Tuesday, 31 December 2019

A year in review: 2019

This article is a 30-minute read so if you are pressed for time perhaps it’s best to bookmark it to read at leisure. I worked on it for six weeks.

One consequence of the hot spring weather was that on Wednesday 13 November I started cleaning up the place. On Facebook I said:
Have tidied up bits of the living room, putting books away, and throwing magazines out to be recycled. Some books have gone on the shelves while others, which I don't want, have been taken out. The rejects will be taken to a charity for them to sell. I also plan to clean out the boxes of stuff that have cluttered up the room that contains my bookshelves, and that have been on the floor there for five years. Time to get things in order ...
The next day, the Thursday, I said this:
Emptied six boxes that were on the floor in the third bedroom which is, because of all the bookshelves it contains, virtually a library. Shredded stacks of paper. Threw out old folders and boxes. Stacked the books along the wall on the floor and on top of the dresser. Have started to make headway, but there's still more work to do before it's all sorted. Not sure what I'm going to do with all the books, there are hundreds without anywhere to go apart from on the floor ..

On the Friday, this:
I have put some of the books from the spare room on my dresser. Will have to find a more suitable place to put them at a later date. Good suggestion from Antony Talone to get another bookcase made for the bedroom.
And this on the same day:
Have thrown out 12 boxes to be recycled, and the books on the dresser have multiplied to match. The dull looking tome visible in the image below is my mother's uncle's autobiography. The volume with the gorgeous, ornate binding is one of mine from my student days in the 80s. It's a book by art critic Andre Malraux. Everything higgledy-piggledy ...

The result of all the work? After almost five years of living in my apartment, I could see the library floor. In the end, all of the boxes you can see in the photo below were moved: the plastic storage boxes you can see behind the chair at the back of the room, next to the window: they went into the closet. The other boxes were emptied out and their contents put away or shredded.


As I was putting some books aside planning, as I didn’t want them anymore, to deliver them to an op-shop, I realised that most of my books gave me joy so, on Friday 15 November, I rang a carpenter, made a drawing with dimensions marked, and emailed the image to him along with a photo of one of my existing bookcases so that he could match the colour. I had eight bookcases but there were hundreds of books without anywhere to go and three full plastic storage boxes in a cupboard in the library would also need to be dealt with: either cull the books in them or put the books in a place where I could access them. Or a combination of the two. Leaving them where they were was, I decided, impossible.

My email to the carpenter didn’t go through so I rang him again 10 days later. He got me to SMS the drawing and I paid a deposit with my credit card. I also SMS’d the dimensions of the lift the deliverymen would have to use to get the thing up to my unit from street level. The next day I approved his detailed drawing. A couple of days later I sent drawings to the same carpenter describing two more bookcases and asking for a quote. I figured I could get a better deal if three units were delivered at the same time; if nothing else it would save on transport costs. He replied with the information I had asked for and said he could get them all delivered before Christmas. 

On the third Tuesday in December the deliveryman arrived in the street outside my building with his truck and we drove around to the loading dock where two security guards were waiting for us. Together, the man and I wheeled the bookcases into the garage, into the lift, and took them up to my unit. We had finished before 11am. The following photo shows one unit after it was installed and filled with books.


I had started to use my new shredder from Officeworks (see photo below) – dad’s machine gave up the ghost one day – as well as a vacuum cleaner I bought at Godfreys on the Great Western Highway. I also bought a new clock at Officeworks because my old one, bought in Burwood in 2008, stopped working too. 


Underneath a stack of old papers – tax invoices, phone bills, records of the amount of urine dad had produced when he had catheterised himself to micturate – I brought out of one box that had been in the library a funeral directors’ bag – stemming from the event of dad’s death – with, in it, a Bible that had belonged to mum’s great-grandmother, Maria Alexina Carr. This woman’s husband had been born in Ireland. In the summer of 2011 the book was damaged when water and sewage filled the basement of mum’s building in Maroochydore. 

I even got to the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet and emptied it of papers. Some were sorted and stashed elsewhere and others – including bags of receipts from old tax returns – were shredded. I felt bad about all the paper I was putting down the garbage chute, and I was heading to the loading bay to dispose of three bags of paper when, at the moment the lift arrived, the cleaner appeared with his wheelie bin. I asked him what to do with shredded paper and he said to just put it in the garbage room on the floor and it would then be recycled. If I put it in the chute, he went on, the rubbish container at the bottom of the refuse shaft would fill up too quickly.

Sorting through papers, it became apparent that mum had had to take over the running of the household in 2008. There had been a transition when dad was making notes for mum so that she could do things, like pay bills. Then all of the bills and invoices and receipts are stuffed into manila envelopes and put away to keep.

Other items were affected by the water, and I threw some away. I asked an old friend of mine, Paul Feain, a seller of antique books, whom I should contact in order to repair the Bible, and he told me to phone Cali Andersen in Redfern. So I did. When she saw it she told me to get the mould taken off it, so I took it, as she suggested, to Preservation Australia in Annandale and gave them the ok to go ahead, in the week before Christmas, with the job. Once that had been done, Andersen would be able to see about replacing the binding.

I took down cups and saucers and mortars and pestles that had been gathering dust and grime on the top shelf in the kitchen cupboard. There was a heavy Krosno glass salad bowl that was, in 1991, a wedding gift, and ceramic vases and lacquered dishes: bibs and bobs. I took packets of knives, spoons, forks, and assorted kitchenware from out of the sideboard in the living room. Washing cutlery and crockery felt, like cleaning out the library, overdue. 

I found an unused and pristine wallet Antony Talone had bought me years earlier and into it I now transferred everything useful from my ragged wallet – an item that had been bought in Burwood shopping centre in 2005 or 06 – as I chucked out a pile of faded receipts. This solution didn’t work though as when one night I took the new wallet with me, going to dinner with a friend, it kept falling out of my pocket, so I transferred everything that was in it into a batik wallet mum had had in her collection of goodies and that she had thoughtfully, at some stage, given to me.

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Decluttering actually started a bit earlier than stated at the start of this post. On 6 November while buying clothes online for the first time I brought out from the back of the closet a handful of shirts that I had worn years before. I wrote about those purchases in November. Three weeks later I was still bringing out old clothes: now trousers that had not fit at some point in time. I had slimmed down from a size 44 to a size 40, and I had some old size 38s as well, but reaching a weight that would allow me to wear them seemed a bridge too far. 

One of the usable pairs of pants I took to the dry cleaners. On the same day I brought out a green woollen coat I used in the 1990s when I lived in Tokyo, and which still fit me. Looking a little better was a coat (see photo below) I bought in about 1985 after for the first time graduating from university, which I wore in my job as a book publisher’s representative. It’s a “London Fog” coat and I got it at David Jones in Bondi Junction; I thought it, at the time, the height of style.


