Bertie Plays the Blues

This is the second most recent in the 44 Scotland Series by Alexander McCall Smith.


This reviewer finds, in contrast to the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, that these books indulge rather too much in inner speech and philosophising.

I find that this in fact is one if the great delights of 44 Scotland Street, and of Bertie Plays the Blues in particular. The novel ends with a version of this Celtic spiral based on the Book of Kells.


Those interlocked hands symbolise the secular Christianity that is at the heart of McCall Smith’s benignly conservative world view.

But it would be wrong to become cynical,
Would be wrong to dismiss the possibility
Of making bearable the suffering of so many
By acts of love in our own lives…
How foolish I once thought I was
To believe in all this; how warmly
I now return to that earlier belief;
How fervently I hope that it is true,
How fervently I hope that it is so.

That is from a poem by the artist Angus Lordie in the final chapter. Chapter 63, about two-thirds into the novel, is titled “Solastalgia Explained” and is another key aspect of McCall Smith’s world view, one that many of a certain age share in, including myself to a fair degree and others I know to a greater or lesser extent. I really commend pages 241 to 243. I would cut and paste them if I could! On the novel see also Bertie Plays the Blues – Alexander McCall Smith.

The term solastalgia is an Australian coinage!

Solastalgia is a neologism coined by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003 with the first article published on this concept in 2005. It describes a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, such as mining or climate change.

As opposed to nostalgia – the melancholia or homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home – "solastalgia" is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment. A paper published by Albrecht and collaborators focused on two contexts where collaborative research teams found solastalgia to be evident: the experiences of persistent drought in rural New South Wales (NSW) and the impact of large-scale open-cut coal mining on individuals in the Upper Hunter Valley of NSW. In both cases, people exposed to environmental change experienced negative affect that is exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the unfolding change process.

What a useful word. It may be applied to a lot more than the psychological effects of environmental change – as indeed McCall Smith does. I suspect Jim Belshaw will find the idea resonates.

See also Clive Thompson on How the Next Victim of Climate Change Will Be Our Minds (Wired) and Glenn Albrecht, The age of solastalgia.

The built and natural environments are now changing so rapidly that our language and conceptual frameworks have to work overtime just to keep up. Under the intertwined impacts of global development, rising population and global warming, with their accompanying changes in climate and ecosystems, there is now a mismatch between our lived experience of the world, and our ability to conceptualise and comprehend it.

No longer is the “wisdom of the elders” relevant to how we should live in the here and now, and this loss of historically informed knowledge has implications for social cohesion.

I experienced the connections between mental health and changes to a once predictable and loved home-environment when examining the impact of open-cut coal mining in the Upper Hunter region of NSW. My own eco-biography, the seminal influences in my life that have influenced my feelings about the natural environment, had attuned me to the importance of a positive “sense of place” in people’s lives, and to the significance of what the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan called “topophilia”, or the love of place and landscape…


Finished the dvds


From the first sequence, 18 minutes of video clips. This still is of North Wollongong Beach.


And that may be the cover. The whole thing in three sections runs to 90 minutes. Using my raw HD footage led to a 4Gig monster which took three to four hours to “cook” one copy. Practicality has led me to back off HD and downsize to avi files. These look not too bad, even on a big screen, and the sound track doesn’t suffer.

Meanwhile, another self-portrait. BTW, I don’t appear at all in the above vid until right near the end. After all, it’s about what I have seen and heard during the year, rather than about me. The Gong looks even more fantastic and fun-filled than it really is, seeing I removed all the pics of grass growing or paint drying! And you will be pleased to know that views from my window are minimal this time…


And that is really to tell you about the book, which is one of life’s joys at the moment. More about that here later on.

Searchings — 2

There really have been so many things I have seen or read in the past few days that deserve to be shared, that have provoked more reflection than I can possibly capture in one blog post or even two. To continue…

Sunday and Monday we had the two compelling episodes of Devil’s Dust.

An intensely personal drama based on one of Australia’s most shocking corporate scandals, Devil’s Dust tells the story of ordinary Australians caught in a web of deception in the James Hardie asbestos saga.

The two-part series follows four people – led by everyday hero and ex-Hardie’s employee Bernie Banton (Anthony Hayes) – thrown together by a tragedy that becomes a high-stakes battle through the corridors of corporate, political and media power.

