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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Book review: Raw Concrete, Barnabas Calder (2016)

This is an enticing book about brutalism but despite its promise you often wish that Calder had had a more urgent or persistent editor sitting behind him with his or her hand on his shoulder asking him firmly at key points, “Why?” And then, even more firmly, “How?”

Calder is an architecture lecturer, so he is a person with unique insights into his chosen craft and discipline, but his method in this book is unfortunately that of the teacher in front of a classroom full of informed and intelligent students, people already inculcated with a substructure of data about the matter at hand. For the layman or neophyte, the outcome is less than entirely satisfactory.

What is the scope of the book? Calder summarises part of it in the epilogue:
Not many will shelter from the coastal Scottish wind in the beautiful Hermit’s Castle, but huge numbers have daily views of [London’s residential] Trellick Tower or Balfron Tower, or find themselves threading their way through the futuristic cityscape of the Barbican [in London] for a concert or exhibition. Dozens of students every year live in [Sir Denys] Lasdun’s New Court [at Cambridge University], and hundreds study in Stirling and Gowan’s Leicester [University] Engineering Building. Millions of people from all over the globe walk, cycle, drive of bus past the National Theatre over Waterloo Bridge or along the [nearby] South Bank pedestrian path [in London]. Millions more have frequent interactions with thousands of other Brutalist buildings up and down the country.
Another development he discusses in the book is Glasgow’s Anderston Centre designed by architect Richard Seifert. It is signal that this one misses out getting a mention in his otherwise comprehensive epilogue because Siefert was a developer’s architect and seems to be not held to the same aesthetic standards as the other professionals profiled in the book. You suspect perhaps unfairly that there is a degree of classism at work in excluding Siefert’s building here.

He sketches out a manifesto of sorts in his epilogue:
Although some still see in the architecture of the 1960s a moment of madness of malign conspiracy, it makes far more sense to view it as a glorious celebration of new technologies, new cheap energy, new opportunities to enhance all human activities.
The impetus for the explosion of raw concrete construction in the era under discussion is given a go in the early part of the book also, but it falls somewhat short of requirements. What Calder says is this:
By the 1960s the exploitation of fossil fuels had given every British citizen access to more energy than was available to anyone in the pre-modern world. Architects were freed by unprecedented energy wealth from the age-old structural limitations of clumsy stone and brick, and weak, flammable wood. The total amount of architectural activity shot up, with ordinary working-class people getting more living space, new mod cons, new educational opportunities and new health facilities, each housed in new buildings. They travelled more, using upgraded roads, updated railways and new airports; they had more leisure time to spend in the increasingly diverse facilities built to entertain them. 
Cheap energy made concrete and steel available in quantity, and engineers’ understandings of reinforced concrete developed rapidly. For the first time in history the weight of very large structures did not need to travel down in vertical walls and columns, or follow the inflexible lines of arches and vaults. Architects could slide the constituent parts of their buildings around at will, massively increasing the range of ways they could arrange rooms and routes, bringing outdoor space to any part of the building they chose, escaping the architectural restrictions of ground-level the way sci-fi fans hoped rocket-packs would one day enable pedestrians to do, and opening up completely new shapes of building to the designer. 
Cheap energy also reconfigured Brutalist architects’ attitudes to the design of interiors. To be a comfortable temperature in winter, British buildings had always needed to be divided into cellular rooms small enough to reduce drafts, each with its fireplace to warm it, served by thick clusters of chimney-flues. Daylight was the best and cheapest illumination, requiring relatively thin buildings so that light could penetrate to the back of each room, and higher ceilings for tall windows. If artificial lighting was needed it came with noxious gasses until the advent of electric lighting, and from then with the surplus heat of incandescent bulbs. In the 1950s and ‘60s all this changed. With cheap, cool electric lighting, mechanical ventilation, central heating, and the versatility of concrete structure, rooms could be whatever size and shape was needed. The building could fit round the functions rather than the functions having to accommodate themselves to the normal strictions of buildings.
But there had been steel-framed buildings in the United States since the 1870s that had used pneumatic lifts and electric lighting and ventilation. Something about the post-WWII period was different in signal ways in terms of structural design. There was something about the concrete construction methods that appeared in this new era that was different from what had gone before, but Calder seems to me to pull up short of putting his finger on it in a precise manner.

He fails to convey target meanings in other places in the book as well, such as where he tries to explain how the financial system worked in the 1960s British commercial building boom. Despite his attempt, the message just does not get across because the author goes too fast. He does much better when he attempts to convey the method of using wooden formwork to build the raw concrete finishing for the National Theatre in London. This turns into an inspired piece of writing about an important craft with technical elements provided to enable you to understand its intricacies.

Calder is clubby and tends to use localisms and technical terms without any amplification however. When you come across the word “dodo” in one part of the book you have to rush to Google to find quick answers. (It’s a rail that is installed on walls at a certain height from the floor to stop chairs from damaging the wall.) He also uses the word “bodge” (make or repair something badly or clumsily) several times but it’s a word he unfortunately seems to think has currency outside Britain. Another example where Google alone can bring relief. He somewhat curiously capitalises “Welfare State” furthermore as though it were a proper noun when it was in actual fact just an expression of Keynesian economics.

In short, this is a tantalising book that falls short in many ways but that nevertheless gives you an informed shot of good information in many others. It is a must-read for those who are interested in brutalism, but its uneven finish might have been remedied by a more assiduous editor. You find this kind of problem in other places where architects write about their craft. There is a lack of dedication to the selection of the right word in this realm of knowledge, where people might possibly feel more at home explaining what they want to say using a quick sketch or using mathematical exegesis. Words tend to fail such people, it seems, at critical junctures.

You wonder how architects convey their ideas to their clients. Or perhaps their clients just go along with the fashion of the time believing that credit will thence accrue to them by some sort of organic process like osmosis.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Taking selfies in Darling Harbour

Being a tourist resort, Darling Harbour probably now has the same role to play in modern Sydney as Manly did for the same city many decades ago. Manly’s proximity to Circular Quay, a short ferry ride distant from the train station there that is on the City Circle Line, which was completed in stages from 1916 to 1956, the year this station was built, made it a favourite destination for families for lunch on the weekend before the ubiquity of the automobile. It has a surf beach for recreational purposes and a mall with plenty of restaurants and hotels where food and drink can be bought for a reasonable price.

These days, families from Sydney’s seemingly endless suburbs are more likely to head to Central Station and walk up to Darling Harbour or else catch the light rail from Central to one of the stations along the border of the U-shaped body of water. A privately-operated ferry even brings people from Circular Quay to the Convention Wharf.

Here, a short walk from Chinatown and its many food and shopping outlets, the roads have been wisely elevated above ground in the imposing form of the Western Distributor, a series of concrete viaducts taking traffic from points to the east including the Harbour Bridge at the north edge of the central business district (CBD) to the Anzac Bridge and then on to the northern and western suburbs.

You amble under the motorway pursued by the rumbling, humming and whooshing of cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses overhead like noises coming from a herd of animals at a zoo roused to activity by the necessities of feeding hour.

Mothers with babies in strollers and with small children running around their heels walk up and down the elegantly-paved foreshore in front of the exhibition and convention centres. Right in the flow of pedestrian traffic sits a shopping centre where dozens of eateries and a food court cater to people enjoying a holiday or in town on business. The building has other conveniences such as toilets and a pharmacy.

Businessmen congregate in its open-air bars in the afternoons when the end of the week looms. Groups of holidaymakers staying at one of the city’s many hotels turn up for a lunch of seafood or steak in the shade of umbrellas placed on the pavement in front of the concessions. Sweating joggers pass by quickly. City rangers walk along slowly in their hi-vis vests and dark shirts. Grandparents bring their grandchildren for a burger and an ice cream as well as a trip to the zoo or the aquarium on the other side of the bay. The Ferris wheel planted beside the water runs all day, every day.

The precinct is also favoured by people wanting to memorialise their adventures with selfies that can be shared among friends on social media. On Pyrmont Bridge tourists are almost commanded to do so since authorities constructed an enormous flagpole on a marine plinth situated smack-bang in the middle of the harbour just north of the bridge. The huge flag waves slowly even in stiff breezes and depending on the season its navy-blue cloth casts a shadow that morphs and shifts its shape weirdly on the bridge’s macadam where people wander past or cycle to and from the city.

Standing on the north half of the bridge just 100 metres east of the Pyrmont Bay Hotel hundreds of tourists take photos of themselves every day against a backdrop featuring the CBD’s impressive skyline. Visitors from the sprawling local suburbs, from other towns and cities in the country, or from overseas, know they are standing in the shadow of a wealthy, thriving place of business, a major global entrepot of the preceding century and arguably the Southern Hemisphere’s premier metropolis.

From this point just west of the city centre, Sydney’s eclectic ranks of multi-storey office blocks give the viewer a set of architectural traces to study that reflect the changing aesthetic priorities of different generations. Directly behind the flag as you stand there on the bridge you are confronted by the sight, lifting imperiously above neighbouring towers in the CBD in the middle distance, of the lofty octagonal spire of the 67-storey MLC Centre, which was completed in 1977.

Seen from without, for example from the deck of the Star casino in Pyrmont, the CBD undoubtedly possesses at least an immodest grandeur if not a dazzling richness. A similarly-heterogeneous collection of nautical vessels at the National Maritime Museum also serves to underscore Sydney’s historical significance, including the James Craig, a restored 19th century barquentine that still operates, and the HMAS Vampire, a decommissioned 20th century naval destroyer.

The other day I had happily consumed a solid lunch of rice with beef vindaloo, mango chicken and matter mushrooms at a north Indian restaurant in Darlinghurst and as I was walking home through Darling Harbour something I saw brought all these ruminations together to form a neat synthetic idea that told me that the city – not Sydney per se but the city as a notion – is the embodiment of modernity today. A group of six or seven ethnic south Asians with rucksacks on their backs stood on the low boardwalk that runs around part of the bay, near its head next to the Grocon building site, taking selfies with the CBD to the northeast in the background.

