Lazy Luddite Log


Descriptive Fiction Versus Creative Non-Fiction

Sometimes working as a note-taker for special needs students in tertiary institutions can be educational. I get exposed to all sort of information that I may never have come across otherwise. And sometimes that info puts names to things I am only somewhat aware of.

In one case I was informed of something called 'creative non-fiction'. In creative non-fiction a journalist presents facts-based news utilizing narrative forms. I realized that I had read many such items. They often follow the format of a sort of 'news sandwich in anecdotal bread'. The piece will start and end with describing the experience of a person facing a particular issue. In between these the substantive content describing the issue itself will be given. This is supposed to draw the reader in by making the information more personal. It is something they can better relate to than just arguments and statistics. It allows them to connect with those facing the problems arising from the issue under discussion.

Personally I find this frustrating. I simply want to be given the substantive information right away. I would prefer if the anecdote was presented as a case study in a separate text box. I can apply the information to human experience myself thanks very much.

Becoming aware of creative non-fiction suddenly got me thinking of another mode of writing that reverses its characteristics and that I have long been a fan of. I shall call it 'descriptive fiction'. It presents imaginary persons and scenarios but in an detached and academic way. There are plenty of instances of this and I will enthuse over just two.

One is the Appendices in The Lord Of The Rings (1955) which are a fantastic example of descriptive fiction. One of the appeals of Middle Earth has always been the sense that it is a complete world that exists well beyond the confines of the narrative itself. The appendices bolster this by providing scholarly discussion of the history, culture and language of the setting and its inhabitants. You have to be in the right mood for it but sometimes I am and it can be fascinating. This was influential and definitely affected how I went onto describe my own fantasy setting.

The other is the science fiction art compilations edited by Stewart Cowley (aka Steven Caldwell) that attach the work of several artists to the one setting of the Terran Trade Authority and Galactic Encounters (1978-1980) books. The texts describe the growth of a stellar confederation in our local cluster. They are written as guidebooks and in childhood I found this a persuasive way to present a fantastic future. Mind you even then I could tell that something was amiss. The text would apply the name of a particular alien species to two artworks depicting beings that were only vaguely similar. Like a 'jukebox musical' the editor did his best to make a jigsaw fit with a hammer. These books are worth it however for the pulp art. They present space tech as full of colour and curves. Movies and television at the time focused on grey-scale tones and utilitarian shapes. It took over a decade for innovative shows like Babylon-5 (1994-1997) to bring a more lurid and sensual look into science fiction multi-media.

I have my preferences but both these hybridized forms of writing serve a purpose and connect with different audience temperaments. I'm happy to now have names for both creative non-fiction and descriptive fiction.

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Too Old For Telepathy

The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe (1980) tells how the inhabitants of the planet Kakrafoon were afflicted with the condition of Telepathy and...

Consequently, in order to prevent themselves broadcasting every slightest thought that crossed their minds to anyone within a five mile radius, they had to talk very loudly and continuously about the weather, their little aches and pains, the match this afternoon and what a noisy place Kakrafoon had suddenly become.
- Douglas Adams

As a kid this passage puzzled me because I had always regarded the concept of telepathy as a super power rather than as an affliction. Here it was presented as a punishment rather than a privilege. But I have more recently come to understand this satirical observation. We now have a simulation of telepathy delivered to us by the Internet and sometimes the cacophony of thoughts and feelings projected by hundreds of peers can be maddening.

There is a very British assumption underlying the behaviour described on Kakrafoon, in which one wishes to mask some feelings by drawing attention to others. In reality I think that, given the chance, many of us like to share all manner of things, from the trivial to the profound. Our ability to share has now evolved to a new level thanks to communications technology.

Everyone has opinions on the pros and cons of this development. There is also a tendency to fall into polarized camps. If 'they' attack a medium that ‘we’ feel enriches our lives then we will respond by denying that there can be any problems at all with it. We then try and suggest that it is as fine as any older and more accepted form of media.

Every medium can produce its own problems but also bring with it the solution to those same problems. The ancient invention of writing allegedly limited human memory but, as long as we have written records, this loss of some primeval memory capacity hardly matters. There may be problems during the transition from one form of behaviour to another, however, and maybe those who are most affected are the ones who were best adapted to the older ways.

Television was always part of my life and thus I have been its defender. I scoffed at the wowsers who criticized it for supposedly making us absent-minded or jittery or violent. But maybe TV can have some impact and of a different sort from what critics say. Violent shows may result in us becoming more scared than dangerous. This fits a world in which violence has reduced in recent decades but perceptions of violence seem to have grown. The gritty 'realism' of TV fiction since the 90s may have something to do with this.

However any potential impact of television was once limited by its lack of presence in our everyday lives. In my youth we only ever got to see television if we were at home in the living room (or in our bedrooms for the more consumerist among us). Most TVs were too cumbersome to be used in transit or while at school or work.
But now we have the Internet and, rather than just the latest in a succession of different kinds of media, it is in fact an ever-present collection of all kinds of media rolled into one. You can read a virtual book or watch TV or play games on it. You can do all this at home or on the train or at your desk. Is this a problem? Will the small impacts of the past grow as we are exposed to multi-media more than we ever have been? The only prudent answer to that question is to say it is far too soon to say because this is a very new phenomenon.

The development that concerns me the most now is the very thing I feel is also the best aspect of the Internet – communication. We can stay in contact with friends. We can make new friends from far away. We can tap into forms of community that fit us better than the accidental community of our neighbourhoods. And with all this comes the ‘telepathy’ I refer to. Is it a super power or an affliction? I feel both at times.

I say it is maddening but it is also addictive. I desire my fix of what everyone is saying and many times a day. It can get too much for me however. Every mind is unique and all this overlapping of minds can be hectic for just one mind to digest. Do they truly think or feel that and if so why am I so different? Who has the more skewed perspective? The mess of perception becomes so much more messy in the setting of something like Facebook.

But should I then assume this is a problem for all? Or should I factor my age (and my luddite tendency) into this? I only encountered the Internet as a young adult and its more mobile and media-encompassing form as a mature adult. In contrast younger generations (or more tech-savvy persons) will be far more adapted to it. They will surely be in a better position to cope with the problem I describe. And as it shapes them they will also shape it to better fit them.

I’m the one who has issues with an ever-present Internet and so it is my responsibility to find solutions to my personal problem. And I have been working on it. For one thing I never changed over to accessing the Internet on a smartphone. If I want to go online I have to find something larger than pocket-sized. This I can do at home, at public libraries, and at the dwindling number of Internet cafes.

Another thing I do is restrict how much I spend on any one part of the Internet by moving from website to website. And I then try to make each site serve a distinct purpose. I will discuss politics at news opinion pages, comment on music or movies at YouTube, and chat about everything and nothing with friends on Facebook.

But I will also limit what I am exposed to on FB. There is a lot of talk these days of how we are all ensconced in ‘echo chambers’ and I too have limited exposure to diverse opinions. But what I’m more interested in limiting is moods that are too different from mine. I can only tolerate so much of the incessant gloom that seems to define the perceptions of some. And that is a personal form of self-care rather than a judgement of others. We all have to do things to fit our own emotional states.

I suppose the protocols described are my way of making this ‘telepathy’ something that can work for me as I get older. I’m happy it is something I can selectively walk away from. It would be far more difficult to live with fictional telepathy (like the kind described in this novelette of mine).



HeroQuest Homebrew

It has always struck me as odd that my favourite medieval fantasy role-play game is American rather than European. Surely the Europeans would do a genre usually set in an analogue of Europe better than the Yanks. It may just be that Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was in the right place and time for teenaged me to discover it. Mind you, I was reading Fighting Fantasy solo game-books, a UK product, a few years before I encountered D&D, so there may be more to it than that. I somehow never got into the other fantasy role-play games on offer, however, I also changed my version of D&D rules so much that it may as well be another game.

Anyway, this post is about a fantasy boardgame that I’m into called HeroQuest and it is British. You can tell because it has odd monsters in it called Fimir. I think the biggest attraction of HeroQuest is its many lovely plastic figurines and miniature furniture. I had it sitting and gathering dust for ages but then one day decided to use it in my recently retired D&D game as a quick-and-dirty aid to developing and revealing a dungeon to my players. Following that, I decided it would be fun to play a game or two and so did that with some friends.