Spanning four decades, Devil’s Dust shows industrial manufacturer James Hardie first cover up its knowledge of the dangers of its asbestos mining and products and then threaten compensation plans by moving the company overseas.

But it is not just a story of court cases and corporate legalese. Devil’s Dust depicts Australians from all walks of life whose lives are ripped apart by a deadly dust that looks so innocent, yet is so lethal.

In the 1970s, Bernie Banton works on the James Hardie BI factory floor in Parramatta where asbestos dust is piled like snowdrifts. Little does he realise the impact the dust will have on him, his family and his colleagues – and that he will inspire a nation with his determination to hold his former employer to account.

Young and tenacious ABC journalist Matt Peacock (Ewen Leslie) uncovers the dramatic gap between the dangers of asbestos known to international scientists and the public position of James Hardie and its allies.

When Matt meets Bernie during an interview for The 7.30 Report he anoints him the unofficial spokesperson for the asbestos compensation campaign. As the two become fixated on pursuing James Hardie, it’s up to Bernie’s wife, Karen (Alexandra Schepisi), to pick up the pieces at home. Karen helps Bernie handle the emotional burden of fighting for victims of asbestosis and mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos – and to face his own asbestos fate.

The fictional character of James Hardie spin doctor Adam Bourke (Don Hany) is Matt and Bernie’s nemesis, as he works hard to protect the interests of the company’s shareholders. But far from being ruthless and uncaring, Adam experiences terrible moral dilemmas when he realises that the health and survival of thousands of Australians is jeopardised by the materials his company manufactured.

Based on interviews with those who have survived and the stories of those who have died, Devil’s Dust is inspired by the work of Matt Peacock, author of the book Killer Company.

The legacy of asbestos will continue for decades to come. By 2030, asbestos-related illnesses are expected to have killed more than 60,000 Australians, more than our country’s death toll in WW1.

Remember one of Tony Abbott’s less noble moments, from 2007?

Still putting his size 10s in his cakehole in 2012, I see…

That the events depicted dramatically but essentially truthfully in Devil’s Dust should serve to destroy any naive belief in the intrinsic goodness of capitalists, entrepreneurs  and markets is so obvious as to be hardly worth saying, and on an even greater scale consider the book I am now reading: Inside Job: The Financiers Who Pulled Off the Heist of the Century, by Charles Ferguson, Oneworld 2012. Thanks, Wollongong Library.

Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, winner of the 2011 Academy Award for best documentary feature, is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the causes of the financial crisis. Although narrator Matt Damon brought Hollywood glitz, the film’s stars were the bankers, regulators and academics interviewed by Ferguson. The director’s gentle interrogation and good humour coaxed his subjects into attempting to explain their actions. Most failed. Like all good political documentaries, it informed and infuriated, while the creator remained in the background….

So begins a rather critical review in The Financial Times, linked to the book title above. As for me, I am thus far drawn in and impressed by Ferguson’s narrative, and by his anger which strikes me as well justified and rooted rather firmly in facts.


See also Inside Job: how bankers caused the financial crisis; Corporate criminals gone wild by Andrew Leonard; Heist of the century: Wall Street’s role in the financial crisis, an extract from the book.

…The Obama government has rationalised its failure to prosecute anyone (literally, anyone at all) for bubble-related crimes by saying that while much of Wall Street’s behaviour was unwise or unethical, it wasn’t illegal. With apologies for my vulgarity, this is complete horseshit.

When the government is really serious about something – preventing another 9/11, or pursuing major organised crime figures – it has many tools at its disposal and often uses them. There are wiretaps and electronic eavesdropping. There are undercover agents who pretend to be criminals in order to entrap their targets. There are National Security Letters, an aggressive form of administrative subpoena that allows US authorities to secretly obtain almost any electronic record – complete with a gag order making it illegal for the target of the subpoena to tell anyone about it. There are special prosecutors, task forces and grand juries. When Patty Hearst was kidnapped in 1974, the FBI assigned hundreds of agents to the case.

In organised crime investigations, the FBI and government prosecutors often start at the bottom in order to get to the top. They use the well-established technique of nailing lower-level people and then offering them a deal if they inform on and/or testify about their superiors – whereupon the FBI nails their superiors, and does the same thing to them, until climbing to the top of the tree. There is also the technique of nailing people for what can be proven against them, even if it’s not the main offence. Al Capone was never convicted of bootlegging, large-scale corruption or murder; he was convicted of tax evasion.

