Monday, 28 September 2020

Book review: Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, Eric J Evans (2019)

On a whim I bought this book in Glebe one day in the middle of September. I had gone to the shop to pick up an order and saw Evans’ book and thought of a friend who reads a lot of history, and thought to myself: “This looks interesting ..”


In the event I turned out to have been right in my assumption, which is remarkable as a biography about a dead historian might not, to most people, seem like fertile ground for analysis of larger themes. But born in 1917 (a little after my grandmother) Hobsbawm was part of a generation that saw the major events of the 20th century at first hand, including WWII, the aftermath of the October Revolution, and the Cold War.

He subsequently wrote at length about a range of eras, though he concentrated on the period extending from about 1750 to 1900. Evans asserts rather glibly, at the end of the book, that Hobsbawm “was never a Stalinist” and flirts with irrelevancy by using the ridiculous term “Hobsbawmian”. He never seems to address the problem of categories – something that must be, for any historian, a central issue – and accepts the prima facie importance of terms such as “Marxism” in a way that Hobsbawm must’ve been unable to do – if he was honest (though I’ve never read any of his books).

Evans makes the point well that Communism was a way for Hobsbawm to find community – something he needed early on as both his parents died before he reached his majority. In his youth he was a dedicated Communist. His parents were British subjects of Polish Jewish extraction. 

He was bookish and aspired to write – it’s evident from surviving sallies he penned as an adolescent – so drew inspiration from others, such as Shakespeare, Shelley, Coleridge, and Rimbaud. Which is a good place to go to look for such things (you can easily do a lot worse). Evans keeps the ball rolling – by about page 100 you’re at the time Hobsbawm went up to Cambridge – and as, himself, an authority on Germany in the 20th century, he is well-placed to make cogent observations about the environment in which his subject lived and learned though there’s a lack of information about Eric’s sources and curricula for these years, which isn’t remedied until Evans starts talking about books Eric wrote in the 1960s and 70. And I wasn’t sure that Evans grasped the significance of sentiments Eric expressed in his early writings; I often felt a good deal of boyish innocence behind strongly worded statements, a strong hint of uncertainty lying behind the bravado, but Evans seems not to have seen such things. 

What’s remarkable however is the fact that so much material survives for historians to ponder. Such a trove of riches enabled by the subject’s scribbling propensity. He was also hypercritical, with an opinion about everything – often, as it turns out, wrong, as when he predicted the demise of pop music – complementing a keen eye for the telling detail. His biographer’s equally quick condemnation of poetry – which Hobsbawm tried on various occasions, including when he was in the Army – is regrettably of the same stripe as his subject’s incisive discernment though considering the number of things Hobsbawm got wrong, perhaps a bit more reflection might’ve leavened the mix. On the other hand, you want someone to make people think, someone with a solid commitment to a particular line of reasoning is probably more likely to deliver pithy, memorable phrases than someone who goes the more round-about way to arriving at his or her goal or who is liable to qualify everything with reservations. In any case, being right all the time is probably not as important as regularly participating in public debates. So, for example, Hobsbawm’s dismissal of the environment and nationalism in favour of economic factors as explanations for specific phenomena that everyone agreed had become manifest in different places at different time. So what if Eric’s approach was contradicted by later scholars? 

If you demand 100% correctness all the time you’re going to end up with such stupidities as Stalinism specialised in. Other people on the left have expressed a similar kind of abhorrence of dogma and conformity, notably the Australian novelist Vance Palmer (one of whose books I reviewed recently). Hobsbawm solved the problem by being successful in a way that allowed him to survive on the proceeds of his own labours – he taught at a tertiary education institution for most of his adult life at the same time as he wrote and published books. 

Mao was equally pithy in terms of his written output, so Hobsbawm was following in the footsteps of greatness. An intelligent youth who wants to overturn all old institutions and structures and uses his natural abilities toward achieving that aim: the world has paid a high price for this characteristic of the species where still, today, we live with the consequences of the mistakes of past generations. When are the old going to be allowed to set the tone? Perhaps never. So we must fix problems that endure due to the triumph of the young by using patience in a way that Hobsbawm – soon tiring of the discipline that poetry needs in order to produce quality verses – was able to do only by dint of consistency. In the end, Eric prevailed in his chosen profession due to the fact that, over the course of many decades, he remained true to a single political line. His political views were cemented in the 1930s but financial security didn’t arrive until the 1970s.

It’s just disappointing that Evans’ loyalty to his subject allowed him to unthinkingly take sides in a contest that Hobsbawm refused to enter into all those years ago. It seems strange that Evans would reward Hobsbawm for a signal failure, but Eric’s other failures of the period in question – he was refused access to the cypher program due to that fact that his mother was not English – seem to have made Evans lose control of his critical faculties at an important moment in his narrative. English chauvinism is, to be sure, a poisonous elixir and Hobsbawm was right to have felt aggrieved (though he didn’t express such feelings to the officer who informed him of the decision), but surely it’s not necessary to forgive him everything (including his failure to persist with poetry, regardless the low quality of his youthful productions) just because you’re studying his life in exhaustive detail. 

It seems that familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. In fact it’s astonishing that Evans neglects Hobsbawm’s German-language poetry considering how liable the young man was to start writing at the slightest pretext, since he wrote reviews of films and other cultural products, and since he clearly considered himself to be educated. Hobsbawm’s reception among peers – visible in the critiques offered by people who were sent his essays and theses for comment – reveal that he was happy to accept others’ reviews as valid, but Evans seems to think that Hobsbawm’s poetry is exempt from the same kind of scrutiny his academic work received.

While pretending to offer a comprehensive view of the historian’s life, Evans still leaves out critical clues to his subject’s approach to the world in terms that a reader could easily grasp. I find this failure a severe one, and deeply regret it. 

It’s possible to see Hobsbawm’s reluctance to use poetry to achieve agency as a reflection of his disenchantment with the creative arts in the light of the economic burdens society places on the proletariat. Artists had been writing, painting, and composing for generations but things were still bad (notably after 1929) so: what’s the point? The failure of the mainstream to take the hint might be seen as having convinced people like Hobsbawm that art wasn’t the best way to achieve their goals. Linked to this feeling of ennui was Hobsbawm’s need to get involved in committees and to run educational activities for students; in other words, to belong. The dream of finding a place for himself that would both satisfy strict ideas about relevancy as well as his appetite for sophisticated thinking drove him to participate in activities that brought him into contact with others. Once his writing and publishing led to financial security and acclaim from peers, however, Hobsbawm was happy to accept sinecures and memberships that had previously been withheld from him. He became a notable part of the same Establishment that he had, in his youth, rejected outright.

A shortcoming of Evans’ book is the absence, for most of the first 300 or so pages, of any indication for the layman of how Hobsbawm’s scholarship fit into contemporary society. What kind of academic was he? Was he fashionable? Unnecessarily biased (considering his Marxist leanings)? Good? Bad? Indifferent? The contents of the curriculum during his BA are also not detailed very comprehensively, so it’s hard to understand formative influences leading to choices later made.

Until things became clearer at about page 350 I felt that Evans considered the average reader able to know such things – unlikely unless they were a truly committed history buff (and even if that was the case, they might know little about Hobsbawm) – or else likely go and find out for him- or herself. Fortunately, once Eric travels to Russia and once he starts becoming involved in the journal ‘Past and Present’ – and especially once the USSR invaded Hungary – it became easier to see how his ideas fit into the magazine of global Marxism and into broader debates about values, economics, and politics. He was less a doctrinaire Communist – though he tried to stay active in bodies affiliated with the Party – than a fellow traveller; ideologically sound rather than slavishly toeing the Party line.

Evans is right to criticise the intelligence services on account of the scorn they expressed, in reports, with regard to Hobsbawm’s political allegiances, especially after WWII. During the war, young Eric was clearly unsuited to secret work – in fact he abused his privileges on several occasions when given freedom to use his discretion, compromising the war effort for ideological reasons – but if anything their alarm grew once hostilities had ended in 1945. Hobsbawm had predicted that this would happen. Again, we must be grateful that so much survived to furnish material for a book such as this.


