Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs History’ by Mark Dapin

dapin_australia-vietnam

2019, 231 p.

In August 2007 an article about the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club appeared in the  Good Weekend magazine insert that accompanies The Age. Written by journalist Mark Dapin, it was based on interviews with members from the Queensland chapter, hard-drinking men, many of whom suffered with PTSD. They told Dapin of seeing (and even being involved in) atrocities during their tours of duty, of being flown home in the dark in a futile attempt to avoid protestors at the airport, of being spat at, being jeered as ‘baby killers’, having paint poured on them, and smarting from the absence of welcome home marches.  He reported what he heard.

But after over 160 interviews, six years of study, a non-fiction book and a Ph.D. on the topic, Mark Dapin would no longer write that original article in the same way. In a way, this book is a long mea culpa for his easy acceptance of what he had been told. In his opening chapter ‘The myths I helped to make’, he writes

I no longer believe a significant number of people in the 1960s and early 1970s regarded Vietnam veterans as baby-killers, bludgers or morons- although negative stereotypes of the returned men existed in some circles, and those stereotypes altered, mutated and probably intensified from the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s…I do not think Australian students poured paint over returning soldiers in Australia in 1972 – or that they held any protests against returning soldiers that year. I doubt that many – if any- Australian veterans were spat upon. I do not think many – if any – Australians committed large-scale atrocities. I know no serviceman was flown home in the middle of the night specifically to ‘avoid protestors’. But I also know that I wrote my story in good faith. I believed what I was told, and I am certain the men who spoke to me felt they were telling the truth. (p.9)

Dapin’s book addresses the most prominent myths that have arisen out of the Vietnam War. Many of them are not even recognized as myths: most of them circulate in everyday commentary, propelled by politicians, journalists and historians like Paul Ham, whose Vietnam: The Australian War is too enthusiastically embraced by veterans as the definitive history of the war.

In succeeding chapters, Dapin unpacks the various myths attached to the popularly-received image of Vietnam. There have been claims, most stridently in Ham’s book but often echoed by Vietnam veterans themselves, that  no national servicemen were forced to serve in Vietnam and that, in fact, they were all given a chance not to go. In his appendix Dapin publishes the correspondence between radiographer David Wittner and the Minister for the Army Andrew Peacock that makes it clear that national servicemen were sent to Vietnam against their will.

He looks at the ballot system used for selecting National Servicemen.  One of the most widely-distributed myths is that Normie Rowe was falsely drafted into the army (still referenced on his Wikipedia page).  Dapin explains there was no conspiracy to enlist this pop singer: his birthday did come up in a supplementary ballot for men who were out of the country, as Rowe was, during their registration period.

He rebuts the idea that there were no welcome home parades as soldiers returned. It was the perception of a lack of welcome that prompted the Welcome Home Parade and National Reunion in Sydney in 1987, fourteen years after the last soldier returned.  In his appendix is a table of the sixteen welcome homes of the Vietnam Years, listing the estimated size of the crowd and the number of marchers (although I note that there are none in Melbourne?). He cites multiple newspaper articles from the time that laud the enthusiasm of the crowd and make mention, if at all, of only ‘a few’ demonstrators. At the sixteen parades he identifies, there was no blood thrown, although one protester, Nadine Jensen, did smear two men with red paint, kerosene and turpentine, at a Sydney welcome-home parade on 8 June 1966. That was the only incident of its kind. The only time an appreciable number of demonstrators confronted returning soldiers was when 20 demonstrators tried to join the end of the parade with their banners on 9 December 1969 in Adelaide.

Likewise, he could find no newspaper evidence at all of airport demonstrations against returning soldiers, although he did find evidence of a protest against the South African surf-life saving team which was heavily reported, and a small three-person protest against Dr Benjamin Spock, opponent of the Vietnam War when he arrived at Brisbane Airport in 1971. It is true that the soldiers often flew in at night, and the army’s own bureaucratic procedures delayed them until the early hours of the morning. But the nighttime scheduling was not to avoid protest but occurred instead to accommodate the daytime commercial needs of the airline companies who were providing the flights.

To the extent that there was jeering and anti-Vietnam protest, Dapin suggests that this arose later, in the 1980s onwards. There was  a report of spitting directed towards Harold Holt, and another at the May Day celebrations in Melbourne in 1972.  There were, of course, the huge Moratorium demonstrations, and in Adelaide, there was a confrontation between demonstrators and civilian- dressed soldiers from the 3RAR in May 1970.

