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Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Book review: Anaesthesia, Kate Cole-Adams (2017)

This fascinating and disturbing book was a relief to read because it deals with a complicated subject but it does so in an accessible way. At one point Cole-Adams mentions the writing of Antonio Damasio, who is an expert on consciousness, and praises his writing, but I tried to read one of his books not long ago and found it to be completely incomprehensible. Cole-Adams describes work of his she has read as “beautiful” (I think, that is my recollection but I can’t remember where the reference appeared so I can’t easily check to see which word was used). But in my experience what you get with the work of many specialists who publish books about their area of expertise is a work that goes too fast for the layperson. What you get with Cola-Adams, who is a trained journalist, is a well-paced story that hits its targets and that takes you along with the narrator at a moderate pace.

There are two main characters in this account. One of them is a woman named Rachel Benmayor who woke up during a Caesarian section that was being conducted to save the life of her daughter, and who experienced great pain and distress. Part of the reason for the distress came from not being able to communicate her consciousness to the people who were operating on her. She never forgot the experience. The other person who features in this story is the writer herself. There are threads in it that deal with her mother, her partners, her children and her mother’s father who had been a doctor. At the end of the work Cole-Adams is admitted to a hospital in Brisbane to have surgery designed to correct the scoliosis (curvature of the spine) that had affected her from childhood.

Around these two poles Cole-Adams creates an intricate world animated by researchers and surgeons and anaesthetists and the science that they are involved with, which dates from the middle of the 19th century. But what we think we know about anaesthesia is only part of what our understanding actually reveals. What Cole-Adams shows us is that while we may remember nothing after an operation it is more than likely that we will be at least partly conscious during the time that it is ongoing. She does this by talking with specialists in Europe and in the US and in other countries, specialists who know things about anaesthesia that most of us are optimistically blind to.

One thing that the author mentions in relation to anaesthesia is situational memory, where you only remember certain things when you are physically in the same environment that had existed when the memory was formed. I can attest to the truth of this from personal experience, and I even wrote about it (on 5 January this year in a post titled ‘Experiencing dream remnants’).

This kind of book is difficult to write but Cole-Adams had many years over which she was able to think about how to go about writing it. From time to time she will mention something and use someone’s name as a link to things that had been discussed in the book previously and you will hesitate, wondering who she is talking about and why their name is meant to be important. But this sort of failure is infrequent; it happened on one notable occasion to me while reading the book. For most of the time the pacing is adequate to the complexity of the subject matter. This is a competent book that uses literary journalistic techniques to engage the reader with the sometimes difficult material it retails in. I recommend this book to anyone.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Book review: The Ones You Trust, Caroline Overington (2018)

This snappy and intelligent crime thriller is one of the rare books – along with Bernard Keane’s 2015 novel ‘Surveillance’ and Michael Brissenden’s 2017 novel ‘The List’ – that deals in anything like an adequate fashion with the role social media plays in the contemporary public sphere. Overington’s novel is driven largely by dialogue and by a handful of main characters and very few of them come out of the drama looking very fresh. With the exception of a NSW Criminal Investigation Bureau detective, Paul Franklin, and two female uniformed constables named Panton and Sullivan (whose characters are not really properly used nor developed), by the end of the story everyone emerges looking somewhat dishevelled.

There is a lot that could be done in such a novel to increase the reader’s engagement with the story but that Overington hasn’t bothered with. There is not a lot of colour used to bring the sets used in the narrative to life, for one thing. And as mentioned before, a lot of the plot simply turns on conversations characters have with one another. If you’re looking for anything approximating poetry, this is not the book to find it in although there are topical angles supplied by people in the family of Emma Cardwell, the TV personality at the centre of the story, including her drug-using niece Airlie. There’s a clipped functionalism at the heart of this addictive page-turner, it’s ingenious in its design and engrossing in the reading. I’m going to use spoilers in what follows, so readers who don’t want to know what happens in the book should top reading this now.

The basic story gravitates around Emma, who fronts one of the country’s premier breakfast shows, and whose daughter has been kidnapped. The child is a girl aged about 18 months and her name is Fox-Piper. Fox for short. The strategy of the plotters was to have one of their mothers (Ellen Painter) pick up the girl from her daycare centre but the girl slips out of the lift she is riding in with the woman and goes missing in the multi-level shopping centre (shopping mall, for Americans) the daycare centre is located in. The woman eventually finds the girl after Fox has been stopped by a shopping centre security guard. They are caught on a closed-circuit TV camera mounted on the wall of the shopping centre. According to the plan, Brandon Cole, Emma’s American husband, is to discover the child has been taken from the daycare centre by an unknown person and is to raise the alarm. But he fails to go to pick up his daughter at lunchtime and it’s not until evening arrives and Emma comes home from work that the alarm is finally sounded.

Franklin and his constables set up an operations room in Brandon’s study in Brandon’s and Emma’s house and Maven (whose real name is Sally Hanson), the TV station’s communications head, arrives to handle the community response and to maximise the benefit to the network of the notoriety created in the community by the events as they unfold. Emma’s co-compere on the morning couch, PJ Peterson, fronts a special episode of the TV show to cover the investigation and the community backlash that erupts in support of Emma. Even the TV station’s main rival is giving wall-to-wall coverage to the story.

There are clever cameos set aside for Emma’s and Brandon’s sons Hudson and Seal. The police bring in child psychologists to interview them in order to find out if the people in Emma’s family are telling the truth and these scenes are handled by the author with aplomb. And feisty and self-interested Maven is a ubiquitous linchpin in the drama, forming part of the story at key moments when the plot is made to take its turns. A sudden swerve occurs when a paparazzo named John Meddow (nicknamed ‘Pap’) discovers that Emma’s driver Liam Painter had taken Fox to his house in Sydney’s west where his mother, a foster carer for many years, has been looking after the girl. Maven organises for PJ to drive in a convoy to the house and there Brandon kicks down the front door, storms through the house, and shoots Liam dead with his pistol as Liam is holding two ferocious dogs by their leashes.

In the end it turns out that PJ and a TV personality named Roxie Moore organised the kidnapping in order to lift ratings for PJ’s and Emma’s show. Roxie had gambled on Emma quitting the show even if Fox was found, and a conversation that unfolds between Maven and the network’s owner shows she had been correct in her assessment of the likelihood that the network would remove Emma from the breakfast couch. PJ had wanted to get a transfer to a news show the network operates called ‘Investigate’ and Roxie helped him put together the plan. Unknown to either of them, Emma had been told of the plan by Liam and had known Fox’s whereabouts all along. Once the special program that puts an end point to the public drama – featuring an interview conducted by Emma with Liam’s mother, Ellen – has gone to air, Emma tells Maven that she wants to be transferred to ‘Investigate’ along with a posting in London. PJ is stuck with Roxie, who has moved into his apartment and is fronting the morning show with him in Emma’s stead, and he doesn’t know how to get rid of her. So there is some justice after all. And Franklin still won’t let things lie, so you’re left wondering in the end if all of the available cards have been dealt.

Overington’s plot reminded me of the very good recent movie ‘Nightcrawler’ which starred Jake Gyllenhall as Louis Bloom, a stringer for a TV network who makes his living from covering grisly traffic accidents. In the end Bloom orchestrates a shooting, which he captures on camera even though it turns out to be fatal for his employee, and sets up a team of trucks to capitalise on his success. Like Dan Gilroy’s 2014 movie, Overington’s novel forms part of recent commentary on the media and how it thrives on excess and drama for ratings, and therefore for revenue. It is also critical, as have been Keane and Brissenden, of a supine Australian public that stimulates with constant feedback the media and the politicians who use Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. In this novel, the process turns out to be fatal for at least one man. Emma might be off to London but Ellen has to bury her son.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Changing the leadership of a political party in Australia does not constitute a “coup”

Nor is it a “mutiny”. But David Speers, the Sky News journalist, has just published a book about the removal of Malcolm Turnbull as leader by his political party that uses this kind of language in its title. It is titled, alluringly, ‘On Mutiny’, and it is part of a series being produced by Melbourne University Press.

I reviewed Katharine Murphy’s contribution to the series, ‘On Disruption’ on 9 July this year. I thought Murphy’s was a thoughtful book that made some valid points about the state of contemporary politics in Australia. I thought that Bernard Keane’s ‘The Mess We’re In’, which I reviewed on 28 July this year, contains more cogent reasons for the political malaise that we seem to be frequently facing in Australia, with party leaders being removed between elections by ballot.

Murphy has done an interview for the Guardian – where she works – that features Speers and that addresses the matters he raises in his book. For my part, I think that we do not benefit from the kind of dramatic use of language that Murphy and Speers are promoting. It does nothing for the quality of debate and only serves to more deeply entrench some popular misconceptions in the minds of less-well-informed members of the community. Such as that the prime minister is elected by the people, which is not the case; he or she is appointed by their party room by ballot.

