d e a n   f o r b e s

B O O K S  A N D  W R I T E R S

Book Reviews and Other Meditations on Writing: 2008-2018


Being opposed to the Vietnam War I joined the Campaign for Peace in Vietnam in the late 1970s. My name went into the ballot for conscription into the army with the possibility of being sent to Vietnam; fortunately my number was not called.

I retained an interest in Vietnam’s gradual recovery from the trauma. A deeper concern about Vietnam and particularly its cities developed in my time at the ANU in the early 1980s. In September 1990 with three colleagues we decided to host a conference on Vietnam. It was modelled on the long running Indonesian Update, and proved very successful. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Gareth Evans, delivered the opening address. It was a substantial piece, well written and argued, and helped set the tone for the 160 people who attended. 

Evan’s father was a tram driver and he attended public schools, albeit one a special high school. His talent was recognised at an early age. He became a prolific writer and headed several Ministries in the Hawke-Keating governments, but the Foreign Ministry was his favourite. As a committed and knowledgeable Foreign Minister his new book, Incorrigible Optimist. A Political Memoir, is an essential read. 

I found the first 40 or so pages hard work. There was the go-go-go, and the ever-present ego, but I couldn’t get a grip on the inner Gareth. He describes himself as having ‘an urge to get things done’ (p x) and as a consequence the book radiates a relentless ‘my views and my place in history’ vibe. This is the bloke who knows everyone and everything. And a touch of humour is part of the mix. He can’t resist bagging Bronwyn Bishop for her negativity in the Senate, and quietly mentions her maiden name was B Setright (p 47). In general, though, he exposes little of significance about his private life and the darker aspects of his career.

I started warming up when I reached the chapter on diplomacy. It was ‘the most exciting and productive period of my professional life’ (p 100) he says of his years as Foreign Minister, from 1988-1996. Not surprisingly, Evans believes Australia is a ’middle power’ and its foreign policy needs ‘more self-reliance… more Asia… less United States’ (p 117). He has no confidence in Donald Trump. 

Evans reminds us that the Hawke and Keating government’s main focus was on business and the growth of the economy, combining ‘very dry economic policies with very warm and moist policies’ (p 88). Their strategies overlapped with British PM Tony Blair’s Third Way democratic socialism.

Evans barely mentions his longest-serving successor, Alexander Downer, and, not surprisingly, was largely unimpressed by the performance of John Howard’s government. Nor does he mention Ross Garnaut, Hawke’s advisor on economic matters including the Asian economies.

Advice flows. Evan’s offers his thoughts on how to balance relationships with the USA and China (pp 172-176), why golf enables the building of relationships (p 166) and the reasons for Australia to be wary of significant defence links with Japan (p 171). He admits to being unable to achieve much in the Indian Ocean region (pp 177-179) and says loudly that the UK ‘has brought nothing of significance to the region’s defence since the fall of Singapore’ (p 132).

A lengthy chapter on education expands on Evan’s activist undergraduate years at Melbourne University, and his fellow students who went on to high profile elite roles. A stint at Oxford followed enabling him to continue to travel to different parts of the world and to build more international links. The core of the chapter is about his time as Chancellor at The Australian National University. Typically, Evan’s turns it into a lesson for the reader on the role of Councils and Chancellors and why the Australian practice of Chancellors’ chairing Council is superior to the UK where, he says, Vice-Chancellors chair Council.

He brings to the book experiences over a series of major jobs, a finely tuned intellect, a serious interest in detail and a ribald sense of humour. When the term memoir is used I am programmed to expect more subtlety, more reflection, more introspection. If only he chilled… but, of course, he wouldn’t. Does he have an inner life? If he does there’s not a lot of it in the book. Now Evans calls himself a CLOOF Clapped Out Old Fart (p 266). It’s a joke, of course. He is anything but a CLOOF. I wonder what book he is writing now? (19/1/18)

Gareth Evans 2017 Incorrigible Optimist. A Political Memoir, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne


Not many scholars use two different names for legitimate purposes. Pierre Ryckmans did. His other name was Simon Leys. Both would be familiar to those interested in Maoism and China or his work on history and society written from a rolling discursive conservative perspective.

A ‘writer-moralist’ (p 13), Ryckmans finished reading a final draft of Philippe Paquet’s book about his life and work shortly before he passed away in Sydney in August 2014. The book boasts a gushing Foreword by no less than Julian Barnes.

Ryckmans was ‘a young man from one of the great families of the Belgian bourgeoisie’ (p 5). He wrote extensively in French and English and was fluent in Mandarin. His most significant claim to fame was that ‘he was the first to denounce the imposture of Maoism’ (p 11).

He held a post at the Australian National University from 1970 to 1987. Among others he taught Kevin Rudd, whom he considered an exceptionally capable student. As a Research Fellow at the ANU during the 1980s, working mainly on Vietnam and China, I was aware of Ryckmans Chinese expertise but can’t recall ever seeing or meeting him. He was, I was told, a difficult man.

A senior professor at Sydney University from 1987 until 1994, Ryckmans was forthright: ‘poor quality students, poor quality university’ (p 439-440). Having spent many decades as an academic in privileged university appointments Ryckmans ‘had iconoclastic ideas about the university’ (p 8). Which is an odd way of framing it.

Ryckmans wrote that ‘A university is not a factory producing graduates, as a sausage factory produces sausages. It is a place where a chance is given to men (sic) to become what they truly are’ (p 519). Rid the universities of 90% of their students, he said. Cardinal Newman’s classic The Idea of the University was his guide to what the modern university should aspire to.

This is a big book. A very big book. The ponderous text runs to 551 pages, with over 100 more dedicated to chronology, biography, end notes and index. It has an old fashioned feel, yet it adds layer upon layer of polish to Ryckmans reputation as it attempts to explain why politically conservative-minded European scholars rate his work so highly.

As Paul Keating may have said, albeit in a rather different political context: this is one for the true believers. (22/11/17)

Philippe Paquet 2017 Simon Leys. Navigator Between Two Worlds, Translated by Julie Rose, La Trobe University Press, Melbourne


Helen Garner is Australia’s most celebrated living writer. Or if not, she should be.

Bernadette Brennan’s book explores both Garner’s writing, book by book, and the emotional circumstances and dedication to detail and depth of understanding that inform her work. As she explains early on ‘Garner’s life and writing inform and shape each other to such a degree that it is not possible to understand one without the other’ (p 4).

While confessing to being ‘hopelessly bourgeois’ (p 30), Garner also acknowledges her bohemian side and its’ impact on her life. Brennan delves into her recognition that ‘part of the bohemian ethos back in the Monkey Grip days involved forming new configurations of family among friends and lovers’ (p 242).

Yet lying half-covered underneath her great public success and critical regard, ‘her powerful self belief is married to fragility fed by self-doubt’ (p 288). She is a deep thinker and, to her credit, a deep worrier. She also has a conviction ‘that life can’t possibly end at death’ (p 114).

Born and raised in Victoria Garner attended Melbourne University and became a school teacher. After being dismissed in odd circumstances she spread her time between Sydney and Melbourne and married and divorced several times.

Garner’s current residence and preference is Melbourne, a city ‘where dwellings are enclosing, curtained, cold-weather-resisting; more like burrows’ (p 94). She lives next door to her daughter and grandchildren and contributes to annual workshops ‘with judges and magistrates on legal writing and reasoning’ (p 276).

Brennan’s book is well written and deep. Her rigorous and honest approach reveals much about Garner’s thinking and writing and particularly the extraordinary depth of her research behind her fiction and nonfiction. Brennan’s chapters on The First Stone, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief are deep and complex and insightful about Garner’s skills and methods.

This is a book for Garner fans.

Bernadette Brennan 2017 A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, Text, Melbourne (21/9/17)

[Scroll down for my blog on Helen Garner 2016 Everywhere I Look, Text Publishing, Melbourne. (21/1/17)]


A new biography of Paul Keating can still pull a crowd, even though his Prime Minister-ship ended in 1996. Author and journalist, Troy Bramston, spoke about his new biography of Keating at the State Library of NSW.

Bramston attracted a good, if - cough - oldish crowd, and it included M and me.

Keating made it clear he would never write a memoir on the grounds that ‘if you are any good someone else will write one about you’, Bramston told us. Keating eventually gave his approval and when asked by Bramston whether he had any advice he said ‘mate, don’t fuck it up’. He reminded Bramston ‘he had sued his last biographer’ and that a previous author’s biography had to be pulped.

His observations about Keating were based on extensive archival research and about 10 hours of interviews with Keating and more than 100 of those in politics who knew him. Bramston’s insights were perceptive, dry and witty. It felt like he had a sound and balanced view of Keating. He regarded him as one of the better PMs of recent years, along with Hawke and Howard. None of the last four PMs – Rudd, Gillard, Abbott or Turnbull (who he said ‘had shrunk into the job’) – have come close.