Friday, 25 September 2020

Book review: Agent Running in the Field, John le Carre (2019)

I got this fun genre gem from my local bookstore in early September. I’d run out of things to read and as an afterthought I picked it up because it was there, on a shelf, waiting to be noticed. Like a chocolate bar on a display rack near the supermarket checkout. I’d originally gone to the bookshop to pick up something I’d ordered – they’d sent me an SMS to inform me of its availability and arrival in-store – and while there I browsed for treats. 

Gleebooks never disappoints and le Carre rarely does. If this formulaic novel has one shortcoming it’s the indeterminacy of the ending, especially regarding the fates of some central characters. 

The narrator – an experienced MI6 officer named Nat – and his wife Prue live a normal life in London. Their house is in Battersea and their daughter Steff is contrary, so the base upon which le Carre cleverly builds his edifice is credible. But ‘Agent Running in the Field’ might’ve better been titled ‘The Pair’ or ‘Badminton for Beginners’ in order to play off a major plot device – Nat is an expert at the game and at his sports club meets a young man named Ed who comes to figure largely in his life.

The novel doesn’t disappoint as far as the demands of the genre go, but his handling of the message – which centres on Trump and Brexit – is somewhat insistent. Furthermore you won’t, unfortunately, find any attempt to diagnose the disease that led to these political phenomena, things that have made many people (including le Carre) both unhappy and worried. 

He deserves a credit mark for attempting to talk about contemporary politics, though the inclusion of such elements in genre novels is routine. Adding a bit of evidence that you’re talking about the real world is common for novelists and directors of films, and fans of genre products pride themselves on recognising the linkages between plot devices and contemporary events. A bit of colour can offset the effects of an outlandish plot. 

Le Carre is candid about where his sympathies lie, so ‘Agent Running in the Field’ is something like a manifesto. Due to the fact that personal beliefs seem to function so strongly in spies’ motivations, it’s possible to make such secondary elements more important than they might be in, say, a literary novel, where the writer might choose to examine more profound things, such as the nature of the species or of existence itself. In genre fiction you rarely get to see this sort of topic dealt with, so you feel grateful that he or she chooses to admit you into the inner sanctum, to view his or her political views displayed in relation to the story. I give this one six stars.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Book review: Samsung Rising, Geoffrey Cain (2020)

I bought this volume at Gleebooks for the recommended retail price.

Cain had been writing stories about Samsung, the diversified manufacturer, for many years before he decided to write this book, though signally the company wouldn’t cooperate with him in the latter endeavour. Cain yet found many people willing to talk with him, some on the record and some not.

The company had nothing to fear in my case as apart from the Ellen De Generes selfie that made such a splash when it was taken in the Oscars about six years ago, I wasn’t aware of most of the events that form the core of this book of journalism. The TV personality’s stunt however wasn’t spontaneous but was, rather, the result of a sustained effort by a group of American employees who subsequently left the company on account of its culture.

Excellence isn’t prized very highly at Samsung but conformity is. Belonging to the herd is the most important characteristic of successful employees of a company that, to succeed, relies on the support of the Korean government, the country’s judiciary, as well as business luminaries. The collective is paramount.

As is the case also in Japanese companies. Hard to imagine I’d be able to stoke into existence a desire to buy a Samsung phone after reading this engrossing book, which begins its account in the early years pre-WWII and continues up to the present. Luckily there are plenty of alternatives available in the market.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Book review: The Husband Hunters, Anne de Courcy (2017)

I bought this entertaining study at Gleebooks one weekend earlier this month after a ramble in the sun across Wentworth Park. My mobile phone’s activity tracker said I’d been more sedentary this year and, in response to this information, I decided to take countervailing measures.

The body wasn’t the only thing exercised in the event; the mind was also. Sometimes with this book it’s hard to keep abreast of outcomes as the intricacies of people’s relationships can force meaning out the window if you don’t pay attention though what it has in abundance – these are all true stories despite the soap-opera tone – is pathos. 

Often modulated by irony: the book mainly deals with New York society as the endless search for social cachet therein was the driver of female ambition fuelling interest among patrician and arriviste mothers, from Stateside, in titled families resident in the archipelago. 

These are basically American stories although there’s no doubt that England also benefited from the transaction, especially in terms of human rights. What young Americans were used to in terms of property law and civil rights differed from what was normal for their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. The ethos of the frontier – where men outnumbered women, and where women’s contributions to domestic economy were more highly prized – impacted on the ethics and morals of the community in London and rural England. 

In the light of such revelations it’s easy to see how reading this book can help to constitute a kind of study of the education of manners, with a bias toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. 

What happened at the end of this era – by the first years of the new century the traffic of young women and their mothers to London had slowed – was that people became grossed out by the level of expenditure. The dramas played themselves out in the newspapers, so they were public events. With the push for female electoral franchise heating up and the pushback against sickening levels of spending by the one percent, instead of social advancement the fashionable world became more focused on other things. 

Charity and human rights became popular all of a sudden. The new century was also when technology began to forcefully change Western economies and political settlements, and so de Courcy’s book can have broad appeal if you are interested in learning about how science can affect both finance and morals. The ability to cross an ocean in a matter of days rather than weeks must count as an improvement, regardless of the impact on the global environment, and other novelties (refrigeration, telephony) also made the world a smaller place than it had previously seemed.

Subtitled ‘Social climbing in London and New York’, this multi-subject biography is very readable and is lots of fun especially if you’re energised by descriptions of sumptuous gatherings of people. The lists of costumes for parties, the descriptions of the preparations made by the organisers, and the lists of names of invitees contribute toward making a kind of catalogue of excess in which other objects are ignored – apart from art, which is included only because of the money involved in the purchase thereof. The only thing missing here are details of the catering (today food is of supreme importance in most developed countries, so this is actually a distinct shortcoming). 

Definitely one to keep an eye out for!

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-eight

This is the twenty-eighth in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

7 May

Had a nap after lunch and dreamt I was in Watsons Bay aged about 25 and granny was still alive. Other elements of the dream were set in the real-life present (i.e. not 30 years ago), for example the tweets that I saw in the sand outside my parents’ house. These tweets showed a conversation held between a woman with whom (in real life) I used to work and stopped being connected with on Facebook because I unfriended her. 

The conversation she was having involved her husband – whom I had blocked on Twitter because of the way he would comment in response to tweets of mine – and some other people, people in the broader community, about buying a property. In the dream, one person offered to lend the woman the money needed for such a transaction. I knew this person from his online persona but didn’t know he had so much money to throw around that he could make such an offer.

I walked along the path from mum and dad’s house to the beach at Watsons Bay reading the tweets in the grass and in the sand – the tweets were embedded and visible in the landscape like actual physical features of the pavement and of the sandy grass verge that bordered it – while I made my way along the promenade to where the restaurant was. Police were near it doing random breath tests, and had set up a marquee on the pathway, in Robertson Park, that heads up the hill toward New South Head Road where, in real life, there’s a bus stop. At the beginning of the long marquee police were handing out flyers – presumably to warn people off drinking – and I took one saying, prophylactically, to the cop who handed it to me, as though to ward off the evil eye, “I haven’t had anything to drink.”

Further on, I walked up the hill toward the Gap and met granny in a church. I had stopped inside it to read tweets, a part of the previous Twitter conversation, now visible on a printed pamphlet that had been made by the church, and that was being given out for free to visitors. In real life, granny used to go to church in Watsons Bay every Sunday dressed in her best clothes, and now, in the dream, I sat in this building – which differed from the historical church in so many ways, and was far more modern – while reading, as she came in and started to talk with the preacher and his wife. Both of these people were Indians. Then I tapped granny on the arm, though, at first, when she turned her head to look at me, she didn’t recognise who I was. I took off my sunglasses so she could see my face clearly and she seemed surprised to see me there. 

