Sunday 31 October 2021

TV review: The Billion Dollar Code, Netflix (2021)

If you don’t like foreign productions (this is mostly in German) then keep away, but if you enjoy topical TV then this might push your buttons. The acting is as good as the script in this story of the men who designed and built the forerunner to Google Earth. It’s short at four episodes, but there’s enough drama in this docuseries to entertain for a couple of days.

It opens with a dry boardroom meeting between the complainants – Carsten Schluter (Mark Waschke) and Juri Muller (Misel Maticevic) – facing lawyers who want to find out about the two men’s history of software development. Google is being sued. The action that makes up the majority of screen time takes place a generation earlier in the years the Berlin Wall fell and the city started to open up to the world. The internet was new and new ideas began to be realised. Young Schluter (Leonard Scheicher) has an idea to allow people to see the world then zoom into a specific geographical locality using a computer with a graphical user interface. Carsten has a problem in that even with a good idea he still needs people to help him realise it but one night he meets young Juri (Marius Ahrendt) at a disco and they hit it off. 

Young Juri is suitably sombre and geeky, though the two men’s infectious enthusiasm soon permeates the viewer’s mind and despite a slow start the show soon had me rooting for them. It’s amusing to think of Netflix – a major brand with billions in market capitalisation – running interference on a non-rival (Google; also a company worth billions of dollars) – so the drama isn’t just to be found inside the movie.

The deadly seriousness of actual, real-world competition animating the public sphere must bring added piquancy to the experience of watching, tension in the show being raised by specific moments working to hold the production – which takes place across a broad section of time – firmly together. Things not said have as much moment as things that are stated baldly, in fact more in some cases, as when young Carsten asks young Juri what Juri’d told Brian Anderson of Silicon Graphics (Lukas Loughran) during a trip to California the two men made. 

This is the nineties, a time when dial-up modems would screech their signatures into the silence of peopled rooms and when the internet was an embryonic realm of unknowing that players like Google’s founders capitalised off with their technologies and using the economic infrastructure of Silicon Valley. I well remember a time when the work unit I was with made one of the 50 first websites in Japan. We were trailblazers but that didn’t mean everyone I worked with in those years made it big and struck it rich. Years of grind followed the launch of Yamatake’s English-language website, and in the end I left the company under a cloud when my marriage broke down.

Carsten and Juri revelled in San Francisco’s freewheeling IT culture but their challenge was to get Deutsche Telekom, their sponsor (who’d funded the initial version of Terra Vision), to pony up cash for a PC version. This is a tale of a culture of sharing that had to be married with sound business sense in order to result in the winner everyone feels themselves entitled to be. And you won’t see the ending coming unless you’re already familiar with the case.


Wait a minute! If you’ve enjoyed this review you can read more at my Patreon – but you’d have to subscribe. It’s a small cost for regular book reviews that are as incisive and elegant as what you’ve just sampled. Your support is appreciated.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Movie review: Elon Musk, The Real Life Iron Man, dir Sonia Anderson (2018)

I always thought Musk was Russian or that he was born in Eastern Europe. Turns out he’s originally from South Africa! How obtuse of me. I appreciated the opportunity given to me in order to finally learn the truth. 

Watching this efficient documentary I also learned that Musk is certainly an unusual person and that the public persona that pursues and defines him is not an accurate index, I think, to his actual worth. What an extraordinary life for an engineer to live. 

And to live by example. Most people won’t have the insights at their disposal that this movie contains, so it’s worthwhile for anyone to make time to see it on Amazon Prime. From romance to education, and from startups to success, ‘The Real Life Iron Man’ covers all bases with elegance and aplomb. Highly recommended even if you’re not currently hankering after a Tesla Wall (I wouldn’t mind having one in my basement, and maybe I will once I get an EV).

An ability to turn good ideas – what anyone alive today might dream up over a cup of coffee with a friend – into concrete reality and in doing so turn a handsome profit (one interviewee says he has the Midas touch), is what makes Mush exceptional. Having said that, the example he’s set for other people might strike some people as frivolous. I admire the ability of SpaceX rockets to return safely to earth on the force of their engines, but for Jeff Bezos to them set up his own aerospace company with the aim of reaching other planets seems like overkill. How many billionaires does it take to change a lightbulb? 

That Bezos has chosen to screen this movie on Prime is like Channel Nine running stories on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald about what Network Ten’s morning show hosts are up to. All of the chatter about technological innovation, space travel, and astronauts helps all of these men run a PR campaign that can have a secondary aim: to stop people complaining about inequality. 

If people are busy talking about orbiting space stations instead of moaning about how Amazon employees are paid the minimum wage then there’d be fewer people bitching about the astronomical sums of money these men earn each day. But as one of the interviewees in ‘The Real Life Iron Man’ points out, Musk isn’t in the game just for the money. If he had been, he would’ve quit and retired to Monaco after selling PayPal. The fact that he’s invested his cash in new businesses that’ve subsequently turned out to be successful, and that have actually increased his net worth, is an index of the kind of man that he is. 


Wait a minute! If you’ve enjoyed this review you can read more at my Patreon – but you’d have to subscribe. It’s a small cost for regular book reviews that are as incisive and elegant as what you’ve just sampled. Your support is appreciated.

Monday 25 October 2021

Movie review: The Last Duel, dir Ridley Scott (2021)

This long movie is tight as a drum so even though I had a sore bum on occasion while sitting in the cinema, and had to shift in my set a few times, I only once felt impatient. At over 150 minutes it’s a marathon but there’s not an ounce of fat in this spectacular film.

Ben Affleck at Pierre d’Alencon is particularly good though Ridley Scott gets fabulous performances out of all of his main players. I was efficiently transported back 700 years into another world, a place where women had few rights. In the context of #MeToo, Scott’s choice of a theme is timely, his script demonstrating why human rights are so important. The broad appeal of legalisms to people – who structured their lives and beliefs around what was licit and what was illegal – have about them the kind of truth that you find in Shakespeare, so I felt that the writers got close to reality. How refreshing! A window into a lost world awaits the committed filmgoer.

