Monthly Archives: July 2019

Movie: Red Joan

Usually I rail and rant when a film ostensibly ‘based on a true story’ makes changes, but I didn’t feel this way with this film. ‘Red Joan’ is based on the true story of Melita Norwood, who used her position as secretary at the innocuous-sounding Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association to pass nuclear secrets to Russia. The film has shifted the action to Cambridge University, and made ‘Joan’ a brilliant student, rather than a secretary. But in this case, I didn’t mind. It’s usually the most dramatic scene of the film that prompts the most egregious truestory-to-film changes, and in this case it’s the scene of an elderly woman giving a press conference in her garden. There was a fidelity both to this event and the impetus behind it, so if the producers decided to go for Cambridge scenery and a bit of a feminist nudge, that’s okay with me.  Judy Dench doesn’t appear much in the film, which is a series of present day/ flashback sequences, and really the film belongs more to Sophie Cookson, who plays the young Joan. The two actresses are well cast because it didn’t strain credulity to believe that they were playing the same character.

My rating: 4 stars.


I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 July 2019

Who Runs This Place? (ABC) Another very good episode –the States– this time looking at the states of Australia and the power networks that operate in that state. Think NSW- pokies, Alan Jones and Peter V’Landys and the racing industry; think Tasmania – Federal Hotels (pokies); think Western Australia- mining; think Victoria AFL etc.  I feel like having a good hot shower to wash off the grunge.

Earshot (ABC) With the one year anniversary of Ireland’s referendum result that overturned the constitutional ban on abortion, ‘A Sense of Quietness‘ looks at four women who spoke out – a journalist, a radio producer, the founder of a woman’s clinic, and a woman travelling from Ireland to the UK –  and the consequences of their stance. Very sobering.


The man himself: Karl Marx (Source: Wikipedia)

Revolutions Podcast. We’re heading towards the Russian Revolution, but Mike Duncan is taking pains to really lay the foundations of Marxism first, and these podcasts are excellent.  Episode 2 The Adventures of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels is just what the title says- a biographical sketch of the different lives of these two men, drawn together by ideas.  In Episode 3, The Three Pillars of Marxism, (i.e. classical German philosophy, classical English political economy, and French socialism and revolutionary theory) he explains really clearly the Labour Theory of Value. Excellent.

Conversations (ABC) In Australia’s Romani Gypsies, the ever-interesting Richard Fidler interviews Mandy Sayer who wrote   Australian Gypsies: Their Secret History. It sure is secret- I had very little awareness of the Romani community in Australia. The interview was first broadcast in September 2017.

Duolingo Podcasts  These are just the right level for me, and I can understand them without the transcript, which is very conveniently placed on the Duolingo website. This episode El Regalo (the Gift) is about a young Colombian boy who accompanies his parents on a bus trip to the coast to share Christmas with the extended family. But when three young men board the bus, there is trouble as they steal all the possessions of the passengers.  The transcript has enough English for you to follow along, even if you don’t speak Spanish

‘On Identity’ by Stan Grant


2019, 95 p.

This essay is published as one of Melbourne University Press’ Little Books on Big Ideas  series. The essays, all of which are titled with “On….” have stellar authors, sometimes writing in their areas of expertise (e.g. former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane ‘On Hate’ or Germaine Greer ‘On Rape), sometimes not (e.g. David Malouf ‘On Experience’, Anne Summers ‘On Luck’).

Stan Grant, journalist and commentator, has dealt with the themes on this ‘On Identity’ essay through his other recent publications as well with Talking to My Country in 2016 and Australia Day in 2019. The biographical outline at the start of the book (which I assume he approved) describes him as a “self-identified Indigenous Australian who counts himself among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dharrawal and Irish.”

In this book, Grant pushes back against being asked to tick the box which appears on so many forms asking ‘Are you Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?” By ticking the box, he writes, he is forced to deny the other parts of his identity- most particularly his white grandmother who was exposed to the virulence of the racism of the 1940s when she married his indigenous grandfather.

