d e a n   f o r b e S                                                        knowledge economy - universities - cities

BLOG 2016                                                       scroll down to see more 2016 blogs


M and I will be watching the Sydney New Year fireworks this year. I am optimistic that we will get a decent view from Pyrmont. Yes it will be crowded. Yes, we will probably also amble down to Darling Harbour. Yes, we probably won’t get much sleep as the crowds will take forever to dissipate.

And no, we won’t be morosely reflecting on 2016. 

There were many highlights during the year. The birth of my sixth grand child, the beautiful Marina, in Buenos Aires, and a couple of weeks in BA to get to know her. The visit to Australia by Sarah and Adele, and our family get together with Megan and Faye’s families over Christmas at Rye. Our week in The Naked House in Koh Samui with M’s crew. Attending M’s family wedding in Santorini and making our way around Greece. See the Townske pages on BA and Greece for more!

I read 11 great books and I wrote about them in the blog. David Walsh’s A Bone of Fact; Tim Winton’s Island Home: A Landscape Memoir; Patti Smith’s M Train; Robyn Gunther’s Disturbed Ground: Poems, Paintings and Photographs; Marcus Westbury’s Creating Cities; Patti Miller’s Ransacking Paris: A Year with Montaigne and Friends; Annabel Crabb’s Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull; David Marr’s Faction Man (Bill Shorten); Clive James’ Latest Readings; Stephen FitzGerald’s Comrade Ambassador; Sean Dorney’s The Embarrassed Colonialist; Peter Monteath and Valerie Munt’s Red Professor: The Cold War Life of Fred Rose; Drusilla Modjeska’s Second Half First: A Memoir (a brief review will appear in 2017). I enjoyed every one of them; if I don’t like a book I simply don’t read it. So it’s hard to choose a favourite. So I won’t.

2016 also had more than its share of disaster, shock and outrage. Too many catastrophes to list, but no amount of thoughtful reflection on the election of Donald Trump gives me even a tea-spoon of hope about his Presidency.

And some sad moments, notably the passing of Faith Trent in January. I wrote about her in the blog.

Leonard Cohen’s passing in November brought back many memories. I first heard his music in Port Moresby in 1972. It was an emotionally tough time for me. Cohen’s music played to my deep sadness but his brilliant soulful words and songs about the bohemian life of singers and musicians in and around New York’s Chelsea Hotel opened my eyes.

I bought second hand copies of his two novels, and like most people, never managed to read more than a page or two. I also acquired several of his volumes of poetry. But it was the words in his songs that left a deep and lasting impression. About ‘the aristocracy of the intellect’; being ‘blessed with amnesia’; and perhaps his best known ‘there’s a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in’. For 44 years I never tired of listening to his music.

We went to Cohen’s fabulous concerts in McClaren Vale in 2009 and at Hanging Rock in 2010. In 2012 M and I were in Dublin. I was attending a conference. We heard that Cohen and his group were due in town for a concert. We were returning to our hotel one afternoon and noticed a number of people, predominantly dressed in black, mingling in the reception area.

M and I walked through the group and stood at an elevator. Leonard Cohen ambled over, a half smile on his face, and waited with us. Our eyes bulged. We got in and the doors closed. M asked if the rain would affect the concert. Cohen replied again with a half smile: ‘it is what it is’. And with that he graciously wished us goodbye and stepped out on his floor.

I tweeted our encounter, and received several replies asking to know in which hotel he was staying. I didn’t respond. It was our secret. RIP Leonard Cohen. (30/12/16)


Biographies of Australian social scientists are almost as rare as an Adelaide Crows Premiership; when they make it to publication I seek them out. Fred Rose’s (1915-1991) life was exceptionally interesting; he was an anthropologist and a committed Marxist, with murky connections to Soviet agents and the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) Stasi.

Peter Monteath and Valerie Munt have crafted a meticulously researched and referenced academic biography. They stick close to the sources keeping speculation and guesswork to a minimum. Both authors are based at Flinders University – an extra tick!.

Fred Rose was born and raised in the UK, graduating from ‘red Cambridge’ in the 1930s. He was attracted to anthropology by the likes of A.C. Haddon and Bronislaw Malinowski, graduating in 1936 with a degree in anthropology and an interest in Australian aboriginal communities.

His approach on arrival in Australia was unusual. Lacking the qualifications for a university appointment, he sought out opportunities to earn an income with the weather bureau and pursue his scholarly work at the same time. He was an independent researcher. Following his exposure at Cambridge Rose joined the Communist Party of Australia. ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) took a close interest in him.

His move to Canberra in the late 1940s was particularly interesting. He connected up with many people working in the Research School of Pacific Studies at The Australian National University, including Peter Worsley, a young anthropologist, and historian Robin Gollan. Oskar Spate, who Rose met at Cambridge, became a much lauded senior Research School Professor. Having spent the 1980s in the same Research School I was intrigued by his story. Rose lived at 25 Froggatt St Turner, a few houses away from where I lived in David St. Who knew the level of intrigue in small town Canberra in the early post war years?

Frustrated by his failure to secure an academic post, Rose left Australia in the late 1950s for a position at Humboldt University in Berlin and later at the Museum fur Volkarkunde in Leipzig. He regularly returned to Australia to pursue his studies of aboriginal communities.

Fred Rose remained politically active. Monteath and Munt have delved into the massive archives of the GDR’s Stasi. Rose’s file alone came to 2,000 pages. Their level of commitment to the cause was breathtaking. Both Fred Rose and his wife Edith regularly reported on each other and their children to the Stasi. That is how committed they were to the communist cause.

If you are interested in stories about the later years of communism in Australia or the GDR , or the lives of researchers and academics with an interest and commitment to aboriginal Australia, put this book on your Goodreads list. 

Peter Monteath and Valerie Munt 2015 Red Professor: The Cold War Life of Fred Rose, Wakefield Press, Adelaide. (10/12/16)


It doesn’t take much imagination to identify where the social sciences has an impact on public policy.

Economics, for instance. The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), attributed to Bruce Chapman, has had a positive impact on the structure of student higher education funding. Unfortunately the impact on public vocational education has been disappointing, if not catastrophic, due to poor policy implementation architecture.

The loudest voices in the higher education segment of the knowledge economy favour the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines. Fair enough; we all benefit from a stronger, targeted commitment to STEM. It would be a grave error if the STEM enthusiasts intentionally or unintentionally steam-rolled the social sciences

To stop this happening, the social sciences needs its advocates. In the US we see far-right politicians on a mission to exclude political science from the academy. Nothing so partisan is happening in Australia, yet, but the social sciences struggle to maintain their respect in political discussions, being perceived as excessively aligned with the left.

This year’s Symposium by the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia focused on policy impacts. The UK has been trying to sort this out for some time, as have social scientists in Australia. There is an eye-glazing wealth of written material to elaborate on the policy worthiness of the social sciences, so I will limit myself to what I thought were a few of the more interesting comments. 

•  The talk is about knowledge brokering and how it can be improved.

•  Para-academics and/or public intellectuals straddle policy and academia and span the divide between government and the social sciences and are often oriented towards policy influence.

•  Analysts in the large consultancy firms don’t read academic documents unless they are short and easily accessible.

•  UK social scientists are very active in sharpening (if that is the right word) the measurement of social sciences impact.

•  Policy is mainly about trying, testing and learning from the experience.

•  Getting from the outcomes of research to fully explaining the ‘so what’ is critical.

•  Charts are very important in enhancing the impact of research on policy.

•  Learn how to create a constituency for research findings: identify allies, opinion leaders and early adopters; create emotion around the topic; use accessible language; record for podcasting (and YouTube); provide open access to writings; frame the problem as a crisis and hence attract the media.

•  Nothing of consequence was said about the impact of social media on policy. I’m guessing because there may not be much impact. Econometric research, it was said, has little impact on policy.

It was a worthy topic and a good event and the ASSA and the Convenor of the Symposium, Brian Head from the University of Queensland, are to be congratulated.

And the funniest comment of the day (the day of the US Presidential election) was recalling one of Trump’s supporters opining, ‘the fact checkers are entitled to their opinions’.

‘Social Sciences: Understanding Policy Impacts’. Academy of Social Sciences in Australia 2016 Symposium, Canberra, 8 November 2016. The ASSA website link is here. Currently the link provides access to all Symposia to 2015, but not the 2016 Symposium. I will update when this happens.

Also of interest: ISSC, IDS and UNESCO (2016), World Social Science Report 2016, Challenging Inequalities: Pathways to a Just World, UNESCO Publishing, Paris. (4/12/16)


Sean Dorney has been in (and sometimes out) of PNG for more than 40 years. The Embarrassed Colonialist, for that is indeed the book’s title, is a concise, informative overview of where PNG is at, from the perspective of a committed journalist.