The inaccurate use of such words by journalists as they try to make sense of the world we now live in has a long tradition however. In the case of Julia Gillard’s push to remove Kevin Rudd from the leadership of the Labor Party in 2010, the word “knifing” was parlayed about indiscriminately by journalists and everyone else in order to raise the temperature of debate and to make things seem more dramatic than they were in reality. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation made a documentary titillatingly titled ‘The Killing Season’ that covered the period occupied by the removal of Rudd from his position by Gillard and her faction of the Labor Party, which aired first in 2016.

Murphy told me in a tweet that the use of such words as “mutiny” and “coup” is “entirely accurate in the context in which they are deployed”. “This may be obvious the closer you are to events,” she went on, hopefully. But I’m not convinced. You don’t have to take much time to look at the word “knifing” to understand that it is a mere case of hyperbole that, because of the element of violence that it carries, can only be detrimental to the tone of debate. Likewise with “killing”.

As for “mutiny”, this is a word that has been optimistically borrowed by Speers from the vocabulary of the armed forces. It means to remove a captain from his or her command and to take over control of their ship. In the Australian Navy, command of a ship is given to a captain by the Navy hierarchy and the crew has no say over who their captain is. So there is no logical connection between the word “mutiny” and the removal of a party leader by ballot, which is something that is entirely licit and normal depending on the circumstances. The word “coup” comes from the language of politics; it is a shortening of the French term “coup d’etat” (etat” meaning “state” and “coup” meaning “strike” or “punch”). It is normally used to describe what happens when the armed forces takes over the government of a country by force regardless of the wishes of the broader community. The community had elected the government and now it has been taken away by the generals. Again, the applicability of this term to a case where a party leader is removed from his position by ballot is entirely spurious.

Is there drama in these kinds of events? Of course there is, which is why the language that is used to describe them is amped up to high volume. It appears to deserve amplification because these stories seem to speak to something essential about the kind of public sphere we now live in. Times have changed and the language changes with them. But what happens if there is an actual coup? Does the leader who takes control merely laugh at the use of a word that has now been emptied of its core meaning? Donald Trump has banned a journalist from the White House because he didn’t like his tone, just a day after the mid-term elections gave his leadership a blow he might never recover from. Is he just softening people up for the day when he decides not to call an election because, like Xi Jinping, he wants to stay in office until the day he dies?

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Book review: Eggshells, Catriona Lally (2018)

This novel won a prize in Ireland, where its author lives, but I wasn’t really that impressed and got only about 22 percent of the way through the book before giving up. Which was a disappointment but you can’t waste time with second-rate product if you want to be a happy reader.

The basic idea is sound enough, it’s just that the execution doesn’t live up to its promise. The novel tells the story of part of the life of Vivian Lawlor, a woman of indeterminate age whose great-aunt has just died, leaving her niece her house to live in. But Vivian is not your average person, and lives with a kind of autistic predilection for sense-making that puts her at odds with the majority of humanity. Her love of small congruences between things in her world, congruences that only she sees, understands, and appreciates, means that she is set apart from the mainstream in a profound sense, and she naturally finds herself at odds with the people around her. She has a scientist’s appreciation for the changing fragrance of her own body odour and an artist’s love of the intricacies of street signs that she sees during her walks around Dublin.

Her neighbour Bernie is a conventional busybody with average standards and a prosaic grasp of reality and Vivian finds her attentions disturbing. One day a man named David from the local welfare office visits Vivian to assess her, evidently in relation to money that the government has been paying her. As with a conversation Vivian has with two sales clerks at her local supermarket, the discussion with David goes as well as you’d imagine for a woman whose idea of a good day out is a visit to the museum where she can write down all the names of the butterflies she sees in the displays. Vivian is unique and charming with her idiosyncratic obsessions with the world – she makes a sketch of the route she has taken in the streets when she gets home after each outing – but you start to wonder when something is going to happen that might have relevance for the reader, or to progress something like a plot.

The potential for disaster seems ever-present going by the nature of Vivian’s conversations with the people she meets but apart from David and Penelope – a friend she met after putting up a sign in the street saying that she was looking for a friend with that name – there are few people whose conduct might have a material effect on Vivian’s life. I felt bored by the endless fussing with inconsequential details that seems to function as consciousness for Vivian, and let down by the fact that there was far less plot than characterisation in this ambitious book.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Book review: The History Manifesto, Jo Guldi and David Armitage (2014)

This book’s heart is in the right place but the authors just go too fast and the lay reader struggles to keep up with them as they progress through the story. I got about 30 percent of the way into the book before giving up. As an aside, I have two tertiary degrees so I am better-educated than the average reader of trade-market non-fiction.

The book tries to make a case for history that looks at the “longue duree” (a term coined by Fernand Braudel in the second part of last century). In recent years there has been a lot of history that is published that takes a deep, concentrated look at a specific point in history. While this kind of history is valuable because it gives you the kinds of insights that we go to history to provide, it tends to see the trees rather than the forest. There is still something missing, which these two authors want to recapture.

As I mentioned, this is a valuable contribution to contemporary debate especially when we are confronted by such gnarly problems as wealth inequality and climate change. It’s not the plan that is at fault, but rather the execution. This book is written as though the target reader is a sophomore student at a tertiary education institution, rather than an adult who has graduated from high school, which is the person it should be aimed at.

There’s another problem with this book as well, and it’s one that often scars books written by people who come from the social sciences: Latinate language. Most of the nouns and verbs and other words used in this book have roots in Latin. This is done by many writers in these disciplines because they want their ideas to approximate the exalted status of those that exist within the hard sciences, and they think that by using this kind of language you can help with that project. Unfortunately, this tactic has the unfortunate side-effect of making the language uniform and slippery, hindering the ability of ideas to gain traction in the reader’s mind.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Melbourne Cup day at work

Every Australian workplace probably has people who can tell stories like the one you are about to read. This is a horse race unlike most horse races in a world where wagering is widespread, and the cup is a prize that attracts fierce competition with horses travelling from countries around the world. This year’s race was the 158th time it had been run and they say, as we all know if we are born here, that it’s the “race that stops a nation”. But its popularity has always perplexed me, not that I haven’t had plenty of opportunities to participate in social events built around it.

Like when I worked in the IT department of a university – as technical writer, a role I occupied with varying degrees of enjoyment for a period of just less than six years: every year the whole office would get together after lunch on the first Tuesday of November so that people could watch the race on a TV projected on a screen at the front of the meeting room, which had been built for people to use during their workdays. As the race starts sometime after 2pm, what this meant in practice was that people in the office would for the most part only work half the day, up until lunchtime. After lunch they might sit at their desks answering emails for an hour or so then get up and gravitate to the meeting room to mix with their colleagues.

Office admin staff had visited each cubicle earlier in the day with a bag full of slips of paper with the names of the horses who were to run printed on them. The lists were published by the local daily newspaper and were cut out of the paper with scissors. You paid a couple of dollars to enter the sweep, then put your hand in the bag and searched around for a horse to back. You kept the slip of paper in case your horse ended up winning the race or securing a place among the first finishers. If it did, you took home some of the money collected.

The meeting room had a long table in it with a pale wood surface and rows of metal armchairs lined up down its sides, and people gathered in groups that conformed to their work units. Programmers stood around holding bottles of beer talking with other programmers. Testers with other testers. Business analysts with other business analysts. At the back of the room, at the point farthest away from the screen, the senior managers congregated and socialised loudly, as they were wont to do; a big voice being seemingly part of the suite of skills that enabled you to qualify for a desk on what was called “mahogany row”, the row of cubicles set up in front of the director’s office, where a series of windows were set in the floor’s north-facing wall.

There was not much socialising that might not normally take place when colleagues went for lunch in Newtown to eat some Thai food. When I worked in the department people at Melbourne Cup events largely stayed with their own kind and attempts at breaking into their circles were fraught with the kind of danger that offices specialise in: of being frozen out by people who weren’t sure if your current status would reward their being friendly with you, which would either be something that was to their advantage or to their detriment. If you were out of favour and tried to get into a group to chat with the people in it, the conversation would slow and trickle to a stop, before people would studiously ignore you and then underscore your unenviable status by sparking up the conversation again, this time focusing on some topic they shared but that you would have no ability to engage with. You would then most likely look around for another suitable refuge in the busy room.

People skirted around the groups of chatterers seeking out the eyes of people they knew, shy and afraid of disappointment. Being seen to talk with someone who was out of favour politically could result in some of that person’s shame being rubbed off on you, so people at workplace social gatherings were always wary of being too candid with people from outside their work units. People inside the work unit knew implicitly who was “in” and who was “out” and could without risk to their reputations talk with people who fit their image of themselves. Such is the ruthless politics of the modern workplace but at least running the gamut in the meeting room was better than being at your desk doing work.