Intent on what they were doing, each of them with at least one hand raised in the air holding a mobile phone, some of the men moving their position to another one close by that he thought more advantageous for his current purpose, they stood around for many minutes – I had time to walk a good 50 metres glancing back from time to time as I went by – while they talked among themselves and secured the best possible shots with their portable devices so that they would have a visual record to distribute among online connections when they told them where they had been that day.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Book review: City Dreamers, Graeme Davison (2016)

Subtitled ambitiously, ‘The urban imagination in Australia’, Davison’s book ends by asking some very expansive questions:
How do we belong to the city? How do we belong to the land? 
Do we now have the chance to assimilate our culture within the Dreaming of the original inhabitants of the continent, whose history goes back 65,000 years, and there find answers to the enervating questions that blight the existences of city dwellers everywhere? Are the questions thrown up by the existential dread that has tasked the best minds of every age better answered through recourse to an originary mythology? Do we allay the feelings of fear and loathing implicit in the modern lived experience by reconciling our culture with that of the Aborigines and by turning once more, like them, to the deep past?

Davison asks big questions, and it is refreshing to be challenged as a reader in this way. We all need to think about where we sit in the scale of creation as Australians, if only to answer urgent questions that seem to come with regularity from overseas. The French seem to have a love of Aboriginal art, for example.

But otherwise Davison’s book deals in questions that come naturally to us. What it means to be Australian has always centred to a degree on the issue of many people living together in close proximity in cities. Even the Bush myths invented by ‘Bulletin’ journalists such as Henry Lawson around the turn of the twentieth century had their roots in the city of Sydney and what it meant to live there and in places like it. Questions that we still ask ourselves – such as: what is the point of all this? – were pressing for people living in the cities of Australia in earlier days as well.

One aspect of these debates was the rise of the suburbs as civic leaders and politicians discussed the various downsides of life lived in close proximity by large numbers of people. The ‘Bulletin’ writers were all against the migration of Chinese to the colonies, for one thing, and they were on the vanguard in that case because the White Australia Policy was the first piece of legislation passed in the federal Parliament in 1901.

There was also the idea that the “Anglo-Saxon race” was in danger of degeneracy due to city life. Fears about hollow-chested, sallow-complexioned “larrikins” who smoked and drank and raised a ruckus outside public bars were expressed repeatedly in the public sphere. Such youths were compared unfavourably with straight-limbed, tall youths who were apparently emerging out of the countryside, even though there seems to have been little basis in fact for such concerns.

The narrative was compelling and had its own logic. In the wake of the Boer War – which the colonies enthusiastically participated in – the Boy Scouts were set up in Britain and Australia quickly adopted the measure itself in an effort to safeguard the health of its children.

Even the houses with their attached small gardens that started to spring up in distant locales reached by train at suburban stations were built fronting regular streets because of fears that congested, pokey little streets and culs-de-sac full of derelict houses were responsible for poor education and health outcomes. It sounds odd to put it this way but we do well to remember that the causes of contagions such as typhoid and cholera were only identified as being raw sewage and associated polluted water sources in the second half of the 19th century. Before that such diseases were thought to come from “miasmas” and from bad odours.

Absolutists in the eugenics debate that animated the communal meditation on body culture recommended sterilising the poor and unfit and such views were only finally laid to rest by WWII and the Nazi menace once it was finally overpowered. No-one it appears thought to ascribe blame to the real cause of disadvantage: which was and still is poverty linked to economic inequality.

Davison also looks at debates around the appropriate models to adopt for Australian cities, with some in our communities even as far back as the second half of the 19th century proposing European, Mediterranean-style civic centres with their squares and loggias to complement Australia’s warm climate. Initially touted as attractive by Bohemian writers in places like Sydney and Melbourne this solution to the problem of city life eventually emerged organically due to the immigration policies instituted at the national level after WWII. Higher density housing also became less contentious after the war due to improved construction techniques using concrete and the availability of (what are considered now to be) essential services such as hot-and-cold-running water, indoor toilets, electric lighting, and electric lifts.

The author also looks at the role of the automobile in cities in Australia, and he has a chapter dedicated to the matter of Canberra. As a planned city and the capital of the nation, Canberra has always been a special case and its symbolic meaning has been as much discussed as the efficiency and effectiveness of its dormitory suburbs.

Attempts to enable better, more salubrious and healthier lives lived in close proximity to one another resulted in a series of decisions by community leaders, business people and politicians that led to the establishment of communities that we still inhabit to this day. Despite misgivings expressed by many in the second half of the 20th century about the uniformity and blandness of the Australian suburb, this solution to city living has stood the test of time remarkably well. Davison mentions in the book also the rise of the “trendies” in the 1980s in Australia – urban sophisticates who wanted to live close to the CBD – but he has written a separate book on the topic, ‘Trendyville: The Battle for Australia’s Inner Cities’ (2015), which looks like it’s worth a look.

So cities are still changing as the country’s economy shifts to meet the exigencies of the modern age. This is an interesting book although it goes a bit fast at times. This need for speed seems to me to be implicit in the method of the professional historian. Journalists are used to going a bit slower because their primary audience is always the general public, whereas academics don’t just write trade publications but also refereed papers for a specialist audience of scholarly peers.

It’s a matter of pace. Davison sometimes falls prey to doggedly following the logic of the rhetorical style of the dissertation, and you can be left straining with the effort required to keep up with him. You are sometimes left feeling a bit lost, like a pup abandoned the week after Christmas on the open road when mum and dad decide you are really a bit of a handful.

He is also prone to using the highly-Latinate vocabulary of the cloister. Here is one example of the contagion of Latinate vocabulary in the book:
In European capitals, the process of memorialisation had occurred slowly, over several centuries, as successive generations inscribed their own singular contributions on the palimpsest of memory. When Lord Holford surveyed the void in Canberra’s Parliamentary Zone in 1965 he wisely observed that such empty spaces represented an opportunity for the future, as much as an embarrassment to the present.
Here is another:
Adelaide, with its generous perimeter of parkland, was a partial exception which one historian, Tony Denholm, has compared, a little fancifully, to bastides, the towns created by thirteenth-century feudal lords as agrarian colonies and military strongholds in remote or disputed territories. But if they were similar in form, it was perhaps because they were shaped by similar functions, and not because the founders of South Australia had consulted the town plans of medieval France.
And another:
Relatively few colonial Australians had first-hand experience of continental European cities. Their images of the European city were largely gleaned from literature. The London of Dickens, Thackeray and Sala was their primary reference point, but the Paris of Victor Hugo, Balzac, Paul de Kock and Eugene Sue was perhaps the second most important influence, especially among the self-conscious literary Bohemians who were among the most influential interpreters of the colonial city.
These examples were taken from a small part of the book about three-quarters of the way through. In each case, the conclusion must be that on the whole you have been well served by the author. He is being accurate in his word choice, always plumping for the term that most precisely conveys the needed meaning. But there is yet the merest, lingering doubt as to whether a few more of the rugged, Germanic words our forefathers preferred to use when expressing their hatred of something untoward might have been advisedly added to the mix. “Copulate” doesn’t have the same connotations as its common Germanic analogue, neither does “penis” necessarily have the quite same meaning in regular parlance as other common words for the same thing. I trust you get my drift. I just get tired of pointing this stuff out.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

A family outing at the Fish Market

Normally when you see foreigners at the Fish Market, it is Chinese tourists (or Chinese migrants mixed with Chinese tourists, or Japanese tourists, or Koreans) making their way into the big, messy parking lot that surrounds the place. They stream in from the light rail station across Bank Street under the approaches to the Anzac Bridge and negotiate the difficult footpaths where the roots of the fig trees there have pushed up the macadam in odd curves that threaten to trip you up.  They form groups at the signalled crossing where you stop for the lights because on weekends the street is thick with traffic as people drive to get their lunch.

Cars heading north turn into the carpark intent on finding a parking spot so passengers can get out and eat lunch. Guards wearing hi-vis vests stand around in the carpark controlling the mass of circulating cars. Pedestrians weave in and out between the parked and moving cars on their way to the main building on the south side of the carpark where the food outlets are located.

Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, Chinese in these environs are part of the summer landscape, an inescapable element that is both typical and unremarkable. They love eating, and the Fish Market offers an unrivalled selection of fresh seafood. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, who frequently stand around in their suitably respectable but otherwise unremarkable clothes on Bank Street outside the light rail station are casually eyeing them off next to hand trolleys that are laden with improving literature, in both English and Chinese.

Inside the Fish Market you get the main game. Visitors can find fried or steamed, oysters Mornay or Kilpatrick, lobsters or crabs or Balmain bugs, or raw sushi. There are kingfish and mackerel, salmon and barramundi, perch and trout, bream and tuna, whiting and garfish, mahi mahi and mullet, cod and sole, calamari and baby octopus, tiger prawns or school prawns, cockles or scallops: you can buy anything you want fresh to take home, or you can buy food that has already been cooked and is ready to eat with chips or rice on-site. The prices tend to be on the high side – it is easy to spend 35 dollars for lunch for one person – but the encyclopaedic selection of goods, the sheer range of varieties available in one place, is unrivalled by any standalone restaurant in the city.

It is literally a smorgasbord, a delight, a phenomenon, and the boats that bring the catch to the tables inside the building sit moored during the day at wharves next to it on Blackwattle Bay, from where they have arrived from the fishing grounds off the coast in the capacious Pacific Ocean.

Finding a place to eat your food might be a challenge on warm Saturdays around lunchtime as the plastic tables provided outside next to the water are often filled by parties of visitors who fight for possession of the food with opportunistic seagulls who blow in for the spree and think nothing of alighting on the table and picking up chips with their beaks from your cardboard tray if no one is around to protect it. On busy days the crowds spill out across the road into Wentworth Park and sit there on the grass eating food.

At the head of the park, a posse from the Falun Gong religious sect sets up a loudspeaker on weekends under a gumtree blaring a loud Mandarin-speaking male voice across the intersection of Pyrmont Bridge Road and Wattle Street where the cars queue up on their way to the Anzac Bridge and the northern suburbs. White tourist buses with unpainted sides pull up facing west on Pyrmont Bridge Road next to the park and disgorge loads of passengers who walk across to the Fish Market at the traffic lights. Rental bicycles are ranked untidily outside ready for people to scan the codes on their mobiles and ride away if they want to.

But as I was walking through the parking lot yesterday there was a Muslim family walking into the Fish Market. They may have just found a parking spot in the carpark beneath the access ramp leading from the road to the bridge. The excitement of successfully securing a rare parking spot, I imagined, had infected their conversation, just as much as had the anticipation of eating appetising food.