After a while I left her. By this time we were up the hill toward the rocks of the Gap. In the dream I’d wanted to get to a place I thought dad used to go to – he was dead in the dream even though his mother was still alive. After granny and I were on a bus I said goodbye to her then went walking on the concrete path by the cliff’s edge. The path I took was sometimes made of rock, the rock of the cliff. 

I met people on the path who were walking the other way, some of whom were young and were singing hip-hop songs. I was rapping too and the path suddenly became steep, so steep in fact that I couldn’t go any further. There was no balustrade at this point, with a drop to my right of hundreds of feet leading to the rocks below and the ocean. I kept going and then, after I had overcome the obstacle in front of me, mingled with crowds of people and police who were standing around the forecourt of the lookout, with Robertson Park spread out below. Then I woke up.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Book review: Warlight, Michael Ondaatje (2018)

I bought this, like a number of recent reads, at an op-shop. It cost me a few dollars but there’s no sticker on the cover so I’m not sure of the exact amount.

Whatever it was, it was good value as I enjoyed reading this gentle thriller that cleaves to a modern method of mixing popular tropes with a literary style. The early chapters – when everything is embryonic and unformed, an ambience suited to the narrative, which at that point deals with teenagers – are wonderful, evoking for me my own youth and filling me with long-forgotten feelings.

Feelings I hadn’t met with for many a day. The book tries to achieve something difficult: the realisation of an atmosphere belonging to a time and place that is, now, almost forgotten except by a few (very elderly) individuals, unless you take opportunities to vicariously experience the feeling of international conflict through movies or books of fiction and history and journalism.

At moments, the word “light” appears and reappears in different settings, with different modifiers, and the title is a word that crops up two or three times in the course of the storytelling. It is designed to describe for the reader a shadowy, uncertain and crepuscular landscape where people aren’t always who they profess to be, where things happen for reasons that might never be revealed, and where the differences between truth and lies are sometimes infinitesimally tiny.

It’s in such a world, in 1945, that Nathaniel (“Stitch”) and Rachel (“Wren”) find themselves when their parents disappear to relocate to Singapore. Allegedly. What is incontestable is that the two leave their children in England. Initially they are enrolled in boarding school but they hate it so they flee the confines of their institutions and return home where The Moth functions are their guardian. Even then they attend school patchily, and The Moth introduces them to The Darter, another reliable but shadowy individual, who takes Nathaniel out on errands on a boat in the evenings, ferrying greyhounds and other cargo from one part of London to another.

It’s hard to say too much without spoiling the book, so I’ll stop there and just add that it seems to me – who has been writing about the use of genre conventions in literary fiction for months now – that we are where we are because of a need for determinacy, a distrust or even aversion to exactly the kinds of liminal tactics and strategies that ‘Warlight’ appears to deploy. 

In fact, the certainty that genre tropes allow is most suitable for our unironic age, a time when people must take sides and where to prevaricate – or even to be seen to do so – is to be considered a betrayer of your cause. The fashion for genre literary fiction is as much a product of the age as shaming on social media, Antifa protests, and Kenosha, WI.

Though at times ‘Warlight’ was, in my view, somewhat overdetermined, I enjoyed reading it for the reasons outlined in this review, and recommend it to anyone who wants a pre-Covid page-turner.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Book review: Brighton Rock, Graham Greene (1938)

Like others reviewed recently, this volume came from an op-shop near Wollongong. It cost me $3 and was a complete revelation, being a literary novel with genre roots avant la lettre. The use of genre tropes – the unsolved murder, the missing husband, the grizzly find – in our day is widespread and Greene appears, to me, to be a harbinger of such riches.

The book is not long but it wastes no time and a good amount of action is packed into a series of eventful seaside days. Greene’s inventions – Pinkie, the 17-year-old gangster, and Ida Arnold, the middle-aged local who likes a laugh and a Guinness in the afternoon – are fabulous. Ida reminded me strongly of Vera Stanhope, the detective in the ITV network’s crime drama ‘Vera’ which is a favourited of mine on Sunday nights (a series regrettably ended at the end of August). 

Like Vera, Ida feels a deep compassion for her fellow human beings and it is this that drives her to investigate the death of a man she’d met only briefly one day in Brighton. Ida tipples during the day and has a generous figure that she uses to her advantage but she’s smart as well as sentimental. Pinkie is also smart but he’s anything but sentimental, so the two characters act as a foil, each to the other, like diametrical opposite components in an interlocking pair that makes a different shape. Almost yin and yang.

The way that Pinkie tries to force people to accept his version of reality has a lot in common with certain totalitarian governments today (another thing to regret, alas). There are other characters of note, such as Spicer, whose bloodshot eyes and calloused feet make him sympathetic despite his life of crime, and Rose, a 16-year-old waitress who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Greene portrays these unheroic individuals with a kind of awareness and delicacy born of empathy.

A seaside resort close to London, Brighton in this book is a dark and menacing place animated by unseen forces. Good and evil reside there, and people yet go about their errands in peace. 

Without the overt racism it contains – disgusting caricatures of people of African ancestry and of Jews – ‘Brighton Rock’ might have turned out to be a piercing meditation on contemporary Britain, a society with enormous disparities of wealth where anyone’s upbringing is recorded in their voice as much as in their clothes. For a youth growing up in such a place, it must’ve seemed that financial security – as evident in the kinds of establishments you’d normally visit or the clothes you wore – must be achieved as quickly as possible, and damn the consequences for anyone unwise or unlucky enough to get in the way.

Unfortunately, what I found in the first half of the book was too unambiguous to ignore, so I gave up before finishing it. Ian McEwan’s endorsement on the back cover is also disturbing in the light of the repellent ideas I found expressed in the book.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Book review: East, West, Salman Rushdie (1994)

This knock-you-off-your-feet collection of short stories was picked up at an op-shop for $2, proving the rule that you cannot judge a book by the sticker price. It’s the only book of short stories I’d read since April this year, so was a breath of fresh air on two counts. The jacket is surprising too, and seems to me to be distinctly modern, with the naïve style reminding me of similar works by Australian Aboriginal artists.

Each story has its own style and so the fictional process is as much at issue as any notion of the Other that Rushdie successfully imports into his creations. In fact, the striking differences that take you from one world to the next are so severe that it is as though you were reading productions of a range of different pens. 

With aplomb, Rushdie manages to pull off each sally, never shrinking from a challenge and always delivering meaning as well as pleasure. What a find! Surely the best thing by this author I’ve ever read. In fact, it seems a shame that Rushdie decided to spend more time writing novels, if this level of quality is available in the shorter form.

Short stories are, unfortunately, discounted by readers and this can lead good short story writers to transfer their energies to the longer form. In Australia, two authors who have achieved acclaim in the short form and who then went on to try novels are Cate Kennedy (not brilliant novels but exceedingly good short stories) and Melanie Cheng (wonderful short stories; I haven’t read her recent novel). 

Rushdie’s mercurial temperament – something that made him infamous with some parts of the global community – might in fact be the thing that allowed him to write such brilliant short stories for ‘East, West’. He likes variety and doesn’t like to be tied down to convention. In fact he finds himself at home in both hemispheres, and this is a source of charm for the reader. A writer of the future …

Friday, 4 September 2020

Book review: Rupert’s Adventures in China, Bruce Dover (2008)

I bought this book at an op shop in Fairy Meadow while out of town. My apartment was on the market and I wanted to avoid mussing up the place and making more work for myself in advance of buyer inspections.


I’m having trouble working out why the cover was made the way it was but it’s not a fatal flaw: the book is informative and entertaining, having been written by an executive in Rupert Murdoch’s employ during years when Murdoch was trying to gain entry to the Chinese pay-TV market. Dover was therefore, for much of the time in question, close to the source of the events that allowed him to produce material for his story.

