Friday 30 November 2018

Book review: Upstate, James Wood (2018)

When I started to read this engaging novel I thought that it was just a tad underwritten. It was as though the writer had been unsure about where he wanted to go and of how to get there. There are odd transitions from time to time as the focalisation switches, sometimes in the middle of a chapter, from one character to another. (Focalisation is the common novelistic technique of channelling the narrative through the consciousness of a specific character. You get to “see” things through the eyes of Helen or of Alan.) These events were slightly disturbing and I wondered if the author had been aware of what he was doing as he did it.

But eventually things sorted themselves out. Although sometimes the characters seemed annoyingly unaware of the effect they have on other people, the rawness of the novel in the end turns out to be an asset. There is a freshness in the conception of the work and a vigour in the execution that are remarkable.

The story is also unusual because it takes place in or around 2006. It takes you a while to understand the timeline and I had to go to the computer to use the calculator to do the sums. There I worked out that Alan, the main character, was born in 1938 or thereabouts. His eldest child, Vanessa, was born in 1966 and when the book opens she is an academic and is about 40 years old. Vanessa struggles periodically with depression but it has coloured her whole life. Alan has been called from the UK, where he lives with his partner, Candace (who is ethnically Chinese and was born in China; the girls’ mother, Cathy, had left the family when they were children and has since died as a result of cancer), to a wintry upstate New York to visit his daughter. His other daughter, Helen, is a record company executive and lives in the UK although she travels to the US frequently. She is married to a man named Tom (who we do not meet) and has two children of her own, and also comes to New York to see her sister. Vanessa lives with Josh, who is American and a journalist who specialises in technology, and they are not married. They have no children.

Josh had emailed Helen to warn her about Vanessa’s illness and Helen had contacted Alan, raising the alarm. The way that this novel deals with mental illness is to do it with sensitivity and aplomb. Vanessa’s and Josh’s conundrum is real and problematic and the way that people around them deal with it (Alan not so well, Helen with a kind of detached resignation; Vanessa had had episodes before) is realistic.

The book also tries to grapple with larger issues – such as the internet and technology generally, and with the fallout from the twin Towers attacks – but in the end these things are of less importance than Vanessa’s health. But I thought it was insightful of Wood to place his drama in the year he chose because it was a pivotal moment in world events, being three years after Facebook was founded, the year before Twitter was established, and a time when the world was still coming to terms with Islamic extremism (and the reaction to it). The election of Barack Obama was just around the corner, as was the GFC. It’s as though, like Alan contemplating his fragile eldest daughter, everything was holding its breath.

The town of Saratoga Springs, where most of the drama plays out, is also waiting: for spring, which is just around the corner. The locales used in the book are depicted efficiently and with sympathy and intelligence. There is plenty of good, strong poetry in this book that is used to interleave the scenes that are enmeshed in the stories that pass through people’s minds. The simplicity of the cold, barren landscape is an effective foil for the involuted and sometimes suffocating processes of people’s diurnal thoughts.

The denouement is striking and subtle, hinging as it does on Alan’s relationship with his daughter, and it drops into your lap quietly, like a comment overheard in the lobby of a commercial office building that you happen to be visiting, or like a fall of snow in early spring that drops next to you on the pavement after falling off the roof of a house. Like a modern-day King Lear, Alan has three women (plus his elderly mother, who lives in a nursing home that he pays for) he must deal with, in addition to his own mortality.

I just wanted to comment briefly on the title of the book. Choosing this descriptor used for the location of the towns that form the backdrop to the book is of course efficient, but the title does more than this in the context of mental illness. Often people who meet people living with a mental illness advise them to “get over it” or to “buck up”, as though such suggestions could remedy what ails them, but the reality of mental illness is far more difficult. It cannot be overcome by mere force of will, as though you were getting over a poor exam mark or the loss of a job. On the other hand, many people living with a mental illness continue to function as active members of the community, as Vanessa does at her college. There is no easy answer, but there is also no single answer. Each person deals with it in their own way.

The setting for the film (in 2006) also highlights the meagre levels of resources that were dedicated at the time to illnesses such as depression compared to the huge quantities of money put aside by governments around the world at the time for “fighting terrorism”. We are more aware, now, of things life depression, but we still have a way to go.

Wood is a critic and is English but lives in the US. This novel reminded me for this reason of the 2017 novel ‘Eureka’ by film critic Anthony Quinn which I reviewed here on 31 August this year, and which I also thought was very successful as a work of art. While the works are very different in design and in style, in both Quinn’s and Wood’s books there is a protagonist who is a mature man who is surrounded by complex characters, with each character given space to feature as a credible source of truth. In both books there is also an abiding humanity that animates the whole.

Thursday 29 November 2018

In The Field, number 01: Pretty green stripes

‘In The Field’ is intended to be a series of blogposts that will run here as long as I can source suitable content. Farmers operating in Australia can send me photos of their farms and descriptions of the steps that they take to overcome problems that they face in their routine working lives. An exchange will likely result in some questions and answers. I don’t know how many of these posts will be produced but I have long felt that farmers needed a bigger voice in the broader community.

This is a barley field on a farm managed by John Stevenson outside Lockhart, a town situated in the Riverina in southern NSW, between the Murrumbidgee River and the Victorian border. “Some of our barley meets the strict criteria of correct grain size, colour and protein content to be used for malt production ([a] key ingredient of beer),” John told me via DM.

