on the scale of the vandalism of Henry.

I have written a song to summarise the story of how the Widow Whitgift is approached by Robin (a spokesperson for the Faery Folk, Robin Goodfellow or Puck) to ask if her mute and blind sons will take the Faery Folk who have gathered in Romney Marsh across to France, where the old religion is still tolerated. As the sons are blind and mute they can either not speak of what they have seen or not see at all. The sons return safely, but the family is blessed (?) in future generations with second-sight. I have read enough fairy-tale allegory to know that pairs of sons with unusual disabilities is archetype territory, and Kipling is most likely drawing on, or implying a deeper meeting here.

The connection with bees in the story, and in the song which precedes the story, is telling. Bees have significant meaning in Occult traditions, this blog provides a good summary. This idea is far more clumsily included in the terrible Nicholas Cage remake of The Wicker Man.

So how is it that Kipling slipped this monumental revelation into his collection of stories and songs roughly framed around the history of England? I can find no other references to a Faery exodus in 1530, or any other information about Widow Whitgift. Whit or hwita is Old English for white, but that doesn’t help much.

Kipling was clearly trying to draw attention to the terrible way in which Christianity, especially the new Protestant Christianity, dealt with those who followed the old ways. The references in the story to the Canterbury Bells related to the fact that they would ring at the burning of ‘heretics’, mostly common folk or monks who had fallen foul of Henry.

Kipling was writing around 1906, the Catholic Church had only been reinstated in England in 1850, and even then it met with much hostility. I hope this story isn’t just a thinly veiled political statement about Catholics going back to France with their paganism (where they belong).

I am baffled that the pagan revival community has not picked up on this story, or sought to find its origins, or at least write about it in detail. Maybe this post will prompt some consideration. If the Faery Folk are living happily in France, I would be interested to know where.

I have included a picture by Arthur Rackham, included in the 1906 US edition of Puck, who I discovered has drawn/painted some of my favourite illustrations for stories of English mythology.

Dymchurch Flit by Arthur Rackham, 1908

Posted in Ballad Analysis, Blog Post, Folk Music, Spirituality and Philosophy | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Marriage – Who wants it anyway?

Here in Australia we are in the midst of a debate over the recognition of same sex marriage in our constitution. Technically the real debate hasn’t even started because our Liberal government is running a $120m non-binding plebiscite to give the illusion of doing something which doesn’t actually bind them to do anything (nicely explained in this video). Here is Wikipedia’s view on why non-binding referendums (or plebiscite’s) are stupid.

I like to think that blogs are a place to point out gaps in the public discourse. At the risk of alienating some friends and upsetting some people, I’m writing down my thoughts on the issue.

I have two personal disclosures to make before continuing this article. Firstly, as someone whose personal spiritual path is based on fairly strict adherence to some Taoist/Buddhist precepts, I come at this from a world view which disapproves of homosexuality. But let’s be clear, this belief system also disapproves of alcohol, smoking, drugs, masturbation, premarital sex, sushi(raw) and pornography. The other key factor is that my belief system involves no compulsion to judge others or attempt to sway others to my path and it also specifically excludes having involvement in politics (I still participate in the political system of the country as a citizen, but do not seek to exert influence on the governing of the country).

The second disclosure I have to make is that despite going to a homophobic Pentecostal Christian school where the terms ‘poof’ and ‘fag’ were staple insults, I have made what I think is a healthy conversion in my views and behaviour. At university I met an openly homosexual lecturer who turned out to be a reasonable human being and nothing like the stereotypes I had been brought up with. It was probably watching Go Fish and hanging out on the #lesbian chat channel on IRC (the mother of twitter and reddit) that helped me realise that most gay people were living with a state of mind which they could no more change than their skin colour or their singing voice, and that in every other way than their sexual preference they were just as useful members of society as heterosexuals. In many ways, because of their own experience of exclusion and abuse, they tended to be more compassionate and empathetic than others.