One day in late November, from a shelf inside the sideboard, I extracted the exercise bike’s logic unit and, within a tangle of electrical cords and power boards, I zeroed in on its voltage adapter which I plugged in, before turning the thing on. It seemed miraculous: the machine worked when, about 10 days later, I tried using it. Since moving south I had wanted to exercise in this room, but a wall of belongings impeded me. Other things I was able to organise were my reference books (see photo below), which I brought together in the entertainment cabinet in the living room. This entailed relocating a shelf, for which task pliers came in handy. 


My street directories are now, likewise, all in one place: on a shelf in a bookcase I bought second-hand in around 1989 – stripped of paint using a heat gun and a putty knife – which is in the library.

On one shelf in the kitchen there was a yellow ceramic cup I had bought for mum to use in her nursing home (see photo below). She had specified the kind she wanted and I had bought it one day somewhere – I have no recollection or record of doing so – and for five years, since her death, it had sat unused.


Many cups uncovered in the kitchen survived intact my 2015 move from Queensland to Sydney. In the library, some things had got lost and in turn other things appeared in unexpected places. Once all the boxes had been allocated space in a cupboard, had been emptied out and put downstairs in the loading bay to be recycled, or had been earmarked for sorting at a later date, every time that I entered the library I experienced a feeling of wellbeing. Even sitting on the couch in the living room while reading one of the books that had been made accessible by my efforts, left me feeling good. 

Planted on the red vinyl of the couch I could sense the emptiness in the library – which is located down the hall and around a corner and through a doorway – as I was scanning the printed page with my eyes or turning it to continue the story on the next one. The threads of my consciousness reached out into the apartment I called my home, directing back to me a positive vibe while, before, I had sensed an obstruction.

I had felt compelled to face what had been a confused mass of objects, perhaps as a consequence of the warm temperatures. Perhaps it was also due to a feeling that, finally, I could face the memories, including those linked to mum’s passing. Perhaps it was due to this year being the last of the 21st century’s Teens. Perhaps it was a combination of all three. 

Perhaps, also, it was due to the close-call health-wise in January (an operation fixed that) and the second set of heart problems in August and September. Readers of my blog might remember the heart palpitations that occurred in August last year. At that time, the diagnosis was not alarming but the problem recurred with a vengeance at the beginning of the year


Once it was fixed, in August things started to get tricky again, and I was in the hospital several times. The upshot of all this toing-and-froing was that I gave up alcohol and started a course of antidepressants. This medication stabilised the palpitations and so I was able to get to sleep without feeling like I was about to die, but the big clean-out did bring back some painful memories such as how, once mum was under my care due to her dementia (she was diagnosed in March 2014), I had to cancel all the donations she had started to give to charities using her credit card. 

There were dozens of them and now I found remnants, in letters and receipts, of that time. Charities phone old people – who are often isolated and therefore grateful for any chance to talk to a real person – and sign them up to monthly plans linked to their causes. Helping to look after animals is one I found evidence of while shredding papers. Another thing that triggered negative emotions was a 2001 Christmas card in mum’s hand addressed to two people named Jill and David. The woman, I found out a bit later after doing some Google searches, is Jill Eddison, author of several nonfiction works. On her card mum wrote, among other things:
Our son Matthew is in Sydney alone, & under professional guidance at last. His marriage will probably end soon also. Geoff is being most kind to him, we are eternally grateful.
Use of mum’s brother’s name like this is most suggestive and, looking at my records, I unearthed a fact that had slipped my mind: Eddison is the maiden name of Geoff Dean’s widow, at the time of publishing this account, alive and kicking. 

Jill Eddison was responsible for a 1995 monograph titled ‘Romney Marsh: The Debatable Ground’, which I now bought through AbeBooks from a UK bookseller named Winghale Books. She also wrote ‘World of the Changing Coastline’, which came out in print in 1990, and ‘Romney Marsh: Survival on a Frontier’, which came out in 2000 and which has a foreword by Barry Cunliffe, an academic and author. He has a knighthood and it might perhaps have been the cachet associated with his name that inspired dad to make the comments he made within mum’s hearing. I bought these books, too, the former from Julies Bookshop in the UK and the latter from Orbiting Books, who are also based in the UK. 

As I was tidying up and acquiring her books it struck me with some force that mum had never mentioned to me the name Jill Eddison in the five-and-a-half years I was living near mum and looking after her in Queensland. This ellipsis is odd as she knew that I was interested in writing and in books. I wonder why she never mentioned to me her and dad meeting Jill and her husband David. The wedding mentioned in the missive was that of a cousin of mine.

As for Uncle Geoff, given the circumstances he was indeed kind to accept me into his home when I arrived back from Japan in 2001 though, in fact, I had been receiving professional help since the end of the previous year; I spent Christmas Day in 2000 in a Tokyo hospital before being discharged so that I could re-enter the community. Once I had returned to Australia support was made available by the New South Wales government, but I had virtually no supervision and was free to do what I wanted because I didn’t need looking after. For her part, mum spent no time talking to me about these things until much later and, even then, it was only mentioned occasionally if the subject of mental illness surfaced in our conversation, which it didn’t often do. 

In the same card she continues:
We arrived back in Australia only a month ago, so have just collected ‘the Book’ which Peter has whisked away to read in bed. I’ll get to it later. Peter had many trips to England & knows so many of the areas, he also sailed on the Norfolk Broads one Summer. He confided the book is so well researched, indexed etc that ‘it could have been written by a man’ a high compliment, meaning the writer has an academic & scientific approach. I was so happy to meet you at The Wedding, & suggest that you could consider the Queensland coast & hinterland worthy of a trip one day – the Glass House mountains behind, the Blackall Ranges, & the Maroochy Rivermouth has swamp to the north, since our arrival in ’97, of Pincushion Point, then Island, now Point again.
The landscape feature she mentions sits at the mouth of the Maroochy River, and could be seen from the balcony in their apartment, which was in a building near the water. In 2001 I didn’t get an invitation to visit them. In fact, mum told me later, in no uncertain terms, after dad had gone, in 2009, into a nursing home, that he hadn’t wanted me to visit.

The card was in a filing cabinet purchased to house mum’s papers after she moved, in early 2011, to a two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a building on Beach Parade in Maroochydore, just around the corner from the unit she had shared, for a decade, with dad. A piece of paper holding the Eddisons’ name and UK address had been placed, at another point in time, inside a cardboard removalist’s box full of papers. This piece of paper dates from the time when dad was still living in the old apartment and it was clear, as I was tidying up, that dad had conserved it in his records on purpose. 