A reasonable list of prosecutable crimes committed during the bubble, the crisis, and the aftermath period by financial services firms includes: securities fraud, accounting fraud, honest services violations, bribery, perjury and making false statements to US government investigators, Sarbanes-Oxley violations (false accounting), Rico (Racketeer Influenced and Criminal Organisations Act) offences, federal aid disclosure regulations offences and personal conduct offences (drug use, tax evasion etc).

Let’s take the example of securities fraud. Where to begin?…

The Cartographer– Peter Twohig 2012


Linked to book web site.

QI – for Quite Intriguing. It is set in 1959, a year I remember well, but in Richmond and Melbourne with which I am less familiar – though I did know Sydney’s Surry Hills (shades of Ruth Park) at that time. Much in Peter Twohig’s highly imaginative recreation I found chimed well with my memory, though the presence still of World War 2 less so, even if it still astounds me that the war, during which I was born, really was still so close then.


Anzac drainage tunnel flowing into the Yarra with Melbourne Boy’s High School in the background.

This features in The Cartographer. You may care to click on the image to find out what the tunnels really were about!

An eleven-year-old boy witnesses a violent crime. Just one year before, he looked on helplessly as his identical twin died a violently. His determination that he himself is the link changes his life.

The Cartographer is a captivating novel about a tragic figure in a dark place. The nameless child who tells the story handles the terrors of his life by adopting the strengths of fictional pop culture characters he admires, drawing on comics, radio and television dramas, and movies, finally recreating himself as a superhero who saves himself by mapping, and who attempts to redeem himself by giving up his persona so that another may live again. His only mentors are a professional standover man, his shady grandfather, and an incongruous neighbourhood couple who intervene in an oddly coincidental way. 

In the dark, dangerous lanes and underground drains of grimy 1959 Melbourne, The Cartographer is a story bristling with outrageous wit and irony about an innocent who refuses to give in, a story peopled with a richness of shifty, dodgy and downright malicious bastards, mixed with a modicum of pseudo-aunts, astonishing super heroes, and a few coincidentally loving characters, some of whom are found in the most unlikely places.

See also Announcing: The Cartographer! and How to tell lies from Peter Twohig’s excellent writer’s blog.

Fiction writers are a bunch of liars. I don’t care how well you know them, which monastery they live in, which brand of polygraph they routinely flatline. Those people lie in their teeth. And what’s more, they’re damned good at it. Otherwise, you’d be reading their stories and saying to yourself with each turn of the page, ‘Oh my god, does she expect me to believe this drivel?’

Let me tell you something about the author: she doesn’t have to expect you to swallow it: she knows you will. She knows that you want to believe, that you want to be lied to. That you want to be conned — make that lulled. She knows you because she remembers all the times she allowed some author to enchant her. And how she didn’t want it to stop.

I could have danced all night,

I could have danced all night,

And still have asked for more

And so on.

Just occasionally, in my opinion, The Cartographer goes just that bit too far over the top…. But did I enjoy it? Sure did. And is there a hell of a lot of truth in its lies? Sure is! And the language is generally spot on.

See Patricia Maunder in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Indeed, The Cartographer is a genuinely dark tale at times. Richmond was a dangerous and depressed part of town when Twohig grew up there in the 1950s and ’60s, so placing his child protagonist in the thick of it sometimes reads like a cathartic nightmare. Yet this book oozes gentle humour, particularly through colourful, vintage turns of phrase and the boy’s observations of the adult world, which are either amusingly naive or hilariously on the money. It can also be a disarmingly poignant story.

The Cartographer is a remarkable first novel whose vivid descriptions, original, engaging voice and surprising hero-in-the-rough draws the reader into a labyrinth of danger and discovery.

Back then but in The Gong

This lovely shot appeared in the historical feature in today’s Illawarra Mercury.


Yes, a C32 – remember them well – passing by Clifton in 1960. Note the Holden. Train travel was quite an adventure still in those days. Sitting in a train like that reading Sherlock Holmes went down rather well.

Weather and readings and possibly half-baked ideas…

In other words, welcome to a typical blog entry.