Over the past 20 years I went on to have staff working with me and for me who were openly gay and I witnessed first-hand the struggle that they endure and the climate of harassment that exists just below the surface of Australian society. Some of my favourite musicians, Indigo Girls; actors, Stephen Fry, Sir Ian McKellar; writers, Oscar Wilde and politicians, Bob Brown, are openly gay. What sort of world would we have without their contributions?

Amongst the opposing sides of the discussion here in Australia in the mainstream media and on social media the calibre of the dialogue has been fairly woeful. Those who are supporting the ‘Yes’ vote argue based on human rights and equality, but unfortunately they are often arguing with a tone of condescension towards the views of others, which the ‘No’ vote supporters rise to in hysterics.

Amusingly, the Christian ‘No’ vote supporters are trying to reach for every possible reason other than ‘god hates gays’ to justify their position. They are doing their best to draw false and hurtful connections between child abuse and gay parents, slippery slope to marrying pot-plants and asserting that a ‘Yes’ vote will mean that their freedom of belief will be trampled. One Christian psychologist pointed on Facebook to the mental harm caused by the inability of gay people to marry as a possible justification for a ‘Yes’ vote, but was quickly shouted down by Bible waving zealots.

I wish the Christians would just be honest and say that ‘my religion demands that I hate homosexuality’ (Leviticus 20:13). I note that some careful apologetics are at play amongst the more liberal elements of most major religions in order to support the ‘Yes’ vote, but I think those views are quickly dismissed amongst the orthodox brands and the fundamentalists. This discussion within the Jewish faith makes for interesting reading.

So what can I add to the debate? Here is my assertion, “Marriage in Judaeo-Christian culture is just legal cover for men to trade in women for breeding, rape and domestic servitude”.

I can hear the response, “How dare you besmirch our beautiful service of flowing veils, flowers and heavenly music!”

Hear me out.

When I was young and impetuous, I spent many weeks arguing with my now wife (I’ll tell you why I hate this word in a moment) against getting married in a church, or getting married at all in the traditional sense. At the time I was reading about Wicca and the handfasting ceremony, which you might remember was slipped into the beginning of Braveheart. In this ceremony, man and woman came together as equal free agents to enter a contract of fidelity for one year, to see if they could make it work as a couple. There are vestiges of this tradition in mainstream society still with the phrase ‘tie the knot’. This type of ceremony is still used in modern day Sweden. This model made sense to me, much more than what I had seen of ‘traditional’ Christian marriage.

By the time I was 18 and had started looking back at my Christian indoctrination with some scepticism, I had also been reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. I started to see all the Christian scripture and Church tradition around Marriage in the context of a master and slave relationship. The word husband, by definition, has a connection to husbandry, the status of a wife as property of the husband runs throughout Judaeo-Christian history. I found this absurd; women are just as intelligent, physically capable and ambitious as men, why should they be treated as property?

As early as 1869, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill wrote about this in The Subjection of Women. In many modern wedding ceremonies the bride wears a veil, which is explained in the story outlined in Genesis 29. In this story, the status of women as the property of their father to be sold/exchanged to a man is clear. There are so many other aspects of the historical and current marriage ceremony that point to the underlying misogyny of Judaeo-Christian views on the relationship between men and women.

It is harrowing reading, but I suggest that this very recent story (warning, rape and domestic abuse discussed) shows the result of generations of men and women raised in this tilted ideology.

So my question to the gay community, and to all Australians is this, “why would anyone want to perpetuate this hideous custom?” Why would gay people want to participate in this at all? The paradigm of the owned and the owner cannot possibly be appropriate in a relationship of equals (unless BSDM is your thing, but that is another issue entirely).

I’m not hoping to sway anyone’s vote here. I just wanted to point out an aspect of the discussion that I think hasn’t been raised at all. And I strongly suspect that the reason no one wants to talk about it is because deep in their subconscious, heterosexual couples know there is something screwy with their construct of marriage. If anyone delves too deeply into its connotations and underlying meanings, they might not like what they find. Why else would people be getting so wound up about what other adults choose to call their relationship?

