Bedtime Stories #2

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Bedtime Stories #1

I stare into time’s eyes … She stares back at me. Actually,…


Kay has two blogging roles on the AIMN. On the one hand she is a book review blogger, critiquing a range of genres from detective, to literary, to romance and non-fiction. Her book review blog, is a great place to choose your next book. On the other hand, Kay has a PhD in history and is a life-long feminist who also shares her daughter Victoria’s passion for politics and occasionally writes blogs analysing political policies and media performance.

Book Review: The Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb

In my last post on Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, I was wondering about the differences between science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy. This book falls squarely into the fantasy category, exhibiting what I think could be considered its defining characteristics: an imagined society where some element of magic, or paranormal power, is at work in everyday life.

Though by no means Robin Hobb’s first book, this is the first she wrote under that name, and published in 1995, is the first in the Farseer Trilogy. Since then, much of her extensive further writing has been set in the ‘Realm of the Elderlings’ which she first created in this book, with many of the same characters, including the hero of this one.  Fitz is the illegitimate son of Chivalry, a prince of the house of Farseer, rulers of the Six Duchies. This is a realm somewhere in the North, a bit reminiscent perhaps of Scotland, or Alaska, where Hobb lived for a time (and may still live). The society is quasi mediaeval, with a ruler, nobles and commoners, built around trade and crafts, but with an emphasis on defence against the Outislanders known as the Red-Ship Raiders. The ‘Elderlings’ are little discussed in this book, but seem to occupy a space above humans but below gods – some kind of mythic ancestors.

The story is about Fitz’s coming of age. It is a first person account, told from the perspective of a much older, more damaged Fitz – I was reminded of Merlin, though Fitz is not precisely a wizard. At the age of six he is left at a castle by his grandfather, who no longer wants to be responsible for Prince Chivalry’s bastard. From there he moves to the court of King Shrewd, where he begins his training – as an assassin – which seems to be a conventional – if secret – role in this society. Fitz is to learn ‘the fine art of diplomatic assassination’, or in other words, ‘the nasty, furtive, polite ways to kill people’. This training has nothing to do with the two sorts of paranormal power that exist in this society. Fitz clearly has the first – known as ‘the Wit’, an ancient and now discredited form of telepathy with animals. Such communication is an enormous comfort to a lonely boy, but is dangerous because the mind of the person exercising it can become one with the animal. The second power is ‘the Skill’. Skilling is a process whereby people can transfer thoughts. This capacity is usually inherited, but can be acquired by training, and the skilled practitioner can get inside anyone’s head, given the right conditions. (Think occlumency in Harry Potter.) Fitz clearly has some power of mind, but is it the Skill, and can he be taught to use it?

Hobb is a very good story teller and the tale of Fitz’s attempt to find a place in the world is interesting in itself. The court is full of intrigue; Fitz finds he has powerful enemies and few friends, and he faces the psychological dangers of loneliness and depression as well as physical ones. The Six Duchies are troubled by the Red Raiders, particularly after they have found a way to draw the humanity out of those they capture in their raids. Stripped of what makes them human, these people are left to terrorise the countryside. Then there are court politics, and Fitz’s role in them, making for a surprisingly exciting story. Why surprising? I guess it’s partly a dissonance between the rather courtly language and the level of ruthlessness and violence. It’s not exactly Game of Thrones, but it’s a bit closer than I expected it to be.

I’m sure Hobb wrote this book with the intention of making it the first in a series, and that may account for all the loose ends – they will be taken up in later books. The main loose end I was concerned about was the nature of the dehumanising power of the Red Raiders, which isn’t addressed at all until near the end of the book, and then inconclusively. I found the power of bonding with animals was well handled, but can see the potential, only just avoided, for sentimentality. Who can resist being friends with a puppy?

One measure of the success or otherwise of the first book of a trilogy is whether the reader wants to go on to the second one. I think I will, but not for a while. Hobb is considered one of the best fantasy writers around, and her achievement can only be assessed if the scope of her work is taken into account.

You can read more about Robin Hobb – born Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden – here. She initially published under the name Megan Lindholm, and these books seem to be more science fiction than fantasy. However since 1995, under the Robin Hobb pseudonym, she seems to have stuck exclusively to fantasy. But I noticed that she was Guest of Honour at a recent World Science Fiction Convention; maybe I should just give up on the distinctions.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Having just watched Insiders, I’m even more convinced that we have to change the conversation about the economy. Bill Shorten did a good job of making the case that it doesn’t matter who leads the Liberal Party – they all support the same austerity policies. But he had a bit more difficulty dealing with Barry Cassidy’s (stupid) question about how would Labor deal with the deficit. Bill got round it well enough – by not mentioning the D word. But this is precisely why we have to change the conversation. The deficit versus surplus debate doesn’t reflect some underlying economic truth. It is a political construct, which arises from a particular view of how the economy works. It is wrong, and we need to change it.

The debt and deficit narrative suits right wing, small government proponents. They want to limit government activity, and leave everything up to the market. So of course they want to limit government spending, and give tax breaks to the rich. So they tell us that wealth trickles down, that is, giving more wealth to the already wealthy will enable them to create more jobs.

This is of course nonsense, as an increasing number of mainstream economists acknowledge. (What the rich actually create is tax havens.) Austerity doesn’t work. The problem with western economies is now deflation – not enough demand to generate production and jobs. We need the opposite policies. Less inequality of wealth would mean more people able to buy goods and services, and more jobs for people supplying them. Jobs on government projects are just as real as jobs on private projects in terms of the demand they create. And as Wayne Swan wrote recently about inequality, ‘Essential to combating its rise is the recognition that nurses, builders, teachers, labourers, hairdressers, shop assistants and waiters are as much generators of growth as bankers, investors, businesses and multinational companies.’

So why do we buy the debt and deficit narrative? The problem is the way we, the general public – and apparently political commentators like Barry Cassidy – have been taught to think about the federal budget. To make the mysteries of macro and micro economics, fiscal and monetary policy clear to us, politicians from both sides customarily use the analogy of the household budget to frame discussion of the federal budget. You can’t spend more than you earn. You can’t just put it on the credit card. We’re putting a burden of debt on our children if we exceed our income now. I heard Abbott say just the other day ‘we’re living beyond our means.’ And so Shorten is asked not ‘what policies does Australia need to become a fairer and more productive society’ but ‘how will you deal with the deficit?’ The household budget is a clever and pervasive analogy. It doesn’t APPEAR to have an ideological bias. But it does. It plays perfectly into the debt and deficit/large versus small government narrative of neo-liberalism (or market capitalism, or whatever you want to call it) – and it must be challenged.

Fortunately it is being challenged.

During the GFC, the Labor government took the budget into deficit to stimulate the private sector. And it worked. Australia was largely spared the full impact of the Crisis, and did not have its economy decimated by the sort of austerity slashing and burning of the public sector that is still crippling European economies. This was described as neo-Keynesian economic policy, based on the idea that it was OK to even out booms and slumps through government stimulus.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it still only offers a minor corrective to the idea that the surplus/deficit debate is at the heart of good economic management.

Now a few economists are going further. I’m certainly no economist, but their critique makes sense to me. It has the horrible name of Modern Monetary Theory. What it basically says is that governments with the power to issue their own currency are always solvent, because they can always – shock horror – ‘print money’, though this is done electronically these days through the issue of government bonds (aka quantitative easing). It therefore makes no sense to say that taxation revenue ‘funds’ government spending, and that therefore we can or cannot afford proper welfare provision or whatever. Abbott’s ‘living beyond our means’ only makes sense in light of the misleading analogy with the household budget, where our books have to balance. A government which has monetary sovereignty (ie can print its own money – unlike Greece) does not have to balance its books. In this theory, the balance is between government surplus and private debt: a government surplus can only be built on increased private debt – as happened during the years Peter Costello was treasurer – and vice versa. The level of government spending is in practice constrained by the level of inflation – too much money chasing too few goods. So what needs to happen is that government spending must be in areas that increase the productivity of the economy. To quote the Wikipedia page on MMT, ‘the level of taxation relative to government spending (the government’s deficit spending or budget surplus) is in reality a policy tool that regulates inflation and unemployment, and not a means of funding the government’s activities per se.’ And at the moment, the mantra of achieving a surplus by cutting government expenditure is built – though they don’t say so – on maintaining a relatively high level of unemployment. This is a conscious choice made by the Abbott government.

(Here you might say ‘but they aren’t able to achieve a surplus’, and you’d be right. Other factors like falling commodity prices and low business confidence have seen to that. They could still achieve a surplus if they cut spending – and raised unemployment –but this would be even more deflationary, to say nothing of politically suicidal.)