Once the race started, people would all dutifully turn to face the screen at the front of the room. They would watch the beasts with their tack linked to their human burdens clamber round the brilliant green track, spurred on with whips and working through every sinew to get to the finish line as fast as possible. As the race caller spat out an unremitting rollcall of names and places and tactics, the people in the room stood like statues, beers in their hands, their eyes glued to the flickering images in the screen, entranced by the action that was taking place, they knew, some 800 kilometres away in another city. Excited cries erupted from time to time as the horses came closer to the goal, with people in the meeting room mindful of the horses they had chosen in the sweepstake. As the leading horses ran over the finish line, there would be a general cry of jubilation that tailed off into an indistinct hubbub as people turned back to face each other and made appropriate comments about the spectacle they had just witnessed. The names of the horses they had chosen in the sweep punctuated these exchanges as people got ready to filter back, in ones and twos and threes, to their desks, where they would see out the workday in comfort and complacency, their duty as self-respecting Australians complete for another year.

Now, they could relax and life would return to what they had become accustomed by habit to treating as normal: earning a fortnightly wage, paying tax in instalments, and servicing a mortgage. During their office lives very few people ever talked about their real goals in life or displayed the truer parts of their personalities. What ideas and aspirations animated people were mostly unknown to their colleagues. Honesty was a risk. Too much information would constitute a threat to the cohesion of the office community, one obeying an uncompromising hierarchy with rules like iron controlling the ways people in it relate to one another. Iron rules, too, control the Melbourne Cup, with this year one horse that broke a shoulder during the race ending up being put down.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

TV review: Tomorrow Tonight, episode one (2018)

The new ABC show 'Tomorrow Tonight' with Charlie Pickering screened at 9pm on Wednesday, 31 October, and it was uncomfortably dull. For each episode of the show host Charlie Pickering posits a likely scenario and then lobs a series of propositions to a panel of guests who get to talk about it. In the first episode the scenario was a hacker threatening to make public the entire collection of the world's text messages, which it was supposed the US government had collected since the aftermath of the Twin Towers event.

The panel included Julie Bishop, who was previously the foreign minister, and comedian Luke McGregor as well as an expert in cybersecurity named Richard Buckland. Also on the panel was Annabel Crabb, the ABC journalist.

But beyond the obvious answers to the questions that were asked (such as "Would you pay the hacker to keep your messages private?") there was nothing much to keep you watching. Most of the drama Pickering tried to inject into the discussion fell flat because the delineations of reality demand that you can never predict what people will do in any given situation. History is often more interesting than fiction, for this reason. With fiction, the only variables available are those that are imagined in the artist's mind. This is why so much speculative fiction is disappointing; it relies on the inventiveness of a single individual to supply materials that can be used to develop a book’s plot and build its characters. With reality, on the other hand, the whole community is given free rein and anything can happen. And it does.

Pickering was jaunty and up-beat and Crabb heroically echoed his enthusiasm. McGregor was his usual goofy self, which added much-needed comedy to the palaver. But Buckland and Bishop often looked awkward because they lacked a humorous angle their personalities needed to stay relevant in the to and fro. Being basically prosaic people, they could only rely on truth to give what they said a spark, but the possible scenarios that were offered as material for the panel to discuss couldn’t animate their less inspired statements, which failed to get a reaction from the audience. In the main I thought the audience was very supportive of the discussion.

The second episode screened a week later and it was more successful. In this episode, the scenario was that people are now able to use a new technology to design their children from when they are embryos. This time the producers put on-screen the comedian Nazeem Hussain, athlete Meredith Young (who is a dwarf), and Australian ethicist Julian Savulescu who holds a position at the University of Oxford.

The third episode screened last night and it was again disappointing. The scenario this time was that Australia would run out of water. The propositions stemming from it were less than compelling and I wasn’t particularly interested in the responses from the panelists.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Book review: Freak Kingdom, Timothy Denevi (2018)

This biography of Hunter Thompson, the practitioner of new journalism who, with Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe, redrew the boundaries of journalism in the 1960s, starts promisingly but digs itself into a rut by about 21 percent of the way through the book.

By this time, you are deep in the 1968 presidential campaign and by this time the language that is being deployed to form the narrative purely reflects the insider’s view. For me, the representative scene is a ride that Thompson shared with Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in the latter’s limousine as they were being taken to an airport. Nixon is on his way to Florida for a break from campaigning. As they sit there in the back of the car, they start talking about gridiron football and the language becomes completely opaque for someone who does not understand the game. The referents are crystal clear for the participants, but for someone looking in from outside the country, the dialogue may as well have been written in Swahili as English for all the sense it makes.

It wasn’t like this in the early parts of this book, the parts that deal with Thompson’s emergence, after the assassination of John F Kennedy, as a young writer on the make in San Francisco. It was in those years that he wrote the seminal study on the outlaw motorcycle club, the Hells Angels, that made his name and gave him the public profile he needed to write the types of stories he had always aspired to write.

As soon as Thompson loses the neophyte’s hunger and becomes embroiled in the political machinery that animates the republic every four years, all poetry in the book is lost and you are mired in the jargon of the politically savvy. The universal applicability that characterises Thompson’s writing, the thing that makes it so engrossing for people all around the world, is suddenly jettisoned and in its place sits a stubborn miasma of narrow referents that have nothing to do with anything other than themselves. This is a signal failure in a book about someone as broadly respected as Hunter Thompson. Denevi just goes too fast, and takes no care to make sure that people who live outside the bubble can keep up with the pace he sets. There are even acronyms that are not explained, leaving the outsider floundering helplessly at times.

This book is subtitled ‘Hunter S. Thompson's Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism’ but in the end it turns out to be just a deeply-flawed because myopic Beltway version of part of the country’s recent history. I’m not concerned that I didn’t finish the book. Like most American journalists, Denevi seems to me to be just another self-obsessed liberal with a particular axe to grind. Seen in this light, his book is just another artefact to be dragged into the machine of contemporary politics where it can form material for some random current debate in a place where the only people who know the borders of foreign countries, and the only people who care what they look like, are the spooks at the CIA.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Dream journal: One

This is the first in what is intended to be a series of posts on the blog that feature dreams I have had. It’s necessary to write them down as soon as you wake up because otherwise you forget them. I put these up on Facebook before collecting them here, so some people might have already read one or more of these. The first was recorded on 7 October, the second on 16 October, the third on 20 October, and the fourth on 24 October.

Dreamt that they were bringing people back to life after death. It started with people installing angle grinders into a structure that could then be submerged to take it down to where the caskets containing the dead bodies were kept. I was evidently then using scuba gear when I saw the first dead body: that of a dog. The skin had completely come off its head but I patted it on its skull anyway. One by one the dead bodies were removed from their protective caskets, including that of Einstein, whose hair was still full and rich and whose face looked a bit worse for having been buried for many decades. He was still recognisable however.

Dreamt I was in Japan and I had a Ducati. The bike was very modern in appearance, like the "clubman" style that became popular in the 1990s when I was living there. You see a lot of these retro remakes on the streets today. I had parked it on the street outside work but the office moved to a different building and when I came back one morning to get the bike, it had disappeared. I went to the security office at work and all the staff I could see there were from the subcontinent. I asked one of them if he could speak English but he didn't answer. Then the manager, a Japanese, arrived. He had white hair and wasn't really interested in my problem. The street where I had left my motorbike vaguely resembled New South Head Road on the west side of Edgecliffe, with its steep hill and tall buildings.

Had a strange dream where I was supposed to go to a training course and was in a lounge full of tables with people drinking and smoking. I wondered at the cigarettes and felt that it was against OH&S rules for staff to be exposed to all the smoke, but wrote it down to the people all being journalists and old school. I had an iPad and a mobile phone. On the iPad a message came from a staffer working for the company that was organising the training course, but I could find no way to reply to the message. I didn't know which room the course would be held in and she hadn't included that information in her message, which had just arrived a short time before. I opened a folder of promotional materials for the company and saw the details for the person who managed it. I tried again and again to type her phone number into my mobile phone but I couldn't get past the first four digits. A waiter who was talking to someone at the table behind me leaned on my chair and I told him rudely to go away. I went back to the mobile but then got a cramp in my leg and woke up.

I was playing tennis on an indoor court against an Asian man and he played very gently, barely getting the ball over the net sometimes. I tried to hit the ball hard in return but there was no power in my strokes. As the score approached the end of the match – it was 40-15 in my favour in the final game – everybody who was watching us play suddenly got up for their seats in preparation for leaving the court. They filled the court where we were trying to play, interrupting the match. I shouted at the people to sit down and used profane language in my passion but they just milled around aimlessly, making their way to the exit.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Book review: The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, Jen Campbell (2017)

In ‘Bright White Hearts’, one of the stories in this book, there is the statement, which struck me as being both true and somehow emblematic of the whole collection. It went, “We have an obsession with things just out of our reach.”