Dad was just being typically precise in his record-keeping, but mum must’ve put that Christmas card in the filing cabinet. Was that done for me to find it, or was it just that she wanted a place to put something that might, otherwise, be easily lost? And why wasn’t the card sent? Now, I can’t know the answer to any of these questions. 

Also in the filing cabinet was a letter, written on a PC and printed on a sheet of A4 paper, with the title ‘2003 Christmas letter’. Dad regularly wrote such circulars in order to keep friends and family up to date with each year’s events. The third paragraph of his missive goes like this:
Matt is still in Australia by himself and having landed a three month contract at the University of Sydney is working hard to turn it into a permanent job. We are pleased and hopeful.
This letter was written, it is clear from what is contained in other paragraphs, by dad. In actual fact, I had spent almost the whole of 2002 and the first half of 2003 reading Jane Austen and books of biography and history, with a focus on the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I never in my entire life saw dad read a novel, so the kind of activity I had plunged into could not have been thought useful, even if it had registered with him at all. Another paragraph in his letter goes like this:
Sister Sally died on 24th September 03. John Cromwell phoned from their farm at Mypolonga South Australia as soon as he got back from the Nursing Home. It was a relief to know that Sally is at last free of the degradation of Alzheimer’s. 
Dad would die with the same disease less than eight years later. Uncle Geoff died with Alzheimer’s as did mum. Dad goes on later in the same letter:
During the 1930’s [Sally] was my surrogate mother during my waking hours, taking me to school, looking after me when our mother was at work. On Friday evenings when mother worked back, Sally often took me to the railway station to meet her, keeping me dry and happy on those cold, rainy, black winter nights only Melbourne can deliver. 
Dad’s written expression was powerful, as his memoir – in 2002 I received a CD-ROM with it inside – proves. By 2005 when I finally saw mum and dad – having driven in my Toyota Echo up the main north-south highway on the east coast of the continent – things were different because by that time I was on a different type of employment contract. It was a type called “continuing” in order to distinguish it from a temporary contract; “permanent” was not used in the context to classify university administrative personnel. In a letter to a friend named Dan who lived in the US, dad wrote on 1 December of that year:
Matt has found a job that he enjoys and Judy and I could not be more pleased. Our hopes are high for his future. We ache to see his children, the last time was in Honolulu in 1999. We are pleased and happy for him and hope that his future is on the road to fulfillment.
When I found this letter I wasn’t puzzled by dad’s reliance on the idea of employment as the only thing that can give meaning to a life, but I was puzzled on account of his willingness to admit that he and mum had been hurt because they couldn’t see their grandchildren. 

This is because dad didn’t provide any support for them in a material sense or, for that matter, in any other fashion. Looking through his papers I can see, dating from 2006, documents relating to the sale of an investment property the two of them owned on the river in Maroochydore and in 2008 mum sold another unit they had in the same building. But dad made no move to send money to Japan so that his grandchildren would have a place to live. (I had never been able to buy an apartment in that country because banks there wouldn’t recognise the value, as collateral for a loan, of a property I owned at the time in Australia. In addition, my employment status had never been rock-solid; I was a contractor according to the HR department at Yamatake Corporation, a fact they would exploit when they found I was sick.) 

In a letter to his accountant, dad regrets that, on an occasion when I met with him and mum in 2005, I hadn’t told them anything about my relations with my family in Japan. There was no mention in this letter of his grandchildren and no apparent display of concern about their wellbeing, but it might have been that he was waiting for me to say something about my plans regarding my family, so that he could suggest a way that he might provide them with financial support. Now, I can never know what he intended to communicate to his accountants in the case that I said to him that I planned to bring my family to Australia or, alternatively, that I planned to return to Japan to live and work. I tried the latter but the attempt was not successful. In the end, I lived alone in Australia, and still do.

I would end up looking after him and mum once they became too old to properly look after themselves. When I talked to my cousin John Bishop about all these things he voiced surprise at what I revealed about mum’s and dad’s thinking at that time – now, almost two decades in the past – but also noted, wisely, that dad had told everyone of my acquaintance about my breakdown. As a result many people had sent cards and letters to me when I was in hospital in Tokyo. I kept these in the cabinet beside my bed in the ward, and still have all of them now, in a drawer in my entertainment cabinet.

Below is a photo taken in the middle of 2009 at the time I moved north to live in Maroochydore, in Queensland. Mum is with me on the couch in their apartment. At the same time as I unearthed this photo, I found a CD-ROM with a label on it with “Peter’s computer” written in mum’s hand. The words “until he couldn’t” is also written there along with the date, “early 09.” The disc contains the contents of dad’s Toshiba laptop.


Below is a photo of a pair of shoes that I dragged out of the closet this month. The last time I wore them was in 2009, when I worked in the IT department of Sydney University. They still serve the purpose they were made for. This photo was taken outside a building I used to work in, starting in 2003: the Services Building.


As well as books, papers, and kitchenware, I was also unpacking boxes containing photos. On the second Sunday in December I drove to Ikea and bought a flat-pack chest of drawers. The next day, in the hallway outside the library, I assembled it. On the day after that, I put away thousands of photos in the drawers I had made (see photo below). 


While I had long reconciled myself to my memories or, at least, to some of them, I knew at this moment why I had delayed so long the job of tidying up the library: doing so forced me to confront difficult realities, versions of events that contrasted with the image that my parents created for the benefit of their circle of acquaintance. What I knew, as a result of studying physical remnants from that time, didn’t jibe with what people close to mum and dad thought they knew, as I learned when I spoke with John on a day that fell after the sky had emptied of smoke and the central business district was, once again, visible. People sometimes don’t project their true feelings or thoughts. Sometimes people hide the truth. 

Changing the inside of my home did, on the other hand, return a psychological dividend. We are horrified by homelessness for the same reason that tidying up a room in your house can bring rewards. The idea of habitat is hard-wired into the species so being without a home is somehow shocking to contemplate. So many ideas are attached to the word “home” that it is almost impossible to list them all. 

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Two-thousand and nineteen was the first year I went down to the garden next to the outside swimming pool in my apartment block. It was the Christmas party and I stood around talking with a downstairs neighbour who writes books. But other things were new, as well. I downloaded a user guide for the stove – which I had never used – paid a deposit on a new car, and started listening to commercial radio while driving. I also started watching commercial TV at home; this felt like a major innovation, and was something I had not done since Japan, where I lived in the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing to happen to me this year was my trip to the Middle East. You can see the posts that stemmed from it in May (21 posts), June (11 posts), and July (8 posts). There are 41 posts in all with the final one appearing on 24 July.

