Monthly Archives: September 2018

Movie: Working Class Boy

 

A few weeks back, this doco was everywhere, but it’s disappearing fast. It’s fantastic. You don’t need to be a Cold Chisel fan (although it helps) because you’ll see his present-day renditions of songs, backed and accompanied by his brilliant daughter Mahalia, in a whole new light. Born in Glasgow into a poor, violent home, he emigrated with his family to Australia, to live in the working class, industrial suburb of Elizabeth in South Australia.  There he embarked upon -and survived- a rough rock-and-roll life that we know replicated the alcoholism and dysfunction of his childhood. He came to be the lead singer of one of the best-known bands in Australia. It’s a mixture of film footage, archival footage about Glasgow and Elizabeth, talking head interviews, a who-do-you-think-you-are-like return to significant places, extracts from his stage show based on the book, and studio recordings.  There were only about five of us in the cinema when I saw it, applauding away vigorously in the dark. Go see it before it disappears.

My rating: 5

‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan

Flanagan_firstperson

2017, 392 p.

Near the end of Richard Flanagan’s First Person, there’s an interaction between the narrator, the jaded reality-TV producer Kif Kehlmann and a late-twenties writer Emily Coppin in a New York restaurant. Kif asks her what she writes.  Autobiography, she answers:

It’s what everyone writes now. Knausgaard, Lerner, Cust, Carrère. All the best writers taking literature somewhere new…It’s fake inventing stories as if they explain things…Plot, character, Jack and Jill going up the hill. Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag. I am totally hoping never to read another novel again….Everyone wants to be the first person. Autobiography is all we have… (p. 361)

This book is a wry, knowing riff on the act of writing and the literary imagination. It is written in the form of a memoir penned by the writer Kif Kehlmann who was employed to ghost-write the memoir of a con-man Siegfried Heidl.  Heidl had somehow inveigled himself into directorship of a shadowy para-military outfit under an innocuous public safety name. He had defrauded the banks of $700 million, and he was evasive and slippery. He had received a hefty advance from his publishers to write a memoir, but he had no intention of doing so. Aspiring but unpublished writer Kif Kehlmann was tapped on the shoulder for the job, only because he was recommended by Heidl’s bodyguard, Ray who grew up with Kif in Tasmania. Offered $10,000 to pull together a ghost-written memoir, Kif is given six weeks – and then less- to get the book out before Heidl goes to trial. He does not like Heidl, who is erratic, manipulative and dangerous. Ray warns him not to let Heidl into his head, but Heidl manages to do so anyway. Kif, lured by the money, leaves his heavily-pregnant wife in Tasmania while he comes across to Melbourne where he tries to pin Heidl down.

If Siegfried Heidl sounds familiar, it’s because he is. He is based on John Friedrich, who became the director of the National Safety Council of Australia (Victorian division) which collapsed with debts of a quarter of a billion dollars. He wrote, with Richard Flanagan (i.e. the author of this book) himself as ghost writer, Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich. And so, this book which appears to be a novel framed as a memoir, is probably more memoir than it appears, although it is not true.  As Richard Flanagan cheerfully admits in interviews, he was given a six week contract to ghost-write Friedrich’s memoir, leaving his pregnant wife back in Tasmania and he grappled with the erratic, manipulative and dangerous Friedrich.

Too tricksy? Possibly, although while you’re reading it, it all seems quite uncomplicated at first.  Kif’s voice is confessional and appealing enough, until he reveals himself as a bastard towards his wife.  The tension builds in the book as the six-week deadline approaches, and I found myself reading late into the night about 2/3 of the way through the book.  In many ways, I wish that the book had stopped at that point, because I found the denouement rather tedious – although Flanagan is such a clever writer than I’m not sure that this is exactly what he intended.

The real pleasure of this book was knowing its tortured relationship with ‘truth’, and I had a little chuckle out loud when Kif referred to his ultimately-rejected first novel about a drowning river guide, knowing full well that this is Death of a River Guide, Flanagan’s debut novel now viewed as a classic.  I wondered how a reader unfamiliar with Flanagan and his work would read this book.  For those of us who have followed Flanagan’s work, it’s a little nod and wink in our direction.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

My rating: 8.5/10 (it would have been higher if it hadn’t gone on for too long)

Find out more: There’s an excellent review by Roslyn Jolly at the Sydney Review of Books and of course, it’s worth listening to the wonderful Richard Fidler interviewing Flanagan on Conversations.

Movie: On Chesil Beach

This film is taken from Ian McEwans novella, which ran to only 160 odd pages. From memory, it was an excruciating painful book to read, full of silences and the lack of language. I was left with a feeling of the small tragedy and pathos of it all.

