d e a n   f o r b e s                                                                   w a l k i n g ,  n o t  r u n n i n g . . .
 

B O O K S  A N D  W R I T E R S

Book Reviews and Other Meditations on Writing: 2015-2019



GRESTE: THE FIRST CASUALTY


It is increasingly unsafe to be a journalist. 1,528 died in the line of duty between 2000 and 2017.


Peter Greste was in Cairo and embedded in the world of the foreign correspondent, along with two Al Jazeera colleagues, when he was arrested and imprisoned for over a year. Qatar based Al Jazeera is often criticised as a cause of friction in the Arab world. Yet it also has become a critical international provider of detailed analysis of events in the Middle East, along with the BBC and CNN.


His book The First Casualty was published in 2017, and follows on from a book he wrote with his family titled Freeing Peter that was published in 2016.


I was slow to read The First Casualty. It was well down my list and there had been extensive media coverage of Greste’s incarceration. Essentially it is three books in one. The major thread is his frustrating time in Egyptian jails. A second thread is on his work in Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. A third strand is a discourse on journalism and the importance of a free press able to report on issues across the globe.   


The Egyptian government’s arrest of three Al Jazeera journalists came out of nowhere. Greste and his two colleagues anticipated a short period of questioning followed by release. Foreign journalists may irritate governments but surely when in jail are more trouble than they are worth.


Not so, as it happens. The new Egyptian Government was trying to rid itself of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al Jazeera journalists were thought to have some kind of connection. So it was off to the cells followed by frequent weekly court appearances where the accusations were never clearly determined. Three students were arrested for subversion along the way and for much of the time they were held in the same cell, though there are relatively few mentions of them in the story.


Not surprisingly Greste was frustrated by the lack of clear and meaningful charges against the trio, extremely poor jail conditions and the ineptitude of the court system. The incompetence of the Government and their management of the three Al Jazeera employees reverberates throughout the book. Anyone thinking of visiting Egypt should be aware of the arbitrary arrests, the lack of information about charges, the chaotic legal system and the appalling jail conditions. 


Woven through the book are chapters on Greste’s work in Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. He was located in Afghanistan for a year, one of three foreign correspondents living in Kabul and witness to the rise of the Taliban (the term for students). The Taliban wanted to rule the country, and no other group had the breadth and strength to do so. At first the discussions were ‘theoretical rather than political, curious but never hostile’ (p 26). But the situation deteriorated when the Taliban acquired a new foreign sponsor Osama Bin Laden. Under Bin Ladin’s influence the Taliban became more radical, better resourced and more dangerous.


Somalia in the Horn of Africa occupied Greste for a decade from 2000. The Somali government had returned after years in exile. The capital, Mogadishu, is often called the world’s most dangerous city. Journalists needed an armed guard as they travelled around. A young Australian woman journalist was shot in the street and died in the recovery ward. Greste was deeply affected by her death and concludes it was a deliberate shooting, not a random event. He wrote a lengthy analysis of Al Shabab’s killings of journalists. In response, some journalists carry guns. None of the government’s reforms were successful and violence and killing of journalists continues.


The story of the murderous attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff highlighted the dangers journalists face. Greste is also critical of the over done French response to Islamists. Even French green activists were caught up in the rigorous government response to the attack. It is not clear whether this is an opinion piece based on newspaper sources or ground work in France. Greste writes that Islamic State (IS) thinks in terms of black and white, whereas the west more often recognizes the grey. IS wants its way to prevail: it is ‘the hideout of the hypocrit’ (p 265).


The First Casualty is very readable. The writing is fluent with just enough detail and the inclusion of the three broad themes helps to keep it interesting and enables him to project a broad message. Regrettably, journalism can be dangerous and it is in all our interest that we know the risks journalists take in many parts of the world in trying to keep us informed. For all the dangers Greste concludes that ‘one of the most seductive reasons for becoming a reporter is the privilege of having a ringside street to history’ (p 51). 