In a year that was marked by the closure of Google Plus, I signed up for two new social media platforms – Civiq and WikTribune Social. Civiq, which is run by a US journalism non-profit organisation, went offline for a few days in mid-November and developers would continue to repair and tweak their code over time. After a month or so of use, it seemed to have very few members.

WT Social, which was set up by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, contacted me after I joined and asked if I was interested in becoming an administrator, presumably since I had been sharing so many links on the site. They told me, however, that I was sharing too many links from my own blog, and that if I wanted to be an admin I would have to give them an assurance that this wouldn’t continue. In the end I turned them down. After about a couple of months’ using the site it appeared to be mainly a place where people could complain about Donald Trump – disinformation in the public sphere seemed to be the main topic of conversation – but there was a subwiki about AI that was also well-patronised.

Frequent posting also seems to be an issue on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. I joined Instagram site in early November and on the 16th and the 21st of that month they barred me, for a day on each occasion, from commenting or posting photos. The first time it happened, I asked my daughter why it was so and she said I was probably due to posting too much. I find Instagram pretty mindless, furthermore, and I soon stopped following accounts with a similar profile to ones I already followed. Another thing that strikes me it that the suggestions it offers never vary, so you are always presented with the same list of accounts to follow. This is in contrast to what happens on Facebook, where the suggestions change all the time.

LinkedIn had begun, conversely, to seem more relevant than ever before. They had started, for one thing, to include a marker next to links you post on the site showing people who follow you how long it would take them to read each post you put up, if it is made up of text. This seemed, to me, to offer a good way of enabling people to gauge, before clicking, what kind of investment would be required, in terms of the time spent with your thoughts, in order to engage with you, but the feature disappeared after a couple of weeks. Beyond that, since other social media platforms had become more and more polarised, and less and less civil, LinkedIn, which had once seemed stiff and unapproachable, began to look more and more attractive. Because people’s reputations are precisely linked, there, with their online personas – the number of anonymous accounts is much lower on LinkedIn than on Twitter, or even than on Facebook – they behave more circumspectly. This results in a better experience.

One other thing that I noticed this year was the ubiquity of content available online in audio and video formats. Everyone, it seems, is making podcasts or videos and sharing them with people they know, who follow them on social media, or who are tuned into hashtags. The headphone jack on my PC is broken so I haven’t much listened to much audio, but while I was writing this I turned on my speakers and they still worked, so with the end of the calendar year I was able to listen to audio while sitting at my desk (I had been consuming videos on my mobile phone). 

I made another technological discovery, too, when, on the way home from filling up the petrol tank at the service station, I tried to work out how the clock in the car might be changed. To do this I pressed the “Mode” button a few times then, on the off-chance it might work, held it down for a few seconds. The hour marker started flashing, indicating that my surmise had been correct. I had not, for a number of years, changed the clock in the car to account for daylight saving, no longer possessing the operator’s manual for the car. Now, I would be able to.

In November I started to do something for the blog that I hadn’t done before: I began collecting in a spreadsheet mentions of books by people on social media. I see dozens of such comments every month, it turns out. I started collecting them on 18 November and by 19 December I had 41 book titles listed in the file. I don’t even have to do anything; the titles arrived in my timeline automatically because of people I follow. This kind of facility was unknown when I was in my 20s. At that time, you talked with people at parties, or with friends who had talked with someone at a pub or at a dinner party. The routes information took to get to you were less immediate, and depended on physical proximity, in many cases, although gatekeepers in the form of literary critics also held sway in a way that, now, they do not.

It was a year of sharing in other ways, too, as I noted on Facebook on 28 November: “Bought a birdbath yesterday at Bunnings. I put it on the balcony and filled it with water. Today a rainbow lorikeet was the first bird to have a dekko. It alit on the balcony balustrade but flew off before using the thing because it could see me inside, presumably.” On the last Friday of the month the gulp of swallows I had seen the Saturday before were back circling in the space in front of my building but, as with the two new social media sites mentioned above, there was a lack of participants. 
I put the birdbath on the back verandah so that birds could get to it without the risk of seeing a human. Later, on the last Thursday just before Christmas, I brought the birdbath back to the front verandah. This was because I had seen an Indian mynah flying into the space created by the overhang there, and thought it might have been looking for water, as the air was full of smoke. The poor thing seemed disoriented. 

At the end of the year of the pig, bushfires on the eastern side of the continent meant the air above Sydney was hazy on many days. While drought in this part of the continent had been predicted in 2014 because of how the Indian Ocean Dipole has been behaving, people were quick to blame the prime minister. There was even a hashtag – #MorrisonFires – that, on 16 December, started trending on Twitter on account of his government’s lack of concrete action on climate change. Regardless that the government’s explanation for the fires – they were partly due to climate change – was accurate on the strength of available evidence, parts of the community had strong beliefs and the complaints about the PM continued into the following week. Whatever the truth – and everyone seemed to be, suddenly, an expert – indicators for the year of the rat were inauspicious, as you can see in this shot of the city skyline at 5.40am on 31 October 2019:


At 5.31am on 3 November the sky was clear:


At 5.28am on 9 November the air was also clear:


At 5.50pm on 19 November there was a bit of smoke evident:


And at 6.04am on 21 November the smoke was heavy:


On 26 November at 6.22pm the air was full of dust:


On the morning of 29 November the air was again full of smoke:


At 4.28pm on 2 December the smoke was back again:


At 3.28pm on 5 December it was even worse:


At 5.22am on 8 December, the sky was clear again:


At 6.42am on 10 December the sky was full of smoke again:


At 5.10am on Friday 13 December the sky was overcast but the air was clear:


At 8.48am on 19 December the smoke was there again:


And on 22 December at 5.36am, a cool day, the sky was, again, clear:


The following photo was taken at 5.19am on Christmas Day, also cool. It had rained on Christmas Eve.


And on 30 December at 9.06am the sky was hazy again:

Monday, 30 December 2019

Book review: The Mutations, Jorge Comensal (2019)

This satirical novel came out in Spanish in the author’s native Mexico three years ago. There is at least one error in the translation but it’s not fatal. In other words, it doesn’t fatally obstruct the transference of meaning from the author to the reader. I bought this book recently from my local independent bookseller because it wasn’t available on Kindle.


The architecture is somewhat dicey so, among other things, it’s not immediately clear what the title adds to the narrative, which charts the course of the life of a 50-year-old lawyer who finds out he has a rare cancer in his tongue.