I met a friend who loves history at Palace Cinema in Central Park and while we waited for the session to start we sat on a sofa looking out over the square where the brewery used to stand. The rhythms of the old industrial buildings have been replicated in the lines of the new apartment block built nearby, demonstrating how we privilege the old nowadays at a time when we’re shooting forward so rapidly it makes many people’s head spin. We lose our heads on occasion but cultural products like ‘The Last Duel’ can help to anchor us if we take the time to think about how lucky we are.

Even though the law has changed however, there’s still a way to go before things reach a point of equilibrium that we can all be happy with. After the movie my friend and I went to Spice Alley (getting the go-ahead from staff at the entrance who checked out vaccine passports) and later, during our conversation in the Agincourt Hotel (the name with historical resonance in the context of the movie because it celebrates a later English victory over the French) we both congratulated the state government on its decision to build more domestic violence shelters. Protecting women and children is still a public matter.

D’Alencon is important because of his animus against Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), who marries the daughter of a woman whose father had earlier sided with the English against a French king. De Carrouges has to fight for his privileges and when d’Alencon decides to gift an official role not to de Carrouges, whose father had once held it, but instead to Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), de Carrouges’ friend, the two men’s relationship sours.

This isn’t the end of the conflict however, and when de Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) gets involved things spiral out of control. The legal arguments are mirrored by the battle scenes, the community at the time becoming caught up in drama where the rights and desires of individuals are in conflict with those of the state and of other individuals. Even today courtroom drama is common, let alone police procedurals (so much so that they seem a dime-a-dozen), so the essential truth of ‘The Last Duel’, which refuses to pornographise poverty, is revealed in its nuance. In fact this subtlety is probably why the film has done so badly at the box office. It’s too grey to appeal to Americans who, on the strength of the argument raised by this movie’s slow ticket sales, appear to need absolutely good or absolutely bad characters. I was entranced. 


Wait a minute! If you’ve enjoyed this review you can read more at my Patreon – but you’d have to subscribe. It’s a small cost for regular book reviews that are as incisive and elegant as what you’ve just sampled. Your support is much appreciated …

Sunday 24 October 2021

TV review: Queen of the South, season 1, Netflix (2016)

Most things are good in this efficient and beautiful show, which tells the story of a young woman caught up in crime. I don’t know where to start in rendering praise but I was impressed especially by the acting of Veronica Falcón as Dona Camila Vargas, the businesswoman at the centre of the drug trade ferrying cocaine from Mexico to the US. 

Vargas has split with Don Epifanio Vargas (Joaquim de Almeida), her husband, a Mexican drug king pin who’s decided to run for governor of a state in the country that sits like a funnel south of the border. Don Epifanio, in turn, is searching out Teresa Medoza (Alice Braga), who is the girlfriend of a courier Don Epifanio has had killed because he was skimming off money on the side. But Mendoza has been picked up by Dona Camila’s henchmen and taken to Dallas, in Texas, where she is caught up in escalating events.

What’s so refreshing in this production is how the characters don’t lose their cool. The parallels with business or other institutional work are legion. Instead of ranting and gesticulating, actors talk rationally and calmly as they plot importation, distribution, death and torture, but thankfully the bland office interiors of ‘Narcos’ are avoided. 

The pace is fast, with short periods of black screen to separate some scenes from their neighbours. This periodic black-out adds drama by imposing a slower pace on some sequences, making them seem more momentous than would’ve been the case if the transition had been quick. 

Another periodic device is when, dressed in a white suit, a future Teresa appears in a scene to talk with captive Teresa about circumstances. She might sympathise with her on account of a trial that’s about to beset her, or counsel her so that she takes the right path as she works out what’s right and what’s verboten in a world of novel challenges and great opportunities. This teleological fictionalised ploy conscripts the viewer’s emotions in an attempt to downplay the importance of plot. Because we’re always reminded of Teresa’s (at least temporary) success, the particular qualities of each event as it transpires are given more moment in the watcher’s mind, allowing him or her to slowly feel what life must be like for this ordinary woman faced with extraordinary happenings.


Wait a minute! If you’ve enjoyed this review you can read more at my Patreon – but you’d have to subscribe. It’s a small cost for regular book reviews that are as incisive and elegant as what you’ve just sampled. Your support is appreciated.

Saturday 23 October 2021

Book review: The Saving I Need, Poetry Chapel Vol. 1, David Tensen and Friends

I don’t usually put book reviews on the blog anymore – see Patreon for reviews – but I was contacted by a Facebook friend seeking help with a new book, so this time made an exception. The ebook is a tenth the cost of the hard copy version.

The idea of faith is so distant from normal conversation except when it’s rejected that reading this book might come as a shock. It’s a sign of the nature of the human animal. Because religion is so powerful when it’s weaponised, in the West it’s largely been relegated to the private sphere and while it therefore should be the type of subject you meet with when reading poetry – a form of art particularly suitable to reflecting thoughts and feelings within the individual – a general sense of opprobrium directed at religion tends to mean that it gets rejected even before any claim it might make to harbouring the truth is publicly voiced. So judging it to be damaging is seen by most as a virtue. 

David Tensen efficiently shows why this is not true, his poems containing enough of the divine to tell you that not taking things for granted seems to be a gift of whatever brand of Creator lords it over the church he attends. If this is God, then maybe I should subscribe. What we’re told to privilege – giving their due weight to otherwise ephemeral things – is what we possibly cannot (or won’t) practise because it’s considered devout to do so. This is a pity. I was entranced by the way Tensen draws both humour and sadness out of small events. His vigorous imagination is equal to the task of showing us inside the house of his belief, a place where each object, each idea, is cherished as unique and special. 

If only we were more like this on social media. If religion makes you able to write poetry of this calibre, then I yearn to worship. Some poems have a more formal aspect as they employ capital letters at the beginning of each line, though I wasn’t able to discover a method behind this design. Other poems are like confession – something private and sacred – and each line starts, as though part of a sentence the previous line began, with a lower-case letter. Variety is the rule in this sense, but it’s also what makes reading Tensen’s book so compelling. 

Rather than burdened by his feelings, I felt free to think my own thoughts, and my own feelings quickly followed on their footsteps. 

Like Dante following Virgil into the underworld I let Tensen direct my mind into worlds I’ve not been able to imagine by myself. It was a bit like reading the poems of R.S. Thomas, a Welshman who was an Anglican priest and who spent those parts of his life when he wasn’t writing patriotic verses writing verses about God. I even forgave Tensen for capitalising the personal pronoun when need arose but then found that the remainder of the poems in the collection – those written by the poet’s friends – gave further glimpses into a buried world. 