He first arrived in Port Moresby in early 1974. I was living there at the time though I can’t recall us ever meeting. For decades I have regularly read or listened to his reports.

Dorney has mainly worked in the media, and that is reflected in the structure and content of this book. It covers a broad range of topics, and it derives a lot of content from four decades of interviews and first hand experiences. It is easy to read; it has brought me up to date on recent history and provides an insight into a plethora of issues facing PNG.

Despite the books brevity – a mere 136 pages – I have confidence in the stories he tells. His early chapter on ‘A Personal Journey’ is brief, and could have usefully been longer. I would like to have heard more about what he really feels about the changes in PNG over the last 40 years. Let’s hope a more substantial memoir is a possibility.

PNG and Australia are still closely linked. The Australian High Commission in Port Moresby has more staff than the Embassy in Washington. Yet Dorney argues that PNG leaders do not feel Australia is particularly interested in the relationship, or has sufficient confidence in the PNG government.

A case in point is the development aid relationship (pp 75-80). Australia has been a significant aid donor for many years and up until recently provided aid as a grant for PNG to spend on its priorities. However the $477 million of aid funding for 2015-16 is project based tied aid.

PNG is not happy about the new arrangements, saying it signals a lack of confidence in PNG governance. It probably does. They complain that the frequent turnover of Australians working on aid programs drains the energy of local staff; many Australian expatriates also feel their knowledge and expertise is undervalued by Australia. Again, probably both true.

During some work on urban water matters in Port Moresby in the mid 1980s I confronted similar issues. I turned down the program being assessed. The local (British) expatriates in charge were particularly annoyed, and rather condescending, but the truth was there was no credible evidence the program could be financially sustainable. 

PNG has been independent for over 40 years. It simply must acknowledge that the Australian government and taxpayers are entitled to expect a level of accountability for the spending of aid funds. An automatic annual cash transfer is probably not the best alternative. The problem is solvable, however, if both sides sat down and worked out a different model for aid delivery. 

Oh, and the book’s title. Australians, he says, never accepted that we were a colonial power (p 11). More like a big brother or a benevolent uncle. Dorney objects. Australia was a colonial power, even if that is an embarrassment. Get over it. 

Sean Dorney 2016 The Embarrassed Colonialist, Lowy Institute, Sydney. (4/11/16)


It took a few months to get hold of Stephen FitzGerald’s Comrade Ambassador, the book. It was lost somewhere in the Haymarket branch of the City of Sydney Library. Perhaps a miffed rival was being mischievous.

FitzGerald became prominent as a China specialist, his career taking off when appointed by Gough Whitlam as Australia’s first Ambassador to Mao Zedong’s China. When I started to read it my first impressions were that it would be hard going. But that soon changed. It’s dense, but mostly moves along quickly.

He is scathing about Australia in the 1960s when he says we suffered from ‘the intellectual deficit of having no Asia-educated leadership or public.’ (p 59).

The turnaround came with the emergence of Gough Whitlam as leader of the Labor Party. FitzGerald writes fondly of Whitlam’s opening of links with China and of his respect for Malcolm Fraser’s attempts to sustain those links. He lends strong support for the extension of Australia’s role in East and Southeast Asia during the regimes led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. But after that, FitzGerald maintains, it has been all downhill.

FitzGerald is scathing of what he saw as John Howard’s attempt to rein in Australia’s blooming Asian engagement and frustrated by Alexander Downer’s ‘boyish enthusiasm’ but inability to have more impact on the government’s Asian policy.  He is scornful of the post-Howard efforts of both parties and their leaders, Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten, to build and sustain a firmly rooted Asian connection.

Along the way there are many highlights drawn from FitzGerald’s frequent trips to Asia. He has a witty account of a dinner hosted by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai who asked Gough Whitlam whether the gentleman at the end of the table, Laurie Oakes, was in fact Chinese (p 77). There is also a good description of Taipei in the 1960s (p 34) and Tianjin in 1976, when he and the Frasers’ were caught in the massive Tangshan earthquake (p 151).

Despite his connections with the University of New South Wales he dismisses Australia’s universities saying they are more interested in ‘money than ideas’ (p 228). He also delivers frequent trenchant criticisms of the Department of Foreign Affairs and its top staff in the 1960s and 1970s.

Towards the end of the book he dives into criticism of Australia’s ability to develop an appropriate balance in the relations with China and the USA. He is adamant about the need to stand up to China, and would like to see a foreign policy that hold back somewhat from the relationship with the USA, while at the same time developing deeper connections with Southeast Asia and ASEAN.

Stephen FitzGerald 2015 Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam’s Beijing Envoy, Melbourne University Press. (21/10/16)


How well are our primary and secondary schools doing? Regrettably, both of the schools I attended performed disappointingly. Let me explain.

Being able to measure the quality of a primary and secondary education is a fundamental pre-requisite to building a successful knowledge economy. The 2015 National Assessment Program measures performance in reading, writing and numeracy. The data was consolidated and published in The Weekend Australian on 1-2 October.

Brighton Secondary School was called Brighton High during my five years there. It didn’t place in the The Nation’s Top 100 Secondary Schools across the whole of Australia. More telling, though, Brighton failed to make it into the top 40 Secondary Schools in South Australia. Nor did any of the other public schools I thought of good quality. No surprise, I guess: 38 of the 40 top performers were private schools!

Although Brighton Secondary did not score well, nor did South Australian (SA) schools as a whole. NSW schools dominated the national secondary schools top 100 list; only two South Australian schools featured, and both were private schools ranked at 53 and 61. No South Australian schools were ranked in the top 49 comprehensive secondary schools. A somewhat better five SA schools were listed in the 50 Most Improved Secondary Schools.

A closer look at the Secondary Schools lists reveals that selective government schools dominate 20 of the top 21 spots. The independents then account for all but five of those ranked from 22 to 100.

It wasn’t any better for SA in the primary schools rankings. Three generations – my father, myself and two of my four children – attended Glenelg Primary School. Only one SA primary school made it into the top 99 Comprehensive Primary Schools, and it wasn’t Glenelg Primary. Only one SA school featured in the 49 most improved primary schools (and, no, it wasn’t Glenelg). Within SA there was a roughly even split of the 40 top primary schools: 25 were private, including the top six, and 15 public. 

Where South Australia did feature was the Least Funding Per Student category. Some 31 SA primary and secondary schools are in the list of 50 receiving the least funding per student. Glenelg Primary ranked in the bottom 14 in the Nation’s 50 least funded. That’s a clue, I think.

I’m not into teacher- or school-bashing, but this is woeful. SA schools under-performed. The scoring system may have its faults, but the results suggest there are some fundamental issues that SA needs to address. Does the Government have the appetite?

2015 National Assessments Program – Literature and Numeracy (NAPLAN). On the My School website. Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. (17/10/16)


Another posting on Townske: Santorini, Athens, Meteora. Two in less than a week, both combining my blog with a selection of photos taken on the run. (11/10/16)


Buenos Aires in 11 1/2 Days has been posted on Townske. I based it on my blog on Buenos Aires and incorporated photographs.

And while I’m on the subject of Townske I should (proudly, but humbly) mention my Townske page on  Singapore’s Arts and Heritage District is now on the Singapore Parkroyal Site. Very pleased they are working with the Townske guys. (8/10/16)


A 14 hour flight from Sydney to Dubai wedged in a small seat on an almost full Qantas A380. An ordeal. It helps that there is a spare seat between us, but we still must queue to get into the bathroom. Neither Qantas food or legroom is as good as it once was, or up to the standard of its code share partner, Emirates. But the frequent flyer points…

The Business Lounge in Dubai is excellent; M relaxes with a shower. But we are drained by the 10 hour wait for the connecting flight. Soon after the Emirates Boeing 777 touched down in Athens several passengers grabbed their bags and wander the aisles. The Emirates staff are silent.

Overnight in the Sofitel Athens at the airport, then an early morning 45 minute Aegean flight to Santorini. M and I have similar first reactions: Santorini reminds us both of Koh Samui! A small, busy, scrappy island with poor infrastructure and a big reputation.

Six nights in the Rhapsody Apartments in Imerovigili. We start off with a short walk to the edge of the caldera. It was immediately obvious why Santorini is so popular. Gob smacking views of the settlements stretching from Fira through Firostefani to Imerovigili. And the view was even more fabulous at sunset.

A Greek coffee at the Rocka Café Bar. The lone barista is very old and exceptionally slow. We are unconcerned because we are still jet lagged and the views are spectacular. Not so one of his customers who is rebuked several times for trying to order while our coffees were being patiently brewed and a toastie warmed. I was secretly delighted: a rare victory for the aged. 

