Navigating Centrelink: A Modern Tragedy in Endless Parts

 

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I make the call with the rejection letter in my hand. The phone rings for a moment, then the line goes dead. I really never thought I’d long for the days when being on hold to Centrelink for hours was the best possible option. Now the phones don’t work at all.

I drive to the office, there’s no parking. I park in a nearby shopping centre and walk out of the carpark. I’m aware that this is technically illegal, but it’s fairly hard to care about such trivialities when you have a family member – let’s call him Sam – who is homeless, physically and psychologically deteriorating, and being incessantly hounded by debt collectors. How odd that Centrelink staff are so implausibly difficult to reach and yet for some reason the debt collectors they employ appear to have infinite time and resources.

The Centrelink office is predictably packed. I join the queue of people staring at their phones and muttering irascibly. A young family lines up behind me, they are utterly incredulous about the length of the queue. Obviously, they haven’t had to do this for a while.

I reach the front after about fifteen minutes, and manage to make my request without breaking into tears, so that surely counts as a win.

“I’m trying to help a family member. We’ve been coming in here for four months I think.  Maybe it’s five? They still haven’t received anything. No money. No healthcare card. He can’t afford medication, he’s running up debts, he doesn’t have stable accommodation.” I pause, the attendant is still looking at me expectantly. I’m not sure what else to say. “Is there a way to get the application fast-tracked?” He nods and says,

“Take a seat, we’ll see what we can do.”

I feel weary and ruined, but I decide to try and make the best of the long wait time. I’m lucky enough to have a flexible schedule as a freelancer, although it does mean that the hours I’m spending here will take away from my earnings this week. It’s strangely ironic to note that visiting Centrelink is going to reduce your weekly income. Still, if I had a conventional office job I wouldn’t be able to contact them at all, so there’s that. I make a few work calls, answer a couple of emails and then crack open my book.

The young family comes and sits next to me. Their son, he looks to be about four, studies my face with the unabashed curiosity that only kids get away with.

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“You’re bald!” He pronounces, as though he’s telling me I have wings or a tail. I look up at him and laugh.

“Yes, that’s a true story.”

“But you’ve got lots of hair on your face?”

“Sort of the wrong way round isn’t it?” He nods.

“You’ve got a mixed-up head.”

“You know, you’re not the first person to tell me that.”

I try and focus on my book, but the kid persists. “I have a magic watch!” he announces. As far as non-sequiturs go, it’s not bad.

“Yeah, it’s really magic? That’s cool.” He looks down, thinks it over and says,

“Nah, just pretend.”

“Ah, that’s a shame.” He changes his mind, perks up and says,

“Kidding, it IS magic! It can fast-forward time!”

“Well, I could sure use that power right now.” His mum takes him by the hand and says,

“Come on, let the man read his book,” she smiles at me and they disappear outside, leaving dad to wait for his turn.

I wait for an hour. I know most of the faces here now, the people at the check-in, the gigantic security guard with the dissonantly friendly smile. I try and not think about the severity of the situation. How the dozens of back and forth discussions I have with these people that seem so promising but then go nowhere are the last lifeline that is available to Sam.

We’d spent months compiling masses of medical documentation from Sam’s psychologist and GP, submitted it to Centrelink, and after a two month wait we received…a five-figure debt notice. Once I’d managed to yelp a panicked request down the phoneline I was told to ‘just ignore it.’ This was back when the phones still worked, of course. Then, finally Sam had a phone interview a few days before Christmas. We chatted to a friendly older lady for about twenty minutes and two weeks later the letter arrived: CLAIM REJECTED.

Apparently the opinion of a genial Centrelink employee who has never met him holds more validity than the shared medical opinions of his doctor and psychologist. I felt as though I’d doubled in mass, it became harder to transport the weight of my own body from one place to the next. For a few weeks, I felt anger and depression bubbling away beneath my skin. The slightest irritation would set me to screaming. I was embarrassed at my anger, and angry about my embarrassment. The thing I feared most- ending up in the same state as Sam – seemed like it was coming closer to reality by the very act of trying to help him.

I saw a counsellor of my own, vomited the whole story in a rapid stream as soon as she shut the door. I sobbed breathlessly for a couple of minutes, the first time I’d cried in front of a stranger in decades. She told me “You should have started seeing someone sooner, this is too much for one person to deal with on their own.”