This means that a government could – if it so chooses – promote near full employment through government spending. This increases the tax base, and reduces welfare costs. It also makes the society more equal and inclusive. The constraints are political, not economic.

And the reason these political constraints bite so hard is that we all think that the federal budget is like our household budget. I know it’s fun to make political capital out of Hockey’s ‘promise’ to return the budget to surplus when he can’t, but much better to avoid all the hand-wringing over surplus and deficit altogether. Labor is caught in the same narrative. They need to unlearn this budget lesson – and quickly.

In this YouTube, Stephen Hail – who unlike me is an economist – explains it far better than I can. It’s quite long, but really worth watching. He also references Bill Mitchell, Australia’s leading MM Theorist, and professor of economics at the University of Newcastle. Here is a link to his interesting and challenging blog. And this is A Kindergarten Guide to Modern Monetary Theory. Please spread the word.

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

imageI might as well say straight up that I’m not suggesting that anyone else reads this. After a discussion with friends about what constitutes science fiction, as opposed to speculative fiction and to fantasy fiction, I remembered A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). It was one of the first of what I then called ‘science fiction’ stories that I had read, and, I thought, an impressive one. So I read it again. And it is impressive. It’s also a heavily Roman Catholic treatise on original sin. What was I thinking? And the re-reading didn’t really help with the science/speculative/fantasy fiction distinction either.

The book is in three sections. It is set somewhere that is just recognisable as North America in 3000 and something, the second section coming some hundreds of years after the first, and the third more hundreds after the second. In the first section, the world is barely surviving after a nuclear holocaust sometime in the past, the great ‘simplification’ that followed it – ie a purge of scientists and intellectuals – and the destruction of all but the most basic technology. An abbey in the desert founded by Father Leibowitz, a former technician, has a mission to preserve and propagate what little scientific knowledge remains; it has a meagre store of scraps of unrelated technical information, blueprints and manuals that no one now understands. An apparently chance meeting with a pilgrim leads Brother Francis to a buried fallout shelter, where further documents are found. Will this help or hinder the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz?

In the second section, small independent waring states have emerged, with a vestige of civil society. There are now a few secular scholars, and one of them wants to examine the memorabilia held in the abbey. Thon – a title a bit like Dr – Taddeo is a brilliant young natural philosopher. The abbey’s mission has been the preservation of literacy and learning. What possible danger could there be in his examining the abbey’s holdings? Taddeo says that he seeks ‘truth’, but he clearly represents technology designed to serve the power of the secular state. We get a hint of the incompatibility of church and state beliefs, more strongly developed later, when Taddeo looks at a peasant and sees a man who is ‘illiterate, superstitious, murderous.’ The cleric with him sees the ‘image of Christ’. Back at the abbey, the monks have deduced the idea of electricity from the fragments of information they hold, and have built a dynamo; they are apparently not opposed to technology as such. But for them, secular might and power count as nothing in the face of religious truth. The abbot welcomes Taddeo to the abbey, hoping a bridge can be built between the secular and the religious vision of knowledge. But is this possible?

In the third section, major powers have arisen capable of space travel, and again armed with nuclear weapons, this time located in space. But surely they have learnt the lessons of the past?

For all that the subject matter of this book is grim, Walter Miller mostly writes with a light, even humorous touch. Readers are invited to smile at the superstitions of the monks, and to sympathise with the dilemmas of the abbots. We are given both sides of the debate, as in the rightness or otherwise of euthanasia in the third section. But the secular view is never allowed to win and underneath, there is a hard line Roman Catholicism at work. The themes of the rise of technology, the meaning of Christianity and the lust for secular power – the result of unrestrained original sin – tie the sections together. The mysterious pilgrim also plays a part in all three sections.

The book needs to be read in the context of Miller’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in the late 1940s and the ramping up of the Cold War in the 1950s. His war service also left him traumatised, particularly his part in bombing the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, as a result of which he embraced pacifism. The possibility of nuclear annihilation now seems less urgent than other threats to the world and its environment, but in the 1950s the crazy danger of the MAD policy – Mutually Assured Destruction – practised by both the Soviet Union and the West was a daily threat. Talk of fallout shelters and how they could be used was commonplace. Miller’s diatribe against the horrors of nuclear war may appear a bit over the top now, but would have seemed perfectly rational when the book was written, and when I first read it.

So is this science fiction? As I’ve noted before, Margaret Atwood makes a distinction between science fiction and speculative fiction where the latter is an extension of existing technical capabilities taken to their logical extreme. This leaves ‘science fiction’ as fiction dealing with wholly imagined physics and/or technologies. But what might have been only imagined in 1959, like the possibility of wholesale space travel, is merely ‘speculative’ now. (The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, so it wasn’t entirely ‘new’, even then.) And where does the ‘dystopian’ label come in? I think perhaps that labels aren’t much use after all, and certainly not in books like this where the genres meet.

You can read a little more about Walter Miller here.

PS. Comparisons are probably as futile as labels, but I can’t help myself. Where else do we find monastic communities preserving learning after ‘sackings’ (read simplifications), while secular societies rise and fall around them? These same elements, and others I won’t give away, also appear in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (2008) – reviewed here. I’d love to know whether Stephenson ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz.

It’s Time

It’s time for Labor to come out swinging. It’s fine for Tanya Plibersek to say that Labor needn’t comment on Liberal leadership tensions because the Liberals are doing it for them. But Labor can’t just hope that the Liberals will free fall, and allow Labor to coast into office in 2016 on a wave of anti-Liberal sentiment. The Liberals may be doing their best to lose the election, but Labor still has to win it.

With that in mind, it’s time Labor started pushing a consistent narrative. And that narrative needs to be reducible to a three word slogan. Sorry, but there it is. The party machine will come up with something for the election campaign; how much better to have a shorthand way of indicating Labor’s holistic approach now, up to and including the campaign. I for one don’t want to be stuck with ‘moving forward’ ever again.

With this in mind, I’m suggesting a competition to come up with the best three word slogan for Labor. It could be four words, I suppose. But no more; it needs to fit on car stickers, banners, coreflutes, pamphlets etc. Your friendly bloggers and tweeps Vic and Cat Rollison and I will be the judges. The only prize will be glory – though I’ll buy you a beer if you’re in Adelaide. The winner and two runners up will be submitted to the federal executive of the Labor Party.

And now of course I’ve got some suggestions of my own. But none of them is quite right.

‘Labor for a fair go’ (five words. Oh well) This is an appealing slogan because progressives can see that the Liberals are only interested in the big end of town, even though a fair go is supposed to be part of our national ethos. So what’s wrong with it as a slogan? The problem I see is that Liberals can claim that their policies are fair – they just mean something different by ‘fair’. For them, it’s not fair for hardworking taxpayers to have to foot the welfare bill for all those dole bludgers etc – the lifters and leaners argument. While the economic narrative remains tied to the neo-liberal surplus = good, deficit = bad, the Liberals will frame Labor spending on welfare as waste and extravagance, unfair to working families etc. It isn’t a strong enough slogan to withstand this onslaught.

‘Fight inequality. Vote Labor.’ It is pleasing to see that the destructive effects of inequality on the social fabric – to say nothing of its economically dire results for business and consumers – are becoming part of mainstream liberal/social democratic political discussion. ‘Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?’ President Obama asked in his State of the Union address. ‘Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?’ Labor politicians such as Wayne Swan, Andrew Leigh and Jim Chalmers are now talking about the ways in which inequality flows from the LNP government’s neo-liberal trickle-down economics and its concomitant austerity policies. And there will be more of this; the fates of the minimum wage and penalty rates come to mind. But I think that it’s too negative as a slogan. The swinging voters that Labor needs to attract don’t care about inequality as a concept relating to them or anyone else; they care about things like house prices, wages and inflation.

So how about we make it positive?  ‘Labor for Equality’. (Three words. Finally.) Many of Labor’s policies, such as those on education and health, would make society more equal, or at least stop it from becoming less equal than it is. You can imagine the conservative response. Socialism! Class War! Lifters and Leaners! Should this matter? But there’s also the same problem as with using inequality in a slogan: it’s a concept that doesn’t have a concrete meaning for most voters.