Peter Greste 2017 The First Casualty, Penguin Random House, Sydney



ALAN BENNETT’S UNTOLD STORIES


I have been dipping into Untold Stories on and off since it was published more than a decade ago. Its diary pieces (1996-2004) and essays flow gracefully along and the humour is subtle.  


The book is eclectic. Plentiful ego is on show, but it is not overdone. It radiates an unmistakably British brand of consciousness and humour along with a British fussiness and attention to detail.   


Bennett was one of the Beyond the Fringe group with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathon Miller (p 229). Comedy royalty.


He is very negative about Rupert Murdoch’s connection to Oxford University (p 240). And critical of boring Tony Robinson for going on about uncovering old sites (p 264). And envious of the huge number of air miles earned by Andrew Lloyd Webber (p 119).


Bennett reads very widely and deftly managers to talk about high literature yet not come across as priggish.


This is all I have to say for now.


Alan Bennett 2005 Untold Stories, Faber & Faber, London



BOB CARR RUN FOR YOUR LIFE


Political biographies are de rigueur for politicians late in their leadership years. Run for Your Life is Bob Carr’s musings on his time in NSW politics, especially as Premier. Carr writes with confidence and a heavy swagger as he endeavours to persuade the reader of his successes while in government.  


Carr was a good student at Matraville High and developed an interest in books. Only two students from Matraville in his year made it into UNSW where he studied Politics, History and English. He started out on a career in journalism and had a stint on The Bulletin. Carr became an expert on the Labor Party and used his journalism to support Neville Wran whom he called ‘the last of the old-style state leaders’ (p 47). However Paul Keating talked Carr out of a career in journalism saying it was a ‘rat-shit profession’ (p 35). 


Once in parliament Carr worked his way up to the top becoming Premier of New South Wales. A short stint followed in 2012 when he took on the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Gillard Government. His Diary of a Foreign Minister was my favourite book of 2014 (scroll down for the review). I have also read parts of Carr’s My Reading Life (2008) but thought it nerdy; perhaps it’s time to have another look at it. 


There are plenty of achievements for Carr. He recognized the importance of a Labor Government being able to demonstrate good financial management. He was known, at least to some, as Bob the Builder for the effort he put into roads, and the use of tolls to support funding and infrastructure. He gave real support for a significant expansion of NSW national parks and acknowledged the ‘debts of honour’ due to forest activists.


Not surprisingly he was underwhelmed by John Howard who he believes held Australia back rather than nudging us towards Asia and for his failure to criticise Pauline Hanson’s anti-Asian dog whistling. Howard’s failures include insufficient progress on reconciliation with aboriginal communities.


Premiers need to stand up to Sydney’s corrosive shock jocks. Carr lashes Alan Jones for his support for the NSW police which the Royal Commission concluded that ‘its corruption and ineptness was epic’ (p 79). On another occasion Jones attacks him for not sending in police to break up a farmers’ union event. Carr writes that ‘Jones continues to vilify veraciously’. He calls the Telegraph newspaper and 2UE radio ‘those odious, wind-up mediocracies’ (p 215). Not a man to hold back.


In recent years Carr has expressed strong views on the importance of China for Australia. He retains respect for the US but is well aware that ‘the edgy, scatterbrained, white nationalist US that Trump leads’ (p 267) has weakened it internationally. Not surprisingly he wants Australia to sustain significant connections with both the USA and China.


Carr refers to China panic stories that are blowing through government and business. Stories quietly critical of Chinese billionaires Chan Chak Wing and Huang Xianhmo, for example. Fairfax and the ABC are on to it. John Garnaut says universities are tangled in ideological wars. Clive Hamilton’s book on China expresses concern about growing influence in Australia (scroll down to see my review). While dismissive of much of this stuff he boldly claims ‘I want a ringside seat to see where the experiment goes’ (p 279). It sounds very Bob Carr to me. We can expect much more vigorous discussion in Australia before this situation plays out.