On that first occasion we used the standard HeroQuest rules except for one small advisory I made to the players. There are four sets of spell cards in the game that loosely correspond to the four classical elements. The rules instruct the Wizard player to choose the first set and the Elf to choose the second set. The final two sets are then allocated to the Wizard. However, my advice was for the Elf to make sure to choose either Water or Earth. Only these two sets have one healing spell each and my advice results in two players, assuming both spell-casters are played, having that spell to cast, which I think is better practice for the whole party.

I feel that this one small protocol also shifts the four original adventurers in the game into the four standard roles in D&D. Naturally the Barbarian is a Warrior and the Wizard is a Mage. The Dwarf has the skill of finding and disarming traps and so arguably works as a Rogue. And as long as they can heal one could imagine the Elf as a priestly character.

On The Equivalence Of Religion And Magic

This is hardly a universal model. The distinction between combat and stealth specialists (warriors and rogues) is one we can see across many forms of fiction and history. However the separation of magical and religious experts in D&D is something of a forced one.

In human history the religious practices of foreigners have often been interpreted as magic. The powers-that-be grant the status of religion to those beliefs they approve of and stigmatize as magic those beliefs they oppose (or in more recent and secular times magic is trivialized as silly and wholly fantastic). But spell-casters and workers-of-miracles belong to the same category.

I should embrace that realization but have somehow been conditioned by D&D to enjoy the distinction between mage and cleric. Patterns absorbed in youth are powerful and, in this case, safely confined to a recreational part of my life. And recently in my playing of HeroQuest I have gone beyond the dichotomy by expanding the concept of magico-religious specialists from two to four.

New Characters And Rules

In subsequent game sessions of HeroQuest I tested some new rules that allow for playing with an additional four characters. For a while I have possessed four pewter miniatures and decided to add these to the original four terra-cotta toned plastic figurines. I rarely use such accessories in D&D but they are nifty and I had deliberately assembled a party of feminine miniatures to contrast with the prevailing notion of adventure as a masculine pursuit.

The new HeroQuest characters I developed for these miniatures were the Guardian, the Whistler, the Templar and the Sorceress. Even just finding names for them was fun. These expanded rules, described here, allow use of the new characters and modify the existing characters to reflect the larger potential adventuring party.

* The Barbarian has the combat skill of Damage Transference. If he slays an opponent with less than the damage he rolled then the excess damage automatically transfers to another opponent standing adjacent (vertically or horizontally) to the opponent just slain. This reflects the action image of a great sword passing through one monster and lodging into another.

* The Dwarf is mechanically adept and thus can disarm traps as in the original rules. And now the Dwarf rolls 1 extra Defence Die in facing Fimir due to his experience in fighting these oversized brutes.

* The Elf gets 'starter spells' of the Water set. The only way the Elf can get more spells than this is if he expends 1 Mind to retain a spell just cast (see Magic Rules). And now the Elf rolls 1 extra Defence die in facing Goblins and Orcs due to long experience of resisting these creatures.

* The Wizard gets the 'starter spells' of the Fire set. Following that the Wizard can draw six random extra spells from the Well of Magic. He can also expend 1 Mind to retain a spell just cast (see Magic Rules).

And here are some new champions.

* The Guardian is described thus…

‘You are the Guardian. Your armour is resilient and the speed of your sword-arm is renowned. You are a brave defender of peace and justice in the realm.’

She has the following statistics:

Attack - 2 dice
Defence - 3 dice
Movement - 2 dice
Mind - 3 Points
Body - 7 Points

The Guardian has the combat skill of Divided Attack. She can nominate to make two attacks of half damage value. If (as is usually the case) she attacks with 2 dice she can now attack twice for 1 dice each. If she has had her attack enhanced by magical item then two attacks can be made with the dice divided as evenly as the number allows.

* The Whistler is described thus…

‘You are the Whistler, a daring and flamboyant swashbuckler who is at home both in city tavern or wilderness ruin. Your music gives you the almost magical ability to interpret echoes but beware what it brings you.’

She has the following statistics:

Attack - 2 dice
Defence - 2 dice
Movement - 2 dice
Mind - 3 Points
Body - 7 Points

The Whistler has the skill of Echoing Melody. She can nominate to play her flute while in a corridor. Her awareness of the echoing of her lilting tune off surfaces allows her to detect monsters or objects around the closest corner she is facing. She can tell how many monsters or objects are there. She can also tell if they are moving (likely a monster) or still (likely some object). She can also tell if they are small (Goblins and Skeletons) or medium (Orcs, Zombies, Evil Mage) or Large (Fimir, Mummies, Chaos Warriors, Gargoyle). There is a draw-back to this ability however in that there is a 1 in 3 chance that each monster thus detected will now move towards the Whistler on hearing her music. Secret traps and doors cannot be detected by this ability.

* The Templar is described thus…

‘You are the Templar, a crusader for all that is sacred. Others see you as a moral guiding light with her feet firmly planted on the ground. You lose all composure, however, in facing the Undead, which you must attack with ferocity.’

She has the following statistics:

Attack - 2 dice
Defence - 2 dice
Movement - 2 dice
Mind - 4 Points
Body - 6 Points

The Templar gets the 'starter spells' of the Earth set. The only way the Templar can get more spells than this is if she expends 1 Mind to retain a spell just cast (see Magic Rules). Also she gets 1 extra damage die in attacking Undead but must attack any she encounters.

* The Sorceress is described thus…

‘You are the Sorceress, naturally-attuned to things beyond mortal ken. You cast a host of spells with flair and grace, but beware the thick of battle, for it may be your undoing.’

She has the following statistics:

Attack - 1 die
Defence - 2 dice
Movement - 2 dice
Mind- 5 Points
Body - 5 Points

The Sorceress gets the 'starter spells' of the Air set. Following that the Sorceress can draw six random extra spells from the Well of Magic. She can also expend 1 Mind to retain a spell just cast (see Magic Rules).

* Magic Rules

Give particular characters starter spells as follows...

- Wizard: Fire
- Sorceress: Air
- Elf: Water
- Templar: Earth

In each quest spells are expended. Once cast they go into the 'Well of Magic' (a common spell card pile). However, a character can nominate to retain a spell they already have at the cost of 1 Mind Point. They nominate to do this on casting the particular spell. Total Mind Points are restored at the start of a new quest.

Only the Wizard and Sorceress can draw a card from the top of the freshly shuffled Well of Magic for subsequent use. They can do this up to 6 times over the course of 6 or more turns (only drawing one card in any one turn). The number that can be drawn is limited by how many cards are currently in the pile.

If fewer that all four spell-casting characters play then any excess spells are automatically put in the Common Spell Pile.

Note that 0 Mind Points results in coma for the rest of current quest unless somehow restored. If they cannot be revived then the comatose character must be left in a safe room or be carried out (rendering another character ineffective for adventuring while carrying).

* Other Rules - Item Use

Various cards make reference to which characters can use particular items. For purposes of an expanded party the new characters correspond to old characters as follows:

- Barbarian > Guardian
- Dwarf > Templar
- Elf > Whistler
- Wizard > Sorceress

* Other Rules - Adjusting Game Difficulty

For every extra character beyond 4 added to a party the board should be given an additional 1 or 2 monsters or traps.

Most monsters have just 1 Body. However level bosses can have 2 or even 3 Body. A 3-Body level 'boss' can also be served by a 2-Body ‘deputy boss’.

These changes are scant compared with what others have done and shared online. There are stacks of new characters and expanded rules on offer and some go so far as to turn HeroQuest into a full-blown role-play game that escapes the confines of the board. I, however, have D&D for that, and so my expansion is relatively small and uses existing game elements as much as it can, such as finding a way of sharing only twelve spells among as many as four characters. Still, I think it is fun and boosts the options of play. All the new and altered characters work well, except possibly the Whistler, whose unique ability is as much comic relief as it is a novelty.

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I made a submission to the Religious Freedom Review of the Federal Government (as foreshadowed in my post here). Only some have so far been published on the Department Of Prime Minister And Cabinet website and I figure it cannot hurt for me to post my own content here...

In this submission I will explore prejudice as a phenomenon that impinges on religious freedom. For me religious freedom includes the freedom to follow a religion, alter the form that religion takes, or reject religion altogether. We should be free to practice or not practice religion as part of our own way-of-life. The freedom to live my own way-of-life limits your ability to interfere with my life and vice-versa.