Here’s one from left field. Though you might think ‘right field’ is more appropriate. ‘Conserve Australia. Vote Labor’. This one appeals to me in some ways (even though it won’t do) because it draws attention to the wrecking ball policies of the Abbott government. We need to conserve Medicare. We need to conserve the minimum wage. We need to conserve affordable higher education. We need to conserve the ABC. We need to conserve the environment. Many of the institutions we have developed over the years are under ferocious attack by the Abbott government. Labor has to promise to save them. This is not a traditional progressive view point, which usually encompasses change to existing ways of doing things. But with so much right-wing ‘reform’ going on, maybe Labor should emphasise continuity? This idea doesn’t work for two reasons. One is that there will have to be some changes to what is under attack in order to save it. Labor can’t just go back to what there was before. Its whole narrative has to be about improvement. The second is that progressives won’t support it, but neither will conservatives, who would never vote Labor. Even changing ‘conserve’ to ‘protect’ doesn’t fix the problem. Just think of the field day the LNP would have. ‘We stopped the boats. We protected Australia.’ It doesn’t work. Pity.

How about ‘Stop the Lies. Vote Labor’? Tempting, given the number of them –budget emergency, unsustainable Medicare, wages breakout, unstainable welfare system ete etc etc. But even I can see the problems with that one.

I’d really like to see a Labor slogan that focusses on jobs. ‘Labor means jobs’. Full employment means higher tax revenue – both income and consumption – and lower expenditure, in terms of welfare payments in both the short and long term, to say nothing of the dignity of labour. We already know that Abbott says his government will now concentrate on jobs and families – by which he no doubt means ‘freeing up’ the labour market through some newly resurrected version of Work Choices. We also know that there are already five unemployed people for every available job. And this is where things get really tough. A successful slogan has to encapsulate the Labor narrative. How can a slogan about jobs be meaningful under current circumstances? It can’t, unless Labor changes its narrative on debt and deficit. It’s only by being prepared actively to advocate running a deficit that Labor can create jobs. It’s only if the economy is re-visualised as a series of cooperative rather than competing interactions between the public and the private sectors, that Labor can argue for government stimulus and a deficit budget. And even if Labor accepted this, what would it take to turn around the public perception of debt and deficit?

So you can see why the Labor slogan is so elusive. But if you can crack it, I promise to deliver your gem personally into the hands of Labor’s National Secretary. Good sloganeering!

Book Review: Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone (2009) isn’t directly autobiographical, but it has a bit of a documentary feel to it. This is because Verghese did have some of the Ethiopian and American experiences he writes about, and also because his career, other than being a writer, is as a doctor. The extensive medical detail in the book reflects his lived experience. It took a while for me to get into this book, but then I found it hard to put down.

The story begins with Marion Stone at the age of fifty looking back at his life in order to understand his relationship with his brother, and his father. Marion– named after the famous gynaecologist Marion Sims – and his conjoined twin Shiva were born in the ‘Missing’ hospital – a corruption of ‘Mission’- in Addis Ababa in 1954. Their mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, an Indian nun, died at their birth, and their father, Thomas Stone, a surgeon at the hospital, fled the country for reasons that seem heartless, but become clearer as the story unfolds. The boys are brought up at the hospital by Hemlatha (Hema) and Ghosh, the doctors who separated them at birth. They grow up with an expatriate perspective on the richness and colour, but also the poverty and political instability of Ethiopia. Each goes on to pursue a career in medicine, but of completely different kinds. And then there is Genet, the Eritrean girl they have grown up with. Where does it all go wrong?

The book is divided into four parts, though parts one and two only make up a third of the book. We know from the prelude that Marion is trying to reconstruct his past, and most of the book is narrated by him in the first person. However there is only so much that he can recount from personal knowledge, so the story in the shorter parts one and two is carried by others, such as Hema and Ghosh. These sections of the story, including that relating to his mother, are told in the third person. Later is the book, Verghese relies on having another important character tell his story to Marion. I find this mixing of first and third party accounts to be an annoying device, and it probably accounts for my initial difficulty in getting into the story. Once Marion takes over in part three, I felt much more comfortable with it. (Part three is his growing up in Addis Ababa, part four his time in America.)  However there are some events which are crucial to the story – two in particular – which happen, as it were, off-stage. Marion doesn’t take part in them, so can’t possibly describe them but Verghese hasn’t chosen to give the relevant characters – Shiva and Genet – voices of their own. So we are left with only Marion’s perceptions, and the effects of others’ actions on him, rather than an understanding of why they acted as they did. I’m probably being a bit harsh here; both Shiva and Genet are fully developed characters whose behaviour is consistent with the picture Verghese has drawn of them. But their actions are ultimately a function of plot more than character; they do what they must do for the working out of the mechanics of the story. And these mechanics are to my mind just a bit artificial. I was completely convinced by Marion, Hema and Ghosh, but not quite fully convinced by Sava and Genet.

The book is very long, largely because Verghese loves detail. And much of it is fascinating. You may or may not like the attention given to surgical procedures – it got a bit much for me sometimes – but it certainly gives a strong sense of reality to the book. Attitudes to medicine and its practice are central to the story, summed up when Marion thinks ‘Surely you couldn’t be a good doctor and a terrible human being’. Verghese’s own surgical practice has been very patient orientated – in the sense that you can learn more about patients’ needs by talking to them then you can by looking at data about their condition. The question ‘what treatment in an emergency room is administered by ear’ and its answer ‘words of comfort’ is important in the story. Verghese turns naturally to medical metaphors; speaking of a rift with his twin, Marion says: ‘If there were filaments and cords of yoke or flesh that kept our divided egg sticking together, I was taking a scalpel to them.’

The title, Cutting for Stone, is taken from a version of the Hippocratic oath which enjoins doctors not to operate to remove bladder (presumably?) stones, but to leave it to ‘surgeons’. This slightly enigmatic – and no longer used – formulation sounds more like an ancient demarcation dispute than a useful piece of advice, and I’m not sure of its application to the story. Certainly there are many references, or allusions, to cutting in relation to people called Stone; Thomas Stone fails to perform a caesarean section on the twins’ mother, the conjoined twins are cut apart, Marion could be said to be cutting for Stone in looking for his father, and there is other cutting which I won’t mention because it gives away the story. There is also division and conflict in Ethiopia. Perhaps the point is that cutting is one side of the coin and healing is the other – just as Marion is the mirror image of Shiva.  Both of the twins, Hema, Ghosh and Thomas Stone all seek to heal, which is what I guess this book is ultimately about. Marion cannot heal the rifts in Ethiopian society, but he does what he can to heal its inhabitants.

You can read more about Abraham Verghese here, and note the places where his experiences, and those he gives to Marion, coincide. And here is an interesting TED video in which he talks about the need for the human touch in medicine.

Book Review: The Unexpected Professor, by John Carey

TheUnexpectedProfessor-e1421135459618John Carey’s autobiography (2014) is subtitled An Oxford Life in Books. It is, as he explains in the foreword, ‘a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it,’ a case study in ‘what kind of upbringing produces a preference for some books rather than others’.

One of the things that came of it is one of my favourite books, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) by John Carey, so naturally I was interested to see the upbringing and outlook that produced it. While it is true that the story of a life that is utterly different to one’s own can be fascinating and challenging, I tend to agree with Carey’s somewhat ironic comment that the autobiographies of ‘people who share your own views, are of course, the best.’ Not that Carey’s life has been anything like mine – for a start, he was way cleverer, which is why he gets to write an autobiography people might want to read and I don’t. But I was fascinated by the comparison of his student life at Oxford, and mine at a provincial university in the colonies, where Oxford set standards that were never quite lived up to. Though maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.

John Carey was a scholarship boy, the product of a good grammar school classical education; no one was exposed to that sort of education in post-WWII Australia, so a restrictive Oxbridge syllabus was fortunately never possible here. 1960s university Arts curricula may have cast wistful glances back at Oxbridge, but thank goodness we didn’t end our idea of ‘English Literature’ in 1834, as Oxford did when Carey was an undergraduate in the early 1950s. In later years he did much to change this, to the great annoyance of some of his colleagues. He also tried to ensure that students received better teaching, in terms of how to read, what to read and how to criticise – an area where some Australian academics might have benefited from following his lead.