Finally, my name is called. I push the memories of the past few months away and approach the desk. The lady there greets me with a warm smile, and asks me for the password for Sam’s file. I panic. He stopped checking mail and email years ago, as a result I’d had to reset all of his accounts; email, Medicare, Centrelink, phone. I have dozens of passwords stored in a folder at home. She looks at me expectantly.

“I don’t know, I can’t remember it.” She frowns.

“I’m sorry, I can’t help you if you don’t know what it is.” I feel like setting things on fire, smashing chairs through windows, jumping from the nearest rooftop. I look at her in utter disbelief, close to crying for the second time today. Then I say,

“I have ID?”

“Oh yes! That’s fine too.”

I deflate with relief and hand her my driver’s license. She tells me that the claim is taking so long because it’s with the complex assessors. I tell her that we were informed that even though the disability claim had been rejected, we could reapply and in the meantime, Sam would be able to access Newstart. Until the claim is approved he can’t get a healthcare card and therefore can’t get medication. Apparently, one of the reasons his claim was rejected was because ‘he hasn’t consistently stayed on medication long enough.’ He can’t get medication until his claim is approved. But he can’t get his claim approved until he’s been on medication.

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While I confess a great fondness for Kafka’s novels, I honestly never thought I’d end up inside one of them. She tells me she’ll attend to it personally, I’ll hear from her in a few days. I say thanks, exit into the blazing heat of the afternoon and walk the several blocks back to where my car is semi-illegally parked.

Everything on the radio annoys me, even the songs I usually love. The question that keeps buzzing furiously in my brain is this; I’m a well-educated, well-resourced Australian citizen who speaks English as a first language, if navigating Centrelink’s diabolical labyrinth is this harrowing for someone like me, how the hell does someone with limited English and/or education manage to make it out alive?

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I compose this little reflection in my head as I drive, feeling guilty for not having made a follow-up appointment with my therapist. The problem is; writing is much cheaper and more convenient than therapy. The news comes on. People are talking about how the Prime Minister has been yelling at his opponent, calling him a sycophant. The newscaster talks about the head of Australia Post earning over five million dollars last year. Much like the haggard, frustrated occupants of the office I’ve just left, these two receive their income from tax dollars. If men like this had to go through the same Kafkaesque nightmare as Centrelink clients to get paid, I wonder how quickly the systemic infrastructure problems would get fixed?

Killing Adonis reviews, Youtube views and some new news.

DKL Killing Adonis FINAL

Great news everybody! The first reviews for the US release of Killing Adonis have come in and they are the literary equivalent of a proud teacher sticking millions of gold stars over a student’s face. Extremely excited to announce I have even managed to score a coveted Kirkus Star, which makes you temporarily invincible (like in Mario Kart). Also this means I’m in the running for the Kirkus prize, which is also good. Publisher’s Weekly Review also said some very kind and ego-inflating things about it, which was awfully kind of them. This reviewer even called it ‘this year’s most mind-blowing and droll crime fiction book’. 

It’s now available worldwide in bulletproof* hardcover and paperback from Amazon, Poisoned Pen Press and all good bookstores (as well as some of the bad ones). Amusingly, I haven’t actually received my author copies of the US edition yet so if one of you could let me know how it feels, tastes and smells that would be great.

ALSO, people keep asking  me when I’m going to put up more videos of some of my poetry performance. Unfortunately I hate being filmed and photographed. I once had a photographer tell me “The camera loves you JD! Actually, no it doesn’t. But I’m a great photographer so these’ll still be good.” However, the good folks at Word Travels recorded me performing at the Sydney Opera House last year and those videos are now online at last. The second one is even swearing free, fun for the whole family!**

*Bullet resistant

**Except racist uncle Todd, but no one likes him anyway.


 

2017.

JANUARY 1st

You rise from your bed, shaking the embers of a hangover from your addled brain, look in the mirror and say “Well, this is it. This is going to be MY YEAR.”
“Fucking excuse me?” You turn around, 2017 looks very unimpressed.
“Oh! Hey there, I didn’t mean—“
“You don’t own me.” 
“No, of course not! It’s just that, 2016 was awful and I’m hoping for a big change. This is the year I better myself.” 2017 grimaces, takes a step closer.
“So you want to build a cathedral to yourself on the ruins of my dead sister, that it?”
“No, you’ve got me all wrong! Like, I want to IMPROVE myself. I’m going to do a juice cleanse!”