It’s interesting for two reasons. On the one hand it provides an indication for the curious spectator of how Murdoch runs his businesses. On the other hand – and just as importantly – the book shows how the Chinese Communist Party worked with overseas businesses in the later part of last century and the first years of this one. Before the Great Firewall and the emergence of native social media sites. The situation has changed dramatically since the time covered by Dover, but reading the book at least you get some idea of how the mechanisms of governance in the Middle Kingdom work.

I won’t disclose the reason why Rupert Murdoch decided to pull out of the Chinese market other than to say it was about access. Murdoch is famous for his love of the media business, and he’s been successful in many global markets because of his ability to make the system work in his favour and by delivering a kind of content for which there was a market that wasn’t being filled. But in China he came up against a different set of principles, and this eventually did it for him.

Because the book is full of dramatic vignettes – bits of stories inserted into the larger narrative to illustrate salient points – you are able to get a feel for Murdoch’s business in a way that a report in a newspaper or on the home page of a stock exchange could not deliver. The different threads of the narrative – involving such issues as political freedom, China’s emergence as a major economy, the role of the media in a pluralistic democracy, and Murdoch’s own character – come together to form a rich tapestry full of primary and secondary significations. Dover’s book is more than just a documentary account of a business failure, it’s a mine of information about the Middle Kingdom.

While at times the writing can be a bit long-winded and continuity might have been improved – as if it were a feature article being written, rather than a book – it’s a lot of fun to read, and it’s informative on all counts mentioned earlier in this review. Highly recommended, though a bit more attention paid to proofs might’ve improved the final product.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Grocery shopping list for August 2020

This post is the twentieth in a series and the sixth with rona. 

2 August

Went to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) tomatoes, apples, onions, a sultana butter cake, “spiced roasted cauliflower and winter veg,” spaghetti, milk, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


Woolworths had earlier asked shoppers to wear a mask when visiting its stores in NSW but it was announced on this day that, in Victoria, supermarket shopping would, beginning on the 3rd of the month, be legal only if (with some exceptions) carried out by one person. 

4 August

Popped across the road to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

8 August

Went to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) a perch fillet, salmon fillets, smoked hake fillets, sliced ham, sliced pastrami, bread, blueberries, some containers of soup (one cauliflower one mushroom, one lamb), lentil salad, bean salad, biscuits (Carmel Crowns, Chocolate Montes, and Gaiety), and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


10 August

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) taramosalata, hummus with harissa, marinaded goat’s cheese, blue cheese, duck and currant pate, Jatz crackers, bhuja, Calbee “Harvest Snaps”, Caramel Crowns, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


14 August

Went to a shop in Wollongong, where I stayed for a few nights due to buyer inspections at my apartment, called TJ Max. I bought a container of Turmeric Latte, which I’d developed a taste for while staying at my friend’s place.

15 August

On the way back from Wollongong, I stopped at Auburn and bought milk.

16 August

Drove to Woolworths in Pyrmont and bought (see receipt below) pastrami, sliced ham, couscous with pumpkin, “spiced cauliflower and winter veg,” pea and broccoli soup, beetroot soup, strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


Later, went to Lakemba and bought some Punjabi prepared dishes in plastic containers (Lahori cholay, murgh pilau with kebab, chicken karahi), as well as jars with chilli pickle, garlic pickle, mixed pickle and lime pickle. 

I worked out that the food was Punjabi after coming home and doing research; there was nothing in the shop to illustrate provenance. Pickles are sold in many shops in Lakemba, but the cooked food I usually get from this one shop is on the eastern side of Haldon Street.

18 August

Went to Woolies and bought sugarless flavoured mineral water.

20 August

Went to the Campos Coffee website and placed an order (see receipt below).


22 August

On the way back from Wollongong stopped at Lakemba on an errand and while there went to a grocery store and bought milk, yoghurt drink, apples, grapes, kiwi fruit, peaches, nectarines, chillies, ginger, and capsicum.

23 August

Went to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) salmon fillets, a barramundi fillet, marinaded goat’s cheese, pastrami, ham, sultana butter cake, eggs, lentil salad, couscous with pumpkin, pea and ham soup, Malaysian chicken soup, taramosalata, hummus with harissa, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


24 August

At 7.10am arrived an SMS from Australia Post telling me that the coffee would arrive on this day. It also said that, if I wasn’t home, the parcel would be left if a safe place was available for the purpose. At just before 9am the intercom buzzed and I spoke with the deliveryman, who left the parcel downstairs. 

Later I went to run an errand. While out, at Woolworths I bought bread, soap, mouthwash, and no-sugar flavoured mineral water.

26 August

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) no-sugar flavoured mineral water, porridge, “spiced cauliflower and winter veg,” potato salad, and bhuja.


In the evening I popped out to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

27 August

Had an errand in Broadway Shopping Centre and while there stopped by at Harris Farm Markets and bought (see receipt below) Scotch fillet steak, porterhouse steak, lamb chops, mustard, tabouleh, harira soup, white bean soup, raspberries, and blueberries.


28 August

Went to Woolworths and bought milk and no-sugar flavoured mineral water.

31 August

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) corned silverside, sliced pastrami, lamb soup, lentil soup, lentil salad, apples, blueberries, taramosalata, hummus with harissa, Chocolate Montes, Caramel Crowns, Loacker “Noisette Crème” wafers, bhuja, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Book review: The Swayne Family, Vance Palmer (1934)

 I bought this book second-hand at Vinnies in Fairy Meadow and it cost $8.

A nuanced portrait of middle Australia at the beginning of the third decade of last century, this novel contains stories of family relations over the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties. The Great War had not long before ended. Palmer gives us a kind of ‘Neighbours’ for a lost era, with gentle dramatic arcs punctuated by a few striking events that don’t unnecessarily tax the reader’s credulity. 

He also gives us striking visual imagery that adds considerable lustre to what otherwise might have been merely a novel of manners and sentiment, allowing the author to situate his work within the confines of Modernism. Sometimes stiff expression and occasionally awkward structural ploys, however, sit in contrast to the progressive nature of the sentiments the book retails in, though privileging the notion of youth, something that was very much alive in the author’s mind while composing his narrative, today seems quaint and even antiquated. Going by what’s in this book, people living in the 1920s must’ve felt they were part of something unprecedented. Such dreams would be sorely tested in the years that followed that of its publication.

George and Kathleen, Ernest and Dorothy, Digby (the patriarch) and Margaret (his wife) come to life in a way that provides the reader with access to the zeitgeist pre-WWII. Palmer disturbingly foreshadows knowledge of the Holocaust (see publication date) and also, conveniently for a reader not situated close in time to the events portrayed, refers to Japanese ambitions in China. Such tactics help to give depth to the characters and to orient the reader in historical time. 

When he was alive Palmer was known as a left-wing participant in the public sphere and knowing this fact would help a reader of ‘The Swayne Family’ to understand it. Fundamentally about the quality of personal status in Melbourne society during the Depression, the book posits a world of fragile reputations where the opinion of the community is prized more than individual happiness. Reading it you can easily grasp why the counterculture of the 1960s was so necessary: a corrective for outdated ideas that had survived the effects of radical technological and epistemological changes over the previous century. 

Digby comes in for a good deal of the criticism that is implied in the author’s themes and narratorial strategies, but on the other hand Palmer demonstrates a subtle command of the values of his subjects. He examines not just the actions of Digby and Margaret but also their origins, and so gives us to understand them all the more completely. I was deeply impressed by Palmer’s version of Australian society’s mores and customs in an era when the idea of the cultural cringe was already well-established, and when people tried to come to terms with modernity in an environment characterised by both technological change and want. The author is swimming in a sea familiar to him, and the reader is consequently comfortable, feeling that what is presented to him or her makes sense.

But this novel is not a well-intentioned screed. It offers a rounded and whole viewpoint that encompasses a range of different points of view. 

