From Eric Bogle to Ziggy Ramo: the Australian music challenging the Anzac legacy

Ziggy Ramo, Photo: Emma Pegrum

Originally published in The Guardian, April 2021

Eric Bogle’s And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda sits among Australia’s best-known pieces of wartime songwriting. Occasionally mistaken for a traditional standard, this Banjo Jackson-interpolating folk song has been covered by everyone from the Pogues to Joan Baez in the 50 years since its composition.

“I wrote the song in 71 after I’d seen my first Anzac Day parade – I’d never seen one before of course,” the Scottish-born Bogle tells the Guardian. “The Vietnam war was still going on, Australian boys were still dying across there, [but] it was hard to know that because the war had been relegated to page six. It was old news. I thought the time was right for an anti-war song. I set the song in Gallipoli because it’s deeply embedded in the psyche of most Australians.”

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Revisiting Parklands: a bittersweet slice of 90s Adelaide noir

Cate Blanchett in Parklands, Photo: National Film and Sound Archive / Helen Bowden

Originally published in InReview, June 2021

Starring a young Cate Blanchett in her first film role, writer/director Kathryn Millard’s  1996 film Parklands remains a surprisingly evergreen – and very Adelaide – reflection on memory and place.

The film opens with sprinklers and birdsong, shots of a lush and manicured Botanic Gardens, and a ’90s model Holden idling by. It’s all very quiet and genteel – until the Commodore bursts into flames. Something, it seems, is rotten in the state of South Australia.

Blanchett’s Rosie enters by airplane a moment later, staring out the window as it makes its descent over a skyline still capped by the Santos building. She cuts a familiar figure: another 20-something who has fled Adelaide for Sydney, only to be drawn back by a death in the family – that of her father, a policeman. An uncomfortable conversation at the wake, followed by the discovery of his old journals, sets Rosie on a slow-burning investigation into the “secrets and shadows” of his life and death.

“Adelaide’s my hometown, I moved to Sydney while this film was in development and came back to make it,” Kathryn Millard says over the phone. “I have enormous affection for Adelaide – I think you can say things about your hometown that you wouldn’t let other people say.”

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Echoes of a golden age at the Piccadilly

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, October 2020

North Adelaide’s Piccadilly Cinemas has lived through times of war, recession, home video and Netflix. It has now spent much of its 80th year closed or half-empty, but not even a pandemic can dim the magic.

“My father said there was no future in cinema,” Bob Parr tells The Adelaide Review. “Television had come, and he wanted me to get a trade. So I went to Holden’s and became a fitter and turner – but I still worked at the cinemas at night.”

One of those was the Piccadilly, where five years later a 20-year-old Parr quit his Holden job at the first sign of a full-time gig. It was 1964, a time when Parr and then-manager Clem Williams faced a “battle” to lure audiences back to suburban cinemas, which received the latest films eight weeks after city theatres.

Such slim patronage was a long way from the fanfare that greeted the Piccadilly when it opened on 23 October 1940, the “latest link” in an empire of suburban cinemas run by local theatre baron Dan Clifford. As Clifford’s 20th and penultimate cinema before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Piccadilly was built at the tail end of a boom era for suburban moviegoing, and promised a suite of mod cons making it “the most modern theatre in the Southern Hemisphere”.

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Medieval Christianity and Star Wars fandom collide off Ireland’s coast

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, December 2019

1000 years ago Skellig Michael represented the harshest extremes of religious devotion marooned off Ireland’s southern coast. Now the island finds itself the focus of a new breed of reclusive fundamentalists: Star Wars fans.

Miles out from Ireland’s south-western tip Skellig Michael peers from the mist, a triangle of rock jutting out from the Atlantic. Along its side, two staircases of roughly hewn stone snake their way up a sheer face of rock and grass. On a plateau near the peak sits a group of weathered stone huts, huddled together and looking out at the sea.

For centuries this outpost was home to a tiny colony of Catholic monks, a dozen men at a time pitting their faith against wild weather, Viking raids and isolation at the edge of their known world. But recent years have seen Skellig Michael become popular among a different kind of pilgrim, and those generations of nameless monks overshadowed by another robed holy man — some guy called Luke Skywalker.

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Weyes Blood’s sinking feelings

Photo: Brett Stanley

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, February 2020

Natalie Mering’s work as Weyes Blood is, on its surface, a shimmering throwback to the singer songwriters of the 1970s. But there’s a stormy undercurrent beneath those classic sounds.

On the cover of her 2019 album, Titanic Rising, we find Mering literally adrift, floating in an underwater facsimile of her childhood bedroom. “I wanted it to be submerged as a comment on the rising sea levels, and all these places that will be underwater soon,” Mering explains. “But also how water can represent a subconscious realm.

“I kind of felt like the bedroom was a really formative space for young, westernised youth; this is where you formulate your ideology, what you think life is really about. In some ways it’s this weird initiation into adulthood, but it doesn’t really prepare you for reality, and disappointment.”

The title and cover are also a quite literal callback to James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, which for Mering speaks both to her childhood cultural obsessions and the current climate crisis. “I felt like the movie was such a huge hit, it was such a big deal [particularly] among little girls, but the message that I took home was the hubris of man, and our lack of dominion over nature. But I don’t think anybody got that message, even though it was one of the biggest films of all time. People just didn’t get it!

