Monthly Archives: May 2019

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-25 May 2019

sausagesizzle

Bunnins Sausage Sizzle Wikimedia

History Listen. We’ve just had an election here in Australia, and just about the only commentary that I can bear to listen to at the moment is the History Listen’s ‘Unauthorized history of the sausage sizzle.’ More than just the democracy sausage, it includes Lions and Bunnings sausage sizzles and a brief history of the humble snag.

 

 

Somewhat more serious is their episode ‘Escape from Iran‘ where the narrator tells her mother’s story of escaping from Iran after the revolution on account of her Baha’i faith, and the family’s life in Australia.

Grenfell_Tower_fire

Grenfell Tower Fire Source: Wikimedia

The Documentary (BBC) This is a wonderful trove of podcasts! Flat 113 at Grenfell Tower is a wonderful (if rather distressing) piece of story telling about the fire that engulfed the 14th floor of the Grenfell Tower building in London. Taking just one floor (and yes, I know that Flat 113 was on the 14th floor, even though the numbering suggests otherwise- just a symptom of the questionable renovation of this public housing), the podcast traces through the sequence of events and mis-steps that led to several deaths in Flat 113.

Order!Order! is a look back at the Brexit question. Somehow 31 October is drawing closer again and still the whole sorry saga goes on.

Bolivia’s Mennonites, Justice and Renewal tells the story of the extremely conservative Mennonite communities who have established themselves in Bolivia since the 1920s. Almost Amish in appearance, they speak a form of low German, and they eschew modernity (although, as the documentary points out, there are now break-away communities which take a more liberal and modern approach).  In 2009 more than 100 women and children reported rapes within the community, for which a group of men were convicted, but within the traditional Mennonite groups there are attempts to have the sentences overturned.

Slavery’s Untold Story. Did you know that the Cherokees held slaves? After the Civil War, these slaves were liberated as ‘freemen’, but in recent years as people of Cherokee origin are encouraged to reconnect with their culture, a document from the 1860s is crucial in establishing claims to be admitted as full members of the Cherokee tribe. The waters are muddied by the casino money and entitlements that attach to Cherokee identity, and prejudices against African American appearance amongst people who also hold Cherokee heritage.

99% Invisible. From the 1950s up until the collapse of Communism, Russian theatre-goers were exposed to a steady diet of Bollywood movies. Part of it was that the Russian government wanted an alternative to Hollywood, but this documentary suggests that there might have been cultural affinities between Russia and India as well.  From Bombay with Love is well produced and interesting.

New Books in History  The podcasts here are very low-tech, and involve a historian talking about their recently released book. In Reforming Sodom: Protestants and Gay Rights, Heather R. White looks at both the liberal, reforming Christianity in the UK and US of the 1970s onwards (think: Unitarian Universalism and ‘Love Finds a Way’; the churches’ response to Stonewall etc) , and conservative Pentecostal Christianity of more recent decades (think Israel Folau), and their differing responses to homosexuality.

 

‘ Lost Children Archive’ by Valeria Luiselli

Lost+Children+Archive

2019, 400 p.

Hailed as “a vital work for the Trump era”, Lost Children Archive is a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Valeria Luiselli’s non-fiction essay Tell Me How It Ends. In both her essay and this novel, there is a road-trip across the states of America: a genre familiar to Australian readers through American film and television and explored in our own films (think Mad Max, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and literature (think perhaps Rabbit Proof Fence, and most recently Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded View). Both Luiselli’s essay and the novel are concerned with the fate of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border into America, an issue thrown into the author’s own personal spotlight after volunteering to act as an interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking entry to the U.S. and writ large by Trump’s mantra of Building the Wall.  The essay Tell Me How It Ends was named for her daughter’s pleading to know how the story of these unaccompanied children ends, and already the crossover between the fictional and nonfictional works is blurred. It combines the personal and the political, and among other things, is about story-telling and story tellers.