2017 snorts reproachfully and says, “A juice cleanse? I mean, to begin with, maybe don’t take your health advice from models unless you’re going to also take make-up advice from your GP, but you’ve got a whole world teetering on the verge of widespread destruction and you think downing some liquefied kale is going to shake things up? Get a grip.”

“Hey, listen! I care about The World! I even, like, remember last year I raised awareness for—“
2017 throws its head back and laughs. “FUCK raising awareness. Raise funds. Raise fists. Raise your consciousness. Raze the palaces of the institutions that perpetuate the cycles of poverty and suffering to the ground. It’s all this fucking half-stepping that got you here in the first place. What else is on your list?”

You steel yourself, stand up straight, clear your throat and say, “2017, you are the year I finally quit smoking.” It nods in approval and strokes its chin,
“Yeah, fair enough. That’s a good one. I should do that too. I’m only nine hours old and I’m already smoking like Dante’s Inferno. That it?”

“Well, okay, I think you’ll like this one. This year I aim to be More Present.” 2017 manifests the physical representation of the concept of a wall for the express purpose of smashing its face into. It turns to you, nose bloody, and says, “Well, yeah, fucking for sure spend less time on Facebook and be more present, but maybe it’s time to put your face in a book and read some history? You’re all bumbling around like Cause and Effect are completely new concepts. ‘Oh look, we bombed this country and they’re angry at us for some reason! I hope they don’t retaliate like every single country that’s ever been bombed!’ It’s pretty embarrassing frankly.”

You stare down at the ground, saying nothing. 2017 sighs and says, “Look, sorry if I was a little harsh. I’m only brand new. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of year I’m going to be.” 2017 reaches its hand out to you, a hand that you instinctively sense could either crush or caress you. 
“That’s okay. I forgive you. Hey! You wanna go get Fro-yo?” 2017 frowns and says,
“I can’t, I’m lactose intolerant.”

100 books a year part 2: the bad and the weird

 

THE BAD

TheWaterKnife-PaoloBacigalupiTHE WATER KNIFE

First off, I have to say the concept here was admittedly great. A criminal underclass emerging to illegally distribute water is sadly a very believable near future and this aspect was well executed. There’s a scene where the pricing gauge on a commercial water pump breaks and the characters desperately try to siphon as much as they can that is incredibly tense and terrifying on a very primal level. Unfortunately, the characters and dialogue in this book are so unbearably awful that a fantastic backdrop is completely ruined by the actors maladroitly prancing around in front of it. Climate fiction (cli-fi) is a fascinating new genre, but this is not its best exponent.

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THE DIVER’S CLOTHES LIE EMPTY

Second person narratives like this are hard to get right, which is why they are so rarely used (particularly in novel-length stories). I think Tom Robbins pulled it off in Half Asleep in Frog Pyjamas but that was a rare feat. There’s some interesting character study here, but the character also makes a bunch of decisions that are just implausible and irrational. Also, I found it problematic that a book set in Morocco depicts just about all of the Moroccan characters as deceitful and untrustworthy. One bonus: the cover was designed by the graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, who I absolutely adore.

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THRONE OF GLASS

This year at Supanova I had a catchup with my publicist and we stopped to talk to some of the other Pantera authors who were appearing there. Seated next to them was Sarah J. Maas, facing a legion of zealous fans queuing for her signature. I wasn’t familiar with her work, but I picked up a copy to see what the fuss was about. I have to say, it really didn’t speak to me. I know this series has a devout, passionate following (and I love seeing readers so invested in stories) but to me it read like sub-par fan fiction. The characters were one-dimensional and the dialogue was bland. I hear Sarah is a really nice person though so I feel guilty for not enjoying her work more.

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ELANTRIS

I first heard about this series in a Tor.com article examining Sanderson’s vast multiverse known as the cosmere. The concept sounded fascinating and a quick search revealed a vast legion of fans avidly discussing his works and their interweaving narratives. I was also impressed with how prolific he was. However, while I loved the setting itself and the central concept, the execution was really disappointing. I have no doubt it would make a fantastic film, but the clunky writing made it a slog to get through. Plus, it’s over 600 pages and the story felt like it needed 400 at most.