Posted in Blog Post | Leave a comment


We live in an age, for better or worse, where ignorance is no longer an excuse for bigotry. Back in the 1500s, you could excuse the populous for joining a bloody fight over a few flavours of Christianity. Even though the printing press had been invented in 1436, it would take us another 600 odd years until we are at the point where almost everyone in the developed world can access enough points of view to come to a sensible conclusion. Obviously if you live in in China, Russia or under the Taliban in Afghanistan, your chances of access to conflicting points of view is severely limited, but in the affluent west, anyone with an iPhone or a local library has the world at their fingertips.

Back in the 1500s, the illiterate populous was forced to listen to the priest of whatever religion held power threaten them with terrifying tales of the evils of the other side. Whether it was science, witches or heathens, the balance of access to information and its creation and dissemination was entirely in the hands of the elite, the church and its ruling pawns (or the other way around, as the case may be).

In this environment where a monopoly is held on information it is much easier to encourage humans to take up arms against other humans and commit the most heinous atrocities. I am writing specifically about the recent events in Charlottesville. For anyone who doubts the thinking of the white-supremacists that marched there on 12 August, you can watch this interview with some of them.

The most telling point of the interview, which was a repeat of what Justin Moore had said in a voicemail to the reporter:

“I’m sorta glad that them people got hit and I’m glad that girl died,” Moore said in a voicemail to WBTV. “They were a bunch of Communists out there protesting against somebody’s freedom of speech, so it doesn’t bother me that they got hurt at all.”

 – Charlotte Observer, 15 Aug 2017

This is an example of where a person is indoctrinated with a hate-filled ideology to the point where they are happy to see another human die for no reason other than a difference of belief. To me this is the heart of any toxic ideology, whether related to race, religion, sexuality or class. If we as a society cannot identify the sources of these beliefs and respond to them effectively, we are doomed to a future of senseless violence.

Within 24 hours of the death of Heather Heyer, it was possible to read over 20 eyewitness accounts collected by different independent websites and media companies. Footage of the march and the clashes from multiple perspectives was accessible on social media and YouTube. My conclusion is that that Nazi’s had come to Charlottesville to incite a riot and the anti-Fascist people were there to protect the populace and demonstrate that a rise of violence and intimidation by far-right groups will be met with resistance. This particular set of eye-witness accounts is most telling.

It was largely expected that Trump would respond inappropriately, but his ‘both sides are to blame’ initial statement was a new low, even for him. Apologising for Nazis on American soil must have had every veteran of WWII shaking his or her cane at the TV (or Twitter feed) in their retirement home. The statement flew in the face of the mass of evidence to the contrary. Even after he seems to have been forced to address the issue with a subsequent statement (clearly prepared from him), soon after he went back to his thinly veiled pro-racist statements.

What I am witnessing amongst my sphere of Facebook friends and other Internet contacts is the deeply polarising nature of these events. Those who I suspect have a lingering racist streak (sadly not uncommon here in Australia) are quick to decry the Socialist/Communists for violence and imply that the Nazis should have been allowed to march under ‘Freedom of Speech’.

I strongly disagree. Freedom of Speech, does not and should not cover hate speech. Whatever your ideology, if you advocate the death of a race, religion or any other set of humans based on some common attribute you have no right to publicise that belief in any way. I have been encouraged by the Jewish community’s strong response against this ‘Freedom of Speech’ argument.

Billy Bragg had the gall to support the removal of statues celebrating the defenders of slavery on his Facebook page. The vehement backlash from some of those who are supposed to be his ‘followers’ suggested that this sentiment is not just an American one. A small amount of research would reveal that the statues were erected long after the events of the civil war in order to fight for the retention of racist laws during the Jim Crow era in the South. A good article on the issue here. If you want history, go and read a book. Statues serve the purpose of dominating physical space with an ideology, they are not about history.