“Our barley which doesn’t meet [those] criteria is mainly used as stock feed, either within Australia or overseas. Barley is an important ingredient of feed rations across many parts of the livestock sector. There is usually a $30-40/tonne premium for malt barley but this varies with supply and demand.” So John earns more money if his barley is of a quality that enables it to be used for brewing.

Malting is a process whereby grains of barley have water added to them and are allowed to germinate, but then they are dried to halt the process before it completes. The partially-germinated barley is called “malt”.

The challenge

Removing weeds from cropped fields so that the moisture stored in the subsoil is not wasted by their growth. 

“The barley was harvested two weeks ago,” John told me, referring to the photo (above) he had sent. “The grain has been removed and some of the straw has been baled to feed cattle at a reasonable cost. Following a very dry year November has been wet. Not all of the grain is collected in the harvester and there is always a proportion of grain ‘loss’. 

“As you can see this lost grain germinates and effectively is now a ‘weed’.”

Keeping moisture in the ground is critical for farmers to succeed and, if left to grow, weeds will use moisture that would better be preserved for the crop to come the next year. “The biggest limitation to our crop production is moisture and we are able to store moisture in the soil for next year’s crops. The green rows you see are actually using/wasting next year’s crop water. If we don’t control the weeds the soil will dry out completely in these strips.”

John explained that subsoil is everything below the topsoil. “Our hot summers generally dry out the top 30cm of the profile. The moisture we carry forward for the next crop is below that level. Our roots can grow down to 1.8-2m on some of our soils.”

The pretty green stripes in the photo are actually bad news, but how to remove weeds?

The solution

“We could dig them out (known as ‘cultivation’) but this removes the valuable mulch which protects the fragile soil surface from wind, sun and rain,” John told me.

“Our modern-day alternative is glyphosate, a chemical which is in the press a lot these days. I have been using glyphosate for this purpose for nearly 30 years and it has revolutionised sustainable farming.”

Glyphosate was developed by the chemical company Monsanto and was marketed under the product name Roundup but is now produced by many companies around the world. But why is digging out the weeds a bad idea?

John explains that “cultivation” is digging out the weeds, like a gardener would do with a spade or a fork. But it can be destructive of the topsoil. “Our topsoil is only 5cm to 10cm deep and very prone to erosion if exposed to the elements. The mulch is a thin layer of crop residue on the soil but also the standing crop residue from this year which is about 150mm high.” So the stubble that is left in the field after the harvest protects the topsoil that has to be in good condition in anticipation of the next year’s sowing.

John also told me that cultivation destroys soil structure. “Soil particles are bound together by the soil microbiology and there are important drainage channels through the soil made by decaying plant roots and soil-borne insect life.”

Monday 26 November 2018

A tale for the times: legacy media versus indie media

People on Twitter have put up comments that rage against the Walkley Foundation in the wake of the award of a Walkley Award to Sharri Markson of the Daily Telegraph for the Barnaby Joyce infidelity story. As usual there is the complaint about the "legacy" media which got the award and the "indie" media which broke the story. But what are the facts in the case?

I saw a page published by an outfit called True Crime News Weekly which contained a story by Serkan Ozturk that included a picture of Vikki Campion. The story was dated 13 February 2018 but someone online implied that the story appeared initially in October 2017. The outlet told me later that there were stories on this topic published on 24 and 25 October 2017, and they showed me the links and the pages. Then I saw a letter from a law firm addressed to the website dated 13 February 2018 complaining about the story of that date, that had been sent on behalf of Campion and that denied all of the imputations contained in it.

Apparently the story was then picked up by Independent Australia, which is an outlet run by a man named Dave Donovan. The True Crime News Weekly account told me, “They called us up while putting theirs together.” IA published a story on 19 November about Joyce and Campion and the DT put theirs up on their website on 6 February 2018. IA also put out a string of related stories (21 March, 28 May, 31 May) in early 2018. The New England by-election that Barnaby Joyce was contesting for the Liberal Party was held on 2 December 2017. Markson has said that she tried to verify the rumour behind the story in October 2017 but couldn't manage to do it. If she had been able to, Joyce might well have lost the poll.

Enthusiasts tend to rail against the machine in the name of freedom, but the outlets that they praise are not everyone’s cup of tea. I haven’t read anything on the TCW site but I have read some on IA’s website. It tends to publish stories that contain a strongly partisan (on the left of politics) viewpoint and there are often structural and grammatical problems with them that would have been fixed before publication by a legacy media outlet.

I mentioned to one person I was talking to about the award that many freelancers don’t belong to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (the journalist’s union) because they can’t afford the fees. To put forward your story for a Walkley you have to be a member of the union. Donovan then said that he was a member but that he didn’t submit his story for the award. I don’t know if TCW’s Ozturk is a member and if he thought about entering his story for the award, but it seems unfair to blame the Walkleys for giving the story to the DT if the other media outlets involved never bothered to put themselves forward in the running for the prize.

On the other hand, the existence of the indie media stories mentioned in this post should have raised a rad flag for the Walkleys when they were deciding who to award their prize to. It’s not valid for Markson to deny their scoop on the basis that they are “blogs”. Can we please get away from these outdated categories that characterise bloggers as unemployed misfits sitting in their pyjamas in their mothers’ basements? Clearly, the DT did not get the scoop (which was the award Markson won). But if indie media outlets want to be in the running for such awards, they will have to pay their dues and submit the relevant paperwork.