I valued Bramston’s views about the styles, merits and failings of the considerable number of biographies he had read in preparation.

Still thinking about whether to put his book on the ‘to read’ list. (20/9/17)

Troy Bramston 2017 Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader, Scribe, Melbourne


Since Rupert Murdoch’s broadsheet The Australian was launched in July 1964 it has been perceived as a mouthpiece of the political right. It remains the case if the paper is judged on the tone of the Letters page where conservative (and often nutty conservative) views dominate.

Yet as a reader of The Australian, and now mainly The Weekend Australian, for 30 years I think it is more accurately described as a paper of centre right persuasion with regular, but infrequent, stories from a centre left perspective. Regardless of the politics the newspaper’s investigative reporting alone makes it the most significant newspaper in Australia.

Making Headlines is a book by Chris Mitchell, a long-standing Murdoch manager and journalist and The Australian’s editor-in-chief for 12 years, beginning in 2002. The book is gossipy and self-congratulatory but it is interesting if you put aside the ego of the author. A writing stylist he is not. After the first 50 or so pages I realised that it is what it is and not to expect more; then I relaxed and enjoyed the ride.

Mitchell is not shy in repeatedly underlining the importance of the paper. He says politicians and bureaucrats all read the editorial opinion pieces ‘very closely’ and every day. I never read the editorials; perhaps I should! The paper has some outstanding journos: Paul Kelly, for instance, who better than any other is able to consistently analyse and explain the major political shifts in Australia.

The front cover of Making Headlines features Mitchell and Murdoch. A reader is left in no doubt. Mitchell sings the praise of Rupert Murdoch and the businesses he has created. And the politicians and newspaper professionals who feature in the book are overwhelmingly male.

As Editor-in-Chief the sources of information that enable him to set the papers’ national issues agenda includes the sworn enemy - ABC radio and TV - and the main capital city dailies. He rarely mentions any impact on the political agenda by universities or academics. He says the Walkley Awards mostly go to journalists writing ‘politically correct’ stories (p 152). He doesn’t believe in ‘industry awards’ (p 190) and dismisses the value of academic journalism courses (p 195).

Like all newspapers, the internet has resulted in declining subscriptions and only a slow, if steady increase in readers subscribing to the on-line paper. Mitchell claims The Australian has 80,000 online customers stumping up $8 per week and generating $20 million in revenue. This is dwarfed by print revenue of $50 million. Impressive as these figures are, the paper still runs at a loss. 

Mitchell is forthright and aggressive. He perceptively comments that ‘successful leaders in Australia move straight to the centre on election night’ (p 58); I’m inclined to agree. He focuses on PMs including John Howard and Paul Keating, the two he most admires, and Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, those he least admires. He is adamant that Joe Hockey and Peta Credlin were the weak spots of the Abbott government (p 74).

Old battles with his then boss, Kim Williams, are described in detail. He was alert to ‘grinfucking’, the subtle opposition to reforms introduced by a new CEO (p 76). Mitchell frequently reminds the reader of how important he is (or was…).  He comes across as pumped up and just a little insecure. He has a bucket load of alpha male characteristics and a striking bouffant. He is a name dropper in the same exalted class as Phillip Adams.

All of that makes for a rollicking, if sometimes exasperating, read on a winter’s night. Much better than watching Game of Thrones.

Chris Mitchell 2016 Making Headlines Melbourne University Press, Melbourne (1/9/17)


Remember the summer of love? Haight Street, San Francisco, 1968.

The funny and perceptive main essay by Joan Dideon on the whacky, drug saturated community is still a delight to read, albeit approaching 50 years after the event. As she says ‘we were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum’ (p 106).

Whoa. I was a naïve 18 year old university student who thought he intuitively knew what was happening. Now reading Joan Didion’s brilliant essay, a modern classic, had me alternately chuckling and cringing as I raced through the book. It had sat on my bookshelves since 1974 when Janet purchased it second hand in a Port Moresby bookshop.

A few of the essays have not travelled well. But there was more than enough to keep me hooked. Her essay on Joan Biaz, for instance, who she thought ‘was a personality before she was entirely a person’ (p 52). Didion’s story about the eccentric Howard Hughes who would keep a hairdresser on 24/7 standby in case he wanted his hair cut. The barber was handsomely rewarded for his boredom and availability.

And I enjoyed her short essays on the craft of writing. She was like Tom Wolfe a believer in creative nonfiction. As Didion says, ‘the point of keeping a notebook has never been, nor isn’t now, to have an accurate, factual record’ (p 114). The reason is simple: ‘on the few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has … overtaken me’ (p 115).

I didn’t get around to reading Didion in 1968. But it’s never too late to read a classic. 

Joan Didion 1968 Slouching Towards Bethlehem  Penguin, Melbourne (5/7/17)


Bruce Grant describes himself as a public intellectual, drawing on Camus’s definition of an intellectual as ‘someone whose mind watches itself’ (p 184).

I read Grant’s slender 1967 monograph on Indonesia (Penguin, Ringwood) in 1975. It was prior to me moving to Makassar to undertake fieldwork for my doctoral thesis. His work in and around Asia cropped up regularly over the following decades so when I saw that he had published an autobiography I keenly sought it out.

Born in the wheat belt of Western Australia in 1925 he is now in his early nineties. Subtle Moments is a substantial piece of writing (426 pages) and penned with considerable grace and elegance. There are, indeed, many subtle moments in the book. He clearly enjoys writing, whether as a journalist, university academic, author of fiction, or international foreign policy strategist.

Bruce Grant left Perth Modern School and became a journalist, before joining the navy and getting posted to Darwin in the latter years of World War 2. After the War he moved to Melbourne and enrolled at Melbourne University. He was influenced by Manning Clark and Macmahon Ball who both became friends. Throughout his career he travelled extensively but always returned to Melbourne. Despite the War and Japan’s activism he acknowledges that ‘we knew little of Asia then’ (p 58).

Bruce Grant joined The Age as a reporter, noting that he was the only university graduate among the reporting staff. He became a Foreign Correspondent with postings in the UK, Singapore (during the Vietnam War), Indonesia and Washington DC. Whilst in the UK he was dazzled: the ‘wit and brilliance were all around us’ (p 83). But not everyone dazzled: ‘The English upper-class voice became for me a caricature of itself, a symptom of inarticulate haughtiness, a national aversion to anything clear and explicit, a jigsaw mind overloaded with pieces that never matched’ (p 87).

Dennis Bloodworth, Denis Warner and Dick Hughes are singled out as significant Australian foreign correspondents of that period. Walter Lippman impressed him with ‘a sense of drama that touched his writing with emotion’ (p 138).

Gough Whitlam appointed Grant as High Commissioner to India, around the same time that Whitlam sent Stephen FitzGerald to China (see my blog on 21/10/16). In later years he Chaired the Australia Indonesia Institute and worked for Gareth Evans during his period as Foreign Minister.

Marriages, relationships, children and hunting for houses in Melbourne and the surrounding beaches are all deftly included in the story. So too are his views of Australia’s recent foreign policy and his preference for a rules based international order rather than the more usually dominant realist approach in which sheer power is the determining influence on foreign policy.

He self describes his writing style as ‘essayish and literary’ (p 309). I call it informed, polished and generally aimed with surgical accuracy. It was an unexpected delight to read.

Bruce Grant 2017 Subtle Moments: Scenes on a Life’s Journey, Monash University Publishing, Melbourne (9/6/17)


The author of Talking To My Country is not the smooth talking Stan Grant of television. It’s the hard talking, heart on the sleeve Stan Grant of the Wiradjuri Nation writing about the injustices done to aboriginal people, and the inevitable and ongoing impact on their lives.

His rage was sparked by the disgusting verbal abuse hurled at footballer Adam Goodes during the 2015 AFL season. But it goes back a long way to his reading of James Baldwin when he was young. Grant says his book is a ‘meditation on race’. He writes in short, punchy sentences that amplify the message.

Settler communities, such as in Australia, he sees as places without a past that have ‘left history behind’ (p 5). They don’t stack up against the 60,000 years of indigenous occupation and they maintain the lie ‘that no blood had stained the wattle’ (p 29). In Australia for the Olympics he delights in Kathy Freeman’s gold medal but complains the indigenous national flag should have been raised instead of the national flag.

He writes with great affection about his time with CNN, travelling the world and feeling proud, liberated and not pre-judged. The demands of the job, though, grind him down and he suffers from acute depression.

This is a powerful and confronting book. His attachment to the land and the Wiradjuri people is visceral. He excoriates white Australia for its failure to understand the enormity of the impact colonization had on his people, and their willful failures to address the core problems. But his background in journalism comes to the forefront and no systematic solution is offered. Where do we go from here?  

Stan Grant 2016 Talking to My Country, HarperCollins, Sydney (24/5/17)


My initial break-through moment came a few chapters into the reading of Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain. The essay on his father titled ‘Havoc: A Life in Accidents’ was emotionally moving and rammed home the skill and power of his writing.