That novella has been padded for this film, and everywhere the padding is, it veers off course. Even though Ian McEwan himself was involved in the production of the film, the ending is just awful and all I could do was look at the prosthetics and think about how implausible the whole scenario was.  Despite excellent acting from the wonderful Saoirse Ronan, the film’s a bit of a slow dud.

My rating: 2.5/5 (or may be 3 once I get over my annoyance at the ending)

I Hear With My Little Ear: Podcasts 31/8/18- 7/9/18

Another In Our Time podcast, this time about the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 in Russia. Not one of Melvyn’s better ones- he keeps coughing (most unpleasant because it’s so loud) and it was very top-down in its analysis.  It’s amazing to think that there were 40,000,000 serfs who were liberated. Some interesting links with Russian literature, parallels with the Emancipation of Slaves in British colonies in the 1830s (which they didn’t explore).

And yet another In Our Time, the episode about Bedlam, the ‘lunatic asylum’ that became a tourist attraction. Originally located at St Mary of Bethlehem in 1247 (thought to have been abbreviated into the epithet ‘Bedlam’), it later shifted to Moorfields in the 17th century.  Some of its practices were condemned for their cruelty, but they changed as the perceptions and explanations for mental illness altered over its 600 years of operation.

Billy Griffiths talking about his book Deep Time Dreaming on Episode #40 The Archaeology Show through the Archaeology Podcast Network.  A very low-tech podcast with mediocre sound quality with two young interviewers who obviously knew nothing about about Australian history or archaeology. Still, if you haven’t read the book it’s probably a good run-down on it, because I’m not sure that these interviewers had read it either.

Sandra. My husband mentioned this podcast after reading about it in New Scientist. It’s about a woman, Helen, who takes up a job being the voice of ‘Sandra’, a virtual assistant like Siri or Google. In Episode #1 Hope is a Mistake Sandra has her first day on the job and is assigned to the topic ‘birds’. In Episode #2 The User Experience, Sandra learns the ropes and receives some disturbing news about her ex-husband.  I’m not particularly keen that these podcasts are interrupted by advertisments of their other podcasts, but they’re well produced and even have actors I recognize- Ethan Hawke and Kristen Wiig.

Revolutions.podcast com  I’ve been listening to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcasts for ages, following him through the English Civil War, the French Revolution and Simon Bolivar and independence in Latin America.  I’m taking him up again with the Mexican Revolution, something I did back in 1974 and can remember little about. Episode 9.01 New Spain reprises the Wars of Independence from the Spanish in Latin America in the early 19th century.  Episode 9.02 The Cry of Dolores looks at Father Hidalgo who rang the church bell in the small town of Dolores, calling the people to arms in what would become the Mexican War of Independence.

The History Listen (ABC) Plane Crash 1940: Menzies’ darkest hour. Just before 11am on 13th August 1940, a Hudson bomber carrying ten people, including three cabinet ministers and one army general, crashed into a ridge near Canberra airport. The crash had a great personal and political impact on P.M. Menzies, who lost his closest political supporters. Includes historians Judith Brett, Andrew Tink and Kim Beazley.

Rear Vision  (ABC).  As part of the ABC’s focus on China last week, this Rear Vision episode looks at Chinese immigration to Australia. I hadn’t been aware of immigration prior to the gold rushes, and the program gives valuable information about immigration after Tienanmen Square, and recent Chinese migration patterns.  Includes historians Kate Bagnall, Sophie Loy-Wilson

Russia If You’re Listening (ABC) Episode #16 Michael Cohen: The fixer with the hush money.  Hmmm…is this what will bring Trump down? What am I going to do when this series finishes after next week?

 

‘The Year Everything Changed: 2001’ by Philippa McGuinness

mcguiness

2018, 321 P

The genesis for this book rested in a festschrift [i.e. a collection of papers to honour a scholar] held in 2014 for a recently-retired historian from ANU. The author, publisher Phillipa McGuiness was there because she had published several of the historian’s books. At the same festchrift were a group of historians who had worked alongside the historian on the Fairfax publication Australians: A Historical Library. This series, released to celebrate the bicentenary of European settlement, took a ‘slice’ approach at fifty-year intervals: 1788, 1838, 1888, 1938 and 1939 onwards. Her mind wandered (as minds are wont to do on such occasions) to consider other books that had been published with a chronological year as the title: 1492, 1915, 1968 etc.  The year ‘2001’ popped into her head- a year whose September 11 date is seared into the consciousness of anyone who is fifteen or older- and she began listing the things that happened during that year: 9/11, Afghanistan, Tampa etc.  Her mind turned to the people who she could commission to write such a book. Then with a jolt, she remembered that 2001 was the year that she buried her baby son, Daniel. She decided to write the book herself.

