Category Archives: social comment

comments on social and political issues

The business of universities: a work of fiction

What is a university today?

This –

hallowed halls

or this –

business

Hallowed halls or a corporation? Ivory towers or big business?

Yes, these days a university is both and I was part of that transformation of higher education from the 1980’s to 2007 and as a consultant in Asia and Europe until 2013.

Since I left full time university life, starting out as a lowly fixed term lecturer, later as a professor, Faculty Dean, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Director of various public and private companies linked with universities, I have wanted to write a novel about the massive challenges taking place in universities in the Anglo world and increasingly in Europe and Asia with the decline of government funding, the growth of ‘user pays’ and the treatment of education as a private rather than public good within a broader neo-liberal philosophy where the market rules.

Until now I remained too close to the subject to be able to write a fictional account of the challenges and dilemmas facing Australian universities in particular as governments reduced funding and universities were forced to become entrepreneurial, business oriented and market driven. I rode that wave for 20 years and think I left just in time with a sliver of my soul intact.

My story? A prestigious Australian university has failed to adapt and faces funding shortfalls and the loss of key academic staff and research areas unless it can access external funding fast and lots of it. A Chinese businessman needs to move assets overseas, fast and lots of it. A match made in heaven or is life never this simple?

5,000 words written and loving it – oh and if you’re reading this, you may be in it …

Writing from trauma

I am taking a break from my novel set on the Camino. The ms was never intended to be autobiographical though it drew on my experiences and encounters walking across France on the Via Podiensis and across Spain on the Camino and drew on a personal interest in dying with dignity and assisted suicide. Not to mention experiences of madness and death and all the other stuff of everyday life.

It was not until I received editorial feedback praising some parts of the ms and criticising others, that I realised how intensely personal and introspective the novel had become. It seems astonishing now that I never realised how entrapped I was in old wounds/traumas and their working out in fiction.

So I am putting the ms aside for a year to gain distance and perspective, maybe to undertake workshops on writing about the past. The novel, I repeat, is not ‘my story’ per se and is not a memoir except in a psychological and existential way I was too blind to see until I was poked in the eye from editors. While I let it lie for a year, I am contemplating attending ‘memoir writing’ workshops to learn skills of perspective and especially of extracting the universal from the personal.

In case you think you’re now safe from my scribbling, not at all.

I have begun writing a novel about universities and commercialisation, a topic dear to my heart for 10 years. See my next blog post for further information.

Rosie has left the house and is missed

Yes, Rosie the dog has moved to greener pastures after six weeks of fostering with us in which she learned to walk on a lead, became socialised with dogs and humans and completed her vaccinations etc after being rescued from the lost dogs home, where her end was nigh. She will stay for a short time with people with other dogs and then be adopted by a couple who live near a beach which allows dogs to run free.

It is a great development for Rosie and we, my daughter and I, knew that caring for dogs for a short period of time is the essence of fostering, but we miss her very much indeed.

I do not miss the chewing of doors and windows, the eating of the TV antenna cord, the destruction of the Blu-ray player, the stealing of laundry or the demolition of various pot plants. Nor will I miss her trying to eat any book I’m reading. We do miss the 20 kilograms of muscle and 100% love delivered with the exuberance only a puppy can offer and I’ll miss the walks along the river. I miss the torpedo hurling itself into my arms when I open the front door and my daughter misses her couch buddy.

So, the doors will be repaired, we’ll take a breather and then foster another mutt, this time aiming for a smaller and older dog better suited to inner suburban living.

Have a great life, Rosie! This is your second chance after being rescued by Forever Friends, a group of people devoted to rescuing animals.

Remember what we promised not to tell mummy?