Even the song ‘I Was Only 19’ has a complex history. Frankie Hunt, on whom the song is loosely based, changed his story about his Vietnam experience as he told it in 1987, 2005 and 2015 increasingly incorporating all the myths and tropes of thrown fruits, epithets, and calls of ‘child killers’. Yet Hunt himself did not ally himself with conservative forces and marched with the anti-nuclear movements.  Dapin does suggest that some of the so-called airport demonstrations were in fact anti-rape demonstrations of the 1980s, prompted by the women’s movement. Caution abounds as he writes:

I might feel emboldened to argue that the Vietnam-era national serviceman symbolized a certain kind of tough, disciplined, militarised masculinity that fell out of favour in the 1970s…that the later drafts of soldiers felt that Australia had shifted socially while they were away in Vietnam, and altered even further once the war ended… (p 202)

It is one thing to disprove myths: it is another to grapple with the question of why his interviewees told the narratives they did.  He cites Frank Bongiorno who notes that history has defined itself as a form of truth-telling in the face of myth (p.205). It makes it easy to condemn ‘oral history’ but he accords with the words of C. P. Stacey, the official historian of the Canadian Army in the Second World War who wrote

One very seldom encounters a deliberate liar [but] there were considerable numbers who lied to me while honestly believing they were telling the absolute truth. (cited on p. 205)

So what has happened here? He suggests that perhaps Australian veterans have incorporated the stories of American veterans, both in their homecoming response, and even the committal of atrocities. Film depictions have taken on the appearance of memory. Events from one phenomenon like the anti-rape demonstrations become merged into others, like the  homecomings. Stories, quoting unidentified sources, are published and become incorporated into individual narratives and become solidified into historical ‘fact’. Historians and journalists are squeamish about rebutting assertions presented as fact by a man sitting directly in front of them, and there is not enough rigour in fact-checking afterwards.  He is perplexed that the story of the conservative, pro-war forces, which dominated politics during the 1960s, has remained untold.

It seems to me now that mythology dogs and distorts the Australian soldier’s Vietnam experience, from its beginnings (for some) in the workings of the national servicemen’s birthdate-lottery selection process – to its end, in the lost memories of the 16 often enormous, enthusiastic wartime welcome home parades…when I talk about some veterans’ stories as mythological, I do not consider them to be mistaken or dishonest, but tales that are based on archetypes- the rejected returning serviceman; the soldier as a dupe of higher powers; the man-hating feminist; the fanatical agitator- and told to make sense of subsequent events. It has been said [by oral historian Alessandro Portelli] that ‘what informants believe is indeed a historical fact (that is, the fact they believe it) as much as what really happened’ but people believe all kinds of things, for reasons that range across the whole breadth of human experience. (p.17, 18)

In many ways, this is a brave book.  He unsettles the territory, interrogates dates, looks to contemporary rather than retrospective reports and makes things much more complex and contestable. Many people, most particularly veterans, politicians and some historians, will not like what he writes. He writes that he hopes that his book might put some of the myths of Vietnam to the sword, but he is not optimistic. Nor am I. I’m not sure that his book will challenge the big fat military history books written by authors whose names are in bigger font than the title…yet.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Some good reviews: David Stephens on the Honest History website and Hamish McDonald in the Saturday Paper, whose review prompted me to read this book.

 

 

 

‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger

Niffenegger_TimeTravellersWife

2004, 519 p.

I used to read many more books that I do now, particularly between the years 2000 and say 2007, when I had an extended period of ill health. When this book was produced with a flourish as our July read for book group,  my heart sank a little as I had read it back in 2005. But fourteen years is a long time between reads, and although I remembered the gist, I didn’t remember the details.

It’s a time-travel book. I quite enjoy time-travel books that have a relationship at the heart of them until I try to explain them, and then the whole construct falls apart. It is the story of Henry, who travels back and forth through time, and his love for Clare, who would become his wife. The structure is confusing at first, with the chronology jumping back and forward, with Henry at varying ages as Clare plods through her allotted life span as Henry appears, disappears and reappears again.  I often found myself having to turn back to check the date of the chapter, and there was not enough difference in tone and language between the alternating narratives of Henry and Clare. The book has many references to literature and poetry which don’t really rescue it from what is often very domestic and every-day. The ending was a long time coming, with ‘just one more chapter’ being tacked on to the last.

Did I like it any more in 2005? It seems not: in fact, I seem to have mellowed in my old age. This is what I wrote in 2005:

I should have been warned off this book by the Women’s Weekly Great Read sticker on the front. It’s an interesting idea: a chronodisplaced man pops in and out of the life of the woman who is to be come his wife, but worthy only of novella treatment – not a whole 500 page tome! So much of this was banal: getting dressed, eating, mundane conversation lived by an adolescent randiness and panting and always-wonderful sex.  It will probably make a nice enough movie, but it doesn’t need all this print to support it. It’s a first novel, and one badly in need of a judicious prune.  5.5/10

Ouch! I was surprised by how much sex there was in the book, which seemed rather gratuitous in the end.  Perhaps I would enjoy the movie more? After all, that Christopher Reeve movie ‘Somewhere in Time’ was a favourite when I was about 20.  Still, I’m pleased to see that my opinions about books generally hold firm over more than a decade, and that I won’t have to go back to re-read all the books I didn’t like.