We meet M’s brother and his wife and walk along the narrow but busy road to find a restaurant. It is our first day and we haven’t yet discovered the cliff top footpath. We choose Romantica in Firostefani. We are the first customers as Greeks and most visitors dine late. A small carafe of clear spirit that may be ouzo is brought to our table by a high spirited and chatty waiter. I choose a moussaka dish; the first of many. 

Clive James Latest Readings is my choice for Greece. It is a short book so I ration my daily read. I ask myself, what would Clive think of Santorini? My mind goes blank.

Motorised quadbikes are everywhere, often driven by young people in swimmers or flimsy summer clothes and without helmets. Many drive recklessly, speeding and swerving. I cringe and imagine skin shredded by falling off a bike.

At the front of a bar in Fira is a Victoria Bitter sign and next to it a hand drawn notice saying ‘There is no better sunscreen than sitting in a bar’.

Advice is not to drink Santorini tap water. I am dispatched to the tiny Ilios Supermarket and buy six litres of water, a few grocery items and a sweet twist from the in-store patisserie. I lumber, perspiring, down the hill to the Rhapsody.

We are in Santorini to attend a wedding. A wooden motorboat is chartered for a pre-event get together. The bus collects guests from Imerovigili and we head for the port of Athinios. We zigzag down an extraordinarily steep incline, often stopping and reversing to allow upcoming vehicles to pass or to round the sharp bends. We are perilously close to the low stone safety wall that in many places has crumbled. The driver chats with passengers as I can’t resist looking down the steep slopes, even as my blood slowly drains.

Looking back at the cliffs of the caldera from the motorboat reinforces their steepness and height and the beauty of the clusters of white dwellings. We stop on Thirassia and on the dark, volcanic Nea Kameni in the centre of the arc of islands. We drink beer looking back at the massive caldera walls. 

The wedding is at La Maltese, perched on the caldera’s edge at Imerovigili. We gather in the warm afternoon looking out across the caldera framing a hot setting sun. We drink and chat. The ceremony is held on the plaza as we shield our eyes from the setting sun.

Dinner follows with five lengthy but revealing and witty speeches. Afterwards the dancing goes on until well after midnight. A late night fireworks display leaves me wondering whether the occupants of the homes and hotels surrounding La Maltese enjoyed the noisy midnight spectacle as much as we did.

After a slow morning recovery we travel to Oia. It’s clearly visible from Imerovigili and just 15 minutes by taxi. Oia is a small upmarket resort town like Imerovigili only with better paved walkways and more high end shops. And tourist joints. I notice a women wearing an ‘Adventure before Dementia’ t-shirt. Oia is the place people go to for the sunsets, though I find it hard to believe it is that much better than from Imerovigili. By late afternoon we had had enough.

M was determined to see beyond the main towns so we hire a car and driver. We circumnavigated the island seeing the black sands and vast numbers of beach umbrellas at Perrisa, the Red Beach, the cute hillside town of Pyrgos, the Profitis Ilias monastery and the Akrotiri lighthouse. Fleshing out the historical depth of Santorini exhausts me, but not M.

Despite the allure of Santorini we are looking forward to seeing Athens. The terminal at Santorini is chaotic, but the milling crowds instinctively know where to find the buses to get to the planes and we are soon on the Aegean flight to Athens. (29/9/16)


After the dry dust of Santorini I was impressed by the green Athens landscape and the vast spread of white buildings. We settle in to our Kolonaki apartment and eat lunch at Zoe’s Premium Latteria. For the only time on our visit, no one spoke English.

Fuelled by a solid Greek lunch we begin our exploration of inner Athens, starting with Kolonaki, Syntagma and Plaka. My, what a lot of shops! When not busy the shopkeepers sit on chairs in the middle of the narrow walkways.

Next morning we have a brilliant brunch in Nice N’ Easy in Omirou street, Kolonaki. Despite its pedestrian name it has a great location, coffee and food and excellent service. Post on facebook a photo of a happy M eating omelet.

Bought tickets on the open top bus and we see Athens sitting in the fresh air and sunshine. Walk around the Acropolis and the Parthenon in awe; its’ international prominence make it somewhat familiar.

Dinner in Café Boheme, on the ground floor of our apartment building. Pizza, an excellent green salad, red wine and plenty of atmosphere. Finish with a gratis plate of fruit; bliss.

A visit to the National Museum of Contemporary Art was a given. It’s what we do in cities we visit. We bus and then walk a kilometer or two, only to find it has been rebuilt and wasn’t opening again until November. No signage. No information at the site.

Frustrated we return to have another look at the Acropolis, then catch a bus to the harbour at Piraeus. I make a lame comment about Pyrmont, which is rather small, cruising ship-wise, compared to Pireaus. But at least people in Pyrmont coffee shops don’t smoke at the table next to us!

An Ai Wei Wei exhibition is on at the Museum of Cycladic Art. It is OK but pales in comparison with the artifacts from the early period of Cycladic culture from 3,200BC to 2000BC. The centerpieces are beautiful, elegant images of people in carved marble, stone and clay. I am emotionally side swiped and could feel myself becoming more and more profoundly respectful of the ancient civilizations of this part of the Mediterranean. These sophisticated sculptures date back over 5,000 years! And we only entered the Museum by chance.

I was starting to transcend my sporadic interest in ancient history and become more respectful and inquisitive about the history and spirit of the region. We were briefly told about the Cycladic civilizations whilst on Santorini, and, of course the history of the island and the massive impact of the volcanic events 3,600 years ago.

Confronting the Cycladic art has a deep emotional impact. I try to imagine the lives of people who probably looked a lot like Mediterranean people do now and produced works of art that seemed simultaneously very contemporary and very ancient.

In the evening we intend eating at Il Postino, but it is closed. Our second choice is Rosebud, a bar and vegetarian restaurant located next to Nice N’ Easy. Both were recommended in the Lonely Planet. There are many vegetarian restaurants in Greece because the Greek Orthodox religion requires regular fasting. However, Rosebud’s food is ordinary and the smoke blowing in to the restaurant from the young patrons in the bar was irritating. (29/9/16) 


On a four day road trip starting in Athens; the first destinations are in the Peloponnese. Antonias drives and our guide is Dimitra. In addition to Greek, she is fluent in French and English. She is inclined to add an ‘a’ to English nouns: we are in Greece-a; go through the gate-a. By 9.15 am half the passengers are asleep. Not even views of Athens sprawl or frequent stops to pay road tolls disturbs their sleep.

Arriving at the Corinth Canal we peer down the steep 45 metre hand-cut walls to the water below. Next we stop at Epidavros. Its’ giant amphitheatre could seat 14,000 people and was the second largest in Greece. M and I climb to the top. The acoustics are so good we could hear the conversations on the stage a distance away.

We pass through Nafplio and on to Mycenae, which was the centre of the Greek world from the 16th to 12th century BC. Next we drive across the Peloponnese to Olympia and overnight in the Amalia Hotel. Over the Amalia’s buffet dinner we chat with others on the tour. A Chinese-American is a well known artist; an American is, by his own admission, a tour addict, and wears a T-Shirt from his recent visit to North Korea. Australians are the largest group.

Impressed by the original site of the Olympic Games. It is extraordinary that the Games commenced in the 2nd Millenium BC and survived until the 5th Century AD. The time span is mind boggling. The god Zeus was supreme for centuries, but ultimately the Games was undermined by Christian rivals.

We travel north and cross the isthmus over the giant suspension bridge at Antirio. It is a similar design to Sydney’s Anzac Bridge, but much longer. The road from Antirio through to Delphi reminds me of the Great Ocean Road, hugging the coast with spectacularly deep cliffs to the ocean far below.

A coffee break in Nafpaktos. It is Sunday and the cafés around the photogenic harbor are full. Many young people sit at tables smoking, drinking espresso and looking scornfully at aging travellers.

Arriving in Delphi we check in to another Amalia Hotel. Another buffet, similar to the last. Delphi is perched high up the slopes of Mt Parnassos and the Gulf of Corinth is visible in the distance. It’s said that Delphi has ‘spirit of place’; it was once considered ‘the navel of the world’.

There is a light drizzle as we walk through the town and gaze over the giant cliffs and across the valleys to the sea. We were the only visitors so the shopkeepers came out to unsuccessfully entice us in to their overstocked shops.

An absorbing stroll through the Delphi Archeological Museum, one of the best in Greece. I climb up the hillside behind the Museum to the beat of Zorba the Greek; it is embedded in my brain. We pass the remains of the Treasury of the Athinios. It is empty. I amuse myself by thinking of it as a metaphor for the current financial situation of Greece-a.