It’s not everyday that people will open themselves up to the view of strangers, and I was reminded of when, as a young man, I worked on a poetry magazine. 

This section of the book is more than interesting. You get passion, as with the poems of Andrew Charles Adair and Brian Bucks, you get humour, as with Abigail Bucks. You get Carly Caprio’s or Jessica Stevens’ sadness. You get Victoria Kuttainen’s sense of hope and Jessica Mussro’s sense of awe. Nicole Walker and Tineke Zeimer show us how to notice small things and Nicole Fisher describes the magic well when she says she tries to “find beauty and hope even during the darker uncertain moments of life”. As Kaelan Kiernan writes in ‘Fire and Rain’:

You hide diamonds in every corner,
Under the most surprising rocksand
I want to search forever to find them all.

Caprio’s introduction describes the importance of her poetry practice, and for the poets in the latter half of this book from the Poetry Chapel, its members (where location is declared) shown to be a loose confederation scattered across the globe in Australia, the United States, and Great Britain, it’s this practical aspect of the craft that reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful film, ‘Paterson’, which is about a poet who drives a bus for a living. I wrote in my review of that 2016 movie, “the things that do happen seem to have a meaning beyond their immediate significance.” 

Tensen sometimes reverts to a political mode, so you can on occasion get the appearance of ideas that might more commonly populate Twitter, but this deviation from the narrow path that leads to bigger ideas is vanishingly rare. On social media Paterson’s practice could do some good, you think, and people like Franki who contributed to ‘The Saving I Need’ prove the point.

Friday 22 October 2021

Book review: Our Trespasses, Michael Cordell (2021)

I don’t usually put book reviews on the blog anymore – see Patreon for reviews – but I was contacted by a literary agent seeking help with a new book from a small publisher, so altered my usual policy for a change. love doing reviews so much I’ll do them for nothing if I think it’ll be interesting. The following is the full review and it’s free of access to anyone who sees entertainment pending.  Here’s the author’s website. 

I felt a bit like ‘Dr Who’ had been in operation on the author’s imagination. Though you won’t see the ending coming the plot devices are flat and primary-coloured while the characters are delicately shaded and perfectly formed. A paranormal science fiction novel isn’t what I was expecting and Cixin Liu is the sci-fi writer who came to mind by the time Skiz appeared in my reading of ‘Our Trespasses’. Skiz is finely wrought and embodies menace, like many of the people Matthew Davis meets in Nebraska. 

While the plot isn’t the only thing that keeps the reader intrigued and the pages turning, without careful delineation of character it’d all be a bit overwhelming, though at the outset the novel resembles one of those science fiction movies where things are too normal for comfort and you wonder where’s the catch that’s going to have you scanning hungrily to the end of each successive page. 

I’ve never read a book about twins before – or at least I don’t remember doing so – though I have a second cousin and his sister who’re twins. Their aunts are twins and I know the family by association but don’t have much contact with them nowadays. Matthew is close to me because of our names but also due to an arrangement that sufficed for meals in the family home when I was a child, in my case my mother sitting on my right and my father on my left. Us brothers sat across from each other.

Though my brother is two years older than me and is not someone who needs to be forgiven for anything that has happened in his long life. 

When Matthew goes back to Nebraska for family reasons events seem to catch up with him. Ten years earlier he left to work in New York and had pretty much lost contact with the legacy of family and friends, so when he arrives in Hatchett in a rental car in the middle of summer he refreshes contact with a number of people from his troubled past. 

Then there’s the matter of unaccountable events that remind him of Jake, his brother. You soon find yourself trying to guess where Cordell is taking you in this uncanny story of sudden agonies and stray static, physical manifestations of the white noise of blood connection. Each concrete vignette is quick upon the heels of the one coming before, the characters you encounter forcing you to confront something urgent about modern America – the urban-rural divide, drug crime, violence, guns –, while a deeper narrative thread tied to the issue of religion – which is a cultural artefact that sits closer to the surface in America than it does in my country, at least for the majority – taunts the reader with ideas of eternity and of grace. 

The title links, obviously, to the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, a very old literary formulation that for centuries has helped people focus their minds on what’s important in life. For Matthew, what’s important is finding a clue that will free him from his brother’s torment. This is linked to his very own survival, though death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you in Cordell’s universe. In the US, where my brother lives, politics must’ve become very fraught to spawn a novel like this.

Thursday 21 October 2021

Hang five: Reg Mombassa, ‘Telegraph poles on the Golden Highway’

This is the second in a series of posts looking at my art collection. I’m taking questions from an old school friend and answering them. Roger lives in the north of the state and I live in Sydney but we’re both passionate about art. He asks five questions, each of which I answer below. In the following interview, Reg Mombassa is the alias of artist Chris O’Doherty. 

Chris O’Doherty’s artistic career began when Watters Gallery included his work way back in a 1975 exhibition. One of his early supporters was Patrick White (who also lionised Brett Whitely). Patrick bought several works from the first show. He said he loved the suburban landscapes. Do you think both men iconised suburban Australia in their respective fields and do you see similarities in the sometimes distorted psychological views they take, turning mundane reality on its head, and reflecting an interior life?

That’s an interesting observation that tells me you must’ve thought for a long time about O’Doherty’s work. I like some Patrick White novels (The Solid Mandala) but not others (A Fringe of Leaves) but I never thought of him as a poet of suburbia. With O’Doherty, the charge is perhaps more relevant to my perception of the artist and I do think his small houses (it was at least one of these Patrick White bought) are both iconic and distinctive. As for similarities between the two artists, it’s difficult to say due to the length of time separating their earthly existences, but I do appreciate the art involved in both cases. Art is, in the end, what I am searching for when I spend time with a book or when I decided to make a financial outlay in order to acquire a painting or a sculpture. 

Chris was establishing his wider popularity via Mambo graphics as 'Reg Mombassa', while we were finishing high school. I wonder if this gives him special interest to us, as part of a formative time in our lives? 