Carey researched and taught at a number of Oxford colleges during his long academic career. From the first, he was aware of the class distinctions that operated in most of them, Balliol being an honourable exception. Of Christ Church, ‘just walking through it was an object lesson in how architecture can be used to make people feel small.’ At Keeble, he encountered one academic whom he loathed, seeing him as ‘a symbol of the monstrous injustice of Oxford, its crooked admissions policy and its shameless favouring of wealth and privilege.’ Of course he met with much intellectual honesty and generosity, as well as friendship. But it was the sense of superiority evinced by many of the academic staff that was the seed that germinated as The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Carey comes from a solid middle class background, of parents who had no particular aspirations towards high culture. His father was an accountant, understandably proud of his clever son. It occurred to Carey that people like the snobbish don he met at Christ Church – who pointedly refrained from ever addressing the young Carey – would despise his parents, and that thought eventually turned into The Intellectuals and the Masses. This is a study in cultural history of writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who created what is now called ‘modernist literature’. Carey argues that many intellectuals resented the ‘semi-literate masses’ produced by the compulsory education reforms of 1870. In response, they excluded them from high culture by creating a literature which the masses couldn’t understand, because it ‘cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions.’ Carey is not saying that this literature was necessarily bad; indeed he very much admires some of the work of D.H. Lawrence, one of the writers he uses as an example. Others he comments on are T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and H.G. Wells.  Needless to say this analysis was met with howls of fury, but I found it wonderfully liberating. Most of Carey’s early academic work is high quality commentary on Milton, Donne and Marvell; later he wrote about Dickens, Thackeray and William Golding. But he is more broadly known for his collections of reportage and science writing.

More recently he again shocked his academic colleagues with a small book entitled What Use Are the Arts? (2005), in which he considers what is a work of art, and whether exposure to works of art makes you a better person? The answers he reluctantly arrives at are that anything can be so considered, and unfortunately ‘no’. But he concludes that what matters is whether a book – or a painting, a piece of music – gives ‘joy and satisfaction’, and surely there could be no better test. You can read a little more about Professor Carey here, including a list of his major works, and an interesting profile of him here. If you don’t fancy the autobiography, try the Faber Book of Reportage (1987) – eyewitness accounts of history – or the Faber Book of Science (1995). Or, of course, The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Book Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, by Rick Riordan

OK, it’s a young adult book. But it’s holiday time, and I can be forgiven for a fun and easy read. Which is what Percy Jackson and the Olympians, subtitled The Lightning Thief (2005) is. It’s also the first of a series of five Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, which have further morphed into a related series called The Heroes of Olympus, the whole oeuvre being entitled the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles. To say nothing of two films, and over three million Facebook likes. (To put this into perspective, Harry Potter, with whom Percy Jackson is inevitably compared, has over seven and a half million.)

The Olympians are not athletes. They are gods. Riordan is playing with the idea that the old Greek gods, and their entourage of heroes, satyrs, naiads, dryads and assorted monsters never disappeared, and have on occasion, taken a hand in human history –(eg Prohibition was a punishment imposed by Zeus on Dionysus). Early in the story, which is set in present day New York, Percy – short for Perseus – finds out that he is the son of a god – though he doesn’t initially know which one. He is sent on a quest to find Zeus’s ‘master bolt’ – the symbol of his power – which has been stolen. He is helped by Annabeth, another half-god, a daughter of Athena, and Grover, a satyr who hides his hairy hind quarters and hoofs under baggy jeans and sneakers. Together, they have a series of adventures, some of which resemble those of Perseus, some call Hercules to mind, and one even seems to come from The Odyssey.

You can read this book – and I’m sure that this is the case for most of the young adults who read it – without any knowledge of Greek mythology. Riordan has published a sort of handbook on this mythology – Percy’s personal take on the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece – called Percy Jackson’s Book of Greek Gods (2014), but this is for fans, not novices. This book can be read simply as a coming of age story of a boy capable of magic in some form – as in stories by authors as various as Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, Lev Grossman or Alison Croggon to name but a few. And as in most of these coming of age stories, Percy has to learn how to use his magic gifts.  As one blogger puts it, it’s about ‘what it is like to come to grips with the utterly fantastical and impossible in what was previously a very ordinary life; about how it feels to have destiny thrust upon you, and how one goes about making that destiny for oneself.’

Alternatively, you can enjoy picking up the references to the feats of the mythological Heroes. If you’re like me, and read all that stuff too many years ago to really remember it clearly, half-remembering can be a bit annoying, but there’s always Wikipedia, or Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (1853) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, available from the Guttenberg Project. It’s a clever device by Riordan to call upon an ‘existing’ source of magic power, rather than have to make one up, and the associations do make it more fun. Percy’s god relatives wrangle among themselves like the gods of old; they are jealous, capricious and proud. As Percy says of the gods of old: ‘If you like horror shows, blood baths, lying, stealing, backstabbing, and cannibalism … it definitely was a Golden Age for all that ’ – and it still is.

One criticism of the book is that it has rather too much in common with other stories about magic, particularly the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter has Hogwarts, Percy Jackson has Camp Half Blood. Harry has Hermione, Percy has Annabeth. In both, the magic world exists alongside the ordinary one, but cannot be seen by normal humans. Percy’s magical sword only works on monsters, but disasters caused by magic can harm ordinary humans and have to be explained away– think of the destruction the death eaters cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And so on. But it’s probably sufficiently different, particularly in its American setting, with its gods rather than wizards, and different adventures, to appeal to a similar market.

Riordan seems to mass produce Percy and the various other spinoff series, and it shows in his episodic plotting and rather stereotyped characterisation. It’s all a bit too easy for Percy, and he can be annoyingly ignorant and brash. But some of the imagery of the underworld, and the role of the Harpies there, are good. They resonate for me not with scenes from Harry Potter, but with Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass (2000), where Will and Lyra descend to the underworld. Pullman’s book – the third in the trilogy His Dark Materials – is a much more polished and literary work than Riordan’s Percy series ever tries to be. But in this section, the books bear comparison.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning, this is holiday reading, and perhaps something to tempt the children or grandchildren with, once they’ve finished with Harry Potter.


Book Review: Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice, by Stuart Littlemore

imageOnce again, I read a review of Littlemore’s second book, Harry Curry: the Murder Book (2012) and decided to read the first one, Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice (2011) first. It does set the scene, but by all means read the second one if you come across it first – I’m assuming it’s as much fun as this one.

The five chapters of the book cover five legal cases Harry Curry (presumably a pun on Hari Kari) is involved in. Other than that, there’s not much story. But there doesn’t need to be. At the beginning of the book, Harry’s licence to practise as a barrister is suspended by the Bar Association’s disciplinary committee on the grounds of alleged rudeness to a judge. He is approached by a young barrister, Arabella Engineer, who isn’t doing too well – we see her lose her case – with the suggestion that Harry act as legal strategist for her. The first three cases operate on this basis. Harry gets his licence back and the next two cases are joint operations between them. Of course there is the issue of their relationship, but for me, the interest is in what happens in the court room.

Littlemore is a senior barrister – a QC – who works in the area of criminal law. The cases in the book are almost certainly versions of the real thing taken from his experience, though perhaps what he wished had happened, rather than what did. They cover allegations of drug smuggling, murder, assault occasioning grievous bodily harm and rape, there is an appeal against an extradition and a coroner’s hearing into deaths that occurred in a bush fire. The old Perry Mason tradition of court room drama involves the defence team getting their client off by doing the detective work of finding who really did it. These stories are not like that; they depend on the defence finding reasons in law that can be argued in favour of their client. Here, it’s rarely an issue of finding that someone else has committed the crime; ‘Harry’s rule has always been that you win cases by keeping evidence of guilt away from the jury, not be attempting to call alibis, or some other assertion of innocence.’ Littlemore pays meticulous attention to the court setting, details of procedure like choosing the jury, and the cross examination of witnesses; the court ‘feels like a workplace’. The setting and the cases feel real, not just because they presumably are, or could be, but also because of Littlemore’s skill in making his points simply and clearly. I find it easy to believe he is a very good barrister.

A major theme of the book is justice, for the innocent and the guilty alike. What do barristers do when they are certain that their client is guilty? They defend them by all available means. In real life, Littlemore responds to the question of defending ‘someone who you yourself believe not to be innocent’ by saying: ‘Well, they’re the best cases. I mean, you really feel you’ve done something when you get the guilty off. Anyone can get an innocent person off. I mean, they shouldn’t be on trial. But the guilty – that’s the challenge.’ Harry says in defence of his criminal law practice: ‘There is a point to what I do: I’m the only thing standing between those poor bastards and the might of the state.’ He’s also committed to the defence of the under-dog against the vested interests of big business like insurance companies. At one point, another lawyer says to him: ‘Get off the white horse, Harry. It doesn’t suit you.’ Harry ignores him. But one of my reservations about the book is whether Harry is a bit too good to be true.