The men with fat wallets wore long trousers and short-sleaved shirts and the women had on their hijabs modestly covering their hair, and long skirts. A little girl aged about 10 with long brown hair walked along in a long pink dress with a colourful print on it. The men were talking volubly in a shared language as they walked along on the pavement and the extended family was fully enjoying a day out and a special treat. If anything you could imagine represented modernity, I thought, looking back to Australia Day, which had just passed, this intimate domestic scene must surely register as the very epitome of what is normal now.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Movie review: Sweet Country, dir Warwick Thornton (2017)

I saw this movie on Australia Day which is apposite considering its subject matter. It is a film about the frontier in the 1920s in the wake of WWI and it’s hard to say it – especially because of how the public sphere has become so highly polarised in recent years – but it is only partly successful.

Bear with me if you are liable to disagree with this judgement because I am writing from a position that is fundamentally in tune with the filmmaker’s objectives, but there are some basic problems that stem from the writing on which the film relies. The execution is marvellous, the outback glows with a luminescence that it rarely possesses outside the limited but well-resourced confines of paid advertisements, but some of the characterisation suffers from a narrow view of the truth that owes more to the modern-day history wars than to history itself.

The film starts when Harry March (Ewen Leslie) turns up in the community one day as the owner of an established property. He is a firecracker, a survivor of WWI who suffers from PTSD and exhibits some bizarre behaviours. Harry asks Fred Smith (Sam Neill) if he can loan his station hand (his “black”) Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) for a few days to do some work on his run. Sam Kelly goes to the run with his wife and his niece and helps with some chores. His wife and niece meanwhile do some housework. Harry rapes Sam Kelly’s wife Nell (Anni Finsterer) and peremptorily tells him to get off his property.

The strangeness distorting the outlines of Harry’s character is compounded when he goes to visit Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) on another neighbouring property and again asks if he can borrow a “black” to do some work on his run. Kennedy assents and sends Archie (Gibson John) and Philomac (played by twins Tremayne Doolan and Trevon Doolan). But Harry chains up Philomac, who escapes and absconds, heading to Fred Smith’s property. Harry follows, threatens Sam Kelly with his gun and is shot and dies.

The weird behaviour of Harry March is unsettling enough but Mick Kennedy also displays strange behaviour, throwing belligerent curses at Archie and constantly threatening Philomac with physical violence. This is a dangerous way to conduct yourself in a place and at a time when revenge can be covered up by a thousand casual accidents of fortune. The subtle relations that thrived between whites and blacks on the frontier are cravenly and disastrously distorted as the filmmakers try to gain purchase within the minds of their audience in order to score their points. It’s all terribly skewed. Face-to-face relations between white and black were far more equal on the frontier, where every man relied on his neighbour, regardless of the colour of his skin and regardless of the law’s unnatural strictures. Kennedy’s behaviour especially was a thing that made me very suspicious of the filmmakers’ motivations. He does not develop as a character either.

The twin evils of simplification and thin characterisation are amplified when you get to town. When the magistrate, Judge Taylor (Matt Day), gives his verdict in the case against Sam Kelly, the nondescript rabble of townsfolk physically encroach upon the perimeter of the courthouse – which the filmmakers chose to locate in the dirt immediately outside the town’s hotel – in a threatening manner in a way that is completely ahistorical at a time when the power of the crown was pervasive. Murmurs of shock? Yes. Threat of physical harm against a magistrate? Hardly likely. In fact, even having the court take place within the confines of the outback town is hard to credit given the context; in such a case, we know from the records, the case would likely have been held in Adelaide, the closest major population centre to the town of Alice Springs, in the environs of which the story unfolds.

The cinematography is outstanding on the other hand, and the scenes in the court where Judge Taylor questions Sam Kelly are laden with secondary signification, especially when the camera cuts to a tableau of watching Aborigines. It is their future as much as Sam Kelly’s that is being decided in the case, the cinematography implies wordlessly. What do the flint-edged words of the magistrate mean to people who were still classified as fauna, and not even as individuals with individuals’ rights? The state has a lot to answer for, it cannot be denied.

Making Fred Smith a wowser is a bit daft however. This character doesn’t need to be a devout Christian to be a champion of the rights of the Aborigines whose good offices he relies on for his living. Sam Kelly’s niece Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) develops more satisfactorily as a character even though, as in the case of Nell, she is almost mute. But as in the 2009 film that preceded this one by Thornton, ‘Samson & Delilah’, drawing stellar performances out of actors whose verbal delivery is exceptionally limited is a specialty of this director.

Another character who succeeds in convincing the viewer is the girlfriend of Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), whose name does not appear in the casting list online. She works in the town’s hotel and is also almost completely mute. Her role is to give some depth to a character – Fletcher – who nevertheless remains two-dimensional in the unsatisfactory and excessively binary duel between good and evil the film ultimately serves to offer up to the viewer. Although Morris’s performance is splendid, the European side in the clash is generally not well-crafted and so the film as a whole suffers from political correctness at the expense of the truth.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Book review: The Art of Time Travel, Tom Griffiths (2016)

This book is published by Black Inc, property developer Morry Schwartz’s Melbourne publishing outfit, which also brings us ‘The Monthly’ and ‘The Saturday Paper’, and a lot of the historians it singles out for discussion are from the southern capital. I used to read ‘The Monthly’ but I found that it relies unwontedly on a stale stable of local contributors. I got a bit fed up with it because it is so Melbourne-centric and I haven’t read it for years now. For the record: I was born in Melbourne but grew up in Sydney.

In a real sense Griffiths’ book chronicles a true renaissance in history writing in Australia that was part of the post-war counter-culture that controversial historian Geoffrey Blainey – who appears in the book – so decried. This phenomenon embodies a coming-of-age for antipodean historical scholarship that should make Clio herself flush with pride, to grab a trope from another era altogether.

The book is also something like a memoir as it ropes in dozens of people Griffiths has known personally who have written about history in the years since the war, a time when Australian universities burgeoned to service a national economic boom that also impacted on the health of the professions.

One drawback in the book is the appearance there of highly-Latinate language. This form of verbalising is often the resort of writers in the social sciences looking to create about themselves an aura of authority, to claim the title of “science” rather than that of the less-respectable “humanities”. You find it in disciplines that lie on the margins between the sciences and the arts. When I was studying media practice I found it to be an absolutely crippling defect in a book on PR theory.

It comes about, for example, in such things as the use of “express” instead of “say”, “arrive” instead of “come”, “desire” instead of “need”, “obtain” instead of “get” and “occasionally” instead of “sometimes”. The plain, Germanic word is in all cases to be preferred over the ornate and elitist Latinate word, but it is to be regretted that from time to time Griffiths unnecessarily falls prey to this vocabularic distemper in the book. Excessively-Latinate language makes for unpleasant reading as it means the text lacks the solid, dependable cognitive hooks that Germanic words provide, and your eye tends to skid across the surface of it, searching for purchase.

At other times, Griffiths shows himself to be adroit at understanding complex words that usually lie within the ambit of literary studies. His definition of “myth” as a place where the past inhabits the present, is a notable case of an evident mental flexibility. There are plenty of places in the book where the author shows himself to be as able to write on the shortcomings, say, of Kate Grenville’s novel ‘The Secret River’ (2005) as on the strengths of Inga Clendinnen’s response to it, ‘The History Question’ (2006).

For people wanting a quick guide to the changes in the study of history in Australia since the war, this is the place to go. For myself, I shall be looking in more detail at the works of Graeme Davison, who wrote about modernity in urban Australia, for a book I have sketched out in my head on brutalist architecture.

People like Davison who write historical works – just like the novelist Eleanor Dark and the poet Judith Wright did in the past – are part of a valuable cohort of people in the community who can speak with authority on subjects that have a material relevance for ordinary people. Our shared conversations about history guide us in the present and help us to understand who we are. They form part of the superstructure of our civic life.

And although Griffiths points to the emergence of postmodernism in the 70s and 80s, he is wise to avoid using the terminology it usually comes couched in, because to the average reader it is incomprehensible. I tried, for example, to read McKenzie Wark’s ‘General Intellects’ (2017) hoping to learn something new from people who have written with originality on the world in recent years, but even the introduction to the work was quite beyond my abilities. It was the same problem I had with the history of the Frankfurt School I reviewed this month, ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ (2016). Technical terminology – otherwise known as jargon – has a place in the broader public sphere only if it can be translated for convenience into regular language of a type that anyone can understand.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Book review: The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (2009)

This historical fantasy is ultimately pessimistic, layering events from the first part of the twentieth century upon those of the years after 2001, when truth died again in America. The country never learns, it seems.

The novel assumes a bulbous shape with years of hope and prosperity in the middle preceded by years of dearth and uncertainty and followed by years that are seriously blighted by the McCarthyist purges of the 1950s. The plot is rambling and a lot of fun.

Young Harrison Shepherd’s mother is Mexican and they live in that country having left his father, an American government employee, in Washington, DC. They end up in a house owned by a distant patriarch who cares little for the boy, who ends up in a second-rate Mexico City school before being saved from penury at least when he is taken into the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the famous painters. Shepherd’s life takes another turn when Kahlo sends him to the US as the person in charge of paintings she has sent for an exhibition she would hold there. He then secures employment with the US government as a curator of art, and ends up in Asheville, North Carolina, where he starts writing the novels that will make him famous.

Here, in Kingsolver’s spiritual heartland, Shepherd meets Violet Brown, a discreet widow with a healthy interest in the wide world. She’s just a generation out of the “hells”, the thickly-forested slopes and gullies of the Appalachian Mountains, and is a soul who has been saved from obscurity and the drudgery of a life of endless childbirth by her thirst for knowledge, much like Kingsolver’s heroine in 2012’s ‘Flight Behavior’, Dellarobia Turnbow (which was reviewed on this blog in March 2016).

Here is another strong, lettered Southern woman. Brown is Shepherd’s secretary and she takes a fateful decision when she promises to burn Shepherd’s notebooks at a critical point in the story then breaks that promise, and secretes the volumes away in a cupboard.

Reading this book, you can see how, in 2009, in the aftermath of the Twin Towers and the decision to invade Iraq, Kingsolver might turn to history to critique the imperfect present. For many, it was an easy message to sell by then. The wonder however is that Kingsolver is not better-known, despite having won prizes in the past.

In this novel the media come out looking particularly bad, and it’s no wonder when you think of their servile role between 2001 and 2003, following America’s leadership into war. In Mexico in the lead-up to the murder of Leon Trotsky by the Soviet’s GPU (the State Political Directorate) in 1940 the country’s media were blindly parroting a line that followed the Communist Party’s line on Trotsky, who Stalin wanted dead at any cost. (The media in the US doesn’t come out looking much better, and its productions have a lacklustre relationship with the truth when Kingsolver turns her gaze to focus on the Bonus Army massacre of 1932.)

