Thursday 28 February 2019

Evidence of the SMH’s lurch to the right

I started this informal survey in January after the green light was given by the competition watchdog to the takeover of Fairfax Media by Channel Nine, which is chaired by the former Liberal treasurer, Peter Costello.

The following is just a brief digest of things that struck me while reading the Sydney Morning Herald over the period of about four weeks up to the middle of this month. It’s not comprehensive and it’s hardly scientific. It is a quick glance in the direction that the SMH was taking. It seems however that the things that came to my attention in that period, including the shameless plugs for Channel Nine shows, have slackened off, so the alarm bells are no longer ringing. Probably the editors had lost enough disgruntled subscribers (who are mostly older progressives) and decided to tone down the fascism a bit for fear of losing more.

On 13 January, I wrote on Facebook:
When you know you're old (not when you're getting old, but when you are legitimately old): a "senior" journalist writes a serious story in a major broadsheet about the word "progressive" as it is used in politics. Completely straight face. No irony whatsoever. He gets all these academics from different universities to give him quotes on the record. Building up a case and weighing up the different ways that the term has been used in Australia by parties on the left and on the right over the past half-century. Reading it I felt like the proverbial grandmother who is being told how to suck eggs by a child. (To use an old saying ...)
On 15 January, I wrote on Facebook:
Have sent a warning to the SMH through their website. It noted the number of stories about Channel Nine shows that have been appearing on the SMH website in recent weeks. Also I mentioned a shift to the right I have noticed in the editorial approach used by the newspaper. If either of these trends gets noticeably worse, I will be unsubscribing.
On 16 January, I wrote on Facebook:
Peter Costello's hands are all over another headline from the SMH today: 'Australia has the world's third highest corporate tax rate.' Channel Nine's chairman showing he has no respect for the independence of journalists working in the news room. The SMH's tagline "Independent. Always." is shown to be a sham.
On 30 January I posted on Facebook:
Story on the SMH website about Tony Abbott in the race for Warringah by a guy named John Ruddick who is a Liberal Party booster. The story is labelled "opinion" which is at least honest, but this piece is just another case for me going against keeping my subscription to the paper. Cannot see any benefit to anyone from this sort of sorry partisan nonsense. No credibility, no objectivity, just stale rubbish from a true believer on a campaign to get the party elected later this year when the general election is held.
On 1 February I read a feature story on the SMH website that had been written by Tim Elliott. Elliott was familiar to me as the author of good-quality features, and he had previously done a cracker of a story about the Wentworth by-election, for which he had travelled around the electorate talking with people involved in the campaigns of the various political parties. That story had ended up with him at the Liberal Party election-day after-party talking with various people he met in the rooms.

For the new story, he had evidently been asked by managers at the newspaper to go and talk with people involved in movements on the far-right fringes of the political spectrum. So he duly set out, in good faith, and came back with his recordings, which he used to write a typically intelligent story that left the reader with the distinct impression that those who agitate on the right-wing extreme of the community’s margins are mainly a little strange. So all is not lost if this is what the SMH ends up producing when it tries to emulate the Australian. The moral is: if you give a good journalist his or her head, you’ll always get something reasonable. It’s when you try to force outcomes that you can end up with crap.

On 10 February the SMH ran an interview with Tony Abbott, the Liberal member for Warringah, that it labelled an “exclusive”. This kind of thing would have been reserved, in the past, for a News Corp outlet. There had been a GetUp! opinion poll, the day before, showing that 622 Warringah residents preferred the independent candidate, Zali Steggall, over Abbott by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Group behaviour and popular narratives

Back in the day the Parliament was a bulwark against the use of excessive power by the king or queen. But once England reached the end of the 17th century, by which time most of the power of the state had devolved to Parliament, two parties formed to organise influence and patronage.

These were the Tories (the party of the king or queen) and the Whigs (the party of Parliament). Different nobles backed each party and in the emerging middle class (the gentry) different families also had their own traditions. Broadly speaking, the Tories were conservative and the Whigs were progressive. The Tories were for tradition and convention and propriety, while the Whigs were for innovation and change and human rights.

Ironically, one of the poster-boys of what we now know as conservatism was Edmund Burke, an Irish Anglican who began his career by publishing a pamphlet on aesthetics and who served as a member of Parliament on the Whig side between 1766 and 1794 in the House of Commons. His booklet on the French Revolution, an event he attacked, was much discussed after it was published. His reputation suffered in the short term because with its publication he appeared to be turning his back on his roots. The revolution of course disintegrated into a series of butcherings followed by the rise of the inevitable demagogue, in the form of Napoleon, so that Burke came to be celebrated by the majority for what was esteemed to be wisdom.

In the 19th century, as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of factories and the factory towns that contained them, labour started to organise and the political landscape changed again. From the end of that century it started to look like what we have now: a party of capital and a party of labour.

None of this should surprise us in the least degree. Humans are social animals so it is natural for them to behave in this way, in groups, with shared interests. We live in communities which provide us with the necessities of life, including fellowship. Not only do we always live in groups but language is innate and therefore the production and sharing of stories is a deeply-rooted species behaviour. People are most comfortable when they are surrounded by stories that sustain them and confirm their beliefs and assuage their worries. Stories help us to understand the world and to know our place in it. They can help us to live a good life but, if they are regressive, they can also hold us back and limit our progress. Instead of alleviating suffering they can prolong suffering.

But changing the ways that people see the world by telling different stories takes time. There is a tendency for people to resist change and to favour stories that confirm their present beliefs. If you tell someone something that contradicts their beliefs he or she will usually either attack you or ignore you. A minority of the population (known variously at different times as the avant-garde, the demimonde, trendies or hipsters) will applaud a new take on the world, but getting the rest of society to agree to it takes decades or even, in some cases, generations.

People actually don't want to be made to think, they want to be made to feel comfortable with their existing biases. This is what makes them adhere to groups in the first place. It’s quite natural. You see this clearly with both politics and with the arts. In the latter case, people gravitate to the familiar and the routine, the thing that most closely resembles what they have already consumed at one time or another. This is because they remember the feeling it gave them last time and they want to feel the same way again. It’s about pleasure, and we are nothing if not pleasure-seeking animals. But it’s also about safety (we feel good when we feel safe).

With politics, what you find is that people will unthinkingly endorse views that conform to their political party's policy platform. People don't want anything "challenging" (although that is a normal way for critics to compliment a work of art, such as a movie or a novel that they like). People want what they had before, except better and cheaper.

With public policy, problems usually arise where you find regressive thinking that derives from people’s tendency to operate in mobs. Demagogues are a problem sometimes but once you have rule by the demos the problem actually derives in most cases from the ways that groups behave.

We actually shouldn't be following party platforms. What we should be doing is choosing the policies that are going to achieve the best results, regardless of which party endorses them. Unfortunately, people are unthinking creatures who like to stick close to the group. So we will continue to swing wildly from one side to the other even while the big problems such as climate change and wealth inequality, both of which are complex and worsening in their impacts, and which require concerted action, resist the solutions we throw up from time to time in a haphazard fashion.

How all of this influences the way that people conduct themselves on social media should be clear from the foregoing. People use stories to create community. They either share stories that conform to their political biases or else they retweet stories they disagree with along with a comment to make their views clear to their followers. This sort of behaviour is conducted in an unthinking manner. If you have part of your views in common with others, they will be confused if you disagree with them on a specific issue that arises in the course of the day. They will enthusiastically endorse views that conform to their own (with “likes”, retweets, and replies) but they will either attack or ignore people who say something that they disagree with, even if it is objectively true, simply because it goes against the policy platform of their favoured political party. The mob rules online.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

How people in the public eye get treated online

This short survey is designed to give an idea of the kinds of treatment that (mainly) politicians but also journalists and some public servants are routinely subject to on social media. While I don’t agree with politicians blocking people from following their feeds, as doing so goes against citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of political speech, I can certainly understand why many are wary of participating in discussions online.

If I remember correctly all of the entries listed here were from the Twitter #auspol hashtag, which I am usually tuned into. I stuck with Australian targets although there were occasions when overseas politicians were criticised in unseemly ways on the hashtag as well. It was remarkable, while making this list, how many overseas tweets were opportunistically using the hashtag even though it had nothing to do with what they were saying. The number of tweets about Venezuela that had the hashtag in them was a surprise.

In making the list I ignored comments that were merely dismissive of policies, or accusations of such things as lying or corruption, and in the main kept my focus on comments that constituted personal attacks. Some of these listings might be line-ball, but there you have it. The “cads and bounders” comment made me pick up the dictionary. They are words that I remember from my childhood but that I have not heard or seen used for a very long time.

The survey started at around 9am on Sunday 24 February and continued for approximately the next four hours. During this time I also did other things. I walked up the street to get some lunch, did the dishes and the ironing, and put out used containers for recycling. Entries dated earlier than 24 Feb are from retweets. Politicians are listed in alphabetical order, starting with the federal Parliament, with other categories placed below them.

As a general rule only a minority of tweets on the hashtag were objectionable but it is equally important to note that people who use it sometimes have very strange ideas. As the sample below indicates a clear majority of people using the hashtag are political progressives. Except for timestamps there is no information in this list that could serve to identify commenters.

