Monthly Archives: December 2015

Movie: ‘Truth’

I was disappointed in this one.

Based on her book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power (2004), this is the story of Mary Mapes, the producer of Sixty Minutes in America. She produced the segment, presented by Dan Rather, that questioned  George W. Bush’s selection for enlistment and later performance in the Texas Air National Guard which allowed him to avoid being drafted for Vietnam.  The film follows the uncovering and verification of documents and the search for evidence to back up the story. After the segment was aired, questions were raised about the authenticity of the documents, and three CBS producers, including Mapes, were fired. Dan Rather resigned soon after.

I must confess that I’m not particularly aware of the role of producers in news programs and the distinction between a producer and a presenter.  I looked through the list of producers in the Wikipedia entry on Four Corners (probably the Australian program most comparable to that depicted in the film) and while some names were familiar, others weren’t.

I had been hoping that this film would be more like the excellent BBC Series The Hour  (alas, we’ll never know what happened to Freddie…) or Good Night and Good LuckTruth did not have the tautness of either of these programs and was too schmaltzy. Although you’re left with questions at the end of the film, you feel more suffocated than lacerated.

It’s a brilliant cast, with Cate Blanchett and an increasingly wrinkly Robert Redford, but the roles didn’t seem to stretch them at all. It was a surprise to see Noni Hazlehurst there- yes our Noni- and she played her small role really well.

So, a rather lukewarm 3/5 from me.

‘Warrior’ by Libby Connors


2015, 280 p.

If you, like many others, watched the ABC production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, then you should read this book. Think back to the silent, foreboding presence of indigenous people as they filed past the boundaries of what William Thornhill thought of as ‘his’ land, inscrutable, chilling, ethereal. There was a simple logic at play: settlers wanted the land and the aborigines wanted them gone. Kate Grenville complicates William Thornhill’s response and renders it explicable, even if it’s a response that we’d like to distance ourselves from. But beyond the defence of their country, the actions of the indigenous protagonists, in Grenville’s book and in settler reports of the time, remain fragmentary, apparently random and unknowable. Until now.

Libby Connor’s book Warrior challenges the simple classification of aboriginal ‘outrages’ as random, undisciplined and ultimately futile. Instead, she returns logic and agency to the indigenous tribal groupings in south-east Queensland during the pre-Separation days of the frontier. She does this through the story of Dundalli, a Dalla man who was executed in January 1855 for the murder of Andrew Gregor and his pregnant (white) house-servant Mary Shannon in an attack on the Caboolture River. White justice had taken twelve years to catch up with him. In the meantime, Dudalli had taken on mythic proportions by evading capture repeatedly, and his name became a byword for all ‘outrages’, whether he was involved or not. When he finally faced Supreme Court judge Roger Therry in a Brisbane circuit court hearing, in effect lawman-to-lawman, it was the judge who was intimidated by this tall, imposing  leader, and not the other way round.

Libby Connors is a historian who has written a great deal on the interaction between British law and indigenous people. She is well placed to go through the evidence, the courtroom arguments, the legal principles and the punishment regimes of white settler justice. But the real achievement in her work is in fleshing out Dundalli, so that he is more than one of those silent wraiths of Grenville’s book. Drawing on the memories of a tribal man recorded as an oral history during the 1950s , she is able to reconstruct (albeit through extrapolation) the nature of a Dalla childhood and adolescence than Dundalli is likely to have experienced. Using documents generated by white missionaries, bureaucrats, settlers, anthropologists and historians, she gives Dundalli’s leadership a context by mapping out the intra-tribal politics and strategies utilized by different groups in what is now the Sunshine Coast/ Brisbane area. These politics were instrumental, pragmatic and fluid. One group might encourage the establishment of a mission on tribal land as a means to gain access to technology that ensured supremacy over other groups; another might consciously defer to white justice in order to fulfil the demands of their own indigenous justice. The British and Indigenous justice systems existed, and continued to exist, side by side, and she highlights that both systems of law were mutable and in tension with the other.