Certainly the sense of humour implicit in every Reg Mombassa work is something that appeals to me. It was in those days that Double-J was set up by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (as it was called then; it changed its name in 1983) and so you and I belong to a generation that took for granted certain truths promulgated in the wake of WWII – a concern for the environment, the importance of human rights – but we also had a chance to react to expressions of them that had been established in popular culture by the generation immediately before ours. Our parents’ tastes were no longer serviceable but the models available as supplied by older Australians – people 10 or 15 years older than us – didn’t quite fit the bill so we had to find new ways to talk about the world. Anti-establishment views were de rigueur but they had to be funnelled through laughter, hence Mambo’s T-shirts and other products. At least I think this is the reason for the comic bent Reg embodies.

Chris is best known for his many offbeat, surreal, and caricature-styled pictures. Almost a comic book take on the James Gleeson legacy, with many pop-culture references thrown in, and sly digs at contemporary Australian life. But you have picked some of his more subdued and traditional landscape works, though still quirky, for your home. Do you prefer that side of his oeuvre, or is that what was available / affordable at the time, or are there other reasons? 

The Reg Mombassa work we’re talking about is distinctive – borrowing things from what you call “subdued and traditional landscape works” – in that it uses a cartoonish line, solid blocks of colour with minimal variation, and a wavy, erratic outline to make the painting look like a solid object. The outline is also used in the other type of work – which are signed “C O’D” – but with the Reg Mombassa works you have a feeling that you’re looking at something by the same guy who made the Mambo T-Shirts and surfboards. The street vibe is deeply embedded within Reg Mombassa works, and landscapes like the one I’ve chosen for this review straddle two worlds, making it easier to bring the ideas associated with one of them into the other. 

I think this is O’Doherty’s main achievement. In the present case I chose these types of works in contrast to the larger, more political works O’Doherty was selling because I wanted a lyrical tone to add to my home. They were also less expensive.

Chris has been a renaissance man of Australian culture, with his music career in Mental As Anything, graphic design work for Mambo, and not least his prolific work as a fine artist. Even the Sydney Morning Herald has been selling a selection of his prints, while copies of Reg Mombassa-designed record albums can sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. One could almost say his commercial promiscuity has put him at risk of over-exposure. Do you think he is saturating the marketplace and can this devalue his work? Or is he taking up the baton from great showmen/entrepreneurs such as Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol who excelled in self-promotion, ensuring a place in the firmament of immortal artistes, at least from a more modest, Australian perspective?

It's a very astute observation to compare O’Doherty to Warhol and Dali, and I do think that he fits in this pantheon. Being a New Zealander, O’Doherty is situated within the small town ethos, and he brings that to his Australian work, but it’s this outsider status that I think distinguishes him from his more famous forebears. I’d like to see him become as well-known as the other men, and perhaps one day this will happen, but just as the Shire from LOTR was ideally placed in NZ, Antipodean artists tend to operate in a minor key.

When you add a work to your collection, are you filling a niche in your personal gallery, as an ongoing curation where continuity is important, or are the purchases more random and impulsive? Further to this, is Chris O’Doherty part of an intended focus on the Australian landscape and do you see this focus changing at all with the more suburban location of your new home, as a house and garden removed from the cityscape?

I’ve been buying a lot of landscapes on Facebook Marketplace because many are listed there from different vendors. I took a trip up to Wyong not long ago to get one but I’ve bought more from sellers located in Sydney. The landscape is so important as a theme, and this is true now more than it’s ever been, but the Australian landscape especially is affecting because of the unique characteristics of the continent, with its dry centre and lush coastal areas. I don’t think I’ve otherwise focused on the landscape, or at least what you suggest hasn’t been a conscious tendency in my thinking. I buy works of art if I react strongly to them, and because there is such a wide range of styles nowadays it’s sometimes difficult to resist the appeal of works I see in emails sent out by commercial galleries.

Wednesday 20 October 2021

Take two: The Last Days of Dogtown, Anita Diamant

For a full review, see my Patreon

Bought new, as far as I can tell, there being no stickers to say it came from an op-shop and no pencil mark on the first page to say it was bought second-hand, this book came out in 2005 and is not what I normally read so it’s a puzzle to me as to when it was purchased – I certainly have no recollection of it. At the outset it seems like a kind of historical crime novel, the tableau containing the body of a man supposed to have killed himself. I got intrigued quickly and kept reading to the end. The photo shows me with a new haircut. 

Lockdown over I’m tidy at last, but I lack subscribers on Patreon. If you are even a little bit inclined to subscribe I’ll reward you with plenty of satisfying content as the months go past.

Tuesday 19 October 2021

TV review: The Life and Times of Angela Merkel, France 5 (4 Corners)

A particularly timely program because Merkel had just stepped aside. Though Merkel would no doubt have approved of smooth elections in Germany this year to find a new government – a coalition required again to form it – at the time of writing it looked like her party had lost the contest.

Because she spent a good deal of her time in power changing her mind about things this result cannot have surprised Merkel, but she’d have had hope for the future. The thing that struck me most about the show is how her father had moved from the West to the East in order to live in the German Democratic Republic. A staunch Protestant, he can’t have but been happy that his daughter, when she decided to become involved in politics following the fall of the Berlin Wall, chose a party with “Christian” in its name.

This was before she took on a role with the Christian Democratic Union of Germany. A committed woman (some might say that she was stubborn) of solid principles, an abiding faith allowed Merkel to weather storms that blew when her sometimes-controversial decisions caused an uproar. They also helped to calm fears when she switched position, as she did when, instead of following a path of austerity as happened in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, in the wake of Covid-19 she favoured the step of flushing the economy with cash in order to relieve hardship. I like how Merkel learned from the past, though she might’ve been chary of calling them “mistakes”. I also like how, coming from modest roots, she fell on the conservative side of politics. In her case – unlike with Margaret Thatcher – the situation she found herself in as a young woman was coloured by the political settlement that obtained during her upbringing and it cannot have been so hard, growing up in a country where central planning had so signally failed, for Merkel to see merit in individual endeavour.

The program is made up of sections of straight narrative and interviews with people from Merkel’s past and European leaders who are no longer in office. I was surprised to see Tony Blair speaking French perfectly (though with an accent) and it was nice to see some participants speaking French instead of their native German. Another thing the program did for me was to underline certain qualities about Germany that belong to no other nation. This involves a certain rationalism and a need for strong community. It’s striking how a somewhat mercurial but essentially consistent actor like Merkel could prosper in a land where pragmatism trumps popularism.