Leaving Delphi we head north, climbing through extraordinarily high mountains. The roads are narrow with countless hairpin bends and moderate traffic. Our driver is skilled. The final overnight stop is the Amalia Hotel in Kalambaka. There is ongoing confusion with room numbers as hotels often don’t include the floor number of rooms.

It is a short drive in the morning to Meteora. Huge mountains rise vertically with monastery’s perched on the top or inserted into outcrops. We are scheduled to visit two, but I worry about how I will cope. Will I be expected to climb up on ladders and narrow steps? False alarm.

The Monastery of Varlaam, which dates from 1350, is open. We enter over bridges and climb up stone stairways cut into the outside of the mountain. Avoiding the outer stairway edge I comfortably make it to the top, and feel a sense of relief. On the small plaza outside the church the outer wall has been removed. A flimsy wooden rail nailed to posts is the sole barrier protecting visitors from a hundred metre or so drop. Workers buzz around and a group of school children do impromptu acrobatics a metre or two from the edge. An OH&S issue? Crowds pour in to the monastery and we shuffle through all the buildings, admiring the seriously good religious artwork throughout the monastery. 

We pass the Holy Trinity Monastery where one of the James Bond movies scenes was set. We walk through the 15th Century Monastery Agios Stefanes that is now a nunnery.

The crowds continue to build and in the early afternoon we leave Meteora still in awe of the large number of monasteries perched on the top of steep vertical mountains. It is an area attractive to rock climbers but I can’t imagine how they could climb many of the near vertical cliff faces. 

We drive through the late afternoon back to Athens and are dropped near City Circus Athens in Monastiraki, our last night accommodation. It is a backpacker favourite and the room is tiny. A sign in the bathroom says ’Do not throw waste or any kind of paper in the toilet’.

We stretch our legs with an early evening walk along Agion Anagyron, with its vibrant cafes, bars and small shops. The crowds are building in this funky quarter of Athens. We drop into Monastiraki metro station and buy our tickets to get to the Airport the next day.

A repeat walk along Agion Anagyron the next morning to get some exercise before our departure. We check out and walk back to the Monastiraki station and board the blue train to the Airport. To our surprise we stop at Doukissis Plakentias and a fellow passenger advises us to catch another train as the one we are on returns to Athens. We did, and it did…go back to Athens. We carry our suitcases up the stairs, across the walkway, and down the stairs on the other side. The escalators on both sides went the other way! Greece is full of surprises.

The Emirates Boeing 777 to Dubai is full, but comfortable. A four hour stop in Dubai is easy enough to take, but the long haul to Sydney is exhausting, despite the entertainment.

I watch more films on planes than in cinemas. On this trip ‘Spinal Tap’ (1984) was hilarious; ‘Cabaret’ (1972), my favorite in the 1970s, was as good as I remembered; ‘Hail Cesar’ (2016) much better than expected; ‘Whisky Tango Foxtrot’ (2016) had some character; and ‘Spotlight’ (2015) was OK. ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (2012) and ‘Elvis and Nixon’ (2016) helped pass the time. I started watching ‘Some Like it Hot’ (1959) because I was not in the mood.

We touch down in Sydney earlier than scheduled, and get through immigration and customs quickly. The Uber driver arrives within a few minutes of us calling. Arriving in Pyrmont late in the evening we think will minimize the impact of jet lag. Over the course of the next week we will find it doesn’t. (29/9/16)


Clive James’ Latest Readings is another gem. How does he do it?

This one has a casual feel to it, even though it was written as ‘the clock was ticking’. I read it a few pages at a time, because otherwise I would have finished it in an afternoon, and I wanted time to let it soak in. It provided some rare moments of calm after an exhausting day exploring the sublime landscapes of Santorini.

I was relieved to see that my bourgeoise tastes in literature did occasionally align with Clive’s ‘vestigial blue collar left’ (p 144) inclinations (which he retains despite living in not so blue collar Oxford).

Joseph Conrad was one author we both regard highly, though my interest in Conrad was primarily motivated by his visits to eastern Asia. Clive claims Nostromo to be one of the greatest books he ever read.

I also share his taste for V.S. Naipaul, and his observation that ‘we read Naipaul for his fastidious scorn, not for his large heart’ (p 100).

He persuaded me of the need to read some Ernest Hemingway, starting (and probably finishing) with The Sun Also Rises. Despite Hemingway’s chronic exaggerations and frequent repetition it is ‘the sharpness in his writing’ (p 7) that makes him worth reading.

I enjoyed the book so much that I am about to start again on Latest Readings. Just because I can.

Clive James 2015 Latest Readings, Yale University Press, New Haven (22/9/16)


Post election, it was time to read something insightful about Labor Party leader Bill Shorten. David Marr’s Faction Man proved an excellent choice.

Shorten may have ‘looked like Harry Potter in a bomber jacket’ (p 25) but in his twenties he had already set a target to become Prime Minister. The Australian Workers Union provided a power base and his demeanor signaled a ‘whatever it takes’ (p 19) approach. A ‘blue collar conservative’ (p 100) he has emerged as the power behind Labor’s right faction, known as the ShortCons. 

Marr does not hold back on Shorten’s driving ambition. Napolean is the hero of the force behind Labor’s right. He has married well, in political terms. Not many have a mother in law who was Governor General and a father in law from an earlier marriage who was a Cabinet Minister, albeit on the opposite side of politics. But watch out. Marr says ‘all his life Shorten has left behind people who feel betrayed by him’ (p 16).

There is a very funny section in Faction Man on the ‘Mad as Hell’ TV show’s focus on Shorten’s ‘zingers’. They mocked his corny lines as a desire ‘to teach the world to zing’ (p 38). Post election, the zingers seem to have all but disappeared. He has taken another step up. Bill Shorten’s book For the Common Good was published in May this year. 

David Marr 2015 Faction Man. Bill Shorten’s Path to Power. Quarterly Essay, Issue 59, Black Inc, Melbourne. (24/8/16)


In bleak moments I wonder if writing a memoir is a good idea.

I clumsily and emotionally recall my achievements and failures along with those of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. The manuscript is unlikely to be commercially published but, if it is, all those I mentioned, along with those I failed to include, find a new reason to hate me. That’s a lose-lose. Without much upside, I imagine.

Despite all that, it’s not unusual for academics, in their later years, to write books outside their professional area of expertise. I can think of three friends who have recently completed book manuscripts. One has had his second (or is it third?) crime thriller published. 

I made a conscious decision to follow the advice to ‘write about the things you know’. We have a unique knowledge of our own life. But it wasn’t just that. Mostly I read nonfiction: books on politics, cities, travel, surfing, biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. If I find these interesting, wouldn’t osmosis help me to produce some nonfiction worth reading?

Perhaps I had overstated the risks of memoir. I sought help from a pro and registered for a workshop by Kate Holden with the deft title ‘Breathing on the Mirror: Writing Memoir’. It was at the NSW Writers Centre, located in a tired old building in a beautiful park-land setting. A bonus was I could catch the light rail to Lilyfield and walk to the Centre.

There was much to like about the day. A packed and interesting presentation by Kate Holden, backed up by informative contributions from the predominantly female audience. Here are three of many meaningful arguments/points made throughout the day.

One. Write the story for yourself, in the first instance. This relieves the burden of deciding what to put in and, more importantly, what to leave out to capture and sustain a future reader. Write to satisfy yourself that you have done justice to the story. It can be edited later if needed.

Two. Be prepared for the possible downside. It might be larger than expected. Alienating family, friends and colleagues is bad enough. But a tightening of the defamation laws means anything published in books, online, or anywhere someone other than the author can read it is considered to be published and therefore has a chance of being shown to be defamatory. Just saying. 

Three. Don’t be afraid to change some of the details, such as the names of people or dates or places, albeit while retaining your understanding of the truth. Kate Holden was firm about this. In the Preface to Clive James highly regarded Unreliable Memoirs he confesses to making extensive changes. He sums it up saying: ‘so really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth’ (p 9). If Clive James can do it, and it is acclaimed, then others can too.

Memoir, though, is different to autobiography. Gore Vidal wrote in Palimpsest that ‘a memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.’ When I read an autobiography I expect it to be genuine, honest and revealing. I also expect it to be subjective and dependent on the skill and diligence of the writer. Can an autobiography contain sections of memoir?

I have a better roadmap of how to proceed and the risks involved. Now I need an extra blast of creative energy to drive the writing of 35,000 words of memoir and autobiography. (9/8/16)


How did I miss this essay on Malcolm Turnbull when it came out in 2009? It’s hilarious!

