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

256px-Kibera_slum_Nairobi_Kenya_01BBC Documentary Podcast. When my son was living in Nairobi, just a few blocks away was Kibera, a huge urban slum, completely self-contained with its own internal economy but no water, drainage and intermittent electricity. This documentary The Slumlords of Nairobi looks at the failure of policy and governance that makes this an almost intractable problem.

chaninSaturday Extra In this short episode, The Story of Australia House, Geraldine Doogue interviews Eileen Chanin, the author of Capital Designs: Australia House and Visions of an Imperial London. She talks about the way that the newly-federated Australia felt that it needed a presence in London to reassure investors after the 1890s Depression and the act of Federation itself. Meanwhile, London itself was repositioning itself as one of Europe’s great cities, and the presence of grand houses on the Strand was part of London’s own image-making.  I’ve been to Australia House- we went there to vote for Kevin 07 more than ten years ago.

This week it is the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Geraldine Doogue spoke with former US ambassador at large for war crimes issues Stephen Rapp, who organized the prosecutions after the genocide, most particularly the Media Trial of the radio stations that contributed to the slaughter. And in her interview with Arthur Asiimwe, the Director General of the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency, she discusses with him how radio, in particular, can contribute to the 25th anniversary reflections. (If you’re interested in seeing my impressions of Rwanda, I wrote about it in my travel blog)

caliphateCaliphate. With governments around the world faced with the dilemma of what to do with the women and children of ISIS fighters in Syrian refugee camps, it seemed a good time to finish listening to the Caliphate podcasts that I’d started listening to months ago. I took up again at Chapter Seven where they talk about the fall of Mosul – quite a strange experience to listen to this while travelling on a train into the city, trying to imagine Melbourne reduced to an unrecognizable rubble. Chapter 9 was confronting, where they interviewed Yazidi girls taken as sex slaves. Then Chapter 10 where they return to a Canadian ISIS recruit who has returned back to Canada, albeit under surveillance, but seems just as radical as he had been when he went to join ISIS a few years earlier. Makes a blithe “Bring the women and children home” rather problematic, I think, given that these Australian women consciously chose to go there. Anyway- if you’re going to listen to this series, now is probably a good time.

Duolingo. Are the Duolingo podcasts getting easier or is my Spanish getting better? I listened to Antártida (Antartica), but it wasn’t very interesting. La nana (The Nanny) was about a Chilean journalist who dreamed of living in Paris and working as a journalist. But when she got there, she realized that rental prices were so high that the only way that she could live in central Paris was to work as a nanny. And so, she joined the numbers of international nannies who work in Paris, poorly-paid and often exploited, but very committed to the children in their care. Made me think of the film Roma, in a different context.

Espanolistos.  As readers of my other travel blog The Land of Increasing Sunshine will know, I went to Colombia for a week in February with Andrea and Nate from Spanishlandschool, where I did a (very!) intensive online course last year. Espanolistos is a fairly low-tech podcast where they just talk for about half an hour. It’s all in Spanish from start to finish, at intermediate level, and you can download a transcript (after episode 20)  if you get lost. I started with their Introductory Episode, then listened to Episode 1 ‘ Differences Between Colombia and the United States‘ . Andrea is from Colombia (hence the focus on Colombia in the podcasts) and her husband Nate is from Texas USA, and it’s reassuring to hear fluent but still not-perfect Spanish.

Movie: Green Book

Set in 1962, a world-class pianist engages the services of Tony Lip to drive him on his tour of the Southern states. The title refers to the ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’, a guide to where Afro-Americans could safely fill up with petrol, get a meal, or stay the night.  In picking up on themes of racism, homosexual stigma and prejudice, it’s a worthy movie, but not Best Picture surely. Too  sugar-coated and feel-good.

My rating: 4 stars

Movie: Bohemian Rhapsody

I saw this a few weeks ago. Probably everybody else in the world has seen it too.