My rating: 6.5 out of 10 (I told you that I had mellowed)

Sourced from: CAE as a bookgroup selection.

 

‘The Vagabond Papers’ by John Stanley James

 

vagabond

1969, 256 p.

John Stanley James (1843-1896) , a.k.a ‘Julian Thomas’ and ‘The Vagabond’ was a journalist, originally of Staffordshire England, who ended up in Australia and the New Hebrides. His most famous articles were written in Melbourne in the 1860s through to the 1880s, where he worked under-cover in what we would now call immersive journalism, which was published in a number of newspapers, most notably the Argus. I hadn’t heard of him, and neither had Jill Giese who featured him in her The Maddest Place on Earth (see my review here) but he has been on historians’  and journalists’ radars for some years. He has even been inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame!

The version I read of this book was published in 1969 with an introduction by historian Michael Cannon. It has been recently republished by Monash University Press, with the original 1969 Cannon introduction supplemented by additional essays by Robert W. Flippen and Willa McDonald. I had heard podcasts of their presentations to the RHSV (see my review here), so having heard about their discoveries about James’ life, I felt comfortable enough with the older edition where Cannon signposts the very absences that Flippen and McDonald were to fill.

Vagabond2

2016

The chapters in this book are taken from his newspaper articles that deal with Melbourne and Sydney only,  illustrated by sketches from Punch, The Australasian Sketcher and the Illustrated Australian News. They have been arranged in six parts, reflecting their content.

In Part 1 ‘Down and Out’, James visits the places where the indigent gathered, often working ‘under-cover’. He pretends to be an outpatient at the Melbourne Hospital, where it takes him four attempts to be attended. He visits the police court (as Helen Garner was to do 140 years later) and visits the refuges and services offered. He compares the lodging houses in Melbourne and Sydney,  and writes about the Waifs and Strays of Sydney where his writing evokes Charles Dickens. He eats at a Sixpenny Restaurant and goes to the Melbourne General Cemetery to witness pauper funerals.

Part II “Life in Prison’ draws on his four-week undercover assignment at Pentridge Prison, where he works in the different divisions of the jail. In  Part III ‘Middle Class Morality’ he turns his attention to the churches including fashionable Scots Church in Collins Street, under Rev Charles Strong (who later formed the Australian Church), the suburban parish church of South Yarra and the bazaar at St Luke’s Church Emerald Hill. He turns a jaundiced eye to ‘Sabbath Breaking’ in Sydney at the theatres and bars.

Part IV ‘Cold Charity’ takes him to the Immigrants Home, the Benevolent Asylum, the Sailors Home, a Ragged School and fostering-houses for neglected children.  He picks up on this theme in Part VI ‘The Demi-Monde’, where he goes to the Magdalen Asylum at Abbotsford (now an artistic and cultural centre), and a Protestant Female Refuge in Carlton.  In Part V ‘Manly Sports’ he describes a football match and boxing rounds.

He often sets up oppositions within these chapters, where he compares organizations of different sectarian and social hues.  His language is often racist, with particular disdain shown for Jews and Chinese. It is disconcerting to hear his praise of the Magdalen Asylum, given what we now know about them, but his writing is very much of its time. In spite of this, his humanity, concern for the ‘underdog’ and his scorn for hypocrisy and cant shines through.

It was only when the end of the book was approaching that I realized that I hadn’t read the one thing that I had borrowed the book for- his expose of conditions in the Kew and Yarra Bend asylums. They are not included, and so I had to turn to the original newspaper sources instead through our wonderful Trove. It was interesting reading them in their newspaper format instead of the reader-friendly reproduction of his articles in book-form in ‘The Vagabond Papers’. (If you’re looking for them, they are in the Argus No I 22 July 1876; No. II 29 July 1876; No. III 5 August 1876; No. IV 12 August 1876; No. V 19 August 1876; No VI 26 August 1876). It made me realize how unaccustomed I am  to reading long-form journalism, especially with such small font and narrow columns.

I’m really pleased that I have met ‘The Vagabond’. He was years ahead of his time in his journalism, which is vivid and engaging, giving a good (if colourful) picture of Melbourne and Sydney from the bottom-up.  And what a fascinating personality, full of contradictions!

 

 

 

‘The Shape of the Ruins’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

vasquez_shape_of_the_ruins

2018 (English translation, originally 2015), 505 p.