It is noteworthy that Georgina Downer got more unfair criticism from people than even the prime minister did. In Downer’s case this was due to people rather uncharitably commenting on the link to her father, who used to be a Liberal cabinet member, but it was also due to her being in the news for two other reasons. One was a staged event where she was pictured giving away funds to a community group. People pointed out that the funds must have been public funds, and criticised her on that account. The other reason for the high level of adverse criticism aimed at Downer was because of a campaign ad she released that featured a retiree named Jim complaining about the Labor Party’s franking credits policy. It turned out that Jim was actually an ex-Liberal staffer, so the ad backfired a bit online.

One very odd comment (not listed here) was in a tweet by a person criticising the government for preventing the British conspiracy theorist David Icke from getting an Australian visa. You never can tell who is lurking online, it appears. Possibly even lizards.

The Liberal and National parties

The federal government
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.47am: entitled, parasitic bastards
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.20am: You are currently a party of cads & bounders.
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.35am: #Libfilth
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.37am: a bunch of ***s
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.50am: bloody wankers 
  • 24 Feb 2019, 12.24pm: The entitled useless pieces of shit.
  • 24 Feb 2019, 12.58pm: dick swingers
Simon Birmingham
  • 24 Feb 2019, 9.29am: F wit
Julie Bishop
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.29am: She is a mean spirited selfish person of little talent or integrity
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.54am: Jewellery
  • 24 Feb 2019, 12.30pm: Hillary Clintons other Aussie Brown nose
Mathias Cormann
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.15am: despicable,  corrupt POS
Georgina Downer
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.07am: another out of touch member of that ugly dynasty
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.30am: Lady Downer
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.42am: Lady Georgina Downer
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.45am: A shit kicker from some irrelevant #DownerDynasty
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.56am: Lady Downer- 'I have this big cheque for your little club. Daddy sends hugs'.
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.56am: Daddy Downer has indoctrinated his offspring well
  • 24 Feb 2019, 12.27pm: It more of the #BornToRule pretend aristocracy of the #Liberal Party!
  • 24 Feb 2019, 1.08pm: entitled Lady Downer
Peter Dutton
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.48am: #EyeOnTheSpud #WatchoutForTheRottenSpud
Josh Frydenberg
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.26am: Hey #Josho, best keep your trap flapping, a great Labor asset
Scott Morrison
  • 24 Feb 2019, 9.09am: #PMScum
  • 24 Feb 2019, 9.18am: #FauxMo
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.15am: faux Christian
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.43am: Slomo
  • 23 Feb 2019, 3.24pm: a dead set wanker
  • 23 Feb 2019, 2.25pm: The Man Is Stain On Humanity
  • 23 Feb 2019, 10.25am: some dickhead from Australia
Warren Mundine
  • 24 Feb 2019, 112.07pm: muppet
Christian Porter
  • 24 Feb 2019, 9.39am: the most radical #RWNJ in the #Liberal party! 
Christopher Pyne
  • 24 Feb 2019, 9.33am: captain foot in mouth 
  • 23 Feb 2019, 2.27pm: Prissy
Tim Wilson
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.10am: Freedom Boy!
National Party
  • 24 Feb 2019, 12.13pm: What the LNP now stands for...You can't spell Coalition without 'coal', Liberal without 'lie', or Nationals without 'anal'. So in essence LNP coalition is an anal, lying, coal loving bunch of...?
The South Australian government
  • 24 February 2019, 11.20am: crass parasites
Andrew Constance (NSW Liberal)
  • 24 Feb 2019, 9.24am: dunce
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.42am: Classic Smarm from Constance
The Labor Party

Tony Burke
Andrew Leigh
  • 24 Feb 2019, 12.03pm: A clueless cretin.
Tanya Plibersek
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.03am: this nasty, graceless piece of work
Public servants

Peter Cosgrove
  • 24 Feb 2019, 9.48am: an LNP white ant
Joe Hockey
  • 24 Feb 2019, 9.54am: Sloppy Joe
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.54am: Sloppy
Journalists and the media

It is less easy to classify attacks on journalists as malicious, but I have given it a go in order to show the kinds of things that people routinely say in this regard.

Barrie Cassidy and ‘Insiders’ panellists
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.01am: You pack of spineless toadies
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.35am: Does anyone else find it odd that #Insiders seems to be all about holding the Opposition to account while the actual Government gets a free pass..?
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.52am: Here you go Barrie the Leftie, worth talking about on #insiders or would you prefer it’s discussed on #outsiders ? This is the kind of content your Commie Bastard of a program is lacking.
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.23am: numpties 
  • 24 Feb 2019, 12.20pm: Australia will be waiting with pitchforks for some of these journo's once we are done with this government.
Peter Costello
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.38am: puppet master
Annabel Crabb (on the ‘Insiders’ panel on the morning in question)
  • 24 Feb 2019, 9.32am: #CrabbyCHUM
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.49am: We simply cant abide such facile commentary - a 12 yo could do better!
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.48am: @annabelcrabb  should be careful she doesn't choke on the LNP ass pie she been gobbling in the Press Gallery's propaganda trough.
Rowan Dean
  • 24 Feb 2019, 9.34am: Who is this idiot ?
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.36am: But really, who do you blame, these ignorant mouthpieces, or the morons who watch it? Crap like this rates.
Clementine Ford
  • 23 Feb 2019, 4.50pm: This is Clementine Ford's son. This mentally ill woman will ruin this young blokes life. Poor kid. (The tweet came with a picture of the journalist with a small child.)
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.20am: So in the first #abcnews bulletin after Tony Bourke [sic] on #Insiders leads with "Alp front benchers in disagreement with Bill Shorten over Xmas Isl". What a foiking disgusting misleading load of BS Lnp propagandering. FFS lift your game Auntie.
The “MSM”
  • 24 Feb 2019, 10.48am: The Australian media can go fuck itself.
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.25am: When did the smugness and sense of entitlement creep into political journalism in this country? Half the time it's like being lectured to by a condescending granny. Had enough.
  • 24 Feb 2019, 11.34am: I, for one, am sick to death of #MSMFail’s faux balance.

Jim Bonner (who was on TV in a Liberal campaign ad, screened on the morning in question, complaining about the Labor Party’s policy on franking credits)
  • 24 Feb 2019, 12.17pm: Good to see @GeorginaDowner is using a @LiberalAus shill in her electioneering. That prick wouldn't be shy of a dollar or two, having been a Liberal cuck since the days of Fraser.

Monday 25 February 2019

Book review: After the Party, Cassie Hamer (2019)

It’s particularly difficult to write a review of a suspenseful book like this one because one thing you should not do as a reviewer is give away the story. This is a complex book that occupies a place that borders on several different genres. On the one hand it’s a crime thriller and on the other it’s a romance. But it has such good secondary characters that it has the feel of literary fiction as well.

At the core of the story is a middle-aged woman named Lisa who has two daughters, one named Ava who is aged five and one named Jemima who is aged three. Her husband Scott is a podiatrist and they live in the eastern suburbs of Sydney in a house with a garden out the back. All very well and good but where is the drama?

One day 33 children arrive to celebrate Ava’s birthday but when Lisa goes looking for the dog, who she thinks has just eaten the remains of his second birthday cake of the day, she finds a little girl of six in the kennel. Only 32 children had been invited. The concealed girl’s name is Ellie and she has a present for Ava which contains a note from her mother, who doesn’t identify herself in it. The note says that Lisa and Scott have to look after Ellie for a while so that she, Ellie’s mother, can go away to do something the nature of which she doesn’t disclose to the people she hopes can help her. She tells Lisa not to call the police. Lisa and her sister Jamie (who is two years younger than Lisa) had spent an unhappy period in foster care when their parents had died in an accident when they were young and before Lisa could become Jamie’s guardian, so Lisa decides, with Scott’s agreement, to give the mother six weeks before contacting the police. Mentioned in the note there is a threat of danger from some undisclosed source but Scott is eventually placated.

Lisa slams into gear immediately, enrolling Ellie in her daughter’s private primary school. She also conscripts new acquaintances to help her find Ellie’s mother. One of these women is Heather, who had helped Lisa out on the day of the party by organising an entertainer to come and look after the kids and by ordering a cake on short notice. Now, Heather introduces Lisa to a private investigator in an effort to find the woman they are looking for.

Meanwhile, Jamie and Jared, Jamie’s long-term boyfriend, are planning to get married but Jamie one day at work accepts a kiss from Ben, her assistant at the office. Jared is planning to move with work to Dubai within a short period of time and Jamie gets into gear to get their wedding organised so that the two of them can get married before the time comes to leave Sydney. But Jamie finds out that Angel, her boss, had wanted to retire and make Jamie managing director of her PR agency, which is called Spin. Meanwhile, the missing mum, whose name is Missy Jones, travels north by train to Coffs Harbour, where she meets her own mother. The two women talk unnoticed in a carpark, where Missy’s mother mysteriously gives her some money and the key to a rental car.