Sunday 17 October 2021

Take two: Magpies, Squirrels & Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World, Jacqueline Yallop (2001)

For a full review, see my Patreon

I don’t remember how this book came into my collection but it’s been unread ever since. I came across it not long ago when I was downstairs in the garage looking for history books to flog online. This one caught my eye and the spine reminded me that I hadn’t read it. It was bought some time in May 2012 or soon thereafter for $24.99. I think it was bought new at a bookshop, but the price sticker isn’t branded, which suggests it was an independent bookshop. Possibly Books of Buderim as in those years I was living on the Sunshine Coast. 

After I starting this book I fortunately got a haircut and the barber didn’t surprise; I half-feared he might charge extra due to the length of time without a trim!

Saturday 16 October 2021

Tweeting better stories, episode ten: September 2021

Wanting to find a lighter-hearted way I offer readers this tenth post in a series.

This topical tweet, which appeared at 8.38pm on 18 September, was too tempting to pass up, so I captured it. Apologies for straying into the realms of the known!


The following tweet appeared in my feed on 3 September at 6.35am.

At 6.24am on 4 September the following appeared in my timeline.

Translated, the poem reads thus:

And all the stars of glass
of happiness and of beauty
shone in the dust
of the disordered room
And I dead drunk
and all a blaze of joy
and you drunk alive
naked in my arms.


The following echoing tweets – with the theme of falsity a mirror image of the last tweet – appeared in my timeline at 8.41am on 5 September.

At 8.46pm on 13 September the following two tweets appeared side-by-side in my feed. I love it when I see twinned posts with the same theme. Finding a pair like this is like a flash of lightning.


I saw the following two posts on Facebook at 11.16am on 6 September.

I saw the following humorous tweet at 9.09am on 7 September.

At 9.14am on 9 September I saw this.

I saw the following tweet at 5.13am on 14 September.

At 5.42am on 27 September I saw this tweet in my feed (which I translated online).

There are no rattlesnakes

I'm glad
That here we have not

We have financiers
And others as well
But rattlesnakes
We don't have

Life could be
Even more unpleasant

W.M. Auld

Very saga words

At 6.31pm on 28 September this appeared within my little world.


The following appeared at 6.34am on 7 September.

The following tweet was visible at 5.37am on 8 September.

On 15 September at 5.44am I saw this.

I saw this in my feed at 6am on 20 September.

Air & sun

I saw these two tweets next to each other at 7.39am on 21 September.

I saw these two tweets sitting together at 5.35am on 22 September.

I saw this tweet at 5.52am on 25 September.

Mind vs machine

I saw the following tweet at 7.27am on 10 September.

On 11 September at 6.11am I saw the following tweet in my feed.

At 1.58pm on 15 September I saw this tweet in my feed.

The following image appeared in my field of vision – circumscribed by plasma and glowing pixels – at 2.46pm on 26 September.

At 6.06am on 27 September the following appeared so that I could see it.


The following tweet appeared at 7.05am on 12 September.

I saw this image at 6.59am on 19 September. There is a constant and various range of fan art of this nature posted on Twitter, it’s too easy to find strange things, like this, to post. I wonder where all of the inspiration comes from. Presumably from a TV show or movie or genre novel.

I saw the following at 4.38pm on 24 September.


These cake tweets appeared in my Facebook feed at 3.36am on 23 September.

Books & writing

At 6.25am on 16 September I saw the following in my feed.

I saw this little item at 5.12am on 30 September, the last day of the month.


I saw the following tweet on 1 September at 6.10am.


This appeared in my feed at 6.21am on 17 September.

Thursday 14 October 2021

TV review: Bronwyn Oliver: The Shadows Within, ABC (2021)

There are many things that connect me with Bronwyn Oliver and so I was deeply unhappy with the way that this program privileged her suicide, as though that one event determined the meaning of her life – though she was spiky and could be difficult to deal with. Having watched the show I still wonder what kind of person she was and I’m also led to wonder – because the show focuses on the woman more than on the art – what each of her striking works means.

I suspect that the truth is far more interesting and also more complex and wonderful than ‘The Shadows Within’ leads us to believe. The show is nevertheless rewarding for someone, like me, who is passionate about the visual arts. I never had the opportunity to study art as a young person – unlike Oliver (who was, in this respect, far more fortunate  than I was) – but I did spend time during one summer at the Alexander Mackie on South Dowling Street at the same time she was a student there. My short stay was not part of a full course of study, alas, but I enjoyed the experience and still have fond memories of painting classes, which included some with models that we used to sketch from life.

For art is about life, and perhaps because Oliver was so good at what she did we grieve her passing more strongly. Her ties to Cranbrook School – I was at Cranbrook from kindergarten through to the Higher School Certificate – forming a kind of link to life itself, the children giving her reasons to hold onto it and when that link was severed she drifted off into her own world, never to be seen again. As though she’d passed into a fourth dimension, such as you see when looking at one of her intricate works in copper, a place full of bright ideas that she twisted out of the fecund depths of her being like a Medieval mage. 

It was Cranbrook that put art and French in the timetable at the same time during the week, necessitating a decision on my part – or, rather, on my father’s part; for when I called him one day from the kitchen phone upstairs to ask him if I could drop French he resolutely said “No”, thus cementing in place a journey with words that I still trace with my own being, having been deprived of the opportunity to be an artist – which is what I’d wanted – by a man who was used to being obeyed.

Oliver on the other hand spent almost 50 years in that world. In fact it was a man associated with Roslyn Oxley, who I’d met somewhere in Sydney one day and who I brought to my house to see my paintings, who said, “It’s early days”, dismissing my oeuvre with a select few of his own words. I find I’m essentially envious of Oliver and thus find it puzzling why this show is so negative. Surely a woman who got to spend almost five decades doing what she loved should be celebrated as a chosen spirit, and not some poor unfortunate who, living with a tendency to obsession and her own thoughts (hardly a trial, believe me), in the end was overcome by sorrow because her lifestyle militated against health and wellbeing. She couldn’t be told what to do, and this was her strength. This was the reason why she was a great artist. Let’s applaud loudly on account of all that she achieved in her life. I won’t grieve anymore except for my own losses.