However the clincher was the essay on surfing, ‘The Wait and the Flow’. It was the real break-through for me. He started surfing in the 1960s and 1970s, a romantic period influenced by surfers, rebels, beatniks and heretics. He withdrew from the 1980s surfing culture when the ‘dominant mode was urban, aggressive, localized, greedy, racist and misogynist’ (p 133), then returned to surfing in the 1990s after moving to a coastal hamlet. Winton now believes that ‘surfing is the one pointlessly beautiful activity they [men] engage in’ (p 134). And not just men, I would add.  

The coast and the ocean have a significant place in Tim Winton’s life. He writes of his role in helping to block excessive commercial intrusion into the Ningaloo Reef, and of his concerns about those who believe that the killing of sharks is the best way to solve the problem of shark attacks on swimmers. And this despite a close personal encounter with a bronze whaler while out surfing.

He confesses to a preoccupation with social class. Winton notes that many writers are from the ‘gentry’, Patrick White being one example. Class politics is always on his mind: ‘the boho bourgeois inner city has long been plagued with smugness’ (p 221) he says. Ironically his extended views on the plight of refugees could have merged from any inner city public meeting. He worries about the working poor and fairness, but assures us he enjoys a privileged coastal existence. 

As a committed surfer in the 1960s and early 1970s I acquired a life-long appreciation of coastal environments. Now I live in the inner city with aspirations to be a writer and part of the ‘boho bourgeoisie’. I previously read Tim Winton’s Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir and Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (my Island Home review is here). I thought that The Boy Behind the Curtain is the standout of the three memoirs. It is an honest, revealing and beautifully written book to read over a cappuccino and smashed avocado.


Tim Winton 2016 The Boy Behind the Curtain, Penguin Books, Melbourne (9/5/17)


Mark Colvin’s Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son was reprinted three times in 2016 and once thus far in 2017.

Why did MUP underestimate the likely demand? Colvin is well known for his radio and television work, has a huge Twitter following, and has lived an exceptionally interesting life. And his writing is polished and subtle.

The book is badged as a memoir, not a history. But at times his story is written in exceptional detail, such as when he describes the area he lived in as a child before he was five. That he wrote Light and Shadow whilst staying with his 94 year old mother may be the explanation.

Colvin’s descriptions of his travel through Outer Mongolia are also incredibly detailed. It reveals the influence of being able to access declassified official records and written and filmed news files. His father, the MI6 spy, published a memoir titled Twice Around the World; it undoubtedly provided a useful resource. 

Colvin always had a desire to hear about the world through the eyes and words of journalists. An Oxford graduate, his favourite broadcast reporter is Alistair Cook. There are very few references in the book to scholarly research and then mainly to people with a media profile.

During an intense visit to Iran in the post-Shah era Colvin reported that an Iranian judge had developed the concept of ‘obvious guilt’ at the beginning, not the end, of a trial. After returning to Sydney from one of his visits to Iran he laments that nobody really wanted to listen when he talked about foreign places such as Iran. It has been a recurring experience for many of us who periodically work overseas.

Mark Colvin is best known for hosting ABC radio’s PM program. Apart from his time as a foreign correspondent, Colvin was on the staff for the launch of the 2JJ radio station, and had a stint with Four Corners. As a true ABC man he has a few snipes at the Murdoch press, such as when he thought it underestimated the crowds protesting at the dismissal of the Whitlam government. 

On the plane back to Australia after a challenging experience abroad Colvin relaxed with a ‘fuck you gin’. You don’t need a gin and tonic to enjoy reading Light and Shadow.

Mark Colvin 2016 Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.  (24/4/17)

Postscript. Vale Mark Colvin, who passed away on 11/5/17.


I could never warm to the term ‘creative non-fiction’. I had the simple-minded opinion that writing is non-fiction or it isn’t; end of story.

When I discovered that the ‘new journalism’ of Tom Wolfe, one of my all-time favourite authors, is regarded as a leading creative non-fiction writer, I realised I may have been missing the point. And how better to think this through than by attending The Creative Non-Fiction Festival put on by The NSW Writers Centre?

As the blurb said ‘creative non-fiction is the search for more eloquent and elegant ways to tell the truth’. Wikipedia calls it ‘a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives’. 

The Festival was fun. Mark Dapin was a witty MC, and the line-up of presenters, dominated as it was by journalists, were mostly concise and entertaining. It was a huge contrast to the standard academic seminar.

The opening speaker, Clare Wright, is an historian at La Trobe University. In her impressive research on the Eureka Stockade and later on Ballarat during the gold rush she ‘shut up and listened’ to the descendants of those people. It enabled her to tease out the deeply human stories and emotional underpinnings of times and places. When it came to publication she removed the academic scaffolding and concentrated on expressing the stories she had heard. Her work, it appeared to me, had both academic rigour and deep insight. She is an ARC Future Fellow; academia agrees.  

And to finish, a few quick insights:

• Publishers want books of around 75,000 words;

• Publishers are looking for something different, something new;

• Successful books make you feel you are there and involved;

• Publishers avidly read the weekly list of book sales for trends in the market;

• A book has about a six week life on booksellers shelves, and must sell in the first 2-3 months;

• The book market is capricious.

Happy writing. (1/4/17)


The Art of Time Travel is a snappy title for a book about historians. As if a memorable title isn’t enough to provoke reader interest, Tom Griffiths’ book also won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History.

Each of the 14 chapters is devoted to an historian. Some are professional historians from within the academy such as John Mulvaney and Geoffrey Blainey. Others are poets or writers (Judith Wright, Inga Clendinnen, Eleanor Dark) or farmer/writers (Eric Rolls). For all of them history is an organic ingredient in their lives and craft.

It is warming to see a serious social scientist bend the rules by blurring the hard-edged disciplinary categories that have been a recurring feature of 20th and 21st Century social sciences.    

Graeme Davison is an urban historian influenced by the Chicago School of urban sociology, the ‘street walker’ Robert Park and British historian Asa Briggs. In a chapter titled ‘Walking the City’ Griffiths identifies Davison’s strong sense of place and need for ‘strong boots’ with which to negotiate the city.

Time and place, and acquiring knowledge through the boots, underpins modern geography as well. The fascination with time and place has led to significant overlaps between modern history and geography, but surprisingly the two disciplines have relatively few points of contact. Griffiths concentrates on urban sociology’s influence on urban history but not the overlap with urban and historical geography.

When Davison moved to Monash University his interest shifted from the inner city to the suburbs; the places where ‘the Sunday drive … was quickly supplanting the Sunday church service’ (p 237). He became a ‘pioneer of public history in the 1980s’ (p 238), and later became interested in his family history which he published as a book.

Griffith’s book is as well written as its eloquent title would suggest. It is a beacon for historians and an example of what those of us in the social sciences should aspire towards: a scholarly analysis that is eloquent and accessible to an informed readership beyond the social sciences.

Tom Griffiths 2016 The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft Black Inc, Melbourne (6/2/17)


When I ordered Everywhere I Look from the City of Sydney Library the website indicated I was 47th in line to get a copy to read.

Yes there were rave reviews by Peter Craven in The Australian, but more important is the very high regard for Helen Garner in Australia. So I bought a copy. 

The book’s structure is unusual. Three new essays, the remainder reprints. As a result, there is an unexpected unevenness, essays jumping all over the place like a frog in a bowling alley. But, to be fair, most are broadly diary and memoir and that brings coherence to the volume.

Garner’s writing is fluent and spare. Not overdone, even though we know she devotes enormous effort to achieve her stylish elegance and simplicity. And I do like the simple elegance. Her short stories are both beautiful and revealing of the essence of her thoughts. Garner’s candour is admirable.

Her writing is rarely judgmental. She confesses her close friendship with Tim Winton and his wife. But as a minimalist she has been mildly critical of his overdone and overworked metaphors (p 35). And similes, I would add.

I loved the essay on her teacher, Mrs Dunkley; her admiration for Elizabeth Jolley; her empathy with Elena Ferrante’s expression of feeling ransacked at the end of writing a book.

Helen Garner’s writing is the genuine thing. It raised my spirits; and after the events of the last 24 hours in DC I needed something.

Helen Garner 2016 Everywhere I Look, Text Publishing, Melbourne. (21/1/17)


When I discovered a new book from Drusilla Modjeska I instantly added it to my urgently-must-read list. Getting around to actually reading it took longer. Just under 12 months.

Two motives drove me to read Second Half First: A Memoir. First, I enjoy Modjeska’s literary style and in particular I was interested in how she went about writing a memoir. Second, since reading Modjeska’s novel, The Mountain (my reflections from 20/1/14 are here), I have followed with interest her recent engagement with Papua New Guinea.