When I was growing up I lived in a prosperous part of Sydney, one surrounded by the waters of the city’s peerless harbour. We used to go down to the beach on Saturday mornings and rig up our Sabot and race it on Watsons Bay. Later, when I had a boat of my own, a Laser, I would go down to the garden and put it onto the beach and rig it up and sail it in races with other boys from my school, which had a boathouse on the edge of Rose Bay. On some weekends, I would sail my boat as far as the Opera House and the Quay, where the Harbour Bridge spans the water transporting traffic and trains from one side to the other of the busy metropolis. Just for a lark.

Nestled just to the west of the bridge on the north shore of the harbour sat Luna Park, a resort for all the children of the city. When we went there we met with people who came from distant parts of the metropolis. There were crazy mirrors that distorted your body when you looked at your reflection in them. There were long, steep slides you rode down on hessian sacks until you bumped into the barriers set up at the bottom and came to a stop. There was a rotating cylinder that would spin so fast you would stick to its sides as the floor dropped away beneath your feet. There was a rotating disc you tried to cling to as it spun faster and faster until all the children had been ejected by centrifugal force into the barriers around the outside. There was a ride that had carriages that went fast and took the turns at speed, making you cry out in fear. In the food stalls they sold cheap, fatty food for inflated prices. Apart from the Royal Easter Show and before we went to university, it was one of the only opportunities that us boys had to meet people who grew up in different communities from ours.

There was one other time when we ventured out beyond the confines of our usual beat. My brother took me with him to a confab at the University of New South Wales where young people came together to play the game Dungeons and Dragons. We stayed there through the night and ended up, early in the morning, in the city at a pool parlour on George Street. I played one game against a guy who bet he could beat me, and I won. Before the second game could start, we had called dad and he came to pick us up in his car. On the drive home he didn’t say much but looking back it is clear that he was glad to find us both safe and sound.

In the scope of their ambition, Campbell’s stories have something of the sideshow tout, but the tone is elevated and profound at the same time. The themes are such things as love, death, fear, darkness, light, beauty, innocence, eternity. Anyone can enjoy. Anyone can understand. Not just people like you. The demos itself.

In this collection, you will find stories that are animated by tropes stolen from tabloid magazines but the way that they are told brings you closer to yourself and to humanity, all at the same time. “Whimsical,” is a word you might casually pick out of the ether to describe Campbell’s stories to someone you had just met at a party. “Odd. Unsettling. Strange.” But there is also a deep wisdom embedded in them and it is one which revives memories from childhood and memories, from a time beyond death, that dwell in the reaches of narrative that run like an illustrated border around the known universe.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Western civilisation and the role of religion

It's true that things like democracy and science are western inventions, but the delineations of "western civilisation" are not well-known in the broader community. How did we get here? Where did it all come from? Why in Europe and not elsewhere?

You hear things in the media all the time that refer to these and similar questions. Just the other day on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) panel show The Drum, Murdoch journalist Caroline Overington was gushing about religion and how it had contributed to western civilisation. On the ABC again for the National Press Club address, Jennifer Westacott, head of the Business Council of Australia, was talking about how technological changes would require people to keep learning to ensure they remained employable into the future.

The thing is that everything started with the arts. The development of jet engines and antibiotics entailed a long process but essentially it was one that involved the gradual democratisation and consequent expansion of knowledge that started when Dante Alighieri (1285-1321) and Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) began to write in the vernacular instead of in Latin. Taking his cue from them, in England John Wycliffe made an English translation of the Vulgate Bible (the Latin book used by the Catholic Church; the translation was finished by 1382). His heresy was adapted further by Jan Hus in Bohemia, where it survived for 100 years before Luther's.

In the meantime, movable type had been invented in Germany in 1440 and with more and more affordable books appearing the process of nominalisation, where new words are formed out of complete sentences or out of phrases, accelerated learning.

The first new translation of the Bible into the vernacular from its originary languages was launched in Spain by Isabella of Castile and was finished in 1520, inspiring the Humanists in norther Europe to do likewise, which also resulted in the production of vernacular translations of works by classical Roman authors (the collection of which Petrarca had made fashionable). As monarchs and other community leaders adopted the new religious practices in northern Europe, boys were taught how to read. The Catholic Church got in on the act in 1540 with the establishment of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), in a Spain now ruled by Isabella’s grandson, Charles V. (The first university had been established in Bologna in the late 11th century.)

The 'Essais' of Montaigne, who had been brought up by his father to read widely, appeared in 1580. In his book the writer turns away from God to look inward at himself. Bacon's 'Novum Organum' appeared in 1620, in which the writer again turns away from God and tells people to study the natural world and how to go about it. In 1695, the Licensing of the Press Act was allowed to lapse in England, spurring the emergence of magazines which helped the process of nominalisation by promulgating tens of thousands of new ideas for an emerging middle class.

The rest, as they say, is history. What is clear however from knowing how this process unfolded is that it was usually religion that formed a barrier against the democratisation of knowledge. In order to get over that barrier, men had to fight against a stubborn Catholic Church intent on maintaining its rights and privileges. To a large degree, the process of democratisation that I’ve just described was carried out despite the actions of the Church, not because of it.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Book review: The Cow Book, John Connell (2018)

When I was a small boy my brother and I used to go to South Australia to visit our uncle and aunt and their children on their dairy farm. Uncle John and aunty Sally and their five children lived in an old house near the Murray River and their herd fed in paddocks strung along the local road that curved up a hill where the town centre lay. One of my cousins, Michael, one day took me for a ride on the back of his motorbike. The machine was a BSA and we flew up and down the hillocks bordering the road that went down to the river, where turtles lived in the shallows. Visiting the farm gave us boys an opportunity to experience life that is lived with a different rhythm, according to different rules.

Connell describes these rhythms and rules as he tells his tells his stories about his life on a family farm and he does it with a kind of laconic grace that stems from the ways people use language when talking in his part of Ireland. The demotic speech of farmers in the area is absolutely fascinating and has a clipped efficiency that reminds you of poetry. Nothing is wasted on mere vocalisation, everything has its certain meaning.

There is plenty of poetry in these pages, even if it is mixed sometimes with the traces of an eclectic set of beliefs that have been cobbled together from different stages of the writer’s life; he lived in Australia for a time and also in Canada. The author also tries to give some approximate version of the history of cattle from the earliest times, but while he asserts a spiritual connection for the Irish to their land he does not allow the same to exist for people who farm in settler societies such as America. And while he is all for the European Union’s subsidising of traditional farming (such as his father’s farm) he says nothing at all about the move in the developed world toward vegan diets by sectors of its metropolitan communities.

Connell is a bit of a magpie and he picks his preferences without much concern for logic or reason, rather merely choosing the bits that suit him (such as Aboriginal land rights) while rejecting those that do not fit his own core beliefs (such as diets that rely less heavily on red meat). Sometimes it feels like an uncomfortable jumble of creeds to house in a single mind. To be frank, this author is a bit of a mess philosophically, but the inconsistencies that riddle his thinking do not necessarily get in the way of his storytelling, although they might try the patience of the odd reader.

The author makes much of the battle that was fought for independence from the British but he won’t allow farmers in other places to have the same kind of deep and abiding connection to the land that he arrogates for his own family. And his support for first peoples also has to sit (I thought, somewhat uncomfortably) alongside his Catholicism. He confusingly also refers to parts of the Australian bush he visited as “jungle”.

The best parts of the book are where Connell is describing the tasks he has to perform in order to look after the cattle and sheep on his father’s farm. Moments of drama such as births are rendered with a lapidary clarity of vision that is deeply engaging, and so you are drawn into the stories that revolve around the management of cattle and sheep at the end of a long, wet winter. Other elements of drama derive from the depression the author combats by running in the laneways around the farm, and his aspiration to be a published writer.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Malcolm Turnbull on a special episode of the ABC’s ‘Q and A’

It was a Thursday night (instead of a Monday night, which is when the program is normally screened) and ex-PM Malcolm Turnbull was alone on the panel facing questions from the audience. It was the first time since the Liberal Party had removed him as its leader in August that he had spoken publicly for so long.

At first I thought that he was being disingenuous with some remarks about a "media narrative" that says that he is undermining the new party leader regardless of what he (Turnbull) says, but later he was more candid about the leadership “coup” (this kind of dramatic language is used by the media to describe a process that is quite licit under the rules that govern Australian politics; the leader of the party is the prime minister and he or she is chosen by the party room, and is not directly elected by the community as happens with the president in the USA).