Currently I am reading:


… which links to the very clever accompanying website. The Guardian review:

Opening Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of TS Spivet brings to mind that useful old instruction of Mark Twain: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." Larsen wants to transport his reader to something like the world of Huck Finn, that place of adventure where adult codes are suspended. To this end, he places us in the head of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (TS for short), a 12-year-old prodigy with a compulsion to make maps of the world in order better to understand it.

Spivet lives on Coppertop Ranch in the wilds of Montana and it quickly becomes clear that the cartography he is interested in is not the stuff of the Ordnance Survey. His co-ordinates are all over the place: he maps the flight paths of bats around his house, the dynamics of his sister shucking corn cobs, the spread of McDonald’s in northern Montana, the rising waters of the local lake, which he believes is set to inundate the town. Many of these maps illustrate the margins of his story, along with all sorts of other digressions and diagrams.

The result is a wilfully original and diverting book, full of carefully penned ephemera, a bit like Schott’s Miscellany written as a confessional novel. In design, it appeals to the same contemporary nostalgia for the niceties of between-the-war text books and all things Baden-Powell. There is, of course, a reason for Spivet’s mapping….

I did have two difficulties with it. The first, slightly unfair one, is that if you take away the brilliant typography and illustration, the story clunks, particularly toward the end. The second is that at no point did I feel that this was at any stretch the voice of a 12-year-old boy. Even the New Yorker’s resident outlier Malcolm Gladwell wouldn’t have sounded like this at 12: "Last year, I did an illustration for an article in Science magazine about a new technology at ATMs and automated kiosks that registered not just the tone of the customer’s voice but also his or her facial expressions."

Much of the wit of the book arises from this disjunction, as in the moment when Spivet is faced with a rattlesnake and falls into an existential reverie: "Was there an acknowledgement – beneath the assigned roles of fear, predation, territoriality – of our shared sentience? A part of me wanted to reach out to the rattlesnake and shake his invisible hand." But it also courts a deadening kind of irritation. In one chapter, Spivet anatomises, rather riskily, the "five different kinds of boredom": from "anticipatory boredom" (where the looming presence of something in the near future prevents you from being able to concentrate on anything) to "let-down boredom" (where an event or activity is expected to be a certain way only for it to turn out differently)….

I have just passed the rattlesnake incident.

The October Monthly is out. I am drawn by quite a bit there — Linda Jaivin, Waleed Aly, Paul Kelly…

And Mungo MacCallum being very sensible:

In ‘Junk Politics’, Mungo MacCallum laments the cult of character, which has seen personal attacks and gossip supplant debate over substance and, heaven forfend, the merits of actual policies. In the wake of the wall-punching allegations against Abbott, MacCallum searches for the genesis of this fixation and finds both sides of politics culpable.

Then there is Marcia Langton, to whose views I am rather inclined, unfashionable as that might be. A few years ago she wrote:

IT SEEMS ALMOST axiomatic to most Australians that Aborigines should be marginalised: poor, sick, and forever on the verge of extinction. At the heart of this idea is a belief in the inevitability of our incapability – the acceptance of our ‘descent into hell’. This is part of the cultural and political wrong-headedness that dominates thinking about the role of Aboriginal property rights and economic behaviour in the transition from settler colonialism to modernity.

In this mindset, the potential of an economically empowered, free-thinking, free-speaking Aborigine has been set to one side because it is more interesting to play with the warm, cuddly cultural Aborigine – the one who is so demoralised that the only available role is as a passive player. The dominance of the ‘reconciliation and justice’ rhetoric in the Australian discourse on Aboriginal issues is a part of this.

The first Australians are simply seeking relief from poverty and economic exclusion. Yet, in the last three decades, rational thinking and sound theory (such as development economics) to address the needs of Indigenous societies have been side-tracked into the intellectual dead-end of the ‘culture wars’. This has had very little to do with Aboriginal people, but everything to do with white settlers positioning themselves around the central problem of their country: can a settler nation be honourable? Can history be recruited to the cause of Australian nationalism without reaching agreement with its first peoples?