Shepherd was part of Trotsky’s household, having migrated to a role as secretary there from a post as a cook and mixer of the clay-based stucco Rivera used in his murals, in the household of Rivera and Kahlo. He never truly recovered from the trauma of the assassination, and it troubled him even in his rural seclusion in North Carolina.

As well as his evident PTSD, the novel also ponders Shepherd’s homosexuality. In the years of his success as a novelist his old friend Tom Cuddy seeks to rekindle an earlier romance but once the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) starts its investigations Cuddy rejects his former friend and sexual partner. Cuddy ends up in the book as an advertising executive in a new, postwar America where radio is being replaced by TV.

Brown’s loyalty is the thing that underpins these later pages, just as that of Kahlo had been the thing that kept Shepherd out of trouble in the early years when he was a young man. The “lacuna” of the title is a submerged natural hole leading to a cave he had explored as a boy diving in the bay where his mother’s lover had his villa. The word is also attached to the lost diaries, one of which Shepherd had notably burnt himself: that one about schoolboy indiscretions at a college in the Washington, DC. The diving hole re-enters the story in the final pages to close the loop. The diaries are the book we get to read.

Kingsolver in this novel again demonstrates an ear deftly attuned to dialogue, and an eye equally accurate in its depictions of the truth. The book is made up of a collage of disparate elements stitched together to form a whole, including letters, newspaper articles, and diary entries. There is even a HUAC transcript just before Shepherd returns to Mexico. The author’s ability to change her style to match the tone required for each of these documents, is uncanny. Her timing is equally adroit as she forms a story that shifts to fit the plot at just the right moments.

It’s just unfortunate she felt so disappointed in her country at the end, where you are left feeling trapped by a narrative determined to bring about the kind of separation that you usually avoid in novels. You hardly go to this form of writing to uncover reciprocal feelings of disappointment. You want to feel attached to things, to belong to a larger reality.

The poetry embodied in the novel’s finality is also somewhat negated by the difficulties she puts in the way of her hero finding a way to live profitably as a writer in Mexico. You wonder how differently the story might have worked out if Shepherd had simply moved south of the border and set up a new household there dedicated to bringing out books for a local audience.

Kingsolver describes Shepherd’s attachment to the US as a place of “hope” in contrast to the unpromising view facing the young writer with the prospect of making a living in Mexico, where he had grown up and where the idea of being a novelist had never really occurred to him. He complains to Brown that he can only write in English. It’s hard to keep up the ruse, but the author’s determination to do so makes you think that she wants to make America look special.

There is therefore an element of nationalistic exceptionalism that creeps in at different points to militate against the novel’s ultimate purpose: to critique the xenophobic impulses that animate the US at critical junctures in its history. But it’s not consciously done, I think. She really does believe that America offers special favours to the elect: people like Shepherd and Brown who embrace the positivist modernity it somehow exemplifies despite the unpromising realities of life lived in the Bible Belt.

Beyond that shortcoming, it’s as though Kingsolver short-circuits the narrative in order to put Shepherd where she can more reliably describe his lived experience: in America’s heartland in the South of Kingsolver’s own childhood. But unlike in the case of the 2012 novel already mentioned, it’s not so much here the American South that Kingsolver is ultimately writing about, it’s a global, progressive-minded community that interests her, one that people living in any country can belong to equally as much as New Yorkers or residents of San Francisco. It is germane here to point to the call of a better life that was offered to workers all over the world along with the promises set forth in the October Revolution.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

New Year’s revolutions

This morning I got notification from Facebook via a suggested post dated 20 January 2014 that told me that with a friend I had started the ‘Book Chat’ series of podcasts on that day, and at Twitter they told me that it was the anniversary of my joining their site. They made a tweet (“Do you remember when you joined Twitter? I do! #MyTwitterAnniversary”) for me to use that had a graphic on it with the figure “9”.

I remembered joining Twitter originally with a different name because a friend had suggested joining it to me. My current Twitter handle came later. But there were other things that had happened at this time of year, as well, I remembered. I had started this blog on 22 January 2006 at the same time I applied to study media in a postgraduate degree at the University of Sydney. I had just bought my new apartment in Campsie (December 2005) and I had had my employment status with the University of Sydney upgraded.

A lot of the poetry I wrote in the years 2013 and 2014 was written in the summer, as well. There was for example the sequence ‘Water Creature’ that started on Australia Day 2013 when Tropical Cyclone Oswald slowly tracked down the coast from Cape York to northern NSW. This sonnet in it, ‘An Australia Day welcome to new arrivals’, was written on 26 January of that year:
It’s when I hear you speak of what is fair –
who was born far from here – I intuit
your displeasure: our country might better
harness your talents because it’s merit 
and not who you know that would count for more.
Tales about bad officials on the take
draw your fierce integrity to the fore
for the polity’s health is yours to make. 
It’s you and the ones like you who define
perfectly the extent of what is good,
and your dreams alone are what justify
pride in guessing where our forefathers stood. 
As the ocean roars, the rain’s airy spires
abate the authority of bushfires.
Lots of big things have happened at this time of year, it turns out, even though I usually decline when it’s offered to me to settle on a New Year’s resolution. It turns out they are more like revolutions!

Friday, 19 January 2018

Book review: The First Casualty, Peter Greste (2017)

The old saw goes that the first casualty of war is the truth and Greste – the Australian journalist who spent 400 days in a series of Egyptian jails after being charged with and convicted of aiding terrorists because he interviewed people associated with the Muslim Brotherhood – twists it slightly to claim that the first casualty of the so-called War on Terror has been journalism. Or, more exactly, objective journalism of the kind that is so difficult to produce.

The narrative that deals with his stay in Egypt – he had only just arrived there in 2014 to take up a job with Al Jazeera English – is interleaved with a series of meditations on the state of the craft. He starts by looking at his own experience back in Afghanistan in 1995 when he was covering the war there for the BBC and the Taliban entered the fray. He shows how their entry into the war made life more dangerous for journalists, as they had no tolerance for such things as objectivity and merely wanted someone to parrot their collective line in the international public sphere.

When he starts talking about more recent events, such as the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre, these sketches become slightly tendentious as he is dealing with material that has been covered in detail elsewhere, but you assume that he is writing for posterity as much as for existing audiences, and you just skip the parts you don’t need to read. A similar thing happens when he starts talking about Donald Trump’s attacks on the media.

His descriptions of the ways that governments of both colours in Australia have passed laws in Parliament that make life more difficult for journalists is rewarding, and his expertise in such matters were no doubt part of the reason Greste was chosen this week by the University of Queensland School of Communications and Arts to be their UNESCO chair of journalism and communication.

Trump’s dealings with the media, he thinks, are particularly troubling as they provide unscrupulous leaders in other parts of the world with a license to persecute this critical segment of their countries’ communities. Journalists serve an essential purpose in the conduct of democracy, which is no doubt why, for example, Australian James Ricketson is still under arrest in Cambodia for doing journalism that clashes with the dynastic impulses of the country’s corrupt leader, Hun Sen.

The story of Greste’s incarceration itself is of especial interest, even to those who experience loneliness in a free country and who are looking for tips on how to deal with it. Being shut away in a small space for weeks on end, Greste developed a routine including exercise and meditation that allowed him to unshackle his mind from the depressing tracks it might otherwise have been left to follow in its default mode. He experienced panic attacks on occasion when the pressure became too much and the idea of spending years inside loomed large.

This is also a good book to read to understand how the Middle East has changed since the rise of radical Islamic terror, and it offers insights that are otherwise unavailable elsewhere in the public sphere. Greste is focused mainly on facts but does include passages where he teases out the meanings of things that happened to him and where he talks about his feelings they are particularly rewarding.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Brutalism fourteen: Labor Council of New South Wales

This is the 14th in a series of blogposts about brutalist buildings in Sydney. The building is still used for union offices as well as being the headquarters for the NSW branch of the ALP.

In Australian politics “Sussex Street” is a highly loaded term, being as it is where the NSW headquarters of the Australian Labor Party is located. It stands for a certain type of institutionalised power that is the machinery of the centre-left of politics in the nation’s most populous state. Precisely, the NSW ALP HQ is located on level nine of this building, just around the corner from the Trades Hall, for which the foundation stone had been laid in 1888.

A development application (DA) was received by the city council for the new building on 9 December 1966, and the relevant minute paper from the acting city building surveyor notes that on the site at the time there were two buildings.

One was described in the document as 377-379 Sussex Street, which is marked down as a three-storey structure that had been used as a warehouse and was owned by retailer GJ Coles, but was now in the process of being demolished. There was also at 381-383 Sussex Street a two-storey structure that had been used as warehouse but was now in the process of being demolished, and that had been owned by J.B. Morris and L.H. Cox.


Above: The site plan drawing in the DA file. It erroneously shows that two buildings were demolished to make way for the new building. The Trades Hall, which was constructed in the late 19th century, is shown in blue in this drawing. I wrote briefly about this building in early December.

But there is another document, this time in the DA file, that shows other details. This document says that there was a building at 377 Sussex Street that was a four-storey building used as a wine and spirit warehouse. At 379 Sussex Street there was a five-storey building. At 381 Sussex Street there was a two-storey building. And at 383 Sussex Street there was a three-storey building used as a wholesale grocery warehouse. The drawing below shows the four lots marked out in this architect’s plan.


The lord mayor’s approval was given to the plan with the proviso that pedestrian access be provided by an arcade connecting the new building with the 19th-century Trades Hall behind it on Dixon Street. The city council had resolved on 24 May 1965 in respect of 381-383 Sussex Street only that consent be given to the application submitted by the Labor Council of New South Wales on behalf of J.B. Morris and L.H. Cox for permission to erect on the site a building comprising a basement and eleven upper floors, including parking for four cars. The consent was for a building to be used “as a licensed club and as associated offices”, meeting rooms, storerooms, and for residential purposes.

The site seems to have been enlarged later, as shown in the above drawing, when a larger block of land that had been occupied by two other buildings located immediately to the north of the site was added to it. 

A DA form that was filled out and dated 1 December 1965 shows that all four properties were now included in the plan and that parking for 25 cars was planned for the basement. The estimated cost of the new building was $1,750,000. The architects were Brewster, Murray & Partners of 165 Walker Street, North Sydney. Harvey H. Brown & Associates of 2 O’Connell Street were the structural engineers. Mechanical Contractors Pty Ltd were the mechanical engineers. James Wallace Pty Ltd of 89 Berry Street, North Sydney, were the builders.


