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‘Amnesia’

Peter Carey’s new book is a curious tale of young cyberattack heroes with backgrounds in the early days of computer culture in Melbourne. He wraps it around the dramatic political events of 1975 in Australia and the idea of CIA impetus in the downfall of the Whitlam government. The story unfolds retrospectively from a disabling intrusion into the networks of a US provider of prison services in present day Australia.

The cipher for the story-telling is the heroic but ill-fated leftist journalist Felix, who reconstructs ’heroine’ Gaby and her actress mother Celine’s lives from recorded tapes of their memoirs. An unconvincing literary device. The portrayal of activist and Labor party circles rings true, and the ‘love story’ of Gaby and her best friend co-conspirator is cute enough.The action rolls along through the gritty backdrop of inner Melbourne and the Hawkesbury River.

With flagging interest as the story becomes more surreal, although entertained in parts I was finally unfulfilled. As always with Carey, it brims with exaggeration and over-blown characters bordering on the caricatural. I found ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ rather indigestible too. Maybe his style just doesn’t suit me. As Margaret and David might say: I give ‘Amnesia’ three stars.

Thanks are due to neighbour Rob for lending me his fresh new copy of ‘Amnesia’, which I won’t forget to return, ha! Let’s see how the book prize judges handle it and whether Carey’s latest razzle-dazzle impresses them again. I must confess that I also didn’t really get the significance of the title.

Lucky Ludwig

Explorer extraordinaire Ludwig Leichhardt had lots of luck throughout his short life, but he pushed the limits so hard that it finally gave out in 1848 when his expedition disappeared into the Australian interior, never to be found. He lived his dream and his life story is a most extraordinary adventure. He died way too young, at thirty four, and the world was deprived of a superb intellect and polymath.

John Bailey’s terrific book (published in 2011) about him is titled ‘Into The Unknown, The tormented life and expeditions of Ludwig Leichhardt’. As he did with the life of John Macdouall Stuart, another of the great white explorers of early 19th century Australia (‘Mr Stuart’s Track’), Bailey gives a fascinating portrait of another incredibly courageous and obstinate personality.

Ludwig’s early life in Prussia, prodigious interests in all the sciences, mastery of languages, his friendship with John Nicholson (& his brother William who sponsor him) and travels together by foot across Europe, are the prelude to Ludwig setting off to Australia with a burning ambition to unveil the secrets of it’s unknown interior. Aboard ship he uses his amateur medical knowledge to successfully treat fellow passengers who refer to him as ‘doctor’ and the moniker sticks.

The heroic expedition of 1844 was to make Leichhardt a major ‘celebrity’. After enduring incredible deprivation during fourteen months of their inland journey from the Darling Downs the skeleton-like expeditioners finally arrive in Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula of far northern Australia. Long since assumed dead, with press obituaries, back in Sydney Leichhardt is feted as Prince of Explorers.

Bailey quotes generously from Ludwig’s diaries and letters and so we hear the voice of this solitary and driven character, whose only focus was the pursuit of scientific knowledge, even collecting plant and animal specimens while struggling to survive in the harshest conditions. Museums here have over 5000 herbaceous sheets prepared by Leichhardt, only a fraction of his collecting. He identified over 200 plant species unknown to botany.

Bailey says Leichhardt has been honoured in Australia like few others: ‘Named after him are streets, a parliamentary electorate, a river, a gorge, a range, numerous plants, a tree, a grasshopper, a fish, birds, hotels and a football stadium. Plays, books, poems, songs and even an opera have been written about him’. And a municipality in Sydney. Patrick White of course based ‘Voss’ on Ludwig. Reading this book is a tiny tribute to this remarkable man who so captured our collective Australian imagination of yore

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Richard Flanagan is an admirable fellow because of his generosity and outspoken progressive political views. His latest and prize-winning novel draws on his father’s experience as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in WW2. Along with thousands of other allied POWs he toiled as a slave labourer under atrocious conditions in the Thai jungle on the infamous Burma railway construction.

The central character Dorrigo Evans resembles Weary Dunlop, legendary leader of POWs who rallied his men and cared for them medically as best he could under the deprivation and torture inflicted by the Japanese army. It is also a love story, with two women, Amy and Ella, intertwined in the war narrative. The social mores and attitudes of 1940s Australia are well drawn.

The book’s title is a translation of a famous haiku poem, and Flanagan portrays the mindset and Emperor worship of the Japanese officers and guards, and their despised Korean underlings. In omniscient author mode he gets into all their heads, which is interesting enough. Eventually though I was shell-shocked by all the gruesome cruelty and exhausted by the intensive psychological and philosophical outpourings of all the characters involved. I’m not sure it all hangs together properly either.

Flanagan spent twelve years on this oeuvre ensconced in his Bruny Island cabin, and had three separate stories which he eventually combined into one. Unfortunately the result is not seamless, and occasionally the cracks show with some overlapping and repetition, for example the description of a hotel room where he used to meet his amour.

Like Tim Winton, Flanagan seems over-indulged by his editor, who could’ve taken the scalpel to some over-florid passages and over-long narrative. Or maybe the two lionised authors don’t brook any interference? The story would’ve been sharper with less. I felt somewhat bludgeoned by it.