Confessing to being ‘book-broody’ (p 15), she offers the reader glimpses of what was going through her mind as she wrote the memoir. We share academic histories so I intuitively understood her ‘abhorrence of the first person’ (p 17) but fully embraced her inner need to avoid the memoirist’s obsession with ‘me, me, me’ (p 140). It’s a balancing act that remains difficult to get right.

In contrast, it puzzled me that she ‘didn’t like the current tell-all genre of memoir’ (p 19); I just assumed this was a given for serious writers of memoir. Instead she takes a line that I am more comfortable with, recognising the need to ‘write of those who’ve shaped my life without exposing what was not mine to expose’ (p 19).

She subtly creates a space for memoirists marked by good, nuanced memoir writing. ‘Rather than catching a woman out, couldn’t there be a way of writing her life that honoured – rather than excused – the inconsistencies, the confusions.’ (p 59). She quotes Grace Cossington-Smith’s opinion that ‘knowledge without emotion is cold and sterile’ (p 240).

Modjeska’s accounts of living in a house in inner Sydney and engaging with writers such as Helen Garner, Sophie Watson and Hazel Rowley provide a peephole glimpse of Sydney’s bohemian writers scene. I did not know, or perhaps had forgotten, she edited a book on Inner Cities: Australian Women’s Memories of Place.

Drusilla Modjeska was in Papua New Guinea from 1968-1971. She and her husband, an anthropologist, lived in the highlands and connected with people in Port Moresby and the University of Papua New Guinea. As a tutor at UPNG from 1972-1974, her descriptions of that time resonated.   

PNG had a significant impact on her, as it did to many living and working during the years immediately prior to independence. Modjeska returned to PNG in 2004, travelling with a friend looking at art in the lakes region of Papua. More recently she has been the driver in the establishment of a Sustain Education Art Melanesia (SEAM) Fund. Late in the book she reveals ‘There are times … I still wish I was an artist’ (p 336).

As it might be said in Tok Pisin, this is a gut buk, namba wan.

Drusilla Modjeska 2015 Second Half First: A Memoir, Knopf, Sydney (3/1/17)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)  


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)


Does posting on social media entitle me to call myself a writer? LOL.

Social media is principally about connectivity and communication. Messaging is part of this, but it is not a particularly large part. Users generate short messages or send photographs and other images. In a sense, the media is the message (thanks Marshall McLuhan). The message is fast changing and can be ephemeral.

A small proportion of social media addicts take seriously the act of writing. What is published is more often a ragged version of short-hand employing symbols and without punctuation. IMHO it should be better. An even smaller proportion of social media enthusiasts bother with trying to express well-crafted and meaningful messages that are stylish and hit the target.

Putting social media into context, it provides a platform to engage with news media, ranging from traditional print, through television, radio (to a lesser extent), and online newspapers. It is excellent in distributing eye-witness accounts of significant events.

Social media has transformed the information landscape, and is driving print media to the brink of extinction. It is interesting to speculate about the impact the eventual demise of most print media would have on social media. For instance, it would shrink social media users major targets such as the Murdoch press, across three continents, no less. This may not be a bad outcome. But, of course, worse could follow. Hard to believe, yes.

My print media needs have shrunk to purchasing one newspaper a week. For the rest it is electronic: social media, radio, television. And subscription magazines, book purchases (paper and online), and borrowings from libraries.

Social media is evolving rapidly, but not always in the way I would hope. Like other areas of the sharing economy, remuneration patterns are disrupted. In short, writers don’t get paid.

HuffPost Australia has been launched. Ariana Huffington has already made it clear that they don’t intend to pay contributors. This has created concerns among journalists. For others its nothing new. I have never been paid for op-eds or interviews in newspapers. When I contributed significant essays to Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia the remuneration was a few dollars an hour, well below the minimum wage in Australia at the time. The financial rewards delivered by writers often primarily benefit the media owners. Supply and demand, they would say.

Social media is disruptive, changing the way we create and communicate ideas and information. It’s hastening the decline in newspaper sales and its fiddling with the way we consumers consume. Would it be correct to say we read less, or is it that we read differently? I suspect the former, but I have no hard evidence.

I have been active on social media since 2008 when I set up this current web page, started a Blog, and joined Facebook. I joined LinkedIn and Twitter in 2009, and later Hootsuite (to distribute posts to other sites) and Facebook Pages. I have occasionally toyed with Google+, Flipboard, Pinterest, Klout, and a few others.

Each of the sites I use have a different function. Twitter is focused on my professional life; Facebook is for communicating with family and friends. I relay my Tweeter pieces selectively to LinkedIn, Facebook Page, and occasionally Facebook. Announcements of blogs and events are published on each.

My audience is small, but quality. LQTM. Most of my posts are distributing content I judge to be important and broadly within my area of expertise. Occasionally I express an opinion. I use my full name at each site. Why not? I stand by the opinions that I express, and I am self-employed, so I don’t need a pseudonym. I don’t believe in trolling.

The original question I started out addressing was should I call myself a writer? Having written three blogs on this the answer is yes; but it doesn’t matter all that much.

Notes: LOL Laugh Out Loud; IMHO In My Honest Opinion; LQTM Laughing Quietly To Myself. (1/9/15)


I wanted to re-invigorate my nonfiction writing so I sought help from the pro’s. I joined the New South Wales Writers’ Centre.

It was an advantage to have already published regularly; I had no allusions about how difficult it is to craft a thousand original words that might be sought out and devoured to the final full stop. It slowly became apparent that it would require detonating, then re-assembling, the way I write and what I write about. Some form of re-invention was required.

A reinvigorated approach would enable me to reach a larger audience; one more closely aligned with the (declining) numbers of informed readers who consume what journalists write for sane newspapers, books, magazines and online forums.

In mid 2014 Townske was launched. It’s an online site for sharing images and text on cities and places. The tagline is ‘Uncover cities through people you like’. I have published seven ‘guides’ and have plans for more. Most contributors put prime emphasis on photographs. For me photographs are functional; the accompanying short texts are the challenge. It is difficult to balance informative content and engaging style.

On a second front I plan on sharing an extensive backlog of unpublished memoir (or life stories as it is often called). I started with a new memoir of Port Moresby in the early 1970s that will combine a series of collected and original images combined with a reflective narrative. The writing is difficult, but it is the accompanying artwork that has tested me.

Together the urban memoirs and Townske are the core elements of a project that I call ‘Cities of Memory and Meaning’. The memoirs will be indie nonfiction. Indie because I will self publish; I have no track record in art, nor as a ‘popular’ writer. I will need not just to refine my writing skills but also become a book designer and indie publisher.

There are useful articles in the NSW Writers’ Centre’s Newswrite that explore some of the issues that I confront, though I haven’t yet attended any of the numerous courses or meetings offered to the members.

I found helpful insights. Hannah Kent advised to ‘cultivate empathy’ and ‘write from the soul’. Benjamin Law urged to never stop being a bowerbird because that is what writers’ do. Krissy Keen recommended reading books written by writers who are better than you. She added that under no circumstances look at Goodreads’ reviews of your books. I learned from Bruce McCabe that a book-store owner wouldn’t stock a book if the cover wasn’t right. Graeme Gibson explained that fiction or nonfiction about real people and real places is ‘locative literature‘.

It’s a work in progress. I am increasingly comfortable that it’s OK to identify as a writer. But before I reach any conclusions I need to think about how social media fits into the discourse in the third (and final) blog of the sequence. (28/8/15)


Writing has been central to my working life, yet I have avoided calling myself a ‘writer’ because it sounds pretentious. It’s time to think this through.

During four decades in university trenches I wrote a reasonable number of academic articles, books and reports, along with newspaper op-eds, magazine articles and conference presentations.

It began in 1974 when a paper on Port Moresby’s squatter settlements co-authored with Richard Jackson (who did most of the work, and was a role model for me) was published in South Pacific Bulletin. My first solo piece tackled market trading in Port Moresby and appeared in South Pacific Bulletin the following year. They set a pattern for the next four decades.

As an academic I pitched largely to university colleagues, researchers, a few related policy professionals, and students. If more than three and a half people read my work I imagined I was on the verge of becoming popular. It never happened.

Whereas in the past academic output was judged on quantity and reputation, now more metrics are used to track the impact of formal academic publications, especially refereed journals. Google Scholar counts citations to academic publications, and has a h-Index and an i 70 Index to assess the significance of scholarly output. My current scores are 1,072 citations, a h-Index of 19, and an i10 Index of 34. Not great, but it keeps me happy.

The measures vary according to discipline and the language of publication. In the social sciences it helps to have a North American or, less significantly, a British/European, focus. Scores can also be gamed by repeating arguments, colleagues citing each other, and names being added to the list of authors. Nevertheless, they are an improvement on a quick eye-balling of a CV.

I only contribute to hard-core academic journals or edited books if I receive an invitation. It doesn’t happen often, but it accounts for a book chapter on China’s cities in 2013 and a journal paper on Adelaide as a ‘university city’ last year. Who knows what comes next?