The parrot on the book’s jacket is more redolent with poetry. Ramon (the main character) names the bird Benito Juarez after a dead Mexican president who had been a lawyer. The idea of a lawyer – who is supposed to represent his or her clients in front of the authorities, and “speak for” them in those places – losing the power of speech is laden with enough meaning to sink a ship, but then giving him a parrot who swears like a sailor cements the point in your imagination. Perhaps a better title might have been ‘The Caged Bird’, alluding both to the parrot on the cover as well as to Ramon’s dilemma.

But you are supposed to have things standing in for higher powers, and the roles that professionals play in this book make it a novel of ideas as well as a satire.

There is Teresa, Ramon’s psychologist, who dispenses marijuana as a palliative in addition to the advice she provides during consultations. Then there’s Dr Aldama, the oncologist, who loves classical music and who dispenses prescriptions for opiates. Within the spaces filled by these characters – in addition to Ramon’s wife Carmela, his daughter Paulina (15), his son Mateo (18), and his housekeeper Elodia – there’s plenty of time in this short novel, which moves very briskly toward a conclusion, to dwell on big questions.

Some even are answered, at least as far as you can trust this author, who seems to be a dedicated secularist. The words you use in Mexico for this kind of person might be, for all I know, different from the ones you use in my country. But whatever you choose to believe, this novel can be recommended as a tonic to today’s vituperative and rambunctious public sphere. Perhaps we all should all be a bit more like Ramon, and keep our thoughts to ourselves.

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Book review: Antipodes, David Malouf (1985)

This collection of short stories feels dated. Some of the issues it deals with – such as Australia’s recent establishment and its belonging to the “New World” – are not much talked about now, in the 21st century. We are much more confident about who we are than Malouf and those of his generation were, once. We don’t need bolstering in our self-esteem. We know what we can do and how much our polity is worth. The cultural cringe is gone.

Another problem you have with these stories is the determination of the author to create high culture. There is a languor about the prose, and which is betrayed by the long, multi-clause sentences that carry the plots forward and that render the characters. You get impatient with each list of things that the author has decided is necessary to create the illusion of life on the printed page. I wasn’t overly impressed by this kind of dynamic and wished that things would move a bit faster. I am used, now, to the quicker pace of prose that is published in both the mainstream and for literary fiction.

The way the theme of teenage sexuality is explored, furthermore, in the first story in this collection, which is titled ‘Southern Skies’, would be impossible to publish now, in the years following the hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse that we have been witness to over the past 15 years or so. In fact, such a story could not even be written now by an author with any self-respect.


The cover design is curious and I wonder if the two stars to the left of the Southern Cross represent the US and Europe. Such a reading would make sense in the light of the book’s contents. This copy has been in my library for a long time and I hadn’t read it before now, although I skipped the last few stories. 

If you give this book a chance it is worth it to persist just so that you can see how much fiction in Australia has changed in a generation. In his heyday Malouf was considered very classy but I don’t think many people read him now.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Book review: The Secret Army and the Premier, Andrew Moore (1989)

Published by the University of New South Wales Press, this monograph is based on a PhD dissertation. It desperately needs editing work done to clean it up. You don’t get the whole story because, while the author understands everything clearly and is clearly in command of his material, the reader just cannot keep up. The book could be half again as long and be eminently readable. As it is, it’s half-finished. Which is a pity, as the subject warrants examination. I wish someone else would take this work, expand it, rewrite it, and publish a new work on the same subject.

I’ve had this book in my collection for a long time and picked it off the shelf the other day. I really did give this book a solid go, but in the end my patience wore thin and I gave up reading having completed less than 60 pages.


Apart from the lack of adequate development of the story – you are given names, often, without any context provided, on the basis that the same person had been mentioned briefly ten pages earlier – I was not entirely happy with the author’s declaration at the front that all that we label history is about class struggle. This is obviously untrue and, while it might have had some currency back in the day, it is a view that, now, sits so far from the consensus that I had to read the sentence in which it was expressed several times to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. The obsession of certain parts of the left with money is so disappointing but, thankfully, this obsession is now rarer than it once was.

The book represents a missed opportunity. It is about right-wing paramilitary organisations that, in order to counter Communism, were set up in the 1920s and -30s by reactionary elements in the communities that made up Australia. Plenty of scope here for a gripping yarn, but the author’s style militates against the cause.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Book review: Malice, Keigo Higashino (2014)

I bought this book when I was living in southeast Queensland, when I didn’t read it. I pulled it off the shelf the other day and quickly finished it. It’s a crime novel but there’s more to it than murder. Like a lot of genre fiction these days it is determinedly engaged. This is a word that derives from the French term “engagĂ©”, a word popular in my twenties at university to denote books that had a strong political angle. The issue at hand in this crime drama being bullying, especially as it concerns children.


The story centres on two men who are interested in literature. Nonoguchi is a schoolteacher and the second man, named Hidaka, is a writer. The policeman investigating Hidaka’s murder, Kaga, is a former colleague of Nonoguchi’s.

Initially, Kaga thinks that Nonoguchi is guilty despite an account that he wrote to apparently put the cops off the scent. This turns out, however, to cause Kaga to have reservations despite appearances that convince other members of the force. In the end, Kaga has to interview a number of people from Nonoguchi’s and Hidaka’s past in order to uncover the motivation for the killing.

There are metafictional aspects to this book, it is no surprise to note, and what these do is to draw the reader’s attention to the nature of popular culture generally. Because one of the men has been accused of forcing the other man to ghost-write for him, you start to think about how culture works, about originality, and about literary convention. I found this side to the book to be very interesting.

Another interesting facet of this gem is the different ways that the narrative is delivered to the reader. One chapter of the book is Nonoguchi’s account of the night of the murder. Another chapter is a series of interviews Kaga conducts with people from Nonoguchi’s and Hidaka’s childhood. Another chapter is a set of notes from Kaga’s notebook. Diversity of points of view adds colour to the tale, and provides a varied texture that is a lot of fun for the reader to engage with.

In short, this is a fun read and it can satisfy both people who are drawn to crime fiction, as well as those, like me, who prefer literary fiction. It has something to offer everybody.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Book review: The Virgin in the Garden, A.S. Byatt (1978)

Goodness me, this one goes back a long way! Byatt has good ideas and she uses language well but there is a strange lack of definition in some places. For example, the name of a character, a pronoun, and what she says and does might not quite align properly, so that you feel as though you are looking at the world through a stranger’s glasses.

Things often don’t quite gel. Which character is “she”? What happens between Stephanie and Daniel in the room with Miss Wells? Where are Frederica and Mr Wilkes standing when they have their conversation about Greek mythology and its representation in Renaissance art? Why are there friezes on the walls?