This work of fiction has an intricate plot that is for the most part very robust (one event stood out in my mind that challenged to a degree the reader’s faith in the story). The novel also has a strong forward movement. Both these things mean that the book is unashamedly a genre novel, but the narrative material that is used to flesh out the spaces between signal events is also very sensitively crafted. The way that the author keeps things moving smoothly and purposefully does not eliminate the possibility for poetry, which appears at unexpected moments to enrich the experience for the reader. Different chapters are focalised through different characters, which adds to the suspense that you feel while reading the book. But even given the quality of its plotting and the excellent pacing that enlivens it, many of the thrills you get from it come from small things, from messages like how important it is to have a happy home life where children can thrive, and the necessity for love to come before marriage.

In terms of ideas, there are things going on beyond the major theme of domestic violence that animates the story in various ways. The dynamics that characterise relations that develop between Jamie and Ben and between Angel and Jamie underscore the importance to the author of having strong female characters in her story. Jamie’s ability to think quickly under pressure makes her quite different in some ways from her sister. Lisa, who works at home doing accountancy work for private clients now that she has children, tends to crumble when she’s under the pump, and so Heather functions as a competent foil for her. Angel, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, sees Jamie’s potential as a leader. For the most part this is a book about women. Scott is quickly sketched in. Jared gets more attention but his significance depends on how he will function to give Jamie what she wants (which includes children).

I particularly liked the way Heather gave life to every scene she was in. She’s a creation of comic genius, a kind of Patsy Stone (the Joanna Lumley character in the British sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’) who with complete unflappability quickly understands every situation that appears in the world around her as well as the solution to whatever problem exists (with the possible exception perhaps of her own). Angel, too, is a very strong character, as is the principal of St John’s, Ms Valentic. All of these characters serve in different ways to give the story depth and to impart relevance to small details that are needed to keep it chugging along. Even Lisa’s daughters have their own personalities and the characterisation used for Ellie, who is very sensible and mature for her age, is immensely appealing.

There is one scene in the novel where Heather and Lisa gather with some other women, in a cafĂ© named Speakeasy that is located near St John’s, to discuss Lisa’s predicament. It’s an interesting scene that functions as a kind of emblem of the whole story in a single, neat package, and that refracts its major themes in a concentrated form and with a striking intensity because it shows that the author is aware of what she is doing as she spins her tale, in fact she is so aware of it that she can do this little trick with light and dialogue and a few careful words. The way the women talk among themselves when they meet there precisely illustrates why this kind of novel is so interesting to women. Why women gravitate to genre fiction, to crime and to thrillers. The group of women talking represent the rest of the city, the rest of the country, the rest of the world. They swap stories and dig into surmises and test hypotheses with a delight that implies the kinds of feelings that genre authors specialise in, if they are good at what they do. The scene shows how serious Hamer is as an author. It demonstrates her command of her material and it proves that genre can be as good as good literary fiction (obviously, not all literary fiction is good) if done well.

Whatever kind of novel you enjoy reading, this one won’t disappoint. The author casts a wry glance over the landscape and her story charts familiar routes across the face of a vividly-realised Sydney, a city with plenty of secrets that, nevertheless, given the right conditions (e.g. a good husband), can provide the kind of safety and opportunities that people need to have a good life.

Sunday 24 February 2019

Book review: Stet, Diana Athill (2000)

Athill was born in 1917 and was educated at Oxford and joined the BBC during the war, after which she went into the publishing industry. Her boss in this enterprise was Andre Deutsch, who was a migrant from Hungary, and they worked together until he sold his second business in the 1980s. She continued working for the company for a while but then retired. Her partner was a black man, although she doesn’t say if they were married, and this fact only appears right at the end of the book, which is a memoir.

The book is mainly episodic and chronological in its first part, which is a digest of the publishing business from the 1950s to the 1980s. The second part of the book is a series of independent chapters about individual writers she worked with during her time at Andre Deutsch Limited. Both parts of the book are very chatty and gossipy but there is little thematic development, which a more skilled writer might have found ways to include.

The only concession to anything like a theme that Athill manages to make is to finish the second part of the book with a chapter about an Irishwoman named Molly Keane. This concluding chapter (there is just a postscript that follows it) is largely positive in tone because this author gave Athill far less grief than some of the others who are profiled in the book. So she finishes it on a high note.

One drawback that the book has is that some parts are not as easy to understand as the writer would have liked or imagined. At times you struggle to follow the thread that is being laid down in your path and you have to just get through these rough patches until things clear up. Being herself a copyeditor, she was presumably skilled at making sure things in the stories she worked on flowed smoothly, but for her own book she sometimes falls short of the reader’s requirements in terms of clarity. She is also a bit verbose at times, preferring the casual sentence that resembles spoken language to the more tightly constructed sentence of the committed stylist.

With some of the writers Athill deals with she is tight-lipped and discrete but with others, such as VS Naipaul, she lets you have all the details and I wondered why different writers were dealt with in different ways. It might have had something to do with how they dealt with her. The relationship between Deutsch and Naipaul was not always smooth. At one stage Athill describes how she critiqued a novel he had submitted to the company for consideration. She had thought that some of the characters were not formed well, and told him so. In response, Naipaul stormed out of her office and left the building, later calling Deutsch on the phone to tell him that he, Naipaul, was going to take his books elsewhere from then on. But for some reason Athill never really understood Naipaul was soon back with Deutsch and they brought out a number of his subsequent books. In the end he left them for good at a time when Deutsch was in decline (and everyone at the company knew it).

This kind of detail constitutes the bulk of the book. The tone is light and casual. Pub talk, mainly, but not uninteresting. Probably the most important parts of the book are concerned with books that Deutsch brought out in the wake of WWII, notably books about the Nazis. In these passages you get some idea of the fear that the war had inspired, and would continue to inspire in people who read about it. Sadly, a lot of that knowledge seems to be disappearing today and ugly trends are starting to emerge in some parts of the world that echo what had been though to have been obliterated forever.

One thing that strikes the reader of this book, at least it struck me, are the sometimes intimate relationships that publishers have with the authors they work with to bring out new books. Athill goes into some detail, for example, about the mental health problems that Jean Rhys and Alfred Chester, two authors that Deutsch handled, exhibited, and the types of interactions that Athill was obliged to have with them. In the case of Rhys, this took the form of visiting her in hospital and even visiting her home in Devon where she lived alone and in a penurious state. In the case of Chester, an American, it was delusional behaviour that Athill was unequipped (this was in the 1960s) to deal with. In these sorts of situations an editor takes on roles other than the merely professional one, the one that involves helping to get a text ready to print. He or she becomes a confidant, a nurse, a source of emergency funds, a friend, and a bulwark against adversity.

And you get to see different facets of Athill’s own character in the book, too. As a person Athill reminds me of someone like Stella Rimington, the former MI5 head who turned novelist, or the novelist Kate Atkinson (whose novel, ‘Transcription’ I reviewed on the blog on 14 September last year). Athill is one of those no-nonsense Englishwomen who lived through times that are now remembered in terms of the pop songs that they gave rise to rather than in terms that people alive at the time would think to be truly representative of their era.

In this book you can also find hints about novelists who used to be acclaimed but who have now fallen out of favour with the public and with critics. This sort of decline is perhaps inevitable but Athill’s reminders are certainly things that I will be following up on in future.

Saturday 23 February 2019

Book review: Sea Monsters, Chloe Aridjis (2019)

This book reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Le grand Meaulnes’, the novel published in 1913 by French author Alain-Fournier, which is about a 15-year-old and his friendship with a 17-year-old and their adventures. In Aridjis’ book, which is set in late 1980s Mexico, Luisa, a Mexico City girl of 17 who likes prog rock and post-punk music goes off one day as arranged, after school has finished, with Tomas, a 19-year-old she had met on a couple of earlier occasions near her home. They travel by bus to the Pacific coast state of Oaxaca whence, Luisa had read in the newspaper, a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves had fled after quitting a touring circus.

In a small village by the sea, Luisa and Tomas rent a shelter with hammocks and gradually drift apart emotionally. Every night, Luisa goes to the bar and sits with a man she calls “the merman” who she imagines is from Eastern Europe. He doesn’t talk and they drink together, sometimes in silence, sometimes with Luisa telling stories to him. I won’t reveal any more of the plot because that would spoil the story for those who have not read the novel, but the ending is as unexpected as it feels natural.

Aridjis uses long, complex sentences to form her narrative and sometimes – in fact, quite often – she’ll repeat a word that had just been used, to sort of kick-start the narrative. This might happen after a comma. The way her sentences function reminded me a bit of Marquez but I’m not entirely sure because it has been a long time since I read any of his books. It might be relevant to consider also that Oaxaca was Frida Kahlo's birthplace.

There are a number of themes that are explored in this interesting novel, which is a coming-of-age story, but the main one is the idea of the transitoriness of things. People meet, they talk, they eat a meal together, they make love perhaps, and then the world turns and they move onto other places, other occupations. Aridjis talks at length about shipwrecks in the book, which are a kind of record or reminder of things that have passed. Linked to this motif is the sea and the dangers that it offers to people who are not careful enough when dealing with it. The sea harbours forces that might constitute a threat or they might be benign, but if you want to find out you have to go there. Be careful, is the warning, because if there are monsters you might not recognise them at first.