And so this book is part-analysis, and part-memoir.  As she writes in the preface:

My intention is to tell the story of a year. Part of includes my story, with no presumption that it represents a universal truth. Do I really want to make myself a subject in a general history, I asked myself? But I would feel dishonest were I to write a history of 2001 without mentioning my personal tragedy. …I’m no dispassionate observer analysing, assembling and asserting, unencumbered by emotion all the while. I’m no scholar able to eschew the personal and the vernacular, committed to interrogating the existing peer-reviewed literature and little more. (p. 6)

She acknowledges that 2001 is ‘history’, but it’s contemporary history.  I’m not sure that this book qualifies as ‘contemporary history’, although I don’t know for myself where I draw the line between analysis and commentary and ‘history’ as such.  I think that too much of the book is written from the viewpoint 2018 for it to qualify as ‘history’.  Nonetheless, looking at her lengthy list of acknowledgements at the back of the book, it is clear that she has spoken or shared her writing with many well-known Australian historians, many of whose books I have reviewed on this blog: Bain Attwood, Anna Clark, Stephen Foster, Tom Griffiths, Carolyn Holbrook, Robert Manne, Mark McKenna, Henry Reynolds, Zora Simic, Frank Bongiorno and, thanked most fulsomely, Stuart Macintyre.  There’s a wide range of other public intellectuals, writers and public figures as well ranging from Larissa Behrendt, Meredith Burgmann, through to Tom Frame, John Howard, Gerard Windsor and Bernadette Brennan among many others.

The book is arranged chronologically by month, with each month devoted to a particular theme. This is, of course, somewhat as an artifice because events do not restrict themselves to one month only, although often there is often a peak incident (most especially 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan) that crystallize a particular date.

She starts January with the centenary of Federation in January 2001, while noting the inauguration of George W. Bush on the other side of the world.

Her February chapter is titled ‘More icons, myths, legends and heroes than you can poke a stick at’ which starts with the death of Sir Donald Bradman in February 2001, touches on Nicole Kidman and her divorce and ends with the Australian Achievers presentation. This presentation, conducted as part of the Centenary of Federation brought out a list of ‘achievers’  and a discussion of Captain Cook and Ned Kelly.

March ‘Connecting you now’ brings the rise of Google, which made its first profit in 2001, Apple and Wikipedia. This chapter was thematic in nature, with no specific links to the March chapter to which she attached it.

‘A right to rights’ is the April chapter, loosely linked to the inaugural edition of Quarterly Essay, Robert Manne’s ‘In Denial’ about the stolen generations. It moves to same-sex marriage, which became legal in the Netherlands on 1 April 2001.

May’s theme is ‘Holy Shit’ which explores the role of the Catholic Church in society and in relation to child abuse, then moves onto religion in America and the connection between islamism and terrorism. The chapter starts with George Pell who became Archbishop of Sydney in May 2001.

The month of June is ‘Free money’ which, again, is a broad topic not tied to any one month. She examines the collapse of Ansett and Enron, the rise of Amazon and the rise of global inequality.

July ‘Demography is destiny’ likewise doesn’t have a particular chronological reference point – indeed the Census night that she identifies in the opening paragraph occurred on 7 August 2001. Here the personal enters into her story as she, her husband and toddler daughter shifted to Singapore, where unlike multicultural Australia, identity is viewed through the lens of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other. As a white Australian, she was Other.  A rather disjointed chapter, it moves onto AIDS before returning to the question of whether demography is destiny.

At this point, the connection between chronology and themes becomes sharper. The month of August  examines ‘A boat called Tampa’ and its political implication. Drawing heavily on David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s book Dark Victory and Peter Mares’ Borderline: Australia’s response to refugees and asylum seekers she revisits Tampa (and after 17 years, the details have become fuzzy) and its political fallout.

September is, of course, 9/11 where again a recounting of the events is valuable. There are things that I don’t think I ever did know – for example, that a flight attendant on Flight 11 which smashed into the North Tower was in phone contact for twenty-three minutes before the plane crashed. She then moves to Bush’s political response immediately following the tragedy, drawing frequently on Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (written in 2006 and making me pause about whether indeed history can indeed be written within just years of a event).