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ELEANOR & PARK

I’m realising as I type that this is the third universally adored book in a row that I hated this year. I swear I’m not trying to be a contrarian! I will admit that I like to read widely outside of my own immediate interests and sometimes this means that I don’t really connect with the subject matter. Obviously, I am way outside the target audience for this book (a YA romance). I have to admit I thought Eleanor was a great, complex, interesting character. I also really enjoyed all the musical references. However, the classic YA trope of ‘characters create problems for no obvious reason other than to shape narrative drama’ was chronically over-employed in this one. There was plenty to work with in terms of drama without Eleanor & Park trying to out-angst one another. All that said, Rowell’s twitter feed is pretty great.

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WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE

Like an estimated 99.99995684% of people who have read this book, I am a fan of the deliciously outré podcast. The humour is outlandish and brilliant, and each episode manages to be funny and entertaining in new and surprising ways, which precisely why this book was so disappointing. Although some of the trademark humour was there, eg.

“The search for truth takes us to dangerous places,” said Old Woman Josie. “Often it takes us to that most dangerous place: the library. You know who said that? No? George Washington did. Minutes before librarians ate him.”

Sadly, the plot was meandering and meaningless and the writers inexplicably chose to focus on uninteresting sideline characters rather than those from the podcast, which makes little/no sense. I found this boring and pointless.

THE WEIRD

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THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES

A Little Life was one of my favourite books last year, I found it hard to believe it was even written by a human rather than some sort of consortium of divine superintelligent interdimensional species. Obviously I was keen to immediately check out Yanagihara’s other work. This book was…very different. It’s a sort of anthropological sci-fi about a researcher who travels to a secret island and studies a lost tribe who have gained immortality through ingesting the flesh of a rare turtle. It’s also about sex. And violence. And guilt. And responsibility. It’s a weird book, and not so earth-shatteringly brilliant as A Little Life, but definitely worth checking out.

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ZERO K

I’m currently drafting a novel about a cult that’s obsessed with cryonic technology. When I found out that Don Delillo was releasing a novel focused on similar subject matter I was equal parts proud (I’ve tapped into the zeitgeist! I think on similar lines to one of the greatest writers of the modern era!) and terrified (I’m too late! This story has already been written by one of the greatest writers of the modern era!) Luckily, this book is nothing like my own, so after my fear of lawsuits subsided I was able to enjoy this bizarre and brilliant story. Delillo’s recent work lacks the dry wit of his earlier writing but his strange, sparse prose is as brilliant as ever. He has this knack for writing dialogue that is completely unrealistic but somehow seems to sit perfectly within the framework of his narrative. I recently read Pynchon’s latest book, Bleeding Edge, and there were a lot of similarities in terms of style and execution between these two luminary post-modernists.

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THE RAPTURE OF THE NERDS

Rather than writing any kind of reflection, I’m just going to offer up some sample text:

I’m not my polygons. Physical coercion is a dead letter here. If you want to get something out of me, you’re going to have to try harder than that. For example, you could try for a quorum of administrative accounts to decompile me and examine my state and logfiles. Though, I have to tell you, the admins aren’t kindly disposed to noobs who go supergenius and multiplicitous without regard for the overall system performance, so you’ve got a lot of digging to do just to get up to zero credibility. 

See what I mean?

 

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THE VEGETARIAN

You know, I was all finished with this post and was about to hit ‘publish’ on Friday when I got called away and never got around to it. Then over the weekend I read the Vegetarian. I’m not sure what to say about it other than it was both one of the strangest and best books I’ve read this year. Extremely dark, unflinchingly bizarre and yet so poetically, hypnotically beautiful. Someone else hurry up and read this so we can talk about it please.

PS If you want to add my books to your list, you can grab them here. Killing Adonis is on sale for just TEN BUCKS HOLY WHAT?!?

PPS People always say to me: “How do you read 100+ books a year? That’s IMPOSSIBLE!” It’s really not. Here’s a few tips.