It is worth noting that interference and mere annoyance are distinct things. Me living my life in a way that is different to yours or even challenging to your moral world-view cannot rightly be construed as interfering in your life. It may be more accurate to say that you need to be a bit more resilient and have more confidence in your own way-of-life.

Prejudice however can interfere with our lives and livelihoods. It has proved useful to define distinct forms of prejudice and so we have terms such as classism, sexism and racism. My purpose here is to say that it would be useful to define 'creedism' as a form of prejudice directed at the practitioners of any and all forms of religion or its lack. In examining this I will discuss the case of Islamophobia.

I definitely think that prejudice towards Muslims exists and that this prejudice is a problem for Australian society. However many of those who use the term Islamophobia (for the purpose of identifying and condemning this prejudice) liken it to a form of racism. This is only accurate if the holder of Islamophobic views mistakenly believes Muslims to be an ethno-religious group. Many do make this mistake but there are also others who acknowledge that Islam is a world religion to which anyone can ascribe. In saying this they can then deny that they are racist. However this is misdirection because they can still be expressing prejudiced views. Such prejudice is distinct from academic criticism because it involves distorting the truth with the intent of vilifying Muslims. The worst lie is of course the belief that all Muslims are terrorists, however there are many other distortions underpinning this, such as...

- Regarding Islam as a unified and monolithic force, without regard to the existence of different branches, schools or denominations, and inventing a caricature of Islam that combines all the more problematic aspects of each of these.

- Selectively quoting Islamic texts without acknowledging the diverse and changing ways in which Muslims interpret and apply those words in the world of everyday experience. Any ancient religious text can be worrying if removed from the context of its present-day practice.

- Citing the negative actions of elites and institutions associated with Islam (such as clerical or monarchical regimes) in the past or present and making all of these the responsibility of every Muslim regardless of personal circumstances.

- Referring to particular cultural practices (now deemed barbaric) as Islamic even if they predate Islam and simply happen to occur in some Muslim-majority areas.

A quick consideration of these and other distortions shows how they can promote fear and thus endanger the Muslim minority in Australia. Furthermore some reflection will show that these sorts of distortions can be applied to any and all religions. As an agnostic I'm in contact with many other agnostics and atheists and at times have come across similar distortions applied to Christians. In this sense Christians may also be subject to what I call 'creedism' and thus we can see that religious prejudice can be a problem for anyone.

Distortions can sometimes be taken to ridiculous degrees and I have had arguments with the odd militant atheist who has declared that 'all religion is bad' or even 'all bad things come from religion'. They will twist the facts greatly to preserve this notion. I have even encountered the claim that 'Stalinism was a religion because it was a cult-of-personality'. Words like 'cult' and 'doctrine' all have religious origins but any realistic person understands that word usage changes over time (my use of the word 'creed' is an old yet still-known variation on an even older theological usage). A 'cult-of-personality' is not necessarily religious any more than a 'marriage' is necessarily that of a monogamous heterosexual couple intent on having children.

Lies are an affront to those who are misrepresented by them as well as to anyone dedicated to truth. However there are degrees of impact which very much depend on who one is and what context one is operating within. A handful of militant atheists seeking to vilify the majority of Australians who identify as religious will have scant impact on them. In contrast, an unholy alliance of ultra-nationalists, fundamentalist Christians, opportunist politicians and their ignorant dupes can do much harm to our small Muslim community. Some are more at risk than others and it is time that a degree of chivalry - the strong defending the weak - was restored to Australian civic life.

In a liberal-democracy like Australia one hopes that the best antidote to speech is better speech. The distortions I refer to should be readily exposed and challenged by average citizens in large numbers and from all walks-of-life. However I am far from confident that this will always be the case. Our civic life seems lacking and because of that legal action sometimes becomes necessary. Religious persons and groups should have access to the law for purposes of defending themselves from religious vilification. This is the case presently and it will be for your Review to determine if any of these legal protections need to be bolstered or made more consistent. There is a distinction I want to make, however, between religion and politics.

Various religions in a secular society are supposed to co-exist. In contrast political organizations in a pluralistic society are supposed to compete for power and influence. Different standards should apply to any political party or lobby group even if it purports to promote religious (or indeed anti-religious) objectives. A political organization formed to represent religious interests has moved from the religious realm of co-existence to the political realm of competition and must expect scrutiny, criticism and a smaller degree of protection than should be given to religious practitioners overall.

I wish there was more leadership coming from our political elites and I refer once more to chivalry. If you have power then it is beholden on you to use that power responsibly and for the benefit of all those in your care. Australia is home to diverse religious perspectives and its holders will at times need protection and guidance to ensure we can all live together safely, whether we are believers or non-believers, and whether we are entrenched in Australian society or are a new and precarious minority. I recommend use of the term 'creedism' as a way of clarifying that religious prejudice is a problem we in Australia must all address.

They say they will be reading all the many submissions made. Those so far published have been presented in like-minded batches. I wonder how this - a pro-religious yet progressive argument - will be classified. I hope my nuances are understood in this age of ideological trench warfare we seem to be digging ourselves into.

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Queen + Adam Lambert

Belinda did something very clever and got us both tickets to see Queen with Adam Lambert. It was a birthday present for me and came into effect several months later (and just a few weeks ago). It is something I would have never contemplated, partly because a habit formed in my impoverished youth makes me overlook all the live gigs I could go to, and partly because on some level I have always felt that it was too late for me to see Queen live. I had followed a cover band for a while (with the name Fat Bottomed Girls) and also seen the jukebox musical based on Queen songs (written by Ben Elton). However I had mentally relegated Queen concerts themselves to a past I was too young to have experienced. And, granted, what we saw recently was different from Queen in its heyday, as was sensitively acknowledged during the gig, but by goodness it was still a fantastic experience.

I started to get a bit excited about the concert a few days beforehand, but only in the sense that I was looking forward to a night out at a big public event at Rod Laver Arena. It was only really as the band members emerged onto the guitar-shaped stage that I was suddenly stuck with the realization that Brian May and Roger Taylor were down there and all set to play the songs they had been playing all my life and most of theirs. It was a moving moment for this long-standing fan and after a few songs it looked like Belinda sensed she was in the presence of musical greatness.

The band comprised Brian May (guitars and vocals), Roger Taylor (drums and vocals), Adam Lambert (vocals and cavorting), Spike Edney (keyboards), Neil Fairclough (bass), Tyler Warren (percussion). Brian and Roger are original members of Queen. Spike has been playing with Queen in live gigs since the 80s and is regarded by fans as 'the fifth Queen'. Original bassist John Deacon has been retired since the 90s but some of the songs he wrote with the band were in the set-list. The presence of Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) was felt both in terms of his absence and also in the sense that footage of him performing was played on a big screen (taken from the massive 1986 Wembley gig). The audience engaged in a vocal call-and-response session. Many of us found it rather emotional. Young pop star Adam Lambert did a fantastic job of singing the Queen back catalogue. He has powerful projection and an impressive vocal range. He also has a definite stage presence and connected well with both the band and audience.

We were served a long and satisfying set-list of Queen songs (from most of their albums) and the audience got right into it. There was plenty of singing along (in the case of fans like me this included specific backing vocal patterns and drum figures and so forth). It was a stack of fun even from way off in the most distance seats. Amplification is vital to these big arena concerts but I'm happy to say it was only as loud as it needed to be. The screens were also very impressive and, combined with some artificial fog, produced a surprisingly realistic depiction of the big melancholy robot (from the 1977 News Of The World album art) bursting forth from back-stage.

There was some nice use of misdirection too. As we were watching some of this wizardry, an additional drum-kit emerged from the floor in the 'neck of the guitar' part of the stage that projected well into the ground level audience space. There the stars of the show (Roger, Brian, Adam) gathered separately from the supporting musicians to play a set of more intimate songs. This arrangement later allowed for Roger to engage in a 'drum battle' with Tyler. There were also guitar solos (naturally) from Brian and a bit of slapped bass from Neil. Adam sang a charting song of his own and now-and-then Brian and Roger took on vocals for songs they had written themselves. Everyone was in fine form. I was particularly impressed with Roger both drumming and singing at the same time.

Possibly the nicest part of the night was Brian sharing a hobby of his - stereoscopic photography. With a specially-made camera he took three-dimensional 'selfies' with the audience in the background. It was a very clever way of making a huge venue have an intimate moment. It was also just fantastic to see these life-long musicians (with Brain and Roger pushing 70) still having a fantastic time sharing music loved the world over.