While writing this post, I am listening to Phil Ochs. He was a crusader against the ‘alt-right’ back in the 1960’s. I Ain’t Marching Anymore is a fine example of his work. I wrote my own song about the events in Charlottesville. I like to believe that it was the songs of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie and their contemporaries that have helped keep the ideology of the extreme Right at bay for the past 30 years.

What is the answer to this challenge facing humanity? I think that educating our children to distil their truth from a broad basket of lies and half-truths is the best thing we can do to immunise them against these hateful ideologies. We need leaders and public figures who come out strongly and un-ambiguously whenever these ideologies emerge. That is a big ask when this particular event has shown us how many of these leaders are in the pocket of extremists.

Make no mistake, I know there are ideologies on the Left which are just as violent and dangerous as what we saw the Right exhibit in Charlottesville. However, the evidence of the behaviour and the goals of the anti-Fascists in Charlottesville does not support an argument that these ideas were present or being touted in this event. It is the tool of these extremist ideologies to point out one flaw in a group and use it to tar the entire collective and all its ideas.

I have to trust in humanity; believing that any person who is supplied with enough of the truth and the tools to interpret it will eventually put down their club, or nuclear warhead, and learn to see the humanity in all others. For those who refuse to give up their hatred, I am encouraged that there are people still willing to put their own safety at risk for the interest of the society and stand in the way of hate.

Posted in Blog Post, Folk Music, My Own Music, Spirituality and Philosophy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Filk the World

This week, through a series of seemingly random events I became aware of the work of Leslie Fish. As an Electrical Engineer, Computer Programmer and a Science-Fiction/Fantasy fan I was surprised that the whole phenomena of ‘Filk’ music had largely passed me by.

I suspect it was because most of my Science Fiction/Fantasy reading was done in secret in small-town rural Australia, which wasn’t exactly overflowing with Star Trek conventions. It was probably also because my parents largely viewed that whole ‘dressing up’ scene with Pentecostal Christian fear and loathing. Dungeons and Dragons was, after all, a sure-fire pathway to demon possession.

Whenever I travel for work, my partner writes Facebook posts outlining the mayhem that often ensues with our five children. In the posts, the characters from Star Trek are borrowed as stand-ins for family members. As I am the one staying home this time, I made a few posts in the same theme and a friend mentioned ‘Banned from Argo’ in a comment (I had facetiously mentioned Mos Eisley in the context of Star Trek).

I made a recording of this amusing, raunchy, Star Trek inspired song and was surprised to get a comment back from Leslie. As I do for most of the songs I record, I researched the background. This is how I became immersed in the history of this prolific and rich cultural treasure known as ‘Filk’.

The cynic would pass the genre off as parodies and fan-fiction of little consequence. They would be wrong. Leslie’s 2012 album, Avalon is Risen, is a triumph of thought and expression in so many ways. It goes well beyond ‘space songs’ and covers issues of social commentary, paganism and fundamental questions of humanity. Fortunately, this beautifully produced booklet that goes with the album is available from Prometheus Music.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, as the same things that drive authors and fans to the genre of Science-Fiction and Fantasy are the things that make them question our history, our present society and our future. People who have a subconscious instinct from birth that the religious dogma and history they are presented with in adolescence feels contrived and doesn’t come close to fitting our lived experience find themselves looking for something else.

While Banned From Argo is an amusing romp, I picked The Sun is Also a Warrior to cover for my YouTube Channel. I read this song as a well-written rebuttal to the rose-tinted views of pacifism that often accompany the ‘New Age’ movement. Our race is, by its nature, in violent competition with our environment and each other.

The other serious song of Leslie’s that I am in awe of and wouldn’t attempt to re-record is Hope Eyrie. Set to some appropriate images in this video, the song perfectly captures the momentous nature of our mission to the moon in 1969. The song frames the event as not just a technical flea-hop off our planet, but the momentous start of the journey which will take us to other galaxies and ensure our existence beyond the small window of time in which we will consume this planet’s resources. It has taken some 50 years, but we are now seriously looking at a manned Mars expedition.

