Saying no to drugs

Unusually, perhaps, for somebody involved in journalism for 30 years, and showbiz journalism for more than half of that time, I have never done “hard” drugs.

I’ve certainly consumed a bit more alcohol than I should’ve, and inhaled something I perhaps shouldn’t have, but I’ve drawn the line at doing a line or injecting something into my veins that wasn’t prescribed by a doctor.

Some might say that’s an experience missed, but I prefer to think of it as a lucky escape. As a former girlfriend once said, why use something that might kill you on the first occasion (as cocaine, and many other drugs, certainly can) unless you absolutely have to?

At the risk of appearing to be “holier than thou” here, I want to make a point or two about the abuse of hard drugs, especially in the music industry. I want to make it clear that the following does not apply to everyone, or even a majority of people, in showbiz. But it does apply to a hell of a lot of them.

Over many years of writing about popular music, and hanging about on its fringes, the one thing that has really made me angry is the continuing casual attitude towards the use of hard drugs — despite the number of good, talented people who have died, or have been greatly diminished, by the uncontrolled use of drugs.

With so many great artists lost to the abuse of heroin, cocaine and their ilk, you might think that the industry would actively discourage the activity, participate enthusiastically in programs to rehabilitate drug users, and take great efforts to counsel potential addicts.

Instead, I’ve known of record company employees who’ve been tasked with scoring for the stars and very senior personnel at very big companies who’ve turned a blind eye while laws that could have them jailed are willfully and persistently broken. As an editor, I’ve had to counsel contributors for encouraging drug use in articles submitted for publication in a “family” newspaper.

You may say that people be free to do what they like, even if it hurts them — and I might even agree with you. But when you look at the industrial scale of drug use in showbiz, and the fact that stars are among the greatest influencers of young people, then maybe you’ll think again,

You may ask: why is it worse to buy and consume drugs than alcohol or cigarettes, which are also bad for your health? Because buying drugs puts money directly into the hands of criminals, while buying legal products at least puts it into the real economy where the people who make the goods get paid (admittedly sometimes not a lot or even enough) and the companies employing them pay taxes and duties (often at a very high rate) that go into a pool that’s spent on the whole community. They may be killers, but at least the producers of booze and tobacco put something back — and they are required to offer warnings about the use of their product, making it harder and harder for them to do business. Oh, and branded, legal products are almost always free from deadly impurities, which is often not the case with drugs bought on street corners or handed around at gigs and parties.

When a celeb gives endorsement by example to the illegal drug trade, they are supporting the exploitation of everyone from impoverished poppy growers and families in third-world countries (who live under the cruel exploitation of drug lords who use kidnapping and murder to further their business aims), to hapless drug mules (who can wind up being jailed or executed for their crimes) and users who can end up on guerneys in emergency rooms or slabs in hospital mortuaries. The only people they benefit are the criminals they make richer.

Occasionally, some of the worst abusers in the music world will put some small effort into a charity single or concert, perhaps to assuage their guilt for not being better persons.

If celebs they put their considerable wealth into buying legitimate products and services — be they yachts, cars, first-class airfares, stays at seven-star hotels or whatever — they are, at least, doing something for the rest of us thanks to the (imperfect) laws of trickle-down economics. By spending vast amounts of money on drugs, they are simply being selfish idiots who are doing more harm than good, no matter what they say when the cameras are on.

Here endeth the sermon.

Words on the way out


I believe the much-heralded death of newspapers — those that are printed on paper and delivered to your doorstep or sold in nearby shops — is still a long way off. But it has occurred to me that, when they do disappear, so, too, will a wonderful collection of English words and phrases.

I’m thinking particularly about “headline words”: impactful, usually monosyllabic, words that aren’t exactly in common usage but have the advantage of being short enough to fit into the small amount of space allowed in your typical tabloid layout.

Since web-page designs are often more flexible, and the common online practice is to use a lot of words in headings for search-engine-optimisation purposes, it’s likely that many headline words are on the way out.

Here are some examples:

Hike: as in “price hike”. (The more common word “rise” has the same letter count, but hike conveys more urgency, or even sinister undertones.)

Raft: not your basic boat, but a “raft of new laws”.

Bid: attempt. Often used as a verb, as in “Brett bids for title.”

Probe: inquiry.

Grab: theft (real, or as a result of a tax hike).

Nab: when “grab” is too long.

Lash, slam, blast: to criticise.

Any others?

(This is an updated version of a post originally published on in 2012.)