Paradoxically, even while Aboriginal misery dominates the national media frenzy – the perpetual Aboriginal reality show – the first peoples exist as virtual beings without power or efficacy in the national zeitgeist. Political characters played by ‘Aboriginal leaders’ pull the levers that draw settler Australians to them in a co-dependent relationship. The rhetoric of reconciliation is a powerful drawcard – like the bearded woman at the old sideshow. It is a seductive, pornographic idea, designed for punters accustomed to viewing Aborigines as freaks. It almost allows ‘the native’ some agency and a future. I say ‘almost’ because, in the end, ‘the native’ is not allowed out of the show, forever condemned to perform to attract crowds. The debate that has surrounded the Emergency Intervention has been instructive. It has exposed this co-dependency. It has also revealed a more disturbing, less well-understood fault-line in the Aboriginal world. The co-dependents in the relationship seek to speak for the abused, the suffering, the ill, the dying and those desperately in need who have been left alone to descend into a living hell while those far removed conduct a discourse on rights and culture.

The bodies that have piled up over the last thirty years have become irrelevant, except where they serve the purposes of the ‘culture war’. But in the meantime, the bodies of real people continue to pile up, human lives broken on the wheel of suffering. How much longer will this abuse of Aboriginal people be tolerated?

In the October Monthly she writes about the recent Northern Territory election.

In the recent Northern Territory election, Barbara Shaw was the Greens candidate for Braitling, one of the electorates in Alice Springs. She is Aboriginal and strongly opposed to the Northern Territory intervention.

To southerners, this may well seem a natural arrangement. Shaw won friends on the east coast by helping to contest Jenny Macklin’s housing intervention in the Federal Court, and thus stopped the building of houses in the Alice Springs town camps for several years on the grounds that residents had not been properly consulted. Shaw’s activism also saw her play a role in the Australia Day melee in Canberra earlier this year.

Her efforts did not go unnoticed in Alice Springs. On 25 August, Shaw received just 9% of the vote. The swing against the Greens in Braitling was almost 6%. Territory-wide, the Country Liberal Party (CLP) gained 56% of the two-party preferred vote, enough to win 16 of the legislative assembly’s 25 seats.

Few commentators picked the conservatives’ victory…

But the most significant factor was the Aboriginal body politic itself. Strong local leaders have worked hard to bring economic development to indigenous communities where welfare has turned residents into perpetual mendicants reliant on the state. Time and again, native title groups have spent years getting an agreement with a resource company over the line, negotiating income streams that might shift indigenous people from the margins to the centre of regional economic development in return for land access, only for a ragtag team of ‘wilderness’ campaigners to turn up with an entourage of disaffected Aboriginal protesters to stop development at the eleventh hour.

While the federal Labor government likes to feign shock at the more flaky antics of its coalition partner, Aboriginal people have known for years that the Greens are no good in bed. Their notions of economic development in remote Australia, which chiefly involve employing Aboriginal people as wilderness caretakers, are inspired by children’s books and anarchist tracts. As I’ve been saying for 20 years, this concept of wilderness is nothing but a new incarnation of terra nullius. With luck, the NT election represents a tipping point. The time of dismissing Aboriginal aspirations for economic development is over.

You know, she just could be right.

Meanwhile, with a kind of relevance to the above, but not necessarily endorsing anything I have said so far, visit Redfern and South Sydney via the October South Sydney Herald (PDF). It is worth it.

This issue of the SSH includes a feature on the Schizophrenia Fellowship NSW, which emphasises the importance of supported in-community care. Peter Maher’s faith column on sexual abuse by clergy, and the aftermath for the mental health of victims, is harrowing and essential reading…

Which brings me to the weather, as here in The Gong we are already into 30C+ and it is just October! El Nino is back, it appears.

The past week has provided a pretty good preview of the long, hot summer in store.

Temperatures soared into the thirties, with Albion Park recording the highest temperatures in the region of 31.6 degrees yesterday, and 31.2 degrees on Wednesday. The southern suburb also hit a top of 33.7 degrees last Friday.

Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Jane Golding said October is usually the month when we start to see some warmer weather on the east coast, and this year didn’t disappoint.

"We’re still getting westerly winds coming across the ranges which are dragging the warmer air from inland Australia," Ms Golding said.

Temperatures were expected to stay pretty warm last night – at 18 degrees, which is five degrees above average – but things should start to cool down today.

"A change will be coming through the Illawarra during the middle of the day, with a south to south-easterly change keeping temperatures a couple of degrees cooler, in the high 20s," she said.