It is so simple I can say it in plain English and in one sentence: I will not be anything that does not include my grandmother. I don’t wish to be anything that sets me apart from my wife, or any of my ancestors, long lost to history, but whose blood still flows somewhere in me.  I will not put a mark in a box that someone has decided contains me. That box shrinks the endless mystery and possibility of the universe. I will always choose the side of love. (p.83)

As he points out, the question ‘Are you Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander’ is one that the nation pushes back onto the individual (p. 16).  John McCorquodale, the legal historian counted sixty-seven definitions, and Grant cites a series of statements from the High Court of Australia in the 1980s and 1990s that tried to definite Indigenous identity. He writes of the author Kim Scott, whose book Kayang and Me traced his own search for Noongar identity.  While claiming to be captivated by Scott’s work, Grant admits that he reads him now “with both eyes open and I realize that we are worlds apart” (p. 40)  Grant writes he has been long troubled about identity:

…how easily it morphs into tyranny. Scott is being asked if he is black or white, he can’t be both…It comes with the same assumptions of power: we will tell you who you are and whether you belong; we will determine your identity; you will answer to us. (p 26)

Instead, he claims love and freedom- something that he doesn’t find in Scott’s work.

This is a very poetic book, woven through with allusions to various writers and philosophers – none of whom are cited directly or referenced, so you just have to take his word for it. There is certainly the resonance of The Preacher in his writing, which I find rather off-putting.  Paradoxically, I read this book because I was preparing a talk to my Unitarian-Universalist fellowship on the theme of ‘identity’, a topic that I’m even more confused about now than when I started.  The book reads out loud beautifully (particularly for a spiritually-inclined gathering), but then I found myself wondering “but what does that actually mean?”

None of us likes to be defined by one thing only, and we are all aware of our own complexity and contradictions. Perhaps identity, and its attractions at various stages of the life cycle, is a malleable thing that is useful in different senses at different times. It has a personal meaning, but at certain junctures its political and historical uses are more pertinent.  Sometimes identity has a ‘conversion’ aspect, as when someone ‘comes out’, ‘comes to Jesus’  or discovers an indigenous heritage of which they had been previously unaware.  At such times, it is understandable that one aspect of identity overshadows the rest. Moreover, often the simplistic tick-the-box questions of indigenous identity or having a disability have funding and political implications that have been hard won.

As you can possibly tell, I found myself confused by knowing what to do with this book. Janna Thompson in ‘The Identity Trap’, at Inside Story, has done a much better job than I could ever do of grappling with this small, slippery volume.

My rating: 7/10 ?

Sourced from: Purchased at Readings.



I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-30 June 2019

The Minefield (ABC). This episode was recorded in the wake of the AFP’s raid on a NewsCorp journalist and the ABC’s offices. The preceding week the presenters discussed the raids, but in this excellent episode “What if the greatest threat to a free media was from within?” they discuss instead the avalanche of the trivial, which allows important questions to hide in plain sight. I’ve found myself thinking about this episode a lot.

Root of Evil Episode 1 Saved by the Ghetto. This is a true crime series about the Hodel Family and their connection with the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, known posthumously as ‘The Black Dahlia’. Do I really want to listen to another series about a dysfunctional American family? I’m not sure that I do.

Revolutions Podcast. We’re off and running again- this time with the Russian Revolution. But before Mike Duncan gets to Russia, he’s taking the scenic journey but starting off with Karl Marx and the International Working Men’s Association.


Onate’s statue. Source: Wikimedia/Flickr Mario 1952

99% Invisible. This is a really good episode! I’ve had Onate’s Foot on my phone for ages, and I finally got round to listening to it, and then wished I’d done so earlier.  In 1998 an envelope landed on a journalist’s desk containing a photo of a bronze foot sawn off a statue in New Mexico. The statue was of the Spanish conquistador Onate, whose 400th anniversary was coming up, a matter of great pride to the Hispanic community, especially in the face of discrimination by the European community  (I’m worried that I’m using the wrong terminology here, and if I am, I’m sorry.) But Onate’s arrival had had more sinister ramifications for a group of New Mexico’s native people four hundred years back when he ordered all men to have one foot cut off – hence the envelope. What ensued when planning a new statue was another battle- this time about statues and commemoration. The webpage gives the gist of the podcast- but why not just listen to the podcast?

Saturday Extra (ABC) Geraldine Doogue is away at the moment, so Saturday Extra is in the very capable hands of Hamish Madonald. In Boris, Brexit and the British ruling class, Simon Kuper, a columnist with the Financial Times draws links between the major British politicians (on both Tory and Labour sides) who attended Oxford University, and the varying influence of History and PPE degrees on  their later careers. Absolutely fascinating.