100 books a year 2016 part one: The Good

2016 has been an uncommonly awful year, luckily it’s in its final death throes. As we listen to its final hideous gasps and groans, perhaps it’s time to think about how we got to this terrible, stupid place. I would argue that the two underlying concepts that brought us here are lack of education and lack of empathy. You know what you can do to address that? Read more books. Tell your friends to read more books. On that note, I thought I’d write up some of the standout books I read this year; the good, the bad and the weird.

Here’s part one: THE GOOD.

150709_SBR_Coates-COVER.jpg.CROP.original-originalBETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

This was the first book I read this year, penned by MacArthur genius grant winner Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a thoughtful, rich and intelligent exploration of America’s long and troubled struggle with racial injustice. Told in the form of a letter to his son, Between the World and Me is beautiful, tragic and hugely important. I found so much of what he described to be unfortunately paralleled here in Australia with the racial injustice towards our indigenous people. Fun fact: Coates now writes Black Panther comics.

 

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HOW TO SET A FIRE AND WHY

I saw Jesse Ball speak at Avid reader earlier this year and found him supernaturally strange and fascinating. This novel, his latest, is brilliant and insightful. The narrator’s voice and observations are vivid and revealing, alternating from hilariously sardonic to bleak and philosophical. After I read this I picked up everything else he’d written, the man is a stone cold genius.

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THIS ISLAND WILL SINK

I was excited to see Lifted Brow publishing release their first novel, and this one did not disappoint. We read this for my book club and I absolutely loved it. It was strange and confusing in all the best ways. I’m thrilled to see more intelligent, complex genre fiction coming out of Australia. MORE OF THIS PLEASE.

 

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VIGIL

Speaking of intelligent genre fiction…I am a sucker for books set in Brisbane, and this one was a real gem. I managed to win a free copy (even though I get a lot of books for free these days, it never stops being exciting) and loved this story set in a strange, supernatural version of Brisbane. Part detective noir, part supernatural thriller, wholly entertaining. Looking forward to the sequel.

 

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JUST MERCY

I first heard Bryan Stevenson speak on one of my favourite podcasts, Criminal. I found him hypnotic. This book is not just a study of the legal system in America, but a complex exploration of the concepts of justice, morality and redemption. The line ‘each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done’ stuck with me so much I wrote a short story inspired by it (should be out next year, hopefully). Like Coates, Stevenson is also a MacArthur genius grant recipient. His TED talk is here.

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VANCOUVER

One of Brisbane’s best loved writers has recently turned his attention to novellas. The first two in the Wisdom Tree series, Gotham and Venice, were both great but this is by far my favourite. Telling the story of the unlikely friendship between a writer and a gigantic footballer turned professor, I loved the way this story felt both magical and utterly grounded in reality in the same time.

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THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN

I first became interested in this book when I read it had topped the most censored books in American libraries list. This book was banned primarily because it contained drug references, swearing and references to masturbation. This content was judged to be inappropriate for its target audience; teenage boys. Of course, if you’ve ever spoken to or been a teenage boy, you’ll know that drugs, swearing and masturbation are completely foreign concepts to them. In any case, this book is incredible, Alexie is also a poet and this shows in his writing which is in turns coarse and lyrical. One of the few books I’ve read that really captures that strange, bewildering era of adolescence, and in important insight into the numerous injustices and difficulties endured by Native Americans.

 

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ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY

I found Anders’ work through her work for i09, which used to be a pretty great website but these days is pretty average. Nevertheless, I read this whilst drinking cheap beer on a rooftop in Seville, and I would definitely make that a ‘serving suggestion’ for this and every other book ever written. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but the humour was great and I loved the authenticity of the relationships between the characters. It referenced and toyed with a bunch of classic sci-fi/fantasy tropes and it had fantastic dialogue. If this isn’t made into a movie then Hollywood should die in a fire. (To be fair, Hollywood really should die in a fire.)

 

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THE MIND’S EYE

It was bittersweet reading this book so soon after Sacks’ death. I heard a friend describe him as ‘my favourite mind’ and I think that sums it up perfectly. There are precious few writers who can describe complex medical concepts in a manner that is so fascinating and captivating. Also, I learned in this book that Oliver Sacks had face blindness, which I always thought was a ridiculous thing that Arrested Development invented but turns out to be real. The world is a strange and stupid place.