The Lost Children Archive has resonances of W. E. Sebald’s work, with its integration of photographs and documents. The narrative is structured as an archive in itself. The book is divided into four parts. Its chapters reflect seven archive boxes that stowed in the boot of a car that is carrying an unnamed woman and her husband, and their two children, across the southern border of the US. The two children are not related by blood, each coming from their parent’s previous relationship, but they are considered “our” children and despite (and perhaps because of?) the difference of five years in their ages (10 and 5) they are very close. Sitting in the back seat of the car, day after day, the older boy in particular is aware of the tension between his father and his step-sister’s mother. They had met during a project to document the soundscapes of New York, he as a sound engineer and she as a journalist/producer, or as they distinguish it, one a documentarian, the other a documentarist.  The father wants to embark on a project capturing the lost sounds of the removal of Geronimo and the Apaches, while the mother has been drawn into looking for two little girls sent across the border with only a phone-number written onto the collar of their dresses. The son is aware, without being told, that this will be their last trip together as a family and he and his stepsister decide to run away and become like the lost children that Mama is so driven to find.

The first half of the book is narrated by the mother, and it comes as a surprise to have the narration taken over by her son half way through, and to revisit events and conversations from his perspective. Each section starts with an inventory of one of the boxes, listing  the books and articles, maps and CDs that have been gathered together, and the book itself ends with a series of Polaroid photographs that have – supposedly?- been taken on the trip.

This is a very clever, self-aware book that echoes influences as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,  Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and David Bowie’ Space Oddity. There is a long, twenty-page sentence near the end of the book that echoes Molly Bloom in Ulysses. A type of bibliography at the end references the resonances in the book, not direct quotations, many of which are translations of translations. Such reflexivity could be clunky and derivative in clumsier hands, but it’s not: it’s confident and deliberate, and a book of the heart and head.  All of my mental contortions that I’ve had  about a narrator inserting herself into the text dissolve here, with her very clear sense of what she is doing as a creator in a piece of autofiction , as distinct from memoir. As soon as I started reading it, I knew that I was in the hands of a very talented, intelligent writer. It’s been ages since I enjoyed a book as much.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

Tiffany_ExplodedView

2019, 191 p.

Carrie Tiffany seems to be writing about times at twenty year intervals. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was set in the 1930s, Mateship with Birds was set in the 1950s and here now with Exploded View we find ourselves in the outer suburbs in the late 1970s. As with her other books, this most recent book is made up of fragments and set in the present tense, with short sentences and a slow rhythm.  This time, however, Tiffany gives us a nameless adolescent narrator, who is fragile, dissociative and in trauma.

The title comes from the type of diagram that one finds in a car repair manual or instruction book, where an action or object is pulled apart, with the separate components shown separately.

example_exploded_view

Wikipedia

Our narrator knows cars well. Her stepfather (‘father man’) repairs cars in an unlicensed repair shop at the back of the block, but she is not his willing assistant. Instead, she sabotages his work, taking the cars out at night and damaging their motors. She does not speak and she reads the Holden workshop manual, not for what it says but for its depiction of what she cannot say.

If you had never touched an engine, if it were only a matter of looking in the manual, you would think it was a miracle, that it couldn’t have been made by a man…In the manual you can choose to look at the parts, or the air in between them. The air in between isn’t nothing; it isn’t blank. If you make yourself look for what’s not there the empty spaces become parts themselves. (p. 27)

The narrator avoids naming the trauma, but she tells it in “the air between” the parts. Father man is violent and abusive, and her impotent mother turns a blind eye. Her brother is irrelevant. The longest part of the book is taken up with a rather pointless road trip taken across the country where they drive, drive, drive and sleep in the car at night. At night, the darkness comes.

Threaded through the book is a sense of menace, but there is no plot or climax as such. It reminded me of Sonia Hartnett’s disquieting work with which it shares an adolescent narrator, quivering tension and long silences.

I loved Carrie Tiffany’s earlier books, but I was disappointed in this book. Tension held for a length of time becomes excruciating, and I felt that way about this book.  It would have been better as a short story.

AWW2019I have added this book to the Australian Women Writer’s database.

Exhibition: Cold War Games

cold-war-games-2

Royal Historical Society of Victoria, 239 A’Beckett St ( cnr. William St opposite Flagstaff Gardens) Closes 4 June 2019 Open weekdays 10a.m-4.00 p.m. Gold coin donation.

The 1956 Melbourne Olympic games were promoted and remembered as ‘The Friendly Games’, but they were permeated by political currents that are perhaps most easily seen at a distance. Of course, 1956 was right in the midst of the Cold War, when communists were supposedly hiding under our beds and secret services on all sides were active. 1956 was a politically febrile time and several countries boycotted the games over global incidents: Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted in response to Israel’s invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis; and Netherlands, Cambodia, Spain, and Switzerland boycotted the games after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. Communist China withdrew just two weeks out from the Games because Taiwan was attending.