“Our generation is one of the more cinematically saturated generation with VHS, then streaming,” she says. “Movies play a pretty big role in our psychological life, but we don’t really talk about how they can distort reality, but also transcend it and become our stories.”

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Parwana’s plated history: ‘It’s an act of reclamation, an act of preservation’

Farida, Zelmai and Durkhanai Ayubi. Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, October 2020

For just over a decade the Ayubi family has won hearts, minds and bellies at Parwana Afghan Kitchen. In a new book of stories and recipes, Durkhanai Ayubi shows how each dish is steeped in history, loss and preservation.

When you look at the arc of history, it’s so short-sighted, right?” Durkhanai says. “I just knew it was so important that if anybody was going to engage with Afghan food and our story, I wanted it to be from a place that was much deeper. It wasn’t just this superficial, ‘Aw, refugees come good’ story, but actually challenging myself and everyone who reads it to think about our place in the world today in a much broader context.”

Between her mother’s vividly photographed recipes, Durkhanai weaves together the broader story of their homeland – the longue durée of an oft-misunderstood ‘graveyard of empires’, that for centuries sat at the juncture of continents, trade routes and conquerors.

Durkhanai writes that the modern nation state of Afghanistan is simply the current label applied to “a bricolage of unlikely races and cultures, each with its own gods, languages and customs”. On such a scale, Parwana’s blend of dumplings, curries, rices and sweets becomes nothing less than centuries of history and exchange served up on a plate.

“Our histories are so intertwined, all this imperialism and this redirection of resources, occupation of peoples’ lands… that stuff’s still playing out and we haven’t reckoned with it in so many ways. I really needed to write everything from a place that factored it all in – and that’s not necessarily history, that’s alive. You can’t separate the past from the present.

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The last days of the family-owned fun parks

Greenhills Adventure Park, Photo: Sia Duff
Greenhills Adventure Park, Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Saturday Paper, November 2016

It’s an overcast Friday morning on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula and Greenhills Adventure Park, one of the state’s last outdoor fun parks, is being quite literally carved up for sale.

Since opening its doors to the public in 1982, this once inconspicuous patch of rolling grassland has provided generations of children with peeling sunburn, countless rounds of mini-golf and that brief flood of endorphins as you head into the final dip of a waterslide.

But time has not been kind to Greenhills, or its business model.

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Herbs give New Zealand’s 1980s land rights movement a reggae soundtrack

Protesters occupy a rugby pitch during the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand, Photo: Robin Morrison, courtesy Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira and Morrison estate

Originally published by Lindsay Magazine, July 2020

Sometimes it’s actually pretty easy to judge a record by its cover. Musically, Herbs’ 1981 debut Whats’ Be Happen? is a stirring example of the spread of reggae across Oceania in the 1970s. But it’s also a vivid political document, from the second you glimpse the black and white photograph on its sleeve. The aerial shot of the final standoff between police and protesters at Bastion Point in May 1978 captures the moment government forces ended a peaceful five hundred-day-long occupation of Ngāti Whātua ancestral lands north of Auckland earmarked for development.

These political tensions are entwined with the band’s early music, starting with the needling guitar riff of opening track ‘Azania (Soon Come)’. It’s a song that traces a line between the civil rights battles facing Pasifika and Māori communities in Aotearoa and the oppression of South African apartheid, all over a rocksteady beat. After name checking Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, the chorus offers a call to “bow to the freedom fighters” and “send racists on the run”a message of decolonisation sounding across the southern hemisphere.

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The Dry: the ‘devastating imagery’ bringing Jane Harper’s bestseller to the big screen

Eric Bana in The Dry, Photo: Ben King/Roadshow

Originally published in The Guardian, December 2020

Released in 2016, Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, evoked a sense of sundried desperation and El Niño-inspired unease that felt as familiar to many Australian readers as the book’s genre trappings (its tagline, “a desperate act in a small town with secrets”, could apply to anything from Twin Peaks to Top of the Lake).

The book hadn’t even hit shelves when producer Bruna Papandrea and screenwriter-director Robert Connolly started planning the film. Papandrea is perhaps best known today for adapting Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies for HBO, which swapped Sydney’s northern beaches for affluent, coastal California – but there was no separating The Dry from its western Victorian backdrop.

“It just lends itself to mystery and suspense so well because you do have that undercurrent of danger in a lot of locations,” Harper says.

Whether set in state forests, coastal communities or great, thirsty expanses of agricultural land, her four novels to date pick up on the duelling sensibilities of romanticism and dread that have recurred in Australian storytelling since colonisation. “It’s quite easy for things to go wrong quite quickly, which is a real gift for a writer.”

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Road to repatriation

Repatriation ceremony at Tennyson Dunes, August 2018. Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, May 2019

As institutions around the world work to return Aboriginal ancestral remains to Country, more than 4600 Old People wait in storage at the South Australian Museum. A new Museum policy has committed to their repatriation, but to complete this massive task will require non-Indigenous South Australia to join the journey – and reckon with its own complicity.

“No one wanted to be accountable; once these burial grounds got dug up or our Old People were found, they’d quickly bring them to the Museum,” Kaurna Elder Jeffrey Newchurch explains.

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