‘Afghanistian, America and the Alliance’ are the theme of October, where Australia followed America’s lead. In particular she examines Howard’s actions immediately following 9/11 and so, just as the ill-fated military campaign itself, 9/11 and Afghanistan are intertwined in this chapter.

In November, elections occurred in a whole long roll-call of countries, including Australia and the USA (she lists all 73 of them). She pauses to mention East Timor, Italy, Israel and Nepal, but focuses on Australia and Howard’s unlikely victory. Now resident in Singapore herself, she closes the chapter looking at the Singaporean election.

And in the December chapter, her own life comes to the fore with ‘Death and birth’, a chapter still rather too raw for me, as she loses her son in a foreign country.

In her conclusion ‘What happened next happened’ she returns to take stock “not of my tiny life in the world, but of the world itself”. She turns to the confident title of her book (The Year Everything Changed) and questions whether, indeed, everything did change in 2001.  It’s a wide ranging chapter, written very much from 2018 rather than 2001. [Interestingly, when I looked for the book cover image to put on this page, there were two other ‘year’ books that claimed to be the ‘Year Everything Changed’, Fred Kaplan’s 1959 and Rob Kirkpatrick’s 1969]

I enjoyed this book and its interweaving of the personal and the political. It is very much a mainstream left-leaning analysis (think The Monthly or Saturday Paper) I read it more as commentary than history, and I think that its 2018 presentism will  render it outdated within a few years.  Nonetheless, for now, it’s a good read that ranges across a huge amount of territory in an engaging way.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Putting a price on dispossession

highcourt

Today the High Court of Australia will begin hearing a case that will consider the question of compensation for the loss of traditional land rights. This article in The Conversation explains it well.  According to the article, it’s an appeal case following two earlier decisions made by the Federal Court on the first compensation claim since the passing of the Native Title Act.  In the first of these decisions (the first Timber Creek decision) Federal Court Justice John Mansfield developed a methodology for working out how much money should be awarded as compensation for loss of native title rights. It had three steps:

  1. The value of land rights in plain economic terms, discounted by 20% because native title often brings constraints on how the land can be used economically
  2. How to compensate for the loss of  non-economic aspects of the land’s value e.g. spiritual and cultural harm (What a question! Where would you start?)
  3. Interest to award the passage of time (in this case back to the 1980s when the Northern Territory government granted land and undertook public works near Timber Creek)

The decision was appealed and the amount of compensation reduced, but the methodology for working out compensation was not challenged. But will the High Court follow the same methodology? It’s an interesting article- well worth a read, with good links.

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Where Am I Now?’ to ‘Sex and Suffering’

A few of the blogs that I follow join in with the Six Degrees of Separation meme, hosted by Booksaremyfavouriteandbest .  I gather, if I’ve read it correctly, that everyone starts off with the same book. Participants then make mental leaps to name six other books that they’ve reviewed on their blog. [See Sue’s comment below – it doesn’t have to be reviewed on your blog]. This time the meme starts off with Mara Wilson’s Where Am I Now?

Well, I hadn’t even heard of the starting book, or of Mara Wilson. But the little girl on the front looked familiar- and of course! It’s Matilda!

Her surname is Wilson, and she shares it with Rohan Wilson whose book The Roving Party fictionalizes John Batman, the putative founder of Melbourne as he bashes his way through the Van Diemen’s Land bush to ‘conciliate’ the remnants of the Plindermairhemener people in 1829.

A non-fictional approach to that same John Batman (and yes, that really is his name) is taken in Bain Attwood’s Possession, which closely examines Batman’s ‘treaty’ with the indigenous people of Port Phillip, and the uses to which the Batman/Fawkner ‘discovery’ story has been put in Melbourne historiography.

A more famous book called Possession, written by A. S. Byatt won the Booker Prize in 1990.  I’ve read it, of course, but that was before I started writing this blog. Hilary Mantel was one of the judges and so naturally we mentally leap to Bring up the Bodies, her not-yet-completed trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.

The topic of bodies is linked to death, but death seems to evade the old colonel in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, as he wanders his decrepit palace, wanting to die but somehow waking up again the next morning to start all over again.

Two other patriarchs, on different sides of the American ideological chasm over abortion in present-day America are found in Joyce Carol Oates’ A Book of American Martyrs.  Dr Gus Voorhees is shot for his pro-choice activities, and Luther Dunphy, an evangelical Christian, is the man who shot him.

The Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne delivered babies, but it also tried to save the lives of women whose abortions had been botched or incomplete. Janet McCalman’s Sex and Suffering is a history of the hospital, from its earliest days in Melbourne.

What an odd place to finish up! That was rather fun.