The above drawing in the DA file shows the site for the new building, as well as the “hotel” at the corner on Goulburn Street, which is now a convenience store.

The new building would have approximately 8000 square feet (743.2 square metres) of area per floor. According to CityScope, the city reference book published by RP Data, the building has 10,200 square metres of gross floor area.

The builders requested an extension of the time of the building approval from the city council of 12 months on 28 December 1968.

There is a minute in the building application file by the city planner addressed to the city health officer dated 9 June 1972 requesting a further check to the mechanical ventilation system for the new building. It appears the building had been completed in 1971.


Above: The ground floor plan drawn up by the architects. The driveway would end up being at the other side of the site, to the north (right-hand side of this image), coming off Sussex Street.


Above: A typical floor plan of the building in this architect’s drawing.


Above: The floor eleven plan, showing the flat roofed area on the Sussex Street side of the building.


Above: The passageway going into the Trades Hall building is shown at the rear of the ground floor in this drawing. The connection to the Trades Hall was completely refashioned in 2005 when a central courtyard was constructed with a separate high-rise building providing additional office space (as we will see in a later photograph).


Above: This drawing of the original building has Sussex Street at the left-hand side.


Above: This architect’s view of the Sussex Street frontage of the new building shows that at the time Sussex Street was one-way northbound, whereas nowadays it is one-way southbound.


Above: A plan from the city archives shows the final eastern elevation of the new building, as built. This drawing shows the heights of the buildings on either side of it at the time. The little pub to the left, on the corner of Goulburn Street, is still there, although it’s a convenience store now.


Above: The imposing Sussex Street frontage of the building in Chinatown.


Above: The central courtyard that was constructed in 2005, with (at right) a new structure built at that time providing additional office space. The 19th century Trades Hall building is at the left in this photo.


Above: The 19th-century brickwork is exposed in the central courtyard, where people can have a coffee from the little café concession that is located there.


Above: The superstructure of the 2005 construction is visible at the right-hand side in this photo of the courtyard connecting the Sussex Street building with the Trades Hall building at the back of the block.

As well as commercial tenants and the Australian Labor Party, the building at 377-383 Sussex Street also houses the Australian Maritime Officers Union, the Funeral Union of NSW, the National Union of Workers, the Australian Workers Union, and The McKell Institute (a progressive think-tank). The building is owned by Unions NSW (which is the branding the Labor Council of NSW uses) and was refurbished in 1994.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

TV show stirs up hornet’s nest of feelings in the community

It had been going for some days but I decided to chronicle the story this morning. At 8.58am this morning, Jo White (@mediamum who has a PhD in human computer interaction from the University of Colorado, Boulder) tweeted: “This is the most disturbing thing I've seen today. Right wing ‘activists’ meeting and then promising to use social media to get other people (not police) to respond to ‘incidents’ referred to as an ‘African youth crime crisis’ - terminology created and perpetuated by media.” Her tweet quote-tweeted a tweet from Australia’s Channel Seven that had gone up at 6.03pm on Sunday 14 January:
7 News reporter @jodilee_7 has been granted exclusive access to a secret meeting organised by right wing activists in response to Melbourne's African youth crime crisis. #7News
The Channel Seven tweet had a video with it showing a TV segment that screened on that Sunday with reporter Jodi Lee describing a meeting by neo-Nazi groups that took place at a meeting place belonging to the United Patriots Front (UPF). The meeting had been called to discuss the issue of African gang violence in Melbourne that the conservative government had raised in the media two weeks ago. At that time, the prime minister had spoken publicly about the issue, as had the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton.


Men from different groups spoke to Channel Seven’s camera, including men from the UPF and the True Blue Crew. Lee reported that the men “are hoping to create a kind of Neighbourhood Watch” using social media “that will quickly let people know when an incident, a robbery, an attack in fact is occurring and hopefully send locals there to help protect residents”.

The original comments that had been made during the quiet Christmas period by conservative politicians eager to attack the Labor state government of Daniel Andrews, were bad enough. They had spawned, for example, the retaliatory #melbournebitesback hashtag on Twitter which people in the city used to post pictures of African food they had gone out to eat. Dutton had said that people in the city were too afraid to go out at night to eat at restaurants.

Then Channel Seven, eager to capitalise on the popularity of the subject, spruiked its “exclusive” story featuring members of white supremacist groups – what it called “right wing activists” – and Twitter once again went into overdrive, with people on the left attacking the TV station and tweeting to advertisers of the Australian Open tennis competition, which Channel Seven carried, saying that they would be boycotted.

There were plenty of examples of this on Twitter even two days after the Channel Seven story went to air. At around 8.45am on Tuesday 16 January, retired journalist Mike Carlton retweeted an image of a tweet by UPF activist Blair Cottrell, adding: ”Me oh my. Here’s @7NewsMelbourne’s ‘right wing activist.’” Blair’s tweet contained a survey on Twitter that questioned the media’s role in society. “What action should a government take to ensure fairer, more honest reporting from mainstream media journalists?” The most common response was “Execute the leftists” (see below).


Just after 9am on 16 January, Melbourne man Tim Politi retweeted a tweet that had gone up on 15 January from @2FBS:
Righto @Channel7 you promoted Hanson and now you are normalising Hate Groups. I am done. Any advertiser on 7 now joins by product banned list. Where possible I will not purchase your product. It is the only way I have of registering my disgust and Seven's blatant racism.
Sydney woman Joan Evatt retweeted a tweet at around the same time from Australian woman Melanie Coutts:
Hi @Coles We buy all our groceries from you. Now that money went to #channel7 glorifying nazis [sic], it looks like we're shopping elsewhere
At around the same time, Perth man Daniel Dowling retweeted a tweet that had gone up at 9.58am on 15 January from Richard Cooke, contributing editor for The Monthly magazine, that said, “Funny how endorsing Nazism is rarely seen as disrespecting the diggers who fought it.” There were 37 replies to this tweet, as well as 938 retweets and 1999 likes.

At #melbournebitesback, the hashtag set up in the wake of the original stories about politicians complaining about African gangs, @thealien_earth retweeted a tweet at around 9.37am on 16 January that had gone up at 7.55pm on 3 January from Netherlands-based woman @Lilly_learns, who is a slam poet and MA student, that said: 
Some facts: Research found that it’s actually African youth in West Melb. that are subjected to unwarranted harassment and racially profiled by the police. Maybe @PeterDutton_MP might try being informed by evidence?
The tweet contained a link to a PDF on the website http://www.westjustice.org.au that contained a 2009 report written by Bec Smith and Shane Reshide. In the executive summary, the authors note: “This report examines African young people’s experiences of policing practices across three regions of Melbourne: the City of Greater Dandenong, Flemington and Braybrook.”
African young people are over-policed in the regions of the study. This overpolicing is racialised. 
Police enforce particular notions of acceptable usage of public space. This results in police-youth conflict. 
Routine police harassment of African young people as well as police violence is either under-reported to the relevant oversight bodies, or these bodies are not adequately investigating these incidents, or both.
There were tweets as well from the extreme left-hand side of the highly polarised social graph the story provoked. @WittaTwitta from the Sunshine Coast had tweeted at 1.28pm on 15 January:
If people opposed to @Channel7 promoting 'exclusive' interviews with #neoNazis are prepared to monitor companies advertising on @Channel7 shows. Take notes and name them here until they withdraw their [money emoji] from @Channel7. #Boycotting is the next move. @Channel7 trashTV [shit and TV emojis]
The tweet was retweeted by @LadyPoop2 ataround 9.58am on the #auspol hashtag. And at 12.15pm on 15 January, @GeorgeBludger had tweeted: “For all your sevenazi news, nightly on @7NewsMelbourne.” The tweet came with an image:


The tweet was retweeted by Marion Groves, a Melbourne-based independent technical, academic and general editor, at 10.02am on 16 January.

At 12.49pm @redspactakells retweeted a tweet put up by @mnxmoosi at 2.15pm on 15 January that said: “Who inside @7NewsMelbourne is authorising this white nationalist recruitment drive? Because make no mistake, that's exactly what this is.” This tweet retweeted a tweet by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, saying, “.@jodilee_7 plus this. these aren't just your regular NIMBYs. these [are] white nationalists with a penchant for violence.” This tweet also contained an image from the Channel Seven TV segment attached to a tweet as an image from Antifascist Action Brisbane.

At 1.10pm on 16 January Melanie Coutts tweeted: “#Channel7 News boss defends neo-Nazi interview as 'newsworthy'.” The tweet came with a link to a story dated 16 January on Australian news outlet Crikey that said, “Seven News Melbourne’s news director Simon Pristel has defended a story and interview with neo-Nazi Blair Cottrell.” But the story also noted that the original tweet by journalist Jodi Lee had been deleted. Pristel defended the TV station, telling Fairfax Media that the story was “newsworthy”. 

Crikey journalist Emily Watkins wrote that the original report didn’t include any information about Cottrell’s criminal convictions. The story linked to a story on the website of Fairfax’s The Age that noted that, “Channel Seven has copped intense backlash after interviewing a convicted racist and arsonist for his thoughts on Victoria's so-called African gangs crisis.”

The Age story noted that Cottrell had spent time in prison for property damage, and that he had been “one of the first Victorians to be convicted under the state's new racial vilification laws”. The story linked to an earlier story in the newspaper dated 5 September 2017 that began:
Three far-right activists who staged a mock beheading in protest at plans to build a mosque have been found guilty, convicted and fined for a criminal offence under Victoria's racial vilification laws.
Crikey’s politics editor Bernard Keane weighed in on the subject on 16 January also, noting that the Channel Seven story had spawned another hashtag on Twitter (#7summerofnazis) that he said trended heavily. Keane also noted in his story that ASIO head Duncan Lewis was aware of the threat of violence from right-wing groups in the community. “Lewis’ remarks were directed at another neo-Nazi group, Reclaim Australia. But it is understood that UPF is on the radar police and intelligence agencies.”

Monday, 15 January 2018

Book review: Lost Connections, Johann Hari (2018)

This book claims novelty for its raison d’etre, and is optimistically subtitled ‘Uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions’ but sometimes the journalist’s technique falls down. Hari himself was diagnosed with depression when he was younger, so he approaches his subject from a position of knowledge born of experience.