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THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES

I loved the way this book examined everyday people in difficult circumstances in such real, palpable detail. Tempest charts each character back to their parents and their childhoods, something which I really think more authors should do, and brings us to their current, damaged states. Probably the best ‘this is the way things are right now and it’s terrible but we could fix it if we stopped being such jerks all the time’ novel I’ve read this year. I realise that’s not a genre, but it bloody well should be. Her album Everybody Down tells the same story in a more hip-hop format. It’s very good, but her most recent offering Let Them Eat Chaos is THE BEST.

I’ll be back next week* with part two: The Bad and the Weird.

PS If you want to add my books to your list, you can grab them here. Killing Adonis is on sale for just TEN BUCKS HOLY WHAT?!?

PPS People always say to me: “How do you read 100 books a year? That’s IMPOSSIBLE!” It’s really not. Here’s a few tips.

 

*or later if I have a lot of laundry/editing. 

 

 

Inaugural happy Xmas/holidays/ Hanukkah/ thankgod2016isnearlydead sale!!!!

Dearest humanfolk,

Like most rational people, I have a firm policy of telling Xmas to SHUT UP until December. Now that it actually is December, let’s talk about shiny happy things!

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I’m having my inaugural happy Xmas/Hanukkah/thankgod2016isnearlydead sale! My last novel, Killing Adonis, is now available for just TEN cashmoneydollarbucks! That’s even less than a bar of Jesus Soap.

Killing Adonis is about to have its North American release, and it recently picked up a Kirkus Star (one of my top five favourite stars, right behind Sirius A and Sirius B). In exchange for 10 measly dollars (please do not send dollars infected with measles) I will throw a copy at you, signed and inscribed however you like.

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You can also grab any of my other books. If you don’t love them, I will refund your purchase!* What could be better than a book for Xmas? Well, a robot dinosaur I guess. Or a time machine. Maybe some sort of mystical gauntlet. But apart from that basically nothing.

HAPPY XMAS OR WHATEVER HOLIDAY THING YOU DO OR DON’T BELIEVE IN!

*All refunds attract a processing charge of $50 per book.

Six Cold Feet audition callout

For the last few months I’ve been working on the script for a project called Six Cold Feet with the luminously talented actor/producer Jessica McGaw. We are now beginning the overwhelmingly wondrous and wondrously overwhelming process of casting. We’re really excited about this project, and it’ll be a really fun and easy recording process for the cast. You won’t even need to worry about spending hours in hair and make-up or weird costumes or anything! You can show up to record in your pjs if you want.

We’re looking for male and female actors across a variety of ages for the different roles. Full brief and contact details are below. I look forward to hearing your vocal wizardry.

broken guitar

This project will take the form of a ten-episode fiction podcast told in the style of ‘found audio’ (the audio equivalent of a found footage movie).

The story follows the disappearance of a musician and her brother’s attempts to find and help her. He interviews friends and family, uploading recordings to their band’s website in the hope that fans will help find her. As the series progresses the audience begins to realise that he is an unreliable narrator and there is a lot more to his family and the town they live in than he is willing to reveal.

When he finally finds his sister, she confronts him about of his distorted version of reality, and he is forced to either leave the world he knows behind or surrender to delusion.

Six Cold Feet is set in rural QLD and will be presented with a soundtrack of both old blues songs that mirror the themes of tragedy in music and the tortured artist as well as original recordings made by the cast. It is inspired by the mystery and mythology surrounding musicians such as Robert Johnson, Syd Barrett, Kurt Cobain, Nina Simone and Janis Joplin.

This project is profit share and after costs are recouped, actors will be paid based on their time commitment, size of role and rehearsal attendance.

If you would like to audition, please email jess_mcgaw@hotmail.com to receive a cast list and excerpts.

Let’s talk freely about free speech (for free).

Hello, I’m very angry! Are you angry? Fair enough, there’s plenty to be angry about. Sometimes when people are angry they say things which they shouldn’t. Not shouldn’t as in ‘you are not permitted to do that particular thing’ but shouldn’t as in ‘it would really be in everyone’s best interest if you didn’t do that particular thing.’ Often – especially when they’re afraid – people say hurtful, hateful and racist things. Typically, immediately after that parcel of word-vomit has finished emancipating itself from their mouths they yelp ‘But I’m not a racist and anyway I have a right to free speech!’