Another slight reservation is whether Harry is a bit too much the stereotypical Establishment black sheep. His father is an eminent QC, now suffering from dementia. Harry, product of a public school and good university, knows everyone in the legal world; he just chooses not to share their lifestyle aspirations. He drives a Jag, but it belongs to a client doing ten years for importing drugs. ‘Harry’s minding it for him, but the client doesn’t exactly know that.’ Hmm. A little too insouciant? But maybe Littlemore knew of such a circumstance. Harry’s Establishment background enables him to indulge in some pointed legal snobbery; in a Queensland solicitor’s office a law degree from Bond University ‘hangs in pride of place, and Harry wonders at the wisdom of that. Would you want that to be generally known?’ This is insider humour, having a go at a relatively new, private university. His description of a ‘fascinator’ as something ‘shop girls wear to the races’ is plain ordinary social snobbery.

But these are trivial reservations. Overall, it’s a fascinating inside look at the workings of the law in ordinary Australian courts, where the cases have their own drama. I probably should have said more about Arabella – for that, you’ll have to read the book.

Australian readers who think they know the name Littlemore in another context are right. Stuart Littlemore was a journalist and broadcaster for some years, most notable for his creation and hosting of the ABC’s Media Watch, a forum for media analysis and comment, specialising in ‘conflicts of interest, bank backflips, deceit, misrepresentation, manipulation, plagiarism, abuse of power, technical lies and straight out fraud.’ Right up Harry Curry’s alley. These days Littlemore’s name might be familiar from his role as counsel for Eddie Obeid at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. Now there’s a challenge for a defence lawyer.

You can read a short account of Littlemore’s life here, and a rather more interesting interview with him after the publication of this book here. Asked if he is Harry, his response is ‘I would like to be that brave.’

I was amused to see that a writer for the online law students’ site, Survive Law, thought highly of the book. The reviewer writes: ‘The cases are gritty and the descriptions of the clients and proceedings so realistic that you could almost justify reading this book as study!’

Free Advice for Josh Frydenberg

Below are Josh Frydenberg’s Ten Lessons to Get Liberals Back on Track, following the defeat of the Napthine government last Saturday. But maybe the Secretary to the Prime Minister is giving his boss a bit of advice as well. Couldn’t help myself …

One: Develop a clear narrative consistent with Liberal philosophy. Well, First Dog on the Moon’s got that one sorted. ‘Kill the Poor’ is probably my favourite of his suggestions. The Liberals already have a perfectly clear and consistent narrative: take from the poor and give to the rich, otherwise known as supply side economics. The problem is that if this narrative were actually spelt out, it would be deeply unpopular electorally. If you want an alternative economic narrative, read this article about how we need to build a combination of business capital, infrastructure, human capital, intellectual capital, natural capital and social capital.

Two: Communication is key. Possibly, but it depends on what you’ve got to communicate. As pollsters Lewis and Woods report, the budget, for example, ‘has been perceived as being unfair from day one, the perception being that the delivery on the promise to cut the debt was actually a fig leaf for wider ideological indulgences.’ Hard to polish a turd.

Three: Challenge the right of partisan unionists to openly campaign in uniform against the sitting government. Public servants identifying themselves as such at polling booths – not cricket, eh Josh? So are we going to challenge the right of partisan big miners to take out paid advertisements against a government policy? To say nothing of the partisan media. The Liberals have only themselves to blame. They have politicised the public service by forcing cuts to services which those who are supposed to deliver them know are essential. If they aren’t going to shut up about it, well, chickens do fly home to roost. The sky is dark with them.

Four: Never let the public forget the failures of your political predecessors. How’s the ‘blame Labor’ mantra working for you fifteen months after the election? By all means choose to go on as you started – negative and vindictive. But I think you’ll find voters can be inspired by policies that promise a better future.

Five: Disunity is death. You’re probably right. But it’s hard to stay united when backbenchers see the destructive policies of their leaders eating away at their electoral support. Watch this space.

Six: Avoid the fringe and play to the middle. And just how is the Liberal government doing on that one? Trying to destroy Medicare, opposing effective action on climate change, cutting the ABC, trying to make higher education prohibitively expensive for ordinary students – all of this is motivated by basic right wing ideology, much of it set out well before the election by the right-wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. The Abbott government is doing its best to tick off all seventy-five items on their wish list. Parties should avoid opening up damaging debates on issues already settled, you say. Really? Trying to water down section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act fits in with this advice how?

Seven: Incumbency is providing a diminishing return. Possibly, but hardly a rule of political life, and only if incumbency includes breaking promises and bringing in legislation that helps your mates and hurts everyone else. The Liberals totally negative election agenda got them elected – but isn’t proving an asset in government.

Eight: Don’t leave election announcements too late because more people vote early. OK. But expect a high degree of cynicism about election policies whether they are announced early or late in the campaign. ‘No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.’ Recall those promises Josh? More like lies, really, made to be broken. Who’s going to believe anything you say next time? A record of meaningful achievement is worth more than a few carrots at election time.

Nine: Regroup, renew. I’m betting there will be a Federal Liberal government redistribution fairly soon. Again, watch this space. But you don’t get much renewal when you stick to the same inequitable and punitive policies that have got you into trouble in the first place.

Ten: There is always a silver lining. Hmm. It’s true as you say that the Greens are splitting the progressive vote, but there are a very limited number of areas where Labor will vote with the Liberals against them. Hardly a recipe for future Liberal success. And if I were you Josh, I’d be paying a bit more attention to the Nationals. Lots of country people – National voters up till now – are realising that climate change is their very real enemy and that renewable energy is their friend. No wonder the big end of town is getting upset by GetUp’s new ad showing rural support for wind energy.

While we’re on an advice-giving kick, can I suggest Eleven, Josh? Don’t rely on your mates in the Murdoch press to guarantee you a smooth ride. It’s dangerous on two fronts. First, they hate failure and turn against you if there’s a sniff of it. Second, they are becoming increasingly irrelevant as newspaper sales fall and people look elsewhere for news and opinion. As you say, ‘advertising via Facebook and Google is often more likely to connect with the swinging voter’. But you need to have something to say that they want to hear – and maybe these people who use these platforms think that a fiber to the premises NBN wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

I don’t blame you for trying to take lessons from the history. As your quote from Aldous Huxley, ‘That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history,’ is probably spot on. But I think I’ll go with a different one: Talleyrand, of the Bourbons – read the Abbott government – ‘They learned nothing and forgot nothing’.

  1. Interesting that Frydenberg should quote Aldus Huxley. He’s the one that said in 1934 that ‘Universal education has created an immense class of what I may call the New Stupid.’ Universal education is clearly what current Liberal policy on university fees is seeking to avoid. Must be worried about the new stupid.

Book Review: Some Hope, by Edward St Aubyn

SomeHope-e1417564367567I read a review of At Last (2011) by St Aubyn, thought it sounded interesting, and finding it was the last of five books about Patrick Melrose, decided to start at the beginning – and if you’re going to read any of them, I suggest you do the same. The edition of Some Hope that I read is actually a collection of the first three books – which are all quite short, almost novellas – the trilogy consisting of Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992) and Some Hope (1994). After a gap in which he wrote two non-Patrick Melrose books, the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was published in 2005 and short-listed for the Booker Prize. Lost for Words, satirising literary prizes, was published in 2014.

Never Mind takes place over one day when Patrick is five. He lives with his mother Eleanor and father David in a rather grand old house in Lacoste in the south of France. His father’s family can trace its roots back to the Norman conquest – the winning side, of course – and his mother is a rich American. Both are totally dysfunctional as parents, his father being alcoholic and cruel, his mother being alcoholic and ineffectual. ‘At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.’  We also meet Victor Eisen, a retired philosopher, and his wife Anne who live nearby, and Nicholas Pratt, baronet and man about town, and his girlfriend Bridget, who have flown over from London for a short stay. Amidst all the malicious comments, the snobbery, the misery – and to the reader, the cringe worthy embarrassment of it all – one comment by Nicholas stands out: ‘in my opinion, nothing that happens to you as a child really matters.’ Could he be more wrong? What are the consequences for Patrick?

We find out in Bad News. Patrick is twenty two. He’s just received the ‘bad news’ that his father has died in New York and is on his way from London to collect his ashes. He hates his father. ‘What instrument could he use to set himself free? Disdain? Aggression? Hatred? They were all contaminated by the influence of his father, the very thing he needed to free himself from.’ What follows from this paralysis is a drug taking binge, described in detail. Patrick is an addict; he is himself ‘bad news’. I read somewhere that this is one of the best descriptions of addiction ever written, not least because it can be funny. I guess there is a kind of black humour, as for example when Patrick has bought heroine, he parts from the dealer ‘with the genuine warmth of people who had exploited each other successfully.’ I found it excruciatingly difficult to read; I don’t really want to know just how it’s done. It raises for me the issue of rejecting writing because the subject is unpleasant versus reading something that is unpleasant because it is so well written. Or is the reader exploited along with everyone else? A couple of the characters from the earlier book make an appearance.