The threat of danger is present in this novel at one remove from the action and it is linked to the fact of Luisa’s age and her gender and the fact that she is out of her normal environment. With stories about young people, especially stories about teenagers of this age, who sit in a space between childhood and adulthood, there is a sort of refulgence that derives from the liminal nature of their time of life. The characters have no past to speak of, they are all potential, and so the narrative is completely open. Anything can happen.

In this novel, danger is for the most part kept at bay even though the writer is given plenty of opportunities to make things turn ugly. Luisa is aware of her surroundings most of the time, although occasionally she makes mistakes. How she deals with such things is part of the charm of this short novel, which took me only a few hours to read.

Friday 22 February 2019

Book review: A Season on Earth, Gerald Murnane (2019)

Originally published partly in the 1970s, this novel from the author’s early years looks at such themes as youth and the meaning of a good life. Adrian Sherd is a fabulist with certain psychological peculiarities that make him rather obsessive. The combination of a tendency to rationalise everything he sees and does and a strong spiritual drive means that the book is in many ways a comedy.

A concern for the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church gives the book a slightly more narrow focus than this might suggest but Adrian is so compelling a character and the kinds of mental habits he embodies are so common that the story that Murnane tells effectively is a universal one. Adrian tends to rely on such a complex method of rationcination whenever he contemplates the problem of how to live a good life that his actions border often on the absurd, but always Murnane is laughing as much at the rest of the world as much as he is laughing at Adrian. So this book is also a deeply humane work of fiction, and it is one that touches occasionally on wider topics, such as domestic and global politics.

Adrian’s tendency to tell himself complicated stories about everything he encounters is shown to be a rather common mannerism of the species. In one scene in the part of the book where Adrian is still at secondary school he is with a group of boys who are out on the playing field for football practice. It starts raining and they seek shelter but while they are waiting for further instructions they entertain themselves by having a conversation, and Adrian participates in it. The types of stories that the boys, who are of course all Catholics, tell themselves about their tribe, their place in the world they know intimately, and the global political situation is deftly described in a few pages of dialogue. What emerges is a community that sees itself as beleaguered both locally and internationally (the latter due to the threat of Communism) but one that is determined to protect itself at all costs. It is a masterpiece of economy and intelligence, and certainly Adrian doesn’t come off looking at all strange in the context provided in this scene. In fact it is clear from the reported dialogue that Adrian is relatively well-read and is informed about events that have taken place in the world.

If you take Adrian at face value and consider his rather erratic trajectory from a 16-year-old schoolboy who fantasises about girls in his room at night, to his first “romance” (he sees a girl on the train and decides that she is going to marry him, even though he never talks to her), to his retirement to a place where priests are trained before they are admitted to a holy order, to his employment with the Victorian Department of Education as a clerk, to his sudden and (as usual) strange obsession with poetry and with poets, you might suspect that he is deficient in some way in a cognitive sense. He does seem to veer violently from one thing to another, but so do many young people. In fact, people in general often do this sort of thing.

He becomes deeply interested in whatever his is currently engaged in pursuing, to the exclusion of every other consideration. And he is quite unaware of how a third party might think if they knew what he was actually thinking. It’s all very human and normal, but at the same time Murnane makes Adrian seem almost pathological in his obsessions. In the end the mechanism that is used to finish off Adrian’s voyage fails to a degree to offer up a strong emblem with which to close proceedings, but this is unimportant in the larger scheme of things. This is a very fine and important novel by a giant of Australian letters, and Murnane should be as well-known as other difficult writers this country has produced.

Thursday 21 February 2019

The Tao of social media

People nurse their hatreds, they coddle them as though they were favoured children and give them free rein whenever it comes to making a comment about something that is taking place in the public sphere.

People urge each other on as they deploy their creaking rhetorical constructions on social media, and when hatred is shared by someone else there is a small celebration, as though the child were having a birthday party. Candles are lit to solemnise the event and the cake of scorn is carved up and distributed among the gathered there, in the ether, in the places that are formed in innocence by electrons that animate the unsullied elements of silicon and copper. In this way we give thanks to the tiny, dark gods that keep us alive in this artificial world that we have colonised like a vengeful pantheon.

Often people will use ridicule to attack you personally if they have no answer to what you have to say. In fact, if they are overtly hostile it probably means that you have already won the argument because this is the only way they have to placate the feelings of shame and anger what you have written inspires in them. So, take courage from rudeness and spite. It means that you are stronger and have justice on your side but beware, as your children might turn bad when they grow up and kill their parents.

The way people behave on social media bleeds in my imagination into other questions that preoccupy me as I sit, closeted and alone, before the windows that look out over the city’s flashing skyline. I am reminded of a conventional type of compliment that is used to describe a book where you say that it is "challenging". This reminds me, in turn, that there used to be an event every year in Sydney called the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, which borrows from the same quiver of ideas used to make authors feel good about themselves and to flatter audiences with praise.

But there's actually no truth in either of these formulations. Those arrows are warped and can fly neither straight nor very far. What people precisely do not want is to be challenged. What they want are the same, comforting routines that they have become used to consuming every day of the week, year in and year out. The last thing people want is to be challenged or asked to think for themselves. What people want is the familiar. The usual. The normal. The safe.

And the cultural elites who compliment themselves by giving credit to authors who use language in creative ways – authors who try to create their own realities by endowing the words that they use in their texts with new meanings – are equally addicted to the routine, the normal, and the bland when it comes to politics. They, too, merely follow a line given to them by the policy wonks in the major political parties, people who, themselves, wouldn’t recognise originality if it was thrown at their faces like a raw fish.

The result is that a small coterie of experts is left in charge of the judging of high culture but their opinions lack credibility because they are so completely beholden to ideologues for their political opinions that the mainstream as embodied by the tabloid press ridicules them or ignores them. The situation is particularly bad because so much of what passes for deserving of the praise of this class of pundit or seer is only good in the sense that it mimics their political ideas, while the art that is used to convey them is often of poor quality. But still it gets applauded by the high priests of Oz culture. (They do sometimes get it right, but mostly it seems by accident rather than by dint of sound principles.)

This is why artists are mostly poor and we are mostly unhappy. It is also why Hollywood studios produce sequel after sequel in an effort to separate people from their money. So the doors to futurity stay closed because we cannot be bothered to knock, and we sit, afraid and alone, in silence, as we glumly imagine the rest of the world alive with celebration. In this context culture becomes merely a series of opportunities to enact revenge on others on account of our own suffering.

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Book review: An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire (2016)

This lovely, engrossing, genre-bending novel is very accomplished and exhibits a perfect sense of authorial poise even though one of the major characters, a 37-year-old barmaid named Chris, is as plain as a paper bag. Chris exhibits the same kind of plumb ordinariness and down-home wisdom as Jane Turner in character as Kath Day-Knight. You might find her a bit much, but you can’t help admiring her.

If Tim Winton were to write a good female character, Chris is what he’d come up with, but unfortunately for him he doesn’t have the talent Maguire possesses. But Maguire does a double back-flip and forward pike as well because she inserts into the novel a pushy journalist named May who comes down to the town of Strathdee, where Chris’ sister Bella has been murdered, and covers the case for her outlet, a news website that isn’t making any money yet. May is another of those smart, media-savvy women that has been appearing with regularity since Bernard Keane invented Kat Sharpe to use in his 2015 novel ‘Surveillance’ (reviewed on this blog on 4 September 2015).

Maguire’s novel sits alongside Emily O’Grady’s 2018 ‘The Yellow House’ (reviewed on this blog on 3 January 2019) and Shirley Barrett’s 2018 ‘The Bus on Thursday’ (reviewed on this blog on 19 December 2018) in setting a story about violence against women in an Australian country town. In ‘An Isolated Incident’ the town is located halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. It has four pubs, two motels, and was bypassed in recent memory cutting the town off from the Hume Highway. Chris’ ex-husband Nate now lives in Sydney with Renee, his new partner, but he comes down on occasion to help out in the aftermath of the murder.

The narrative is in the third person when May is focalising it but when Chris is focalising the narrative it is given in the first person, so you get all of her personality downloaded like a massive data dump into your consciousness. There’s plenty of information about May’s personal life as well but the different way that the story is handled in her case makes her less vibrant and to appear more collected. With Chris you are faced with a competent stream-of-consciousness and so you are exposed to a lot of intimate information reflecting the Australian psyche. For foreigners who want to understand this country, this novel is a great place to go looking for guidance, although there is a danger in objectifying Chris as a character when she has peculiarities and angles to her personality that make her idiosyncratic and unique, in her own right.

Nate is handled very well. This important secondary character adds considerable depth to the story and helps Maguire to interrogate the question of female sexuality. She also does this by getting May to think about her own lover, Craig, who has a family and a wife he is hardly likely to abandon on May’s account. Another important secondary character is a truck driver named Chas who May picks up in a pub in town and takes back to her motel room several times. There is also a young police officer named Matt who buys May lunch once or twice and who gives her information. The book takes a bald look at the kinds of feelings that characterise male-female relations and considers what is commonly felt by people on both sides of the fence. Craig helps to anchor the theme of sexual desire because he is, at base, a good man even though he has split his allegiances and has left May feeling alone.