The book exposes more about his self-regarding political genius than I expected. Identifying his greatest achievements can be tiresome. It is light on recognition of people actually running the government’s projects, with one or two exceptions. If politicians contribute he is more likely to gives acknowledgement. On the positives side he says ‘if successful, be kind; if beaten, avoid bitterness’ (p7).


Carr has written a book for political junkies and those, like me, who thrive on glimpses into the nitty-gritty of local politics. A reading of the book would be super-helpful for anyone with aspirations of becoming a Premier.


Bob Carr 2018 Run For Your Life, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne



MINEFIELDS: HUGH RIMINTON


It is not unusual for foreign correspondents to write memoirs. In my quest to read as many books by authors writing about life and public policy in the Indo Pacific region it is clear that foreign correspondents write far more biographies and memoirs than policy makers and academics.


Hugh Riminton’s Minefields. A Life in the News Game is full of substance and is a comfortable and sometimes jolting read. Each journey begins with a rapid deployment on an aircraft; a relatively short few days focusing on the problem or event and talking to people; sometimes dropping into the middle of an appalling and dangerous situations; then a quick exit and on to somewhere else.   


Riminton was born in Sri Lanka, then the family moved back to England. In his words ‘England was hell’ (p 9). They later moved to New Zealand where he attended a variety of schools but seemed to lose his way, immersing himself in coffee, scotch, cannabis and rugby. He also acquired a sense of futility and unworthiness and attempted suicide. Eventually he returned to Sydney, a city the family had visited on their way to NZ.


At 17 he got lucky. It was 1973 and he was offered a job in radio. The journalist’s life was attractive: Rothman’s cigarettes were provided to journalists in exchange for free advertising. His favourite writers included Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and Jack Kerouac. Resonates for me, though in the 1970s I would have added Tom Wolfe to the list.


Riminton’s first foreign affairs challenge was to travel to Fiji to cover the Sitiveni Rambuka coup in 1987. He learns on the job, noting that the press in Australia often falsify the situation by including unrelated film footage. The reason is that ‘television journalism and especially current affairs, required a story to be made as much as told’ (p 94).


His journalist reports on Africa are best known, not surprisingly given the demanding situation with which he was confronted. In South Africa he reported on the disgusting violence and indignity of apartheid. So horrid was the genocide in Rwanda and the murder of the Tutsis that some called it Africa’s world war. Five million died. Somalia was a dangerous cocktail. Men were armed and reckless due to their liking of ‘qat’ a mild hallucinate. 


Sudan became particularly important to him. He was appalled watching as small malnourished children died. Slave traders were active. The odious Lord’s Resistance Army created havoc. Yet despite the horror of his trip to Sudan he came to realise the importance of Africa to the world. Back in Australia he became close friends with a Somalian John Mac and his brother. When John died he came to realise the high regard for John Mac in both Australia and Sudan.


Riminton reported on the Port Arthur massacre. It was a gut-renching experience that he writes about with clarity and emotion. He also tells of the Thredbo disaster. Those of us of a certain age are familiar with both events but his retelling of the news is emotional and well done. He seems very close to events in Port Arthur but I felt as if too much of the Thredbo details may have come from multiple press reports.


More than once he tells how good TV Channel Nine was in the years he worked there. That didn’t stop him shifting to Hong Kong to join CNN HK, then at the hight of its years. He covered the terrible Sumatra Tsunami and its dreadful impact on the Indonesian province of Aceh. It caused havoc across the Indian Ocean. Over 1,000 people died on a train in Sri Lanka. Working for CNN HK was exhausting with journalists called out at any time day or night.


In a mobile life he was looking for where to go next. Kerry Packer had lunch with him along with shock-jock Alan Jones, who was in trouble for accepting cash bribes for comment on radio. Riminton moved to Ten in Sydney to present the Late News. Then Ten dropped it. He is now National Affairs Editor for 10 News and a presenter on Radio National. I follow him on Twitter, along with 68,700 others. 