Quite apart from any rivalry in the sporting arena, there was rivalry between the various secret services. Australia did not want Russia and its large contingent to boycott the games, and so America was asked not to send CIA. They did, of course, with the aim of encouraging defections to America, with all the attendant propaganda benefits.  The Australian secret services were active too, keeping a close eye on the leftist groups here in Melbourne, and rather futilely using the Petrovs (who had at this stage defected to Australia) to identify various Russian political actors and spies.

But the political tension did spill over into the sporting fields as well, most particularly in the swimming pool in the Hungary vs. Soviet Union water polo teams. It was an ugly game, culminating in a Hungarian player leaving the pool with blood streaming from his face (making sure that the newspapers got good pictures) until the game was called early with a 4-0 Hungarian victory.

Given the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, American Cold War agents particularly targeted Hungarian athletes with blandishments to defect. There’s a curious cable sent from Melbourne to New York, talking about a VFL team touring America to play an exhibition match after the Games, but being reluctant to do so because they were being watched by fans and followers. Given that the VFL season was well and truly over, and the MCG filled to pussy’s bow with Olympic spectators, this might seem strange.  But this is a coded telegram: the ‘Aussie footballers’ were in fact Hungarian athletes and the ‘fans and followers’ were the KGB minders. Many of the Hungarian defectors joined the American Freedom Tour, which travelled America under the sponsorship of Sports Illustrated Magazine: a real propaganda coup.

There’s the story of a romance between American hammer throw champion Hal Connolly and Czechoslovak discus throw champion, Olga Fikotová, and the defection of a female Ukrainian ship steward from the Russian team ship the Gruzia. These stories, which are featured in this exhibition, provide a narrative thread and a human interest to a topic which might otherwise be weighed down with diplomatic and clandestine machinations on the one hand, or sporting hoop-la on the other.

The exhibition, researched by Harry Blutstein who has published a book of the same name in 2017, is fairly print-heavy and thus takes a bit of attention. I first saw half of it in April but had to leave it half-way through because a talk I was attending was starting, then today a grizzling four-month old granddaughter didn’t share her Nana’s enthusiasm for an exhibition (thanks to the other Nanas who emerged from offices and reading rooms for a cuddle!) Baby asleep, I was able to return and finish reading, and it was well worthwhile. It does have a Melbourne focus, with images of the buildings specially constructed for the Games and some memorabilia, but the exhibition has a much broader focus.  It’s a completely different view of the Melbourne Olympics, and one that you think “Well, of course…” when you remember the political influences of the time.

If you’re interested in hearing Harry Blutstein talk about his book (which forms the basis of the exhibition), he was interviewed at the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival and can be heard on Big Ideas here.

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 May 2019

Forest 404 (BBC) I don’t know quite how I got onto this, but somehow or other it ended up on my phone. I don’t even quite know what it is: I think that there are stories, (of which this Episode 1 is the first) that are linked to soundscapes and related talks. Anyway, this first episode is set in the 24th century when a librarian, Pan, is charged not with conserving but destroying sound files from the 21st century, which are taking up too much storage space. After the Cataclysm (which waits to be explained), data storage space was recognized as finite, so all the sounds of the past, e.g. a Barak Obama speech, the words when man first walked on the moon etc, are being expunged. Then Pan comes across a recording of a rainforest, and even though she doesn’t know what it is, she finds herself drawn towards it.  I don’t know if I’ll persist with this, but the concept of ‘sound’ as artefact is ideal for the podcasting medium.

99% Invisible. Pharmaceutical companies direct their energies towards diseases where they are going to make profits – big profits. This program, Orphan Drugs is actually from November 2018, and it looks at the drugs that pharmaceutical companies decide not to continue manufacturing, even though they may have been life-changing for a small number of people. It tells the story of Abbey Meyers, whose son suffered with Tourette’s Syndrome, who finds herself as an advocate for orphan drugs, trying to lobby government and drug companies to continue to make these no-longer-lucrative drugs available. Of all people who stepped in to help with Jack Klugman and his brother, from Quincy M. E. (remember that?) who used the program to highlight the issue. But, as Abbey Meyers, be careful what you wish for. The resultant Orphan Drugs legislation, which she spent decades lobbying for, has had unintended consequences.

dopesick_macyConversations (ABC) And while we’re on the subject of Big Pharma, the estimable Richard Fidler interviewed Beth Macy, the author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America.  In ‘Taking the Pulse of a Dopesick Nation‘, she tells the story of how drugs like oxycontin etc. were falsely marketed as being slow-release and therefore non-addictive, as the memory of the dangers of prescription medicine receded and ‘pain’ began to be seen as a treatable condition in its own right again in the 1990s.  The information that came with these prescription drugs warned not to break the coating of the pill, because, as it happened, it was only the coating that made them slow release. Ironically, she sees the only solution in treating addiction as a medical problem and using other drugs as a way of treating the ‘dopesick’ feeling after coming off these drugs, because abstinence and all-or-nothing thinking just doesn’t work. Very interesting and makes you disgusted at the lack of morals of Big Pharma.