Now I’m in search of a larger and more diverse readership and more impact. Not that I, or anyone else, can measure impact with any rigour or finesse.

A couple of years ago I was approached to write occasional pieces for Oxford Analytica Daily Brief, which provided subscription briefings online to companies across the globe. Although there is considerable editorial reorganisation of my draft and no author attribution, I enjoy the writing as there is demand for the confidential briefings.

I have recently published two pieces in the Asia Pacific Policy Society’s Policy Forum. It’s an online publication of the Curtin School of Public Policy at The Australian National University. I’m not sure of its reach, but it feels like the right forum for me to continue as a contributor.

I signed up with the intention of writing for The Conversation when it launched. It has done extremely well in catering to academic writers and has a significant readership. Other online outlets for short policy-related postings that I browse include the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter and the UK based Global Policy’s Opinion & Analysis. Something for the future, I think.

The writings mentioned above originated in my ‘Universities and the Creation of the Modern Knowledge City’ project and can continue to be channeled into short online pieces in the outlets above. But does this justify calling myself a writer? (26/8/15)


Underlying masochistic inclinations inevitably draw me to the political biographies of prominent national politicians. On that count, Julia Gillard’s My Story (Knopf, Sydney, 2014) is a must read.

The first five chapters are a powerful, revealing narrative about Gillard’s three years as PM, especially the destruction created by recalcitrant former PM, Kevin Rudd, and the relentless negativism of attack-dog Tony Abbott.

Chapter 6 gets to the heart of the issue: the demeaning attitude to Australia’s first female Prime Minister. It reflects badly on Australians in politics, the media, and beyond. I would hope the rest of us are not as evil, but I suspect we are. Gillard’s public reply was a tour de force: her misogyny speech has 2.5 million hits on YouTube.

The second half of the book is less engaging, recording Gillard’s reflections about her major political achievements. I was, though, particularly interested in her views on foreign policy and intrigued by her comments on Bob Carr. Gillard concluded that Carr did not cope well with his time as Foreign Minister; in his own account of the role, Carr clearly thought he was brilliant at the job. Gillard reminds us of Mark Latham’s comment that ‘politics is Hollywood for ugly people’. 

I followed up by reading Mary Delahunty’s Gravity. Inside the PM’s Office During Her Last Year and Final Days (Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 2014). Delahunty had good access to Gillard during her period as PM. She skillfully manages to articulate some of the emotional ups and downs of Gillard’s last year in power. There is some padding in the text but overall it is a good read, and adds a layer of emotion not always found in Gillard’s book. (30/3/15)


Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister (New South Publishing, Sydney, 2014) was my favourite book of 2014.

When it first appeared it was criticized. Tweets sniped at Carr’s preciousness, citing his preference for first class air travel and fine cuisine. Having a contrarian bent, it stimulated my interest in reading the book. It didn’t let me down. I wallowed in it.

Being Foreign Minister was Carr’s dream job, although it lasted fewer than two years, and in a minority government struggling to cope with internal issues and a particularly destructive News Corp backed opposition. Carr writes fluently and revels in, even amplifies, his quirkiness, bolstered by the belief that this was an unexpected and short-term return to a high profile public role. He is a hypochondriac and obsessive about diet and exercise. He regularly takes Normiston to get to sleep and melatonin to overcome jet lag.

Carr name-drops at every opportunity. No one is missed. He’s proud of his ability to get press coverage and values his skills as a performer with the ability to entertain. I’m the best chairman I know, he says. And he is good at flattery, particularly of Americans. He fantasises about how cool and accomplished he is; or is this irony?

He is patronising in references to Julia Gillard and opposed to Kevin Rudd’s focus on new international relations architecture. He frequently criticises the quality of his DFAT briefing notes, and he worries about ‘American judgement’ and its ‘record of walking into wars’.

Current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has asked whether world leaders would ever again trust the confidentiality of discussions with a future Australian foreign Minister. It’s a political point, but takes no account of the fact that Carr was a short-term replacement in a government that no longer exists. More, he is so obviously out to entertain and occasionally dazzle, unlike his leaden predecessors. Carr’s diary is witty, frank, iconoclastic, revealing and informative. I’m thinking of reading it again.

Two books with South Australian surfing connections caught my eye in 2014. Christo Reid’s Daly Head. A National Surfing Reserve (Christo Reid, 2014) follows on from his Cactus, Surfing Journals from Solitude (Strangelove Press, 2010). Daly Heads is at the southern end of Yorke Peninsula, and open to the swells rolling in from the southern ocean. Sharks like the area too. The book is a memoir of sorts, produced in recognition of the declaration of Daly’s as a National Surfing Reserve, and designed to raise money to help maintain the area.

The other book with a surfing link is Mark Thomson’s Gerry Wedd. Thong Cycle (Wakefield Press, 2008). Wedd is a ceramicist, sculptor and artist. He is also a surfer, a winner of South Australian championships, and a member of the Seaview Road Board Riders, a club to which I belonged in its formative years in the late 1960s. It is still going: in November this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the club at a pub event in Adelaide.

Wedd’s work includes extensive use of the willow pattern, including for thongs and surfboards. He does T-shirts (eg, for Mambo) and a range of pottery, many with ocean and surfing themes. Thomson’s book is a small hardcover, but nicely laid-out and produced.  

Finally, I have already blogged about two books on Papua New Guinea. Drussilla Modjeska’s fine novel The Mountain in a Blog posted on 20/1/14, and the edited collection of essays written by women in PNG in the 1970s and 1980s, titled Our Time But Not Our Place in a Blog on 2/2/14. (2/1/15)


What better way to start 2015 than by citing a blog on why blogs are, or should be, an essential part of an academic’s tool kit.

Patrick Dunleavy’s ‘Shorter, better, faster, free: Blogging changes the nature of academic research, not just how it is communicated’ is on the excellent LSE Impact of Social Science blog. As Mollie would say, do yourself a favour and have a look. (2/1/15)


The risk of a drenching couldn’t deter us from a late afternoon trek to see the finalists for the Archibald Prize. 

There were 884 portraits of men and women ‘distinguished in Arts, Letters, Science or Politics’ entered for the Archibald this year. 54 made it onto the walls of the exhibition.

The judges are trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which helps explain the overwhelmingly large number of NSW artists represented among the final 54. The winner was NSW artist Fiona Lowry’s elegant, ghostly portrait of NSW resident Penelope Seidler.

My vote for the People’s Choice Award was Jude Rae’s calmly understated portrait of ‘Sarah Peirse’ (below). For the first time ever, M and I agreed; we both independently thought it the pick of the 54 on show.

The others on my top five list, in order, were: Mirra Whale’s portrait of Tom Uren (it could easily have been my first choice); Qiang Zhang’s ‘Here’, the title of his portrait of Yang Lee; Wendy Sharpe’s ‘Mr Ash Flanders, actor’; and Zoe Young’s ‘Torah Bright’.

M’s choices after Jude Rae’s efforts were: Anh Do’s ‘Father’; Eliza Cameron’s ‘Nice shootin’ cowboy (Anson Cameron); Bridgette McNab’s ‘Grace’ (Grace Hellyer); and Zoe Young’s ‘Torah Bright’

M added a few extra favourites: Fiona Lowry’s ‘Penelope Seidler’; Julian Meagher’s ‘John Waters - the clouds will cloud’; Paul Newton’s ‘Portrait of Frank Lowry AC’; Martin Tighe’s ‘A familiar stranger’ (Emma Ayres); Mirra Whale’s ‘Tom Uren’; and Qiang Zhang’s ‘Here’.

Altogether we picked out the work of 12 artists. Ten were from Sydney; two were from Melbourne. Ah, the politics of art. (13/8/14)


Typically my family history and teenage surfing years memoirs have been written narratives. The structures are simple: they follow a conventional timeline with limited extrapolation. In parallel I have collected photographs, maps and other memorabilia, and devised genealogies. Together they add extra texture to the (unpublished) stories.

The approach to my current project is different. I am exploring the three years I lived in Papua New Guinea in the early 1970s, but I didn’t feel a narrative memoir was the best way to express it. Instead I wanted to do something innovative that would enable me to experiment with different ways of articulating the nuances and emotional vibrations of those years. Writing would be a part of the work. The other part would draw from the approach of artists.

My partner, Marionne, is an artist, and her influence has been important. Watching her work has shaped my thoughts on how artists communicate through their art. I also trail along on visits to public and private galleries, and see the photographs she takes when we amble along the beach or walk through the rainforest. Talking with her has shaped my critical appreciation of the visual arts by giving me an insight into how an artist reacts to light, colour and structure. They, at least, are visible to me. There is much more that I don’t see, but hope I will in time.

I settled on an approach that merges short-form writing with a visual art form. My intention is to create a different kind of record of the experience. It will combine two elements. A clipped narrative that will be complemented by, and intertwined with, a tangible enhanced visual expression of everyday PNG. I call it an artists’ book, though it is not the same as the artists’ books that I have seen in galleries. The book will combine both my initial experimentation with the form, as well as the final content.