As a footnote to this discussion, I think it’s worth looking for a moment at notions like “indie” media and “legacy” media. I first wrote about the idea of indie media back on 26 March 2013. In that post I talked about the way that the different outlets behaved in order to contextualise them outside of labels like “mainstream media” (or its contemporary form, “MSM”) and “indie media”.

From what I can see the basic difference between the two types of media outlet comes down to the fact that the legacy outlets have more people to do things like editing and subediting, making the text read smoothly, and ensuring that the ideas are both contextualised properly and embedded in language that is accessible and engaging. This costs money of course, and it is probably also a symptom of the fact that legacy media journalists have mostly been to university to study the craft and so have some sort of grounding in the kinds of principles that will lead to the production of good, solid, well-written content. Having all of your journalists go through the same process of acculturation is not necessarily the best way to organise your fourth estate, of course. Having some diversity in the sorts of viewpoints that you encourage, viewpoints that derive from different sets of experiences, in an objective sense must contribute to adding depth (and value) to the ecosystem.

But the economics of the business has changed so drastically with the appearance of the internet, and with social media the smaller players get almost as much exposure as the majors. So money is the sticking point. It doesn’t matter if you pay money to an indie outlet or to a mainstream outlet, but you should be paying something to someone in order to ensure the stability of our democracy. 

Sunday 25 November 2018

Victorians plump for Labor and (more importantly) for sausages

If you ever needed confirmation that Australia, and particularly Melbourne, is food-obsessed, then what follows should allay any doubts that might have remained in your mind. Eating sausages at polling places is practically mandatory; they even had them on hand in Antarctica, where residents vote with Victoria. Farmers at least should take some comfort from Saturday’s election.

If you don’t buy a sausage you won’t get any ballot papers. This is of course a joke, but it’s not really far from the truth. In this post almost every man and woman represented by a tweet was partaking of snags. With or without fried onions and with or without tomato sauce – ketchup for Americans – or mustard, or BBQ sauce (an Aussie staple which has a dark brown colour and a smoky tang).

The new normal gives new meaning to the expression "Silly sausage", a term of endearment from the old days used by parents when comforting a child who had banged a knee or grazed a knuckle. And the question being asked on election day (apart from the poll result) was this: onions on the top or on the bottom?

At 8.49am Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT) on Saturday 24 November, Melbourne resident Simon Bowden set the tone early (polling stations opened at 8am and would close at 6pm), tweeting a photo of two young men eating sausages wrapped in slices of bread. Both men had beards and wore glasses. The tweet contained the #demcracysausage hashtag. At the same time federal Nationals MP Darren Chester tweeted a photo showing a sausage, with tomato sauce and fried onions on it, sitting on a slice of white bread. His tweet included the comment, “First democracy sausage down! Don’t have breakfast Traralgon voters - Grey St Primary School is producing magnificent sausages in white bread, onion on top! The only way to go.” Two minutes later Melbourne resident Nicole (@coldishtoes) tweeted a photo with the hashtag that showed a sausage with fried onions on top of it on a slice of white bread.

At 8.58am Rob Harris, who lives in Canberra, responded to Chester’s tweet, “Just spoke to Mum and Dad and they’re walking down the hill now to get one.” Chester got back to him two minutes later, “Make sure they say g’day and I’ll shout them a sausage... after they vote of course! Wouldn’t want to be accused of soliciting votes with sausages! What a scandal that would be.” At 9.05am Victorian resident James (@ichymochek) tweeted, “Congratulations to everyone today who manages to not only vote, but also eat a sausage.” Two minutes later Benno of the Twitters (@jeamland), a Melbourne resident, tweeted a photo showing a piece of white bread with a sausage on it that had tomato sauce liberally applied to it. The whole thing was held in a paper serviette.

At 9.08am, Melbourne resident Tim Welsh-Eliot tweeted, “Cooking a hot breakfast, including sausages. In case my local voting venue doesn't have any democracy sausages for sale. Sure, @electionsvic has a map of places to vote, but doesn't indicate which ones have a sausage sizzle. Someone needs to lift their game.” A minute later, Jordan Janssen tweeted, “Held out to vote on Election Day for the democracy sausage, and there wasn’t even one being set up at my local polling booth. Just rude.” A minute later Guy Barker tweeted, “No one panic, but rumour has it that Richmond Primary School doesn’t have a sausage sizzle today.” At 9.13am the @demsausage account replied, “Alarming. How reliable is the rumour? Should we mark it as sausageless on the map, or wait for other reports?” Six minutes later, Barker replied, “Unsure yet - I heard it from a Labor [pollie] who apparently heard it from the [Victorian Electoral Commission]. Will keep you informed.”

At 9.21am Tom Minear, a Herald Sun journalist, tweeted, “’Worst nightmare’ - Federal Labor MPs fear Bill Shorten’s bid to become prime minister will be damaged if Premier Daniel Andrews is forced to rely on the Greens to form government.” The tweet contained a link to a story on the newspaper’s website. As if she had just seen Minear’s tweet, at 9.23am The Australian reporter Rachel Baxendale tweeted, “Greens MP for Prahran @Sam_Hibbins is fending off Liberal and Labor contenders in the only genuine three way contest of the election. Upper House Lib @georgiecrozier (not pictured) is also handing out at Prahran RSL.” The tweet came with a photo showing volunteers with the colours of their political parties lined up outside a building on a suburban street.