As with O’Grady’s novel the issue of secondary violence – against animals – is touched on. This seems to be a trope for this kind of writer to use to enhance the sensation that the problem of male violence is pervasive, like a chronic health problem that mere surgery alone (imprisoning the perpetrators) cannot fix. The title of this book underscores this regrettable fact.

What Maguire does so well, even though this is at heart a genre work, is to use all the novelistic paraphernalia at her command to build a coherent superstructure on which to hang her theories about men and women and about the kinds of things they do to each other. In this regard Chris is not without her own sense of guilt, and the fact that Nate is with another woman underscores that fact. But what men do to women is different in quality, and this is the overriding theme of Maguire’s fine book.

What Maguire does not do is provide answers. There is a lot of analysis in this book but no specific suggestions about how to solve the problem of male entitlement (or, as some would formulate it, “toxic masculinity”). In my mind it’s a biological imperative but others would probably counter this view and say that personality is entirely constructed as a result of socialisation and can therefore be altered using the same method. There are plenty of ideas about these sorts of things but so far no-one has provided us with definitive solutions to the problems that this book illustrates.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Book review: Imagining a Medieval English Nation, ed Kathy Lavezzo (2004)

I gave it my best shot but in the end this book pretty much defeated me. There are several major problems with something like this, which is ultimately designed for the academic market and not for laymen and bloggers. Anything in this review that looks like a criticism of this book should actually be taken as a declaration of my own inability to function at the level of the scholars whose work appears in this collection.

There seem to be debates that these essays are addressing but they have gone on out of range and I'm not up to date with them so I felt left out for this reason while reading this book. Even the editor’s introduction was too hard to easily con. And in many instances the essayists tantalisingly leave out the dates of things that are central to the stories they are telling. This information is sometimes included, but it’s usually buried in the notes, so short of scurrying to the end of an essay to check this critical piece of information each time a publication or an event is mentioned, in many cases you are left up in the air without anything to hang onto.

Also, there are long passages of Middle English that are not translated. Even some Latin and Old French passages are not translated. This might seem like a minor hindrance but when you are anyway wrestling with very complicated ideas and unfamiliar narratives, the lack of English translations in these cases is a hurdle that is often too high to get over.

Some of the essays furthermore use a lot of postmodernist terminology and associated ways of thinking, so nailing down ideas in these kinds of narratives is very hard, like trying to shoot with a BB gun a flock of swallows that are swooping round in a barn. This kind of language should be the first thing that an editor gets rid of when putting together a book for the layman. In the end I finished one of the essays, which was about the Lollards, and found another one, on the kingship of Charles V, to be clear enough but like most of the others too rarefied to work with in the context I had already formulated and had brought to the task from previous reading.

What reading this book told me is that there is a need for a general-interest book on the rise of nationalism in the late Medieval period. Because this book focuses particularly on the English experience, such a trade-market publication could also stick to the UK but I think that it would be better if it looked at the emergence of vernacular literatures in different parts of Europe. Certainly, the Lollards were conscious that other nations already had vernacular Bibles. The relationship between the king and the nation, also, seems to be fertile ground for ideas about nationalism in this period, going by what I was able to glean from the essays in this book. One of the essays I didn’t complete talks about the different orders of knighthood that were inaugurated in this period of history, and there seem to be ideas about the monarch and the commons, and the various grades in-between, that could bear fruit if a new book were planned on this subject.

The reason why the question or nationalism at this moment in history is important is because of the continuing significance for people in the west (and, frankly, in all parts of the world) of the Humanist project that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation and thereafter to such things as science and technology. The links between the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in this regard, are of central importance to our understanding of where, as a culture, we have come from and where we are going. We otherwise risk getting trapped in stale arguments where ideas function in many cases much like internet memes. We need to go beyond the obvious and try to understand in detail what actually happened.

Especially in the light of contemporary political challenges to such things as the rule of law and democracy, it is critical to be on sure ground when people are faced with the problem of fitting their own stories into the increasingly complex tapestry of human experience. Popular consciousness of the facts surrounding the origins of the Humanist project can only help the many people who seek to find in the west the things that they associate with modernity, such as justice, prosperity, peace, and a meaningful life.

Monday 18 February 2019

Don’t shoot the piano player

The contemporary distrust of the elites have had a decided outcome for the media in many countries. I can’t say that the malaise affects every single country in the world, but I suspect that it does. Others will have to fill me in with details about what happens to the media in their place of residence.

You see it all the time. It might be quite mild and so seem innocuous. In Australia, there is a certain type of left-wing culture warrior (LWCW) who uses the moniker “MSM” to refer to the mainstream media. According to this person, the MSM has been captured by the conservative party (which is called the Liberal Party in this country). The distrust extends to the traditionally progressive Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the national broadcaster, which they think has been coerced by the Liberal Party into supporting its policies. In response, this type of person supports what they call “indie” media, often with a subscription, even though these outlets (there are a few of them) only run stories that are hideously biased in favour of the left. They also don’t have subeditors, so the syntax and grammar are frequently unreliable, making their stories hard to read.

Then you have a relatively more aggressive type of hatred of the media. This is the kind that Donald Trump embraces in the US. According to Trump, the mainstream media is hideously biased in favour of the Democratic Party, and so (again, according to him) they hate his policies and attack him on every possible occasion. Trump evidently doesn’t think much of the First Amendment to the Constitution but with the Republicans any level of rank stupidity is hardly surprising. Recently, in Texas, a journalist was actually manhandled by a Trump conference delegate, presumably as a kind of tribute to his leader. In June last year five people, including four journalists, were shot dead in their office in Maryland by a disgruntled citizen with a gun.

Then you have governments attacking the media, as exemplified by the criminal imprisonment of Australian journalist Peter Greste in Egypt from 2014 for a period of 400 days due to his interviewing members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Or else you have the more recent arrest of Maria Ressa in the Philippines on charges of libel sparked by stories that her organisation, Rappler, had published that were critical of a judge. She has also written stories critical of the president of the country, Rodrigo Duterte.

The thing that all of these behaviours have in common is their making light of the importance of journalism in the conduct of democracy. For these people – the Australian LWCWs on Twitter, Donald Trump, and Philippines President Duterte – journalists are only useful if they say things in public that are favourable to them. Any view or any story that conflicts with their inherent bias is considered to be an attack. These people fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of the media in a healthy polity. It is not there to make people feel good. It is there to ask questions that no-one else has the time or the courage to ask. And it is there to make the powerful feel uncomfortable.

If you want to see what happens when you don’t have journalists to do the work of keeping the powerful accountable, just take a look at the Paladin affair (which had its own hashtag on Twitter that was still going strongly on Saturday of last week). I started watching this slow-motion train-wreck on Friday. On that day, I posted on Facebook:
The LWCW are currently going berserk over a company called Paladin that was awarded a security contract by the government to operate on Manus Island. Literally scores of people are jumping up and down, totally going batshit over this "scandal" but the only story that's appeared so far has been a paywalled one on the [Australian Financial Review] website. One of the reliable LWCWs in the media, Ben Eltham, who oddly enough teaches at a university, has helped to fan the flames of outrage over the affair but so far I haven't been able to read a story about it on a website I have access to.
Later the same Friday I posted about it again:
"There is big corruption here on Manus in the contracts between Aus gov & the companies it pays to maintain this system. It's time to investigate all the contracts incl. Paladin & IHMS. If Aus taxpayers knew how much corruption it would bring this gov down." This quote from the guy who won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, Behrouz Boochani. It sort of sums up the tone of his book, too, by the way. Plenty of feeling but not much truth. I doubt this Paladin thing will last more than a day or so before being forgotten by the demos and the media alike.
Boochani is a resident of Manus Island and he has a large following of LWCWs on the mainland. On Saturday I posted this:
So the Paladin thing is still going today but now with everyone on Twitter pretending they're a journalist two different companies with the same name are getting confused. And a Guardian journalist (who has the ability to sit down and actually write a story about the affair) is telling people to ignore a particular class of detail that is being enthusiastically retailed by every man and his dog. It's a shambles. This is public interest journalism 2019 because, you know, you cannot trust the MSM.
The Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian still had not put up a story about the company at this time. Late in the afternoon Serkan Ozturk, one of the internet’s Australian “indie” journalists, whose True Crime News Weekly website had broken the Barnaby Joyce baby-out-of-wedlock story in 2017, posted this:
So it turns out the CEO of Paladin is a former Director of General Strategic Logistics at the Australian Defence Force and was also a Commander of a brigade of 2,500 people. On his LinkedIn, he doesn’t mention he is the CEO of Paladin though...
By Sunday morning the hashtag had disappeared from the trending list on the Twitter website, and I posted this:
The Paladin thing grinds on with all the pathetic resolve of a summer flu. One guy has put on his journalism cap and gone to the company's website to have a look. He thinks the website is pretty subpar and so, in a flash, concludes that the company didn't deserve to get the government contract to provide security services in the offshore refugee camps. More brilliant work by a citizen journalist. Take that, you fiendish government stooges!
Also on Sunday morning, Paul Karp, a Guardian journalist, tweeted at around 9.30am:
Christian Porter says there was a "full independent commonwealth procurement process" for the $423m Paladin contract.
This was in relation to Porter, the attorney-general, appearing on the ‘Insiders’ program, where he was interviewed by host Barrie Cassidy. Karp added, linking to the AFR story that had gone up the week before: “NB: the AFR reports the tenders were closed.” Someone at around 8.45am on Sunday tweeted ominously:
#PaladinAffair smells like something big enough to bring down a government.
Echoing the idea and the tone it was conveyed in, Ozturk tweeted with a weird kind of breathless sententiousness at about lunchtime on Sunday:
If you connect the whole #PaladinAffair together we have a case of a privatised quasi-version of the [Australian Defence Force] engaging in ripping off taxpayers & refugees. This fiasco should go down as of the one nation’s biggest ever political AND military scandals and there should be consequences.
You can’t fault a guy for trying, it has to be stated, but at this point to do the whole thing justice you need to insert one of those musical segments like something out of Beethoven, starting high and with a minor progression ending on a low note. “Dum dum dum duuuuum.” On Sunday evening an Ipsos poll result came in that showed the Liberals had narrowed their deficit to Labor to two points (49 to 51) after having trailed in other opinion polls by up to ten points in recent weeks.

