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Saturday, 27 May 2006

Event: The New Yorkers, Sydney Town Hall (as part of the Sydney Writer’s Festival) Friday 26 May, 2006. Panellists: Rhonda Sherman, Hendrik Hertzberg, Andy Borowitz, Phillip Adams (moderator), Aleksandar Hemon, Susan Orlean.

This event was recorded for video streaming by Bigpond.

Parking in the city is a nightmare. So this was the first time I took the train from my new flat. I’ve been here six months now and this was a big event for me. Big night out. Riding into the city, about 40 minutes were spent watching the station signs pass — Canterbury, Hurlstone Park, Dulwich Hill, Marrickville — and listening to the various groans, squeaks, trills, grunts and rattles of the CityRail train as it forged through the inner western suburbs into the heart of the metropolis.

There was a line of hundreds of well-dressed and affluent-looking ticket holders waiting to enter when I emerged into the chill night air from the subway beneath the pavement, about twenty minutes before starting time. But the queue progressed rapidly and, not long after, we were ensconced in the lit chamber awaiting amusement. The lights dimmed, the throng hushed. The panellists filed onto the stage and took their seats in the order shown above. They comically wore little, cream-coloured head mikes.

The night started at Ground Zero. The reactions of each to the news of the blasts that destroyed the Twin Towers on 9 September, 2001, were trotted out with due reverence and awe. Most watched it unfold on TV, just like everyone else in the world.

Then the politics began. Now, I’m not a big supporter of the U.S. Republican cause and I don’t know enough about U.S. politics to get really interested. These guys are, however, without exception, blue. “Here in the bluest borough of the bluest city of the bluest state in all our red-white-and-blue American Union, it has not been a happy week,” wrote Hertzberg in The New Yorker on 8 November, 2004. The magazine has been an opponent of the administration ever since.

Hertzberg, as Senior Editor, was the elder statesman on the panel. (Although I took along my recording device, I turned it off because of the consternation I would face next day when it came to listening to it over again and transcribing. I sort of regret this decision now. Never mind.) As such he was like a peg the others hung onto. Borowitz was the comedian, a source of endless amusement for the audience. Hemon was the outsider — a resident of Chicago and a foreigner to boot. Sherman and Orlean bracketed the men physically and while Orlean held her own technically, Sherman tended to get lost in the mix. She added factual details and dutifully answered questions when asked by Adams, but seemed junior to the others. But a nice bunch of people, to be sure.

But were they liberal. Bush-bashing never had it so good. As I say, I’m no Bush supporter, but the sense in the hall of an overwhelming liberal bent was overpowering and distasteful. It was assumed that you should dislike the 43rd President of the U.S., period.

Phillip Adams, of course, is a famous leftie and showed his pedigree flamboyantly. But he was overall a good host, asking valid questions and responding with cogent follow-ups. The talk was to be broadcast on ABC Radio National.

Question time was not. Some people asked about the magazine, which was good, because a lot of the preceding discussion was about politics and not publishing.

On the way home I didn’t have much time to reflect on the evening. A bunch of noisy louts flitting about the carriage monopolised my attention. But I managed to reach my door unscathed and hale, ready to finish reading the newspapers before turning in. I’m glad I bought this flat: it’s comforting to know that I can use the train to get somewhere if driving is unattractive.

Hertzberg rides his bicycle to work in Manhattan, which must also be comforting. As the New Yorkers of Australia, Sydneysiders are curious about the Big Apple. We see similarities in our attitudes to life: a taste for irony and detachment, a fierce energy when it comes to competing in the workplace. On the train, I felt that the sort of shenanigans those youths were getting up to must also be prevalent in the other place. And my winter jacket would not have looked odd over there. From here, New York looks inviting, a little scary, and sometimes just strange. Inside the covers of The New Yorker it looks a lot better, as does the rest of that country.

For a start, they are one of the only magazines to consistently publish new fiction. This is sad but inevitable when we think about it. At one point Adams reflected sadly on the fact that there’s not a magazine like theirs in this country. I wonder why he didn’t mention Quadrant? Possibly because that publication is stoutly right-wing. He mentioned The Monthly, a relatively new mag that publishes quality articles on a range of topics. It is a good read, I’ll grant that. But I prefer Quadrant. Again, it’s not that I’m right-wing — in fact I voted for The Greens last time and probably will again in 2007 — it’s just that they cover things in great detail and are unapologetically high-minded. They really talk about the important issues in politics, education, history, law, and other areas of public life that we need to know about. I generally read the whole magazine through, while I only read a few articles in the issue of The Monthly that an acquaintance recently lent me.

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