The book is beautifully written and imbued with a deep sense of place. A map that appears in the opening pages shows indigenous places superimposed onto familiar Western towns and rivers, highlighting the co-existence of two competing senses of ownership. Her frequent references to present-day Brisbane and Sunshine Coast landmarks would prick the consciousness of residents of those places, reminding them that another history runs alongside the sun, cosmopolitanism and tourism of both those places. When you find yourself overwhelmed by who’s who, and which group is which, you turn the page and there is a table; when you think ‘gee, a map would be handy here’, there it is. The text flows effortlessly, and the footnotes are unobtrusive, but when you look at them closely, you realize just how intricate and painstaking her construction of indigenous polity is.

This book has received the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance, and I noticed that it was on the top of the list of recommended reading for Prime Minister Turnbull over his Christmas break issued by the Grattan Institute this year. It’s a tremendously important book. Many historians over the past forty years in particular have written, as Henry Reynolds does, of “the other side of the frontier” surveying the resistance of indigenous people to their dispossession across the frontier as a whole. What this book does is hone in on one particular location; one constellation of tribal groups; a set of named, individual leaders. It will make you pause the next time you read of an ‘aboriginal depredation’ in fiction, see it depicted in film or read it reported in settler testimony. It does what the fictional William Thornhill couldn’t, and white British justice wouldn’t do. It makes sense of what was perceived by settlers as brutish retaliation and gives it a legal, political and environmental logic, embedded in power structures negotiated and contested between intelligent, strategic and courageous leaders of men.


I’ve posted this review (the last for the year) to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.






Another reading challenge?

That’s what I need in my life…. another reading challenge.  I’ve probably completed the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge several times over by now ( I should write a wrap-up post) and I’ve failed dismally in the TBR challenge where I vowed to read twenty books from those already on my shelves before buying anything else.

But I was fascinated by Ann Morgan’s self-imposed challenge to read a book from every independent country in the world within a year.  There’s no way I could do it within a year- that is, after all 196 books- but perhaps a ten year plan?  You can see a TED-talk where she describes her project here and here is her list of books suggested to her, organized by country (the books she actually read are underlined and linked to her review).

Ah, who am I kidding? I won’t get round to this.  Nonetheless, it’s an interesting idea.

Hearing women on Q & A

I see that the report has been published into political bias on the ABC’s program Q & A. It found that, despite assertions to the contrary by right-wing politicians and commentators,  it was not a “lefty lynch mob”.  However,

“The representation and participation of females on Q&A panels was significantly below that of their male counterparts,” the report said. “There were fewer female panellists and those that were selected were asked fewer questions and permitted far less time to speak.

“There were fewer female panellists in total (46% female to 54% male). This was due mainly to the under-representation of women selected to appear on behalf of the coalition government. Only 11% of coalition panellists appearing in programs where they were matched against representatives of the opposition were women.”

One of the most egregious examples of the disrespect shown to women occurred when Christopher Pyne, Lindsay Tanner and Piers Akerman completely dominated the QandA episode where Kate Ellis joined them on the panel.  I’ve written about it before, and just to remind you- here’s some of it:

Chrys Stevenson who writes at Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear (great title!) was so incensed that she analysed the interchanges closely. Although the word count total did not differ markedly between the four panelists, the prevalence of interruption when Ellis was speaking was astounding:

Ellis’s heroic 1,962 words were interrupted 36 times during the course of the program – that’s once every 55 words and more than once every two minutes.

The major offender was Christopher Pyne who butted in to Ellis’ conversations an incredible 21 times – an average of one interruption for every three minutes of air time. And that was just against Ellis!

In all, serial offender Pyne interrupted other speakers, including Jones, a total of 34 times. Compare this with Catherine Deveny who drew the wrath of the Twitterverse and a misogynistic media upon her head by interrupting just four times during the course of a program. Where are the newspaper editorials about Pyne’s performance?