Turnbull named the member for Warringah Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton, Steve Ciobo and Mathias Cormann as being among the people who deposed him as leader, but initially wouldn’t say anything about his replacement as party leader, Scott Morrison. Turnbull said the only beneficiary of the Liberal Party leadership change will be Bill Shorten, the leader of the Opposition; all Turnbull’s remarks in this vein were coloured by the fact that currently Labor is ahead of the Liberals in opinion polls by a margin of around 54 percent to 46 percent. Turnbull said Morrison hadn’t been able to explain the reasons for the party decision that removed him from the leadership, finally naming his successor.

Turnbull underscored his credentials when he said that he's "joyful" because of his time as PM, not bitter or miserable. This comment serves to locate Turnbull apart from Abbott, the former Liberal party leader who Turnbull himself had removed as PM in 2015, and Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party leader who was removed as leader in 2010 by Julia Gillard, and who eventually came back to the leadership of that party just before the election of 2013, which the Labor Party lost. Turnbull said he won't undermine his successor (nor overthrow him, as Abbott did in August). His days as an active political participant have come to an end, he said.

On the nature of the Liberal Party, Turnbull told the audience that the party is shifting to the right, and that it is losing voters as a result. He noted that three conservative women have taken seats away from the Liberal Party: Cathy McGowan in Indi, Rebekha Sharkie (of the Centre Aliiance) in Mayo, and now Kerryn Phelps in Wenthworth. One questioner wanted to know how to stop right-wing extremism in Australia (pointing to the rise of Donald Trump in the US). Turnbull said that the right-wingers in the Liberal Party won't accept the consensus, and that they intimidate and bully their colleagues, but he added that Australia is different from the US because we have mandatory voting, which means you don't have to motivate people with extreme rhetoric to get them out to vote. Turnbull also noted that electoral boundaries are managed by an independent commission in Australia. This is another institutional reason why we are not like the US. But Turnbull wouldn’t comment on the US mid-terms on national TV, noting however that it is common in mid-terms for the House to flip away from the party of the president.

Turnbull also said something interesting about sexism in Canberra when he said that the Parliament there is not sufficiently respectful of women. It's very blokey and much like Australia more broadly was in the 1980s.

On the Wentworth by-election, Turnbull said he did support Dave Sharma in the lead-up to the by-election in Wentworth on 20 October, contradicting comments by people from his party that he went AWOL during the contest. He added however that he didn't make himself visible, in order not to damage Sharma's prospects. Turnbull says that the by-election was lost in the last week of campaigning, and that Sharma would have won by a narrow margin if it had been held the weekend before.

One questioner asked him why he had not, while PM, sold his achievements more forcefully, suggesting that the reason for the leadership challenge had been a lack of exposure of this type. Turnbull said that he was in the media a lot and that he did try to sell his achievements, despite what his questioner asserted.

A question came from Mike Cannon-Brookes, founder of software company Atlassian, about getting renewable energy defined as "fair dinkum power" (a slogan that Morrison had been using to describe coal power, due to Morrison being bound to the coal lobby in Australia, who want the government to finance or support the construction of a new coal-fired power plant to replace ageing infrastructure). Turnbull said Australia has an "enormous solar endowment" and that the future is in renewables but that storage is the challenge. He mentioned pumped hydro-electric as a solution. Turnbull said that the economics of power is driving the solutions that are to be built. A coal-fired power station would not be built today on that basis.

Turnbull says Morrison has the "same goal" as he had regarding refugees in offshore camps, and that the government has to keep the people smugglers out of business.

On the topic of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which owns the ‘Q and A’ show, Turnbull says that he's got long family ties to the ABC (through his mother’s father, who had worked there) but that in recent years, he said, the quality of its journalism had deteriorated. He said the ABC needs to adhere to its charter, and be accurate and objective. He said that with Twitter’s rise in popularity there was a greater need than ever for accurate and truthful news. Turnbull says that there's nothing he's said to Justin Milne (the ABC chairman who had recently removed the broadcaster’s managing director, who had then resigned himself from his position) that hasn't been announced publicly. Her thinks that the ABC needs to separate the roles of managing director and editor-in-chief.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Movie review: Bohemian Rhapsody, dirs Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (2018)

While this movie hits all the right notes at particular dramatic points I felt relieved when it finally ended. At two hours and 14 minutes, it’s a bit of a slog, even given that there are plenty of sequences showing the band playing their instruments and even given that the final sequence takes place at the Live Aid concert that was organised by Bob Geldorf in 1985. The transcendent power of popularity is the real star of this film, and you get lots of scenes of enthusiastic crowds of young people participating in staged shows. In general the movie is a functional production but it’s also one that at times teeters on the brink of encomium.

It’s hard to work out the difference between fact and fiction at times, which is why the movie can appear to be hagiographic, especially in those parts of the movie that involve Paul Prenter (played by a smooth-faced Allen Leech), who becomes the manager of Freddie Mercury (played by a suitably rhapsodic and creative Rami Malek) and – if we believe what we’re being told – takes him away from the rest of the band. Prenter is shown to be behind a shift in Freddie’s allegiances that results in him signing a solo contract with CBS Records.

A bit later it’s 1984 and we’re in Munich. Freddie is already showing signs of the health problems that would eventually end his life, and which were brought on by HIV AIDS. One night his old girlfriend Mary Austin (competently played as a big-hearted young woman by Lucy Boynton) turns up at his house and remonstrates with him for not getting in touch. Freddie responds that he hadn’t received any calls, and it dawns on him, after Mary has left in her cab – she only stays for a few minutes in order to tell Freddie to return to England – that Prenter has not been putting Mary’s calls through to him when she calls. Realising that Prenter has been manipulating him for his own personal ends, Freddie simply walks off, in the rain, promising Prenter that their relationship is over. Back in the UK, Freddie is shown watching Prenter fronting up on a TV talk show spilling the beans on Freddie and publicly revealing his sexual profligacy.

At times like these you can’t really tease out the truth from among all the things that you are shown on-screen. The band is “good”, Prenter is “bad” and the band wins out in the end. It is on the strength this kind of plot device that the narrative so frequently turns in this film, and there are other examples of people getting their comeuppance when they don’t go in the direction Freddie and the band want to head, notably in those parts of the movie to do with Ray Foster (played by Mike Myers), an EMI executive who doesn’t like the fact that the song that constitutes the title for the film, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (from the 1975 album ‘A Night at the Opera’), is six minutes long. He wants something shorter that will fit in with the schedules of radio stations. Foster gets what’s coming to him, too.

What is welcome in this film is the way it does the kind of backgrounding that only biography can do. One thing that is important to understand is that Freddie came from a migrant family; he was born in what is known today as Tanzania to ethnically-Indian parents, and this fact goes some way toward focusing the audience’s attention on the way some of the band’s songs were adopted by marginalised groups (paradoxically, despite their enormous commercial success) as anthems to buttress people’s identities as outsiders. The other thing that is important to understand about Queen is that Freddie was both the catalyst for and the engine of the band’s success, although this thread of the narrative is modulated later in the drama, following the split with Prenter, when Freddie comes back to the band with his tail between his legs. 

It’s hard to question the suggestion, made by the friend I went with to see this film, that it has been made to introduce a new generation of music-lovers to the work of this seminal band of the era of big sound, of names like Sweet and Led Zeppelin who used a mixture of rock and roll and big, soaring melodies coupled with innovative studio mixing techniques designed to fill in the gaps between tonic moments to create a fuller sound experience for the audience.

There are endless close-ups of Freddie’s face that are meant to serve the purpose of punctuating the movie with moments of pathos, as the lead singer of the band discovers truths about himself, about life, or about people around him. One moment of quiet reflection can serve to illustrate the kinds of insights that Freddie was capable of. He is talking to a man who has been hired to cater for a party Freddie has just held at his big London house. The two get to talking, and Freddie admits that his life sometimes gets out of control, observing that it is the times between tonic moments, the interstices between moments of heightened drama or of individual fulfillment, that are so difficult for him to negotiate. Hence the drugs and alcohol. This is a truth that many people don’t realise until much later in their lives (Freddie is still in his thirties during this scene) and it was enough for me, to take this away from this movie. A movie that can deliver even one insight must be counted as some sort of success.

In the cab on the way to the place where I had agreed to meet my friend, the radio was tuned to Smooth FM, a local radio station, and I listened to the British band Thompson Twins singing their 1984 hit ‘Hold Me Now’. This was followed by a 2016 song titled ‘Say You Won’t Let Go’ by British singer James Arthur. Love songs seem never to go out of fashion.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Book review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender (2011)

I really tried with this novel but in the end my willpower failed me and I put it down at about 44 percent of the way through. It’s meant to be a poignant story about a young girl who discovers one day that she has the ability to know the provenance of food. This gift allows her to have insights about her mother’s mood, or about the state of mind of workers in processing factories in the US, where she lives.