We both purchased tour t-shirts - I got a relatively generic shirt depicting the Queen band crest while Belinda got one depicting the iconic pulp fiction robot that was mascot of the show. It was a night to remember and also reminded me that sometimes there is still a chance to do something even if you think it has passed. I left the gig buzzing.

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Salad Days

I have never been a huge fan of salads and barely if ever made one till recently. Somehow the mood took me to take one to a barbeque, but I made it to my own liking, informed somewhat by my food wheel notion.

The number one thing I did was to reject lettuce as an ingredient. What a banal and tiresome thing lettuce is! The base of my salad was one or both of baby roquette and spinach. Roquette in particular is a far more tasty and interesting leaf.

Next I added some slivers of red capsicum. I also considered adding similarly sliced onion but a few friends are sensitive to that flavour-enhancing bulb, so I spared them. That was all I included of more traditional salad vegetables but I added other and more novel forms of plant matter.

I threw in generous helpings of both pine nuts and corn kernels (minus the tinned brine they tend to come in). I did discover that too generous a helping of these results in them gathering at the bottom but a bit of salad tossing fixed that. These are both things that salad sceptics like me may favour for both texture and taste. But there was more.

I had wanted to find some marinated sliced mushrooms at the deli and throw them in. My thinking was that the marinade would serve as my salad dressing. It seems however that such a product is rare and so I settled for marinated eggplant. This worked rather well but on another occasion I had more time to spare and so got both mushrooms and some balsamic dressing and did it myself.

Already my salad has interesting ingredients and a flesh-like ‘star’ of the dish. And as described so far it is vegan. However my original version was vegetarian because I had added in some baby bocconcini (once more minus the water it is packaged in). The cheese instantly pushed the marinated fleshy thing aside as the protagonist of this dramatic concoction.

Oddly, I was the only one to bring salad to two separate parties, and in both cases it was welcome by those present, and complemented other foods well. However, I like to think it serves as a bit of a meal in itself, due to its eclectic mix of ingredients, which for convenience I will list here:

Core Ingredients

Baby Roquette, Pine Nuts, Corn Kernals, Mushrooms, Balsamic Dressing.

Optional or Substitute Ingredients

Baby Spinach, Red Capsicum, Onion, Marinated Eggplant, Baby Bocconcini.



Game Over

I announced my fantasy setting online here and then enthused about a new game set in it here. That game went for over four years and was only recently completed. I have never been in a game that lasted so long and with such stability. We had the same Games Master (GM) in me and the same four players for the entire time (with the occasional guest now-and-then).

I think logistics helped keep the game running. We almost always played at the same share house (in which most of the players lived). We almost always played on a Saturday (daytime). We negotiated dates at which we could all attend which averaged to one long session per month. A more important factor was that everyone was committed to the activity because it was fun. Part of that fun arose from spending time with friends we may have otherwise missed. However a lot of it also came from us enjoying the game itself.

My manner of GMing focuses on story-telling. The problem with this is it can make for a game that is overly directed by the GM. However my players seemed to welcome my structure and it did allow for a lot of leeway. The overall direction of my intended campaign was preserved but there were many player-directed twists and turns along the way. These necessitated me responding with re-routings of my story that were usually better than the original plan.

A story-telling focus had me talking a lot but the others seemed okay with that. I did share some of the work however by getting players to read narrative passages or participate in written dialogue. Everyone seemed to like the play-acting aspect of this.

Most of the talk however was paraphrased or improvised as is usual in role-playing. I was narrator and also (over time) scores of incidental characters (which I loved inventing). I discovered that it was both efficient and interesting to re-use many such non-player characters.

You would think that a role-play game set in the imaginations of its players would lack the limitations of budget imposed on (say) a television serial. However in practice I found that a GM has only so much time and energy to invent new concepts. As such old incidental characters would return to the story as needed. Likewise key locales were re-purposed at different times. There was economy to this but it also had an interesting affect on players. The familiar resonates with us and helps provide a sense of coherence to a long campaign. It also allowed me to put new twists on old concepts and this was sometimes more surprising than a wholly new element.

A favourite re-use of something for me was the Jagged Tooth Keep. This site had originally been visited ‘in the flesh’ by the original characters but then much later the Lost Wanderers (played by the same players) stumbled into a magical simulation of it. Confusion and suspicion ensued. The Jagged Tooth was just one of many concepts for which I made maps, illustrations, descriptions and even chose themed music (Fortress Around Your Heart by Sting). In this way I got to be creative and expand muchly on the content of The Lands.

Gaming definitely expanded the information content of my setting. This included mundane things like describing livestock (small kine and huge fowl are the norm) and local customs (such as a ban on propositioning someone more than three times). However it also resulted in some extraordinary content (such as demonstrating that a string of objects sometimes seen following the Moon were in fact an ancient and magical sky elevator).

With a few glaring exceptions I made my world a small-scale one. In some fantasy settings we see fortresses as tall as modern skyscrapers but I preferred something more modest. Part of this was a desire to anchor the setting in history. Another was to make the few spectacular things all-the-more impressive. And yet another was to make The Lands seem like a cozy world – one worth saving from the enemy forces of my long-term campaign.

My players were presented with a complex story but I also made some effort to incorporate other kinds of gaming into my GMing. My players enjoy solving puzzles and so I did what I could to present some. However I lack skill in this area so borrowed concepts liberally from existing games and tales. Once I even purchased a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that was part of the story but also had to be solved by the players themselves for the characters to succeed.

Another area in which I lack skill is strategy and combat simulation (even using my own ‘home-brew’ rules variation). However we had a number of eventful encounters during the campaign and got better at them over time. The last one involved an Undead Dragon that belched aging at its rivals and which was set in a 'dungeon' based on the current map of Chadstone Shopping Centre (sometimes it saves time to use existing things and any old thing will do).

I found it challenging to make my game challenging. For one thing my story had a relatively optimistic tone to which my players responded well. For another it is difficult for one mind (that of a GM managing however many antagonists) to face four minds each focused on ensuring the safety of four protagonists. I did a few novel things to give the characters bigger challenges. One was for the renowned Lost Wanderers to experience a flash-back game in which they were novices. Another was to give my players minor protagonists to temporarily play to get a feel for what life is like for villainous minions facing champions.

The key villains of my game were anonymous and distant in nature. They were impersonal supernatural forces motivated by hunger rather than cruelty. It was necessary to fight them just as it is necessary to respond to a locust swarm. This concept has always interested me but I do feel I could have put more work into also developing personal villains for the heroes to have an enmity with. There were a few non-player characters who could have done this but I never drove this and in the end they all became allies facing a common menace.

A theme of my game was that it is sometimes necessary to unite with those of markedly different morality to ones own. With this and other themes I made the story be the messenger rather than give characters moralizing speeches (as is the trend in much fiction these days). I subverted a characteristic of sword-and-sorcery tales by having a barbarian warrior and an undead lich (literary rivals) work together to hone a future champion of The Lands. This non-player character resented the manipulation once discovered but took on a leadership role of her own volition, did so in her own way and re-positioned her mentors as followers.

Another subversion I enjoyed presenting was that of having a classical fantasy world successfully resist an incursion by forces more at home in cosmic horror. In my teens it seemed odd that Dungeons & Dragons had familiar fantasy races in it (like Elves and Dwarves and Goblins) but also hosted products of a more demented imagination (like Mind Flayers and Beholders). At the time I just assumed the game creators had been indulging in mind-altering substances back in the 70s. I now know that they were influenced by more than just J R R Tolkien and also drew on the shared settings of H P Lovecraft and R E Howard. My campaign can be seen as me expressing a preference for the former over the latter.

Hope was very much a message but so was bravery in the absence of hope. Characters in my fantasy setting assume they have an immortal spirit but the Starborn Invaders (as I called the cosmic horrors) had the ability to consume spirit as if it were energy. The moral challenge then was to resist for the sake of others and for the future even at the risk of personal annihilation. In this sense fantasy characters suddenly faced the kind of danger we face in reality. How they conducted themselves became as significant as any eventual victory or reward.

I got to enact so many schemes that I had been imagining for ages. In particular it was fantastic to show how one can time-travel by fooling history into thinking one belongs in the past. This was done to bring Lost Legions that had vanished in the past into the present to help save the world (in a variation of the old ‘Sleeping Hero’ legend that made an entire community the long-hoped-for saviour and a time-loop into the method that brings them back).