"That cool change will remain throughout the weekend and there’s a chance of showers on Saturday, which may develop into thunderstorms later in the day.

"However, the warming trend is set to return mid-to-late next week".

Meanwhile the State Emergency Service (SES) has warned NSW residents to brace themselves for a slew of fierce summer hail storms.

More than 50 severe storms are predicted to hit the state’s east over the coming months, with some of them likely to be as damaging as Sydney’s eastern suburbs hailstorm of 1999.

Hail stones as large as cricket balls caused more than $1.5 billion of damage during the intense, long-lived thunderstorm.


Yesterday in West Wollongong – hot


Robert Hughes “Things I Didn’t Know”–an autobiography

I loved it, enjoyed it in fact more than I did The Fatal Shore. It is monumentally digressive, but I really didn’t mind those journeys – and they are relevant to the man/the voice that emerges so strongly. It seems there was to be a sequel, but that won’t be now, of course. And maybe it’s a generational thing – Hughes was born just five years before me – but I rather agree with what he has to say about the hippies and the 60s.


A wartime childhood.

This review is a really good starting point.

‘Of course I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense’, asserts Hughes in characteristically combative style:

I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness.  I love the spectacle of skill … I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. … Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights.  I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this.  I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today.

So begins a memoir in which Hughes’ prime objective is to explore the extent to which his Australianness is the most important thing about him, or only one attribute in an evolving life.  He begins with his elite origins, the grandson of the first lord mayor of Sydney, and the son of a successful lawyer and war hero.  His older brother was a lawyer who went on to be Attorney-General. Growing up in the Sydney of the 1940s and 1950s the young Hughes did not ‘talk Australian’ and was singled out as a ‘pom’ by bullies at the tough Jesuit boarding school he attended. Coming to terms with the strict Catholicism and conservatism of his upbringing is another theme that recurs throughout the book…

…a chapter on London in the sixties which is both entertaining for Hughes’ usually disparaging  thumbnail portraits of leading lights of the underground (Timothy Leary was ‘a coarse, middle-aged Irish whiskey priest’; Jerry Rubin ‘a semi-educated liar with invincible self-esteem, the attention span of a flea, and a disgustingly inflated ego to match’) and disturbing for his account of the disaster of his first marriage to a woman he portrays as emotionally out of control and self-obsessed, who apparently slept with just about every counterculture icon in London at the time.  She was so promiscuous that Hughes believes that Eldridge Cleaver was one of the ‘few male radical celebs with whom, in 1968 and ’69, she had not had sex’.  The role call included Jimi Hendrix,  from whom as a consequence Hughes acquired a case of the clap. ‘I was a cuckold going cuckoo’, he laments, describing at one point how he comforted his wife after her return to their home and young child from one of her regular debauches.  Stroking her hair, he encountered ‘a crusty patch of some stranger’s dried semen’…

Following reviewers through Google I came upon this:

… his first wife, Danne, a hippy dingbat to whom he injudiciously hooked himself during the Sixties. She was, he announces, a ‘white witch’ and living with her was like cohabiting with ‘a deranged alley cat’. Luckily, Danne cannot sue: having converted to lesbianism, she died – grossly overweight, as Hughes ungallantly notes – in 2003. Their only child, a son called Danton, had ‘gassed himself with carbon monoxide from his car in his far older lover’s house’ the year before.

That is all Hughes says about this particular loss, which must have been tragic and tormenting, and the obliquity reveals a blind spot in his character and in his book. He is confessional, having been trained to blurt out his squalid carnal misdemeanours to a priest, but he is rarely confidential. After he has vented his grievance against ingrate Australia, his memoir becomes frustratingly impersonal. He snarls at poseurs like Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons, whom he has often lambasted before; he fills reams of paper with essays on Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca that read like extracts salvaged from books he never wrote; he doggedly retraverses his early Italian travels and limply describes Porto Ercole as ‘a huge living postcard’.

A memoir, however, should be more than an anthology of anecdotes or a digest of rankling grudges. ‘Know thyself’, the command of the Delphic oracle, is the autobiographer’s injunction. That self may be one of the very few things that the polymathic, uproariously eloquent Hughes does not know.