Tanner and Akerman made 11 interruptions each. Like Pyne, their major target was Ellis – 5 interruptions from Tanner and 6 from Akerman. Jones interrupted the Minister for Employment four times, the most notable when she opened her mouth to answer a question from an audience member and before she had a chance to speak, Jones said, “We’ll take that as a comment” and directed the next question to her nemesis, Christopher Pyne!

She has provided transcriptions of some of the interchanges- head over and read them!

I listen to a lot of podcasts that have been recorded at conferences and writers’ festivals, where there is often a question-and-answer session at the end. It’s striking how many of the sessions are dominated by men. You often see it in action: “any questions?” they ask and up shoot the men’s hands.  There may be women’s hands up, but somehow they’re just not seen by the chair.  Even in sessions where you can see, or suspect, that the audience is predominantly female, men’s questions dominate question time.

I like it when the chair announces in advance that questions will be taken alternately between men and women.  Yes, there might be an embarrassing silence, but then the questions do come, and possibly the better for a few second’s reflection. For myself, I often need a pause before I can think of a question, and I appreciate knowing that a space will be made for that.



A little trip to the country

We unexpectedly had a couple of days away this week at Lorne, some 140 km from Melbourne along the spectacular Great Ocean Road.  We stayed at the Mantra, the former Erskine House guest house: something I probably swore at some stage I would never do.  Erskine House was located on Crown Land and there was strong opposition to its sale to developers (in fact, there’s an interesting paper by Brian Walters QC about the use of defamation threats to silence opposition to the project here). It certainly is surrounded by apartments, although it’s possible to walk through the complex if you so desire and it still has beach access.  It’s a sad thing that you look at it now and think “it could be worse” and probably would be, were the development proposed today.

Armed with a ‘Lorne Heritage Walk’ brochure, we headed off to see the historic homes, most of which are located in Mountjoy Parade, overlooking the bay.

We found ‘Banyule’, although it’s not the Banyule that I know and love. There was an old house located far back on the block, with its magnificent view blocked by shrubbery.

At bit further along was “Jura”, built in 1919 using Knit-Lock bricks, patented and used by Walter Burley Griffin in a number of his properties, although this is possibly the largest surviving example of their use.  This grand, rather heavy-looking house was built for the Western District pastoral family, the Campbells.  It would have been cutting-edge architecture at the time, although it seems to me to be rather ponderous design for a beach-house.

Did I go for a swim? Yes, I did even though the temperature was only about 23 degrees. Believe me, the water was much colder! I seemed to be the only person without a wetsuit.

Next morning we headed off for the Otway Fly Zipline.  You’re kitted into harness and helmet, then you climb a tower about 20 metres off the ground. You’re clipped onto a cable that is strung between two ‘cloud stations’ and off you go! There are seven cloud stations in all, two of which are connected by suspension bridge.

See this happy person?


Well, it’s not me.  She’s smiling. She’s not gripping her harness, white-knuckled.  She looks like she’s enjoying it.

I wonder why they didn’t interview ME for this promotional video?


Or if you want even more….

Oh lordy, even the music is stressful! Anyway, I’m glad that I didn’t chicken out on the first leg (which I very nearly did.) I’m also glad that I never have to do it ever again for the rest of my life.

Recovered enough, we headed for home. We stopped off at the Gellibrand River pub for a drink.  Gellibrand River had been one of the stations on the Colac-Beech Forest railway, constructed in 1902.  The pub itself was 120 years old, tucked away on the river bank.


In Colac we passed Holts Gun Shop, “Victoria’s Largest Gun Shop”. Thinking of the gun supermarkets in the United States, I’m glad that I live in a state where this is the biggest gun shop.



‘Australia Under Surveillance’ by Frank Moorhouse


2014,  298 P.