It is also shy of apportioning blame and, for that reason, I valued the book highly as I was reading. Once I finished it my estimation of the author was even higher and I wonder if it mightn’t be worthwhile for some enterprising publisher to reprint some of Palmer’s titles. We now live in an era when the counterculture is the thing that requires some correction, and so see a slew of TV shows situated in precisely the era this book belongs to. I believe it is currently not available in regular retail stores or on Amazon, which seems, to me, to be an unfortunate and unwarranted circumstance. I was completely engrossed in Palmer’s creation and every day, while living with it, looked forward to the opportunity to pick it up and open it so that I could return to the story of the fictional Swayne family. In fact I saw myself in Ernest and my father in Digby.


Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-seven

This is the twenty-seventh in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

12 April

Had a snooze after lunch and dreamt I was writing user manuals for Honeywell, something in real life I did from 1989 to 1992. My brother – IRL a software developer – was in the dream. I was looking for grammatical errors in completed manuals I was scrutinising. In real life I had made the user manuals for the Honeywell Software Centre in Sydney, mainly doing desktop publishing. Once I left to go overseas, to take up a new job, the job of producing user manuals was given to a contractor working for a company I would, almost a decade later, also work for. But I would never return to Honeywell.

In the dream there were dozens of new manuals, some of which were made by people other than Honeywell employees. I carefully checked the publishing details of each manual, trying to discover who had made it and where her or she worked. If inside the company, then at which office. 

All the while it was getting near knock-off time. As each minute passed I was getting angrier with my brother, who was involved in the production of the software. I wondered if I could just let the manuals go through – angry that I, myself, had not been employed to make them – but thought, “On the other hand, if I let one go through and it turns out it has an error, then I’ll be blamed.” 

I was at an impasse, with the desk littered with a boxful of photocopied manuals, each of which had its own colourful printed cover. The range of different designs – a fact due to some manuals having been made by other companies – startled me, and I tried to work out, by examining each manual, who had written it, and where they worked.

30 April

Dreamt I was in a city like Sydney and I had to get home. I thought I knew where I lived and I found an empty cab on the busy street. The driver had open the passenger-side door of his car – which was very dilapidated and beat-up – as it stood at the kerb. I leant in toward the driver’s-side window and asked if I could get in and he said it would be ok to do so. I walked around the back of the cab and got in on the left-hand side of the car, pulling the door shut beside me. 

We moved out into the traffic, which was heavy, and the driver had to get across two lanes so that he could turn left up ahead. I couldn’t tell the driver the name of my street as I had forgotten it. I thought to myself in the dream, “This is dementia. I’m becoming like mum.” Because I didn’t know the street name I had to tell the driver where to turn, but I wasn’t sure of this either. 

As we went along, I gauged the right moment to turn left.

We got off the main thoroughfare onto a residential street that curved to the left. In front of us was a large yellow building with a wall and a gate. It looked like it had been built 100 years ago. We turned left there and followed a street, then I told the driver to do some more turns until, eventually, we came to a quiet thoroughfare. 

I was out of the car then, mindful that I hadn’t paid the driver. I looked back but he wasn’t in sight, so I turned back the way I had been heading and kept walking along the street, which had houses along its left side. On the right side might have been the main road; I thought I could hear traffic.

Eventually I came to a street that I seemed to recognise and said to myself, in my head, “Frederick Street!” I turned left and walked along, with the houses giving way, as I progressed, to shops selling clothes and restaurants. It seemed like a trendy neighbourhood, and I thought that my house was nearby but, still, I wasn’t sure. I kept going down different streets looking for my house but I was always disappointed, and I woke up without having found where I lived.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Book review: Maoism: A Global History, Julia Lovell (2019)

I bought this broad-ranging, in-depth work of history at Gleebooks on the way back from out of town. All my books have been packed up for the house move, so I needed something to get me through Sunday (a time when TV fare is subpar).

Probably the most influential Asian of the 20th century, Mao succeeded while his knack for pithy phrases and his volatile temperament were productive. As a ruler he was a disaster, of course (see a recent review for details), but as a change agent he was more than just effective.

Lovell at the end of her book takes a few pages to discuss the ways Mao is celebrated in China today. At this point the pace of the book slows and becomes more contemplative (and less dramatic) but the author is always a careful chronicler, providing support for occasional personal observations and producing a lively and satisfying work of scholarship.

The subtitle is germane if you want to know what the book is really about. It takes in views across the globe from China to Peru, and from India to Nepal. The CCP’s explicit task in the second half of the twentieth century – to transfer its violent revolutionary methods to other nations in the wake of the Soviet government’s censuring of celebrations of Stalin – was often met with enthusiasm from educated people. Mao’s influence was both wide and deep, so protestations today from the CCP about foreign interference are of course hypocritical: historically speaking, China has always been intent on participating as a major player in the politics of other countries.

It wasn’t just in the third world, either. Mao’s appeal was alive in Europe and the US as well, though there the outcome of people’s activities was usually less violent. There were nevertheless bloody episodes in such countries as Italy and Germany. 

For Mao, it was a matter of national pride to be seen as a success, though the truth was more frequently hidden than revealed, as the reality of the Great Leap Forward exposes.

One problem that historians like Lovell encounter however is that many of the records for the period in question are kept in sealed archives. So the truth may not be known for a very long time. Lovell skirts around this problem and did access material from records that have been opened for perusal, as well as those in the archives of other countries. Maoism’s reach into the politics of nations such as Indonesia and Tanzania mean that much can be known even if the CCP won’t cooperate with scholars and publishers.

Lovell is a reliable witness who evidently harbours a passion for her subject. Despite this, you feel as you read that she has a solid grasp not only of the particulars of the evidence she unearths, but of the significance of Maoism for world history in the 20th century. Because of the continuing relevance of the CCP today, this influence remains alive for all of humanity. Mao’s legacy is strong and shows no signs of relinquishing its hold on our regard, despite the many voices that have been raised to deliver messages that the Party cannot be glad to hear.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Book review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson (2015)

I bought this at a St Vincent de Paul’s opportunity shop having just left a meeting and it cost $5.

This study of reputation as it is constituted in the public sphere in the developed world was well worth the price paid to buy. It’s a fabulous account of online culture and came well before its time (see publication date). 

In his fun and well-written book, Ronson tries to come to grips with the democritisation of speech in the internet age, where pile-ons are the dark flip-side of its ubiquity. The dark lining of a silver ear. I totally got his appeal to the reader’s better nature. He tries very hard to pin down the issues raised by the cases of reputational damage he chronicles.

I’ve written on this blog at length about the public sphere, so readers will be familiar with the issues Ronson grapples with if they sample my jouettes. Ronson does the same thing but with a few more concrete cases. I would have liked more exposure of the perpetrators of the kind of malicious commentary that passes for political speech in countries where the ability to say out loud about politics what you really think is not questioned by authorities. 

People often, as Ronson points out, abuse the privileges they possess. 

The fact that this fabulous book was given to a charity is illustrative of our collective priorities. I certainly won’t be giving it away – unless it’s to a friend to borrow and read.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

RAV4 Cruiser hybrid AWD (episode three)

This is the third post in a series. The first post is here and the second here.

In the middle of last month I fuelled up the car again at the petrol station, this time (with 702km on the odometer) putting in $29.30 worth of unleaded. The time before I’d put in just over $25 at 256km, so the efficiency of Ensign was once again evident but as the second time I didn’t register in my phone the cost of fuel it’s hard to make a more precise estimate.

I was typing “precise” when I heard the intercom buzz. I let in a deliveryman with a parcel, which turned out to contain a satchel branded with the Toyota name and the word “hybrid”. Grey cloth, matching what seems these days to be the most common colour (along with white) for new passenger vehicles (though not Ensign).

Inside the satchel was a portable rechargeable battery and a capped cup for use outside (for flat whites and chai lattes, evidently). The battery had instructions in bad English and had been made in China. The cup was branded and had good English for its instructions.