Wednesday 13 October 2021

Online talk: The Shifting Shoreline of Kamay (Botany Bay)

Organised by Bayside Council this talk by Dr Paul Irish on 8 October was about the shifting shoreline of this part of Sydney and its ancient past. Attending were 66 people at 1.37pm during the q-and-a segment. 

Dr Irish is the author of ‘Hidden in Plain View’ and is an archaeologist. His firm worked on the 2015 NSW History Fellowship Exhibition. Dr Irish won the 2017 Premier’s History Award. 

In the process of talking about ancient changes to the Botany Bay shoreline Dr Irish talked about Aboriginal people, whose spirit ancestors, they believe, created the country and the living things in it, giving laws. They care for the environment in a spiritual way. Language and country go together. They use language to assert connections to country. 

Bunabi is the northern headland of Kamay, Gibia is the southern headland. 20,000 years ago there was a global ice age. Here there was no ice, and the temperature was a few degrees colder, but Sydney was a different form from today. Seas were much lower than today, about 100m lower in Sydney. All of Sydney Harbour was dry land then. 

When Kamay looked like this (map by Paul Irish) Aboriginal people had been living there for 100s of generations. Rising water ate up land by small increments each year over the next 10,000 years. 7000 years ago the bay had taken its current form (see pic below; map credit also to Dr Paul Irish).

A 10,500-year-old fireplace found during construction of apartments at Wolli Creek. A fireplace at Randwick showed that 8500 years ago Aboriginal people were eating freshwater fish there. 6500 years ago water rose to two metres higher than it is today. Here is a map showing Botany Bay at the time of Captain Cook’s arrival.

Monday 11 October 2021

Take two: The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, Mark Juergensmeyer (1993)

For a full review, see my Patreon

Another one of my Co-Op Bookshop purchases from 15 years ago, this one bought sometime after May 2008 for $10 (a fifth of the recommended retail price), so it was very cheap. This is par for the course, and I find it amazing that it’s possible to buy really inexpensive things that are so interesting and rewarding. The author of this book is 81 years old, so he must’ve been exposed to a good deal of triumphalism. The book shows that the West had, even in the 90s, nothing to crow about. Events would demonstrate just how little.

Sunday 10 October 2021

TV review: The Chestnut Man, Netflix (2021)

I watched this thing right through in one night from about 7.30pm. My reason for doing this is because a suitable Saturday night rerun was missing and I didn’t want to watch ‘Grantchester’. ‘The Chestnut Man’ is a competent Danish police procedural that includes an uncopy-able twist that’ll have other filmmaker writhing with jealousy. If you tried to do a similar thing since this was made you’d immediately be accused of plagiarism. On the other hand you won’t see it coming.

Danica Curcic is Naia Thulin, a Copenhagen detective who’s been given the job of looking after Mark Hess (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), a detective who’s been overseas but who’d been sent back home due to an affair that isn’t amplified through detail enough to make a difference. Initially Hess is lackadaisical and uncommitted but becomes intensely focused on the case of the deaths of two women under horrific circumstances. Together, Thulin and Hess get down to work to crack the case, which involves a politician, Rosa Hartung (Iben Dorner).

What themes are investigated in this drama? Well, the media and the political class come out looking distinctly stale. There’s something about the woman who plays Rosa’s boss, the prime minister (Signe Vaupel), and the man who plays Hartung’s assistant, Frederik Vogel (Morten Brovn) that puts the viewer in mind of birds of carrion. Loyalty isn’t prized as highly as popularity and, you feel, the only thing keeping Rosa in power is her pull with voters. More sympathetic is Rosa’s husband Steen (Esben Dalgaard Andersen), who touchingly never gives up on the idea that their daughter – who’d been deemed to have been killed by a psychotic pervert a year before the timeline starts – is still alive.

Running through the six episodes it takes the show to reach its climax is the issue of violence against children. This theme is even elaborated in Thulin’s family life as her daughter Le (Liva Forsberg) expresses a desire to live with her “grandfather” (Anders Hove), a man who’d earlier in Thulin’s life cared for the policewoman and who now functions as a buttress in the child’s existence. This is creased by her mother’s regular overtime work, something that Le resents. Rosa’s son (Louis Næss-Schmidt) is also sometimes unhappy with his parents, and especially resents how his father drinks.

So ‘The Chestnut man’ canvasses worthy sentiments. Other than that, the script is solid and the acting good. Ten points. Worth a watch, definitely.

Saturday 9 October 2021

TV review: Des, ITV (2020)

David Tennant is good in this creepy true-life psychodrama about a serial killer. There’s a happy lack of suspense at the beginning as Des (Tennant) is apprehended by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (Daniel Mays) outside his home after human remains had been found in a drain by a plumber. The mystery then becomes the identities of the victims, with Jay and Detective Superintendent Geoff Chambers (Ron Cook) interviewing Des at length in order to be able to know who’s been killed. At least one name is what’s needed so that the police can charge Des with a crime.

A writer named Brian Masters (Jason Watkins) gets involved, like Truman Capote interviewing the perpetrators of the Herbert Clutter family killings. Masters keeps Des supplied with cigarettes – everyone seems to be constantly smoking in this drama, as though punters in the 1980s always had a fag hanging off the side of their mouths – and presses him with questions while endeavouring to convince Des that he’s, himself, trustworthy.

An undercurrent of unease tracking through the production is helped by good casting, Tennant making a fine villain by sensing that Des must be half sympathetic in order to succeed. Episode 1 screened on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) main channel on 24 September, replacing a rerun of ‘Midsomer Murders’, which is a show I like to catch on Friday nights. The 2020 procedural offers a very different experience because, unlike the older show, it’s trying for verisimilitude. ‘Midsomer Murders’ knows about its own lack of credibility – a murder every week in a small town in a remote part of rural England being examined by a sympathetic policeman with a clever wife and a humorous neglect of his offsider’s dignity – while ‘Des’ wants you to feel what it was like to be alive in Thatcher’s England with police offhand about investigating crimes committed against the most vulnerable members of the community – when London, a magnet for other parts of the kingdom, drew in more people than it could adequately care for. Some fell through the cracks, and in ‘Des’ they reappear as a list of people the killer, for some reason, decided must die.