Sunday 17 February 2019

Book review: Pink Mountain on Locust Island, Jamie Marina Lau (2018)

I delayed posting this review for several days because I wanted to moderate my first reaction and because I felt a bit guilty by how negative the review had been at first. The delay allowed me to add some details in order to make the review, which I hope the author reads, as constructive as possible. One of the aspirations for any reviewer is that their comments will be taken to heart by the author in question, so that what they write next can be improved. This applies especially with reviews that are, in the main, negative.

I found this book deliberately hard but there was no real payoff for a careful reader. When it comes to talking about insights or poetry there is plenty of ancillary material that accompanies what development there is of character, as well as the rather embryonic traces of plotting, but I’m not sure that it is as strong as the author or her editors think it is.

The narrator is a teenage girl who lives with her father and she makes a friend named Santa Coy who is a guy (you guess) and they message each other on their computers. But the main character never fully emerges and so you are constantly trying to work out how you should feel about what happens in the text.

No framework is provided that would allow you to feel comfortable, worried, or otherwise (happy, fearful, unquiet, as the case may be) and so you skate along on the surface of the text without having a clue how things are looking like they’re going to turn out. It is very difficult in this kind of work to build suspense as there are no indicators at any given point telling you which way the story is heading. Is it developing in a way that will be conducive to the wellbeing of the main character? Is it going in a way that will turn out to be bad for her? What about her new friend, how is he developing? Is he sympathetic or is there a hidden danger that the narrator is hiding from the main character? Is her father a worry? How is he shaping up in the wider scheme of things?

You are even unsure in this novel about such things as major plot points. It might be that the main character gets a second-hand computer from Santa Coy but facts aren’t nailed down in the impressionistic sequence of scenes that are given to the reader and that are punctuated by the occasional segment of dialogue. The mise-en-scene is equally vague – you are in a nondescript city and the narrator and her father live in an apartment – and there is little in the story that can be used to orient you along socioeconomic lines or even culturally. The only thing that is heavy is the teen attitude but this is provided without the narrator being particularly strong on anything approximating wisdom that might help the reader to understand what it is in aid of.

The book was longlisted for the Stella Prize, which is an award given every year for female Australian authors, but it won’t win. The author did well just to get a mention. The book has furthermore been remarked on by various literary outlets. The problem that a book like this provides a reviewer is that it comes absolutely dripping in artistic ambition and the good intentions of its publisher, but I cannot in good faith recommend it to readers of this blog.

Saturday 16 February 2019

Book review: The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks (2015)

This memoir also contains a potted family history that stretches further back into a kind of ersatz history of sheep farming in the Lake District, which is located in the north of England. Very early on, Rebanks positions himself in contradistinction to William Wordsworth, the first-generation Romantic poet who made this part of the world famous in his writings, and especially in his poetry. I found it hard to see what problem Rebanks might have with what Wordsworth did especially considering the parallel trajectories the two men’s lives took. Both were born in the area and then went on to one of the UK’s old sandstone universities (Wordsworth to Cambridge, Rebanks to Oxford). Rebanks doesn’t see this kind of connection or, if he does see it, he doesn’t say anything about it.

Wordsworth’s descriptions of a farmer handling a sheep dog in the 1805 version of his autobiographical poem ‘The Prelude’ are possibly the first time that such a feat had even been attempted in any literary production in any country. I certainly cannot remember reading anything similar by anyone else that precedes that passage. Its existence is testament to Wordsworth’s deep and abiding connection to his native region, and his understanding of the people who, still today, inhabit it.

The niggling resentment that Rebanks feels about his famous predecessor (who he curiously calls a “dead white man”, borrowing a rhetorical trope from the language of the metropolitan progressives he elsewhere positions himself at odds with) seems to have been part of the author’s life from the days of his earliest memories. When he was 13 and still at school, Rebanks says he felt his teachers’ scorn for the farming life and admits that it is difficult for him to remember if he felt resentment at that time, but he certainly felt it when he decided to sit down and write his book. In fact resentment about perceptions that people who come from outside the local community have about farmers seems to be a kind of leitmotif in the work, stemming from its importance for the way that the author thinks about himself. Resentment as identity politics, if you like.

One thing that is remarkable at the outset is that Rebanks is often not as good at explaining things as he thinks he is, or as his editors and readers have told him he is. The economics of sheep farming is explained but a novice will still struggle to understand its intricacies having read the passages in question. You are on surer ground where he explains the art of making hay. So the quality of the work is patchy just as the author himself is a deeply flawed, and very human, character in his own production.

I’ve read another book by a farmer, ‘The Cow Book’ by John Connell, which came out in 2018 (it was reviewed on this blog on 8 September of that year). Connell, like Rebanks, puts much stock in the longevity of animal husbandry, in Connell’s case in a part of Ireland, and there is a narrow kind of cultural exceptionalism that creeps in in both works to muddy the waters with a certain kind of – you guessed it – resentment.

Farmers declaring the legitimacy of their industry based on how long their forefathers have been doing it seems like a perfectly natural reaction in the face of sometimes noisy and usually misguided attacks that metropolitan progressives periodically launch in the direction of people living in rural communities, but it’s not exactly endearing. Rebanks ended up being, in my mind, a prickly cove.

Friday 15 February 2019

Labor tax policies that hit older people should be a source of shame

Let’s talk about inequality. I’ve been writing about inequality in various guises on this blog for a couple of years now, but the issue of taxing older people is probably the most disturbing because of the ways that parts of the community are becoming involved in it.

The poverty rate in Australia for people aged 66 and over is over 25 percent, which is the third worst result for any country in the OECD. Meanwhile, older women experiencing homelessness has grown 31 percent since 2011. "The number of older women accessing the private rental market increased by 45,000 in a five year period," according to a report by the National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group led by the Mercy Foundation.

The economic outlook for older Australians is pretty bad already. But you then have the Labor Party planning to make matters worse for this sector of the population with four new tax proposals (franking credits, negative gearing, capital gains, family trusts) that will disproportionately affect the elderly.

What hope have older people got when both sides of politics target them for a good fleecing? Both major parties supported the inclusion of assets in calculations made by Centrelink to figure out nursing home fees. Older people generally have little income but significant assets, so this was a perfect way to tax them so that the burden on the broader community is less.

You hear people talking in public about these policies in a way that evidences a complete lack of understanding of the underlying realities that older people live with every day. Sometimes the people making these comments are journalists or politicians, not just random plebs with a personal axe to grind. These people should know better but you only ever hear one side. This post gives you the other side of the equation.

One claim has a journalist giving the example of a retiree with $2 million in assets paying no tax on income earned. As though that were a lot of money. With the Reserve Bank talking now about lowering interest rates to spur investment due to the sluggish housing market, many older people will be having a sinking feeling in their stomach, especially if they have their money tied up in term deposits with major banks. When the cash rate goes down, the interest you earn on this kind of investment also goes down, with many people preferring term deposits because they are a low-risk option.

So, that $2 million suddenly isn’t giving you $60,000 a year in interest earned. Suddenly there’s less money to use to pay for things like council rates, food, and transport. A couple that has retired with this kind of investment might own some Telstra and CBA shares as well, and if so they will be directly impacted by the franking credits tax changes proposed by Labor. As will people with even fewer assets than this.

Incomes for older people are always like this. If you have your money in higher-risk investments such as managed funds (where you buy units in funds the managers of which use your money to buy shares in publicly traded companies) or if you directly own shares, the markets will determine how much income you have in any given year. The common wisdom says that shares give you a nine-percent return year-on-year but this is an average where the extremes are widely separated. One year you might get a minus-15-percent return and one year you might get a one-percent return. And there’s no way to predict how markets will behave, they are notoriously difficult to predict over the short-, medium- or long-term.

Older people can’t win, it seems, in the current environment, where there is a tendency to see taxation and redistribution as an unalloyed good, regardless of how such a view affects the wellbeing of people who live on the margins of society, as older people do. The trend seems to be powerful and it is disheartening for people who have paid taxes all their lives, contributing to the health of the community in many ways by working and raising children.