Twenty-two July was also the day of my first car service, and I drove Ensign down to the dealership to drop it off then went to the Broadway Shopping Centre for lunch (rice with butter chicken as well as some of a chickpea curry, along with a Coke) after which I got a call from the dealership telling me the car was ready to pick up. I walked uphill through Glebe and into the service area’s office where I sat down with a woman to process my account. I told her about the warning message that I’d earlier mentioned to Ryan (the salesman) but she dismissed my complaint rather abruptly, as though I’d been wrong to mention it. 

I wasn’t proud of my conduct at this tete-a-tete, though I didn’t say, for example, “I’ve been driving cars for over 40 years. How old are you?” The conversation did however evolve in such a fashion as I felt my experience was discounted in favour of a simulacrum of intelligence as embodied in the car’s computer system, which seems not to have a heuristic function. Not only will it not synchronise its knowledge of time with that of location so as to understand when a school zone limit applies (between 8am and 9.30am and between 2.30pm and 4pm), but it won’t learn which routes a particular driver favours; it will keep on asking you to turn off the motorway even if the car and the driver have taken the same route before.

One day while driving I took note of how the instrument panel speed indicator won’t keep up with all road signs. Instead it provides an approximate guide or else is completely wrong; on one occasion I had it showing 110km per hour in a 50km/hr zone. So keep your eyes peeled and don’t expect the car to be right 100% of the time.

The car has its own understanding of the world, one which sometimes has little to do with reality beyond the confines of its programming and its limited knowledge. For example, when you start the car a message comes up on the centre console. See photo below. The manufacturer calls this article of equipment the “multimedia display” and, confusingly, calls part of the instrument panel the “multi-information display”, appearing to break new weirdness records for English used in manufacturers’ manuals.


The ignition message asks you to, among other things, obey road rules. It also notes for your information that some directions given by the satnav might be wrong. All well and good, but I don’t really need to be told to read the owner’s manual as I return home from buying a second-hand lamp at a thrift shop out in the boonies. The message is there by default and can, after a few seconds, be dismissed with a “Continue” button you can tap (once it becomes operative). The message also automatically goes away after a few more seconds, but after the first couple of times driving the car you’re unlikely to bother reading it. On the other hand, if someone wants your car space and you’re parked in a shopping mall, or if you need to get out into traffic because of a sudden break in the flow of cars, a few seconds can make all the difference. 

In reality, the car has these demands – you cannot put an address into the satnav while the car is in motion, a circumstance that is germane to the discussion underway currently – so you have to adapt your behaviour, as it were, to meet it halfway. It’s programmed to operate in a certain fashion and only within strict parameters can you engage with it in real time. You don’t drive the car, you work with the machine to navigate the roads.

This is the new reality of AI: often you are prompted to respond and, in other cases, you must override the system. In some cases this is not an option. For example I must listen to a warning message every time I reach Regent Street at the end of Harris Street. I have no idea why – at this, particular, spot – such a message becomes audible, but it is so: I hit a certain point in my trip to Botany (where the house I’m in the process of buying is located) and a message comes out of the car’s speakers (“Please obey all road rules”).

And if, after getting in the car, you want to quickly plug in a destination address, and you are in a hurry, you might have to wait until the first red traffic light to do it since, instead of a map of your city, the car’s redundant warning message will be stubbornly occupying critical real estate on the centre console. If there’s no red light you may find yourself pulling over to the side of the road in order to enable the satnav to accept your destination address.

Other functions and features are welcome. One day driving to Wollongong a blonde Millennial was so close to the rear of my car I could almost see the colours of her eyes. Afterward, I was so flustered I missed my turnoff so used the satnav to get back to the Princes Highway. This kind of improvisation to get out of a sticky situation would’ve been impossible in the old car. 

Some features, such as automatic door locking, can be confusing. It activates when you reach 25km per hour so that the doors won’t lock if you’re just moving the car to a more convenient spot, for example if your parking slot is narrow or if the car parked next to you is too close to open the doors. But passengers not aware of the feature might ask why the doors are locked when they want to get out to the kerb. There’s a universal unlocking button in the armrest of the driver’s side door that can be used to unlock back doors, or else a passenger can use an individual door’s locking mechanism – if he or she can work out how it operates – to get out of the car independently. This is another of the car’s features you must adjust your expectations to meet halfway.

Confusion might also result from the seatbelt warning, which kicks in once a weight is on a seat and the car is in motion. A weight might not represent a person, however, so you can get an alarm if you place a heavy bag on the back seat. The alarm goes away eventually but the first time it happens it might cause you to pull over to the side of the road to see what the fuss is all about.

The design for the “handbrake” (which kicks in once you put the car into Park) is good: a small red LED in a button on the console between the front seats lights up once it has engaged, letting you feel confident about turning the car off. When you turn the car on the instrument panel lights up with a short animation featuring the model name; it is easy to understand intuitively and serves the purpose of alerting the driver to the machine’s new state.

If you brake heavily to stop the car suddenly a tone will sound and a red warning will display on the instrument panel with the word “Brake”. I’m not sure of the utility of this feature but it shocked me when this circumstance first occurred to me while driving. I had been in traffic moving at about 50km per hour and the car in front suddenly propped, making it necessary for me to stomp on the brakes. 

This was a novelty, but some things happily haven’t changed, for example the knobs for radio volume adjustment and A/C operation. The radio is turned on by pressing a knob, though you change stations on the centre console using virtual buttons. The A/C temperature control knob is large and frictionless, with no stutters to impede your use of it while driving at speed. 

But keeping track of everything in a 2020 RAV4 does place an unusual burden on you. An ability to make and receive phone calls, for example, and to connect your mobile to the car via Bluetooth, adds levels of complexity to the driving experience. Hence the warning on starting. Despite all the distractions safety is generally enhanced and abiding by the law is easier than in a car without such digital features.

There hadn’t initially been many puzzles with the RAV4, though I’d called Ryan to ask about where to put the road tolling company’s tag. It turns out: within the black-spotted section at the top of the windscreen (I’d wondered if it’d be impaired in its operation if placed there). The tag arrived in my mailbox in a small satchel a few days after I’d ordered the device from Linkt, which used to be called Roam, and which trades on the stockmarket as Transurban. You can use their tags in all eastern states, so it’s handy for drivers in New South Wales to register with them and to get a tag delivered. The thing fits easily in the mailbox and has an adhesive area on a stem that you activate by pulling off a piece of paper (like a Band-Aid).

Ryan also told me that the locking mechanism in the door handle – if your remote control is within the car’s sensor’s ambit, you touch a marked area of the handle to lock the car – works in the rain. He sounded a tad perplexed when I’d asked this question and told me that the car has all the latest technology. 

He was, of course, right. The automatic wipers were a revelation and resulted in changed practice. When you go under cover – as, for example, happens for me when I park in the garage under my apartment building, or when going into the carpark of my local supermarket – the wipers stop, so you might want to use the operational lever to get rid of the drips that accumulate on the windscreen as a result of runoff from the roof. Or you might not, and simply let them sit there. If you want to get rid of the drips – this sort of thing bothers some people, including me – just click the lever down one notch and the wipers will activate once. In the event, I left the drips to sit and just parked the car with them sitting on the glass in front of me. 

Despite the car’s bulk, handling is impressive. It has a crisp feel because its suspension is tight, giving you confidence to address speed bumps at speed – you just chunk over them without scapes or undue bounce – and making steep driveways (such as the one at Officeworks in Glebe, a suburb of Sydney) perfectly manageable where before I’d had to creep into the trough to avoid part of the car coming into contact with the concrete.

The engine provides adequate power – remember, I had a car with a significantly larger engine just before buying my RAV4 – under all circumstances. At a steady 50km per hour on a flat road the battery alone might be powering the motors. Performance at speed and uphill on the highway is also different from what I had before. Under such conditions, compared to the Aurion, the RAV4 works hard, though I have to qualify this comment. 

