Silence is No Longer Golden

BOOK REVIEW: GODS AND DEMONS A foreign correspondent’s memoir | Deborah Cassrels

It’s certainly not Scoop, and Deborah Cassrels is hardly Evelyn Waugh. But there are enough fanciful echoes of imagined distant drums in Cassrels’ book, and there’s sufficient colourful reportage, to prompt consideration of the demerits of figjamery.

According to the book cover, it is a foreign correspondent’s memoir that takes the reader behind the tourist veneer of Bali and greater Indonesia. 

Well, blurb is blurb. The real mysteries and genuine delights of the archipelago will remain obscure. Little further illumination has been shone upon the 322 sheets between Cassrels’ hot covers. Indonesians, Balinese especially, will be glad that this is so. They quite like to be excluded from the glaring gaze of western impertinence, though they are very polite and rarely say so publicly.

Instead – though to give the narrative credit, it’s not all breathless – the reader is invited to a pastiche party: streams of consciousness stuck together with insubstantial vignettes. Going along for that ride is a bit like being an extra in Being There

There’s a lot of personal stuff in the book too, as befits the modern fad for laundering your linen in public rather than keeping shtum. There’s not much appetite for discretion in the self-absorbed swamp that western civilisation has become. It gets in the way of Look at Me! 

 It may surprise some readers to hear that abandoned wives who have expatriated themselves to tropical places are apt to look for sexual frisson here and there. But not many, I fancy. What may surprise is that the author has laid out clues as to places and persons – writers’ festivals and good-looking authors with finely chiselled features, e.g. – to pique the inner voyeur.  

It’s moot whether a journalist’s memoir of their time as a foreign correspondent is the right place for wink and nudge personal disclosures, if it’s designed to be taken seriously and isn’t just another I-was-wronged soliloquy.

Still, it was interesting to read Cassrels’ book because we share some of the history that is laid out within its pages. We both worked at Queensland Newspapers in Brisbane, for example, and for the same editor: Chris Mitchell. Though she was consort to Rupert’s princeling, which added some zest to our relationship. 

When I returned to Brisbane in 1983 from three years away in Papua New Guinea and fronted up at the office canteen counter the lovely lady behind it smiled at me and said, “Oh hello! Have you been on holiday?” It’s nice to be missed without having to prompt. There’s something queasily ersatz about enforced recognition. As a question, “Do you know who I am?” holds the seeds of many destructions, including derision.

Cassrels and Mitchell were later arrivals in Brisbane, following the Murdoch takeover of Queensland Newspapers. It was clear to me that I was surplus to the Murdoch circus requirements to be implemented by Mitchell. And Mitchell’s assertion that I was astonishingly well paid (he wasn’t?) didn’t worry me. I’d had a fair run. I’d managed to stay out of the limelight (journalists are supposed to report the news, not make it) and had an iron in another fire that would glow a welcome red well before Mitchell might deem it necessary to don his Black Adder archbishop of Winchester suit and approach me from behind with his own.

Never mind.

And of course, a book should be read by people who don’t know the inside story. Cassrels writes with a light touch and in a way that engages the casual reader, who will be interested to discover what happened after she arrived in Bali in 2009 with a laptop computer and a business card.

FOOTNOTE: Cassrels appears at this year’s virtual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, on Nov. 3, when she’ll be in conversation with Wayan Juniarta of The Jakarta Post. They’ll be discussing the challenges facing Indonesia, and her book. Visit ubudwritersfestival.com for the full 2020 UWRF experience.

GODS AND DEMONS Deborah Cassrels. HarperCollins. Published 2020. ISBN 978 0 7333 3890 8 (pbk) 978 1 4607 0913 9 (ebook)

HECTOR’S DIARY Bali Advertiser, Oct. 15, 2014

His fortnightly diet of worms and other non-religious experiences

Probability Prabowo

People seem to be somewhat exercised over the coalition that failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto has fashioned in the national legislature. Why this should be so is an interesting question. Indonesia is far from alone in being a democratic entity in which rival political constituencies vie for supremacy between the executive head of state and the popular assembly, sometimes with questionable people at one or the other helm. It has been a function of republican governance from ancient Rome to modern Washington.

Prabowo seeks to undermine and effectively sideline the power of the incoming president, who to his apparently still extant surprise is not himself. It’s certain that Joko Widodo will have his work cut out to lead from the Istana Negara while the Prabowo faction holds sway in the legislature.

This is not entirely novel anywhere, including in Indonesia. What makes the situation unique here is that party politics is fluid, and fully dysfunctional, rather than fully formed and in working order. Political parties have labels and compete for attention in the public space, but on the basis of their leading members’ personalities and personal desires rather than hard-worked policy. They all sing the same song, but it is a discordant one, sung in a thousand self absorbed voices. Everyone’s heard it countless times, the useless anthem Saya Pertama.

In this fractious melange, bit players come to the fore. Such as the Islamic Defenders Front, or PKI; it’s an outfit that specializes in being beside itself with rage and which literally gets away with murder. The PKI isn’t lawfully registered but no one will confront it. It doesn’t represent mainstream Indonesian opinion, but all it has to do – figuratively speaking – is drop its pants in public and everyone swoons. It parades its goon squads wherever it wants and thumbs its nose at the constitution, the law, public order and common sense, and has never heard of human rights. In this it has been aided and abetted by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (who leaves office on Oct. 20), who can only be a closet sympathizer or else feel compelled to push the funk button every time a thick-headed fundamentalist mouths his way into view.