In Some Hope, we are back in the world of satire, snobbery and malice, this time in London and at a lavish birthday party at a mansion in the Cotswolds; ‘a world in which the word ‘charity’… was invariably qualified by the words ‘lunch’, ‘committee’ or ‘ball’. ‘Compassion’ nobody had any time for, whereas ‘leniency’ made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences.’  It is eight years later, and Patrick is off the drugs, but little happier. He cannot rid himself of the legacy left to him by his father – ‘sarcasm, snobbery, cruelty and betrayal ’ – and he fears turning out like him. A number of characters from the first book and one from the second, are, like Patrick, invited to the party, along with some other mostly pretentious and unpleasant new ones. Few have any redeeming features; only Anne, from the first book, and Patrick’s friend Johnny, stand out. Before leaving for the party, Johnny attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting to strengthen his resolve not to take any drugs. St Aubyn’s description of the meeting is revealing; he can’t help poking fun at the ‘obscure and fatuous slang’ used by participants talking about their ‘recovery’, but Johnny nevertheless finds that however ‘ridiculous and boring’ the meetings are, they help him stay clean. He is also the one that gets to tell a simpering Princess Margaret at the party that he doesn’t ‘rely on an accident of birth’ for distinction, to which she replies ‘there is no accident of birth’. But the question at the heart of the book is whether there can be ‘some hope’ for Patrick – or anyone else caught up in this world.

Readers will probably not be surprised – though possibly horrified – to learn that under the satire, much in these books is autobiographical. Patrick’s childhood experiences were St Aubyn’s experiences, followed by years of drug addiction and mental illness. In an interview in The Telegraph, it is explained that at the age of 25 he underwent psychoanalysis, which took him, he says, ‘from suicide to creativity’. ‘By that point in my life I was completely ashamed of everything I’d been and done, and the contract I made was to write a book that gets published or commit suicide. It was not at all melodramatic in the state that I was in at the time. I thought about committing suicide every day.’ After the first book was published, he felt he had to keep going. ‘If I don’t write I’ll go mad, and if I go mad I’ll have to kill myself, so I must keep writing,’ he said. Just as well he turns out to be rather good at it.

You can read more about Edward St Aubyn here. There’s a long piece about him and his ‘inheritance’ in The New Yorker here. And you can read a review of his latest book here. It’s definitely on my Christmas list.


Book Review: V is for Vengeance and W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton

SueGraftonSome time ago I wrote about Sue Grafton’s alphabet crime stories featuring Kinsey Millhone – A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar and so on up to U is for Undertow. Now we have V is for Vengeance (2011) and W is for Wasted (2013). I have no doubt X,Y and Z will follow.

The earlier stories were all written in the first person from Kinsey’s perspective. In S is for Silence, T is for Trespass and U is for Undertow, Grafton introduced the stories of other characters, told in the third person. V is for Vengeance follows this pattern. The book starts with a prologue in which a young man is setting off for a gambling session in Las Vegas. The story proper starts two years later with Kinsey witnessing two women shoplifting. Grafton then introduces Nora, a socialite who discovers her husband is having an affair with his secretary, and Lorenzo Dante, rich and outwardly respectable, but deeply involved in crime. What have all these to do with each other? Who is wreaking vengeance on whom? I like Kinsey’s take on it: ‘I’m a big fan of forgiveness,’ she says, ‘as long as I’m given the opportunity to get even first.’ Most of the story still belongs to Kinsey, but in the other sections, Grafton introduces quite different social settings and mind sets, allowing her to probe relationships and feelings quite foreign to Kinsey. This is an interesting experiment; is Grafton perhaps practising for a writing life after the alphabet series?  But I can’t help feeling she is still more at home with Kinsey. On the bonus side, we get a rare, brief glimpse of how someone else sees her.

W is for Wasted also follows one other character besides Kinsey, but much more briefly than in the previous book. The story begins with Kinsey’s statement ‘Two dead men changed the course of my life that fall’. She pursues the circumstances of the death of one, a homeless man named Terrence Dace, who had her name and phone number on a slip of paper in his pocket when he died. The other is Pete Wolinsky, a private detective she knew slightly, who was apparently shot in a robbery. His story is told through the somewhat clunky device of a third person narration starting several months before his death. What, if anything, have these stories to do with each other? ‘I don’t know how I get caught up in shit like this,’ says Kinsey.

One of the interesting things about the series is the way that Grafton always finds a new story to tell. I think she is able to do this in part by using the stratagem mentioned above of introducing the third person narratives of major new characters into books. She also reveals piecemeal the circumstances of Kinsey’s life. Grafton was either very far sighted at the beginning of the series in making Kinsey an orphan, or very clever at spotting an angle later on, for this has had the undoubted benefit of allowing her to find out more about her family as the books progress. Previous books have introduced her mother’s family; in W, we find out more about her father’s family. This is interesting because we care about Kinsey, but also has major relevance to the plot. We also learn a lot about Kinsey’s life; for example she isn’t sure she likes having family, and wonders if she was better off without one. ‘Aunt Gin hadn’t fostered feelings of connectedness and I hadn’t had occasion to develop them on my own.’

Grafton also fills the pages with an extremely detailed account of Kinsey’s activities. To take a random example from V: ‘I arrived at my office at 9.00 the next morning, unlocked the door, and gathered up the pile of mail the postman had shoved through the slot the day before. I tossed the stack on my desk, and went down the hall to the kitchenette, where I put on a pot of coffee. When the machine had gurgled to a finish, I filled my mug.’  These 65 words could easily be replaced with 15 words, as in: ‘When I got to the office I picked up the mail and made a coffee’. It’s as if Grafton were actually seeing life through Kinsey’s eyes – and for me, the detail is one of the pleasures of the series. As she says, ‘it’s better if you experience it just as I did, one step at a time.’ I can see the detail might annoy some readers, though.

Of all the other things that could be said about these books, I’d like to mention the attention Grafton pays to Kinsey’s craft as a private detective. ‘What I lack in brute force,’ she says, ‘I make up for in persistence and sheer cunning.’ She solves mysteries by following things up and talking to people, and then seeing connections others haven’t. ‘I could arrange the facts in any order I liked, but the bits and pieces would only come together when I perceived their true relationships,’ she says. She knows her limits, and is specific about one of the issues common to all private detectives stories. Once you know who the baddies are, what can you do about them? As she says, ‘The problem was I had no authority to act. At best I could make a citizen’s arrest … If I managed to collar a crook, what would prevent him simply laughing it off and walking away?’ What indeed? Grafton finds ingenious ways to deal with this too.

You can read more about Sue Grafton here. I think she should run a competition for the naming of the last three books. X is for X-Ray, or maybe Xenophobia, is the best I can do. Y is for Yellow (as in cowardly) perhaps? And Z is for Zapped. But I’m sure Sue Grafton will do better than that.

Book Review: The Color of Water, by James McBride

This memoir, published is 1995, is subtitled ‘A Black Man’s Tribute To His White Mother’. The edition I read has an Afterword marking the 10th anniversary of the first publication which brings the reader up to date with the family. McBride has also published three novels, of which Miracle at St Anna (2002) and Song Yet Sung (2008) have been made into films. His third novel, The Good Lord Bird (2013) won the American National Book Award. The memoir is considered a classic.

The story is told in two voices which alternate throughout the book – those of McBride, and of his mother, Ruth. The sections in which his mother recalls her life – italicized in this edition – are told in her voice. Perhaps McBride recorded interviews with her, or perhaps his ear is perfectly attuned to her cadences, or both. However he did it, the result is masterful. You can almost hear her speaking.

She tells the story of how she was born to Jewish immigrants from Poland. Her father seems only to have married her mother in order to get sponsorship from other members of her family to allow him entry into the United States. A Jewish Rabbi, he set up a grocery store in Suffolk, Virginia, exploiting his black customers, whom he despised. She presents him as a cruel and unpleasant man, who ill-treated and abused his wife and children. Ruth left home as soon as she could and moved to New York. There she met and later married Andrew McBride, a kind and loving African American man. Her family completely rejected her. Ruth converted to Christianity when Andrew felt called to establish a Baptist church. They had eight children before he died at the age of 46 of lung cancer. Ruth later married again, this time to Hunter Jordan, also an African American, and had another four children, some of whom were still very young when her second husband died.