I was too young and too tightly restrained by my parents to become involved in the Vietnam Moratorium Marches or any other form of political activism during the 1970s. (I waited for middle-age to indulge!)  I think it highly unlikely that I have an ASIO file, although I remember reacting with a jolt when a congregation member at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church mentioned in passing that there was probably an ASIO agent within our midst. He may have been right, and he almost certainly would have been right during the 1950s- 80s.   In recent years, activists writers and performers who were of interest to ASIO have been able to access their files from 30 years ago and found a curious mixture of banal, puerile and chilling reports on their activities.

Frank Moorhouse was one such person of interest, and I was attracted by the subheading to this book “Frank Moorhouse takes a look at the organisation that has been watching him”.  I am rather embarrassed to say that I haven’t read any of his works (I do have them on the shelf though) but I was aware of the essay ‘The Writer in a Time of Terror’ that he wrote for the Griffith Review in Summer 2006-2007.   It was highly acclaimed, garnering the PEN/Keneally Award, the 2007 Alfred Deakin Award for Best Essay in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2007 and the  Walkley Award for Equity Journalism. Three other essays followed (listed below).

This book draws heavily on the essay- very heavily, I found when I double-checked. I enjoyed most the parts where he spoke about his own entanglement with ASIO (or more properly, ASIO’s entanglement with him) but I did find the rest of the book rather bitsy. It is structured as seventeen chapters, but each chapter has the appearance of being a separate part, with its own title page.  Visually and in an argumentative sense, such overt separation of the chapters disrupts the flow and suggests a significance to each discrete chapter which is not perhaps justified.

There is a rather curious and lengthy chapter entitled ‘The Interview with Director-General David Irvine- My File Keeper’.  Over sixty pages in length, it is a  transcript of Moorhouse’s interview with the  ASIO Director General. It starts with Moorhouse describing how the interview was set up, and noting that he has “smoothed it out- removing repetitions and irrelevancies, completing sentences” etc.   He also includes “interpolations and commentary” in squared brackets which, for me, compromises any attempt at verbatim reporting.  He excuses such methodological untidiness by admitting that while such a practice gives

the advantage..that I have, as it were, the last word.  But this interview is certainly not the last word from either of us on any of the issues discussed. (p. 158)

Nonetheless, it is a chilling chapter, made even more so by the recent appointment of the same former Director-General David Irvine as the new advisor to the new Border Force.  In many ways recent events have raised the temperature even more, especially with the announcement by those black-clothed Border Force officers that they would check the papers of anyone they encountered – a half-baked plan that was abandoned very quickly in response to  immediate community outrage.  I was already unnerved by this development and after reading Moorhouse’s book I am even more so.

In his acknowledgments, Moorhouse notes that this book came together after eight years. The essays that formed the basis of the book were  ‘The Writer in a Time of Terror’ Griffith Review (summer 2006-2007); ‘Beyond Stigma’ (Griffith Review 33); ‘Dark Conundrum’ (Griffith Review 41) and ‘Pocket Litter and Two Jokes’ (Sydney Morning Herald 29 August 2014). He later notes that “The Writing and editing of Australia Under Surveillance was, for personal reasons very difficult”.  He himself describes the book as “an eight-year exploration rather than an argument for a thesis….”. Perhaps, given its unevenness, it is best read that way.

On a related matter, the National Archives in the UK  have just released the files on Burgess and Maclean, part of the Cambridge Five spying ring.

Movie: The Dressmaker

I was over in Kenya when this was released, so I missed the early buzz. However, recent plaudits for this film have made up for it.

I loved the book when I read it a few years ago for its wicked humour and the film captured that well. I thought that Kate Winslet’s Australian accent was excellent, and I enjoyed seeing many familiar faces. While gorgeous, I thought that Liam Hensworth was too young to play Teddy, though.

I was rather surprised to hear that a ‘young person’ of my acquaintance (yes, I do occasionally meet one or two) absolutely hated the book and refused to see the film.  She had been compelled to study the book at school, and I really do wonder why you’d subject such a light book to being ‘done’ as literature in the classroom.  Poor choice, I’d say, and one that would kill the joy of the book with analysis.

As for me, I loved the film just as I loved the book. Full stop.