Turnbull was newly elected leader of the Liberal Party in opposition at the time; Kevin Rudd was PM. Annabel Crabb’s long essay is brave and revealing; I sense she got him more or less right. At his best when directed by forceful people like Kerry Packer, not quite as brilliant when leading as with the Australian republican push.

Crabb likens Turnbull to Kevin Rudd. That’s scary. Turnbull advises Rudd on correct pronunciation. Rudd calls Turnbull ‘The Member for Goldman Sachs’. (p 77)

It is not too hard to reconcile Turnbull the PM with Turnbull in the essay. He is still struggling, post election, of course. It is unusual for a Liberal PM to be quite so openly attacked by the conservative press and his backbenchers this early in the life of the new government. As Crabb said in 2009, the Liberals wear Turnbull as leader ‘like a borrowed suit’. (p 93)

Nevertheless, there is to Turnbull a gritty resilience. As he has said before when struggling, ‘avanti, sempre avanti’: onwards, ever onwards (p 53).

Annabel Crabb  2009 Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull. Quarterly Essay, Issue 34, Black Inc, Melbourne. (1/8/16)


Preamble: Tickets booked. The Sydney-Santiago legs on Qantas, Latam for Santiago to Buenos Aires (BA). Time to start exploring what to do, in addition to seeing the family and meeting a new grandchild. Always had a yearning to explore BA. It’s a great world city with many of its 19th and early 20th Century buildings intact. Aware of the risks of walking in some parts of the city.

Paid the 2,846 Argentinian pesos ($A273) for the Reciprocity Fee. Citizens of Australia, the US and UK pay the fee, which is of comparable value to the visa fee for Argentines coming to Australia. Tit for tat.

Commonwealth Bank has given up trading in the Argentinian peso. It fluctuates too much. Instead bought a hundred new $US10 notes. Will use cards for the rest, though I believe Australian bank credit cards are not well known.

Friday: Mid-morning on Uber to the airport. Good price, and pleasant discussion with the driver. Saves lugging heavy suitcases from apartment to light rail to train to airport check-in. The Boeing 747 taxis down the runway. Approaching takeoff the pilot revs the engines and hears a strange noise. Arranges for the fire brigade to have a look. Eventually we taxi back to the gate where engineers decide major repairs needed. We head back to the Qantas Lounge. Take off on replacement plane in the early evening. Pleased with the Qantas upgrade to Premium Economy.

Arrive in Santiago several hours late. Impressed by the views of vast snow covered mountains. Quick transfer to a re-booked Latam plane and reach Buenos Aires around 11.00pm local time. Realise the luggage still in Santiago. Forms filled in and off to the city by taxi. Panic when I think I have lost my phone, but find it on the taxi floor. Just as well: the driver was not turning back. Reach T and O’s apartment in Recoleta around 1.30am.

Saturday: Last night noisy in this part of Recoleta, with people out and about, and speaking loudly. A small 24 hour shop opposite the apartment is a magnet for late night people, who stand out front and shout at each other. Meet my delightful two month old grand-daughter Marina. We have an excellent family brunch at Café Josephina’s. Many well dressed elderly people in the restaurant. Oddly enough, it reminds me of being in Vienna. A light dinner in the evening for us all, with plenty of conversation about life in Argentina, Singapore, Australia and Brazil; it became a mainstay of our time in BA. 

Sunday: O tells us about his Portuguese origins, the settlement of his family in northern Brazil and their later move to Rio de Janeiro. Lunch at Café La Biela. First opened in 1850, it was declared a Place of Cultural Interest in 1999. It even has its own Wikipedia page! It was warm and cosy with an old fashioned feel to it. Then wandered through the craft markets at Plaza Intendente Alvear. The cold, showery weather meant many stalls were empty.

Monday: Changed money in Recoleta Mall, then lunched in Rodi Bar, recommended by Lonely Planet. Food was average, but the atmosphere in the restaurant was good and genteel. Walked around Cementario de la Recoleta. M photographed the angels. Saw Evita Peron’s plaque; there are always fresh flowers at her memorial. Police arrested a young boy. We wondered whether he was one of the thieves we were warned are active in the Cementario. Bought groceries at Disco Supermarcardo. M compared it to Aldi.

Tuesday: Brunch at Confiteria La Rambla, a favourite of locals. Afterwards walked to the Floralis Generica, a very large silver sculpture of a flower that opens and closes as day turns to night. Then into the impressive Musio Nacional de Bellas Artes. Several school groups and many visitors were there to see its significant permanent collection. The 19th Century artworks reminded me of the parallels between Argentina and Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressed by the series by Candido Lopez (1840-1902) titled ‘After the Battle of Curupayti’ about the 1865-70 war between Argentina and Paraguay. The special exhibition was ‘The Pending Exhibition and the Southern Connection’, and featured the works of the Mexicans Diego Rivera, Jose Clement Orozco and Alfredo Siqueiros. A smaller exhibition of Jorge Macchi’s ‘The Night of the Museums’. As if that wasn’t enough, we went into the nearby Palais de Glace, an impressive, although dowdy, French-style Belle Époque building nearby that had an exhibition on contemporary Argentine sculpture. The building was worn and weary, but the art works vibrant. 

Wednesday: An on-and-off bus tour of central BA. Started in Recoleta and then south to MicroCentro. We got off at Avenue De Mayo and walked around the busy office and shopping area. We saw Casa Rosada, the ‘pink house’, the offices of La Presidenta. Large steel barricades surround the building, and several groups of demonstrators had gathered in front. Multiple protests are a daily event. Next was grungy La Boca followed by the revived docklands area of Puerto Madero. Then further north through Palermo, stopping at MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamerican de Buenos Aires) and on to upper class Belgrano. We needed this journey to give us a sense of the character and diversity of these inner city and largely bourgeois parts of BA. We did not venture into the favelas or other poor areas. Ended our journey with a coffee in our favourite Schiaffino Bistro in Adolfo Biay Cesares. Our only full sunny day in BA.   

Thursday: Explored the area around Avenue Santa Fe with its shops and parks including the exquisite Plaza Vincente Lopez. The quality of living in Recoleta is high for both the significant aging population and the booming numbers of children in the area. Lunched around 2.30pm when many locals gather to eat in the Mexican restaurant La Cholita.

Friday: Sleeping better as we became more accustomed to the street noise at night. Had a special Argentinian lunch at home with T, O and Marina. Followed with coffee and key lime pie at Schiaffino’s. Walked north west along Avenue Las Heras, soaking up the urban vibe. Tall apartment blocks dominate the landscape. Had thoughts of visiting the Evita Museum but after reaching Parque Las Heras decided to wind our way back home. 

Saturday: Awoke early and checked the Australian election results on the iPad; outcome close with no resolution. Cold and drizzly morning. We all went to Pani Restaurant for lunch. Sat outside under the heaters and tried some different Argentine dishes. Walked through the upmarket shopping mall Patio Bullrich, a haven for locals on a wet and cold day. M bought a beautiful leather bag as a gift for T. While there is a huge amount of leather goods available in BA, prices are higher than we expected, and the range of products not as broad as we hoped. 

Sunday: Intermittent rain. Marina was a little sniffly, so M and I had lunch in Schiaffino Bistro. The food and the quality Illy coffee were a perfect mix for a relaxing Sunday. Back to Patio Bullrich to buy a bag for M and a gift for Marina. Dinner discussion of developing economic links between Chile, Brazil and Argentina, among others, and aims to strengthen economic ties with Europe.

Monday: Thunder storm during the night. Brunch at Josephina’s of pizza (melted cheese and warm ham), and a tall glass of bland cappuccino. Walked through the drizzle to Theater Colon and the tower at Plaza de la Republica. Beginning to appreciate just how extensive the shopping areas are throughout these parts of BA. More photos of the ubiquitous French style four-storey blocks of apartments and offices that give great character to BA. Another visit to Patio Bullrich for a leather bag for M and a first book for Marina. Also picked up a bottle of Salentein Reserve Pinot Noir 2010, from the Valle de Uco, Mondoza, to drink over the light evening meal.  

Tuesday: Saddened as it was our last day in BA. Were up for a long walk. Headed east along Juncal into Retiro, passing Plaza San Martin. At lunch in Tucuman we had to decide whether to have potatoes or salad with the meat. We disrupted protocol by sharing each other’s sides. Stopped at the Centro Cultural Kirchner in the impressive old Post Office, but it was closed to the public. Walked across to Puerto Madero, BA’s equivalent to Sydney’s Darling Harbour and Pyrmont. We had been told it comes alive at night. Then visited the privately owned Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat Art Collection. Fabulous building and exceptionally strong collection of art for a privately owned gallery. Had a coffee at Starbucks (we were desperate) to take stock of what we had seen. Had a good but sad evening meal with T, O and slightly out of sorts little Marina.