I have always appreciated artists who write and perform their songs out of a genuine desire to communicate and change society for the better, as opposed to making money giving comforting narcissistic fluff to wealthy consumers. I would place Leslie in the same league as Pete Seeger, Alistair Hulett and Billy Bragg and it is sad that her influence isn’t wider. Leslie’s song Chickasaw Mountain, on Avalon is Risen, is a tribute / letter to Phil Ochs, one of the great genuine folk writers of the 1960s.

This interview with Leslie, by Aya Katz, gives a good overview of Leslie’s views and some background to her songs and career. You can read more about Leslie in her blog here or her website here. If you want to know more about the Filk scene, this compiled ‘history’ by Gary McGath makes for interesting reading.


Posted in Blog Post, Folk Music, Spirituality and Philosophy | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

nolite te bastardes carborundorum

I wish I had read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was twelve or thirteen, it would have made the underlying relationship structures between men and women much less confusing. It is as though men have built and fueled the engines of female subjugation but then found a way to pretend that they have always been there and were never the fault of men.

I was compelled to read this incredible book, by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985, after watching the TV series of the same name. Thankfully, one of our independent media channels, SBS, made the whole series available to stream. I am grateful to live in a country where we still have media that is happy to air contentious views that challenge the establishment. With a sustained attack on our government broadcaster, the ABC, by a right-leaning government, it is a freedom we may soon have significantly less of.

It is always a pleasant surprise when you read a book related to TV series that you have already watched and find that the creation is a faithful representation of the written text. With Margaret having a cameo in the series, it is probably fair to say that she had some influence on the screenplay and cinematography.

I won’t spoil the plot, but the subject matter is a stark and confronting look at the way in which society de-values women as people, and over-values their role as baby incubators. Written largely in the first person, for me the book was a chance to view various forms of male/female and female/female interactions in a different light. While the dystopian setting might alter the context, the interactions described almost all exist now, in our current society.

The experience made me angry, because I could see how by the time I was seventeen I had been completely indoctrinated into a male world of assumed privilege. Girls were all princesses, ready to swoon at my feats of strength and beg to bear my children. Utter-rubbish, that left me with many years of recovery and many needless hurtful actions until I arrived at a place of some balance.

There are no happy endings in the book, no one is winning. Like in any violent takeover of a society, China’s Cultural Revolution, the French Revolution, Lenin, it is the ones at the top who are often in the most precarious of positions. When you build the machines for un-checked state violence against the people, they can always be turned on you.

While religious fanaticism plays a part, Margaret herself points out in the new forward to the 2017 release, that it is power and it’s pursuit which is to blame, rather than a specific type of religious fervency. The Communist Atheists murdered their teachers just as gleefully as the Christian Europeans burned their witches.

My main takeaway from this book was to look very carefully at the mental structures that underlie the relationships between the sexes, both domestic and intimate. It is not enough to be aware of your own foibles and fears, but that we should be sensitive to the lens that is distorting the other person’s view of the world.

I don’t want to pick apart the plot further in this post. I thoroughly enjoyed both the TV series and the book and would encourage you to read/watch them yourself. The subtlety of the author that I most loved is the way in which absurd, horrific, situations are presented in a dystopian world, but then with a few sentences the veil is withdrawn, and you realise that you have actually been looking into a mirror. It is this type of work, that shakes the foundations of some rusted-on indoctrination, which I most enjoy.

Posted in Blog Post, Film, TV and Literature, Spirituality and Philosophy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Captain Fan-plastic

As a father of five children, I often think about the various influences that they experience growing up in a first world country in a middle-class family. The constant drive towards consumerism, the emphasis placed on possessions and privilege rather than contribution and talent. An education system obsessed with scores and regurgitation, ill-equipped to teach children in a way most suited to their individual aptitudes and natures.

I often wonder whether their values, strength of character and health would be different if they grew up in a forest, living on the land and being taught in a way that encouraged them, rather than chose irrelevant measures to shame or falsely praise them with.