Yes, Rami Malek captures Freddie Mercury well. Yes, it was good to hear all that Queen music again. But the first half of the film just felt like a lame Saturday afternoon “I know boys! Let’s start a band!!” matinee film (for those of us old enough to remember matinee films). I couldn’t believe just how bad it was.

But then the Live Aid concert started, and it was very, very good (especially when you compare the real footage with the film.)

So, it just goes to show – the old saying was right: it’s not how you start but how you finish.

‘Argentina: A Modern History’ by Jill Hedges


2011, 336 P.

I purchased this book on e-reader to take with me to Argentina, which I was visiting at the time. As is the way of such things, I was so tired at night that I couldn’t concentrate enough to read it, and ended up finishing it in Colombia. [In turn, the book that I purchased to read about Colombia I finished reading in Chile!]. I wanted something readable and relatively current, with enough ‘back story’ to make a ‘modern’ history intelligible.

This book certainly fitted the bill. The author received a PhD in Latin American Studies from Liverpool University, and at the time of publication was Senior Editor for Latin America at Oxford Analytica since 2001. It is eminently readable, and does not assume much prior knowledge, which is just as well for me.

The book starts with the constitution of 1853, which still stands today. The first two chapters deal with national consolidation, and the ‘golden age’ of the Argentinian economy, and especially its relationship with Britain and emulation of European elite lifestyle. The rest of the chapters deal with the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The book focuses on political players, most especially Peron and the generals who followed him during the dictatorship. She gives a really good explanation of Peronism (which exists in some form today) although she is critical of its populism and lack of philosophical/political principle. She points out that  the conditions under which leftist groups were ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship started after Peron returned for a third term in the 1970s, and certainly her retelling of his political manoeuverings makes it difficult to space him on the political spectrum. While Peronism was explained well, the Dirty War was not as clearly described.

Perhaps because of this political narrative, the book also has a strong economic emphasis as well (are the two separable, I wonder, in any history or especially in this one?). The recurrence of broken promises and endemic corruption is depressing, as is the volatility of the economy and the democratic compromises it brings in its wake. This is very much a top-down analysis, focused on the political sphere, with little attention paid to social or cultural conditions.

I’m not in a position to take issue with any of its arguments – indeed, to even identify where her perspective differs from others’ – but I found it very readable and informative, and it enhanced my enjoyment of Argentina, even if I did finish it after I’d left it!


Meet Susan and Teddy.


It’s funny the things that survive sixty years. Teddy looks chewed because he was chewed, especially that nice sawdust-filled nose, and his ear has fallen off several times. Susan is a wetting doll, which seems a particularly perverse thing to give a child. You’d squirt water into her mouth and it would instantly come out a hole at the other end.

In fact, Susan wasn’t even my favourite doll. That honour went to Debbie, who was made of a type of china, with closing eyes with eyelashes, and Jenny who was an early transgender doll whose head could be pulled off to transform her into Peter (what Anglo names!) She/he was made of a rather unfortunate orange rubber.  I still have Peter’s head somewhere but the body seems to have gone missing.

As has Sindy, the British version of Barbie. I never liked Barbie with her pointy boobs and mutilated feet. I saved up for Sindy myself over a year – a whole $7.99 – but tragically her head fell off. (There is a bit of a theme here- what is it about heads detaching themselves??) My cousin Wayne took her to the doll hospital because he worked in the city, and she came back with a rod stuck up her neck giving the distinct appearance of goitre. She had auburn hair, and I think I even had the houndstooth skirt set worn by blonde Sindy here. I can remember being fascinated by the word “houndstooth”.

So why am I indulging in all this nostalgia? Well, the State Library of Victoria has a fascinating post about Elizabeth Batman’s doll, which it holds as part of their collection. John Batman moved to Port Phillip with his family, including six-to-seven year old Elizabeth, in 1836. He died three years later, leaving a complex will that ended up in the courts for years, splitting the family.

Anyway, have a look at Elizabeth Batman’s dolly and her clothes, which although fragile, prefigure Sindy and Barbie by some 125 years. You’ll find the post here.