The day of my first service Ryan countered my remarks about this issue by noting that, due to the anticipated (or actual) introduction of emissions caps, all manufacturers are phasing out their six-cylinder models. In Europe, for example, the burden of compliance with such caps rests with manufacturers, meaning that if fleet emissions don’t fall below a government-prescribed level, manufacturers are forced to pay a financial penalty. Other jurisdictions are either researching such limits or else are in the process of introducing them. So the days of the standard Aussie six-cylinder sedan are coming to an end, but for the moment I feel slightly underpowered. This came to mind while driving up the hill out of Wollongong with cars in the fast lane zooming past me. I felt wimpy flogging my 2.5-litre four-cylinder motor apparently to death.

Though the thing did still provide acceleration uphill at speed. Suitable for overtaking trucks. On one occasion at 80km per hour on an incline up the side of an escarpment with three adults on board it pulled away easily. But compared to the silence of the car accelerating effortlessly at low speed under the power of the traction battery, the sound of the petrol engine under pressure stands out for its seeming violence. On the motorway up a hill at 90km per hour the petrol engine and the battery both operated to move the RAV4 forward. Once on the flat at the same speed the engine began to charge the nickel-metal hydride battery and the system toggled between these two states, keeping the car’s speed steady while alternately charging and draining the battery.

On the day I had my first service done, I told Ryan, as I walked away from him in his place of work, that, if Toyota brought out a six-cylinder hybrid, I’d be interested in getting one. This won’t however happen.

To learn about the car’s features I brought the manuals upstairs to my flat, working out how to set the wipers to operate automatically when the car senses rain. On the day of my service I also dropped by at the Apple store and bought a half-metre USB cable for the iPhone 7. The accessory remains permanently inside the cabin and comes in handy when I have friends with me while driving on the open road. We are able to connect the car with the mobile phone of one person, and so play music on it through the RAV4’s speakers.

The instruction manual that came in the box of the free portable charging battery was less useful when I tried to learn how to work it (see photo below), and after a few attempts I gave up. The problem is that you might press the power button to make the charger go on – with a phone plugged into it via a USB cable, it initially works – but after 34 seconds (I timed it with a stopwatch) it turns off, meaning that the device you plug into it will not get charged. You can see it go off because the “charging” symbol on your phone disappears and because on the battery pack the lights go off. (They’re lined up on the end of the device between the power button and the USB socket.)


No matter how many times I consulted the manual, I couldn’t work out how to make the battery stay on after I left it to go away and watch TV or get a drink of mineral water.

I’ve fortunately had no such problems with the car. I’m reminded of Ryan’s cheerful laugh, and also of the marketing material that came with the rucksack: “Good things come to those who wait.” But I didn’t have to. I’d only had the car for a couple of weeks (I picked it up in the first week of July) and had already used it in pretty much every conceivable situation a car can find itself in. I’d only used $77 worth of fuel though I’d travelled over 1100 kilometres. Seven dollars per 100 kilometres is good going.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Book review: Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World, Alec Ryrie (2017)

The author is an Anglican minister but there is no hint of triumphalism in this brilliant historical work, one that takes the reader from the modern origins of Protestantism in the 16th century up to our times. Ryrie was born in the UK and graduated from Oxford Uni but grew up in the US.

There is the occasional mention of the Lollards and the Hussites but nothing substantial, whereas for Luther and Zwingli and Calvin there is a complete exegesis based on original sources. There are 20 pages of notes as well as an index.

Ryrie is a clever writer, it should be said, who is aware of how the reader is feeling at different points in the narrative and who inserts divagations at points apropos in order to provide a rich and rewarding experience. While complex, the book is not difficult. This combination of factors is an index of Ryrie’s skill.

While the facts are comprehensive it is the building of a story that sustains the reader who spends time with this book. It tells a story that has a remarkable origin and that continues to sustain both people and polis wherever it is practiced. Again: no triumphalism. Rather, an awareness of the protean nature of the project, one that occupies and rewards the people involved in it wherever they may live and whatever their roles.

While Ryrie’s main point about this form of religious practice is centred, in his mind, on a love affair with God, it also has other characteristics: the tendency of Protestants to both cleave to the word of the Bible and to splinter into groups. The way that this plays out at different times helps the reader to understand identity politics, which Ryrie (possibly optimistically) sees as another offshoot of Protestantism.

He takes the reader from the homeland of Protestantism in continental Europe, to the United States of America, to Korea and China and places beyond. His task is massive but stylistically he’s up to the challenge. A very good book indeed.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-six

This is the twenty-sixth in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

27 April

Had a nap after lunch and dreamt I was in mum and dad’s house looking after granny. Mum and dad had died but granny was still alive. There were two staircases made of wood, one on each side of an entranceway going outside to a verandah. A cousin was there with her daughter, and an aunt – not the mother of the cousin – was there as well. In the dream the two women were, strangely, about the same age.

Someone had put carpets on the top steps of the staircases and I asked if they could be taken away as I was having trouble walking down to the dining room-kitchen area at the bottom of the flights. There were banisters set in the wall, and I descended with my left hand on a wooden banister, carefully balancing on the steep flight of stairs, worried lest I tumble down to the bottom and hurt myself. Each time I got down to the bottom safely, I felt relieved and grateful.

A friend was there as well and he was watching something on Netflix. There was a bookshop display cabinet with a mechanism to enable it to turn, and it had lots of copies of children’s books on it. With my hand I turned it round looking at the multiple copies of each book it contained, most of which were small and had hard covers, and wondered why mum had bought so many and how much the bookcase had cost. “Who are the books for?” I asked myself, then remembered the children I had seen playing in the house.

In the pool off the back garden, on which the verandah looked out, was a cat trapped in wrapping paper that had come from a posted parcel. The cat was white and it was making a fuss in the water. I told my friend to get it out of the pool, and he did so quickly evidently fearful, like me, that some misadventure could befall the creature.

28 April

Dreamt I was in Tokyo and trying to get back to my family’s house in Yokohama. At the time of the dream I was in Tokyo City, about an hour away, by train, from my destination. I was inside a large train station servicing multiple intersecting commuter lines, one of which would take me to northern Yokohama and another to the Yokohama central business district, and one of which would take me to Shinjuku. IRL there is one station that would fit this description – Shibuya – which I used for my daily commute when I lived in Yokohama.

As I was walking in the dream along the platform, having gotten off one train, I was talking with an older American woman who, it became clear to me, lived in the area where the station I was in had its street exits. I was describing to the woman about a potato that you grate in order to make a sort of paste. Or slime; we had been talking about food made from slime, including a kind of jelly. To illustrate the food I’d mentioned I used my hands to depict the grater as I couldn’t remember the name of the utensil. The word “grater” eluded me so I made circular motions with my right hand, its fingers pinched loosely as though holding a narrow tuber, and used my left hand’s fingers to pretend to hold a utensil, as though I were rubbing the potato against it in a circular motion. IRL the name of this dish is “tororo” and it was a favourite of mine when I lived in Japan between 1992 and 2001.

As we kept going I realised that if I didn’t catch another train I would have to get out on the street and catch a taxi which, I accurately estimated, would cost a lot more money than it would cost to go by train. I left the woman and turned back, searching for a passage to take me to a platform where I could board a train going in the general direction I desired. 

I looked, occasionally, to the walls and ceilings of the spaces I found myself in. They were inlaid with a mosaic made up of complex networks of lines and dots and words representing the network of tunnels, tracks, and stations I was inside. The words were linked to the dots by shapes like the chocks you use to keep an aircraft immobile while it is on the ground; triangles but with the longest side made of a curve, as in a graph. 

I didn’t know where I was but knew, at least, that I was inside one of the indicated stations. Endeavouring to get to my destination I walked up and down flights of steps, under overpasses, into tunnels and out again, always looking for the right place to stand and wait for a train to arrive. The stairways had concrete banisters that were covered with yellow tiles. 