McBride tells his own story alongside that of his mother. For many years he felt uncertain of his identity. As a child, he wondered why she looked so different from him, and from the parents of all his friends. He talks about how his mother slaved to keep her children clothed and fed. He tells how she valued education above all else except Jesus, and how she struggled to get them into good schools – where, inevitably the majority of children where white, and often Jewish. She took them to every free concert, museum or community event she could find in New York, determined that they should acquire cultural capital (not that she used that phrase) to make up for their decided lack of material goods. ‘We thrived on thought, books, music and art, which she fed us instead of food.’ Ruth was intensely private; she thought that never accepting government assistance was a badge of honour – though the family lived in what I take to be public housing for a time. But accepting private philanthropy was OK. Although inevitably there were some bumps in the road – for example, one daughter ran away and James got hooked on booze and drugs for a time – all twelve of the children graduated from university and took up professional careers. Persuading his mother to talk about her past helped McBride come to terms with his own life.

Successfully raising twelve children is clearly an amazing achievement, even if there wasn’t the question of racism mixed in – and the strength of racism in America in the 1950s, 60s and even into the 70s still has the power to shock. McBride makes it clear how unusual his parents’ marriage was in 1940s America; in the South, it would have been illegal. Ruth and her family experienced prejudice and discrimination as Jews; at school, Ruth was called ‘Christ killer’ and ‘Jew baby’, and rejected by most of the other students. Being white, with a black husband and black children, caused comment and often abuse –such as being called ‘white trash’ – where ever they went. The only people who didn’t reject her were African Americans; ‘That’s why I never veered from the black side,’ she says. The main reason that she was able to ignore racism and insults was the strength of her belief in God. ‘It’s not about black and white,’ she says. ‘It’s about God, and don’t let anyone tell you different.’ When James asks her whether God is black or white, she explains that God is a spirit, and that like water, doesn’t have a color. ‘God is the color of water.’

So what is it about this remarkable story that makes me slightly uneasy? I guess it’s the way it can be assimilated into the ‘log cabin to Whitehouse’ myth – that in America, if you work hard enough, you will succeed. This was not true then and is even less true now. Ruth McBride Jordan’s struggle was exceptional. Millions of other Americans, particularly African American ones, could work hard, be thrifty and honest and honourable in their relationships, and still fail to rise out of poverty. Children shouldn’t need their parents to have remarkable drive and persistence for them to have the chance of a good education and the motivation to succeed. This is not something that McBride questions in the book, and why should he? I just would have felt more comfortable if he had acknowledged somewhere that systemic failures are overwhelmingly what keep people poor, not personal ones.

You can read more about James McBride here. Make sure you have the sound on – I forgot to say that he is an accomplished musician. I think I owe it to him to read The Good Lord Bird.

Labor should stop the boats…

It is to be hoped that the Shadow Minister for Immigration Richard Marles’s recent thought bubble suggesting that an ALP government would continue to tow back the boats has been well and truly pricked. But his foolish comment shows how much of a policy limbo Labor is in on asylum seekers.

On one hand we have the Abbott government policy of deterring refugees by harsh treatment of those who try to come by boat. This includes the tow-backs, the refusal to allow any asylum seekers that come by boat to be settled in Australia, even if they are found to be genuine refugees, terrible conditions in off-shore processing centres, lengthy waits for the processing of claims, little or no access to legal advice, increasingly bizarre locations for resettlement, like Cambodia, a reduced refugee intake and restrictive visa conditions. All this with repeated dog whistling language – calling refugees illegals, implying that they are likely to be terrorists, or have Ebola and generally ramping up the existing the xenophobic tendencies in the electorate.

This approach seems to be stopping the boats, but at the expense of a good deal of cruelty, certainly disregard for Australia’s international obligations, probably a degree of illegality, and likely a degree of estrangement of our largest neighbour. Indonesia under President Jokowi may be even less accommodating to tow-backs than it has been under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. These policies may be stopping the flow of refugees to Australia, but won’t stop the flow to the region. And the refugee problem there is likely to escalate; the Western alliance’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the chaos in Iraq and Syria will see to that.

At the other extreme there is the ‘let them all come’ attitude. It requires that all processing is done on–shore, with only health checks, rather than compulsory detention, before release into the community. This sounds nice, but there are a number of problems.

Unrestricted entry does nothing to restrict boat arrivals, and therefore by implication encourages them. The Greens and their supporters – the main protagonists of these views – want better international efforts in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to process refugees in the hope that this will stop people getting on boats. But those who can will, particularly if they don’t yet have refugee status, and significant numbers will die at sea. It is estimated that around 900 refugees have died at sea on their way to Australia since 2000.

Various suggestions have been made about improving the safety of the boat journey, including not confiscating the boats and jailing their crews, so that reusable boats and experienced crews can do the people smuggling. This makes no sense if people smuggling is to remain illegal. Allowing people smuggling advantages those able to pay – hardly a fair selection method.

The Greens’ policy is to allow an annual intake of 30,000. That number could easily be taken up overwhelmingly with boat arrivals. Tough luck all the other refugees around the world who aren’t in a position – geographical or financial – to get on a boat. And what happens if there are more than 30,000 boat arrivals?

But the main thing wrong with this policy is that no party espousing it is likely to form government in the foreseeable future. Not much point having a policy no one can implement. It is likely that by the 2016 election, the boats will have been stopped, the off-shore detention centres will be empty and that the LNP will campaign hard on their ‘success’. Any other proposals will be labelled as letting the boats back.

So what should Labor do?

Labor policy on asylum seekers needs to meet the following criteria: it must

  • Embody Labor’s value of fairness
  • Meet Australia’s international obligations
  • Be practicable
  • Be electorally viable

There is a temptation to run a small-target me-too campaign on this policy – as Marles has already hinted. Asylum seeker policy is probably not going to be the main thing on voters’ minds in 2016 – it’s the economy, stupid – but the LNP will certainly try and wedge Labor on it. People whose vote is determined by hatred and fear of asylum seekers, rather than by the punitive economic policies of the LNP, will probably not vote Labor anyway, whatever Labor does. On the left, rusted-on Greens voters won’t be satisfied by anything other than an open door policy to refugees, so Labor is unlikely to please them either. There are probably a number of voters who are concerned about refugees who come by boat, but are more concerned about economic policies. Labor’s asylum seeker policy is unlikely to be a game-changer for them – whatever that policy.

I think small target temptation must be resisted, not only because the current policy is inhumane and probably illegal, but also because if Labor is to make a case for a supporting a fairer and more equal society, this has to include a policy on asylum seekers that accepts Australia’s international responsibilities, and treats asylum seekers as people in dire need of our help, rather than trying to deter them from coming here.

This is not, however, a reason for committing electoral suicide. There are other things at stake in the next election besides asylum seekers.

For me, the non-negotiable is speedy processing in humane processing centres. I don’t think Labor has to commit itself to on-shore processing of asylum seeker claims.

I have come to this view after listening to Brad Chilcott, of Welcome to Australia. His work with refugees has convinced him that it is not the location of the processing centre, but lack of information about their future and their refugee status application that causes the anger, the despair, the self-harm that characterise the refugee experience under the LNP. He believes that refugee centres must have independent oversight, and be accountable and transparent. It’s not the hardship of Naru, he says. It’s the fear they could be there for ever.

Mandatory detention is acceptable if it is brief. Labor would need to commit to much quicker processing of claims, where ever refugees were sent. What about children? Again, it is the length of time in detention that is crucial.

I’m not sure that the centres on Naru and Manus Island can ever be suitable refugee locations – conditions there are described as ‘cruel, inhuman, and unlawful’ – amounting to torture. But if faster processing means refugees need only stay for a short time, then maybe, with the proper oversight which is clearly lacking, these facilities could continue to house refugees. And the asylum seekers would know that settlement in Australia – rather than New Guinea – was a likely outcome for them.

So what about people smuggling? Because of both the risk of death at sea, and the privileging of refugees who can afford to pay people smugglers, Labor policy must aim to deter people from getting on boats. They are much less likely to do this if, like the Greens, Labor commits to a larger intake of asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees into Australia, and if there are much better regional arrangements for processing in host countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Much greater funding for the UNHCR is essential.

Labor should treat all asylum seekers the same in terms of eligibility for resettlement in Australia, whether they come by boat or by plane.

Should Labor ever ‘stop the boats’? Yes, but not by force. This policy should aim to stop people undertaking the dangerous journey because there are better ways of finding safety, ways that respect the right of people to seek asylum, respect Australia’s international obligations and reflect Labor’s aspiration for a just and equal society.