He’ll be talking about a scientific study that has occupied his attention for a while by referring to the study’s author – for example, “Marc” – by his or her first name. However, by the time you get to this point in the narrative you’ve forgotten why the study had been undertaken, where it was done, and who performed it. The context has vanished and you feel for a moment you have been set adrift, until you decide to ignore the lapse in concentration the ellipsis inspires, and forge on regardless. This happens periodically even though at other times in the narrative Hari might go out of his way to reacclimatise you with the context of a study that had been discussed much earlier.

It’s not a devastating shortcoming, though, and in general the claims the book makes – which have a decidedly punk cast – are sensible. We live in a highly atomised society with junk values inspired by unbridled capitalism and a lot of the work people spend most of their time doing in order to earn a living, is deeply unfulfilling. Taking the classical punk complaint a step further and linking it with the increase in the incidence of a common mental illness is innovative.

In large part, Hari backs up his claims by quoting scientific studies. He travels – he says – 40,000 miles talking with people all over the world on his quest for the truth about the link between the malaise of contemporary society and the clinical illness of depression. He touches on such disparate things as meditation, studies involving the use of psychedelics, the universal basic income, street activism, and participatory democracy in the workplace (the cooperative model of organisations) in an effort to encourage the reader to find a better way to structure society, because while the book is not overtly didactic it is nothing if not ambitious.

I have to admit that the case is well made, especially the sections that deal with the participatory systems different people have developed at different times to deal with different circumstances. For example, where he describes the activities of a group of Berlin residents who protest against rising rents in their neighbourhood, the book reads like one of the later novels of Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese writer. Oe chronicles the activities of groups of people who move together – not always entirely without conflict – toward a shared goal. The way the individual is tolerated in such contexts can be enlightening. Elsewhere, he talks about how Asian societies do community participation better than we do it in the atomised West.

The book does on the other hand tend to be a little drawn out at the end – I would have cut a good dozen pages from this part of the book, where he reprises his main arguments as though his readers were all thoughtless children who need to be told everything twice lest they miss a point that has already been made.

Hari admits that he is particularly fortunate to be able to do the work he does – journalism is an elite practice, and one that is reserved only for the select few – but he hopes, you sense, that the issues that he has raised will be taken up by others in an effort to bring about the kind of broad political, social and economic changes that might enable people to reorient their relations with the outside world in ways that will result in fewer people being prescribed antidepressants. We need to work out how to structure society so that everyone benefits, not just the senior managers and shareholders of large pharmaceutical companies.

It’s a worthwhile goal for all of us, and one notable thing he points out in the book is that we all have one thing in common: we crave community as much as we crave control over our lives. The atomised version of modernity we currently inhabit is bad for our health, and we need to be part of larger undertakings in order to be able to find the fulfillment our humanity makes us desire. Fulfillment we otherwise might seek through the mere consumption of perishable and transitory physical objects.

In a way, though, Hari is a little pessimistic. The emphasis in that sentence should be on the word “might”. Most people already have communities of support that they resort to for the psychosocial sustenance they need, including workplaces, classrooms, hobbies, sports, churches, art, clubs, friends and family. It’s not all gambling machines and Nike sneakers. And you tend to have the kinds of purely material ambitions he describes less and less the older you grow. We do now also have the boon of social media – which he tends to disparage as a negative influence – where we can find community.

Another shortcoming with the ideas book propounds is the fact that people who freely exercise their critical faculties will always tend to find it hard to subsume their egos within the confines of a narrative whose only saving grace is that it is shared by a group of people. Such as journalists. We pay such people good money so that they will use their critical faculties to investigate society with an end of finding better solutions to common problems. Perhaps this is why Hari found social media disappointing: he’s just not naturally a joiner. But in the individualistic West we tend for good reason to privilege the ideas of the innovator over those of the run-of-the-mill. Asian societies are notably bad at tolerating difference.

Overall this is a debate that a lot of people will have been waiting decades for society to sit down and have with itself. Let’s hope others pick up some of the threads he lays down, and use them to form their own stories.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

A brief springtime of militant unionism that put a brake on unbridled development

In December I reviewed the book Meredith Burgmann wrote with her sister Verity, ‘Green Bans Red Union,’ about the activities of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation in the late-60s and early-70s. The book had come out in a second edition in 2017. But I had some questions arising from my reading of it, so I organised to interview the author, who kindly invited me to her home. This interview also touches on questions deriving from my research into Sydney brutalist buildings, which often relates to the same epoch Meredith Burgmann’s book deals with.

MdS: Ok, [the voice recorder is] running. So just to recap a little bit about the book, you wrote this book as a PhD dissertation but how did you originally get involved with the BLF?

Well I became involved because I’d been very involved with the anti-Vietnam stuff and that had led into the anti-Apartheid activity in the very early 70s and late 60s. So, I already knew Jack [Mundey] and Joe [Owens] and Bob [Pringle] and Tom Hogan and Tony Hatfield and people like that, the leadership of the Builders Labourers. And as you know Glebe was going to be trifurcated, there was going to be two big expressways coming through Glebe and I lived down in Darghan Street, Glebe, which would have been totally in the way of it all. Funnily enough that wasn’t really the main reason I got involved, although I was obviously involved with the anti-expressway campaign with other Glebe residents. And even in the founding of the Glebe Society.

But really my attachment to the Builders Labourers was I could see what they were doing and how important it was. And it wasn’t just their action on the environment, it was their action on women, on the rights of gays and lesbians, very much Aboriginal land rights stuff. And a lot of the left in Sydney sort of moved on naturally to supporting the Builders Labourers because the activity around Vietnam – once Australia had removed the troops and things – that sort of tailed off. So it was sort of a natural fit if you were interested in radical activity, to be supportive of the Builders Labourers. And once I got involved with them, I became interested in what wasn’t at all trendy then, which was preservation of … Environmentalism around buildings and public space.

MdS: Heritage.

Yeah. Well not even just heritage. Around town planning sort of issues, too, and liveability.

MdS: Amenity.

Yeah. Heritage of course was terribly important, but it was a lot about what was happening which was cleaning the working class out of the inner city. (Might I say it was something we failed in, to stop that.) So, I became interested in those issues for the first time. I hadn’t really even thought about [them]. Because in the late 60s we didn’t talk about environmentalism, we talked about “ecology”, and ecology really meant saving forests and rivers, it really meant “nature”. And I remember when I first met Jack [Mundey], him quizzing me about, “Oh, do you support the nature people?” or something, because he already saw that important distinction between [on the one hand] what would be a traditional Greens point of view and [on the other hand] the idea of defending public space and defending liveable lifestyles and things, which is now very much the fight in the inner city, [where] it’s all about overdevelopment and things [like that]. So I just became very interested in that and I ended up with all the Builders Labourers archives in my house.

MdS: Yes, how did that happen?

Well, they were given 24 hours to vacate the premises.

MdS: At Trades Hall?

[They were in Trades Hall room 33. Federal BLF secretary Norm] Gallagher was coming in and he was going to take over all their records and everything, and would have totally rewritten history. So they really had 24 hours. So half of the records ended up in my front room, which was quite a little front room, smaller than this [pointing to the room in which we sat for the interview]. And I had boxes of them in my front room for some years. And the other half ended up in the basement of the Sussex Hotel and the publican there was a lovely woman called Stella, who said that was alright. So when I did eventually go and retrieve the other half of the archives they had sort of beer and stuff [on them], they weren’t in very good condition. So eventually I ended up with all the archives.

I was originally doing my PhD in a foreign policy area, it was on Indonesian-Australian relations, because my masters had been in foreign policy. And it was my boss, Don Aitken, who suggested to me I really should do the Builders Labourers. It had never occurred to me to do the Builders Labourers. But he said, “Look, you’ve got all the archives, you knew what they were about and everything,” and so that was when I changed and started to do the Builders Labourers. And I’m very glad he advised me to change.

MdS: It was very foresightful.

Yes. And I think I’d not done it simply because it was all too emotionally raw for me, I was still so angry with the fact that the Stalinists and the Maoists had combined to do over the independent Communist Party grouping in the Builders Labourers. And yeah, so that’s how it happened. And after I finished with the archives, most of them I gave to the Noel Butlin Archives [Centre at ANU] in Canberra, which is – I think its proper name is the Labour and Industry Archives, or something. It’s the appropriate place for them to be, although Joe Owens’ papers I think are in [the] Mitchell [Library in Sydney]. I don’t know where Jack’s putting his. But I’ve still got a lot of the important stuff, which I will eventually properly catalogue and get down to Noel Butlin, because as you know no archives are useful now unless they’re properly catalogued because the archives have not enough money to do it themselves.

So that’s the story of how I ended up doing the PhD, and I have remained friends with all the leadership of the Builders Labourers, except they just keep dying. It wasn’t an industry where guys looked after themselves. So that’s the story of how I became interested in buildings and [things].

MdS: So the book sort of charts the course of the BLF from about 1969 when the leadership of the BLF was revitalised with Jack Mundey and Joe Owens and Bob Pringle coming in until the middle of 1975 when the BLF was deregeistered.

Yes. Well, no. Not when they were deregistered, because deregistration doesn’t stop anything. It’s only a problem if the other unions in the building industry don’t support them, and the fact that the BWIU basically tied themselves up with the bosses and said that they would walk in on builders labourers’ work. So I still blame the BWIU as well as Gallagher, for what happened.

MdS: So they weren’t deregistered in 1975?

Well they were deregistered but that in itself wouldn’t have been a problem because deregistered unions can keep operating as long as long as the other unions in the industry respect their work. But the other unions in the industry were too quick, they just moved in on them. And so it was the federal takeover in 1975 that we sort of finish at.

MdS: And then of course after that Askin in the same year lost the election … Was it 1975 or 76.

I think it was 76.

MdS: And then Wran came in. And so Wran implemented all these new laws to protect heritage and to make sure that development was responsibly done. So the legacy of the BLF was very much alive still in those early pieces of legislation.

Absolutely. And what has only become clear to me quite recently is how close the relationship between Jack Mundey and Neville Wran was. They actually really liked each other and sought out each other’s company. It was quite clear that those early environmental laws – which were so important – were the direct result of the Builders Labourers’ activity. And the building of the Sirius [building] was the direct result of an agreement between Jack [Mundey] and Neville [Wran].

MdS: So Neville Wran built the Sirius building?

Yes. It was an agreement that purpose-built public housing would be built by the Wran government in The Rocks area because what Jack was always talking about – and what the Builders Labourers were on about – was the community. He kept saying, “Yes, it’s important to save the beautiful old buildings, but if you’re without a working class community in Millers Point and The Rocks you’ve changed that area forever.”