In some of my past academic books I included black and white photographs, and other visual material, such as maps and diagrams. But the written narrative was the core. In the PNG project I will sail into unchartered waters. I am composing short texts of 50-75 words. In parallel I’m mining the patrol boxes of documents, books and other acquisitions I brought back to Australia in early 1975, and using them as props as I try to recollect and express the emotional ripples of those three years. 

The narrative that I write, including an annotated timeline and this blog, are moving along at a reasonable pace. So too is the fossicking through books, old slides, photographs, scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings, and cultural artifacts. Memories, memories, memories.

But when facing a blank, pristine, cream-coloured page of paper in my new Moleskine art book, I am jolted into acknowledging that this is foreign territory and I need to develop a new basic set of skills. What do I know about colour, texture and the different implements used by artists? Is my hand-writing elegant and consistent? How do I learn to let go and express what I feel on the pristine page? It’s the latter that is made hardest by four decades working in universities. (9/4/14)


With the PNG component of the Cities of Memory and Meaning project underway it was time to go through my library of Papua New Guinea books. I kept about 50 of the 300 I had accumulated, mostly in the early 1970s, and took the remainder along to Oxfam.

I have become a regular visitor to the Oxfam shop, parking in the loading bay in front, and hurrying a boot-full of plastic bags into a lengthy and quite large store-room. Each time it is already overflowing with books being sorted by an army of volunteers who cheerfully welcome the new contribution.

My books are organised by region (PNG, Indonesia, Vietnam etc) or organised according to a theme (cities, economic and social development, non-fiction, fiction, and so on). Somehow, I think it is my conceit.

Progress on the overall project is slow. I haven’t looked at most of the books since I left PNG in December 1974, so much time was spent on leafing through old volumes, and getting distracted. Now, however, it’s time to look more closely at the books I have kept, and try and isolate the ideas and experiences that most affected me when I was living in Port Moresby.

I then have to work out how to best, and most concisely, express these ideas in a visual form. New territory to me in many ways, but stimulating and almost liberating, as I move away from the narratives that have been central to the bulk of my academic writing.  (14/3/14)


In 1993 a book of short essays by 31 Australian and other expatriate women who had lived in Papua New Guinea was published. It was titled Our Time but Not Our Place: Voices of Expatriate Women in Papua New Guinea, and it was edited by Myra Jean Bourke, Susanne Holzknecht, Kathy Kituai and Linda Roach and published by Melbourne University Press.

I read a few of the essays at the time it was released, then came across it as I collected books to donate to Oxfam. After finishing The Mountain I decided it would be a good follow-up read. It contains some very raw, sensitive accounts of life in PNG. The women generally recognised that they were aliens - sojourners, and not settlers - even though many had lengthy stays and acquired the skills to communicate in Pidgin English.

They sought out PNG women and often established close relationships but struggled to understand the complexities of power and local cultures. They sympathized with the hard life of the village women, but respected their strength and resilience. They gained insights into the knotty village cultures and the hardships it imposed on women, especially in child-birth and food production.

Almost all spoke of the significant impact their PNG years had on their own sense of self. They retained warm feelings towards PNG, despite the hardships they saw and, sometimes, experienced.

It has prompted me to read a few more of the biographical accounts of my contemporaries in PNG. Almost all are written by women, I am reminded, as I scan the book shelves. (2/2/14)


The Oxfam Second Hand Bookshop in Hutt St, Adelaide, is a gem. So is its facebook page. I dropped off about 350 books on cities last Tuesday that I hope will eventually reach good homes. And improve Oxfam’s revenue stream. It’s getting easier to let go of my books, though I notice I am keeping more than I had originally intended. (30/1/14)  


Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain (Random House 2012), set in Papua New Guinea, is an absorbing book. Reading it coincides with me thinking about my time in PNG; it was a tumultuous period of my life, as I am increasingly realising. The narrative woven in the book cut a swathe through my memories and emotions.  

It took a while to get into the story. I read it on an iPad and tracked each new character until I started to get a sense of who and what the story was really about. There is great depth in the writing, and skill and nuance in the interpretation of black and white cultures. Central to it is the human struggle to sustain relationships, and the importance of family and clan in shaping lives. Modjeska undertook an impressive amount of consultation and research in order to write her story, and it subtly shows through in the narrative. From my (white) perspective it has a feel of sympathetic understanding and hard-edged authenticity, and almost no cringe-moments.

A large part of The Mountain is set in and around the University of Papua New Guinea from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. My first academic position was at UPNG, from 1972 to 1974. Key characters in the book worked at UPNG in the anthropology department (I was in geography, which gets a mention or two) and lived on campus in Waigani, as I did. It is tempting to line up book characters with real people from that small community.

In addition to the University and other settings in Port Moresby (Hohola, Hanuabada), the story is also set in the area near Popondetta, which is referred to as The Mountain. The Mountain is a made-up place. On the map in the book it is somewhere south of Popondetta. I immediately thought of Mt Victoria, PNG’s highest range, which is southwest of Popondetta. Henry Ogg Forbes - not a relation, but from the same area of Scotland as my grandfather - made an unsuccessful attempt to climb Mt Victoria in the 1880s. Forbes was obsessed with Mt Victoria. So, also, many of the characters in the book have their own preoccupation with The Mountain and the somewhat isolated clans that live on its slopes.

Apart from a visit to Port Moresby as a consultant in the 1980s, and a few other activities related to international students, until recently I have not given much thought to PNG or my time there. Reading The Mountain reminded me that I am not alone in discovering how significant my PNG experiences were in shaping the directions I later took. (20/1/14)


While reading the end-of year best books of 2013 list in The Oz I realized I hadn’t read as many books as I thought I would this year. The reason is that this year I have done more reading online, but mainly not books for pleasure.

During our stay in DC I read Blair Ruble’s Washington’s U Street: A Bibliography (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington, 2010). I had looked at excerpts from the book in the past, but it had more meaning when U St was a 10 minute walk from our house in Shaw/Dupont. Blair’s interest in jazz and cities led him to U St, and he skillfully captures the complexity and character of the area, both in the past and the present.

Also while in DC l read, initially because I thought I needed to, Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why it Must be Protected (Public Affairs, New York, 2009). It was a long, rewarding  read, convincing me once and for all that the major research universities are almost as good as their inflated sense of importance would suggest.

Finally, I started the year with Brian Stoddart’s exceptionally readable and, as it turns out, timely book, A House in Damascus (ePublishing Works, Shrewsbury PA, 2012). It was the subject of my second blog of 2013. Regrettably, the situation in Damascus has become even more dire than in January this year. And, quite possibly, pointless. (26/12/13)


Books are important to me. Last year I made a rough count of my book collection. There were just over 3,000 in total. Half were in my office at Flinders so, shopping bag by shopping bag, I brought them home and piled them into two rooms. Slowly I am moving them on, hopefully to good homes. My future library will be about 100 books, I’m thinking - perhaps a little optimistically.

The problem is, of course, everyone I know likes books, but no one I know wants them. So I am gradually taking them along to Salvos on the Broadway in the expectation that their distribution system will get them to people who are willing to pay a dollar or so a book. The market mechanism at work.

I am finding it difficult, though, so it is taking some time. Initially I cherry picked books of fiction that I didn’t like. That was the easy part. It became harder as I found books and authors that I enjoyed or had had a big impact on me. It was an emotional separation.

So I thought I would write a blog as I transferred the fiction titles into the plastic bags destined for the Broadway. It took longer, but it meant I could identify the authors and honour some of the books before I recycled them. I felt more comfortable about the task; it was a last look at books that I had carted around with me, in some cases, since the late 1960s. So here is an annotated list of the books that had particular meaning for me.

Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim, seduced by the university setting);

Jessica Anderson (Tirra Lirra by the River);

Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending was brilliant, except, paradoxically, I thought the actual ending - the last few pages - was limp);

Malcolm Bradbury (The History Man and Rates of Exchange, the university setting, again);

Anthony Burgess (I read The Malayan Trilogy while on field work in Indonesia and sitting drinking coffee in a kedai);

Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s);

Peter Carey (Bliss had a huge impact on me. It was my favourite Carey book, and it encouraged me to read more Australian writers);  

Leonard Cohen (I didn’t think much of his two fictional works, but his poetry and music were something else);

Joseph Conrad (not just a great writer, but it was also his journeys through the ‘Far East’ that interested me);

Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss, one of many fine Indians writing in English);

Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby and just about all his other books);

Helen Garner (The Children’s Bach);

Graham Greene (one of my favourite authors - The Heart of the Matter, A Burnt-Out Case, Our Man in Havana, The Power and the Glory, and his non-fiction);

Shirley Hazzard (The Transit of Venus);

Frank Hardy (Power Without Glory);

Christopher Isherwood (Goodbye to Berlin);

Howard Jacobson (Coming from Behind);

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Heat and Dust);

George Johnston (My Brother Jack and Clean Straw for Nothing);

Patrick Kavanagh (The Green Fool);

P.J. Kavanagh (The Perfect Stranger);

Thomas Kenneally (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith);

Arthur Koestler (Arrival and Departure, and the nonfiction, especially The Act of Creation);

Laurie Lee (Cider with Rosie, of course, and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning);

David Lodge (Changing Places and Nice Work, both set in universities);

Bernard Malamud (The Natural; his books convey a great sense of life in New York);

W.Somerset Maugham (I adored his Collected Short Stories, and particularly those set in the ‘Far East’);

Timothy Mo (Sour Sweet, The Monkey King);

Shiva Naipaul (Fireflies);

V.S. Naipaul (I preferred his non-fiction);

Ruth Park (The Harp in the South);

Mario Puzo (The Godfather. I read it while working on the maintenance shift at the GMH car plant at Elizabeth during the university holidays. I credited it with getting me into serious reading of books; I was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines, but not books, and The Godfather changed that);

Henry Handel Richardson (The Getting of Wisdom, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney);

Mordecai Richler (Cocksure was brilliant);

Tom Sharpe (the Wilt books are hilarious);

Randolph Stow (The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea);

Evelyn Waugh (Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, Black Mischief, and more);

Fay Weldon (I loaned my copy of Female Friends to many female friends and somewhere along the line it didn’t come back but there are several Weldon’s in the house);

Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities; I will say more about Wolfe in a later blog, as his ‘new journalism’ writings had a huge influence on me).

Despite the importance they have had in my life, the books still must go, but I feel better having acknowledged the writers of fiction and the books that I collected (or still have after loaning them out).

My preferred reading is biography and non-fiction (eg the new journalism) and there are all those academic publications I have accumulated. They account for two thirds of the books that I want to recycle. (7/6/13)


Surfing was my passion as a teenager. I was therefore moved to see two of South Australia’s best surf spots achieve national recognition.

Daly Head, on the southern tip of Yorke Peninsula, has recently been declared a National Surfing Reserve. The celebration event took place in mid-January at a farm on Corny Point. I missed it, but it sounded good. A book has been published titled, not surprisingly, Daly Head: A National Surfing Reserve.

Point Sinclair, adjacent to Cactus on South Australia’s desert coast, was also recognised as a National Surfing Reserve in January.

It brings me to another surf book, Christo Reid’s Cactus: Surfing Journals from Solitude (Strangelove Press, Forresters Beach, 2010). It is a standout in the literature about surfing. It is a history of the iconic surf beach and surf community at Cactus. He points out it has the same longitude and latitude as Liliput in Swift’s Gullivers Travels, and speculates a connection with the island paradise of Swift’s Houyhnms. 

My only surfing visit to Cactus was in 1967 or 1968. Three of us drove over in an old Holden ute. It was a long all-night drive from Adelaide. I distinctly remember the driver momentarily falling asleep and swerving off the road before recovering and narrowly missing a roadside post. Arriving at Cactus we bedded down in sleeping bags in the sand. One night a feral surfer threw a large fire cracker in among us, burning holes in my sleeping bag.

Cactus had a reputation for sharks, as does most of the SA coast, so I was wary of the two or three fishing boats active a kilometre or two offshore which might have attracted sharks to the area. However the waves were good and it was great to be there with a half dozen or so surfer friends.

Finally, I should also mention Tim Baker’s Surfari (Ebury Press, Sydney, 2011). It is a more conventional surfing travelogue. It is the story of his surf journey around Australia, beginning and ending on the Gold Coast. His coverage of South Australia is patchy, missing Yorke Peninsula altogether. However there is a whole chapter on Cactus, which he refers to as Desert Camp, deferring to the local surfers desire to keep public awareness to a minimum. More a gesture than a meaningful action, I suspect. (23/2/13)


I downloaded Brian Stoddart’s eBook, A House in Damascus, to read over the New Year break. It was a good choice. I knew very little about Damascus, and I became intrigued by its extraordinary history and the richness of life within the city. My one visit to the Gulf encompassed Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, long enough only to know how much I didn’t know.

On arriving in Syria to undertake consultancy work in higher education, Brian signaled his intentions to explore by finding accommodation near the ‘Old City’. The book is an affectionate account of Damascus, its rich past revealed through the extraordinary architecture. It is also a personal story of the people he met. He reveled in its ancientness and the diversity of its communities, Syrians, Palestinians, Muslims, Jews and Christians.

As a historian he provides an engaged overview of the mosques, churches and souks. He enjoys trying different food and eating in his favourite restaurants (especially Brokar). And he uncovers a personal connection between his life in Australia and in Damascus through a story about Arabian horses.

He is critical of the negative depiction of Syria in American film and television. He disagreed with its portrayal as lawless and dangerous.

Brian’s account is mainly up until his departure from Damascus in early 2011, shortly before the commencement of the present conflict. The troubles in Syria have escalated and the shocking destruction of areas of Damascus and other cities continues. Some 60,000 people may have died in the conflict. The final chapter reflects on the personal impact of the destruction on the human and architectural fabric of Damascus. It will be some time before the streets of Damascus will again be walkable for visitors, and the riches of the city accessible to those curious about life in this ancient place.

The eBook is available on iBooks, and it was free when I downloaded it.

Brian Stoddart 2012 A House in Damascus, ePublishing Works (Shrewsbury, PA) ISBN 978-1-61417-356-4  (15/1/13)


There were two standout books for me in 2011. Both were biographical and both key figures passed away in 2011. No surprises I guess (neither Kim Jung-il or Muammar Gaddafi came close).

I bought Christopher Hitchens Hitch-22. A Memoir (Allen & Unwin, London, 2010) early last year and read it immediately. There are just a few writers/musicians for whom I have felt a sustained admiration; Leonard Cohen; Graham Greene; J.K. Galbraith.  Having long been a reader of Hitchen’s work and after finishing Hitch-22 I added Christopher Hitchens to the list.

Hitchens’ book interested me for two reasons. First, he has some foreign correspondent credentials, and I admire good newspaper foreign correspondents and non-fiction story-tellers. Second, because he shifted his political ground, distancing himself from his Marxist and leftist international socialist period. He became highly critical of the left, and significantly more appreciative of those who grappled with significant foreign policy dilemmas. Hitchens was a self-proclaimed ‘contrarian’ (p 387), but he was much more than just a contrarian.

I had mixed feelings about the outpouring of emotion which followed Hitchen’s passing. Many former friends on the left were inclined to put the boot in. Others, I thought, may not have read much of what Hitchens had written, but were drawn by his fame. He had, perhaps, been  Bono-ised.

I think he overwrote. He was a show-off, and it grates. He was a chronic name-dropper and besotted with the cleverness of himself and his friends. It was especially evident in the chapter on Martin Amis. But it is a passionate book, and his writing is fearless and brilliant at times.

The second was Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (Hachette Digital, London, 2011). It is a long book of 907 digital pages. I have heard it described as a hagiography, but that is unfair. It tells a long and detailed story about Jobs, who comes across as self-centred, rude, inconsiderate, and a great exploiter of those with whom he worked. Could he have achieved all that he did if he had a different approach? The issue will continue to be debated by those interested in leadership models and strategies.

Jobs’ ‘reality distortion field’ enabled him to achieve significant breakthroughs but also brought about some dismal failures. He was inclined to blame them on others. However, his impact on information technology was enormous, as we all know. His sense of design was simply outstanding. 

I use a range of Apple products, having abandoned the Microsoft et al families about five years ago. Jobs has successfully locked consumers like me into particular technology, and created barriers to prevent crossing-over into new products evolving out of un-connected companies. Up until now, the benefits have outweighed the costs of the integration model. That will inevitably change in the future. The result for many of us will be a painful re-organisation of our ever-expanding digital assets.

Isaacson has written a narrative that strikes a comfortable balance between the two sides of Job’s career.  It is a cracking read.

I haven’t thought much about connections between Hitchens and Jobs. But one commonality is worthy of comment. Both lived in the USA; Jobs was born there (though his father was an immigrant) and Hitchens moved there from the UK, and took out citizenship. In the midst of all the political hullabaloo the US remains a land of opportunity (I know it’s a cliché) for talented immigrants and their offspring. In a world that is increasingly fearful of the consequences of cross-border migration, this point should not be forgotten. (1/1/12)


I bought Mary Beard’s book It’s a Don’s Life (Profile Books, London, 2009) in a secondhand bookshop in Brighton.  She is a Cambridge historian of ancient Greece, and the book is composed of her blogs, which can be found in The Times. Beard blogs about universities, and draws on her extensive knowledge of life in ancient Rome, especially Pompeii, her favourite city.  I particularly enjoyed hearing from the eccentrics who add their esoteric comments. The blog is popular; 80,000 hits for her ’10 things you thought you knew about the Romans...but didn’t’was her best.  (21/6/11)


Tim Winton’s Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir (Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne, 1993) is a slim volume.  Despite a mutual love of the Australian coast and beaches, I avoided Winton’s books in the past.  He struck me as genuine and very earnest, but just not someone I wanted to read.  Land’s Edge changed my mind.  I got a sense of how he and his family connect with the Western Australian coast.  His prose is creamy smooth; perhaps a little too smooth.  (13/2/11) 


The Fry Chronicles (Michael Joseph, London, 2010) was one of the Christmas gifts from my daughter and her partner.  Stephen Fry is a polymath, chronic twitterer and a ubiquitous presence on television.  In QI he is often funny, but essentially plays the straight (sic) man; the humour is provided by his panellists, when they are on song.