Land of contrasts

I used to live in Hong Kong back in 1996-97. It took a long while for me to get back, but when I did, a friend and I went off the beaten track — to the Victorian-era reservoir on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island.

There are some pictures of that here, along with some more familiar views of the city and one of my old haunts in Wan Chai.


Divorce in peace


A Facebook friend  recently opened up a discussion about divorce ceremonies. Some people were broadly in favour of the idea, but the concept of a formal ceremony to put an end to a marriage saddens and horrifies me.

Unlike most weddings — you can, of course, choose to elope — a divorce is a very private affair. Even if the decision to break up is mutual, the reasons behind it are, or at least should be, private. It’s a matter of basic respect. When children are involved, the situation is even more sensitive, and it’s their interests that must come first.

The days when divorce court cases were gleefully reported in newspapers and other media are, thankfully, over.

The breakdown of a marriage is — or ought to be — a cause for sorrow rather than celebration.

When the British actor and comedian Dawn French was interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs program, she discussed her breakup from fellow comic Lenny Henry. She said they sat down together and had a long conversation, including a lot of laughs, as they worked through the situation and came to the inevitable conclusion.

It’s not coincidental that the friend who was seeking opinions on divorce ceremonies was a marriage celebrant. He was, I suppose, guaging what level of interest there might be in a new product line — like a greeting card company wondering whether it should try to invent a special occasion (“Great-grandparents’ Day”, anybody?) just to beef up sales.

If people want divorce ceremonies, then it’s not for me to stop them. If the market is there, it’s inevitable that somebody like my FB friend will seek to fill it. I might do the same thing if I were in his position. But then, having gone through a divorce myself, I would find it painful to be part of any pretense that the failure of a marriage is anything to celebrate.

Yes, there are many reasons to walk away from a marriage — especially if domestic violence is involved — but I really can’t think of a reason to celebrate a divorce with a wedding-like ceremony, and certainly not while the other person is in the room.

If you need some closure after breaking up, do it informally among friends.

No time for small talk

I was a 20-something Aussie far from home. It was my first week of working in the UK, and a colleague greeted me with: “Good morning, Brett, how are you?”

“Well,” I replied,“I’m feeling a little tired. Just starting to find my way around, but …”

“No,” he interjected. “You don’t understand the convention here. When I say, ‘How are you?’, I’m not interested in how you are or what you are doing, it’s just an expression. I say ‘How are you?’, you say, ‘Good’, ‘Fine’ or whatever and then we just shut up and get on with the job.”

I was a little taken aback by this, because I am rather fond of small talk.

To me, it’s the trivial stuff that greases the wheels for the bigger conversations about great matters. An appetiser before the main course. The overture to the opera. The … well, you know what I mean.

Would it really have hurt my erstwhile workmate to at least pretend he was interested in my health and how I was adapting to life in a new country? At the time, it would have done wonders for my confidence.

And maybe I could have teased out some information from him, identified a few mutual interests and a great friendship would have emerged.

As it happens, I did make some good friends at that workplace … just not that guy.

So, the conversation continues …

You can’t say that either


A few more things I’d like to hear on the radio:

The “your chance to drive a black thunder” competition has been suspended until the police release the vehicle after the last time we ran the competition.

I am now at liberty to tell you what really happened in that park so early in the morning, so many years ago, so many miles away …

The secret sound was, in fact, a quiet plea for help from me. Yes. it has come to that.

Johnno won’t be in again today. Let’s just say he’s sick, very sick, and leave it at that.

I’d never even heard of this artist until the record company gave the content manager and me a business-class trip to LA to see his showcase, but now he’s one of my all-time favourites. I hope you like this track, too, because you’re sure going to be hearing a lot of it.

We apologise that our outside broadcast at Riverside College has been cancelled. It appears that some of us are still not allowed within 300 metres of a school.

The first person who rings in and tells us the title of the third song in that set would sure be doing us a favour. They all sound the same to us.

We really appreciate our listeners, especially now that you have the choice to fire up a playlist of your favourite songs and not have to listen to our shit.

Do you realise that if you factor in the margin for error on the last audience survey, there is a very real chance that absolutely no one is listening to me right now?

Related: You can’t say that on the radio.

Breakthrough television

Many years ago, I interviewed Mel Gibson, and I asked him how hard it was to get the green light in Hollywood to make non-mainstream films  such as his version of Hamlet, which he was then promoting.

He told me an anecdote that went something like this:

When Kenneth Branagh pitched the idea of Henry V, one potential backer asked him: “Henry Five, eh? How did Henrys One to Four do at the box office?”