Wednesday: Alarm sounded at 4.45am. Uncertain about the terminal for the KLM flight to Santiago. Not in the booking details, nor could I find it on the web. Tried Terminal A, but sent to Terminal C. Spectacular entry into Santiago passing endless snow covered mountain ranges. Long day in the Lounge. Felt even longer when a handful of noisy foul-mouthed Australians arrived and turned it into their private boys club. Flight back was packed as Qantas had cancelled the previous day’s flight. Enjoyed Sam Neill and his Kiwi friends in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Had trouble finding the Uber pickup spot at Sydney Airport. Back home we watched two episodes of Rake and collapsed. (13/7/16)


Ransacking Paris: A Year with Montaigne and Friends (UQ Press, Brisbane, 2015). The title of Patti Miller’s book drew me in. She and her husband moved to Paris for a year; her purpose was to write. As it turns out he works in international education, so his university employer allowed him to continue working in Paris. Tough life.

The book flows along, honest and revealing as she walks the streets, soaking up the history of the city and commenting on Paris life. She eloquently reflects on the visits of family and friends, the street choir she joined and the book she was writing at the time about a deceased friend and her son. And woven through it all are her reflections and imagined conversations with her favourite French writers: Montaigne, Rousseau, Pagnol, de Beauvoir, Stendhal and others.

Miller’s reflections on writing intrigued me. Of Rousseau whose ‘feelings, passion, nature and imaginary life overruled rationality and the practical world every day’ (p49). Of the consequences of an obsession with writing meaning that ‘None of the memoirists…write of the visceral absorption in one’s children’ (p84). And commenting on an odd list that Stendhal attached as an appendix to a book she observes it meant ‘the bits and pieces of the boy and the man come to life and someone breathing steps out of the book’ (p251).

A strength of Ransacking Paris is her imagined dialogues with her writers   ‘There is so much of the thief even in writing one’s own experiences of being because it always involves other people’ (p103). At the same time, Miller’s writing on the culturally rich landscapes of the arrondissements of Paris not surprisingly made me want to revisit the city that I only ever visited once in the 1970s. (19/6/16)


Townske is really barrelling along. Some 5,000 guides, 25,000 places covered and 125,000 photographs posted. At its launch in June 2015 there were just 1,300 guides; during the last 12 months about 10 guides a day have been added to the site.

It is also getting noticed in the world of new businesses, as this recognition in Startup Daily illustrates. (20/5/16)


Don’t be misled. Creating Cities (Niche Press, Melbourne, 2015) is emphatically not about the ‘creative class’ or the ‘creative city’. As Marcus Westbury firmly points out (on p 126 and again on p 152).

It is a story about a city, Newcastle, located on the coast about 200 km north of Sydney. It is where Westbury was born and raised. Newcastle’s economy started to slide in the 1990s, culminating in the closure of a major steel works. It is a common story in Australia and many other countries.

Despite plans and initiatives, and some dodgy practices in local government, Newcastle has remained in the doldrums ever since. Westbury was drawn back again and again to his home town, eventually deciding the economic strategies were misdirected and he needed do something about it.

Creating Cities is the story of how Westbury and his network of friends and fellow travellers set about attracting into the inner city a diverse array of business people in the arts, crafts and other sectors, to take up space in vacant buildings and grow their small businesses. Over the course of six years some 170 initiatives were launched, transforming inner Newcastle and bringing life back to the inner city.

It is a good story and told with insight and style. Westbury believed the essence of his approach involved ‘rethinking the balance between professionalisation and participation…between risk and regulation’ (p 11).

He laments the tendency for cities to look for big solutions. Rather, he thinks ‘cities in transition need experiments and discovery much more than they need certainty and scale’ (p 72). In circumstances of decline, cities generally focus on attracting capital investments. Seldom do they ‘ask themselves how they might get people to invest their initiatives there.’ (p 163).

It’s a quick and easy read. As a regular visitor to Newcastle I am impressed by the lively bespoke economy now woven into the fabric of the inner city. I’m pleased to know more about the back story. (6/5/16)


The most recent version of a National Strategy for International Education 2025 has been released.

It follows the recent appointed of a Minister for Tourism and Higher Education (Richard Tolbeck) and the designation of international education as one of five ‘super growth centres’ in the shift of the Australian economy from its historical resources base to a modern economy based on services.

There is no doubt that the support of government, both federal and some states, has helped sustain the activities of the education providers, especially the universities. Close to thirty years of consistent growth in Australia’s international education activities is set to continue. So why has the reaction to the strategy been along the lines of ‘more rhetoric’ and ‘nothing new’?

It’s certainly a feel good document, if a little lopsided, with the most emphasis on international students. Not surprising given there were some 498,155 international students in Australia in 2015, and they generated $19 billion in earnings and supported around 130,000 jobs.

By and large the federal government’s main role is to ensure that both the public and private education providers can get on with what they need to do to build their businesses, while it also ensures that there is an effective government framework to prevent dodgy providers undermining Australia’s educational reputation.

There are five areas where government has an important role.

  1. 1.Enabling students to get adequate work visas after studying in Australia (Goal 2.1)

  2. 2.Managing effective Quality Assurance systems for providers. This remains a work in progress. There are improvements needed to the methodologies of both TEQSA and ASQA (Goal 3.1)

  3. 3.Maintaining a strong system of protection for students both in education (eg ESOS), a strength of Australia, and in the community, where there are problems that need to be addressed (Goal 3.2)

  4. 4.Ensuring that visa arrangements are effective (Goal 6.1)

  5. 5.Systematically addressing the serious problems of the recognition of Australian qualifications particularly in Asia (Goal 6.3)

After extensive consultation the International Education Advisory Council produced the Australia – Educating Globally in 2013. The new National Strategy

picks up on those themes.

The universities are enjoying a significant recovery in international student numbers and will ensure they cherry pick from the report anything that helps in lobbying governments. It will have much less impact on the smaller higher education and English language institutions, for whom complying with government oversight is already a significant burden. (3/5/16)


Robyn Gunther’s Disturbed Ground: Poems, Paintings and Photographs was launched in Northcote on the 9th of April.

It coincided with our visit to Melbourne to see children and grandchildren. M is a friend of Robyn’s so we went along to the launch. It had the feel of a real community event, with a packed room, three exceptionally good speeches, and a very appreciative audience.

The poems are polished, and sometimes moving. ‘The Aunts’ immediately resonated with memories of my mother and her sisters sharing banter in the lounge room.

The accompanying art-work is well chosen and exceptionally good, complementing the poetry and adding warmth to the volume. It is used sparingly. My favourite was the piece with the poem ‘In Vincent’s Bedroom’, a response to attending the Van Gogh exhibition.

The book is published by Collins Grove Publishers, Melbourne, 2016. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the publishers on the web. (23/4/16)


I intended purchasing Patti Miller’s Ransacking Paris but it wasn’t in the bookshop so I bought Patti Smith’s M Train (Bloomsbury, 2015) instead. I’m glad I did.

It is somewhat uneven and I occasionally lost track as she mixes dreams, descriptive narrative, poems and her trademark black and white polaroid photographs. She is probably best known for her rock music, poetry and drawings. A truly exceptional talent.

The book’s recurring theme is her retreat to coffee shops to think, doodle and drink coffee. She writes about her favourite books and writers/poets/artists (William Burroughs, Haruki Murakami, Sylvia Plath, Frieda Kahlo, Yukio Mishima, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Osama Dazai, Jean Genet), not to mention philosophers (Popper, Wittgenstein).

The story of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on her house at New York’s Rockaway Beach is emotionally moving as is her frequent references to her departed musician husband Fred Sonic Smith. 

The book rambles along but, by and large, I rambled along with her, acutely aware that an earlier book of hers won the National Book Award and that she has released 12 rock albums. Respect! (13/4/16)  


Is theory a necessary dimension of social science writing?

Short answer, yes, of course. That’s what social science is about, and differentiates it from other categories of nonfiction writing such as journalism, travel writing or memoir.

Within the field of urban studies good social science demands the continuous connection of arguments to the chief theoretical propositions of the prevailing paradigm. Good social science invariably points to improvements through corrections, revisions and elaborations.

Some ambitious scholars seek to discredit current theories with the intention of overturning the core paradigm, but this requires identification of a serious alternative. The major challenges over the last 50 years have been from Marxists (or more accurately neo-Marxists) and Postmodernists. Neither has been able to sustain momentum.

It has been said the overthrow of the prevailing paradigm occurs at funerals. In other words, most social scientists remain embedded in a single paradigm for the course of their professional lives.