The 2016 film by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic, uses this concept as the central theme. I thought the actors in the film did a fantastic job, especially Viggo Mortensen in the lead as the idealist, socialist, father of six. My childish dig in the title of this blog is not made at the performances, but at the artificial nature of some aspects of the analysis presented by Matt Ross (writer and director).

While watching the film, there were several other films and books that immediately sprang to mind. The first one is Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn, released in 2007. The references are unmistakable with the use of a bus, the sexual awakening in a trailer (American for caravan) park, and the placement of the ‘wild’ in North West America. Perhaps Sean benefited from the source material being a true story, but the theme of an ultimate failure to leave society for a better life in the wilderness seemed more appropriate for the subject matter than the seemingly trite ending of Captain Fantastic. I should also mention the brilliant sound-track for Into the Wild that features Eddie Vedder.

Another reference that springs to mind is the book by Miriam Lancewood covering her period of surviving in the South Island of New Zealand, Woman in the Wilderness. I have not read the book, but have listened to several radio interviews with Miriam. One of the things that fascinated me about Miriam’s description of her experience was the way that living in a survival mode felt so different in terms of mental load, and that living in a modern society is extremely stressful.

Real life examples of this type of survival exodus from Kevin McCloud’s Escape to the Wild were also recalled while watching Captain Fantastic. Having watched this show is probably what triggered my biggest frustration with the film. The way that hunting a deer, killing it with your hands (knife) and eating the liver raw opened the film just didn’t sit at all with the experience that Kevin McCloud conveyed in his time with families that had done this type of survivalist sea-change. My thoughts after watching Kevin’s series was that these people had opted for a hard life, were ensuring that their children could never re-enter society if they chose to, and that the risks in terms of access to medical assistance and surety of food supply were high.

Other reviewers of the film have referenced the 1986 film, The Mosquito Coast, based on the book of the same name by Paul Theroux. There is an underlying discomfort during Captain Fantastic, that maybe Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is a crazy zealot who is forcing his family to live a nightmare and that his actions eventually led to the death of his wife. So many of the historical efforts to find a utopia in the jungle have ended in the dystopian way described by Theroux.

Having weighed the pros and cons of taking children out of society, to live a nature based life, I have opted for a middle road. We live on a quarter acre, in a town of 5000 people and I commute an hour into work in the city. We have the space for chickens, fruit trees and a large vegetable garden and live only 30 minutes from a National Park. Our children go to school, but are encouraged at home to read widely and debate the fundamental ideas of our society, with no religious dogma or family political allegiances forced on them.

I still feel that we, as a race, have lost touch with our humanity when we drive to work in a car, sit in an air-conditioned cubicle and spend our days glued to screens of various sizes. Unfortunately, in the current economy, there is no way to provide food, shelter, and the means to fit in with the rest of society without working a city job. I followed with great interest the journey of athatcher85 on his YouTube channel Planting Freedom. If you want to hear the heart wrenching cry of humanity to return to a healthy existence, watch this video. What he has achieved over the past 4 years is incredible, but ultimately demands a lot of sacrifice for a family.

In summary, I enjoyed watching most of the film, but the knowledge that I came with meant that I saw much of the plot as contrived, and many of the real issues around living off-grid, were not accurately represented. I think the scenes where Ben brings his wild children to visit his sisters typical ‘white American’ family perfectly showed how unready the mainstream viewers are to tackle the real implications of the issues raised in the film.

Posted in Blog Post, Film, TV and Literature | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Violence in the System

Since joining the Destroy the Joint page on Facebook this year, prompted by reading Clementine Ford’s brilliant but confronting Fight Like a Girl, I have watch with sadness and a feeling of helplessness as the death toll of women killed by violence in Australia rises.

This issue has become higher profile than usual in Australia after the brutal murder of Rosie Batty’s eleven year old son, Luke, by his father, in broad daylight at cricket practice in 2014.  Despite the terrible horror of this incident, Rosie has courageously used the spotlight to campaign against domestic violence nationally.

I don’t mean courageous like giving up sugar in your coffee, but courageous in a way that is in every degree equal to climbing Everest or storming the beaches at Normandy.