While I was there at Conversations, I also heard Susan Orleans (who wrote The Orchid Thief) telling the story of the burning of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 – something that certain escapes my memory. Did you know that when books are wet, they either need to be dried out within 48 hours or frozen? That’s how thousands of books ended up in meat storage freezing facilities for years. You can hear it at ‘When the Library Burned

And although there was nothing particularly new in it, ‘How a milkmaid with cowpox changed history‘ was quite interesting in that it brought together a lot of stories about disease and vaccination.

Background Briefing The Night Parrot is the Holy Grail for bird watchers, and there have been a number of programs on the ABC celebrating the ‘discovery’ of the Night Parrot by bird watcher John Young. But in this program ‘Flight of Fancy: the mysterious case of the Night Parrot’, there are now real questions about the veracity of this ‘find’, and I can only assume that Our ABC did its legals before broadcasting this program, made by Ann Jones from ‘Offtrack’.

The Documentary BBC World Service Well, this was depressing listening from two very different places in the world. ‘Polands Partisan Ghosts‘ is about the adoption by the far right of the ‘Cursed Soldiers’ who were responsible for murder and arson in the time immediately following the Second World War. ‘India’s Forbidden Love‘ is about inter-faith and inter-caste marriages that are running up against the prejudices of the past, fanned by increased religious/national identity. Poland and India couldn’t be more different, but the rise of intolerance cloaked in nationalism right across the world frightens me.

‘From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage’ by Judith Brett

brett_democracy

2019, 183 plus notes

When she was a lecturer in politics at LaTrobe University, Judith Brett tells us, she used to ask her first-year students to talk about their first political memories as an ice-breaker activity in their first tutorial (p157). Many mentioned going with their parents to their local school while their parents voted. I must confess that my only memory of going with my parents when they voted was the election before I turned 18. It was 1972, and the Labor Party was about to be elected after 23 years of successive Coalition governments. I knew whom I would have voted for, had I been allowed, and to this day I wonder if my father voted Labor, just that once. I had a strong sense of “this will be me, next time” and I felt quite excited about it. But other elections? I just can’t remember. My family (including me) all played tennis on Saturdays: I assume that they nicked in to vote either before or after the tennis court.

I am proud of Australia’s electoral system, despite grizzling about the politicians it throws up, and fearful of the effects of lobbyists and deep pockets. Judith Brett, in From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is too, and as we head into one of our more important elections, it’s good to read this book from one of Australia’s foremost political historians that affirms and celebrates the process. Sometimes we forget just how distinctive our system is. We have compulsory voting (as do Belgium, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Cyrus, Greece, two regions of Austria and one Swiss canon; Central and South America, Egypt, Fiji and Singapore) (fn1. p. 185). And more importantly, compulsory voting is popular, with 77% support in 2007 (p.151). We vote on Saturdays (not Mondays, Tuesdays or Fridays). We have preferential voting in the House of Representatives (in itself a rarity) and proportional representation in the Senate. Our elections are conducted by the Electoral Commission, who are public servants at arm’s length from government. We don’t have to queue for hours. And there are sausages and a cake stall.

 

[Back in 2010 at my local school]

This book is quite current, taking us right up to 2018, but two-thirds of the book is a historical analysis of how we ended up with the electoral system that we have today. Unlike America, which was first settled during the 17th century constitutional struggles between monarch and parliament and steeped in the ideas of John Locke, Australia’s first political institutions were established when the British Parliament was supreme, and beginning to expand its own franchise. Our philosophical roots lay in Jeremy Bentham who believed in government first, rights second (p6). As historian W.K. Hancock wrote:

The Australian democracy has come to look upon the State as a vast public utility, whose duty is to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number…To the Australian, the State means collective power at the service of individualistic ‘rights’ and therefore he sees no opposition between his individualism and his reliance on governments (Hancock Australia, 1930 cited on p.7)