What motivates Des is another mystery that needs resolution. Episode 2, which aired in Australia on 1 October is equally odd, offering a plot twist that’s suitably subdued in a way that cannot break the delicate fabric of the show’s poetic. Its strangeness enhanced by calm dialogue considering that Des, even when he loses his temper, never loses his cool, demonstrating an ability to exact cold revenge on the police he must’ve – you imagine – come to hate because he once worked there. 

Des is a piece of work without a model, quite different from the regular TV crim who makes an appearance in an interview room – plain metal table, bare walls, recording device – to be cajoled or threatened by investigating officers. He has attitude but there is no posturing. He’s sui generis. And ‘Des’ is “about” more than just the identity of a single killer, seeming rather to be talking about an entire generation, one I knew because it belonged to my parents, my uncle, my aunt. 

I had no criminals in my family, and in fact the clan had been more sinned against than sinning. An exceptional record of police involvement being in the case of my grandmother, who went missing in Adelaide at the time she was working as a governess, in the 20s (of last century), and then ended up in a Melbourne boarding house where she met my grandfather. She’d had a daughter but I never found out who my aunt’s father was and, in fact, my cousins are still trying to identify him. This is a story of displacement and some sort of hidden injustice, for whatever happened to my grandmother she was sufficiently wary of the possibility of shame that she never revealed the man’s name, but it is one that contains traces of the same feelings that animate ‘Des’, where nameless men end up buried in a nondescript suburban backyard. 

I might also reflect on the case of Molly Dean who was killed in the 20s on the streets of Melbourne and who was my grandfather’s cousin. Poor girl ended up dead too.

The final instalment of ‘Des’ screened on the night of 8 October to wrap up in three episodes an entertaining show that avoids overdoing the pathos. The writing is economical and secondary characters are given just enough time on-screen to deliver a boost to the plot without unnecessarily complicating the story. This is a quality production.

Friday 8 October 2021

TV review: Castle & Castle, season 2, Netflix (2021)

The firm’s office is different compared to season 1 and the writing is tighter. Now, in a more salubrious environment, the lawyers of my favourite Nigerian soap opera deal with a novel set of crises, and the brilliant actors are back again to entertain and instruct, but the gaps between signal events is smaller and this season feels less episodic. There’re only six episodes instead of 13, for a start. Episode 1 opens with Tega Castle (Richard Mofe-Damijo) teaching at university and his wife Oluremi (Dakore Akande) running the firm single-handed. 

While watching ‘Castle & Castle’ is a kind of lesson in humanity the presence of the first world is stronger in this season that it was in the first. Tega is asked by Mike Amenechi (Daniel Etim Effiong) to take on an extradition case. A man is being extradicted to the US, where he’d been involved in a BLM rally that had turned ugly. 

Other issues will have such singular importance in the eyes of developed-world audiences, such as the case Kwabena (Deyemi Okanlawon) and Doshima (Dorcas Shola Fapson) are given to manage, which involves a young woman who’s married a woman in South Africa but whose parents forbid the couple from using their (the parents’) surname as their married name. Doshima had felt sympathy for the child but her duty as a lawyer is to work in the best interests of the parents, as they’re the firm’s clients. For audiences this small drama is compelling because it highlights the ways in which law is so much more liberal outside Nigeria. It also shows how South Africa is a kind of Petrie dish where Western experiments are first tried before they can be exported to other African countries. The makers of ‘Castle & Castle’ evidently want viewers to sympathise with the daughter but as in most of the vignettes both sides of the coin are given equal prominence.

Once again ‘Castle & Castle’ shows that we need more news from countries, such as Nigeria, where human rights are not well served and where corruption in its various forms is common. It not only helps Nigerians by giving exposure to their problems, thus bringing pressure to bear on bad actors living and operating there, it also helps residents of such countries as Australia to better understand their own polities. If more Nigerian news stories were screened in the evenings in Australia it’d put our own problems in proper perspective, and save us time and energy by removing certain issues from prominence in public debate. Being more international in scope, the nightly Sydney news would be more useful by illustrating what’s good about life at home, and preventing subjects of marginal importance from taking up so much space in the community’s discussions with itself. People talk, they become invested personally in things, and they press for change – some of which is not required and will do more damage if implemented because, if it is, it will unnecessarily alienate a large part of the populace, making necessary change harder to implement. By watching more Nigerian stories at night when families are getting ready to eat or to have dinner everyone can benefit from a clearer view of the wide world we live in, and can better understand their own place in it.

But this is unlikely as a single jurisdiction, a unique national focus, is required to give matters piquancy, and to make them stick in people’s mind so they can concentrate on them with all of their passions and with their personal identity engaged. So just as the Pandora Papers – a trove of documents relating to offshore tax havens – cannot attract the interest of Sydneysiders as strongly at the resignation of the state premier, news from Nigeria or Pakistan – countries with many people living in dire poverty but where some rich people sequester their savings in places where they cannot be taxed – is hardly likely to grab the eyes of a reader of the Daily Telegraph. The space between the single man or woman and the collective is slim and nationalism is powerful (the 20th century taught us) precisely because it’s about the individual. 

The second season of the show does include an episode (4) which uses social media to progress the plot, as Tega is instructed in the art of using Twitter by his son Ben (Denola Grey). Conversely, Malik (Blossom Chukwujekwu) adds a distinctly local type of drama when his father dies and he must negotiate a settlement for his mother. Being Muslim the two must find a way to come to terms with customary law as practiced by her husband’s family. It’s rare to find a soap opera that so effectively marries such divergent strands, but ‘Castle & Castle’ manages the balance between cultures in a way that allows different stories to carry equal weight. 

This is a gem and it’s not only because of the quality of this show that it’ll get a third season: the ways in which the plot leaves the viewer hanging make it inevitable.

Thursday 7 October 2021

Hang five: Joash Tuinstra, ‘Bondi’

This is the first in a new series of posts that looks at works in my collection. I’ll take questions from an old school friend (though we haven’t met for four decades). Roger lives in the north of the state and I live in Sydney but we’re both passionate about art. The title of the series is due to how artworks are hung on walls, and also due to how each post should take about five minutes to read. Roger asks five questions, each of which I answer below.