I have been thinking about this, while sitting in my cocoon of educated, white, privileged maleness. Where do the roots of this behaviour come from? Have we always been this way as a society? Has the enslavement and abuse of women by men been the way of things for the past million years?

It irks me the way that Western Christians look with scorn on the ‘terrible suppression of women’ in Muslim culture. Look back 300 years and you will find child brides, legalised rape, disenfranchisement, underpayment, public torture and execution of women for trivial infringements and other general abuse of women in so-called civilised, Christianised, Europe.

In considering the widespread physical and mental abuse of women by male partners in Australia, and other developed countries, I have to think there is something in the upbringing of both victim and abuser that is at play. In the instant when a man raises his hand to hit a woman because his tea was cold, the dinner wasn’t what he wanted or the children were too loud, there are two psychological structures at play which go beyond the mere physicality and immediacy of the situation.

I will caveat here that I know there are real cases where males are physically abused by women, and that I suspect similar psychological factors are in play.

I am looking forward to seeing the new Wonder Woman movie because it highlights my next point. I disagree strongly with the twentieth century argument that women are physically weaker than men.

You don’t have to go far to find this ridiculous view still held by many men (and women), for example this Polish politician. To quote from an ex Australian Prime Minister in 1979:

I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons. – Tony Abbott (SRC Paper)

Here is my thesis, the physiological argument about women’s weakness is complete rubbish, and that any group of women, if conditioned and trained from birth for physical violence, would be every bit as capable as a similar group of men. In Steve Backshall’s book, Ghosts of the Forest, he includes the idea that US Marines are trained to shoot the female terrorist first because they are far more ruthless when threatened (I’m not sure of the veracity of Steve’s claim, but it seems reasonable).

In the most recent installment of the Wolverine franchise, Logan, the daughter has extra claws based on the premise that women need to be able to defend their pack as well as themselves.

So women have the capacity for power and strength, not just some women, but every woman. Yet they are conditioned from birth in Western society to see themselves as diminished and subservient to a man. Recent evidence of this absurd view at a Christian conference here in Australia.

I have no first had experience of domestic violence, but a part of me suspects that if a woman felt internally empowered to fight back, if they had been instilled with a sense of their worth, independent of their child-bearing ability, and made aware of the willingness of their family and clan to defend and protect them, that our society would not be the way that it is. I am not at all suggesting that women who find themselves with a violent partner just needed to fight back harder, I just wonder whether part of the will to fight back has already been sapped from them through psychological conditioning.

If boys had been punished or re-directed every time they try and force a kiss on a girl in primary school, if they had been shown examples of respect for women, if every television show, movie and advertisement didn’t re-inforce the concept of women as property and playthings, I doubt they would ever consider violence in the home an option.

Maybe every girl should graduate primary school with a good understanding of Krav Maga. I know because I have heard it in so many accounts that the psychological seeds of “you deserve this”, “what did you do to upset him?”, “you would shame the family if you leave” must ring in the mind of every woman confronted with the horror of a violent partner.

At the same time, the “teach her a lesson”, “keep her in her place” phrases are ringing in the ears of the perpetrator. These thoughts don’t come from nowhere, they are planted in our children from an early age, by parents, grandparents, siblings and society.

There is no point trying to tackle this problem in the first weeks of marriage or a relationship. It can only be tackled in the messages and exposure given to our youngest members of society. I wrote this song for Domestic Violence Prevention Month, but I realise that by the time we are trying to help victims escape their situation and put their lives back together, we have already failed as a society.

I cannot offer a better future, I don’t see this issue being brought into the national school curriculum, or all advertising and media that condones minimisation of women being restricted. There is too much to be gained for men by maintaining the structures that keep women down. The irony of this situation is that I don’t think any real satisfaction or fulfilment comes from a relationship where one half is bound to the relationship through psychological chains.

I hope for a world where men and women work together by choice, as equal and powerful masters of their destiny, but we have so far to go.

Posted in Blog Post | Tagged , , | Leave a comment