Book Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones, by Lawrence Block

When I was at the movies to see Gone Girl – which I recently reviewed – I saw the shorts of a film that looked dark and violent; I later found it described as an example of the neo noir. A New York detective who had quit the force after a child died as ‘collateral damage’ in a shootout with criminals – an accident, but one the detective believed had come about partly because he had been drinking…  A detective that now worked as an unlicensed private eye just inside, or sometimes outside the law. It was the title that brought it all back to me. A Walk Among the Tombstones, published in 1992, is one of a series of books by Lawrence Block featuring Matthew Scudder, private detective and recovering alcoholic. So I thought I’d write about the book before seeing the film – or maybe not seeing the film, if the story turned out to be more violent than I remembered from reading it twenty years ago.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is the tenth in the Matthew Scudder series, so the death of the child is not part of the story (as it appears to be in the film). But it continues to haunt Scudder, and he goes to a lot of AA meetings to help stay sober. Then Pete Khoury, who he has met at AA, asks him to undertake some work for his brother Kenan. Kenan’s wife has been kidnapped. (This is where the film starts.) He pays a ransom, but his wife is brutally murdered anyway. He can’t go to the police because his money comes from drug trafficking, and they would ask awkward questions. So he wants Scudder to find the men who did it. And then he wants to kill them.

After this fairly dramatic start, the book moves into a much calmer phase with Scudder looking for the killers. Though he doesn’t have much to go on, he patiently puts together evidence and clever guess work. ‘When I start something I have a hell of a time letting go of it,’ he says. ‘I don’t do it by being brilliant. I just hang on like a bulldog until something shakes loose.’ He calls in favours from old police colleagues, and gets some help from computer hackers. The story is set in the early 1990s, so there are no mobile phones, little by way of police data bases, and fairly basic computers. The New York phone system still works by people putting quarters into public phones. Goodness knows what the film will make of that. He finds out some very nasty things, but initially these are in the past and written down or verbally reported. Violence is described, but not with the immediacy that it might gain by being shown in a film. Things do, however, move to a violent climax.

Yet I don’t feel that this is a particularly violent book. This is partly because of Block’s understated prose style, and his ability to undercut the horror with a sort of wry humour. For example, someone is garrotted. ‘I had seen a garrotte before so I knew right away what I was looking at, but nothing really prepares you for it. It was as awful a sight as I had ever seen in my life,’ says Scudder. But then he goes on ‘But it did lower the odds.’ If the film shows such things, it will indeed be noir, and I won’t want to see it. If it can retain Block’s lightness of touch, with the violence implied rather than revelled in, then I might find it worth seeing.

Part of the tone of the story – and presumably the film – is set by Scudder himself, played in the film by Liam Neeson. He is clearly a damaged man; after seeing a play with ‘a lot of brooding intensity’ he comments that ‘It took me through dark passages in the self without troubling to turn the lights on.’ He is self-contained and tries to remain unemotional; he follows the AA principle of taking one day at a time. His drinking destroyed his family life, but in this story he is in an ongoing relationship with a character from a previous book. He lives simply, but in a way that is willingly self-imposed, rather than forced on him. He is an honourable man, in the tradition of Philip Marlowe; he will do dodgy things for good ends. The story is made less confronting by the fact that the drug trafficker, Kenan Khoury, isn’t shown as evil, despite the way he makes his money. In fact he is quite a sympathetic character.

I am assuming, of course, that the plot of the film follows that of the book. This is probably an unwise assumption, as I know that the end of the film is different from the end of the book, though I don’t know how. Somehow I fear the softer edges of the book will have been knocked off in the film.

Given that this book was published in 1992, I wonder why it is only now that it has attracted the attention of the movie moguls. Perhaps it is the title; Block does a good line in titles, with, for example, the two before this one being A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990) and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991). He is an amazingly prolific writer; there are 17 Matthew Scudder novels stretching from 1976 to 2011. In addition he has a series about a bookseller and part-time burglar, which is fun, if a little formulaic, one about a man who never needs to sleep and a whole lot of others, most written under other names. But from what I’ve read, the Matthew Scudder series is the best of them.

Politics 101 . . . again . . .


The current wave of anti-politics is a dead end. Tim Dunlop’s article on The Drum, ‘A ‘lottery’ electoral system could break our malaise,’ is just one example. Dunlop often has something new and interesting to say, but this one leaves me shaking my head. How does he think government actually works?

Dunlop has long taken ‘a pox on both your houses’ view of Australian party politics. In this article he suggests that the problems in our current system warrant consideration of a bi-representative system comprising both allotted and elected members. The ‘allotted’ bit is called ‘sortition’, which is a lottery where political power is given to candidates on the basis of random sampling. Ordinary people are chosen to be part of the process of making laws. Sounds fair? I don’t think so.

OK, let’s go back to Politics 101. The governor general chooses as Prime Minister the person who commands a majority of votes in the House of Representatives. And how do we know who commands a majority in the House? We have elections. Normally, the party that wins the majority of seats is called on to form the government. Occasionally, no party has a majority, so it is the party that attracts enough support from minor parties or independents that they can guarantee passing Supply that forms the government. Seems obvious – though giving the furore about Gillard’s minority government, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The Ministry – the executive – is drawn from the majority party. The legislative program that the government announces is then introduced, and is guaranteed passage in the House (though of course the Senate is another matter). This in the main enables people to get what a majority voted for. It also allows governments to pass legislation that may not be immediately popular, but is in their view good for the country.

Now let’s think about how it would work with a bi-representative system. Let’s assume that parties with more or less coherent policies contest elections for half the seats in the House. You can easily work out which has more seats (assuming an odd number). But what about the other half? They are individuals, each with their own views on a range of questions. Dunlop says his proposal is ‘predicated on a belief in the good sense and good will of the voting public as a whole.’ For the purposes of the argument, I’ll go along with that – though if you’ve handed how-to-vote-cards to as many clueless voters as I have, you might think I’m being over-generous. But with the best will in the world, you can’t tell in advance which way they are going to vote on any proposal. They may be a random sample, but they haven’t agreed to vote for anything in particular. So who forms a government? Perhaps it could be the head of the party that won a majority in the elected half of the seats. Ok, so she introduces a bill for an Emissions Trading Scheme. All her party agree, but not enough of the individuals support it, and the second reading vote is lost on the floor of the House. So does the PM resign? Do we have another election? Ask the leader of the minority of the elected members to form a government? Chaos. Dysfunction. A stupid idea.

In countries where proportional representation delivers a number of small parties in the parliament, leaders spend all their time carefully building up coalitions that even with the best will in the world, and the most high-minded participants, still involve a level of compromise that make the passage of controversial but arguably necessary measures difficult and long term planning impossible. Is this really what we need?  It’s not like we haven’t have examples of non-party parliaments in Australia in the past. And how did they work? ‘Support in return for concessions’ sums it up pretty well. You vote for me and I’ll build you a bridge, or a railway in your electorate.

Of course there are problems with the current two party system. These include, as Dunlop says, politicians being ‘in the pocket of various vested interests’. But why would that be different in his proposed system? Surely the courting of individual politicians would be even easier? What’s needed is surely curbs on the powers of vested interests, the prohibition of campaign contributions and the public funding of electoral campaigns being a good place to start.

Dunlop is also right that the parliamentary membership of the two major political parties is ‘unrepresentative’ – though I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be representative of. Points of view? Social class? Occupation? What most people mean by saying that parties are unrepresentative is that too many parliamentarians come from the ranks of the political operatives of the two parties, without much other experience of the world. This is probably fair comment, and is an issue that the parties should address. It’s tied up with the questions of how far parliamentary seats are the rewards given to factional allies, and how off-putting being part of the internal factional workings of the parties is to people who might otherwise be attracted to politics as career. ‘Politics is an honourable career’, says Gough Whitlam. It can be, but often isn’t when it is the result of factional deals.

Internal party reform to give ordinary members more say, and factional bosses less, is at least being discussed in the Labor Party. And though the progress of change seems slow, the idea of doing away the two party system because internal change isn’t happening fast enough is certainly throwing out the baby with the bath water. It’s hard to join the party and try and do something about it. It’s easier to sit outside a party and criticise. And it’s even easier to dismiss the whole two party system.

What’s behind all this anti-party rhetoric is the argument that the two major parties are the same and as bad as each other. This, frankly, is rubbish. List the achievements of the Rudd/Gillard governments and those of the Abbott government, and tell me they are the same. Sure, there are problems, but to paraphrase Churchill, ‘two-party representative government is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’

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