Its latest campaign is to unseat the Indonesian Chinese Christian governor-designate of Jakarta – Jokowi’s former deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known by his diminutive, Pak Ahok – because it says Muslims shouldn’t be governed by an infidel. Never mind Pancasila, then. Forget about the plurality that was the foundation stone of Indonesia’s independence and the recognized religions enshrined in the constitution. Overlook the fact that people need services, good governance and incorruptibility rather more than episodic repertory performances by Rent-a-Mob. The FPI seems to want to shift Indonesia two or three time zones to the west, where its mind-set, preferred dress codes, misogyny and bully-boy tactics are all the rage. It doesn’t matter to them that Indonesians, overwhelmingly and very sensibly, have no such desire.

At the formal political level, however, Indonesians should not yet be too alarmed by Prabowo’s indistinct grasp of democratic principle or the astonishing luminosity that he seems to believe attaches to his self-proclaimed stellar position. All politics are compromise. The precipitate decision to de-legislate direct elections at local level, a bill SBY supinely signed into law on Oct. 7, is a foolish step too far. Even generals have to keep the troops happy.

A Fine Send-Off

This year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has come and gone – the first in seven years that the Diary has had to miss – and it was sent on its way in fine style on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 4 and 5, by some great Australian music.

The Oct. 5 closing extravaganza featured musicians ALPHAMAMA (Anita Meiruntu) and Ben Walsh. We’re really sad to have missed that. Meiruntu’s original music and passion constantly pushes the boundaries of creative expression. She’s popular in Indonesia, where she has recently toured.

Walsh is one of Australia’s most accomplished percussionists, performers and composers. He has been touring professionally since he was 18 and has made music for dance performances, the circus and film. At the UWRF closing show he performed with a number of local percussionists. By all accounts it was an explosion of creativity.

The Saturday and Sunday performances at Ubud’s ARMA Museum were supported by the Australian Embassy Jakarta as part of its Arts and Cultural Program 2014. Ambassador Greg Moriarty said of Sunday’s finale: “The talent and musical depths of both artists showcase the best of what contemporary Australia can offer and I hope the musical collaborations created during this festival will further strengthen the cultural understanding and creative connections between our two countries.”

On the Saturday there was a performance of Ontosoroh by Australian dancer and choreographer Ade Suharto and Indonesian vocalist and composer Peni Candra Rini. Suharto and Rini have been working closely over the past two years to create Ontosoroh, which tells the story of the heroic female lead Nyai Ontosoroh in the Indonesian literary classic, This Earth of Mankind, by Pramoedyah Ananta Toer.

This Australian-Indonesian collaboration explores feminine strength and the struggle for freedom.

The embassy’s Arts and Cultural Program 2014, which began in March and ends next month, includes music, visual art exhibitions, dance, literature, textiles, sport and a science and innovation seminar series. The program also includes arts residencies and exchanges involving artists from both countries.

Cliff-Top Fantasia

The lovely people at AYANA and RIMBA, whose fireworks displays so often entertain us gratis at The Cage where they light up our horizon and shortly thereafter set the local dogs barking when the sound waves hit, have introduced a new cliff-top venue, SKY.

It opened on Oct. 10 with the sort of swell party we’ve come to expect from those in charge of the plush acres on the Jimbaran end of the Bukit. Opening night was themed Kahyangan, White Beauty at Sky. The venue caters for up to 80 people on the cliff-edge deck, up to 2,000 on the lawn, offers an amphitheatre seating up to 80, and was designed by St. Legere International. It is being marketed as a great spot for weddings and special events – and comes complete with a special panoramic seat on which you can get yourself photographed with the cliff-top vista in the background.

The opening featured the full repertoire of son et lumiere – yes, including fireworks – for which the property is renowned and was MC’d by Denada, the well-known former rapper and Dangdut singer.

Sinking Fund

Celia Gregory, the British underwater sculptor and the Diary’s favourite mermaid, tells us of an interesting crowd-funding scheme for her Marine Foundation’s living sculptures in the sea program. They’re chasing GBP 4,000 (that’s around Rp 78.5 million) to pay for a film being made on Aspara, their most recent sculpture.

Apsara will be sunk into her underwater home in Jemaluk Bay at Amed, East Bali, on Oct. 22 where three village communities with the help of Reef Check Indonesia and CORAL are working to establish effective marine management and become guardians to their coral garden and fish nursery preserving its well-being for future generations.

Gregory says the art work is inspired by the Apsaras, ancient Hindu spirits who are very beautiful and wonderful dancers that in many ways have qualities similar to the Greek fables of the sirens and mermaids. The sculpture has been designed to provide a hiding place for fish and a solid surface for corals and sea creatures to settle. The Sinking of the Apsara into the underwater coral and fish garden is seen as a unique creative opportunity to make an inspirational and uplifting short film.

It would also help promote Amed and Bali, which is a worthwhile project in itself.

When we checked on Oct. 7, our deadline day, the funding site was saying they’d raised GBP1,128, which is 28 per cent of their target. The campaign closes on Oct. 30.

Go here if you’d like to help: indiegogo.com/projects/apsara-spirits-of-the-sea

Get Walking

Just a reminder that this year’s Bali Pink Ribbon Walk against breast cancer is on Oct. 25. It’s in the walk-friendly environment of the Nusa Dua tourism precinct, the manicured bit behind the security gates. It’s a great cause and the Diary’s one day of the year for wearing pink. Full details are on the web at balipinkribbon.com. The Bali Advertiser is a sponsor.

Hector tweets @scratchings on Twitter