At 9.26am federal Labor MP Rob Mitchell tweeted, “It’s Election Day don’t forget to cast your ballot. @DanielAndrewsMP all the way.  If you’re in Whittlesea [don’t] forget your #democracysausage from the wonderful Whittlesea Lions daredevil[; top or (safety first)] bottom onion.” The final comment referred to a story that had hit the news the week before that recounted how the hardware chain Bunnings had instructed charities selling sausages on bread outside its stores to put the onion on the bottom, next to the bread, out of fears that if onion fell off the sausage it might constitute a health and safety risk (people might slip on it).

At 9.30am Melbourne resident Sumeyya Ilanbey tweeted a photo showing a sign that had been placed on the pavement outside a building. On the sign was printed, “Coffee, hot chocolate, democracy sausages, cakes, cakes, cakes, 2019 calendars.” Also on the sign was printed “EFTPOS available.” The tweet said, “Eftpos available at this election booth in Brunswick.” (EFPTOS means “electronic funds transfer point of sale” and refers to the machines that retailers put next to their cash registers to take money from customers who don’t want to pay using cash; they can instead use a bank transaction card that is linked to a bank account. Usually sausages sold outside polling places cost a gold coin: one or two dollars.)

At 9.34am Victorian resident Anna Mallard tweeted a photo showing a hand holding a paper serviette that was wrapped around a piece of bread that held a sausage with mustard and tomato sauce on it. The tweet had the #democracysausage hashtag in it. At 9.37am Melbourne resident Dancing Dan (@dancingdanb) tweeted, “I live across the road from a polling station but there is no democracy sausage set up!! I should just set up my bbq on the verge.” A minute later Nathan Wind, who didn’t put on his Twitter profile where he lives, tweeted a photo showing a hand holding a piece of white bread wrapped around a sausage that had tomato sauce, onion and mustard on it. The tweet also contained the short comment, “Democracy!!!!!”

At 9.40am The Age journalist Michael Short tweeted, “[Votes] below the line, but onions below the sausage?” His tweet referred to the fact that preferences exchanged by political parties for votes cast for the upper house of the Victorian parliament were not always clear. It was impossible with the system as architecture for voters to know where their preferences would end up, and therefore which party’s candidate would be elected. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) psephologist Antony Green had been telling people in the week leading up to the election that people could ensure their actual preferences were followed by selecting candidates on the ballot in the area below the line, where the names of individual candidates, not political parties, were set out for voters to tick with their pencils. At 9.43am account @uberingingmelb tweeted, “No sausage sizzle, or even coffee here...” A minute later Short put out his tweet again this time with a retweet to a story published by his newspaper informing readers about the reasons they should vote below the line on upper house ballots.

At 9.41am Melbourne resident Matthew Mills tweeted, “Went to vote. Liberal candidate had parked his car on the school crossing making it hard to see oncoming traffic when crossing the road. I mentioned it to him and he said there were no [‘No parking’] signs.” Five minutes later he also tweeted, “When I came out of voting I noticed he had moved his car a few feet backwards off the crossing. Democracy works!”

At 9.48am Melbourne resident Dale Roberts tweeted, “Voted Labor. Voted below the line in upper house. Voted onions on top for my democracy sausage. Travelled to another electorate just to get a democracy sausage.” His tweet contained a photo showing two young men with beards holding pieces of white bread with sausages in them that had mustard and tomato sauce on them. There was also onion on the sausages. One of the men was smiling lopsidedly and the other was standing behind him looking straight at the camera with a faintly humorous look on his face.

At 9.51am Jack Bee-Knee (@alsolounges) tweeted, “If you're burning onion while simultaneously undercooking it, [you] have no right to comment where it's placed.” A minute later, rose (@rowjamm), who didn’t include her locality in her Twitter profile, tweeted a photo showing a table set out with a bowl of vegetables in a brown soup and a piece of unleavened bread. There was also a cup of cappuccino next to the food. Her tweet contained the comment, “No sausage, but can't complain canai?” At 9.54am Natasha O’Connor Put a photo showing a frankfurter in a bread roll sitting in a paper dish. The tweet also had the comment, “It's here! #VicVotes today to hopefully keep Matthew Guy out.”

At 9.57am Thornbury resident Matthew Hall tweeted, “Today’s #vicvotes is the first time our whole family will casting ballots! Huzzah! #democracysausage for all!!” A minute later Melbourne resident Dean Adams tweeted, “I love living in a place where #democracysausage will trend higher than #vicvotes or #VictoriaVotes on Election Day.”

At 9.59am Bentleigh Farmers Market’s account retweeted a tweet from CBR Foodie that read, “@bentleighfarm has set the #DemocracySausage bar pretty high for #VicVotes this morning! I think we’re done. Back to trolling #Canberra #food tweets now...” This tweet retweeted one from Bentleigh Farmers Market that read, “Even better than a #DemocracySausage is a yummy bacon & egg roll or veggie burger (with or without egg). Available from 8am until 12.30pm, inside or outside our #FarmersMarket at the polling station at 90 Bignell Rd #Bentleigh East.” This tweet had a photo with it that showed a male hand holding a bun that contained a burger made from something yellow and what looked like egg and avocado.

At 10.02am Melbourne resident Laura McCormack tweeted, “For anyone voting at All Saints Anglican in Northcote, Beryl & friends have your democratic rights covered.” The tweet contained a photo showing a slice of white bread wrapped around a sausage that had onion and tomato sauce on it. A minute later, Melbourne resident Teri Cooper tweeted, “Voting done, now for a #democracysausage for @DanielAndrewsMP and don’t hold back the onions!” Thepolitician named in the tweet was the premier of the state, Daniel Andrews, of the Australian Labor Party (APL). The tweet contained a photo showing a woman standing next to a table that had mustard and BBQ sauce bottles on it. The woman was putting tomato sauce on a sausage she held in her hand wrapped in a piece of white bread. There were there women standing behind the table who were serving customers. One of these women had her hands clasped in front of her stomach and she was smiling.