All that gaming has been recorded in whole paragraphs that are interesting to look back over and could in the future form the basis of some fiction writing. I could also now edit and expand the content of my Lands weblog but will have to decide what information should stay secret. And finally I should modify some of my ‘homebrew’ rules with game experience in mind (in particular my clergy and rogues need to more heroic moments relative to my warriors and mages).

The Lands was saved in the end but has also been changed. Populations have been disrupted. Balances of power have shifted and new alliances formed. Secrets were exposed and a few more generated. The Lost Wanderers were granted a province to govern while our original party won possession of an ancient and forgotten ‘sky-ship’. There could definitely be more gaming but for now I will give it a rest and get on with other things.

Thanks to my players Varia, Marty, Katrina and Sarah for all that gaming. You are fun-loving, inventive, creative, and as skilled at making peace as at winning wars. Thanks also to occasional guests Josh, Belinda and Cameron for help and extra company. I had a fantastic time.

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Same-Sex Marriage Victory

Around the turn of the century I was sitting among a group of progressive campaigners discussing whether there was any way of making same-sex marriage a legal fact. If only Labor would adopt a supportive policy and bind its parliamentarians to that while the Coalition allowed its parliamentarians a conscience vote then we may just have a chance of getting the numbers. A lot has changed since then.

Last week the Governor-General rubber-stamped legislation making same-sex marriage legal in Australia. This followed a decisive victory for the Senator Smith private members bill in both chambers of Federal Parliament. And this in turn had followed on logically from a majority result in the same-sex marriage postal survey that I discussed here. I was confident of the consensus across major parties to support change but it is nice to see it become an historic fact following decades of campaigning.

In this entry I will expand on some of the arguments I made in my pamphlet and discuss some of what passed during the campaign. I made that pamphlet as a 'do-it-yourself campaigner' but there was more to it than that. The official Yes campaign had a very simplistic three word message of 'Love Is Love' intended to resonate with the elusive 'average' Australian. This message was delivered in a professional and respectful manner but it was too wishy-washy for my tastes. I wanted something more nitty-gritty and so decided to become part of the large and amorphous unofficial Yes campaign.

I focused on rights and this was apparently also utilized by specialized affiliates of the official Yes campaign targetting recent migrant demographics. I feel vindicated in that the neighbourhood I letterboxed is very much a migrant area. I cannot ever be sure my few hundred pamphlets had an impact but I think it was important to try methods others were neglecting in this era of electronic echo chambers. I also did it because I discovered those electronic methods can be counter-productive.

On Facebook I had stated my position and invited disparate friends into discussion with me if they felt differently. This overture was almost instantly undermined by friends quipping that they too supported a Yes response and considered a No response to be stupid or nasty. Who is likely to engage with me if they see the dogmatic company I keep? I differed from much of the unofficial Yes campaign in my focus on respectful debate and my desire to change minds. This task has gotten harder in the past decade and that was amply demonstrated in the hours following the announcement of a nation-wide Yes majority in the well-attended postal survey.

Very quickly punters could see that some of the few electorates that showed only minority support for a Yes response were working class areas of diverse migrant populations. Soon I was countering all manner of comments on Facebook that were expressing opposition to homophobia by betraying borderline racist, creedist and classist attitudes. How can we switch so rapidly from humane to inhumane stances at the glance of an electoral info-graphic?

Part of the problem was the simplisitic notion that the campaign was defined only by 'love' and 'hate'. This dichotomy excludes the possibility of other conditions such as ignorance, confusion, fear or indoctrination. I met a lot of resistance to my advocacy for a more nuanced take and it was only on the following morning that antagonists started to back down.

The thing that made them step back (other than the passage of time in this fast-paced world) was the circulation of a long and well-crafted post by a queer campaigner of recent migrant background giving us a reality check and confirming that it takes time and work to change the minds of those who have been conditioned by particular traditions. It seems we trust personal anecdotes more than expert or even common sense arguments. This frustrated me because of my hours of effort the preceding day. There were many ways of thinking that had been sidelined. Here are a few:

* Any understanding of the facts will tell you that every electorate in the nation harbours thousands of both Yes and No respondents. It will also tell you that our citizenry excludes permanent residents and minors who cannot vote. Characterizing entire swathes of suburbia on the basis of one voluntary survey at one moment in time is beyond stupid.

* The concept of Pluralism tells us that society is composed of many overlapping interests whose political allegiances shift and change from issue-to-issue. The person you oppose today over same-sex marriage will be the person you side with on refugee rights tomorrow. With that in mind it seems emotionally vexed to demonize someone for any one stance.

* Historically, progressives like me have embraced universal notions of our common humanity and thus had understanding for those who think differently. Such a stance also allowed us to find common ground and change minds. Possibly this philosophy is too reminiscent of the utterances of some religious philosophers and therefore deemed hackneyed by many. But it works if we let it.

Any one of these concepts would have prevented the profiling of whole electorates but only the demand to back off from campaigners of particular demographics worked. In this sense identity politics proved ineffective. You would think the concept of 'Intersectionality' would have done the trick but it seems too difficult a concept to digest. Many were so stuck on the one track of opposing homophobia that for that moment all other forms of prejudice were forgotten and only personal anecdotes from particular activists could prompt a switching of tracks. Embracing our common Humanity would have done it automatically and allowed a 'privileged' person like me to get the job done. But I find I cannot use the power I supposedly have in online settings. Hence I stepped away from the computer and onto the streets.

Within the word limit of my pamphlet I defended 'Political Correctness' (PC) as a contemporary form of manners. That seems to contradict my criticism of identity politics in this post. However a distinction needs to be made. Few if any adverse effects of PC fall upon ordinary members of the public. Only its own adherents are hampered by the constant peer-driven behaviour management it engenders. This is a problem for progressives rather than for society as a whole. As such I can happily defend PC to the public.

The No campaigners made reference to lots of other tangential issues besides PC. My pamphlet summarily dismissed ludicrous notions like marrying animals or objects but I skirted the issue of Polyamory. I support the notion of a society that recognizes and accepts the practice of non-exclusive relationships between consenting adults. However it is also a debate for another day. Society needs time to consider this issue and polyamorists ourselves will have to decide exactly what it is we want from society.

Another distraction was the Safe Schools program but I never bothered to reference it. I have been on both sides of the educational fence and as such can be rather sceptical of ever-changing educational trends. But I also see the wider context of a society in which pragmatic teaching staff, family members, friends and popular culture all serve to ameliorate the shortcomings of theory. Overall, any education program that helps children have a better grasp of reality is one I support.

I argued for laws that conform to the way society is today. This by itself could result in problems but such laws need to also meet the test of minimizing harm and maximizing quality-of-life for all. Harm Minimization is also why I supported the consensus bill that accommodated some religious concerns. This is far better than a zero-tolerance driving of such resistance-to-change underground. Let them openly stand apart and have the public walk away from them in droves. Growing religious diversity will allow for the ability to shop around.

The one novelty of my pamphlet was its argument that same-sex marriage improves religious freedom by allowing those religious supporters of same-sex marriage to celebrate it. This even seemed to surprise progressive religious persons I shared it with (it is almost as if the truly compassionate among them are so focused on the needs of others that they forget that they have needs too). It was only once I sent this message to a number of religious groups who support change that I saw them starting to use the same argument. Possibly this straight agnostic had a small impact on how they saw themselves but you rarely can say for sure with campaigning efforts.

And now it looks like we are to have a public inquiry into religious freedoms. This is a last-ditch effort by the moral conservative minority within the Federal government to claw back some of what they feel they lost with the Smith bill. However inquiries tend to take on a life of their own and I think we will find this grows into something that represents all variations of religion in Australia rather than just those who called for it. So for instance what works for Christians will also have to apply to Muslims and this will limit how much any group pushes its case.

The moral conservatives have tested the concept of the 'moral majority' and found us wanting. I wonder what impact this will have on them. I suspect that it will embolden the moderates (across the major parties) to understand that Australians are far more permissive and accepting than they had imagined. I think it will also benefit parliamentary democracy at the expense of populist alternatives like plebiscites. And most importantly I think it will give confidence to queer Australians themselves to enter more fully into all aspects of society.