When the gift first touches on the character, Rose Epstein, you are intrigued because prior to that the novel had a sort of Norman Rockwell-like optimism that had been deeply disappointing. But the ruse Bender uses to push the plot along turns out to be equally insipid. What you are confronted with is a politically progressive take on the world with all of its own strict rules and personal gripes. It’s hardly anything like reality. In fact what you get is just another type of oppression, this time one directed by a left-leaning, educated woman with all of her own problems and insecurities. The story turned to ashes for me in the end.

This is a disappointing work of speculative fiction that left me with an empty feeling as though all the life that might have inhabited it had been sucked out by some vampiric being. The totalitarianism of the left is as awful as that of the right.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Exhibition review: James Drinkwater, Nanda/Hobbs gallery, Chippendale (2018)

When I was living in Queensland I used to go down in the car to Brisbane for the occasional day trip. I would park the car under the brutalist gallery building and go to one of the two galleries that are in the complex on the south bank of the river. One day as I was wandering around one of these big, imposing spaces I saw, from a distance down a hallway, a painting that gave me a jolt of recognition but I wasn’t able to put a name to it until I had got closer. Then it hit me: it was a De Kooning, and it was so ravishingly beautiful that it had entranced me and drawn me toward it from fifty metres away purely by dint of its awesome personality.

In this exhibition there is something of that quality plus something also of the equally striking painterly quality of the Picasso that the Art Gallery of New South Wales bought in 1981, 1956’s ‘Nude in a rocking chair’, and occasionally an echo of the gestural methods of the Russian artist Marc Chagall, the American Cy Twombly, and the Australian John Olsen.

Drinkwater’s paintings are often very large (240cm high by 180cm wide is typical for this exhibition) and they are populated by rough asterisks, pointed ovals (which have a quality about them that is reminiscent of shapes used by Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miro, or of shapes used in his murals by Australian artist John Coburn), curves, arcs, daubs, splotches, drips, runs, scratches, and splashes, or impasto dried and painted over. There are also sections of cross-hatching, often with strong diagonals that give form to the compositions. You will also see a mixture of neutral tones and vibrant highlights in red, blue, or yellow.

Drinkwater and his wife Lottie, who is half-Italian and is also an artist, had children and this made the painter think about his life, and about mortality. “A lot of my work is about wanting to protect those you love and wrap them in cotton wool,” the painter told the people in the room on the last day of the exhibition. I had come along to hear him talk. The paintings in the current exhibition are also a kind of homage to his grandfather, who had come to Australia from Milan, and had married a Scottswoman with red hair. She was a matron and he was a surgeon. He was exposed to radiation at Hiroshima and this led to his early death. After he died, his mother one day found the cupboard where his clothes had been kept, empty. When she discovered that they had been donated to charity, she cried, and this story added to family lore.

The asterisk or star motif in the paintings in the exhibition is the sea urchin. Even today, with his children, Drinkwater explores rockpools on the coast of his home town of Newcastle, where he grew up. The motif represents his grandfather, he said. It is the central motif of the exhibition. “An Italian-Australian would eat urchins,” Drinkwater said. His grandfather was a fisherman. His mum and dad bought his grandfather’s house so he knows the cupboard where his mother had found her father’s clothes missing.

Drinkwater remembered aloud watching a Fred Williams VHS he had found in Newcastle library when he was a boy. In the video, Williams was asked, “What are you thinking about when you’re painting.” His reply stayed with Drinkwater: “I’m thinking about every picture that I’ve ever seen.” He said painting is like conversing with your heroes. Ralph Hobbs, who led the discussion, mentioned Drinkwater’s “feverish intent” when painting.

“People comment that they feel very painterly,” said Hobbs, referring to the paintings on the walls of the room the people were standing in. “They’re not on board so I can’t glue or screw things to the surface,” said Drinkwater. He added that sculptures are things that give him solutions for his painting.

‘Arriving in the East End’ (shown below) is dated 2018 and it is 240cm high by 180cm wide (price $45,000; only one or two paintings had not been sold when I visited the gallery). The painting has an earthy palette and a strong design oriented around a collection of shapes and lines set on a vertical axis situated in the centre of the canvas. The central part of the composition is characterised by strong diagonals and bright colours (pale yellow, orange, and red) that contrast with the teal, brown, bottle green and dull pink of the areas surrounding it. There is something about the design that reminds you of the figure of a person, as there is a white shape near its top that might be a head. The figure might be walking, but you are not entirely sure. The blue shape near the top-right of the canvas might be the sky and the zig-zag lines in the same quadrant might represent sunshine streaming down from above.

No part of the canvas is devoid of vibrancy and your eye is constantly roving among the marks, that have been made by the artist’s brush on the canvas, as you seek to create meaning in your journey from one part of the composition to another. Are those eyes there in the head? Is that a mouth? The syncopated rhythm of the cross-hatching that is applied on the left-hand side of the canvas reminds you of the kinds of deliberately amorphous markings that the Futurists used to make in their works that showed street scenes. Here in front of Drinkwater’s canvas, you are surrounded by a sort of music, and the shapes and blotches of colour that populate the work generate movement and variety.


‘A series of calendars and urchins’ (shown below; 124cm high by 100cm wide, $10,000) is a smaller painting that relies for much of its design on cross-hatching and series of blobs of dark paint that are set in strings of boxes like the keys of a piano. The painting has echoes of John Olsen drawings, with their erratic lines and evocative blobs. There are diagonal lines and asterisks. The yellow and white paint that establish tonic moments in the composition add to the sensation of movement that the whole creates in your field of vision. As in the previous work, your eye is constantly roving from one part of the canvas to another as it seeks to create meaning amid the fields of colour and the vibrant lines. And once again, you think when you look at this painting of music and what it can do to people who listen to it. The composition adds something to your experience of the world, there is something alive in it that breathes and moves like an animal.


The next painting included in this blogpost is ‘The most fascinating person I know’ (2018, 200cm high by 140cm wide, $22,000) which again has a dominant central design that has something about it that reminds you of the figure of a human. Again, there are the strong diagonals and a vibrant composition made of lines and shapes in bright colours that are set against a more muted set of colour fields that form a background. There are modulated colours, like pale pinks and pale yellows, that contrast with the more penetrating colours used elsewhere. In this painting there is a large oval shape in a mid-brown near the left-hand upper quadrant that contains a lot of momentum, as though it had been flung onto the canvas by the painter, rather than carefully marked with a brush and colour. As with the other paintings discussed in this blogpost, your eye when faced with this canvas continuously moves from one sector to another as it strives to create meaning from the suggestive fields and lines of colour used in the composition.


‘Along Stephenson Place’ is also, like the others mentioned in this blogpost, oil on canvas. It is 200cm high by 140cm wide and sold for $22,000.  This painting has a strong vertical axis like many of the others in the exhibition. I asked Drinkwater about his design principles and he said the vertical organisation came from doing his sculptures, some of which are also included in the exhibition. They are made from steel. For the canvases, Drinkwater uses pieces of wood in his studio to make straight lines by applying paint with them. These tools get very grubby, he said. He added that a sculpture has to have a vertical principle of organisation and he mentioned English artist Francis Bacon as an inspiration for his designs.


The tendency of these paintings toward a kinetic value that militates against the static medium of paint and canvas lends them a spiritual dimension that we associate most readily with music. Music has always been associated with the eternal, and with the liminal, the space that lies between worlds – the divine and the mundane – that artists and priests have explored for millennia. Writer Gerald Murnane examines this moment in his 2017 novel ‘Border Districts’ and it also inheres in the smoking ceremonies that Aboriginal people in Australia use at cultural events. The act of walking through a pall of white smoke that has been created by the burning in embers of green eucalyptus leaves brings you closer to a state one step removed from daily life, to a place where you can contemplate the eternal things that have always entranced humans and that have always provided subjects for their cultural production. 

In Drinkwater’s paintings there is a synchronicity where different media – music, paint – converge in the matrix of markings that have been made on the canvases, forming safe spaces where your thoughts can find a temporary home on their restless progress. 

These days we are often reminded of the desire people have to find refuge from their thoughts. They listen to music on a constant loop and they watch TV shows by “bingeing” them, episode after episode. The modern world has made us restless and prone to seek places where our thoughts can find repose. I think that Drinkwater’s canvases give you something similar to this. They are entrancingly complicated spaces, full of the kind of variety that people need in order to feel happy in their skins. 

We need a certain level of complexity to feel happy. We also need to understand the vocabulary that is being used by an artist, but he or she must also avoid giving us things that we have already seen elsewhere. The precise repetition of successful art is what we call kitsch, but on the other hand an artist has to use phrasing that can be correctly interpreted by his or her audience. There is a balance between complete, slavish conformity to an ideal and outlandish originality that has no connection with the culture that produces it. Between these two extremes sit all contemporary artists.