The stories of Riminton’s three marriages and children are scattered through the book. Not surprisingly the life of a foreign correspondent is particularly demanding. Married three times his first wife left and a second wife departed with their daughter not yet a year old. His third wife, works at Macquarie University and does some ABC work. Three marriages. He seems to have been away too often for too long – obsessed by work and travel. It is not only the families that find it difficult. Travelling a lot ‘I lost all friends who required reliability’ (p 373).


He had no university degree, but he writes in detail about many of his assignments, recalling places, streets, venues, conversations and feelings. How does he do that? Is it because as a journalist he has access to television footage, newspaper and radio archives, and magazine pieces? As a committed journalist he believes that nothing is truly understood unless it is wrapped into a narrative. He is very attached to detail, done well, and seems to easily empathise with the people he meets. Along with that he believes that time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. Nevertheless he is despondent about the future of traditional journalism. The man with thousands of twitter followers says rampant social media has undermined the established niche of journalists.


A journalist’s focus, of course, is largely on significant events. Not too strong, but not too weak on the horrors of life. He is fortunate that the demands associated with multiple interviews, surveys and the like are avoided. Journalists are only burdened by occasional need to delve into mundane everyday life. Overall Riminton does very well providing an abundance of credible stories to look back on. I envy the freedom of journalists, though I appreciate the rigorous demands of newspaper editors.


It would be fascinating to join him for a swim at Bondi and hear more about Champaign Cocktail Theory. (5/3/19)


Hugh Riminton 2017 Minefields. A Life in the News Game, Hachette, Sydney



FOREIGN INFLUENCE


The rise of China as an economic and military power has been faster than expected. Clive Hamilton’s book Silent Invasion. China’s Influence in Australia is a relentless single-minded pursuit of growing Chinese influence. It is quite a read even if some of the arguments could be discounted because of the lack of hard evidence.


Publication of the book came around the time that Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act was proclaimed. The Act is measured but hard hitting. Hamilton’s book is a raging inferno. I see the book on the shelves in airports and city bookshops, but I have heard or read relatively little about it. Perhaps I should get out more often. 


It starts with high emotion. Australia is being ‘robbed of our sovereignty’. Chinese residents are buying up houses that otherwise would go to Australian citizens. Chinese students take places from locals at selective schools. Tourists buy up cans of infant formula pushing Australians out of the market. Billionaires are able to leverage their influence. The Chinese diaspora, he notes, are ‘deeply worried’ and that ‘I will be accused of racism and xenophobia’ (pp 3-5).


Hamilton suggests China’s President Xi Jinping is a revanchist out to reverse the ‘century of humiliation’. Rejuvination began in 1993 with Xi Jinping labelling it the China Dream. China is seeking revenge and escalating competing with the USA by establishing itself and its authority across the world. The Chinese diaspora of 50 million or more is being pulled back into supporting the motherland. Since 2011 China has embraced all overseas Chinese whom it wants to contribute to the fracturing of the power of the USA. China wants more Chinese to go to Australia to push this along.


Not surprisingly I was particularly interested in Hamilton’s identification of a ‘China Club’ that had its origins in the period of the Prime Ministerships of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. He is particularly critical of Keating who thinks of himself as a realist. Push away the USA and get closer to China. Hamilton describes Keating as an ‘unwitting mouthpiece’ (p 260).


The ‘China Club’, he says, includes Dennis Richardson, Allan Gyngell, Ken Henry, Martin Parkinson, Ross Garnaut and even Peter Drysdale. Garnaut’s book Australia and the North East Asian Ascendancy (1989) was a significant publication drawing attention to the benefits of understanding China. More recently support has come from prominent Australian ambassadors in China including Frances Adamson, Geoff Rabey and Ian Watt. He is particularly scathing of the 2016 Drysdale Report, believing it ‘amounted to the removal of all restrictions on China’s economic penetration of Australia’ (p 257).