I suspect it’s an apocryphal story, but it illustrates a point not only about the American movie industry, but about the current state of network television around the world.

When I visit Australia at Christmas time, and the networks are promoting the hell out of their next year’s schedules, one thing is immediate clear: everything is derivative. In the Middle East, where I now live, the language may be different, but the shows, especially the talent and cooking shows, sure look familiar — right down to the set design and the (often obviously contrived) dynamics between the hosts and judges.

It seem that every new show on free-to-air television is a reboot of something that used to do well, a franchise of something that’s done well elsewhere in the world, or a clone of another network’s successful show. Or — the final insult — a “celebrity” version of one of the aforementioned, usually starring people most of us would struggle to remember.

Nothing on the commercial channels strikes me as being truly original, because nobody’s game to back a hunch. Better to copy something else and hope lightning strikes twice than to take a risk on innovation.

The stakes are high, because they don’t have the game to themselves, and international laws and commercial realities are no longer protecting their exclusive rebroadcasting rights.

The likes of HBO, Netflix, Comedy Central and Amazon are now truly international. They are making targetted programming and delivering it directly to the audience.

Free-to-air television networks’ only chance of long-term survival is if they seriously invest in content creation, and become global players.

If they’re going to succeed, they will have to take some real risks and seek out ideas from people other than the usual suspects. They already have the studios and the technical expertise.

In television, as in all else, fortune (often) favours the brave.

You can’t say that on the radio


I’ve always loved listening to – and being heard on — radio. The opportunities for the latter are not so great where I am right now, but it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the medium.

Thanks to Google, I stumbled across a piece I wrote a few years ago, titled Things I’d like to hear on radio. Here it is with a couple of updates and modifications for this new frequency:

“This being the ABC, I am not supposed to venture a personal opinion on air, but after what you just said Cyril, I’m prepared to risk my career and make an exception.”

“Cheryl, stop gushing like you’re the only woman in the world who as ever had a baby. If you tell one more cutesy story about your illbegotten offspring, I will projectile vomit over you and the entire studio.”

“If you really think we get this perky in the morning just by drinking products from our sponsor, you are very much mistaken.”

“Actually, Bruce, you may think you speak for the silent majority but you are a hateful, bigoted man who has never achieved anything of significance in your miserable life and rather than be angry with yourself, you have externalised the blame on people who are making an honest effort to make a go of their own lives, and are prepared to risk what little they have to create a brighter future for their families.”

“You know what Shazza, I am constantly amazed by the extent to which so many of our listeners are prepared to demean themselves to win a worthless prize we contra-ed from one of the advertisers.”

“Rather than hook young Darlene up to the lie-detector, I’m going to attach it to myself and tell you all what I really think.”

“If you don’t stop leering at me Bazza, I’ll send those pictures from the last awards night to your wife.”

“Despite explicit instructions to the contrary from station management, I have decided to henceforth refer to myself by my given name, Michael, rather than the childish epithet of ‘Beano’.”

“Who are we kidding, we know most of you are only listening because you like the music, and that you change station whenever an ad comes on or we start talking.”

“And the whole gang from the station will be at the big listeners’ party on Friday night, even though we’d rather apply a dentist’s drill to our eyeballs than meet any of you smelly idiots.”

“Do you seriously think I use any of the products I endorse on air? I have to put on surgical gloves just to touch the huge wads of cash they pay for me doing this.

“No, by all means, do keep talking Doris. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, nobody else is listening and, on the money they’re paying me for this graveyard shift, I literally do not have a home to go to.”

“I hate you all.”

Getting even with Stephen


I’ve been reading quite a lot lately about hypnosis. I’m particularly interested in its potential for therapy, but I also believe I’d have made quite a good stage hypnotist. Perhaps there is still time for that.

I don’t believe I have ever been truly hypnotised — certainly not by a kind of creepy guy who tried to do it to me at an alternative health and wellbeing fair in Brisbane a couple of decades ago, and not by some of the tapes and videos I’ve recently purchased.

While the people who, supposedly, know about this sort of stuff say that anybody can be hypnotised (even those who stubbornly resist it, although they take longer), I think my problem has been that I’m too engaged with the process — wanting to understand what’s going on, rather than giving in to it.

Having said that, I have been in a kind of hypnotic state that occurs during dreams. While not entirely ruling out the possibility that I am a freak, I assume others also know about that point in your slumber where you are aware that while what you are experiencing may seem quite real, it is a dream. It usually happens to me not long before I wake up to attend to a call of nature.