Eventually, I came to what I thought was the right platform and stood there in front of a train with its doors open but I didn’t, for some reason, board the train. Instead, I started talking with a homeless man who had a dog on the platform. The dog was friendly but I was wary. It was a tan Labrador. The man had some kind of mark on his face; under his left eye I could see what appeared to be a bruise or birthmark.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Book review: The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, Laura Thompson (2015)

I was bored out of my brain watching TV, since my home contents has been packed up due to the fact that I’m moving house, and so I walked to Glebe and bought some books, this being one of them. It turned out to be a good choice as my state of mind – feeling a little vulnerable and uncertain due to the change underway – consoned with traces of anxiety the book communicates.


It’s difficult to write a biography about six women like the Mitford sisters because of their connections with Nazism, but Thompson has done us a great service by indulging in her personal fascination with her subjects. This is a magnificent biography.

It’s a thorough exposé of a period of time so different from today but, also, so similar in many respects, not the least of which is the reason for notoriety of the women under examination. The fact that so much is known about them, due to the survival of a large number of private letters and also due to the existence of published works of fiction (and memoir), adds richness to Thompson’s account.

She had to become acquainted with some of the darkest parts of history in order to write it. I applaud her gumption and recognise the worth of her approach, which mingles the personal with the public in a thrilling manner. The way the sisters related to their parents, to each other, to significant others, and to the public provides a view that is at the same time microscopic and broad. 

The title is stripped back and modern, matching the subject matter. Reading the book it’s actually easy to see why some of the Mitford sisters responded to the call of the siren, but I wonder if Thompson might not have realised how nihilism made them liable to succumb to fascism and Communism in the absence of other, equally rewarding, inputs. Nancy, who went on to become a successful novelist, seems to have remained least liable to respond positively to the lure of the political extremism that animated the era, though even she did so at some points. 

Jessica went the other way from Unity and Diana, and became a Communist. And while Thompson remarks from time to time how difficult it is, now, for us to understand people living then – almost a century ago now – she is reticent about going the next step and making proclamations that might explain why some of these youthful sisters (and, indeed, their parents) cleaved so strongly to fascism. In my mind it certainly had something to do with youth, but it was more complex than that, and I alluded to some of the things that were in action at the time in a review of another book, which I read in May

Again, it’s germane for me to say that Thompson has done us all a favour at the same time as she indulged her own fascination with these women. I strongly recommend this book to people who are curious about the 1930s or to people who want to understand more about our own times, with its violent public sphere and extreme views.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Grocery shopping list for July 2020

This post is the nineteenth in a series and the fifth with rona. 

3 July

Drove to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) taramosalata, marinaded goat’s cheese, onions, linguine, a sultana butter cake, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and – whoops-a-daisy! – a bottle of tonic water.


5 July

Went to the convenience store and bought eggs, milk, and sliced chicken breast. Then popped in at the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

6 July

Drove to Woolies and bought fillet steak, a barramundi fillet, smoked hake fillets, bread, an oakleaf lettuce, bean salad, “spiced cauliflower and winter veg,” and blueberries. 

This trip to the supermarket was my first one in the RAV4 and, with the roof racks on, as headroom is sufficient, I had no dramas going into the carpark. Standing under the store next to the car, I eventually worked out how to open the rear door, which works by touch (not using the remote control). After a few false starts the door opened. 

7 July

Walked to the pharmacy and popped in at Coles while in the arcade to buy (see receipt below) some no-sugar flavoured mineral water. It was dearer than I usually pay at Woolworths, though Woolies’ price for this (from my point of view) essential item seems to change from day to day.


On this day I had a conversation on Twitter with @GayCarBoys about my contretemps with the rear door. “It took me 5 minutes to work out how to open the rear door!” (Actually it was more like 30 seconds.) He answered: “Was the button not working?” “I had to learn by doing,” I replied. “The sales guy gave me a 30 minute rundown of features when I picked the car up, but some things weren't covered ...” He replied: “TBH they really don't have time to. I reckon there is a business in showing people how to work their gizmos ;)” 

I couldn’t actually accurately recall how long the explanation took that Ryan gave me in the auto retailer’s showroom, but it took forever. A RAV4 has so many features, and the way it talks with the driver’s phone is astounding (I feel like a Boomer in the Geeks 2 U ad).

9 July

Went to the pharmacy and then the tailor’s (to pick up dry cleaning) and on the way home popped in at Woolies and picked up (see receipt below) sliced pastrami, sliced ham, “spiced cauliflower and winter veg”, couscous with pumpkin, tomato soup, lamb soup, and lentil soup.


11 July 

Went to the convenience store and bought milk.

12 July

Drove to Officeworks and on the way home popped in at Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) sliced chicken breast, sliced ham, raisin butter cake, carrot cake, chillies, tomatoes, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


14 July 

Went to the tailor’s and to the pharmacy and while out used Woolworths to buy (see receipt below) bean salad, lentil salad, Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


Later drove to Officeworks and bought (see receipt below) a bottle of hand sanitiser for visitors to the apartment, which I’d decided to sell.


16 July

Drove to Woolworths and bought eggs, bread, milk, a saucepan (because I’d forgotten to put one aside prior to the move), pastrami, a cos lettuce, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

17 July

Went to Bunnings and bought (see receipt below) Stanley knife blades and cleaning liquid. This gear was to get tape off my apartment window. The stuff had been used to hold up a pillow case designed to keep the sun out of my eyes while I sat at the computer in the early mornings but now, with the sale, it had become an eyesore. 


18 July

Drove to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) instant oats, apples, blueberries, Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).


In the evening went to the Feather and Bone Butchery website and put in an order (see confirmation screen clip, below) to be delivered.


20 July

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) a perch fillet, salmon steaks, smoked hake fillets, lentil salad, couscous with pumpkin, tomato soup, taramosalata, a sultana butter cake, and two bottles of Schweppes “Agrum” no-sugar drink.


I’d taken an email from Feather and Bone Butchery out of the spam folder in the morning and at 12.06pm Nevil called me on the phone as the intercom, he said, wasn’t working. I went down and met him and carried the box upstairs, then repackaged everything for freezing, finishing at 12.23pm. I called the building manager’s office to log an error notice for the equipment and they said someone would probably come out the same day, or the next, to fix it.

In the afternoon I went to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero. While out I popped in at the convenience store and bought biscuits (Caramel Crowns, and Mint Slice) and a packet of chips.

22 July

Went to Woolies and bought sliced pastrami, sliced ham, apples, blueberries, lamb soup, chicken noodle soup, hummus with harissa, Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

23 July

Walked to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) “spiced roasted cauliflower and winter veg”, sundried tomatoes, d’affinois cheese, bhuja, Tim Tams, and mouthwash.


24 July

Went to Woolworths and bought lentil salad, bread, milk, biscuits (Chocolate Gaiety, Caramel Crowns), and no-sugar flavoured mineral water.

25 July

Walked to Glebe to buy books and while there stopped at Harris Farm Markets and bought (see receipt below) harira (tomato, lentil and chickpea) soup, chicken and white bean soup, Hungarian salami, Danish salami, Maffra “Riverslea” red cheddar, blue cheese, blueberries, and lentil chips.


26 July

Went to Woolworths and bought Jatz crackers and no-sugar mineral water.

27 July

Drove to Lakemba (to buy a shirt); while there I popped in at a grocer’s and got a container of spiced, fried fish, a container of beef and potato biryani, and a container of chicken tawa (which involves pieces of an animal being cooked on a “tawa”, or round frying pan with, according to Google, “fresh tomatoes, onions chillies and a range of spices”; it is popular in India and Pakistan).

28 July

Had a local appointment and on the way home stopped at Woolies and bought hummus with harissa, taramosalata, apples, blueberries, bean salad, cauliflower soup, beetroot soup, a sultana butter cake, and some Caramel Crowns (a type of biscuit).

29 July

Had some errands to do with the car so, while out, I popped in at Coles and bought (see receipt below) paper towels, instant oats, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).