I have agreed to write a chapter in a section on ‘theorising urbanisation in Southeast Asia’ for an edited book. My focus will be on the expansion of the knowledge and creative economies of Southeast Asian cities and how this might alter the way we see and theorise about those cities.

Progress in building knowledge and creative economies has been uneven across the region: Singapore has experienced a significant expansion of these activities and so has Kuala Lumpur. Developments in the knowledge economy of the major cities in other Southeast Asian countries has been spasmodic. 

The dominant urban theories and paradigm centre on the successes and pitfalls in the functioning of the city in a market economy. For example, city plans and policies to become more competitive through expanding the market economy or leveraging global markets. Or strategies for managing the welfare of the population and the protection of the physical environment.

The drivers of change are a variable combination of government, economic agents and civil society.

The neoliberal critique, which seems to be in the ascendancy, seeks to explore the failings of the market orientation, essentially arguing that the corporate drivers of the economy are far too powerful and counter-productive, vis-a-vis the government and especially civil society.

The logic of the socialist paradigm that structured the analysis and policies for the cities of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos has been whittled away, although some elements of those cities retain vestiges of socialist practice, such as state ownership of land and strong centralised rule with little community input.

The emerging knowledge and creative economies are part of the expanding services sectors in Southeast Asian cities.

Rapid urbanisation since the 1950s has transformed the colonial cities, expanding industry, and enabling increased numbers of rural migrants to join the informal sector. Services growth has centred on administration and a burgeoning retail sector.

Attention to the knowledge and creative economies is intended to expand the pool of educated, creative, skilled people. These are expected to be able to drive the modern manufacturing, agricultural and services sectors of the economy, and, where possible, build new strengths such as through the export of talent and expertise. 

The questions I need to answer include what is being done, and how successful are these changes likely to be in improving the economies and societies of Southeast Asian cities, and how this might shape current understanding of urban theory. A walk in the park. Or not. (23/3/15)


My new page on Pyrmont has just gone live on Townske. The post is about the character of the Pyrmont area adjacent to the Sydney CBD, Ultimo and Balmain. A great place to live and work. (21/3/16)


Faith Trent (1941-2016) was clever, had an opinion on just about everything (except sport), and she wasn’t afraid to share what she thought.

In a blog on 12/1/16 I said I was ‘very saddened to hear of the passing of Faith Trent. She was a committed and spirited educator, and a stimulating colleague to work with for over 20 years. Faith had prodigious energy. She also had strong views on many matters, and was fearless in expressing them. She is a great loss to the Flinders University community.’

I travelled with Faith on a number of occasions and accumulated many stories…and drank a lot of red wine. I remember:

  1. Bullet  Faith standing in a quadrangle in the very old University of Vienna, and pointing at a 19th Century statue, and saying ‘he was my great uncle’.

  2. Bullet Taking on the Russian mafia in the form of a restaurant owner in Moscow who was determined to overcharge for dinner.

  3. Bullet Arriving in Stockholm, we pulled our suitcases along the street on the way to a hotel. Faith suddenly stopped and said: I left my handbag with my money and passport on the train. Unfazed, she turned up an hour later with her bag and all its contents, thanks to the honesty of the Swedes.

She demonstrated her multi-tasking skills, particularly those involving mobile phones, many times.

On one occasion we were in Oslo and were going to the maritime museum, which was on a hill on the other side of the harbour. Faith received a phone call from Australia as we were walking through Oslo. She started talking. We reached the harbour, found a ferry, bought tickets, boarded and crossed the harbour. Faith, still on the same phone call, was pointing to sites of interest. On the other side we disembarked and walked up the hill. When we reached the museum, 45 minutes later, the phone conversation ended. The caller was exhausted. So was I.

Faith went one better in St Petersburg on a visit to the Hermitage Museum. Again there was a phone call while we were travelling to the Hermitage. Faith was talking as we bought our tickets and entered this magnificent museum. Bag, scarf and overcoat draped over her shoulder, phone in one hand, her camera in the other, she roamed through the Hermitage, talking in her booming teacher’s voice as she took photograph after photograph of the Picasso’s and Cezanne’s.

Multi-skilling at its finest. (21/2/16)


Interviewed yesterday by Peggy Giakoumelos of SBS World News about the Australian Aid Stakeholder Survey. Her article is titled ‘Perceived decline in Australia’s aid program’.

A creation of the Development Policy Centre in the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, the Stakeholder Survey was first run in 2013. The 2015 Survey drew 461 respondents.

Since their election in 2012 the LNP Government has made significant cutbacks to the aid program, with more to come this year. It has reoriented the reduced aid spending on poverty strategies and increase the focus on economic diplomacy, and AusAID has been pulled back into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

Overall 61% of respondents regarded AusAID policy as effective or very effective, fewer than in 2013.

Respondents’ gripes centred around a perceived loss of strategic clarity, concerns about a diluting of the AusAID staff as a result of the re-incorporation into DFAT, and a reduction in transparency and weakened community engagement.

The announcement last year that Steve Ciobo would become the new Minister for International Development and the Pacific was seen as a positive, as was Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop championing of gender issues.  

On balance, though, the responses to the Survey reflect the quiet despair among those that believe it critical that Australia makes a real, steady and sustained effort to support the reduction of poverty particularly in the regions to our east, north and northwest.

When foreign aid is political fair game for every new government in Australia we not only waste time and money, we also sap the strength of those that care about delivering good support, and frustrate the governments and communities with which we must work. (16/2/16)


I must re-read Tim Winton’s Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (Hamish Hamilton 2015).

It’s a moving story in which he explores the significance of the Australian environment and its impact on him and others. He positions himself as a feisty exceptionalist, arguing that the connection with the environment is stronger than in other countries (Europe and the US mainly, I guess) where landscapes are managed and domesticated. Australia, by comparison, ‘has more landscape than culture’ (p 16).

He draws a sharp distinction between aboriginal perceptions of land and place and the dominant non-aboriginal view that he characterises as insensitive and exploitative. We mostly have a tin ear when it comes to matters environmental. With a 21st Century government based on 19th century assumptions (p 112).

At times it reminded me of the extensive dialogue in the 1930s over the significance of environmental determinism, the idea that the environment shapes human behaviour and culture. It was an important theme in the writings of Griffith Taylor, Australia’s first globally significant geographer, though there is no reference to it in the book. 

Island Home is elegantly written: Winton draws on his broad vocabulary and has a great love of metaphors and similes. It includes some zingers. My favourite is his description of the colour of the King Leopold Ranges ‘as gold as roo fat in the afternoon light’ (p 216).

His writing voice draws on the local language; he refuses to change to suit the ‘cosmopolitan reader’ (p 134). Publishers, he gripes, want books about ‘an urban and denatured life’ (p 134), and have an aversion to ‘regional settings and colloquial expressions’ (p 135). Not Hamish Hamilton and the Penguin group, it seems.

I’ve loaned Winton’s book to M. After she has finished with it I’m going to read it again. There is much more that only a second reading will enable me to appreciate. (11/2/16)


I read David Walsh’s A Bone of Fact (Picador 2014) because of Mona. Mona as in the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart.

M and I visited Mona in April 2012: we loved it. I put it on Townske in late 2014. It has had over 1,500 hits.

Mona the book is uneven and reflects the idiosyncrasies of David Walsh, Mona’s owner, who passionately embraces and embodies the Museum’s spirit. Walsh explains the origins of the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities and how it morphed into Mona and why Mona continues to exist. Inextricably linked to it is Walsh’s deep pockets and his interest in modern art. He also speculates about what other grand modernist art initiatives he would like to pursue. No lack of vision and ambition here.

Walsh is quirky. His main reference source is Wikipedia. It reflects his belief in the wisdom of the crowd, which also underpins his assessment of risk and return in betting on horses. Gambling is how he made his money. He sees himself as a mathematician with an inbuilt understanding of probability and how to convert it into wealth via disciplined betting.

Walsh fixates on his survivorship bias. It is ‘my natural proclivity to see the ghosts of possible pasts having an impact on the present’ (p 35). In touching on evolution he says ‘antifragility is not merely robustness, it is a system which improves under stress’ (p119). Hopefully Mona itself will prove to be antifragile.

The least interesting parts of the book are when he explores random theories and ideas. Essentially streams of consciousness left untouched by editors who realised the futility of trying to intervene. There are also some weird parts such as the chapter on wives and girlfriends (p 259). And he throws in some out-of-nowhere chapters such as one on Ethiopia (p 80). He acknowledges the unsuccessful attempts of his editors to reign in his rambling thoughts.

