Wednesday 5 January 2011

Review: The Big Fella, Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin (2009)

I suppose that a book about a company as famous as mining giant BHP Billiton should focus on the machinations of senior executives as they negotiate such pitfalls as poor investments, corporate takeovers and mergers and acquisitions. There is a certain thrill to be experienced in reading about their decisions about whether to go ahead with one thing or another as their company grows from nothing with German prospector Charles Rasp clomping around the far-west of New South Wales with his eyes fixed firmly on the ground, to a $30 billion behemoth with stock exchange listings in Sydney and London and employing tens of thousands of people. Hence the subtitle: 'The Rise and Rise of BHP Billiton'.

And it certainly is interesting to learn that Billiton, which is the partner firm most Australians would be less familiar with, was a South African company that had its roots in tin mining on the island of Belitung in what is now Indonesia. There's enough material in the book to satisfy the curiosity of anyone interested in such arcana. It was certainly enough for me.

But the book suffers from two faults: an excess of facts and the lack of a driving narrative. Journalist-reviewers might applaud the fact that we often get an inside line on information about goings-on behind usually closed doors, but I felt that the carefully-modulated utterances of recent executives who are talking about colleagues still-living suffer from the same credibility problem as soundbites made by politicians on the campaign trail. It's all a bit too surreal and clubby. You frequently yearn for more substance.

There are some interesting leads that the authors unfortunately refused to follow up, such as the nepotistic proximity of BHP to the Liberal government of Robert Menzies. A few facts are revealed with some fanfare - "you heard it here first" - but the leads go cold quickly. And while the authors declare at the outset that there was no editorial control by either company during the writing of the book, the fact that such potentially-embarrassing leads are left alone leaves you wondering about the strength of the authors' backbones.

Compared with the volume of material that is disclosed when dealing with business events, the amount of material dedicated to unfavourable leads like this is deeply disappointing. Other areas which the authors leave largely alone are the Ok Tedi mine disaster (where millions of tonnes of toxic tailings were discharged directly into the Fly River in Papua New Guinea, severaly damaging the ecosystem), the AWB scandal (where BHP facilitated the supply of a shipment of wheat from Australia to Iraq during the period when a UN trade embargo applied to dealings with the pariah nation) and, most damaging perhaps, BHP's role in managing the Howard government's response to the challenges of climate change.

Both authors are former journalists. They are not used to managing long narratives, but rather are familiar with short ones. For this reason a lot of the book feels like an extended feature article. One major problem with this method is that the reader is constantly surprised by names that had been introduced earlier in the piece but whose relevance the reader has subsequently forgotten. In a 1000-word feature this is easy to counter: you just scroll back up the story until you find the first reference to the peron. In a book running to 500 pages you just shrug and concede defeat and plow on, remaining ignorant of which Bob or David is being talked about at that particular point. This is a failing of method and it is routine in this book.

But beyond this weakness there is an overriding lack of narrative theme. The journalists have decided to pack the book with every available fact and just forge ahead using time as the main ordering principle. It doesn't work. The book is fragmented and often seems repetitive because the strong editorial hand is missing from it. It could have been a really gripping read if the authors had possessed more long-form experience. Unfortunately, they don't and so the reader is faced with trawling through pages and pages of unimportant detail in search of the theme that will make everything make sense. It's just not there.

Regardless, it's a book that any Australian with curiosity about the social, environmental and economic performance of a major mining company can profitably read. It's a page-turner at times. It's just that sometimes it seems that the authors are more interested in being seen to be experienced insiders than they are in showing the truth about an industry that will cintinue to be controversial well into the industrial future that awaits us all.

Monday 3 January 2011

Oh dear.

The holidays have not even ended and already I've got a gripe, and not a trivial one. The attack, by journalist Brigid Delaney, on inner-city types who go to art galleries and wear tight jeans and sand shoes is another example of the kind of reaction against progressives that we have already seen from Christian Lander, author of Stuff White People Like. Back in my days of youthful experimentation, the run-of-the-mill progressives who favoured Newtown over wherever they originated from (Brisbane or Dubbo), were dubbed by us "droogs". The term derived from the 1971 Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange but unlike the Droogs in the film our droogs were just the routine latte-sipping trendoids who got shit-faced at friends' parties at squats in Pyrmont then went to work in the public service on Monday like everyone else. Like the bogans.

The thing that Delaney and Lander forget about the inner-city type is that he or she often came from somewhere else, gravitating to those parts of the big cities of Australia because of an often-inchoate yearning for a better way of living. There may now be critical mass in some areas. The election of Adam Bandt, of the federal seat of Melbourne, to the Lower House of Parliament, is merely the result of decades of demographic shifting in that part of town. When I was young and living in a share house in Newtown there was little choice for droogs: it was Sydney or Melbourne and nothing else. Now, the same shift is no doubt occurring in other major urban centres in Australia. The thing to remember is that the change was a long time coming. And it was never, for the individual, a sure thing.

The barriers that used to exist that worked against a shift to the inner city were significant. We called these people droogs in a humorous vein, considering them to be just nice, middle-class kids with grungy pretensions (and this was a long time before Pearl Jam appeared). But the progressive impulse, which both Lander and Delaney choose to lambast, is often the result of a long period of gestation. During this period the individual can go through a process of soul-searching as they decide what to do to mitigate the sense of ennui that regular suburban life engenders in them. As I said, it's not usually a sure thing, although it suits glib pastiche to redeploy those motivations in such a way as to make them small enough to criticise. As such, the criticism is essentially facile.