At 10.06am a Perth native who lives in Melbourne, Anthony Stewart, tweeted, “In a democracy the onions go on TOP!” His tweet contained a photo showing a sausage wrapped in a piece of white bread with fried onions on it. The whole thing was held in a paper serviette.

At 11.01am @andrewgigacz tweeted, “Look, I'm not saying the DEMOCRACY SAUSAGE is a secret plot to ensure the Liberals get thrashed, but it's an anagram of A CODE: MASSACRE GUY.” The comment referred to the Liberal Party leader in Victoria, Matthew Guy. At 11.04am Matthew Elmas tweeted, “Pork and fennel snags at my polling station in Macleod. How gourmet. Will cost you an extra 50c though. Not sure about whether its onion on top or not.”

At 11.06am Hugh Rundle tweeted, “What a joke. VEC assigned 3 staff to distribute #VicVotes ballots at Collingwood College. Current wait is over an hour in the rain.”

At 11.08am a man who says he lives between Fremantle (in Western Australia) and Melbourne named Damien Rabbitt tweeted, “can confirm NO #democracysausage at the Northcote Baptist Church Hall, but quite some queue to vote.” The tweet came with a photo showing cars parked on a suburban street and a long queue of people lined up on the footpath. The queue ended at a building that did, indeed, look like a church. At 11.11am a resident of the Latrobe Vallye, Jarrod Whittaker, tweeted, “Same deal at Newborough town hall. Plenty of democracy, no sausage. This is an outrage.” The tweet came with a photo showing party volunteers standing outside a building with voters entering it. One woman shown is seen stretching out her hand to receive one of the how-to-vote pamphlets that a volunteer holds in his hands.

At 11.14am Carlton resident @clintwits tweeted, “Well [that’s] disappointing... No @DemSausage or cakes at #carlton Gardens primary... Ah well will just have to go home and do my own sausage sizzle then.”

At 11.21am Melbourne resident Damian Chandler tweeted a photo showing a ballot paper for the lower house that had been marked with a pencil. Someone had written a new series of boxes, each of which had a number in it, and the labels read, “Boobs, Hot dogs, Beer, Vodka.” The box with the number five in it had no label. A ballot paper filled out and submitted with this kind of marking on it would be counted as an informal vote.

At 11.24am Melbourne resident Geoffrey Payne retweeted a tweet that had gone up an hour before. It said, “Out on the booth for @Cindy4Brunswick with @gedkearney @VictorianLabor.” The two Twitter handles were for Cindy O’Connor, the Labor candidate for the state seat of Brunswick, and Ged Kearney, the Labor member for the federal division of Batman. The tweet came with a photo showing four women smiling at the camera. One woman had a read hoodie on with the hood up. Another woman was wearing a blue skicker with the hood down.

At 11.28am Melbourne resident Kelly Benson tweeted, “The diligent bbq team at St Kilda primary are delivering sausages to people in the voting queue. That's service!” The tweet came with a photo showing a woman’s hand holding a paper serviette with a piece of white bread in it wrapped around a sausage, with onion on top. In the background you could see the feet of people queueing on the pavement of what looked like a sports ground.

At 11.31am Perth resident and self-proclaimed Greens supporter Zia Hakimi tweeted, “Huge lines outside Brunswick Town Hall even though it has been raining quite a bit.”

A minute later, Melbourne resident Shane Brown tweeted, “Member for Essendon, @DannyPearsonMP [Victorian Labor lower house MP] checking some high-quality #Democracysausage action at Moonee Ponds West Primary School. @Pillstyle [Paul Limoli] in full control of the barbecue.” The tweet came with a photo showing a BBQ set up outside a building with a blue awning over it. There was a man holding tongs looking after the sausages that were frying on the hotplate. Next to him a young man was standing and it looked like this man was talking with an older man opposite him (presumably the politician named) who was wearing a grey jacket and a suit and tie.

At 11.36am Ballarat resident Bridget Rollason tweeted, “No #democracysausages at the Maryborough polling booth in the marginal seat of Ripon, just a long line.” The tweet came with a photo showing people standing in the sunshine outside an Art Deco building. At 11.39am Melbourne resident Katerina (@kat_la) tweeted, “Coffee stop. Melissa Templestowe. Great coffee and food.” The tweet came with a photo showing a woman’s hand holding two disposable coffee cups with plastic lids.

At 11.42am Melbourne resident Jacquie Tran tweeted, “I love that my country has compulsory voting (making it a democratic responsibility as much as it is a right), and that my state's electoral commission promotes the #DemocracySausage!” The tweet came with a retweet from the account operated by the VEC that said, “Voting centre queues are busiest around 11am - why not have a #democracysausage while you wait? Otherwise, mid-afternoon is the quietest time to vote. Use the hashtag #votingqueues to post live updates of how busy your centre is and help others avoid the crowds.” Two minutes later ABC employee (producer of Jon Faine’s radio program) and Melbourne resident Katrina Palmer tweeted, “Long queue to vote at Brighton primary. Can confirm steady flow for #democracysausage.” The tweet came with a photo (shown) showing a school sports ground with tables set up on the periphery where people were standing. The queue of voters is not shown, this photo just shows the charities that had set up tables to make money selling sausages and bread.