The survey was a divisive one but in reality any debate would have been. We still cling to the notion promoted during the Enlightenment that rights are innate but in practice they only exist because we make and maintain and refine them. A lot of work has been done by brave and tenacious queer campaigners. The result of same-sex marriage is far more than just a gesture. Existing marriages conducted overseas were instantly recognized and many more will soon be entered into. The legal rights associated with marriage will tangibly benefit many. Lives and even livelihoods will be improved as the economy gets a boost to wedding-related services. And there will be some very festive celebrations.

I have spent too many words in this post on whinging. I should remember that something I have actively supported for over two decades has now succeeded. This is a victory to be savoured and it is worth noting that nothing like this has ever happened in our history. We have done better than just win back lost ground. Rather it is new ground and better ground at that. Bring on the Summer of same-sex marriages galore.


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I have always liked action and adventure tales focusing on a group of distinct characters working together. It usually draws my interest more than the lone champion single-handedly saving the day. This has impacted on many of my preferences in consuming fiction.

This is part of what makes Dungeons & Dragons, with its focus on a 'party' of adventurers, an appealing hobby. It's also why I preferred team-based arcade games like Golden Axe (1989) over the player-versus-player format of Mortal Kombat (1992) and its ilk. Yes the solo adventure Prop-Cycle (1996) was my all-time favourite due to its immersive nature but had it been a game of many winged bikes then it would have been better. Heck, the appeal of teams is even why my favourite Freddie Krueger horror is Dream Warriors (1987) and I prefer Conan The Destroyer (1984) to Conan The Barbarian (1982).

I am so attached to this format that I become vexed if ever it loses ground. From the moment the Mission Impossible (1996) movie turned into a solo adventure I lost enthusiasm for it (I'm more forgiving of its sequels because they construct a new team around the sole survivor of the first). I would rather watch something that had a team at its centre, even a reluctant one, and so much prefer The Man From UNCLE (2015). And while I still enjoy something like James Bond, the fact that they show the super-spy relying on the gadgets and data of support staff demonstrates that nobody is truly an island.

At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m simply betraying collectivist political tendencies, but for me the 'team' concept enhances individuality much more than it promotes uniformity. The beauty of teams is in the differences between characters that provide for a complementary array of skills and dispositions. This make them more effective as protagonists and more interesting as characters.

This naturally takes me into the topic of ‘representation’ in fiction (which I discussed in the context of Star Trek ages ago). I selfishly value diversity in a movie because it helps me keep track of several characters I'm expected to recognize within a short timeframe. Movies made since the 60s, during which the counter-culture prompted the relaxation of dress-codes, are easier for me to follow because there is more to characters than suits, dresses and neat hair.

A more significant argument for representation in movies is that diverse audiences deserve to be presented with diverse heroes and villains. A fictional setting that looks more like our own world will seem more realistic and will give us a sense of our own role in both its mundane and fantastic aspects. Seeing someone like you playing a role in tales of daring-do can enthuse and empower (except possibly for those of us who have always been most drawn to the monsters and robots that we can never hope to be). Ensembles have the potential to do this well, even in just one story.

There is another justification for depicting diversity and it comes in the form of international cultural diplomacy. Hollywood has slowly come to recognize the massive audience that exists beyond the Anglosphere and has started to factor this into story and character design. A case of this is The Return Of Xander Cage (2017). The original Xander Cage movie was a solo spy flick with extreme sports elements, focusing on the titular character. Now in the new movie we are presented with two rival groups of agents who eventually combine into one. This group of mixed genders and cultural backgrounds includes both US and Chinese nationals. The movie was particularly popular in China and it is interesting to note which characters are 'good' and which are 'evil'.

The good characters are from many backgrounds and nations including both the US and China, while the evil characters are associated with the US government. In the flawed democracy that is the US nobody is remotely fazed by negative depictions of elites. In contrast, you cannot do the same thing to Chinese elites and hope to get a movie allowed into that one-party state. There is a smart side to representation in fiction that will slowly foster common values in story-telling.

The thing that prompted this blog post was that I recently saw Justice League (2017) and then revisited The Avengers (2012) so that I could compare the two comic book ensemble movies. The natural tendency among fans is to regard these as rivals (DC versus Marvel). I enjoyed both and think both do a decent job of giving room to some very larger-than-life characters. I also think it a mistake to regard them as arch-rivals. I partly say this because both movies benefited from the creative contributions of Joss Whedon, someone known for multi-character story-telling. I also say it because the competitors here are movie studios as much as comic book publishers and, with that in mind, we could be comparing Warner Brothers with Disney and with Twentieth Century Fox. I name that third company because another comic book ensemble movie - X-Men (2000) – is a favourite of mine.

The movie follows on from its comic book inspiration and lends itself perfectly to the characteristics that draw me to ensemble adventures. The characters all fit the one setting well because they are all understood to be 'mutants'. This is a lot more elegant than the Avengers or Justice League which both ask us to accept that our super-heroes are variously aliens, demi-gods and tech billionaires. In X-Men there is a good team and an the evil team (rather than just one enemy with anonymous followers). On both sides there are characters we can understand and even admire. And, to focus on just one aspect of representation, X-Men has a better gender ratio than either Avengers or Justice League, despite its name.

In the movie there are six heroes (Xavier, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Rogue, Cyclops, Storm) and of these, three are women. In solo movies the lone champion may be all things but in a team, different aspects or roles must be allocated. The leader and the action hero can be distinct. Likewise the point-of-view character can be different from the protagonist. Jean Grey is the in-story public face of her mutant community. Rogue is the character that young viewers can most relate to. And Storm arguably has the coolest mutant powers. This is all impressive stuff for a movie considerably older than either Avengers or Justice League.

In our Internet-facilitated present there is more communication back-and-forth between the producers and consumers of fiction than at any time since oral story-telling was the only show in town. As a result, there is a constantly refining check-list of things audiences want. It is interesting, then, to go back over movies from past decades and notice that factors like demographic representation were sometimes better then than now. How did past creators get things right in the absence of fans commenting on every move they made? We tend to forget the ebb-and-flow of historical progress. I’m still looking for more movies with ensembles in them. Feel free to give me some suggestions, so I can assess a larger representative sample...



Long Barrows And Longer Flights

A few months ago I went on an eight night visit to the United Kingdom and now I'm writing about it while the memory is reasonably fresh. I'm presenting things more-or-less chronologically but may scatter some thematic elements into the mix.


My flight from Melbourne was on a Friday night and I had dinner in the City with Belinda before making my way to Melbourne Airport via Skybus. I was taking the contents of just my backpack and what I was wearing. Things went smoothly in getting onto my plane but there was one problem - I cannot sleep sitting. Therefore I just had to cope with staying awake for in excess of 36 hours (once factoring in the day of wakefulness preceding my flight). I killed time by watching movies but was too tired to truly concentrate on them. Meals and visits to the loo punctuated the purgatory of the long haul flight. There was also a change of planes in the seeming oasis of civilization that is Abu Dhabi. It was interesting to note the differences in security processes. Only there did I have to remove my belt. Is it because they are more thorough or because their technology is less sophisticated? Such musings filled my long journey to the other side of the planet.


It was a relief to get to Heathrow Airport but my journey had to continue a few hours more. I had chosen to start my holiday in Cardiff and so travelled overland via train from England to Wales. However I was very awake as I was once more moving and daylight let me take in the sights of British farms and towns speeding past my window. We went through a very long tunnel that I later discovered was the Severn Tunnel cut deep under the Severn Estuary separating England from Wales. Following this, station signs bore both English and Welsh names.

It was a Saturday night in Summer as I walked from Cardiff Station to the Holiday Inn via an array of pedestrian malls and the youth of Cardiff were gathering to play in pubs and clubs. I reckon I heard more English than Welsh accents but I saw lots of flags depicting the Red Dragon of Wales. On getting to my accommodation, within sight of the River Taff and Bute Park, I noticed a restaurant on the ground floor and decided that my journey was over. I settled stuff into my room and then had a tasty dinner. There were net-connected computers in the foyer at which I had a quick login to tell friends I had safely arrived. Just like at home, I confined my net use only to local computers while in the UK. I had a lovely hot bath and slept solidly from something like 8pm to 8am.


The following morning and for the next several days I felt fantastic. I was early to bed and early to rise. I had big breakfasts and moderate snacks later in the day. I had much less coffee and much more tea. I walked way more than even I usually do. It was fortunate as travel is a good time to feel alive. I have barely maintained this back in Australia since. Breakfast at the Holiday Inn was complimentary and was a smorgasbord of hot and cold fare which I sampled liberally. I even willingly ate egg (scrambled). Following this I prepared for the adventure of the day and the key attraction for me visiting Cardiff.