Unless it’s a nightmare, I usually find it quite disappointing when I realise that nothing around me is actually happening. It’s especially poignant when the dream involves people who have died (like my father, who regularly appears in my dreams), or situations that evoke actual or contrived happier times.

I read once that our dreams all have meanings, and that we should record them in the hope that they cast light on current or future events. Prince Charles apparently does this — or, at least, has someone do it for him — but that may not be the best recommendation.

For that reason alone, I am now noting that I’ve just woken up from a nap in which I was at a dinner party with some of my real friends and family along with the comedian/ author/ polymath Stephen Fry who, for reasons now not clear, threw up over me. At the point in which I realised it was just a dream, and thus began to wake up, Stephen was furiously trying to clean me up with a towel while I was imploring another friend to grab a camera and register the moment for my Twitter feed.

I was sad to wake up because I really do wish Stephen Fry was among my circle of friends. And I’d certainly love to be able to post that picture.

Facebook warning

There is a new scam on Facebook where people write nasty things about you, and then they post something like this:

There is a new scam on Facebook where nasty things are posted about your friends on Facebook, and you have no control over it. So to warn your friends, I suggest you cut and paste this post (DON’T SHARE IT) and warn them that the nasty things said about them in posts from you aren’t really from you.

I suggest everybody stop writing nasty things on Facebook — especially chain letter-style nonsense with implicit or explicit threats towards people who don’t share the scare. You can cut and paste this to your status is you like, but I don’t care if you don’t.

I love social media, but I really hate the way some people use it.

End of an error?

This is not a political blog, but I feel that I should write something about the party room coup that saw Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott ousted by Communications Minister, and former Liberal Party leader, Malcolm Turnbull.

I’m a long way from Canberra now, and I’m not sure how that impacts on my personal viewpoint, but I have had my ear to the ground among the Australian expat community and my own circle of friends and colleagues, online and in real life, from many different national backgrounds.

The consensus seems to be that Australia is better off without Mr Abbott. And it doesn’t seem to be a party political thing. In fact – and I think this is the case in Australia, too — many Liberal Party supporters seem to be more glad to be rid of him than Labor party voters.

But one ALP supporter, who I hardly know but heard my Australian accent and wanted to engage in conversation about the issue of the day, said that he would consider voting Liberal for the first time in his life because Mr Turnbull is now in charge.

Many people — both Australians and those from other countries — have identified Mr Abbott as an embarrassment. He is talked about for all the wrong reasons — his gaffes, his “captain’s calls”, his budgie smugglers, his perceived misogyny and other old-time “values”, and all those YouTube clips that make him look, well, weird.

The people I have spoken so far seem to think that Mr Turnbull will present a more serious persona on the world stage. Whether he has anything to bring to the table, domestically or in foreign policy, remains to be seen.

As, indeed, does the tantaliszing possibility that Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver will do a follow-up to this report:

Name that tune

When I go on cruises — which has been quite often in the past three years (eight and counting) — I play a little game with myself called Cruise Ship Bingo. I have in my mind a list of popular songs and I tick them off when I hear them played onboard.

It didn’t take long for me to work out that cover bands of all stripes seem to gravitate to certain material. And while there may be a dozen or more nationalities on a ship, there are some songs that most people know. And by “most people”, I mean those people who are in the frequent cruising demographic, which is, generally, those 40 years of age and older. And, on some cruise lines, the average age is more like 60 or 70. So, that means a lot of music from the 1960s and 70s.

So, what numbers are top of the pops at sea? In my experience, over any given cruise you are guaranteed to hear the Beatles’ Hey JudeYMCA and In the Navy by The Village People, almost anything by Abba, a lot of Queen, disco songs by the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor and their contemporaries, Country Roads by John Denver, Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond and, quite often, I’m A Believer by the Monkees. If it’s an Italian ship, then you can throw in That’s Amore and Volare, and anything or everything by Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. If it’s British,or a reasonable number of passengers are, Living Next Door to Alice is a no-brainer. In Australian waters, you’ll get Cold Chisel’s Khe Sanh and The Angels’ Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again?

Of course, there’s always something a little more current, if you consider Pharrell Williams’s Happy current. (It also suits the narrative of how one must feel on a cruise.)