At 11.50am Melbourne resident Ted Sussex tweeted, “Our [Lady of the Sacred Heart College] in Bentleigh with 4 food stalls.” The tweet came with four photos, two of which showed tables with biscuits and cakes on them, one photo showing a barbeque, and one showing a table with wrapped sandwiches and sauce bottles on it.

At 11.54am Melbourne resident Daniel Bowen tweeted, “My democratic duty is done. Note the onions on top.” This came with a photo showing a man’s hand holding a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of bread with a sausage and onions in it. There is also tomato sauce on the sausage.

At 12.03pm, Melbourne music journalist Reece Hooker tweeted, “The biggest scandal of the 2018 Victorian state election is clearly, obviously the absence of a sausage sizzles at some voting centres.” The tweet came with a screenshot showing an online conversation between two people about sausage sizzles at polling places.

At 12.06pm Sky News reporter Patrick Murrell retweeted a tweet from the VEC that had gone up a few minutes before that said, “We'll go to the four corners of the earth to get your vote! Shout out to voters at Casey Station, Antarctica, who are enjoying a #democracysausage while voting (photo credit: Dale Smith).” The tweet came with a photo (shown) with three men standing on rocks and a woman sitting. Two of the men are holding what appear to be pieces of bread wrapping sausages, but it’s not entirely clear from where the camera is positioned. In the background behind the people is a sign saying “Casey” and a pole with signs attached to it showing the locations of other places. The signs are pointing in different directions and they are yellow. The pole they are attached to is held up by guy wires anchored in the ground. Behind the group is the sea and you can see snow.

At 12.12pm Angela Korras retweeted a tweet that had gone up a couple of hours before from ABC radio host Rafael Epstein that had said, “So, so satisfying to vote! Best voting system in the world. Cheers to #democracysausage volunteers, party volunteers and @electionsvic people.” The tweet came with a photo showing a hand holding a paper serviette on the outside of a piece of white bread wrapped around a sausage with onions on top. The sausage also had tomato sauce on it. In the background behind this was a building with party volunteers standing outside it and party candidates’ posters.

At 12.18pm Melbourne resident David Stocks tweeted a photo with the #democracysausage hashtag that showed a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of white bread which held a sausage that had mustard and tomato sauce on it. In the background, behind the food, was a queue of people in the grounds of a suburban church. A minute later Melbourne resident Helen MacLean tweeted, “Walked to my local primary school, didn’t get rained on, bought my #democracysausage, two cookies and a jar of pear and raisin conserve, (and voted). Democracy is a wonderful thing!” The tweet came with a photo showing a hand holding a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of brown bread that held a sausage with tomato sauce on it. At 12.21pm Melbourne resident Katherina Howell tweeted, “It’s a two democracy sausage (each) kind of day.”

At 12.22pm @fukvit10 retweeted a tweet that had gone up an hour before from a person identifying themselves as Lett Sipping Bogan that had retweeted a tweet from (self-declared) Bellevue Hill (Sydney) resident @paulkaz12 that showed two lobsters on a grill. The image was a nod to the Opposition leader, Matthew Guy, who had been caught in August 2017 having dinner with mafia boss Tony Maddaferi at a seafood restaurant.

At 12.29pm @ynoirb tweeted, “There is a polling place at the end of my street but I walked 2 kms to another suburb to vote because I WANT MY DEMOCRACY SAUSAGE also they had a cake stall.” At the same time Melbourne resident Renatha Mulqueeney-Reed tweeted, “Couldn't stand it! Voted yesterday yet keep seeing pics of sausage sizzles! Forced to go to @Bunnings and pretend to be shopping only so I could buy a sausage sizzle on the way out! Onions on the bottom tasted all wrong but still very satisfying.” The tweet came with a photo showing a hand holding a blue paper serviette with a piece of white bread and a sausage in it. There was barbeque sauce on the sausage but no fried onion was visible.

At 12.31pm Melbourne resident Alastair Pitts tweeted, “Democracy done. Made sure I got my #DemocracySausage as well.” The tweet came with a photo showing a hand holding a tan paper serviette with a piece of white bread in it wrapped around a sausage. There was tomato sauce on the sausage and the hand that held the serviette also held the leash of a spotted grey dog.

At 12.34pm Bendigo resident Lou Bray tweeted, “Voting at my old primary school.” The tweet came with a photo showing a hand holding two paper serviettes with two pieces of white bread in them that were wrapped around two sausages. There was no sauce in evidence, nor onions. In the background behind the food was a building with people coming and going and with the election posters of candidates scattered around the place.

At 12.40pm Melbourne resident Clare Murphy tweeted, “I love democracy,” with the word “love” replaced by the emoji for a heart. There was also a photo showing a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of white bread in which a sausage and onions were nestled. In the background behind the food you could see the posters of candidates, and people milling around. At the same time Williamstown resident @docavvers (Averil) tweeted, “Vegan cupcakes at Williamstown Primary, but I had a #democracysausage. And put the Shooters last.” The tweet came with a photo showing a hand holding a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of white bead with a sausage and onions in it. There was also tomato sauce on the sausage. The political reference was to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, which has in recent years been contesting elections in the states.

At 12.44pm radio presenter Brian Peel tweeted, “Served how a snag should be served. Onions on top!” the tweet came with a photo showing a hand holding a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of white bread with lots of onions on top. There was also tomato sauce. At 12.48pm ABC Melbourne reporter Joanna Crothers tweeted, “The polling station in Seddon didn’t have a #democracysausage I’m very disappointed.”