The exhibition, which ran from 18 October to 3 November, was titled ‘Looking for urchins and Louis Ferrari’, the name being that of the artist’s maternal grandfather. The artist was born in 1983, graduated from the National Art School in Darlinghurst in 2003, and has had an exhibition every year since 2009. Hobbs noted that Drinkwater spent some time drawing in the western desert with John Olsen and Ken McGregor, who has written two books on Drinkwater. 

Here’s a photo taken on the day of the talk. There were about 30 people in the room as well as gallery staff and the artist.


Monday, 5 November 2018

Western civilisation is most definitely under threat

Although Van Badham is right that the places that Pauline Hanson thinks the treat is coming from – the cultural elites such as university academics – Badham is wrong to say there is no threat. The threat has never been greater since 1989 and is increasing with each year that passes.

The project proposed by the Ramsay Centre will probably go ahead, to start things off on a side note. Of the academics surveyed about the proposal, about one third were against it, one third were in favour of it, and one third were unsure about it. The University of Sydney has sent a counter proposal to the centre and is waiting for their response.

But the bigger problem is that there are so many threats to our way of life now that China has started to grow economically and that Russia has shown an inclination to disrupt the processes that govern our lives. In many countries around the world representative government is not practiced, such as Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Syria, Egypt and others. Several eastern European countries, and now Brazil, are starting to show cracks in their governmental processes as autocrats there start to view democracy as an unnecessary and messy and obstructive, guided in their obsessions by China and Russia.

During the Wentworth by-election a woman named Jodie Salmon tweeted a photo of her hand in the voting booth before she had filled out her ballot. The comment in the tweet was, “The pen is mightier than the bonesaw.” The comment was a reference to the alleged Saudi killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, and was especially apposite as he had been killed for wanting to encourage more transparency in government in the Middle East. Salmon is alive to the implications of China’s reluctance to allow its citizens to vote for their leaders, and wanted to show what she thinks of autocrats wherever they exist. Saudi Arabia is hardly alone.

I wrote on 6 September about how we got to where we are, and I plan to write about it again in the near future. That earlier blogpost takes in the emergence of everything that we value today, from antibiotics to jet engines and from ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ to the secret ballot. What it also notes is that many countries have perversely decided to take the good things (antibiotics and jet engines) but not the things that compromise their complete control of the power that is at the command of those who hold the reigns of government (‘Finnegan’s Wake’ and the secret ballot). Van Badham is being dishonest, but what do you expect of a committed ideologue, who more closely resembles the people she puts herself opposite, than she does those whose fire she borrows to animate her harangues: the writers and thinkers who have fed the engine of the growth of western civilisation.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Book review: Everything Under, Daisy Johnson (2018)

I only picked up this novel because it had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but it’s something that is sort of like what you'd get if Virginia Woolf had written in the style of Peter Carey.

The writer never gets to the point, and keeps you guessing for page after page as the protagonist looks for her mother (you finally understand, after several chapters have elapsed) then there’s the matter of Marcus (who Marcus is, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out). Then her father.

The pieces of the puzzle lob into your consciousness slowly, one after the other, as if the story were really that important it had to be told in a way that would frustrate the reader the maximum possible amount. But you are never told why the protagonist is so important you had to be told all these details of her life in this particularly circuitous way. This is a real stinker and in the end a different book won the prize. Thank goodness! The judges have been misled many times in the past.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Vincent Fantauzzo’s portrait of Julia Gillard

In the week after the Wentworth by-election that had been called because the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had resigned from his seat, Julia Gillard’s official portrait was unveiled at Parliament House in Canberra. The timing was somewhat ironic as Gillard had started the run of prime-ministerial overthrows, in 2010, when she had removed Kevin Rudd from his post in an uncompromising coup engineered within the ranks of the parliamentary Labor Party.

Fantauzzo is a regular in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which runs the Archibald Prize every autumn in Sydney. In 2008 he won the People’s Choice Award, which is run as part of the Archibald Prize, for his portrait of Heath Ledger, which was titled ‘Heath’. In 2009, he again won the same prize for his portrait, titled ‘Brandon’, of Brandon Walters, who played the young Aboriginal boy Nullah opposite Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in Baz Luhrmann’s film ‘Australia’. In 2013 he again won the People’s Choice Award, for his portrait of actor Asher Keddie, which was titled ‘Love face’, and in 2014 he won the same prize for his portrait of his son, Luca. Winning this prize year after year means that Fantauzzo’s paintings were reliably hung among the finalists, but that he never won the ultimate prize itself.

In his portrait of Gillard, Fantauzzo has chosen to position the subject’s head so that it is almost face-on to the viewer, but not quite. Gillard stares out of the canvas with her face held in a suggestive semi-profile, so that the outline of the left-hand side of her face is drawn in a gentle curve. Both of her earrings are visible. They are plain white drops.

The slightly off-centre positioning of Gillard’s face lends variety to her features, which are consequently less severe than they would have been if she had been shown perfectly front-on to the viewer. Her eyes are focused on the viewer, however, so that the spaces between the pupils and the outer edges of her eyes are irregular, again adding variety to the picture. The white areas of her right eye and those of her left eye are not the same shapes.

Her clothing, on the other hand, gives the picture a certain uniformity, as does her hair, which is cut mid-length so that it comes down to her shoulders, framing her face with its soft brown folds. The general impression of her physiognomy is thus framed by a controlled balance of symmetry and irregularity, neither of which characteristic is dominant. Both are strong and both lend variety to the painting. Likewise, the shadows that frame her face, that are buried in the sweeps of her coiffure, serve to highlight the features of her face.

Cropping of Gillard’s head has been done so that the top of her head is cut off by the picture’s frame. Her left shoulder is visible but her right shoulder is not because it has also been cropped out of the picture. The way the cropping has been done makes Gillard’s face loom large in the frame, and it is not positioned exactly in the centre of the frame; with, as mentioned previously, her head turned slightly to the left, and with the area of canvas on the left-hand side of the picture predominating. But despite these compositional elements you still have a feeling of equipoise because the balance between things in the frame is seemly and appears to be just. Because the subject is facing slightly to the left, the painting has been given a slightly optimistic flavour, with the viewer’s gaze moving from left to right across the canvas.

And the tight cropping makes the experience of looking at the subject’s face more intimate than it would have been if her bust (the head and shoulders of the physique of the subject of a portrait) had been portrayed in full: if both of her shoulders had been visible and if the top of her head had also been visible.

Gillard’s sharp nose and smiling mouth combine with her heavily-lidded eyes to lend for the viewer an impression of both firmness and accessibility, as though she were listening to what you have to say but was reserving her judgement. The creases in her skin are realistic and tidily visible and the way they are drawn gives you the impression that the rest of the painting – the part that is not taken up by her face – is slightly out of focus. The highlights on her cheeks, forehead, the bridge of her nose, and on her chin and neck provide tonic points around which her features coalesce in a whole that is comprehended in an instant. There is a steely glint in the subject’s eyes. The strong curve of her lower lip reminds you of her characteristic broad Australian accent and of the way she used to command debate in Parliament when she was prime minister.

The way the painting manages a thrusting subject with other qualities such as softness and balance goes some way toward giving the viewer a sense that while having a woman as prime minister might have been confronting for some people, experience proved that going down that path had in the end been a good idea. It also suggests that some things that happened during Gillard’s time in the top office were due to her gender (such as the institutional child abuse royal commission, which had just a day or so before the painting’s unveiling led, in Parliament, to an official apology to survivors and whistleblowers by the current prime minister).

The background of the painting is where much of the drama is taking place. Fantauzzo has borrowed from both Howard Arkley (Australian, 1951 to 1999) and Edward Hopper (American, 1882 to 1967) and uses an air-brushed smoothness to depict an exterior that is both fantastic and real. The view from the windows behind Gillard’s head, which have insistent verticals that resemble the columns at the front of the House of Parliament in Canberra, show greensward, mountains, and areas of plain blue sky each of which lends depth and highlights the sense of serenity the organisation of elements in the picture create.

Reactions to Fantauzzo’s rather conventional portrait were generally approving. Saturday Paper journalist Paul Bongiorno tweeted at 10.21am on 24 October, “Was at the unveiling of Julia Gillard PM portrait today. It is a knock out. I thought @TonyAbbottMHR was gracious in being there[, and] she acknowledged his presence. A class act on both their parts.” The reference was to the way that Tony Abbott had competed with Gillard when she was prime minister, including a notable speech in Parliament on 9 October 2012 in which she called the Opposition leader a misogynist.