China’s influence is identified explicitly. Leaders include rich list business investors and entrepreneurs including Huang Xiangmo, Zhu Minshen, and Chau Chak Wing. The New South Wales Labor Party is deeply linked with China. Before resigning Premier Luke Foley wanted Australia to sign up for the One Belt One Road (OBOR) program. Chris Bowen, the Shadow ALP Treasurer, has called for OBOR to connect up with the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund. The Liberals, too, are well connected through politicians such as Craig Laundy who promotes China links.


The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has particularly strong connections with China. Chau Chak Wing funded the striking Frank Gehry designed building for the UTS Business School. $1.8 million was provided to UTS to establish the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI). Bob Carr is the Executive Director. Hamilton says that ‘Carr has been pushing an aggressively pro-China position in Labor Caucuses’ (pp 94-95). He has become the key person for the Communist Party to get its ‘real story on Australia-China affairs’ (p 100).


Confucius Institutes, first established in Australian universities in 2004, and now numbering 14, come in for a lashing. The public are told, Hamilton says, they are about Chinese language and culture and China studies. The real purpose, he believes, is to increase the Party’s influence across the world. They are a source of propaganda and curtail academic freedom. He asks if universities in the USA and Canada have closed Confucius Centres, why have none been shut down in Australia? Hamilton calls for a full inquiry to reveal the extent of PRC influence on Australian campuses. Universities, he suggests, should be inviting dissident Chinese writers to speak on campus, or inviting the Dalai Lama, or force students to attend courses on human rights and democracy.


Australia’s relations with China have cooled in the last few years. China’s actions in the South China Sea, the Belt and Road program and especially China’s expanded presence and activities in the Pacific micro-states have roused concern. It is all complicated by the importance, especially from Australia’s view point, of the significant trade and investment connection between the two countries.


Hamilton does not claim, as far as I am aware, to be an expert on China. He has read widely and relies on sources such as James Jiann Hua To and there are numerous others referred to in his work. Hamilton’s purpose was to make more widely known China’s influence on Australia and to connect it all together. Otherwise the knowledge would be fractured and its significance downgraded.


It is a courageous book that will have offended many people across the community, and even more in China. Knowing that John Fitzgerald, a prominent academic scholar on contemporary China, is a strong supporter of the book gave me confidence. and although I was at times uncertain about the emotion and absence of nuance, and occasionally felt disbelief, Clive Hamilton’s voice needs to be heard. It is an important contribution to a world in which China will continue to surprise us. (18/11/18)


Clive Hamilton 2018 Silent Invasion. China’s Influence in Australia, Hardie Grant, Sydney



INCORRIGIBLE OPTIMIST


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



A WRITER-MORALIST


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



A WRITING LIFE


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)]



ON KEATING


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



MAKING HEADLINES


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)



THE SUMMER OF LOVE


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)



SUBTLE MOMENTS


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)



TALKING TO MY COUNTRY


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)



BEHIND THE CURTAIN


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)



THE SPY’S SON


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.



CREATIVE NON-FICTION


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)



HISTORY AS TIME TRAVEL


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)



EVERYWHERE I LOOK


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)



SECOND HALF FIRST


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)



LAST BLOG OF 2016


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)



RED PROFESSOR


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)



THE EMBARRASSED COLONIALIST


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)



BEIJING ENVOY


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)



LATEST READINGS


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)



FACTION MAN


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)



ON MEMOIR


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)



STOP AT NOTHING


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


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)



CREATING CITIES


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)



DISTURBED GROUND


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)



M TRAIN


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)  



ISLAND HOME


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)



BONES AND FACTS


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)



WRITING NONFICTION 3


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)



WRITING NONFICTION 2


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 NONFICTION 1


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)



POLITICAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A PM


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)



BOOKS IN 2014


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)



WHY BLOG?


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)