And on the same program, Is immigration a form of reparation? is a challenging listen. And while you’re there, you may as well learn a lobby group who are not as quiet as they used to be, after Scott Morrison’s victory, in Who is the Australian Christian Lobby?

‘Estates: An Intimate History’ by Lynsey Hanley


2007 1st edition; revised edition 2017, 247 p.

It seems that somehow every British police drama you watch ends up in a council estate. To antipodean eyes, they look terrible places: bleak, cold-looking and bare against a leaden sky. Growing up in a country that provides little state-owned housing – and then, generally only for the poorest – it seems strange that local governments in Britain would have (or more correctly, used to have) such large holdings of housing, and  that it had such popular, cross-class support. Interwar housing  did not have the stigma that we attach to it here in Australia, and the Blitz gave state-owned housing added emphasis. But by the second half of the twentieth century, all that had changed in Britain too, and this is the story that Lynsey Hanley tells from her own personal experience.

She grew up in Chelmsley Wood, an overflow scheme built in the mid-1960s in what had been woodland and farmland in Birmingham’s greenbelt,  when post-war demand for housing soared. It combined low-rise housing with tower blocks, in an estate largely isolated from the city centre. You can see a gallery of pictures of Chelmsley Wood in the 60s, 70s and 80s here. By this time, living in a council housing estate meant that children grew up with a “wall in the head” that separated them out from the aspirations and experiences of children living in the central city, and as a bright girl from the estate, she had to consciously work at scaling that mental wall to fit in with her university friends.

But it hadn’t always been that way. Between the two World Wars, there was a concerted effort to clear the privately-owned slums from British cities, and “…to be given a council house in the 1930s, was in many ways, comparable to winning the lottery.” (p.65) Influenced by the Garden City movement, council housing was protected by what was known as the Tudor Walters standards, which mandated minimum room sizes, the number of windows and density.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Tudor Walters standards: backed by the state, they expressed a commitment to building mass council housing of the highest quality. They did not extend to the two million private homes built by speculative builders between the wars, meaning that council houses built around this time were likely to be larger and of a higher quality than many of the suburban homes you could buy (p. 66)

Aneurin (‘Nye’) Bevan, of the British Labour Party, was most famous as Minister for Health, who introduced the NHS. But he was also responsible for housing policy, and he insisted on good quality public housing. Even the Conservatives, when they defeated Labour in 1951  continued, and indeed increased, the construction progress that Bevan had instituted. But the emphasis on quality was sidelined, and private building was encouraged.

And even though council housing tenants were insistent that they did not want to live in high-rise flats, that’s exactly what they received, with the building industry pressuring the government to adopt pre-fab high-rise designs citing a shortage of tradespeople (who, ironically were the very workers sidelined by the emphasis on factory-created prefabs). Corners were cut, leading to the actual collapse of a high-rise at Ronan Point in 1968, just two months after it was opened, due to construction faults. (The television series ‘Endeavour’ worked this into one of their plot lines recently).


Ronan Point Collapse  1968 Photo: Derek Voller Creative Commons Wikipedia

Council housing was further decimated by Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, where tenants were encouraged to buy their house, but councils were not allowed to replace the now-purchased housing with new rental stock. As a result, the existing estates became increasingly run-down, and like Australian public housing, became stigmatized as ‘social’ housing for people unable to be housed elsewhere.

Like much non-fiction at the moment, this book combines the political and the personal. The notes in the back, more in the form of further reading than footnotes, show that the author has read widely, rather than academically. It is also interwoven with the author’s own story, but not just as memoir but also from a present perspective. At the time of writing the book, she was living again in what had been an estate, in a house she had purchased as part of the ownership push. But under the Housing Choice program,  being rolled out across the country, there were plans (with which she concurred) to demolish her house and redevelop the estate.  Her afterword, written in 2017 and ten years after the book’s first publication saw a decline in the number of home owners, an increase in homelessness and a sustained attack on  the housing security of non-owners. Her afterword was written too soon for the Grenfell Tower fire.

I enjoyed this book, particularly the first 3/4 which took a more historical approach. I liked the way that she drew on her own experience, and interwove the personal and political. I admit that the present-day politics of the last chapters of the book largely went over my head, but I could find parallels with our own government’s drive for public/private development of former housing estates which somehow always seems to be short-changing the public system. I wish that there was some way of recapturing the idea that public housing was not a stigma, but a right, and part of being in a good society.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: purchased