At 12.50pm Melbourne travel writer Tim Richards tweeted, “No mere sausage for me before voting in inner-city Melbourne. Behold the porcini egg with Jerusalem artichoke rosti & roast mushroom duxelle from Industry Beans. Next, I shall vote.” The tweet came with a photo showing an elaborate meal laid out with great care to appeal to the diner. It wasn’t clear what the food was made from but the comment gave sufficient information, I presumed.

At 12.52pm Michelle Eddy tweeted, “Footscray City Primary School selling Free Range Black Angus Sausages #democracysausage. Coffee & Cake Stall. It’s a good day to be Victorian.” The tweet came with a photo showing people standing around tables set up under awnings. On one table were large yellow and red bottles presumably containing sauce.

At 12.55pm Melbourne woman Goldie (@goldie_fm) tweeted, “My @DemSausage has been had.” It came with a photo showing a hand holding a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of bread with a sausage in it that had mustard and tomato sauce on it. At the same time Heather B (@hev_boyd) tweeted, “Democracy Sausage.” Her tweet came with a photo of a hand holding a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of bread with a sausage in it that had tomato sauce on it.

At 12.57pm Melbourne Guardian reporter Luke Henriques-Gomes tweeted, “Some complaints there’s no almond milk at Moreland Primary.” Nine minutes earlier he had tweeted a photo of his hand holding a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of white bread with a sausage in it that had BBQ sauce and mustard on it.

At 1.01pm @kevs_view tweeted, “Queue for #democracysausage longer than the one for #vicvotes at Chelsea Heights [Primary School]. Due to the great empty gas bottle catastrophe of 2018. (But worth the wait).” The tweet came with a photo showing a hand holding a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of white bread that had a sausage in it (with onions on the bottom) that had tomato sauce on it.

At 1.03pm writer and radio host Paul Verhoven tweeted, “Question: how many #vicvotes voters had to pay for their sausages and is being made to pay for your democracy sausage deeply undemocratic?” At the same time Melbourne resident Sally Hayles tweeted, “Ripponlea Primary [School] bringing the goods this Election Day with a sausage sizzle, sweet cake stall and the shortest line for a metro voting booth I’ve ever encountered.” The tweet came with a photo showing a hand holding a brown paper serviette wrapped around a piece of white bread with a sausage and onion in it that had BBQ sauce and mustard on them. In the background behind the food was a building with a table out the front of it that had an awning set up above it. The table had bottles of sauce on it.

At 1.08pm, @kerry_lambert tweeted, “The was no sausage sizzle at my polling booth. Now THAT is a true democracy at work.” At the same time ABC digital producer Andie Noonan tweeted, “Vote 1: #democracysausage. This Brunswick East polling station has controversially gone with onions on top though.” The attached photo showed a hand holding a paper serviette wrapped around a piece of white bread that had a sausage in it with fried onions on top as well as mustard and tomato sauce.

At 11.11pm, the federal Greens leader Richard Di Natale tweeted, “Enjoying a delicious democracy sausage here in beautiful Richmond! Thanks to all of our amazing Greens candidates, staff and volunteers here in Victoria for a great campaign.” The attached photo showed the politician ostentatiously holding up in front of his face a piece of white bread wrapped around a sausage. His mouth looked full and his lips were closed. In his left hand you could see the paper serviette that had been given to him when he bought it. No sign of onions.

At 1.15pm ABC Victoria political reporter Stephanie Anderson tweeted, “Democracy queues. Should’ve got the sausage first...” The photo showed a queue of people standing outside a building in what looks like a school sports ground.

At 1.17pm Nick Etchells tweeted, “Question answered. Bill Shorten votes #onionsonthebottom.” The photo that came with the tweet showed the leader of the federal ALP standing underneath a blue awning that had been set up over a table in front of a building, and eating a sausage wrapped in a piece of white bread. In front of the politician were two cameramen, one with a video camera and one with a still camera. They were busy taking his picture. It was impossible to see the onions in this shot.
At 1.21pm the Democracy sausage Twitter account retweeted a tweet that had gone up a minute before from Ryan Sheales, a communications staffer at the Victorian Council of Social Service, that had said, “I just met a democracy sausage DOG. His name is Teddy Roosevelt. This is beyond my wildest dreams.” The tweet came with a photo of a brown dachshund on a black leash.

Anyway, you get the message. I could have spent all afternoon collecting like messages but I decided to limit the post to a reasonable length. The desire to vote was equalled by the person’s desire to take a photo of their hand holding a sausage wrapped in a slice of white bread that had been sold to them for a dollar or two (one person reported a price of $2.50) by a charity eager to raise funds. Nothing can come between an Aussie and his or her food.

But what was also often noticeable in these tweets was the staged purpose of the message. The photo would be taken deliberately to show the food in the foreground with the polling place visible in the background. The feeling that you were seeing something managed by the poster existed in a majority of cases. Democracy turned into an opportunity for a wicked selfie. Eating sausages as a marker of authenticity. Voting as a blazon for identity politics.

In the end the result was so convincing that Antony Green was able to call it before 7.30pm. It saw a big swing to Labor in metropolitan Victoria but losses were not just limited to the Liberal Party. The Australian Greens also bled some supporters to Labor in many seats. The swing to the Labor Party in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne was most noticeable, with a string of wealthy areas close to the CBD changing from Liberal to Labor with the help of preferences. Talk of a close election was utterly unfounded in the event, and the opinion polls over the past two days, which predicted a swing to the ALP and a result where the ALP would get 54 percent of the two party-preferred vote and the Liberal-National coalition would get 46 percent, turned out to be pretty accurate (as normally happens in Australia, where voting is mandatory). At 8pm on the election night the 2PP result was actually 57 percent to Labor and 43 percent to the Coalition.