The cute duality that Delaney sets up - between the bogan and the intellectual - ignores the rather depressing fact that bogans overwhelmingly outnumber intellectuals. Many intellectuals came from bogan families and then rebelled at the end of their teens. A far smaller number were privileged to grow up with parents who respected their ideas and gave license to alternative life choices. Most broke out of the bogan straight jacket in order to "find themselves" in a more congenial environment - this they knew to exist at the very centre of the major conurbations. It takes a large city to support a droog, whereas a bogan can live anywhere, even in such inhospitable places as Karratha or Rockhampton.

The thing is that the intellectual, the droog, is still a minority and intellectual types like Lander and Delaney should know better than to slip the knife in where it can do real damage. They should know that, on the streets, people who look different still get hurt.

Sunday 2 January 2011

If ever there were proof of how necessary WikiLeaks is in the modern world, it's action flic The Losers (dir Sylvain White, 2010), a fantasy based on a comic series of the same name published by DC Comics from 2004 in which "a team of special forces soldiers ... declare war on the Central Intelligence Agency after their Agency handler tries to assassinate them". The film opens during an operation the group are carrying out in Bolivia against a drug baron, which carries loud echoes of Oliver North's Iran-Contra scam, in which proceeds of illegal sales of arms to Iran were diverted to rebels in Nicaragua fighting against the Sandinista junta ruling there. Manuel Noriega, the ex-president of Panama, was indicted for drug smuggling as part of the affair and served time in a Miami prison before being extradicted to France to face further charges there. It was a nasty chapter in America's foreign affairs and one that we would do well to remember now, as the WikiLeaks debacle unfolds in the media.

The original DC Comics series, also called The Losers, dealt with a group of WWII soldiers and began in 1970. The shift to the CIA signals popular awareness that while war continues in peacetime, it's carried out by clandestine operatives in secret.

The film is not at all realistic. Notable in this regard is the way the men in the team seem so readily to recover from serious injury sustained during their adventures. It's also formulaic. When Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) meets Aisha (Zoe Saldana) they fight ruthlessly in a seedy Bolivian motel until it burns to the ground. Outside, Aisha then blithely tries to conscript Clay's support for a revenge attack Aisha plans to carry out against Max (Jason Patric), the CIA boss who betrayed the team. A romance also develops (yawn), which will figure largely in the (otherwise thin) plot due to Roque's (Idris Elba) suspicions about this shadowy female who effectively infiltrates their tight-knit group.

Yes, the plot is thin and yes it's pretty incredible based, as it is, on the existence of a lethal weapon of mass destruction that uses sonics to destroy a target without generating harmful waste. It's Max's goal to secure enough of the WMDs to allow him to create a terrorist threat in the community because it's in his interest as a member of the secret agency he works for to have people scared and willing to tolerate further impositions by the administration on their freedoms. As such, the movie also contains echoes of the spin-doctoring that took place ahead of the American invasion of Iraq, when governments throughout the West used devious public relations methods to convince their electorates to support a military action that had no other rationale than finishing off George Bush's incomplete 1990-1991 Gulf War.

It's part of the beauty of basing a movie on a comic that you don't need to worry too much about verisimilitude. But the other comic legacy is the underlying humanity of Clay's team and the way they function as a group. They all agree that justice must be served and they believe that they are the best-qualified to ensure that it is. They act from consensus, while Max is temperamentally brittle and capricious, and rude to those who serve him. They value their freedom but target only those who they believe are acting contrary to the best interests of society. It's a simple equation, but interesting nonetheless. The film is all action, most of which is completely outlandish (as when sniper Cougar (Oscar Jaenada) punctures the petrol tank of the motor bike Max's lieutenant Wade (Holt McCallany) is riding on so that he catapaults directly into the jet engine of the plane that is about to take off, carrying Roque to safety with his ill-gotten billion dollars). But it's not meant to be believeable stuff. It's meant purely to entertain. Apart from that, it contains multiple messages about the way that governments go about business that, if they were widely known, would without doubt be labelled illegal.

And why are they called 'The Losers'? Because they believe in things that the majority of people can understand. It's a question of morals.

Saturday 1 January 2011

It's hard to believe that it actually rained again this morning. Last night, as the fireworks went off at Mooloolaba in front of the tourist holiday lets, there was more light rain a-falling. It got heavier towards midnight and the streets were wet this morning. Then more sprinkles of precipitation around breakfast-time. It's a sign the drought has broken.

Up north, they say that an area the size of New South Wales is under water. Other pundits in the media say it's an area the size of France and Germany combined. All that water, which fell over the past week, sometimes in veritable torrents that crashed from the sky accompanied by thunder and lightning, is now draining seawards down creeks and rivers that have swollen to record volumes. Houses and businesses are expecting the flood to subside in Emerald in the next few days. Down the Fitzroy River - which they say constitutes Australia's second-largest catchment after the Murray-Darling system - seaside Rockhampton (pop 75,000) waits for the water to arrive.

Those in the food industry will tell you that prices for vegetables in Australia's major south-eastern cities will rise as a result of the wash-out. We can also expect that some of the water will have started to drain toward the wouth-west, toward Lake Eyre in South Australia, where already last year heavy rain brought water not seen thereabouts in a decade. While some will applaud because the drought has finally broken, others will short-term rue the deluge and raise their fists in anger at the gods. Eheu! At least the grass is thriving.