What is to come next? Death duties were abolished in 1981, but the way things are going they'll probably be reintroduced by one party or the other in due course. Labor was the party that in a more rational age introduced superannuation for the benefit of older people, but now it seems they are turning against that part of the community in a witless cash grab designed merely to please the mob.

Thursday 14 February 2019

Book review: At the Edge of the Night, Friedo Lampe (2019)

This extraordinary work first appeared in German in 1933 but was suppressed by the Nazis. The original text wasn’t published in German in its complete form until 1999 and this translation follows that text. It gives us for the first time access to a rare and unusual example of Modernism that has fortunately survived time and politics to emerge, now, as a strange little gem of a novel. It has an odd structure like a collage and a large cast of characters and it examines themes such as propriety, capital, death, desire and what was in its day the forbidden realm of homosexual love.

The entire novel takes place in one night in September in Bremen, a port city in the north of the country, and the narrative dips into the lives of different people – a girl asleep in her bed dreaming; a man playing the flute by the window of the room he rents from a widow; a wrestler preparing to go on stage at a local entertainment venue, the Astoria; two men who are about to embark on the Adelaide, a steamship in the harbour, but who go out on the town for a few hours to kill time – so that it is focalised through different characters in what is almost a haphazard way.

What emerges is a work of great richness that embraces a whole society, even though the method that is used to achieve this outcome is unconventional. The closest analogues I can think of for the psychogeography that is set out in this novel are Fernando Pessoa’s luminous imaginings of Lisbon. In Lampe’s text, the heteronormative routine of a town awake after dark in an era before television and the internet leaves you breathless with expectation as to what will happen next. Despite the fragmentation of the narrative, discrete stories emerge to engage the reader.

What will happen to the announcer who dislikes the way the hypnotist at the Astoria treats his young son? What will happen to Hein Dieckmann, the gay wrestler who has just pummelled his adversary to within an inch of his life? What will happen to Bauer, who the two men travelling on the steamer know from earlier days and who is now a steward on-board working under a sadistic captain? What about Peter, the young man who goes with a prostitute but who cannot perform? What about the prostitute’s father, who is the keeper of the park where live the swans and the rats the sleeping girl dreams about?

What will happen next? In a story made up completely of disparate threads none of which is tethered to a conclusion, the idea of what is normal ends up seeping into the fabric of the story in such a way that it becomes all-pervasive. What is normal in Germany in 1933? What kind of society elected the Nazis to power?

Well, a society such as is described in this book. A society that tolerates the abuse of women and children but that idolises strongmen. A society where people restlessly seek the fulfilment of desires – for booze, fun, dancing, sex, fried sausages eaten in the park before going to bed – and where they fear death and are made to feel uneasy by art. Reading this book it is paradoxically all too easy to imagine the coming disaster even though what does eventually arrive seems to be unthinkable given the mild September night we experience in the fiction. Truly, this is work for the ages.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Intemperate language is normal on Twitter

At the end of January progressive columnist Clementine Ford was said to have “resigned”, and it was further (more accurately) reported that she would no longer, on her own initiative, write a column for Channel Nine, which owns the websites where her work had appeared. The spur to the move was censure from Nine’s management after she had in a tweet called Scott Morrison, the prime minister, a “fucking disgrace”. On Twitter, where her followers are legion and where she gets a lot of encouragement, Morrison is routinely called “scummo”, playing off his more widely-used moniker, “ScoMo”.

Anyone who uses Twitter, especially if they tune into the hashtag #auspol, which is an extremely popular channel reserved for Australian political commentary, will hardly have been surprised at the way the two worlds of Ford’s world – the staid office environment where her paymasters spent their time, and the free-wheeling, anarchic environment that is created by Twitter users – clashed in this case. It was a train-wreck waiting to happen. The problem of intemperate language on Twitter is one that is deeply entrenched. Even a cursory glance at what happens on the social media platform will provide ample evidence of the kind of language that got Ford into trouble, that dominates discussions there, and that makes conversations conducted there so unrewarding.

Just one recent example can suffice to illustrate my point. After appearing on the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ show on the morning of 10 February, Christopher Pyne was singled out for criticism by a mob of left-wing culture warriors on Twitter. Pyne was “a silly little shit”, he was “having one of his hissy fits again”, he was a “Sad Sad man”. Another commented:
What a disgraceful & appalling performance from @cpyne this morning on #Insiders !!
Hollering over the top of Barrie Cassidy whilst simultaneously avoiding answering the question is pathetic!
Another comment in the same vein:
I see with @cpyne's performance on @InsidersABC this morning, the Liberal strategy continues to be shouty-angry defiance while avoiding the substance of every question. Nailed it!
And another one (the theme of “shouting” was very prominent during the morning and early afternoon this survey took place):
a very shouty @cpyne just claimed on #insiders: • government has brought energy energy prices down — a lie • going to meet our paris commitments — a lie  rank desperation on display.
Rabid #Poodle Loud, hysterical, mad, many lies, too much stupid spin
AND it's Labor's fault
More attention given to “shouting” in this one:
Shouty Mcshouty McFixer shouts louder every time he lies
Some comments on Twitter even came close to sounding reasonable, such as this one:
Why bring these idiots on the show @InsidersABC if they won't even answer straight up questions. @barriecassidy try a different tact [sic] and stop the interview if they can't answer questions. Stop giving them a platform. @cpyne grow a spine and start answering the questions directly
That comment about Pyne’s performance in the interview, which had admittedly been characterised by a good deal of deft side-stepping and stubborn messaging, sparked another one on the same topic that depressingly reverted to form:
Agree. If they won’t give a straight answer cut them off at the knees. So sick of the utter bullshit that these arseholes get away with time and time again. CALL THEM OUT! I realise that involves growing a pair, but you can do it Bazza!
Here is another comment that almost sounded reasonable by comparison with what else had been appearing on Twitter:
Christopher Pyne on #Insiders this morning was a train wreck. Lies, lies and more lies with some obfuscation thrown in.
Another rational take on the rather feisty interview with Cassidy (but with a sting in the tail for the national broadcaster, just for good measure):
Then Cassidy fails to make the weasel Pyne answer the question ... ABC fail
Others were more than happy to stick to form by being obnoxious:
Imagine being stuck with @cpyne at your table at a function . Wow.! Freaking nightmare
Another one on a similar theme:
@cpyne on @InsidersABC this morning screeching and wetting himself as Cassidy called him out spruiking the rubbish he normally does. Spoilt brat!!!
And again:
You grubby little worm. Never take responsibility if there's a chance to blame it on the opposition 
that's the Liberal way isn't it Chris?
Even former journalist Mike Carlton, ready as usual to appeal to people’s worst instincts, joined the rush to censure Pyne with nasty remarks:
Demonstrating yet again that Poodles is either a fool or a liar...neither man is a registered doctor and therefore can’t sign anything.
This was in response to a tweet from Sydney Morning Herald journalist Eryk Bagshaw that went:
Christopher Pyne on medical transfers: "Two doctors in Australia, Bob Brown and Richard Di Natale, could sign a certificate saying they think they're suffering from mental health issues and they need to come to Australia. Cassidy: "But you know that's not true"
The occasional tweet stayed on-topic and was couched in reasonable tones:
Pyne doesn't answer valid questions- just keeps blurted "tough on border protection". Offshore incarceration and inadequate health care of refugees are breaches of human rights
And to demonstrate that the bad language comes from both sides of the political fence someone else commented: “Can’t that dickwadd Cassidy just retire FFS. Lefty tool.”

For those who don’t know about the proposed bill that is to be debated in Parliament in Canberra, there is a story here from the SMH that you can read to find out more. On the Tuesday following, the bill that was designed to allow doctors to order refugees needing medical care to be evacuated from Manus Island and Nauru was passed in the Parliament in dramatic scenes as the government lost control of the lower house for the first time since 1941.

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Book review: Saltwater, Cathy McLennan (2016)

It’s really terribly sad that this brilliant memoir has not been more widely acknowledged for what it so evidently achieves. For my part, I came across the name purely by chance and had not seen it, for example, spoken of on TV. I think the mention I saw was on social media somewhere.

Nonfiction is usually less loudly applauded than fiction, but the fictional aspects of this account of part of the life of a lawyer working for the Townsville and Districts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Corporation for Legal Aid Services are so dramatic and compelling that the book truly deserves to be broadly consumed so that everyone can better understand the kinds of things that are happening in remote communities. It’s easy to criticise TV personalities for being “racist” but when you come face to face in a book of this nature with the realities on the ground in such places you understand that comments made by Kerri-Anne Kennerley were well-founded in fact.

McLennan is now a magistrate and it is clear from reading this account that her feelings of responsibility toward the people living in the communities she worked for grew deep. When her partner, Michael, decides to relocate south to Brisbane for work (he is a journalist) she refuses to go with him and instead stays to help people she has grown to love and respect.