Much to be preferred is Christopher Hitchens:

…And this is why I stress Hughes’s addiction to understatement. He describes the utter boredom and pointlessness of much of the crash-pad-and-hash life into which he plunged, and it is only his attempt to make light of the experience that shoves it into a piercingly sharp relief. Many people had narrow escapes from the Sixties, when relationships could be dropped and picked up as quickly as callow opinions or tabs of acid, but it was Hughes’s bad luck to form a kind of matrimony with a true drifter and dilettante (and evident sack-artist) who once gave him the very pox that she had caught from Jimi Hendrix. That could be a funny story at some remove: What makes it unfunny is her preference for hard drugs and needles over their only son, Danton Vidal Hughes. This boy later committed suicide. Hughes mentions the death almost as gruffly–and as briefly–as did Kipling in noting the passing of "my boy Jack" in Something of Myself.


See also: Geoff Dyer, Aussie Brawler (NY TImes); Craig Sherborne, Some Things We Don’t Yet Know: Robert Hughes’s "Things I Didn’t Know"; Peter Craven, Time’s Arrow: An interview with Robert Hughes; Tim Flannery, The Naked Critic: Memories of Robert Hughes; and Fatal Shore author Robert Hughes dies at 74.


Now I am going to look for Barcelona (2001), Goya (2004) and Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History (2011) in Wollongong Library!

Catch-ups and inspirations

To the Library yesterday as my card needed renewing. All the biographies and autobiographies have been gathered in one place since I was last there, regardless of place of origin or subject. I picked up three:


1. Raymond Gaita, Romulus My Father (1999). Despite this having been on the HSC, I hadn’t actually read it.

2. Joan Didion, Blue Nights (2011).

…an account of the death, in 2005, of her and Dunne’s adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, and more specifically, of Didion’s struggle, as a mother and a writer, to cope with this second assault upon her emotional and, indeed, physical resources. The new book, no less than its predecessor, is honest, unflinching, necessarily solipsistic and, in the way of these things, self-lacerating: Did she do her duty by her daughter, did she nurture her, protect her, care for her, as a mother should? Did she, in a word, love her enough? These are the kinds of questions a survivor — the relict, as the old word has it — will put to herself, cannot avoid putting to herself; questions all the more terrible in that there is no possibility of finding an answer to them. As Didion says, “What is lost is already behind the locked doors.”

3. Robert Hughes, Things I Didn’t Know (2006).  Now that one I sat down with at Diggers over lunch and am now well into.


More on them later.

It does seem appropriate, however, to be reading the Robert Hughes at last beginning on the day of the memorial service in Sydney. See also Malcolm Turnbull’s brilliant eulogy in Parliament: Occasionally a speech rises above all around it…. The first couple of chapters certainly encourage me to go on.

Tonight either the Rabbitohs or the Bulldogs will be rejoicing. Actually, whatever the outcome the Rabbitohs can well rejoice.  I also hope that the energies of many of those in Sydney who seem to desire a repeat of last Saturday in the non-sporting arena will focus on something far more sensible – that is, the decision of which team fronts Melbourne for the Grand Final. I am sure Allah knows, but let’s see how it pans out. Some things are far more important than stirring the pot on behalf of haters or the excessively righteous…*

So in that context a story that matters even more, in my scale of values.


Saad and Faisal Habib have faced many difficulties in their young lives but just weeks after arriving in Australia they are well on their way to mastering four languages.

The brothers, aged 16 and 14, were born profoundly deaf and have faced many communication and language barriers in their home country of Pakistan.

For the next five months they will live in Wollongong while their father, Ullah, studies at the University of Wollongong.

Just four weeks after starting at Wollongong High School of the Performing Arts’ deaf support unit, the boys can now speak basic English and Australian sign language (Auslan), as well as their local Urdu and Pakistani sign languages.

Support unit English teacher Fiona Sampson said Saad and Faisal had learned two new languages in an impressively short time.

"In just two short weeks they improved their grasp of written English and grasped the basic level of Auslan," she said.

"This is an amazing feat for boys whose start in life has been hampered with communication and language difficulties."…

Good on you, boys, and all honour too to those brilliant NSW state school teachers, all of them but especially those supporting students with disabilities and teachers of English as a Second Language. Neither the Australian nor the NSW governments really seem to appreciate what gold they are working with and squandering on ill-informed or pusillanimous policy decisions.

* Sunday

The Rabbitohs lost, the city won! All was quiet. Smile