I walked from the city-centre to Cardiff Bay, guided only by a small printed map I'd prepared at home, and pretty soon saw something that puts Docklands in Melbourne to shame. The Welsh have developed an old harbour into a fantastic recreational precinct and I walked all the way to the barrage separating it from the Bristol Channel (called the Severn Sea in days past and the closest I got to seeing the Atlantic). I then turned back to attend my booked visit at the BBC Doctor Who Experience.

The Doctor Who Experience was something I was familiar with as a setting in the mockumentary The Five-ish Doctors Special. It has closed by now (the lease having ended and the Cardiff Council wanting to use it for some other development) so I'm very lucky it was still open at the time I got to the UK. My tour started with a marvelous simulated interactive adventure across a number of rooms which was targetted at children but worked well for a fan like me. Following that we entered into the exhibition proper and I saw so many artifacts from the history of possibly my favourite TV show. It was well worth the moderate ticket price I had spent online back home.

I cannot say for sure whether many other prices I accepted in the UK were value for money. I blithely spent money as if British pounds were Australian dollars. Likewise I walked around as if miles were kilometers and so I happily marched back to the city. But while still in Cardiff Bay I had a small lunch in the cafe of the Welsh National Assembly. Then back in the city I entered the grounds of Cardiff Castle to observe everything from the fragments of Roman foundation walls to an opulent Victorian mansion. My favourite bit was a Norman shell-keep and my first toleration of steep-stepped climbs. An ivy-laced alcove sporting a well prompted my imagining of medieval wenches and swains gathering for a bit of gossip.

That night I had a small shop-purchased dinner of assorted snacks in my room.


In Cardiff and beyond I had also done some wandering of back-streets and shops. There were all sorts of small differences I noticed. Of the few that had an impact on my life was some odd lighted pedestrian crossings at which one has to look sideways to see the lights change (rather than across the road). In most other ways the societal similarity between Australia and the UK (from speaking English to keeping to the left) made my solo journey an easy one.

And so my travels continued with a train ride back under the Severn Estuary and onto Bristol. I got to this vibrant English provincial city on the River Avon and had hours till my check-in time at the Bristol Youth Hostel, so I decided to get my big tourist objective done. It involved walking along streets of the harbour (more a canal) and then climbing the rather diagonal Clifton neighbourhood. I was definitely lost in that maze of steep back-switching streets except in the sense that I knew I had to get to the top of the hill. And once I did I saw my destination - the impressive Clifton Suspension Bridge. This engineering landmark of the Industrial Revolution also afforded excellent views of the lush and rugged Avon Gorge.

Later on I checked into the youth hostel in the hip harbour area and had a rest. But there were still many hours of wakefulness and so next I wandered the city asking for directions. One of my objectives was a public library (for Internet) and on the way I saw cathedrals and university halls. Later I found an Odeon (a small cinema complex of the 70s-80s kind) and watched Atomic Blonde. This action spy movie has some nudity and I later joked that this was how I got to see some 'bristols' while in Bristol.


I left Bristol on another train for the heart of rural England. I got off in Swindon and sat for a few minutes on the platform studying one of my maps. As I did so I noticed a pigeon tamely sitting on the window sill just behind my bench and drew the attention of a station attendant to it. This then gave me the chance to ask her to clarify directions for me within her township. I visited the post office (to dispatch some postcards home) and library. It seems to me that if you truly want to see a town then look for everyday things like that. I went to the bus station and it was while riding that bus I finally felt I was in the UK.

You see everything is a bit like every other thing and so in some ways visiting the UK was only different by degrees from visiting another Australian state. We are of the same basic culture and the gentle British Summer was very like the Spring or Autumn of my childhood. And yes Doctor Who is quintessentially British but it is also an international linchpin of nerd culture. But as my bus rushed along rural roads and stopped at rustic villages it sunk in that this was another land.

My bus took me to the township of Faringdon with its surprisingly compact market square and its tiny box-like town hall. Here I ate lunch in a pub that was a coach house back in the days of highway robbery. At the information centre someone lamented to me that the town had once been much bigger but had shrunk since freeways by-passed Faringdon (a familiar story also for towns in Australia). I had to cross one of those freeways on foot on the next and most intrepid part of my journey, as I walked to the village of Uffington.

I had been advised to walk on the right of small rural roads so that I could see on-coming cars and get out of the way. I discovered however that this was a challenge. In some long stretches of my walk there was zero space between the road and a wall of thorns. On other parts of my walk the road curved in such a way that I could only hear and not see traffic. And then in one such instance an over-flying plane made even listening difficult! Nonetheless I eventually got to the village of Uffington in White Horse Vale and my two nights of accommodation at the Fox And Hounds public house. I had a modern cabin to myself and a tasty dinner (chased with cider) in the beer garden. I also had time to wander the small community and note its village green, its store, its community hall, its church, and its town museum (only open weekends). I spent some of my evening watching UK TV then slept the slumber of the well-walked.


This day had always been dedicated to one long intermittent walk to some ancient British sites. I set off following complimentary breakfast and a visit to the store. Once more I had to walk along roads but, given my trepidation of the previous day, I soon decided to follow a sign inviting me onto one of the many 'footpaths' in England that cut across both public and private land and preserve ancient 'rights of way' existing since Saxon times. This removed the danger of traffic but presented a new challenge - hidden pathways. I was sure I was following the correct way in that it was of the same width and turned towards my intended destination. However it took me right into the centre of a horse farm and the farmer kindly gave me a ride in his tractor back to the correct path. That pathway was nothing more than a narrow gap in the trees. I followed it along the border between crops and eventually back onto a road. On this walk I got to see rabbits and pheasants among the coppice.

I traversed more fields and climbed Dragon Hill. From there I saw the 3000 year old Uffington White Horse, the stylized chalk hill figure of a quadruped. I next climbed the larger hill to the chalk horse itself and got as close as fencing would allow me. I took in the vistas afforded from this elevation. Since returning I have made a bit of artwork inspired by this experience.

From there I walked along The Ridgeway, a chalk road between farms and national parkland. It was a fine day, which was fortunate, as there was scant shelter on this hike. Eventually I came to a grove in which lies a 5000 year old long barrow that in much more recent Saxon times was dubbed Wayland's Smithy. I sat on a log while taking in the setting and had a ploughman's cheese sandwich and elderflower mineral water. I experienced nothing numinous at this time but visiting this neolithic tomb was still an emotionally satisfying experience. I moreorless reversed my walk back to Uffington and spent another slow evening in the village, reviewing my experiences to date.


On this misty morning I stood outside the Fox And Hounds waiting for a taxi to take me back to Faringdon. The taxi driver was whining to me that that township was getting too big with too many migrants and I found this comment contrasted markedly with what I had been told at the information centre two days previously. You cannot make everyone happy it seems.

I feel that my UK holiday had a goodly balance of structure and flexibility. For instance, rather than return to Swindon I decided on a whim to get the bus onward to Oxford so as to cover new ground. In that university town I witnessed more tourists per capita than I think I did at any time in the UK. I wandered around admiring canals and buying postcards in a domed library. Following lunch I took a train to London. On the way I saw more of rural and urban England and wondered at oddments like the now obsolete gas holders or 'gasometers'.

By the time I got to Paddington Station it was a lovely sunny day. I walked into the streets of London and it just went on and on. I recognized many landmarks but never till then had a sense of the huge space in which they are arrayed along the Thames. Melbourne has massive suburban sprawl but the city centre of London itself seemed never-ending. I walked passed a diversity of Londoners enjoying the day in Hyde Park. I barely acknowledged Buckingham Palace. I continued briskly because I was late to meet my hosts Steve & Nieves. Eventually we met and took the tube back to their neighbourhood of Roehampton. In that area I saw squirrels frolicking in the same way one does possums in Melbourne suburbia.

It was good to stay with friends and have company. And yet it also made things a bit tense for me in that suddenly I had to make compromises and plans with others. I had grown accustomed to making all my decisions solely for me. Still I was more than compensated by home cooked dinners and watching action movies in the living room with friends.