It took me a while to get into the book.  Initially I didn’t like the typeface, or his extended account of his taste for sweets as a child. But slowly I got into the rhythm, and ended up very pleased I persisted.  It is essentially the story of his life from university (Cambridge, of course) through to the day he started to experiment with illicit substances.  The diary of a very successful young man, as he tells us, often.

Fry comes across as disarmingly honest.  A bundle of contradictions.  He is an inveterate name dropper, and exudes a narcissistic pleasure in his own success. At the same time he is touchingly self deprecating, prone to jealousy, insecure and at times rather dark.  And he doesn’t like Robbie Coltrane.  I enjoyed his story and his quirky honesty.  (25/1/11)


As the weather heated up over the break, so I managed to read more.  Pre Christmas reading was an early Christmas gift, Robert Drewe’s The Best Australian Essays 2010 (Black Inc, Melbourne, 2010).  It’s not a vintage collection, being thin on humour and the feisty, iconoclastic writing I was hoping to read.  A highlight was Janet Hawley’s essay on the artist Charles Blackman.  Somewhat to my surprise I enjoyed Les Murray’s ‘Infinite Anthology’. 

On Boxing Day I browsed the local bookshop and found Anthony Reynolds Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life (Omnibus, London 2010).  I’m a life-long Cohen tragic, and managed to see his 2009 concert at McLaren Vale and the Hanging Rock concert in 2010.  Sheer bliss.  I never imagined I would get to see Cohen live on stage, even if it was outside on a blisteringly hot day in the southern Vales. 

Buying the new bio was a no-brainer.  It is an easy and absorbing read, and I was only occasionally distracted by the numerous misspellings and missing or misplaced words.  It appears it was never proof read. 

Much has been written about Leonard Cohen, and Reynolds has drawn on published sources and interviews with select contacts.  Cohen himself was not interviewed.  Nevertheless sitting in a sunny conservatory reading the book with Cohen’s music on at low volume in the background was an ethereal, sublime experience.

Cohen first emerged as a poet (a boudoir poet, some said), and briefly as a novelist, and then a songwriter.  However it was not until he reached his mid 30s that he became a singer.  Permeating his whole professional life was a firm belief in what he eloquently terms ‘the aristocracy of the intellect’.  He also comes across as polite, even gentlemanly, and humble, but stubborn and totally dedicated to his work.

He is a very skilled wordsmith; it is more evident in his lyrics than his poetry, though both are connected.  He worked with excellent musicians.  Cohen puts his emphasis on the emotional content of his words and music, not the technical precision.  It serves him well.  Much of the album Ten New Songs was recorded in Cohen’s home studio.  The jacuzzi was close by.  It was often accidentally left on and could be heard on some of the tracks; it had to be engineered out in the final production.

The book dwells a little too much on the details of Cohen’s recordings, and is thinner on his personal life.  Cohen says he was ‘blessed with amnesia’ when it comes to those matters.  As he said in ‘Anthem’, ‘there’s a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in’. 

Cohen believes his two best songs are ‘If it be your will’ and ‘Hallelujah’.  If I had to choose just two, I would probably agree.  Particularly after hearing Antony’s cover version of the first and k d lang’s version of the second, which apparently brought tears to Cohen’s eyes when he first heard her sing it. 

I have been listening to ‘Suzanne’ and others since 1973 and I think he has produced great songs across the whole span of his career.  Backed up by some extraordinary musicians, such as Javier Mas, he also recently delivered a superb concert performances at 76.  He is an inspiration.  That’s probably why I enjoyed the book as much as I did.  (9/1/11)


I am only passingly familiar with his songs, but I have always thought Paul Kelly was a musician with gravitas.  After all, he was the support act for Leonard Cohen at Leconsfield last year, and at Hanging Rock this year.  On both occasions he connected with the passionate Leonard Cohen fans. 

Kelly grew up in Adelaide and enrolled at Flinders University in the 1970s, but left before completing his first year in order to become a writer.  That was enough to fuel my interest in his book.

How To Make Gravy (Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne 2010) has an unusual format for an autobiography.  It is structured around music and lyrics, embellished with short essays, notes and old letters.  The book had its origins in a series of Kelly’s concerts in which he worked his way through 100 of his songs, and spoke about his memories associated with them.  It works.

It is bigger than a house brick, and almost as heavy, so it wasn’t easy travelling with it and reading on planes.  But its insights and reflections on the life of a respected muso gave me much enjoyment.  It also got me thinking about how to tell stories and write an autobiography from a less conventional perspective.  (29/11/10)


Brian Matthews’ Manning Clark: A Life (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008) is a remarkable book.  Clark (1915-1991) authored the six volume A History of Australia.  He was a controversial historian.  In Australia’s history culture wars Clark was criticised both as a leader within the ‘black armband’ perspective, and because his sweeping interpretations were not always substantiated by documented ‘facts’.  Nevertheless, he was a towering public figure among Australian historians.

Matthews’ book goes into extraordinary detail describing the shaping of Clark’s  character, his religious beliefs, lack of self-confidence, and emotional distance from others.  He has benefitted from access to Clark’s extensive diaries and insights from his wide circle of acquaintances.  Academic networks in Australia involve a relatively small group of people.

From the very beginning Matthews’ stylish writing sucked me deep into the construction and evolution of Manning Clark’s personality.  The book is engrossing and difficult to put down, despite its length and meticulous scholarly detail.  It ranks with the best biographies I have read.

During the summer break I also read Toby Young’s witty and irreverent How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (Abacus, London 2001).  I followed it by reading Geraldine Brooks’ Foreign Correspondence: A Memoir (Bantam, Sydney, 1998).  It starts slowly but picks up emotional momentum in the second half.  It prompted me to move on to read her Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (Bantam, Sydney, 2008).  (31/12/08)

READING 1 January 2008

Reading was prominent in my Christmas break.  Not long back I borrowed Alice Steinbach’s Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman (Bantam Books, Sydney, 2000) from Kathy’s bookcase.  Steinbach’s stories are about Paris, London, Oxford and Italy.  One of her devices is to write short postcards to herself, and post them to her home in Baltimore.

Before I finished Steinbach, I started on Bryce Corbett’s A Town Like Paris: Living and Loving in the City of Light (Hachette Australia, Sydney, 2007).  It was Kathy’s birthday gift to me.  I love the idea of a book by an Australian lad about living in Paris, and this is written straightforwardly, and with humour.  It is a boys’ book, and he revels in the larrikan behaviour of ‘the Posse’, as he and his friends liked to be known.  The book is pleasant enough, without being particularly revealing, or uplifting.  But it is a yobbo’s book.  Corbett matures during the last third of the book, after he meets ‘the Showgirl’ and falls in love.  His writing becomes less laddish, and superficial, and just a touch more reflective.

ORHAN PARMU 2 January 2008

For Christmas Kathy gave me Orhan Parmuk’s Other Colours: Essays and a Story (faber and faber, London, 2007).   The Turkish writer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.   I flicked through it and recalled Kathy telling me she bought it because he wrote about cities, and Istanbul in particular.  A light-bulb went on in my head.  I was writing my piece on the Asian City for an encyclopedia, and was planning to write about Suketu Mehta’s brilliant book on Mumbai. 

In the city to see a film, we idled away some time in Mary Martin’s bookshop.  I asked if they had Orhan Pamuks book on Istanbul, and they did, so I bought it.  Its full title is Istanbul: Memories and the City (faber and faber, London, 2005).

I like the structure of Other Colours.  Its essays are short: 73, plus three longer stories.  It is also self-indulgent, which I guess is OK when you have a Nobel Prize.


A book arrived from Sarah.  Her Christmas gift for me was Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004).

Sarah wrote inside the cover:

Dearest Dad –

I will forever cherish our bond.  Every moment we have shared, all the inspiration you have provided, all the love you have given.

May this story inspire you to continue “the ice-cream years”

And perhaps – just maybe this author may become the new leader we have been searching for.

I love you,

Sarah xx

Obama’s mother was American, and his father from Kenya.  The book is a kind of family history, written soon after he graduated from Harvard.  The edition I have was revised and added to and published in 2004.