Do you find the naive style of painting for ‘Bondi’ to be similar to Aboriginal art in the flat treatment of surfaces, sort of tactile / finger-painting in parts, and almost map-like aerial view?

Opposite ‘Bondi’ on another wall is an Aboriginal work (a print), so the question is especially relevant in the context of my house though I personally never thought of this type of influence. But since you raise it as a question it seems pertinent. Now that I think about it the way that Tuinstra has lofted the point of view to sit directly above the beach and the foreshore so that it looks like his use of perspective could have drawn inspiration from First Nations people’s unique ideas about figuration and representation of the natural world.

I didn’t come to grasp the relevance of their ideas until relatively recently, it must’ve been about twenty years ago. I don’t know why I was in the dark for so long, but I’d just never thought about Aboriginal art with that part of my mind. Once I grasped what was going on – how they elevate the viewpoint to sit in the air above the landscape – it all made sense in that Australia, being a continent, is so large and that in order to successfully get around you have to image the world as though it were printed on a map.

Interestingly, next to ‘Bondi' (bottom right) is a Sydney Morning Herald insert I had framed some years before I bought Tuinstra’s work. This is a satellite photograph showing Sydney from space. It is in the distinctively green-and-black colour scheme of all such photos, and demonstrates the size of the metropolis. You can see the M2 and M7 easements before the roads were actually completed.

I’m also seeing a possible influence of Brett Whiteley’s early NSW landscapes that he did in a simplified, abstracted fashion. Also David Hockney bells are ringing….you?

Tuinstra is American so it’s more likely that Hockney is an influence, though Tuinstra was living in Australia at the time ‘Bondi’ was made so he definitely would’ve come across Whiteley. 

There is such a range of styles available nowadays for painters to borrow from that pretty much anything goes and I am encouraged by the feelings painters must have when they think about starting something new as part of their practice. 

When I was young I remember picking a book on Pop Art as a school prize. I distinctly remember going to a bookshop in the CBD and feeling so happy when I came across it. Sadly the book isn’t in my collection anymore. (Many of the books I had as a boy are now dispersed although I still have a number that my cousin Douglas took and which his father, my uncle Geoff, brought up to Queensland to store when I was living in Japan.) What I mean to say is that it used to be that certain styles were prominent in various segments of time, but this singular focus no longer holds. Artists have a whole gamut of styles from which to pick influences which they can combine in new ways to make curious things. If you’re a painter working in Australia in 2021 or even if you were doing so in 2008 the possibilities are virtually endless. This must in a way be liberating as you would be able to explore different avenues in order to find the one that expresses your personality and the ideas that you think are important. But it also must be a tad frightening since, given enough openings, choosing one door could seem perilous.

Whiteley (1939-1992) and Hockney (b. 1937) are from the same generation of my parents. Whiteley sadly died from his addictions but Hockney is still going strong and his later works – I think he’s living back in England now – are just as striking as the ones you mention (the swimming pool pictures) but are quite different in concept. He has made a big impression on generations of artists, especially painters, and I think that your thoughts on ‘Bondi’ are on the nail in this respect. It’s arguable whether Aboriginal art was an influence on either Hockney or Whiteley. The former probably never came across it in his formative years and the latter, to me, seems to be influenced more by Asian art, especially Chinese brush painting.

Interesting viewing the pic in segments on the phone, it looks like a series of pictures on a coastal theme which can be viewed in different combinations. By breaking up the picture frame you are putting your own perspective of the picture, through the filter of an electronic medium and re-contextualising it. The picture has evolved - intentional?

The reason I sent you the detailed views of the painting was so that you could get an idea of the brushstrokes used to make it. I sent four different clips as attachments to one email, each displaying a small section of the painting, but this wasn’t done in order to make something different of my own. Here are a couple of the details I sent.

In the above photo you can see the impasto effect of the paint used for the beach. I think Tunistra originally had the beach in yellow but then changed it to green in order to complete the composition more effectively. The paint used for the beach is thicker than the paint used for other parts of the painting.

The above photo shows another small part of ‘Bondi’. Though my segmentalising was done for the sake of convenience it’s plausible to imagine someone making a new artwork out of segments of another person’s painting. You could snap some photos of a painting like ‘Bondi’, print them out on archival paper, and frame them, giving the resulting assemblage a distinct title.

Do you think nostalgia for a former home location may have altered your appreciation of the painting. I wonder how much is the enjoyment of memories and how much is pure aesthetic appeal? 

Definitely Bondi has memories for me but it was, I think, the last one available in the show at Gallery 41, which was in Woolloomooloo. I used to live in Bondi, having bought an apartment there in 1988 before I moved to Japan to live. Also, this painting came direct from the framers to my new apartment in Maroochydore where I lived from 2009 to 2015. Queensland was a novelty for me because it was the first time I lived in a small town. Before moving there I’d always lived in big cities and the culture shock was significant. It’s situated on an estuary and is near a surf beach and in fact my unit up there was about 500m from the ocean. 

It took me a while to get used to Maroochydore but I was living a regular life with a set of daily routines that would see me going to mum’s flat in the morning for breakfast, then again in the late afternoon so I could cook dinner for the two of us. So ‘Bondi’ has a twin significance for me in a way that now gives me cause to think about different parts of my life when I am exposed to it, as I am every time I go into the living room.

I am curious as to how my perception of the painting would change viewing it ‘in situ’ rather than in cyberspace. Perhaps the decorative quality would be more subdued and the impact heightened by a holistic view. Environment is such an important factor. For example I see it working well in a light and breezy window location, perhaps with greenery, if the new abode has such a spot...  

Actually this was one of the works the stylists used in my apartment when the real estate agents were selling it for me. I had to sell the apartment in order to buy the house the collection of art is now kept inside. 

The Pyrmont stylist chose for her hang blue-and-green works in my collection, and ‘Bondi’ was put right next to the front door, so that you’d see it as soon as you came inside from the lift lobby. I’ve put the work in the living room (see initial photo above) where it fills a wall with the accompaniment of smaller items adding texture and playing off its vibrancy. The strength of the colour scheme of ‘Bondi’ certainly makes it a striking piece and it’s the first thing you see when you enter the living room, which is dominated by a purple couch and pink curtains. I also have a lot of bookcases so a large and powerful painting will always work in my place.