The law and order campaign waged by the Liberals completely failed to get any support from Melbourne voters. Likewise the scare tactics used by federal Liberals on account of “terror” in the wake of the 9 November stabbing attack on Bourke Street (which actually highlighted mental health as an issue) was dismissed by the city. The Labor Party’s drug injecting room will therefore go ahead.

On the bigger question of whether onions should go on top of the sausage or next to the bread and underneath the sausage, I think it’s pretty clear from the sample used in this post that the consensus among Melbournians was that it should remain where it has always sat: on top. As with the government: no change needed. The voters solidly rejected the finicky solution conjured up by Bunnings, but the recall factor that onions held for Melbournians should be a source of comfort for the retailer.

Saturday 24 November 2018

Book review: Everyday Enchantments, Maria DeBlassie (2018)

I hardly read any of this silly book, which is a kind of packaged version of mindfulness that you would buy at the $2-shop but which has been made out of plastic in a Chinese factory. Every conceivable cliché is here, from crystals to cups of tea. The author shoves the whole kit and caboodle into her Christmas hamper of comforting tropes, a ragtag bag of conventional ideas designed to make you feel better about your idiotic, consumerist lifestyle.

This is a product of the social media age, when the way that connections on Facebook and Instagram optimistically edit their lives for public consumption leaves consumers feeling dissatisfied and empty. This book tries to fill that void. Don’t bother looking for meaning in art or literature! Just read this book and everything will be made clear! You'll feel better! Anyone who finishes reading this book should be mandatorily committed to a mental asylum.

Friday 23 November 2018

Book review: Point Blank, Alan King (2016)

This is a publication from a small press in Los Angeles and Alan King lives in Maryland where he works in communications. His parents migrated to the US from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970s.

I especially liked 'The Hostess' and 'The Listener'. In these two poems, I felt that the narrative had a soundness and strength that allows the writer to carry emotions across to the reader. Both poems are about women and both involve looking back over the past. They also both talk about food. As a general rule, however, I didn't feel that the same level of success was achieved with the other poems I read.

What impressed me about the two poems singled out above was that King is able in them to use particular instances of memory to convey something of universal applicability. Toni Morrison does the same thing in her novel, 'The Bluest Eye'. I reviewed this book on 11 March 2006 but I don’t remember much about it now. Morrison is particularly interesting because as an African-American writer she still managed to anchor her stories with details that have universal applicability. I have found with some contemporary writers who have a strong sense of their ethnic identity, such as Bonnie Chau (2018’s 'All Roads Lead to Blood') and Claudia Rankine (2014’s 'Citizen: An American Lyric'), that the ability to carry meaning across to a reader who comes from a different ethnic background is severely limited.

What strikes me in many of the poems in King’s book is that there is a striving for effect that sometimes does not succeed very well. Also, on occasion the referent for the words used is not clear. I think that the degree of poetry in general is good but not all of the poems are as successful as the best of them.

‘The Hostess’ paints a domestic scene that involves the writer’s mother, who is cooking curry, and his father, who comes home tired from work. The words his mother uses have a powerful weight that brings her character alive in the poem, and you can see the young boy looking at his parents as they cement their relationship with humour and mutual respect. The home described in this poem is a healthy place where a child can grow in an ambience of tolerance and love.

In ‘The Listener’, the writer remembers his aunt Mops when he hears a woman laughing in a supermarket aisle. She is standing next to the spice section so, as in the poem described above, curry enters into this poem as a locus of meaning redolent with signification, something that represents goodness and peace. The “listener” in this poem is Mops, who has always supported her talented nephew, who wants to be a writer. The creole she uses adds a flavour of authenticity to the poem, and you feel the tug of a foreign culture anchoring the writer to ancestral roots in the Caribbean.

Thursday 22 November 2018

Book review: Rondo, Chris Wallace-Crabbe (2018)

This collection of verse didn’t manage to keep me interested to the end. I finished reading at about 40 percent of the way through. The poetry is uninteresting in a curious way: the imagery is accurate and sometimes effective but the ideas that animate the poems are uninspiring and pedestrian, as though the person whose mind was animating the enterprise were just a suburban nobody instead of an eminent poet. There’s a lot going on here and you can sense a certain efficiency in the expression but there’s not much actual poetry in evidence.

Wallace Crabbe has been doing this kind of thing for a long time and I remember reading his poems when I was younger. I believe I have one of his early collections in my library. He has a reputation in Australia as a competent practitioner but I was disappointed with this book. Where he uses rhyme things come alive, although some of the rhymes are a bit facile, but the long poem about the life of Jesus is just awful. In general, I was not drawn to complete the book because the quality of the whole is very low, which is a sign that the culture of criticism in this country is not adequate for the purpose of sustaining good, inspiring work.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 20 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 19 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 18 November 2018

Book review: Eggshells, Catriona Lally (2018)

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

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

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

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

Saturday 17 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 16 November 2018

Melbourne Cup day at work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 15 November 2018

TV review: Tomorrow Tonight, episode one (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Book review: Freak Kingdom, Timothy Denevi (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 12 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 11 November 2018

Western civilisation and the role of religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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