The cases McLennan takes on are often desperately sad. One of them has at its centre an 11-year-old girl named Olivia whose mother had abused alcohol during her pregnancy. The effects of that indulgence meant that Olivia never really grew properly and had the appearance at 11 of a five-year-old. And she compulsively steals things from people’s houses, which attracts the ire of the community. Her mother eventually promises to get off the grog but Olivia is confronted by a magistrate who requires her to live on Palm Island, where she is gang raped by men she has been sent by other girls to get drugs and alcohol from. In the end, Olivia’s mother gets the girl back to Townsville after a story is leaked to the local newspaper and the police refuse to arrest her for breaking her bail conditions.

This is a kind of victory but it’s an empty one because the damage had been done long before. Olivia’s father had beaten her mother and the poor woman relies on the state for support, although this is probably the least of her worries. Other cases engage McLennan just as intensely. There is the case that opens the book of four boys who are charged by the police with murder after they arrest them while they are driving the car of a man who had been beaten to death. This case is a thread that finds its way through the whole book and the court case held to decide the guilt or innocence of the boys comes right at the end of it.

McLennan when she first encounters the case of the four boys is a new employee just out of university but she matures into the role she has been given and in the end is forced to hand over the defence of the boys to others due to a conflict of interest. Several of the boys tell her the truth of what happened on the night in question and she must give the job of being their advocate to others. I won’t spoil the suspense for those who want to read this book, so you will have to buy it if you want to find out what happens to Malachi and his confederates. Because of professional privilege some details in this account have been changed, such as the names of some of the people.

The narrative apparatus employed to keep the reader interested in this book is pretty fair given that the author trained as a lawyer. Lawyers spend all their time working with words, so it is not entirely surprising to come across a member of the profession with a love of the apt phrase and the occasional bit of colour, someone who can give immediacy to situations that might, in other hands, have been too dry to make much sense of.

The secondary characters who work in McLennan’s office are just as well-drawn as are the clients whose cases make it into the book. McLennan does her level best to draw you into the story using the types of fictional techniques that make reading novels so enjoyable, although at times the mechanics of the work are somewhat exposed. In general, the author has done a proper job of writing a book that will be easy to read and engaging and she should be commended for the effort required to get everything down on paper after so much time had already passed.

Monday 11 February 2019

Book review: Red Azalea, Anchee Min (1994)

For this memoir and for her other books the author uses her given name first and her family name last, in opposition to common Chinese practice. It would be an understatement to say that the events in this book are dramatic, but you have to start somewhere and with a work as compelling as this one you have to give credit where it’s due or else you can appear as if you have misunderstood the point of the exercise. On the other hand, every Chinese family has stories to tell of the bad years and there is no reason why Min’s story needs to be unduly celebrated. So the critic is, if you like, faced with something of a dilemma.

Min is a clever writer however and the task of ascribing talent is easily completed. Her story is told often in very short sentences that serve to heighten the suspense the reader feels at different points in the narrative. There is a breathless, urgent quality to the tale that makes it especially compelling.

The story takes the reader initially out of Shanghai, where Min was born into an average family. Her parents had several children and Min is sent to a collective farm named Red Fire Farm when she is a teenager. The story of how she survives on the farm take form around the character of Yan, who runs the operation, and the second-in-command, Lu, who wants more power and influence. Min and Yan become lovers but one day as she is in the fields, Min is questioned by some visiting dignitaries and she is given a place at a film academy, so she goes back to Shanghai to live.

Min is given the task of preparing for an important role: the lead of an opera titled ‘Red Azalea’ that has been commissioned by Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. One of the teachers takes a liking to another young woman, named Cheering Spear, who is also being considered for the role, and Min is outperformed at an audition. She is then given the job of set clerk (continuity) and secretly spends time smoking cigarettes in an empty room where she licks her wounds. There, one day, she is spoken to by a man who turns out to be the Supervisor, the man in charge of the production. They become friends and eventually Cheering Spear is replaced in the lead role by an exultant Min, who visits the Supervisor’s lavish residence in Beijing and is given the task of perfecting the lines she must speak in order to play it.

This gives you the bare outline of the plot, something that is quite unequal to conveying the nature of the work at hand. Min spends a lot of time talking about desire and about love and it is in the context of such feelings that her own feelings about her homeland must be interpreted. The long scene that takes place at her parent’s house, when Yan visits so that she can be alone with her lover, who runs a collective farm near Red Fire Farm, is gloriously rendered in all of its details so that you can understand the feelings that Min has for Yan in the light of her new relationship. In fact, the relationship with Yan lies at the core of the drama in so many ways.

One day, while she is still working at the academy, Min goes back to Red Fire Farm to visit Yan because she misses her. She knows that if anyone from the academy found out about her visit, she would be forced to explain herself and her situation might worsen. But she is compelled by loyalty to go back and see Yan in all the pathos of her reduced circumstances, reduced because of the circumstances that accompanied Min’s leaving the farm for the big city. But without such details the book would make no sense. In fact, there would be very little to say if Min and Yan had not been so close.

Min’s relationship with the enigmatic Supervisor also draws nourishment from Min’s relationship with Yan, and she tells him about it one night in a park where they are surrounded by other furtive Shanghai lovers trying to find some privacy in the strict moral environment the Party enforced on the people it governed.

The Party is a silent force at the core of the drama, and although Min must come to terms with it in many ways up to the point where she finally leaves the country to settle in the US, part of her remains to the end, to some degree, unsullied by the idiotic logic of the perverse calculus imposed on people in China at the time by Party policies and agendas and by the unworldly vagaries of Mao’s seemingly endless dicta. Under such conditions, people’s legitimate desires and aspirations were perverted and channelled into bizarre behaviour that on the face of it as expressed in this book has the appearance of a kind of psychopathy.

Saturday 9 February 2019

Movie review: Glass, dir M Night Shyamalan (2019)

This ambitious, low-budget production relies heavily on dialogue to create drama and as far as it is a success it is a solid antidote to the more-common mediocre big-budget CGI extravaganzas that we tend to think about when superheroes are discussed. The plot is a bit complex but it hinges on what goes on inside a mental institution in Philadelphia where three men under the care of a single doctor named Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) are being treated because they think they are comic-book heroes.

Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson) calls himself Mr Glass although for most of the movie he is mute, apparently bound up in a chemical straitjacket by antipsychotics. He is joined by David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a vigilante who uncovers the whereabouts of a group of schoolgirls who had been abducted by the Beast (James McAvoy). Staple is in charge of the treatment of all three of these men and all goes according to her plan until one night Price escapes from his cell and with the man who manifests the Beast (who has multiple personalities) gets out of the building. Dunn also escapes and there is a fight in the parking lot.

While the fight and its aftermath are conclusive, Price has the last laugh. Staple turns out to be an operative of a shadowy organisation that tasks itself with uncovering people who have unusual physical and mental powers, and eliminating them. But even when Staple thinks that the danger has been subdued, Price’s revenge emerges.

Apart from the major roles named there are some strong secondary characters. Spencer Treat Clark plays Dunn’s son Joseph, Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey Cooke, a woman who had survived an earlier encounter with the Beast, and Charlayne Woodard plays Price’s mother. There are also two nursing staff who are given a fair amount of work to do: Pierce played by Luke Kirby and Daryl played by Adam David Thompson.

The institution is suitably creepy and Pierce is a suitably uncaring staff member, and the place does its job in the wider scheme of things. There is a message here about exceptional individuals and the way that they tend to be ignored by the mainstream, and if the movie can be seen to have any coherent idea it is that everyone is due respect for the things that they can do, even if what that is at first appears to be a little strange. So there is a redemptive theme that ties together all of the different threads in the movie (about childhood abuse and neglect, about compassion and the transformative power of love, and about the sanctity of the individual). So far so good.

A lot of the movie’s power stems from the acting of the three main players, and McEvoy has to be singled out for the creative way he interprets the different personalities he is tasked with conveying to the audience. I think however that he slightly overdoes the transitional phases that he uses to cut between the different characters he has to communicate. A little less growling and grunting would have been appreciated.

In true Hitchcock mode, the director makes an appearance in Dunn’s security products shop posing as a customer. You can see how he wants to be thought of, and the reliance in this movie on the things the characters say underscores the resemblance with the master of suspense in the 20th century.

There are some strong pieces of directing beyond the routine growling McEvoy treats the audience to. Near the end of the movie, when Cooke grasps with her hands the heavyset arm of the personality played by McAvoy, you sense something subtle taking place. The mere fact of physical contact in a way that is meant to convey kindness and empathy serves to communicate more than any number of words might do. Little highlights of cinematic excellence such as this remind you of the director’s skill, especially since the props used in the movie cost virtually nothing and there is minimal reliance on special effects.

Friday 8 February 2019

Grocery shopping list for January 2019

This series started in January with the list of shopping for December. This is the second post in the series.

6 January

Went to the IGA and bought Spanish salami, milk, broccolini, zucchini, butternut pumpkin, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts, mouthwash and snacks.

13 January

Went to Coles and bought a ling fillet, salmon fillets, Italian salami, milk, bread, Cheddar cheese, parsnips and swedes.

25 January

Went to the convenience store and bought a bottle of milk and a chocolate muffin.

30 January

Went to the IGA and bought milk, zucchini, broccoli, sea perch fillets, a ling fillet, margarine, and some snacks.