When I learned that there was a new Juan Gabriel Vásquez book available, I made sure to put a hold on it as soon as it became available at the library. I had really enjoyed The Sound of Things Falling and looked forward to this new book. But I must confess that for about the first 100 pages I felt disappointed. Was this even a different book? I wondered. Many of the same elements were in both books: the tone of the narrator, who becomes obsessed with a murder at the same time as his partner is undergoing a health crisis; the fictionalization of a real-life event, and the sticky web of crime and conspiracy in Colombia. Is Vásquez only capable of writing the same book over and over?  That question still lingers, even though I was soon won over by the author’s smooth writing (no doubt ably assisted by an excellent translation).

The narrator is Juan Gabriel Vásquez himself, so already the lines between fiction and memoir are blurred. He becomes drawn into his friend Doctor Benevidas’ obsession with the (real life) murder of Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaítan on April 9, 1948, an obsession that was almost handed down from father to son. Vásquez learns that his friend is not the only one obsessed: so too is Carlos Carballo, a former student of Dr Benevidas’ father, who conflates this assassination with other historical assassinations including J. F. Kennedy and the 1914 assassination of Liberal leader General Rafael Uribe Uribe. So there is this whirlpool of assassinations and conspiracy theories, investigated to the point of madness by amateur historian/detectives. Vásquez finds himself drawn into this whirlpool, while at the same time distancing himself from the conspiratorial world-view that propels it.

The book unfolds almost like those Russian dolls, starting off with one assassination, which is then likened to another, and then another.  There are stories within stories, each subtly but recognizably different from the other. The historical detail is rich, as I found when I googled to supplement my sketchy knowledge of Colombian history. This is not a bad way to have your history delivered, but Vásquez plays tricks too. He inserts completely fictional artefacts into the story, and makes references to his own fictional characters in his earlier books, as well as referencing other Latin American writers like Borges and, in a factual sense, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are photographs in the text, like a W.G. Sebald text, and the book is permeated with that same elegiac Sebaldian tone. It feels baggy and discursive, but it is always controlled.

So after playing with your head for 500 pages and making you feel as if you are stuck in one long Oliver Stone documentary, where does Vásquez leave you? The line between fiction and truth is blurred for him, as well as for you:

There are two ways to view or contemplate what we call history: one is the accidental vision, for which history is the fateful product of an infinite chain of irrational acts, unpredictable contingencies and random life events (life as unremitting chaos which we human beings try desperately to order); and the other is the conspiratorial vision, a scenario of shadows and invisible hands and eyes that spy and voices that whisper in corners… where the cause of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows (p. 496)…it would no longer be the fictional characters of that novel who would occupy my solitude, but a true story that showed me at every step how little I had understood until this moment of my country’s past, which laughed in my face, as if making me feel the pettiness of my narrative resources before the disorder of what had happened so many years ago. It would no longer be the conflicts of characters who depended on my will, but my attempts to understand truly and for ever, what ..had [been] revealed over the course of several encounters that were now blending in my memory (p. 501)

This is a complex read, but a compelling one. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for 2019.  I’m frustrated that it is so similar to his earlier book, and yet I can’t help feeling that this similarity is completely intentional – that it is all part of a bigger vision. And so, when his next book comes out, I’ll be rushing to read that too.

My rating: 9.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

 

 

‘Four Soldiers’ by Hubert Mingarelli

Mingarelli_FourSoldiers

2018 (English translation), 155 p. Translated from Italian by Sam Taylor.

I must confess that I borrowed this book solely because of Hilary Mantel’s blurb ‘A small miracle’ on the front cover. I’m not so sure about the ‘miraculousness’ of the book, but it certainly is small at only 155 pages and could probably be better described as a novella than a novel.

It is set in 1919 in the Russian Civil War. As winter sets in, the Red Army commanders break up their regiment, turning them out into the winter landscape to fend for themselves until the weather improves and the fighting commences again. Four soldiers – Benia, Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra – set off with their tent (a rather poor defence against the ravages of winter) and establish a camp near a lake. Here they live day-by-day, a quiet self-contained peaceful existence in the midst of war, with the prospect of returning to battle hanging over them.

Benia, the narrator, is closest to Pavel, with whom he often walks at night when Pavel is disturbed by nightmares. Kyabine is a large, not very bright Ukrainian, whom they brought along soley for his brute strength in a harsh environment. The title is a misnomer, because there are in fact five soldiers when they are joined by Kouzma Evdokim, a young peasant recruit. He says that he is going to write their story in his notebook, and they are anxious that his words capture the truth of their experience.

The story is very simply told, with short sentences. The translation feels very clean and precise. The chapters last only a couple of pages, almost like a film script. Very little happens, even though the narrative is infused with a sense of dread.  Its simplicity and precariousness makes it a more memorable read than it would be otherwise.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

 

‘On Identity’ by Stan Grant

grant_on_identity

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.

 

 

‘Estates: An Intimate History’ by Lynsey Hanley

hanley_estates

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_closeup

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