MdS: And Woolloomooloo as well.

Very much so. And the Glebe. You see, you have Whitlam coming in in 72 with a very advanced minister for urban and regional development, with Tom Uren – because it’s Tom who buys all this area [in Glebe], this was all the church estate except for just a few houses like this one [pointing at the room] that had been sold by the church – but the 900 houses around here were all bought by the Commonwealth Government and made into a commonwealth public housing scheme. Which I think it was the only one in Australia. And eventually when Neville Wran gets in in 76 they handed over to the Wran government, so it becomes more or less normal Housing Department. But if you look at Woolloomooloo and The Rocks and Glebe, it’s very much about keeping the working class in the inner city, and it’s an arrangement between Labor governments and the Builders Labourers.

MdS: Not only that but there was also the Eastern Suburbs Expressway that was going to go to Bondi Junction, too, wasn’t there?

Yes. The thing that really got the eastern suburbs people involved was the encroachment on Centennial Park, because that was going to be a big sporting facility.

MdS: With a carpark and a swimming pool.

Yes. And that was when Patrick White and people like that got involved. The eastern expressway … I can’t even remember where it was going to go.

MdS: It’s sort of hard to visualise because all of those suburbs would have been impacted, Darlinghurst and Paddington.

That’s right, yeah. I think it was a bit of a thought bubble rather than [a plan].

MdS: There seems to have been at that time in the 70s … As I’ve been looking into the records of individual buildings I keep on coming across instances where they’ve been thinking about city planning more generally and there seems to have been some sort of idea about facilitating access of motor vehicles into the city, and putting up big carparks around the place. They were going to turn the QVB into a carpark at one stage.

No, they were going to pull it down! Which was even worse.

MdS: it’s crazy, right? But there seems to have been this … They were caught up in modernity in a way which they couldn’t think clearly about the priorities and how people really should be using the city. And public transport didn’t seem to be really important to them.

I agree with that, that they weren’t. But also the late 60s, early 70s is when so-called “hot money” was just pouring into Australia. It was something to do with our interest rates and their interest rates in America. So a huge amount of American investment came into Australia and so every man and their dog was trying to put up a multi-storey building with this money. It comes first of all to Sydney. So you get the Sydney building boom starting five to seven years earlier than the Melbourne building boom, which is why you have what happened to the Builders Labourers here, this huge increase in membership and everything from the late 60s on.

But then you have the weakening in the building industry in 75 at exactly the time when the Builders Labourers were coming under pressure. And at that time, the Melbourne building boom is taking off, so you’ve got a strong and growing federal union under Gallagher – because they’re based down in Melbourne – he’s the Melbourne secretary but also the federal secretary. And that’s one of the reasons they were able to come in and take over in NSW, because there was a huge downturn in the industry in 75.

MdS: In Sydney?

Yes.

MdS: The other thing that struck me is that in 1959 there was a change to the maximum height that buildings could be constructed in Sydney, from 100 feet to another height. I’ve read a history of city planning in Sydney and there was always this conflict between the state government and town hall over who should be in control of planning.

What’s new?

MdS: It’s the same today. But people who wanted to put up office buildings in the time that we’re talking about, in the early 70s, had to not only talk to the city council but they also had to talk to the state planning department, as well. And there was this thing called the Height of Buildings [Advisory Committee] which …

Well that changes in the mid-60s, at one stage. Because that’s why you get the height of the buildings down at [Circular] Quay suddenly going up. I think it’s the AMP building which is the first tall building.

MdS: Which is heritage listed now.

Yeah! But it was the first of the multi-storey buildings. The importance of the coming of the multi-storey buildings is that feeds into the strength of the BLF.

MdS: Because it was their types of trades which benefited from that type of construction.

It’s their type of trades, less tradesmen and more labourers. But also just having a big bunch of people on a building site is good for all unionism. It means instead of going out to Oatley and picking up one member in one street, you’ve got 400 blokes on … like the [former] Qantas [International] building was a hugely important site. And they just picked up X-number of members in no time at all.

MdS: I’ll be writing about the Qantas building. It’s owned by someone else now but it’s a beautiful building on George Street.

So do you see that as brutalist?

MdS: Yes.

As I say, I’m not an architect, [but] I wouldn’t have thought of it as brutalist. I’ve always liked the Qantas building.

MdS: It’s just amazing.

But it was a very, very active union site and very important in that early-70s period.

MdS: So what was it about the technology that came in in the 60s and 70s that was different to what happened before. Why were they suddenly able to build these buildings much taller?

I really know how it affected the unions, in that previously you built a reasonably-sized building and you had a brickie and you had a carpenter and you had an electrician and all that sort of thing. With the new height levels and the new technology, a lot of it was prefabbed offsite and a lot of it was about prestressed concrete and things like that. A lot of the work is Builders Labourers’ work. And if you’re prefabbing stuff offsite and bringing it in that’s all Builders Labourers work, because dogmen – a huge increase in the number of dogmen needed …

MdS: They go up on the crane.

Well, they used to go up on the crane but then they managed to stop that because there were huge numbers of deaths. So the nature of the work with the new building styles just meant that there were more labourers and that they were massed in certain buildings.

MdS: So that gave them more influence.

It allowed the union to organise easily and therefore gave them more strength. And it actually caused issues with the BWIU, the tradesmen’s union, because the BWIU saw itself as losing influence. And if you look at the 1971 – which [year] was the margins strike? There was the accident pay strike in 70 and the margins strike was 71. The margins strike was very important in the whole story because the BWIU hated it.

MdS: Because they thought they were better, they didn’t want to be paid the same amount as the Builders Labourers.

If you actually look at the margins in the building industry … I once did a fanciful piece where I took it back 500 years to the journeymen and then the masters and everything in the 1500s, and it was pretty much the same margin as what you had in 1970. So for the Builders Labourers to flex their muscle and make that difference and end up reducing the [pay] margin [between skilled and unskilled trades] was very distressing for the BWIU. And they behaved terribly. And can I say, that’s one of the reasons I get so angry with Lee Rhiannon because she supported them and she was in the party that was the support base for the BWIU. And they opposed every single green ban. And now she pretends she’s the mistress of the green bans. She opposed every one! That’s just rewriting of history. So the BWIU was very, very pee’d off by what happened.

MdS: Over the margins strike.

And also of course the fight within the Communist Party [of Australia] was important.

MdS: Yes, you touched on it briefly in the book, but can you talk a little bit more about what happened to the Communist Party at that point in time, in the late-60s?

Well the Maoists had sort of broken off in about 1961, and [were] very weak in Sydney, hardly existed, [but] strong in Melbourne. So there you have Ted Hill, the leader of the Maoists and Norm Gallagher and people around him who all became Maoists. And interestingly the student movement down there was also quite Maoist, you know you have the Monash Maoists who are still talked about. So Maoism is quite important in Melbourne, I can’t even remember any Maoist characters in Sydney.

So then you have the Communist Party coming up through the 60s. You have the party moving more and more into – it’s almost like Trump calls them “identity politics” – you have them becoming interested in gay rights, women’s rights, very much Aboriginal rights, the anti-Apartheid stuff. They’re moving into that sort of area and you have some of the old – particularly, mainly older blokes – saying, “No, no, it’s about Russia and socialism” and all this sort of thing. So you have tensions happening.

And in 1968 with the invasion of Czechoslovakia you have the party declaring – [the CPA was] the first Communist Party in the world to oppose the invasion of Czechoslovakia – and I in fact was lucky to be part of history, I was at a demo against the invasion and a group of about three or four were elected to go down to Communist Party headquarters and sit outside in the little room to find out what CPA’s position on Czechoslovakia was. And I can even remember Laurie Aarons and some of the others – you could hear them talking loudly on the phone and everything – I thought he was probably talking to Russia but it turns out later he was talking to the other state branches, because NSW basically led the position to oppose the invasion. So then of course you’ve got all mayhem.

So from 68 to 71 you have the Communist Party in the middle of a split where the old Stalinists break off, and by 71 they form the Socialist Party of Australia.

MdS: So the old Stalinists are the ones who support the invasion of Czechoslovakia?

Yes, of course. You know, mother Russia’s always right. And of course the BIWU officials are all SPA and the BLF officials are all Communist Party of Australia (but I always think of them as the independent Communist Party).

MdS: So the CPA got involved in the counterculture issues of the 60s and 70s and moved off in that direction whereas the SPA was more sort of mired in the past and was aligned with the BWIU. So that fed later tensions between the two unions?

Very much so. There was a deadly fight going on within the Communist Party – would they forsake Mother Russia? It was all about Russia. It was also almost a bit generational. The old guys were sticking to Mother Russia and the class struggle. They opposed all the green bans for being “Left adventurism”, and not part of the class struggle. Which of course, a lot of the green bans were about class, they were about keeping working class communities and making it about lifestyle.

And I remember some of the green bans that were actually opposed in the end … There was a proposed green ban on I think Diamond Bay swimming pool, it was a swimming pool in the eastern suburbs, and I remember all the old guys in the Builders Labourers going, “Oh, let the ruling class look after themselves.” So there was still very much a class view of what we were doing.

MdS: In the book you quickly proceed through all that, you don’t spell it out in too much detail so I really wanted to ask you about that. What I’m really interested in is the way that the industry changed and how the BLF just for a sudden springtime of activism was able to really exert an influence on the broader society that had never really happened before. And it only happened for a few years, didn’t it?

Well part of it we’ve talked about, which was the technological changes that gave them a lot more power within the industry. Second was that there was a building boom, and you have so much more power in a building boom because you know that if you make a demand and the boss says “No” you can go out and get another job. So they worked women in on sites and demanded better amenities and all sorts of things. The third this was, what I call the zeitgeist. You know, in the late-60s and early-70s – I’m writing a book on it at the moment actually – generally people believed that the women’s movement, it’s time had come and that Aboriginal [issues had too] – you know, we started talking about Aboriginal rights for the first time ever! No one ever cared! And you’ve got to keep remembering that in 67 they were still taking kids away because, “You have to breed out the colour.”

It was the New Left. I’ve always thought of the Builders Labourers as being a New Left union. They really [were]. And all the stuff that the New Left was on about in terms of democracy like limited tenure of office, very much a New Left view, but of course made very famous by Jack Mundey, participatory democracy, you know, letting everyone have a say, no distinction between officials and workers, so the officials were paid the same as the workers, they were on a leading-hand, foreman’s rate or something. They didn’t get paid when there was an industry strike. Big differences between them and other unions.