ABC presenter Virginia Trioli tweeted at 9.21am on 25 October, “I’m calling it: the 2019 @walkleys for cartooning: Mr Jon Kudelka. Bloody genius.” Her tweet contained the cartoon that Kudelka had produced and published the day before showing Gillard and Wayne Swan (who had been the Labor treasurer during the GFC) standing in front of the Fantauzzo portrait that is hanging on a gallery wall. Gillard is saying, “I wonder when Kevin’s going to –“ but before she can finish her question the portrait has scrolled through a shredder hidden in the lower part of its frame, destroying it. Behind the portrait of Gillard one of Kevin Rudd is revealed. The cartoon references a new book that Rudd had just launched which gives more information about his rolling in 2010 and the roles his colleagues played in the events of those days. It also references the gimmick that graffiti artist Banksy had used to destroy a drawing that had been sold on 16 October at an art auction in London for $1.4 million.

At 10.37am on 25 October, ABC journalist Annabel Crabb tweeted about the same cartoon, “Days like this I just want to go to wherever @jonkudelka lives and just shake his hand very vigorously.” Melbourne resident Jodie M tweeted about Crabb’s tweet, “This is classic.”

At 4.18pm on 25 October @giddeygirl retweeted a tweet that had gone up a day earlier from @edgemonsta, that said, “Great portrait of an awesome woman. Umm, does anyone else think Julia’s nose has been slightly shortened?” Her tweet retweeted one from journalist Margo Kingston that had said, “Here’s to a great PM, a beacon of dignity and service since, and a fabulous human being, Ms @JuliaGillard.” Kingston’s tweet contained a photo of the Fantauzzo portrait.

Fantauzzo’s name is pronounced to rhyme with “fanta bootso” if pronounced correctly. The vowels in Italian are pure, so all the sounds are pronounced individually, with no running together of the sounds (running sounds together is what normally occurs in English). So far, I have not heard anyone in the media pronounce his name correctly but that is not surprising as foreign names are often mangled by Australians in the public sphere.


Friday, 2 November 2018

Book review: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman (2010)

Early on in her book, Batuman recounts how she decided to study literature at a university rather than doing a creative writing course but I think that she should have gone back to do the writing course after her graduate studies, at least so that should could learn how to pace her own writing. This book just goes way too fast and I was constantly looking about, puzzled, at the scenery that had suddenly popped up, without any preparation, before my eyes. Before you had gotten used to one room, you were led unceremoniously into another one, which was filled with a completely different set of people, none of whose names you knew yet.

I was reminded of a large commercial building that sits in the middle of Sydney, the city in which I live. Its driveway on Castlereagh Street leads out of an underground carpark where cars and trucks go to park or to unload goods for the businesses that use the building. One day it had been raining and I saw a two-tonne truck in the middle of the driveway that leads to the street, spinning its wheels on the green paint that has been applied to the driveway to regulate traffic there. It stood stuck between the high walls of the space half-way between the basement and the street level as I walked past. The driver had his window down and I wondered if he was starting to panic just a little bit because of the impasse he found himself in.

Batuman’s book, which is really a memoir, is like the driveway: too slick to allow the reader to gain purchase, preventing him or her from taking anything meaningful away from the experience of reading it. I got about 21 percent of the way through the book before getting frustrated and giving up.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Impressions on a rainy morning in Sydney

It had rained earlier in the morning but now the sky was overcast and the air was thick and moist in the warmth of spring. As I walked past the building site where they had installed a small crane to allow workers to attach colourful posters to the hoarding that had been put up around the site, I smelled the fumes of the machine as it roared away docilely in the carriageway. The smell reminded me of Japan and the building sites that spring up on roads there and that are occupied by workers even at night.

On the corner of Clarence Street and Market Street I saw Laurel Papworth, who runs social media courses. She looked preoccupied and as though she were finding her bearings in an unfamiliar landscape. She had her hand on the handle of a red vinyl suitcase the wheels of which were on the pavement. She looked at me when I glanced at her and our eyes met briefly but I didn’t say hello. She probably only saw a nondescript man in late middle age with a disreputable-looking beard and unfashionable glasses.

On Castlereagh Street a well-dressed youngish man ran his hand along the railing of a balustrade that had been constructed where an underground carpark has its access ramp. Cars and trucks use the ramp to exit the building’s underground carpark. On Martin Place near the Reserve Bank of Australia a woman wearing a yellow-and-black knitted cardigan ran her hands along the vertical blue blooms of some plants that had been planted in boxes on the pavement. She was feeling the moisture as the young man had done, experiencing a novelty because the state – indeed the entire east coast of the continent – had been in drought.

Coming back home as I was walking into the tunnel on Pitt Street Mall that goes to the Queen Victoria Building, a memory emerged that was inspired by the mingled smells in the space and that evoked the underground food hall in the Tokyu Department Store in Shibuya. There, you can buy anything you like from delicious and inexpensive bentos (lunch boxes) to nori maki (sushi rolls wrapped in dried seaweed), from slices of French cheese to chicken karaage (deep fried in oil). The smell from a shoe store as I was walking in the Sydney morning had a certain antiseptic authority, as though you would find something new if you went inside the door. As I passed a shop further along I smelled the aromatic pungency of coffee that has been roasted at heat, and outside a soap shop nearby I could aptly smell nothing at all.

On Market Street as I was crossing a road with the signal I saw a youngish woman with an infant strapped to her front in a harness and a small child supported by her right arm and her hip. Seeing her made me think of the word “burden” and I thought how it is natural for young people to be burdened by things outside themselves and for older people to be burdened by themselves as they age.

On the bridge leading to the Pyrmont Bridge a young Asian man was walking in a way that reminded me of Charlie Chaplin, his toes pointing slightly outward as he made his way over the structure with its rubber coating. His lips were invisible because he was holding his mouth in a way that made me think “determined” as I passed him there. He looked like he was busy on some task and that it would have been difficult, if you had wanted to, to persuade him to do something else.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Book review: Veronica, Mary Gaitskill (2005)

This strange novel emotes frantically about many things that seem central to modern society but I fear in the end it’s merely an indictment of the American education system. It has in it some of the odd-shaped ideas that Virginia Woolf discovered for use in her novels.

This the story of Alison Owen who in the early 1980s (I presume) leaves home when she’s still a minor and travels from New Jersey to San Francisco and does odd jobs – selling flowers to couples leaving restaurants is the most prominent – but then gets caught up in modelling. The gigs she lands take her to Paris where the abuse she has already suffered continues and she ends up back in the States. She befriends a woman she works with for a time at an agency that fills temporary roles in offices, whose lover, a man named Duncan, contracts AIDS and dies. The woman, Veronica, also comes down with the disease and it is the friendship that endures between the two women in the face of the stigma that attached to the disease at the time that animates the narrative. In the end, Veronica of course dies but the friendship ends up being the only thing that contributes to engendering a sense of purpose for Alison in her topsy-turvy life.

You wonder about the quality of the feelings that Alison experiences, and also about the ways she realises them in her life, that enable her to live such a ramshackle existence. One day in Los Angeles, she is in a car accident as she is being driven to a job by a friend named John. Complications stemming from that event continue to plague her throughout her life and on top of that she contracts hepatitis. One of her sisters, Sara, works in a nursing home and the other, Daphne, has a steady job and a family, but Alison just has her memories of Veronica to comfort her in her middle age and afterward.

The other thing to note here is the lack of universal health care: you have to keep a job in order to get health insurance and without health insurance you can’t afford to pay the doctors you need to treat the disease that is slowly killing you. It’s a sad state of affairs that American still struggles with today.

Gaitskill’s writing is impressionistic and evocative, but the way that Alison appears throughout the story does little to give you much confidence about her judgement. She seems always to be dealing in a line that you might not want to take home and is nothing if not an unreliable narrator. The introduction to the novel was written in about 2014 and in it the author describes how she had met a woman named June who, in 1987, came down with AIDS. She describes June’s personality and the way her essential humanity had always made itself apparent through the mask of her public persona. The book was written in a first draft in 1992.

Alison might therefore be taken as a version, in many respects, of the author. If so, it is a strange personality you find here. Alison seems in the final analysis to live by maxims learned from listening to songs played on juke boxes, which is a kind of existential failing that she might have inherited from her father, who also loves music. In the introduction, Gaitskill recounts how she had moved from New York to Marin County, in California, and had then occupied a house for the first time in her life. She also says that it was then that she for the first time in her life owned a TV. She also says she read magazines. You wonder when you read her novel if her character Alison ever reads a book, but there is no evidence in it of such an occurrence. Presumably Gaitskill herself did read novels of some sort before attempting to write one of her own.

The mixing up of the protagonist and the author in the preceding paragraph is something I am aware of, and I apologise for any confusion that might have entailed. I have tried to keep the two distinct, but it seems to me that this novel is an early exemplar of the kind of novel that is written based on autobiographical material. There are many authors these days who do this, From Karl Ove Knausgaard to Rachel Cusk. But Gaitskill was an innovator in this sense, and should be acknowledged as such.