Such questions bedevil the reader of this otherwise intriguing novel, the beginning of which is set in (contemporary 1970s) London, followed by an extended flashback to a regional town in the north of England in the 1950s, just after the war. People in the town are celebrating the anticipated coronation of Elizabeth II by putting on a play about Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. There’s plenty of opportunity for the author to examine post-war attitudes and mores, and to perform commentary on the same.

Some interesting highlights from the part of the book I finished (I got up to page 184 before putting it down) are the autistic son of a woman Daniel, the curate, is concerned with. Then there’s Frederica’s and Stephanie’s brother Marcus who is a talented actor but who does not like acting. Marcus has visions that disturb him and these are well-handled, providing a view of the world that will be at variance to most people’s. It is hard to show how life feels for a young person, when you are a mature author, but Byatt does well in this case.

One wonders if she was aware, however, of how stuffy she sounds when she talks about morality, science, or art. To what degree is she mimicking the ways that the average person, alive at the time, saw the world, and to what degree does she share their ideas? I suspect that the latter is true. For this reason, Byatt, now, seems dated and of-her-time rather than innovative. Which is a shame, but there you go.


Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Homelessness: “Managing towards a shared result”

This is an interview with Roseanne Haggerty, who founded the Common Ground organisation in the US some time ago and is now involved with a different organisation named Community Solutions. She is also on the advisory group of the Institute of Global Homelessness. Her focus is very much on eliminating homelessness. I was kindly introduced to Haggerty by Felicity Reynolds, an Australian I interviewed at around the same time (the beginning of 2018).  The following interview was conducted on 2 March of that year. This post contains about 4000 words.

MdS: Okay. [I’m] recording. So, I spoke with Felicity Reynolds. I think you know her.

RH: Yeah, very well.

MdS: Yeah. So, she told me a little bit about how Common Ground got set up in Australia. I think at that time you were staying in Adelaide for – you had some sort of scholarship there, is that right?

RH: My first visit to Australia was as an Adelaide Thinker in Residence. The South Australian government had, at the time – and this was in 2005 and 2006 – a programme where they would invite – it wouldn’t have to be international but it typically was – international “experts” who had some relevant experience around topics of priority within the South Australian strategic plan. So, that was how I got to South Australia, by invitation of the government as part of this Thinkers in Residence programme.

MdS: Right, and how did you find that? What was that like for you?

RH: It was fascinating on many levels. I had never been to Australia before, and it was very different to – you know, understanding how the different forms and levels of government were in that context. But what was equally interesting, Matthew, was how similar it was, because homelessness, at least in the US context – and this is true if you look in Canada, and I’ve had many relationships and involvement with Australia over what is going on 13 years now, plus in parts of western Europe – what’s striking is how similar this issue is. The way that communities had attempted to respond to homelessness tended to mirror each other, and what was actually effective tended to, as we found, be effective in one context as well as another.

So, I have really treasured relationships and opportunities to work with Australian leaders in this space, and I’m struck by how much we can learn from each other, because the contexts are far more similar than they may appear on the surface.

MdS: Right. So, at that time, you were working with Common Ground in New York. Is that right?

RH: Right. I founded that organisation back in 1990, and at that time our focus was principally – not exclusively – but I’d say 95 per cent of our efforts was on building and operating permanent supported housing, which is the “Common Ground” model, which is distinguished by really very thoughtful, high-quality design, very intentional property management that is oriented at tenant success. The integration of health, mental health, employment services right in the building. And, importantly, a mix of tenancies. So, people coming from homelessness as well as what we would call in the States workforce housing.

So, those were the features of our model, and that was of great interest to folks in Australia. I’ll just say, the other five per cent of Common Ground’s work at that time was actually what’s become to be the Community Solutions work. We’d begun to – we’re building all this housing. It works amazingly well and efficiently for the people within it, and it contributes to the community, but we’re not actually ending homelessness. What else do we have to do? So, it’s the “what else” that Community Solutions has been pursuing. We became – we spun off from Common Ground and became a national organisation about seven years ago.

MdS: Okay, so do you want to talk to me a little bit about what you’re doing now?

RH: Sure. Well, Community Solutions has really evolved this insight that to end homelessness and be able to have (now) 10 US communities end long-term homelessness or inveterate homelessness, and many who are showing steady reductions. It’s because we’ve come to understand that this is an issue that is – it’s more like a hurricane. I guess in Australia it would be like a typhoon or something like that, whatever tropical storm or natural disaster. It’s not a static problem. It’s shifting all the time. You need lots of different people with capacity to respond, to be working together as a team, and just managing towards a shared result which is, “We’re going to solve this problem,” as opposed to having a lot of very well-intentioned and often very important programmes stood up that aren’t that dynamic and that don’t relate to each other. You can understand the difference.

So, Community Solutions has been really in the work of helping communities put a different kind of system in place, one that’s heavily data-driven. It’s about building that ongoing response capacity, which looks like a well-performing public health response that really gets to an end state of eliminating homelessness, beyond the important work of creating more housing. You just need a whole other parallel effort, we’ve found, and that’s what we need in the United States to help communities actually put the right problem-solving teams and behaviours in place.

MdS: Right. One of the things that I’ve come across is that the government in Australia every five years does a census, and they count the people using different categories to count them. One of the categories that they use is to count whether they’re homeless or not, and they’ve got five different definitions which define homelessness. But the number in 2011 was 105,000, and [...] the number for 2016, which is the most recent census, will be 120,000. So, the number of homelessness has actually increased. The other thing that’s striking about the Australian situation right now is that we’ve just come out of a sustained period of rising house prices that started in about 2013 and went up until about the end of last year. So, I think those two things are working together. It’s just so expensive to afford housing in the big cities where the jobs are.

RH: That’s absolutely true, and this is real, but what we have also found is that individuals and families who can’t – because of financial reasons or disability reasons, or other challenges – can’t negotiate the private housing market and need support from charitable organisations or government to secure and maintain stable housing, that those programmes and those resources are very disaggregated.

I could not tell you specifically how things are set up in New South Wales. It’s been too long since I was immersed in the detail, but to give you a flavour, like in New York City – which is a disaster – there are about 11 different housing production programmes with different government grants and loans, four different rent subsidy programmes, probably about – well beyond – 30,000 subsidised tax credit units, 170,000 public housing units – and that’s just the city. That doesn’t include what state and federal government[s] are doing. Many additional resources tied up in the homelessness shelter system. Everybody’s off doing their own thing, and New York is now spending something like $2.3 billion a year to run its shelter system alone.

So, even in a place where you have housing costs that are really off the charts in the city, you also just see this complete disorganised mess of different housing programmes, and one of the great opportunities we see, and many of these communities that are making real progress, they’ve realised that they’ve got to actually get organised, you know, make these programmes work together, make the intentions of actually ending homelessness or dealing with some very urgent housing priorities for certain targeted groups, make that a shared priority that is really owned by local government, state government, not-for-profit and developer communities that use these resources.