There seems to be a lot of confusion about free speech. This is understandable, given that there are in fact many different types of free. Facebook claims to be ‘free’ because it doesn’t charge you money, but it does take all of your information and all of your friends’ information and sells that data thus profiting from the intrusion of your privacy- something that you should be a lot angrier about but aren’t because you’re busy being furious with people because who have varying levels of skin pigmentation. Stores often advertise ‘buy our overpriced plastic consumer goods to fill that empty chasm in your life and receive a FREE GIFT!!!!’ but this makes no sense because gifts are by definition free and if a purchase is required than the object in question is not actually a gift, it’s just another thing.

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*requires blood sample, bank details, your firstborn child and a collection of three years’ worth of belly lint.

Given that the idea of ‘free’ is so poorly understood it’s no surprise that some people seem to have a grasp of the concept of ‘free speech’ that is as shaky as a shake weight in an earthquake in Kelis’ yard. Let’s have a quick refresher on how free speech works:

1 You ejaculate a garbled string of wordsounds from your mouth-hole.

2 People respond with their own wordsound ejaculations.

They may agree, disagree, disrespect, expand, expound, expectorate, proselytise, prattle, protest or drop a sick beatbox beat. It’s up to them! This part is actually as important as the first part because if only one opinion was permitted then this would not be free speech.

If you like you can say something hurtful to someone. Or, if you’re particularly adventurous, to an entire group of people, an entire race even! It’s not against the law. HOWEVER, that’s not to say it isn’t wrong. I could cheat on my girlfriend and it wouldn’t be against the law but it would be a pretty horrible thing to do and also quite difficult because very few people are sexually attracted to me and besides who even has the time for an affair? I barely have time to do laundry. So if you want to say something horrible and racist and your excuse is ‘IT’S NOT AGAINST THE LAW!’ you might want to try a fun game called shutting up and/or jumping in a  cobra pit.

cobra pit

Hey guys, I didn’t mean it like that! Some of my best friends belong to class reptilia suborder serpentes family elapidae!

For argument’s sake let’s say you’re really super keen on forging ahead with wanting to say awful things to people, quite possibly because your world view is as sophisticated as that of an an encephalitic mountain weasel. It’s important that you remember the thing that comes after speech, which is almost always ‘more speech.’ If you say a thing, let’s say for example a racist thing, there is an astronomically high chance that someone will call you a racist. This is because you have said a racist thing. Often this is called ’cause and effect’ or ‘calling a spade a spade’ or sometimes ‘uncle Larry’s had too many tinnies and is going on about the Japanese again…’

People will respond thusly because:

free speech = the right to share your opinions and ideas

free speech ≠ the right to share your opinions and ideas without recrimination or response

If you say something which is empirically false and someone replies ‘You are wrong,’ this is not an ‘attack on free speech,’ it is an act of free speech. If you vomit wordsounds that stereotype, persecute or vilify an entire race then people will call you racist because you have said a racist thing, this is also an act of free speech. You might defend yourself by claiming to be a ‘patriot’ or ‘free thinker’ (there’s that word again!) but neither of those terms are applicable in this scenario. Similarly, if you frequently set fire to things because watching objects consumed by flame fills you with malicious, destructive glee, it is likely that someone might comment: ‘You sir/madam, are an arsonist!’ You may object and say ‘That is inaccurate! I am merely a person who places fire on things and if those things burn it is not my fault the blame lies with said things for possessing flammable properties!’ However, you will be not only incorrect but also the textbook definition of an arsonist because you have repeatedly committed arson.

Pyro_(St._John_Allerdyce)

I’m not an arsonist, I’m just a combustion enthusiast!’

Thus if you would like to not be called a racist the easiest way is not to do or say racist things. That way, we can all have the right to free speech without necessarily invoking it in order to spread hate. I’m a big fan of free speech,  a hardcore fan, a superfan. I want to bribe security to get into its greenrom and have it sign my nipples. In this country I’ve been able to say things in books, magazines, blog posts, poems, songs and on stages that in plenty of other places would have seen me arrested or possibly killed. That’s not something I take lightly, which is exactly why we should use free speech as an important tool in the continuing evolution of our shared knowledge and understanding, rather than as a crutch for justifying linguistic vitriol.

Agree, disagree? Great! I look forward to hearing your affirmations, remonstrations and sick beatbox beats.

 

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