A ‘black swan’ is an unpredictable event. The memoir in its entirety is a black swan. Nevertheless I’m glad I read it, and I can’t think why I hadn’t read it when it was first published. Walsh has written his memoir with wit and affection for Mona and its dedicated staff. He laces it with quirky anecdotes. We immediately started thinking about another visit to Hobart; soon. (22/1/16)


My latest post on Townske: Central Coast Beaches Sydney. (21/1/16)


What’s Koh Samui? It’s an island. Where? The Gulf of Thailand. Like Bali? With tourists like Kuta? An Asian Ibiza? Population is over 60,000. I shouldn’t pre-judge; wait and see.

Two weeks to go. Deep into preparations for Christmas and the family invasion. Blanked Koh Samui out; no time to think about it.

Last minute change of plan. Now leaving on New Years Eve. Cancelled the Qantas tickets and flying with Singapore Airlines. Thanks Daniel and Joe.

Relaxed in the Business Lounge at Sydney with champagne.

Going through departure processing I moved causing the airport camera to misfire; sent to the ‘naughty queue’. Held up at baggage check; forgot Tessa’s lotion was in my bag. I am de-skilling.

M has problems with the SIA business suites. Hard to collapse the main seat; tray table was difficult to manoeuvre; and the foot rest fell off its mount. Good flight, but poor suite design.

Arrived in Singapore on New Year’s Eve. Staying with Tessa and Octavio. Noticed that Hotel Rendezvous is charging well over $A1,000 for the night. I usually pay about $A200.

Ate Italian at Limoncello Pizza and Grill at Robertson Quay. Afterwards had a good, long-range, view of fireworks from the 28th floor apartment. Very relaxed. Thanks guys.

Taxi to Changi at 5.30am on New Years Day. Silk Air flight. Made it through the photo shoot and customs.  No more signs of cognition-loss.

Silk Air carry my favourite newspaper The New York Times International. I preferred its previous name The International Herald Tribune. Still has great long-reads.

Filling in Thai immigration forms. M asked: country? Koh Samui? Er, no, Thailand. Easy entry. Found D and J; they have a car.

Stopped at Chaweng Beach for coffee with M, D and J. High tide; small waves. Directly under airport flight path. A man levitated on a water spout. He wobbled but wasn’t tipped off.

Shocked to hear that two swimmers drowned at Chaweng Beach the next day. One was an Australian.

Wat Phra Yai’s Big Buddha is an island attraction. Entertained by watching visitors wrap themselves in borrowed clothing to avoid causing offence. Opted out of climbing to the top.

Staying in The Naked House in the foothills of southwest Koh Samui. Naked refers to the simple, rather stunning, modernist design. We are here with M’s family. Seven of us.

Naked has an infinity pool. It is magnificent. Brilliant view of sunrise over the Gulf of Thailand. Great place to read, swim and sip on coconuts while the others went sightseeing.

My poolside reading at The Naked is David Walsh’s A Bone of Fact. It was one of my Christmas gifts to M. Walsh’s singular, naïve writing style is amusing.

Often ate in the nearby fishing village of Tongkrut. Thai food, or occasionally pizza, sitting on the beach watching the sunset over the island chains of the Mu Ko Ang Tong National Park.

Why did I think I would not be having a massage? Because too often massage venues primarily provide cheap, degrading sex. Not so Kronnipha Massage.

Kronnipha became a family affair; seven of us regulars. Excellent ginger tea afterwards. On first visit my ribcage was bruised. Had to downgrade from strong to medium pummeling.

Took The Diving Academy’s 90 minute trip to Mango Bay Beach and Laem Thian on Koh Tao. M dived and I snorkeled. We lunched on the boat. Excellent crew; great day trip.

Koh Samui is a young adult’s nirvana. Cheap Thai food, expensive pizza, water sports and plenty of entertainment. And other things beyond my knowledge or comprehension.

The Thai food is inexpensive, but good. Can be repetitious.  Pizza was widely available, but often expensive and bland.

We split on the beer. Two favoured Chang; the rest Singha. I couldn’t taste much difference. It was unanimous: green coconuts were inexpensive, ubiquitous and good to drink and eat.

Quality coffee was elusive. Many cafes and stalls sell coffee and a café culture is emerging. But too often the brew was lukewarm, and insipid. 

D and J are putting together a Townske page on The Naked House and Koh Samui. Keep an eye out for it.

Speedboat to the Maritime National Park. More snorkeling. On Mae Koh, climbed steep stairs for a panoramic view. After lunch walked to village to see impressive wind and solar power.

Afternoon kayaking in a small, picturesque bay. The salt water cleansed and refreshed. Trip back is into a small swell. The speedboat bounces around but well managed by Thai crew. 

M and J both feeling a little off. May have caught my sniffle; or perhaps a local bug. I insist there is room for doubt; not willing to admit to infecting them. 

Had trouble finding the grass hut for the check-in at Koh Samui airport. Rushed, but the plane delayed so able to go into business lounge to recover.

Lobbed into Singapore at midday. Lunched with Tessa. Rest of time in lounge reading, eating and drinking too much. Wandering aimlessly.  Flight to Sydney departed after midnight.

New wide and flat seat-beds on SIA plane to Sydney. Newly installed and improvement on inbound flight. Felt overfed, so opted out and slept; ate a skimpy breakfast.

Surprisingly easy passage through Immigration and Customs. At last they have managed to speed up movement through Sydney. Expect staff have won medals; it is their way. (18/1/16)


Very saddened to hear of the passing of Faith Trent. She was a committed and spirited educator, and a stimulating colleague to work with for over 20 years. Faith had prodigious energy. She also had strong views on many matters, and was fearless in expressing them. She is a great loss to the Flinders University community. (12/1/16)

G’DAY 2016

M and I saw out New Year’s Eve from an apartment on the 28th floor of Soliel Condo in Novena, Singapore. Up until a couple of days earlier we thought we would be celebrating the fireworks in Sydney. But some last minute re-arranging of our itinerary had us in Singapore to join Tessa and Octavio in welcoming in 2016.

In the early evening we dined at Limoncello Pizza and Grill at Robertson Quay. The sky was overcast, and a few light showers kept down the numbers outside. Nevertheless, many young Singaporeans were out with their smart phones and selfie sticks to celebrate the New Year. The city was at its modernist best and the celebratory lighting on some of the busier shopping streets was spectacular.

The view from the Condo prodded recollections of my initial visit to the city in 1974, where the Singapore River was full of sampans and the high rise was largely limited to a few hotels and other buildings along Orchard Rd. Cold Storage was the supermarket of choice and the location of a popular night market. The difference between Singapore c1974 and now is truly extraordinary, perhaps only matched on the global stage by the phenomenal pace of more recent change in China’s major cities, Shanghai and Beijing. (10/1/16) 

Making a Difference: Australian International Education

Edited by Dorothy Davis and Bruce Mackintosh (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2011)

MEDIA commentary 2016

Interviewed by Jill Pengelley for her story in Adelaide’s Sunday Mail titled ‘We were mates and I still miss them today’ about a car crash leading to the death of five surfers at Middleton in 1966. Due to copyright I was warned not to reproduce the article. (16/10/16)

Interviewed by Peggy Giakoumelos of SBS World News about the Australian Aid Stakeholder Survey (15/2/16)

Planning Asian Cities: Risks and Resilience

Edited by Stephen Hamnett and Dean Forbes (Routledge, London,  2011)


eBook version

Sustainable Development in China edited by Curtis Andressen, Mubarak A.R., and Wang Xiaoyi (Routledge, London,  2013)

BLOGS 2016

Scroll down to read

  1. Bullet Last blog of 2016

  2. Bullet Red Professor

  3. Bullet Social Sciences: the policy impact

  4. BulletThe Embarrassed Colonialist

  5. Bullet Beijing envoy

  6. Bullet School performance results

  7. Bullet Santorini, Athens, Meteora: Townske

  8. Bullet Buenos Aires on Townske

  9. Bullet In Greece: Santorini

  10. Bullet In Greece: Athens

  11. Bullet In Greece: On the Road

  12. Bullet Latest Readings

  13. Bullet Faction Man

  14. Bullet On Memoir

  15. Bullet Stop at Nothing

  16. Bullet 11½ days in Buenos Aires

  17. Bullet Ransacking Paris

  18. Bullet Townske milestone

  19. Bullet Creating cities

  20. Bullet International education

  21. Bullet Disturbed Ground

  22. Bullet M Train

  23. Bullet Theoretical handcuffs

  24. Bullet Pyrmont on Townske

  25. Bullet Faith Trent memorial

  26. Bullet Australian Aid - quiet despair

  27. Bullet Island Home

  28. Bullet Bones and facts

  29. Bullet Great beaches

  30. Bullet Koh Samui

  31. Bullet Vale Faith Trent

  32. Bullet G’day 2016