So, some of [unclear] just like, you know, what would Toyota do if they were trying to build a car that worked? They would make sure that all the parts connected, that things were optimised, that quality and efficiency and the experience of the user were positive, and that – there are many opportunities, even in very high-cost markets, to actually take a very different lens to this issue and see, like, are we actually – have we designed a housing system that works for people that really need to fall back on it in times of financial or personal or family crisis? That’s the opportunity.

MdS: Yeah. I guess in New South Wales the state government is mostly responsible for providing housing for people who can’t afford it, but we’ve been getting mixed signals from the state minister, and it’s not clear whether he’s making affordable housing, or even such things as inclusionary zoning, a priority. One day he says that he wants to have more policemen and firemen living close to the city, and the next day he’s saying things like, if we put – if we control the rent on these apartments, then it’s going to push up the cost of other apartments in the same building. So, you know, even one person can’t get their message straight, it seems. The developers, it seems, don’t really want to provide affordable housing.

RH: I think you’re perfectly illustrating the conundrum which is: there are a lot of different competing agendas. There are these – some can be anticipated but not all – unintended consequences. Trying to do one good thing could cause something else to go out of alignment. So, this is where we’ve found that we really need to have a community approach with all of the interest groups – not so much the interest groups, but the people with the resources – at the table, and to have a common agenda and measure it. Like, because otherwise things just get bogged down in chaos, and nothing gets targeted and nothing gets accomplished.

MdS: Yeah.

RH: [Inaudible] figure this out. That’s the cool thing. It’s not like we can be wishful about this. It’s like: look at the construction industry. They manage to get buildings up that don’t fall down and get the plumbers and the steam fitters and the sheetrock crews all coordinated. That’s the kind of model for what communities who are gaining ground on homelessness are doing. They’re using project management tools and data the way other industries do to say, “Are we actually getting where we want to go?” “And are we course-correcting every day if we need to?” “If what we do on Tuesday has some unintended effect by Thursday, we’re going to regroup Friday and try to rebalance things.”

MdS: So, that’s what you’re trying to do at the moment. You’re trying to take a more holistic approach?

RH: Precisely, and use tools that have been proven out in other industries to actually get more reliable, optimal, high-quality results from the point of view of the user. Homelessness? There are a couple of different users. One is the homeless individual or family itself. The other is the organisations who are trying to be effective. Then there’s the community that wants to see the problem solved for vulnerable people, and that their public dollars are going in an effective direction.

MdS: Yeah. I think most people do at least wonder, when they see the person on the street corner with the cup in their hand and their head on the pavement, “Why can’t we do something?”

RH: Yeah. The crazy thing is, you know, while without a doubt communities need more affordable housing, that alone won’t solve the problem. Conversely, communities that we’re working with – we’re working with about 75 communities around the United States – they’re discovering that they have a lot more resources than they thought once they start actually being very accountable for results. Like, “Why are we spending money on this?” “It’s getting no result.” “Let’s pull it back in.” “Why are we holding these units off the market?” “Who’s responsible for it?” “Okay, there’s a waiting list, we can’t find the people who are moving in.” “Actually, why do we have a waiting list when we’re trying to do something urgent?” And, “We have to use different decision-making guidelines.”

So, these kinds of things, they don’t get you all the way to an end to homelessness, but they sure get you far down the road. What we’re finding in communities that are actually working in this disciplined way, you see new people stepping forward with new resources to help fill gaps. I was talking with this businessman in Denver just at the beginning of the year, and he was like – his group is investing their social impact fund in buying additional units that are on the open market to basically make them more affordable, and to keep them in the [unclear] of affordability. I was saying, “You know, awesome that you’re doing this. What got you interested in being part of this project?” He said, “Well, here in Denver, we smell a win.”

This is someone who never, until Denver started making really strong progress on ending chronic inveterate homelessness and was able to show its results and show where it stood, and where the gaps were in the housing market, these new folks stepped in with resources. We see that beginning to happen in other cities too. We were just meeting with a group in Atlanta of property developers who were like, “Hey, okay, this looks like a solvable problem.” It’s not raging out of control. People know what they’re doing. So, that’s the promise. If you get your arms around the kind of problem it is – that it’s a dynamic, complex, shifting problem – and realise that those communities are completely disorganised when it comes to how they’re lining up their housing resources, you’ve got a lot of opportunity to make progress.

MdS: Sure, that’s right. There was a really weird talk that the state government minister here went to, he opened up this organisation called the Housing Supply Association, which is some sort of front group for developers they’ve put together so they can build more affordable housing. He talked to them for hours, just down the road here where I live in Pyrmont, and everyone seemed to be on the same page, but then once they’ve launched this association and they start getting developers to register their interest in being part of these projects, nothing seemed to happen. The business of developing apartments or housing is all about making as much money as possible, and the other problem in Australia – I don't know if you’ve had the same problem in America, I think you have – is that even though unemployment is going down, wages are not rising even though cost of living is rising.

So, you’ve got these twin problems of high rents and high housing prices and stagnant wages, which is putting people out of [their homes]. So, the government says, “Well, we’ve got to step in and do something.” But like you said, they just can’t get organised to take the next logical step. We know that governments can do this. We know that they’ve got the ability if they’ve got the will-power, but it’s getting that force – and it’s great to see that you’ve got people stepping up, developers stepping up in America, and saying we want to do this, because we think it’s the right thing to do. Because I think that, in the end, that’s really the only way that these problems are going to get solved.

RH: Totally agree with you, Matthew. It’s the private landlords and developers that control most of the housing. They need to be part of this, and they can’t be naming their own terms. These are community-level problems, and what makes a difference in Denver, in Atlanta, these two places I mentioned, and a couple of other places where we’ve seen, is real leadership from developers. People with a conscience saying, “Hey, we’re the people in this community with the properties, with the expertise. How do we participate?” What seems very – there are a couple of things that have been important, I think, in these areas where we see that kind of leadership.

One is, the community has its act together, and they know how many units they need. They’re like, “We need 325 units more than we have in Denver to end inveterate homelessness.” To that extent, they can be concrete, as opposed to just, “We need more.” Having a target is very mobilising. Second thing is that these developers know that they’re not out there alone, that there is a not-for-profit or a reliable government agency, that if there’s a problem with the rent or a health or behavioural issue, that they can call a reliable trusted partner who will jump in to help problem-solve, that makes a big difference.