And at the actual general meetings where – like, a green ban had to be ok’d by a general meeting, so there were endless general meetings and they were very boring because they were translated into sometimes up to elevens languages, because it was even more multicultural than it would be now, and they insisted on having non-English-speaking-background officials, they had women officials, they have a couple of Aboriginal officials. They really worked hard on carrying out what they were saying should happen.

MdS: And the other thing that really intrigues me was the technology. So the employers really hated the BLF’s ability to interrupt concrete pours. Why was a concrete pour so critical for the employers?

Because you can’t do it again. If a concrete pour gets interrupted you have to have someone come in and jackhammer all the stuff out.

MdS: So you have to remove that whole floor of the building?

Or if you’re doing a post or something. If you’re doing a big concrete post it has to all happen at the same time.

MdS: So it’s really time-critical?

Absolutely time-critical.

MdS: A the beginning of the day and the end of the day you’ve got the get all that pour completed in one day for each floor.

Yes. If you stop a concrete pour in the middle you have cost your boss a huge amount of money.

MdS: And they have to jackhammer the whole thing up?

Yes. You can’t just [say], “Oh, we’ll do the rest tomorrow.” So that was crucial. So one of the funny things was when the women making sweets at Darrell Lea or something came and talked – because everyone used to come to the Builders Labourers and ask for advice about stuff – and when the chocolate people discovered about the concrete pour they thought, “Oh, I wonder if we could stop a chocolate pour?” Chocolates don’t have to hold up buildings! Holding up a concrete pour was one of the most crucial weapons they had, but also the bosses knew that if the Builders Labourers said, “Ok, all out!” that was what happened. And that was why the breaking of the green bans – when you look at what happened up in Victoria street – that’s why there were kidnappings and murder happened, because only by bringing in the criminal elements could they actually break those bans. I mean Victoria Street’s a whole story in itself.

MdS: I bought ‘The Prince and the Premier’ and I started to read it, it was published in 1984 I think.

Is that the one about Thieman?

MdS: No, it’s about Galea and Askin. It’s just badly written. I think there’s a bit of an appetite about that period now because especially the younger generation, a lot of them are very politically activated and they really are curious about the roots and origins of all these things.

I have people coming … [The] week before [this] a woman came round who was writing something about Juanita [Nielsen]. Every couple of weeks someone wants to talk about that period, which is really good. And that’s why the book [‘Green Bans Red Union,’ written with sister Verity Burgmann] came out again, and it’s obviously selling all right.

By the way, a guy has digitised my thesis and it’s now available online. And it’s a lot more detailed about some of the stuff you’re asking about, especially there’s a very long bit which is – I put it in as the appendix within the thesis – but it’s really about leading up to 1968 and Jack taking over the union. So it’s a discussion about what happened in the unions in the building industry in the early-60s. So if you want that that’s on the Libertarian Communist website, www.libcom

MdS: And these days who does the BLF’s job. Is it the CFMEU?

Yes. It’s all CFMEU now. The CEPU, the plumbers, and some of the other trades, stayed out of the CFMEU, but all the labourers work there.

MdS: Is the BWIU still around?

No, it’s all part of the CFMEU. Some work which was always a bit of a demark, is still with the AWU. Often there were demarks between the AWU – like construction of a bridge or something – the AWU would say it was theirs and the Builders Labourers would say, “Well, some of it’s ours.” I remember one very funny demark which was about trees, who planted trees and these things. And if it was a tree up to there [indicating with her hand] it was AWU, if it was a tree bigger than that it was the BLF. But on the whole the AWU behaved very well in the strikes, and they did recognise BLF bans and things.

MdS: You mention this term, “body snatching”? Is that where a union comes in and takes members from other unions?

Yes. Body-snatching is basically when there’s a demark and one union … Mind you, each union calls it body-snatching if the other unions does it. But the other union will say, “No, no, we have coverage!” Because there’s so many unclear areas. But the body-snatching that I probably was referring to was when one union’s deregistered and other unions come in and take those members, that’s really body-snatching.

MdS: Also some of the roles you talk about on building sites. You talk about dogmen and nippers, what are some of the other typical Builders Labourers jobs on building sites?

Well, excavators.

MdS: On jackhammers?

Yeah. Steel-fixers. They’re the people for reinforced concrete. There was a separate union for the crane drivers, for the lofty crane drivers. The back-hoes was all Builders Labourers work.

MdS: What’s a “hoist”?

Hoist is when you’re sitting there and machinery is taking material up. Hoist driving was definitely a Builders Labourers thing. The women tended to go into hoist driving, they went and got their hoist drivers’ certificates and therefore were accredited Builders Labourers. Women liked doing that work and they were good at it. The big cranes were all a tiny little union called the FEDFA did that, but they were very involved with the Builders Labourers and totally supported them. But a lot of the other machinery was all Builders Labourers work.

MdS: There were a couple of interesting stories I came across in my researches. There was one building, 1 Oxford Street, on the corner of Wentworth Avenue, which is a brutalist building, it’s an office building now. And when it was being developed by Hooker they originally wanted to make a hotel and then they changed their mind – this was in 1973 – and decided to go with an office building. Then halfway through the negotiations the city council comes in and says to the developer, “We want you to put residences on floors 13 to 26,” and Hookers did everything they could to stop that happening. And it’s such a striking change from nowadays.

Because it was believed that people didn’t want to live in the city.

MdS: Only poor people lived in the city.

Certainly only poor people lived in towers. That’s a huge change. And if you look at the figures now I think apartment living has overtaken detached houses, yes. I’m not surprised.

MdS: There was another case on the T&G building at Hyde Park on the corner of Park Street and Elizabeth Street, there’s a big tower there, that’s a brutalist building. The city council always put in restrictions on the hours that workmen could actually operate equipment. Next door to that is the Park Regis, which was already there. And there was a woman who complained to the city council about noise on the construction site of the T&G building. And the city council inspector came to the T&G building site and found that there were a couple of what he called “new Australians” working on jackhammers and he complained to the site operator and apparently those workers were fired. A lot of those jobs …  People who didn’t speak English did the worst jobs, is that true?

Oh yeah. The guys on the jackhammers were almost always from non-English-speaking backgrounds. But that’s why the Builders Labourers had such huge emotional support, because they really were the first union to reach out to their migrant members, and really worked on it, and really – as I say – they had Yugoslav officials, Portuguese officials, a couple of Italian officials. They really tried hard and all this translation. And so at the big final meeting it was the migrant guys that were most upset and crying and everything, because their union had gone out of business.

MdS: They identified with it.

Very much. And probably the people on the lowest rung had gained the most from the various strikes and things. They were the ones that were getting better working conditions and better wages from it all. There was a lot of stratification. The Greeks did excavation, the Finns did steel-fixing, the Italians did all the cementing and all that sort of work, the Pommy migrants were all the dogmen. And it was a bit sort of mythology, but also a lot of it was true. I mean, people did sort of congregate in those sorts of areas.

MdS: Yeah, I think it’s a fascinating story. There’s so much that would have been destroyed. We really owe a debt of gratitude to people like Jack Mundey. I was talking to a woman whose husband was the architect who built the St Andrews House and she was saying that on Hunter Street there was a place called the Union Club which was torn down to build the Wentworth Sofitel. And she was saying that her husband was up on stage with Jack Mundey addressing the crowd because they wanted to preserve the old buildings. But the developer wanted to build this new thing.

One of the disgraces at the time – it was after the Builders Labourers had folded – was pulling down those old buildings in Martin Place to put up those rather ugly bank buildings there.

MdS: Now they’re doing the same thing with the 70s buildings. They’re pulling them down and putting up new buildings.

The other brutalist building that had a huge part in the Builders Labourers story was the UTS [Main] Building because that was being built – it was probably the biggest building that was going up in Sydney – at the time of the takeover in 75. And so the Builders Labourers did a crane sit-in from the top there and we used to go down each evening and the guys up in the crane – because they were up there for weeks – they’d swing the crane across – probably against all the occupational health and safety stuff – and they dropped the box down right from the top of [the building].

And they dropped the box down to Broadway and we’d pile all the food and everything in for them and then they’d go [up] again. And then we’d all go into the pub and drink and then a bit later the box’d come down again and some bloke’d come down because he had to go home and see his wife. It was terribly funny. But it was sort of the last holdout of the people who were loyal to the NSW Builders Labourers.

MdS: Why was the Qantas building so important?

Particular buildings became sort of hotspots of activity. Often it was to do with what individuals ended up there. Noel Olive was working there for most of the time and he was a very active unionist. He wasn’t an official, he was on the executive or something, but he wasn’t a full-time official. If you had someone who’d been thrown off another building site for militant behaviour, they’d all end up down at the Qantas building.

And you had a number of buildings that became sort of hotspots and sometimes it was because there was a bad boss and sometimes it was because it was a good boss. But it was through clumping of militants together. One of the other ones where there were a lot of militants was the towers in Redfern, the two [buildings].

MdS: The Endeavour Estate?

They called it TGI Towers or something when they were built. They’re not very tall towers.

MdS: Next to the station?

Yes. Those towers were also, they had a lot of militants on them. And in the early days, the AMP building down at the Quay had a lot of militants. And the UTS [Main] Building. It just seemed to be clumping. And of course the more militant activity they’d take the more people want to work there.

MdS: It generated a sort of esprit do corps, didn’t it? They rewarded people but they also got something back from them. It was a mutual relationship between the leadership and the membership, wasn’t it?

Very much so. The BLs liked to think of themselves as all the same thing and they wanted to reduce the membership and leadership [hierarchy]. And that’s where the going back on the tools when you finished – like Jack went back on the tools for a shortish time. So things like that were very important to them. Symbolically, and also in practice. Like they dressed exactly like builders labourers.

We forget, but union officials in those days all wore suits and ties. And even they had a bit of trouble going down to the [Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission] and having their mode of dress accepted by the commission. But they were very lucky because the member that had the building industry was Elizabeth [Andreas] Evatt [AO], who of course was about the most remarkable commissioner they could have had and she just totally accepted that they turned up in shorts and sneakers when the other people all turned up in suits and ties.


Above: Former NSW BLF Secretary Jack Mundey (left) shakes hands with City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore on 3 November 2016 on the day it was announced that crowd-funded legal action would be launched against the NSW government’s decision not to list the brutalist Sirius building on the State Heritage Register. From the book ‘Sirius’ written by John Dunn, Ben Peake and Amiera Piscopo. I wrote about the Sirius building on this blog in December.