Friday in London

It was a workday for my hosts so I went on a lone exploration back into the city. I walked along both sides of the Thames and saw Big Ben, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, Saint Paul's Cathedral and Australia House. My objective for the day was the British Museum. During this holiday I was frugal with some things and fancy-free with others. So for instance I deliberately saw only those parts of the museum that were free. On the other hand I had whatever food I felt like and purchased public transport tickets one at a time as whim dictated. In the British Museum I concentrated on classical Greek, Etruscan and Roman relics, including the Rosetta Stone. It is surprisingly tiring to browse all that history and so I enjoyed a relaxed night with my hosts once I got back to Roehampton.

Weekend in London

On the weekend Steve & Nieves shouted me to a ferry ride from Westminster to Greenwich. There we lunched at some fantastic markets and then walked to the famous observatory. One has to pay to get into the yard in which the International Date Line is marked on the pavement. However we had walked around the compound so I remarked we had already crossed the imaginary line twice!

Back in London proper we wandered around seeing more public spaces and this experience prompted me to start singing things like "feed the birds tuppence a bag..." Then we returned to the Roehampton area and had a pub dinner nestled in a neighbourhood surrounded by Wimbledon Common (but I never saw any Wombles).

The next day we walked to the massive Richmond Park and had a good wander around. It is so massive it supports its own herd of deer. Following lunch I made my way back to Heathrow and started my long journey home.

Monday And Tuesday Return

Another purgatory of plane flights followed and I coped pretty well. I was relieved to be home partly because I missed friends and familiar settings. However it was also a relief because I had been aware of the additional dangers I faced by travelling. Yes statistics were on my side but it is also true that I did many things I only do sporadically. Fears of plane crashes, terrorist incidents and falling asleep on an ancient hillside to be whisked away to Fairyland all crossed my mind. I had even made preparations back home for my demise to make life simpler for those left behind. I think this is wise but I also was bugged by a vague sense of guilt instilled in me by that old and stupid superstition of 'jinxing' things by thinking or talking of them. Well I tempted fate and survived.

The ride back into the City on Skybus in the wee small hours was cool and dark and prepared me for a good sleep-in once I finally got home. I'm left with a sense of having had a short yet enriching holiday and think I will do more in future. For now however there is plenty of fun to be had back home.

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Same-Sex Marriage Campaign

Here in my homeland we are presently facing the most divisive and protracted one-issue political campaign of my lifetime in the form of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. It has been a while since I blogged on the topic of marriage equality but right now it is useful to record my reflections on the issue. I’m a bit of a do-it-yourself campaigner and designed my own pamphlet promoting a ‘Yes’ response to the question ‘Do you support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?’ In this post I will share text from that A4-sized three-fold in which I offer locals 'the personal view of a neighbour who has voted Yes in the 2017 Postal Survey'.

My key arguments for supporting same-sex marriage are:

* Human Rights are by definition universally shared by all those who can exercise them. Marriage should apply to all consenting adults wishing to marry. And the beauty of this is that extending a right to a hitherto excluded group still allows full enjoyment of that right by those who already have it. This is a win-win scenario for us all.

* Right now our society has same-sex couples living in long-term committed partnerships that lack the legal protections that only marriage offers. Right now there are kids with two mothers or two fathers who suffer because of the disadvantage their parents face. We have many different forms of family but the law is lagging behind this reality. Our laws should recognize the way our society is today.

* Even religious freedom is an argument for same sex marriage. A growing number of churches support same-sex marriage but currently they cannot conduct weddings for some of their members. A truly secular society should give all religious groups the same standing. But for now the wishes of only some persons of faith are dictating how the rest can express that faith. A change for the better will allow all groups to decide who they will support in marriage.

* I have friends who are in committed long-term same-sex relationships. Some of them have children to whom they provide safe and loving homes. All of them deserve the recognition and the legal protections that only marriage can confer. I want them to be happy and be accepted by our community.

* I for one am angry that we are having this postal survey at all. It is a distortion of our parliamentary democracy and a waste of public funds. Some who feel the same way are talking of boycotting it. But how is ‘boycotting’ any different from simply forgetting to mail your survey back in? A better way is to participate. This political campaign has been imposed on us by a small group of politicians who insisted on side-stepping parliament. They are a minority even among conservatives and hope to win by changing the rules of play. And never forget that this stubborn gang want us to vote ‘No’. Only a ‘Yes’ vote will send them a message that they are part of a bigger society that is sick of political games.

I also responded to some of the arguments introduced by opponents of same-sex marriage:

* Free Speech means that I can express opinions and you can respond. If I say something offensive I can expect someone to tell me so. ‘Political Correctness’ is just a kind of manners asking us to respect members of our diverse society. Like manners it can be taken too far but like manners we each decide how much to accept it. The fact we are debating this proves we still have free speech.

* A civil union or de-facto relationship is better than nothing but there are many legal rights that only marriage ensures, including inheritance, child custody and medical power-of-attorney.

* Producing children is only one purpose of marriage. Consider all the male-female couples who will never have children but who are still allowed to marry. There are also mixed families, sole-parent families, adoptive families. Children should be made aware of all this.

* ‘Will same-sex marriage be followed by marrying the family dog?’ Such ridiculous questions overlook a fundamental concept – Informed Consent. Put simply, Rover cannot say 'I do' no matter how much you ask. The postal survey will at most result in the legalizing of same-sex marriage and nothing more.

Finally I gave a short reflection on why I decided to make a pamphlet:

* I want there to be more to this campaign than slick ads and smart-arsed Internet memes. I decided to become like the pamphleteers of old and engage with my community by presenting arguments rather than just slogans. All I did to bring this to your letterbox was use a word-processor, print at the local library, and have a walk in the Spring sunshine. I hope you take a few minutes to read and consider its content.

There is a lot more I could say on this issue but for now I will just keep it to what I managed to fit onto one sheet of paper. Following the close of survey collection I will expand the content of this post. If there is any Australian citizen looking at this post at the time of its publication then feel free to comment - I welcome any respectful and reasoned discussion.



Long Intended Short Holiday

This month I will be having a holiday in the United Kingdom (England and Wales specifically). In this post I will refer to my key destinations and my motives for choosing them.

Most of my flying experience has been within Australasia. It was over two decades ago that I last went as far as Europe and I was much younger then. As an older person I suspect I will feel more aches from the long flights. However back then I only had a short story anthology and pen-and-paper to while away the hours. This time there will be much more in the way of personalized audio-visual entertainment.

But onto the objective of my journey. I have wanted to travel for ages and initially was intending to do something more ambitious. However the weeks and months would pass with me making few if any plans. Finally I decided to truncate my intentions and suddenly I was getting things done. I figure that a short holiday in the UK will act as a testing bed for my experience as a lone traveller and then following that I can try for more things (such as more of the European Union and also visiting some long-lost relatives in Japan).

I will be starting my holiday with two nights in Cardiff. The key attraction that warranted this decision is the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay. I am that much of a fan that this is an exciting thing for me. I will get to see lots of cool props and sets such as some console rooms including the current variation from the Peter Capaldi era. I wonder if there will be any new designs on display intended for the latest Doctor incarnation to be played by Jodie Whittaker? The imagination runs wild!

There will be other attractions to visit in the capital of Wales. I hope to walk passed the Welsh National Assembly and will be staying close to Cardiff Castle. I have also chosen to visit Wales in recognition that the UK is one state but more than one nation. However from there I will move onto England and have a one night stay in the provincial city of Bristol and see things like the Avon Gorge.

The centrepiece of my holiday is an adventure in the Vale of White Horse. I will stay at a village inn for two nights so that I can potentially spend a whole day walking to and from the ancient sites of the Uffington White Horse and Wayland’s Smithy. These attract me more than something more well-known like Stone Henge and possibly this is due to a TV show I saw in childhood called The Moon Stallion.

I call this part of my holiday an adventure because to get to and from my accommodation I will need to take trains, buses and walk many miles. The UK may be a world power but it still has its remoter parts (for a non-driver at any rate).

The last part of my holiday will be spent visiting friends Steve & Nieves in the world city of London. My hosts of three nights have some things planned for me and I also hope to visit things like the British Museum. I get the impression from maps that merely wandering around will show me some iconic stuff. I can expand on what I see in another blog post.

One philosophy I am taking to this holiday is the notion that you cannot do everything but that anything you do is worth it. So my visit to the UK is a mere sampler but in the parts I will experience something of the whole. I just hope they have some bottled iced coffee once I get there.