Newly expanding colonies needed infrastructure, and the government provided it. In fact, for the first 100 years or so, Australian taxpayers didn’t have to pay much for it: the British government did. We didn’t have income tax until 1915, and Britain paid for our defence. Why would people want to limit government expenditure on services that benefited them? (p.8)

Our first elections, starting in the 1840s on a limited franchise, followed the English model of public voting. They were held in a carnival-like atmosphere, ‘treating’ supporters with alcohol, and keeping up a running tally. It was the desire to largely  circumscribe the abuses of this system that led to the development of the secret ballot, complete with separate cubicles and a pre-printed ballot paper issued only at the booth, which came to be known as “the Australian ballot”. Brett highlights three South Australian electoral innovators whose contributions are often overlooked : Catherine Helen Spence who devoted years to her campaign for proportional representation, William Boothby who as Provincial Returning Officer bureaucratized and regularized electoral administration, and Mary Lee who campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage in South Australia. (I had always wondered why South Australia had an electoral district called ‘Boothby’ when Justice Boothby caused as much trouble as my own Judge Willis did. But it’s the son William, not the father Benjamin). Ironically, her table showing state-based changes to Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council franchises now shows South Australia as the laggard, with compulsory voting for Legislative Council elections in South Australia introduced only in 1985! (p. 138)

It was because South Australian women had had the vote since 1895 -and thus, should not be disadvantaged by losing their suffrage under Federation-  that the new Commonwealth Australian constitution allowed anyone enfranchised to vote at a state level to also vote in Commonwealth elections. A similar arrangement was made for Aboriginal voters. Disturbingly, right up until 1962 Aboriginal people could not vote in federal elections unless they were on the state roll or had served in the armed forces, thus leaving Western Australian, Queensland and Northern Territory Aborigines unable to vote. There’s a grubby little secret in her chapter “Women In Aborigines Out” where the Commonwealth had a ‘preponderant blood’ rule whereby “all persons in whom the aboriginal blood preponderates are disqualified”. It was left up to electoral officers to decide largely on the basis of skin colour and their own judgements about individual Aboriginal people’s capacities (p.68). It wasn’t at the 1967 referendum that the right to vote was extended to all ATSI subjects: it was the 1962 act. Aboriginal people were not subject to exactly the same voting laws as other Australians until 1983 (p.72).

In fact, one of the most contested features of Australia’s electoral system was the postal vote, which was allowed, disallowed and allowed again according to the vicissitudes of the different political parties. The Labor Party opposed postal voting because it removed the act of voting from the public booth into the private realm, where domestic power dynamics could lead to voters being pressured to vote against their wishes. Conservative parties supported postal voting, citing women’s interests, arguing that women were confined to their homes before and after the birth of children, and were not comfortable attending a polling booth alone.

One of the things that comes through clearly is that neither party acted from high principle in tweaking the system. Parties supported changes that they thought would have some advantage in it for them, although sometimes the consequences were unforeseen. And as her chapter ‘Liberals push back’ shows, hard right Liberals and libertarians have tried (and probably continue to try) to repeal compulsory voting. Likewise suggestions from the Liberal party that voter ID be introduced, and Howard’s attempts to reduce the time after the writs are issued for enrolment or change of details, are threats to our system of compulsory voting.  As far as undermining our system is concerned (especially from the Right), we need to be alert, and then alarmed.

The book has a light touch on what could otherwise be pretty turgid material.  There are enough ‘jump-forwards’ to keep the currency of her endeavour in mind, and particularly in the latter chapters, Brett herself comes forward more.  Just as with Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (which I reviewed here), sometimes we need to be reminded, as Brett does in her final sentence, that

What the story of compulsory voting tells us is how very good we are at elections. We should celebrate it. (p. 183)

AWW2019 I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019.

‘Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal’ by J.K.Rowling

HarryPotter1_spanish

1997, 259 pages, translated into Spanish by Alicia Dellepiane Rawson

Si! He terminado de leer mi primero Harry Potter!

Yes- all in Spanish, all 259 pages of it! It only took about six months. I hadn’t read the books or seen the films, and I quite enjoyed it. It’s very reminiscent of those British children’s books of the 1950s or 1960s (Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blyton) etc. with the perennial unhappy child’s wish of having parents other than the ones they do. I’ve gathered lots of new words about wands, brooms and spells. Now I just have to find the opportunity to use them.