Why are these songs so popular? It’s the audience participation aspect. The chorus of Sweet Caroline, for example, is memorable and simple, there’s even a flourish the audience can add that isn’t in the official lyrics (the repetition of “so good” for Americans and, for Brits, the curious line “I don’t believe it, you’re having a laugh.”) And, while I thoroughly disapprove of karaoke (except when I’ve been roped into it, when my My Way will bring down the boat), I am fully in favour of people picking up a song and running with it.



Re-open Sesame

School were fairly sterile places when I was a child. Learning was about remembering important things and being able to repeat them when required.

That was in real life. On television, though, there were a bunch of new programs that showed learning could be fun. We had a few local versions in Australia, but the standout was the American program Sesame Street (and its short-lived sister show for older kids, The Electric Company).

With the United Arab Emirates about to get its own, Arabic-language version of Sesame Street (Iftah Ya Simsim), after a 25-year hiatus, I thought it might be a good time to wander back into the old neighbourhood.

The story is here in The National newspaper.

Plane stupid

First up, let me say that anybody who asserts that they would react entirely calmly if their aircraft was on fire, is a liar.

Of course there would be confusion and panic, as there was when BA Flight 2276 caught fire on the runway at Las Vegas this week.

But what struck me — and others — was the fact that so many of the passengers ignored the basic safety instructions that are drilled into them each time they fly via the pre-flight video.

The evidence for this is the pictures of passengers on the tarmac with their carry-on luggage.

Now I don’t care how valuable that thing in your bag is, I don’t want it creating an obstacle for me or my loved ones while I’m trying to get off a burning plane.

The challenge for all airlines in the wake of this is obvious. People are not paying attention to the videos, or they are simply ignoring them.

What’s the solution? Is it time to get a little graphic, I say, as they have in many countries with road safety commercials — show a bit of carnage on the screen to demonstrate how serious such an incident could be?

Or is it worth insisting that airlines change their videos more frequently, and make them more entertaining, so people don’t switch off. Air New Zealand has certainly won a lot of awards and gained some internet fame with its humorous videos. It’s hard to tell if they would be any more effective in the case of emergency, though.

The other option would be to scrap them altogether. Let’s face it, accidents are very rare and, sadly, when they happen, people often don’t have much of a chance at survival anyway.

A simple announcement that in case of emergency, it’s everyone for themselves, might just suffice.



Fabulous Falmouth

I’ll be honest, the only Falmouth I knew about was in England, until I saw the name included on my itinerary for a Caribbean cruise.

This one is the capital of Trelawny parish in Jamaica, and it’s a popular excursion point for visitors who like charming colonial architecture and wonderfully friendly people — and those who want to zip around to nearby Montego Bay for some seaside fun.

Here are a few pictures to give you a taste of the place:

Hills hosts


Adam Hills is one of Australian entertainment’s greatest success stories. His current show The Last Leg is a huge hit on British television, but his breakthrough on TV came in Australia with the music trivia show Spicks and Specks.

A few years ago, I asked Hills how it all came about:


Beguiling Belarus

While it’s hardly off the beaten track — it’s slap, dab in the middle of the continent — Belarus  is one of the least-visited countries in Europe.

On my three visits, flying into Minsk, I had no trouble getting a visa on arrival with my Australian passport — although on one occasion the price increased on the spot from 70 USD to 70 euro when I said I didn’t have greenbacks. As always, it’s wise to check in advance if you need a visa before booking flights.

Minsk was almost completely flattened in World War II — the small old quarter includes a church and just a few other buildings — and it was rebuilt in the late 1940s and 50s as Stalin’s model Soviet city. Some find it austere; I think it’s quite beautiful in many ways.

Don’t expect anybody to speak English, although most people will be friendly — and somewhat intrigued by your presence. I was lucky enough to have a local friend who took care of all the talking. When I had to catch a taxi on my own, I was lucky enough to know where I was going and get a driver who knew some German, so I could give basic directions. I will learn Russian one day.

Hotels were few and expensive last time I was there; but I understand that this is changing as more people discover Belarus. Rooms in private houses are available, but again you need to speak Russian (and read it on websites) to work through the maze.

While you shouldn’t need to worry too much about your own safety (unless you go to dodgy places late at night), be aware that you may be being watched by state security operatives. For your own protection, of course.

Here are some photos taken in 2009-2010.



Stan’s still the Man

Stan Lee may well be indestructible like one of the superheroes he created for Marvel Comics. I spoke to him almost 10 years ago when he was a sprightly octogenarian. He’s now 92 and still going strong.

Well before Raj on The Big Bang Theory made a big deal about the fact that many of Stan’s characters had alliterative names — Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards and so on — I got the scoop right from the source.