Are you ready for another tram story?
Mid-afternoon, I’m heading home on the tram and a woman of hmm, maybe 45, sits opposite me with a girl whom I guess is five. After idly kicking me a few times [the girl not the woman] and after taking off her enormous Frozen backpack and hitting the guy next to me in the face, the girl settles and the woman apologises. The guy next to me flees to another seat.
The girl stares and I stare back. She [the girl, not the woman] pokes out her tongue, I wiggle my ears and raise one eyebrow. I win.
Silence for a time and then the woman says to the girl.
‘Remember what we talked about?
Umm.
‘We talked about it before, remember?’
umm.
‘We promised not to tell mummy.’
Now I’m getting interested.
Little girl continues to look blank.
‘We promised not to tell mummy. Remember? We agreed not to tell mummy.’
‘Yes’ says the little girl, though it is clear she has no idea of what’s going on.’
‘Remember what we promised not to tell mummy.’
Girl ignores woman.
The woman sighs and gives up and looks out the tram window. A few stops later they get off.
My imagination is running hot.
What must mummy not know? What is the big secret? What is the relationship between the woman and the girl? Eccentric aunt? Mummy’s girl friend? A friend giving mummy a break?
What have they done that mummy must not know?
Did ‘auntie’ get drunk during their girls day out in the city and lose the little girl? Fallen asleep? Robbed a bank? Spent the day at the casino? Fed her sugary treats despite this being forbidden?
Okay, okay, the explanation doubtless is more mundane. ‘We agreed not to tell mummy about her surprise birthday present’ or ‘we agreed not to tell her that you wet your pants [the girl, not the woman] or chucked a tantie or’…
Whatever, interesting character observation and a fun way to spend 20 minutes grinding along Lygon Street.
What do you think was too secret to tell mummy?

Talking to strangers

strangers on a train
I love trams and trains, not so keen on buses and I’m an avid people watcher, especially these days with passengers’ social media habits. Who hasn’t enjoyed listening to someone’s mobile phone conversation delivered at the top of their voice, detailing how they have just been dumped by/dumped some %^$&hole who ^&(*&^% them? Or how they fucked over their boss? Classic. Or enjoyed seeing some jerk walk into a closed door or miss their stop because they were too busy checking the stalk book status of some person they met somewhere sometime and about whom they don’t give a rat’s clacker, but – MUST CHECK NOW.

Given where I live, hearing such a variety of languages, on occasion even another language which I know enough to understand. And simply the general weirdness of social interactions in a culture where private and public boundaries have dissolved and people interact and speak as though in their living rooms or bed rooms and not in a public space surrounded by strangers. Mind you, most are too immersed in their own social media bubble to notice whereas, being a relic from an earlier age, I do notice as I read my book (or pretend to) and daydream and look.
And sometimes check my phone, I confess it. MUST BE CONNECTED.

But I digress. How do I attract them, the strangers who are happy to share their intimacies with me? Okay, I am not sitting in a private bubble of music and/or text and I am genuinely interested in people’s stories [writers are ruthless collectors, aren’t we?]. Also if I see someone ‘weird’ ambling along, I do not automatically lower my eyes; only if they look weird and dangerous. Maybe they can see my own secrets etched in the lines of my face?
Sometimes I leave the tram or train and reflect. Yes, I reflect how lucky I am to have survived what life has thrown at me, but more than that.
Like a few months ago, last tram home from Saint Kilda, the tram of the drunks and the loners and a few couples absorbed in each other. A clearly mentally distressed and aggressive guy sat across from me and a space cleared around him in an instant. He barked and yelled and glared at me and I looked and said nothing and as he staggered off, he looked me in the eyes and said with utmost clarity ‘You’re cool, man.’
Did he see? Could he tell? I have seen much worse.

And I become the receiver of stories of exes (none of them any good, surprise, surprise), drugs, mental illness, crap relationships, how they’re ‘doing much better now’ or rants about *#^+$# politicians. The last is fair enough: political discourse in Oz is the pits. I will not listen to racist or sexist rants or political rants. All else, let it rip! They come to me like seagulls to a chip – how grateful are the other passengers as they see the weirdos’ radar lock onto me as soon as they step aboard and shuffle their way towards me.

What brought on my musing today? Coming home on my Brunswick tram a couple, both heavily tattooed, she anorexic skinny and twitchy, he all muscle shirt and bravado, told me (she articulately, he with grunted agreements) how God had saved them from drugs and prison and how he/she could save me too (good luck with that, mate) and how the guy hoped one day to get access again to his son. She told how she was learning to cook and how she was getting him to ‘stop eating shit’. It was fascinating to see how the skinny woman was the dominant personality and muscles followed along. Sad stories. All true? Maybe. It is their version of reality and for now it serves them well.

How many of our own stories are true? Don’t we all continually re-invent our past? Don’t you? Talking to strangers, safe in the knowledge we will never see them again?

How do you react to strangers on a train? Avoid them? Or listen and reflect? What stories have you heard and what stories have you told them?

I’m glad they chose me and I’m glad I listened.
trams