I hear with my little ear: podcasts 24-31 March

Revolutionspodcast.com  Ah! The Mexican Revolution is finished at last. In the final episode, Mike Duncan explains that when he first had the idea of looking at revolutions, it was the Mexican Revolution that he had in mind, even though he actually dealt with several other revolutions (French, Bolivarian, 1848 etc) before he got round to Mexico. It took him 27 episodes, and he found it hard to decide when exactly the revolution finished because it didn’t quite fit the trajectory of many of the other revolutions he has dealt with. Anyway, Zapata is dead but his ideas live on; Pancho Villa is dead; it all becomes rather respectable….. and so Mike moves on to the Russian Revolution in May after a very well-deserved rest.

Conversations.(ABC) Where has Richard Fidler gone? Oh well, Hamish Macdonald is a perfectly good replacement. It was a pleasure to listen to Anton Enus’ modulated tones as he spoke about his childhood in South Africa as the ‘Cape Coloured’ son of a wrestling legend ‘The Masked Marvel’.

BBC World Documentary Podcasts. I often listen to BBC World News when I wake up in the middle of the night. They advertise their documentaries, but I’d never bothered to look for them by light of day. But they’re all here- and they’re fantastic. Sweeping the World is a poetic reflection on the act of sweeping, as it plays out across the world.  I remember when I stayed with my son in Nairobi, you could hear the sound of the housemaids sweeping the carpark outside, crouched over with a small stick broom, one hand behind their back. My former mother-in-law used to love sweeping, starting from one end of the big garden and sweeping right through to the gutter at the front. This podcast talks about sweeping in third-world countries, the role of the broom in the depiction of witchcraft, and historical brooms kept in museums.

The Minefield (ABC) Waleed Aly has received more exposure in the last fortnight after the Christchurch massacre than he’s probably ever had in his life. (For readers overseas, here is the clip from The Project that I’m referring to)

Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens present The Minefield every week on Radio National, and the podcast version has an additional twenty-odd minutes of the program. They take a current topic and complicate it no end and add words like ‘epistemological’ and ‘ontological’. I can’t decide whether I really enjoy the show or whether I just find it pretentious. But two very good episodes here: the first, after Christchurch, asks “What Does the Christchurch Shooting Demand of Us?” and the second “Why does antisemitism cut across the political spectrum?”, featuring Deborah Lipstadt (the subject of the film Denial – available on SBS On Demand [only in Australia])

‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vasquez


2014, 320 p.

I was planning my trip to Colombia, so I decided to seek out some books set in Colombia. This book, which won the Alfaguara Prize in 2011 (one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Spain) and its translation by Anne McLean won the 2014  International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. So, it came bearing a hefty reputation!

It thoroughly deserves it. The writing and the translation flow seamlessly, as it shuttles between the drug violence of the 1980s and 1990s Bogota, when the book was set. A rather aimless law professor, Antonia Yamarra strikes up an acquaintance in a billiard hall with ex-con Ricardo Laverde. Standing together in the street outside the billiard parlour, they are shot at. Laverde dies, and Yamarra is injured both physically and psychically. He becomes obsessed with Laverde’s story, and meets up with Laverde’s estranged daughter. Through her he learns that Laverde had been a drug-mule pilot during the 1980s, and she shares with him a cassette tape of a black-box recording that ties together Laverde’s earlier crime and the death of Laverde’s wife. I won’t say any more, because if you read it- and I hope you will- it will spoil the story.

I found this book almost un-put-downable, and the language of both author and translator just swept me away. It’s a page-turner, but it’s also a reflection on fate and death, the ripple effects of violence, and the ease and speed with which events can veer off into other directions. It’s also a sobering look at the violence in Colombia during the 1980s and 1990s, set in a time where the narrator is oblivious to the violence yet to come.  At the end of it, I found myself googling the events of the novel, and felt sobered to realize that, while fiction, it is grounded in fact. Perhaps not the best pre-holiday reading, but certainly an excellent book that fully deserves all the praise it garnered.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I was going to Colombia (not exactly reassuring reading, I must admit)

My rating: 9/10