The other thing is, “Don’t tie me up in paperwork!” If I’m going to help you out here, don’t make me sit here for six weeks sending me one fat envelope of forms after another to fill out. Just make it easy. If you can do that, we’ve found that in communities all over this company that are part of this Built for Zero private landlords are stepping up, and in some cases landlord groups like in Denver and Atlanta are just coming together to say, “Just tell us what you need us to do.”

MdS: Built for Zero, that’s the new movement that you’re leading, is that right?

RH: Correct, yeah, the organisation is Community Solutions, but this is our principal focus, driving this behaviour change and this different – and this vision that this is a solvable problem, but we have to change the way we’re working.

MdS: Okay. Alright. Well, it’s been really interesting talking with you. I’m just writing a series of blogposts because I’m interested in the problem. I walk around the city a lot and I see a lot of young people, especially, on the street, and begging for money. So, that’s how I started to get into these blogposts, and I found that there’s a lot of demand out there for them. People enjoy reading about these types of things, because I think that there is this shared feeling that we should do something about this, especially in wealthy countries like the OECD. It seems like some countries – I’ve heard that Finland has done particularly well in eliminating homelessness. Is that right?

RH: Yeah, exactly. They’ve done the best in Europe. They haven’t eliminated it altogether, but they’re much further along than everyone else, and they’ve measurably reduced it. The key thing they did differently, Matthew, was that they used to have, like, 6000 shelter beds. They were like, “Wait a minute.” If housing is the answer, what are we doing keeping people in this suspended animation? So, they went through and they basically renovated these buildings, and I guess acquired other ones, and really just committed full-on to creating affordable housing for people who’ve been experiencing homelessness, and to really gearing their system to getting people quickly back into housing and not in this endless emergency state.

I think they only just have one very small shelter that’s really about a genuine emergency and triage place left in Helsinki, and all of their investment now goes to housing.

MdS: I think inclusionary zoning is probably – thinking about the Australian situation, and scattershot – what do you call it? Scatter site housing?

RH: Scatter site, yeah.

MdS: This  is the term Felicity used. So, you have people who have, for example, mental health issues or some other personal issue who can’t afford normal housing on the commercial rental market, who are housed along with other people, just like in the Common Ground that we’ve already got. I think that type of model is probably going to be the one that gets most support from the government in Australia, because they don’t like having these dysfunctional developments that you used to find back in the ‘80s in Europe, especially in England and places like that. But you’ve got to get the developers to come on board and commit to locking rents on some of those apartments.

Some of the municipal councils, who are the ones who approve developments in Australia, have set up a system where they’ll give the developer the ability to build extra units in a development if the developer will make some of those units, say for a period of 10 years, affordable housing at an affordable rent. So, there are some things like that coming through.

RH: That’s such an important strategy. One of the things, I think, after working on this issue for many years I can say with confidence is, there’s no one solution. You basically have to have the intention, we’re going to solve this problem, and look at every opportunity, from inclusionary zoning to looking at occupancies and housing, looking at, you know, can you look at zoning and the incentives and construction practices, and can you think – you know, your local employers to helping to be problem solvers if [unclear] or seasonal work is part of the challenge, your mental health system. Everybody has to feel that it’s everybody’s responsibility to help to contribute to solutions and have a sense of what role they can play.

But yeah, inclusionary zoning, very smart. There are a lot of other, in that vein, things that we see people doing that increase the range of housing options that are available without building something entirely new, but just embedding part of the solution to this within some other development, or using buildings differently and making it easier for people to get building permits. Every bit of function in the system is worth looking at.

The person that – I haven’t checked their website, but I know that they’ve got a good one. I was just at what’s called the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, last week, on a panel, and they had this terrific exhibit up called Making Room. It’s a few rooms full of displays on innovative things happening in housing in the United States. A lot of this would be under the radar. It’s just like, here’s a co-housing project, here’s a design and construction project, here’s an inclusionary zoning project. Just, you could step back and say, if we did all this at scale, we would solve this problem. You might find it interesting, because they did a good job in this exhibit of highlighting, you know, like what’s different about it, and why it’s promising as far as expanding housing opportunities.

MdS: I’ll have a look online, and I’ll see if I can find anything about it. Thank you.

RH: Yeah, it’s really good. Sure.

MdS: Okay. Is there anything else that you think that I should [know]– I don’t presume to call myself anything like an expert. That’s why I’m talking to people who I think know more about this than me. But I’m just wondering if there’s anything else that you’d like to add before we finish up.

RH: Maybe just to highlight that point, that it’s not just the housing system, and it’s not just more housing. I think it’s also – one of the things we’ve learned is – more types of housing options. Ways that we see some of the communities making progress here is that they have really re-thought what shared housing could look like. They re-thought the interior arrangement of certain buildings. It’s a certain area for innovation, not just how do we build more housing, but more types of housing options as part of that strategy that each city needs to develop. 

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Book review: Vineland, Thomas Pynchon (1990)

This was the second Pynchon novel I have tried to read, and the second one that I put down soon after starting. Pynchon doesn’t give the reader much help in the way of clues as to what is supposed to be happening and, frustrated, I ended up going to the Wikipedia page for the novel so that I could find out what the book was about. If you rely on the text itself, you will be disappointed.

In the beginning – I didn’t finish more than about 30 pages – there is a superannuated hippy who is trying to get another tranche of public funds by demonstrating his mental incapacity. He does this by jumping through a window each year. The media is present. There’s also a federal law enforcement agent who is there when he goes, dressed as a woman, through the restaurant window. The story is intended to function on the basis of the interest that this scenario elicits in the reader’s imagination.

This book (“the novel of the decade” is written on the cover) is a classic case of how a focus on style over other considerations can simply swamp a promising plot. My copy has a sticker on the front saying “$2” so, presumably, I bought it somewhere on sale.



Monday, 23 December 2019

Book review: Space Invaders, Nona Fernandez (2019)

This diminutive novel – it took me about two hours to read – is in actual fact a novella and the development of character is meagre. The action takes place over periods marked out by different years – it starts in 1981 and there is a later section dated 1994 – and involves a group of schoolchildren who are caught up in civil unrest. The author, a Chilean actress, has strong opinions about the role of representative government and this is her way of expressing them.

This author is a good name to look out for, but I personally hope that her next foray into fiction is just a tad longer. The characters needed a bit more development in order to fully engage the reader, and to pass on the messages of tolerance and equity the author cherishes.

Choosing children to convey such complex themes is interesting and I felt that this approach had tremendous promise. I was looking forward to learning more about each of the people named – we are given their surnames, as happens in secondary school everywhere – but in the end I was left feeling abandoned. Perhaps this was the author’s intention, I cannot know from this distance and having never spoken with her.