The use of coincidence (or fate?) was unconvincing too, such as Dorrigo walking past Amy on the Harbour Bridge, and the surprise of discovering Darky’s true father. Moreover Aussies didn’t say ‘I’m good’ in 1942, 707s did not fly to Hobart, and writing of ‘things’ to mean qualities or concepts is just poor English (p.331). OK there’s some homework for other nitpickers.

Narrow Road won the prestigious Man Booker for 2014, and recently the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, which was more controversial. Flanagan shared the fiction award with Steven Carroll, and promptly gave his $40K to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation – a fine gesture.

However one of the judges, poet Les Murray, complained that the panel recommended only Carroll. Reports say that the PM intervened. “A clear majority of us thought the Flanagan book was superficial, showy and pretentious, and we disdained it. Something happened behind the scenes. I don’t know who pulled the strings but the decision we delivered was without strings”.

For a detailed critical review check this in the London Review of Books.

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Bad Oysters

Nah, I don’t eat ‘em, never have, and don’t get the gourmandise associated with these slimy concoctions of marine life. Unfortunately they colonise the littoral zones of the Wide Brown Land and abroad (lovely word, redolent of a bygone era when the colonies indeed knew their place), waiting silently for clumsy fools to submit to open-foot surgery on their scalpel-like shells. Dastardly molluscs!

Such was the fate of your KC culture correspondent while clambering around in bare feet trying to go fishing. Such hubris! Hence several weeks of enforced immobilisation ensued and an intensive reading program, the fruits of which are shared in these book reviews, with more to follow. And KC resurges from a somnambulant hiatus. Oh yeah.

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Things He Didn’t Know

Robert Hughes, the renowned expat Australian art critic, writer & broadcaster, published this autobiographical memoir in 2006, no doubt unaware that he would only live another six years. It’s called ‘Things I Didn’t Know’ and strangely we don’t find out what they are. He certainly didn’t know that he would be savaged by the Aussie meejah after a near fatal car accident on an outback WA highway in 1999, due to his expat tall poppy status.

The story of his life is interspersed with reflections on the greats of Western art, and ascerbic commentary on his contemporaries in the 60s counter & mainstream cultural scenes. For example, the painter Albert Tucker was a bore with an ego the size of Uluru, whose paintings become increasingly repititious. The clunky try-hard Orstralian metaphors employed by Hughes make one smile. He knew everybody in the Australian art firmament: Nolan, Olsen, Donald Friend, Fairweather and others. Friends or otherwise.

Hughes’ great-grandfather John was such a pious catholic that he imported the Sisters of the Sacred Heart to Sydney and gave them an estate at Elizabeth Bay. Later he also gifted them his waterfront domain at Rose Bay called Kincoppal, to help them further the education of young women. Robert says that the nuns devastated the family fortunes rather as the imported rabbit had done to graziers.

His privileged upbringing included the Jesuit boarding school Riverview with its full-on  indoctrination of the 1950s, which is portrayed in uncanny detail. Hughes managed to recover from it, but no doubt all that God-bothering helped him later to appreciate Italian art with such passion.

After an apprenticeship as newspaper art critic in Sydney he goes off to Italy at the invitation of his mentor Alan Moorehead and so begins that Italian art love affair. Eventually he re-locates to England and gets newspaper work in Fleet Street. Unfortunately the story ends not longer after he cracks the big job as art critic at Time magazine in New York under Henry Luce.

Hughes must have kept a detailed diary because the memoir is chocka with thoughts, impressions and anecdotes. A rollicking good read, as they say.

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Petering Out?

Reader interest in the dearth and death of Sir Peters calls for analysis of the obvious corollary of a dwindling supply of Peters generally. No, not coronary, although that could well be a primary cause of their disappearance.

In fact, given the advanced age of the Peter population, heart disease may have dealt with many of them. Think of any Peters you know personally: most are sixty plus, with a few in their fifties, and my forty year old son-in-law. Co-founder of Paypal Peter Thiel is aged 43. Seriously, there are no Peters in their 20s or 30s or younger. Except Europe’s Youngest Stunt Rider.

The name of Jesus’ favourite apostle doesn’t even appear in the Top 100 Boy Names List for 2013. What’s happening, people? Even Elliott gets a mention along with Carson (are you kidding: son of car?) and Eli. Aiden is in second spot, after eight years as number one! It’s not even spelt correctly: the place is called Aden. Exclamation marks galore.

It’s all over for the Peters, bar the shouting. Which means you all shouting drinks for us remaining Peters until we sail off into the sunset. A precious diminishing resource to be enjoyed while we last. Imagine a world without Peters. At least my grandson has it for his middle name. Maybe the music group ‘Peter, Bjorn & John’ may lead to a resurgence of Peter babies, but it’s not looking good at this stage.

The race is on to become the last one standing. My SIL is short odds. No need to run Blue Peter up the flagpole yet though, as there’s no sunset sailing here. By the way, Blue Peter is the world’s longest-running children’s TV show, in Britain since 1958. See how we last? But what will happen to the Peter principle? So many questions still unanswered.

 

Blue Peter fair wind

 

Zeitungsbeschwererkissen

Modern First World living is fraught with really annoying problems. Out Kookynie way we spend plenty of time on the front verandah, trying to digest an array of old-technology newspapers with our daily bread. Sometimes though the desert wind suddenly gets up and starts blowing pages all over the joint. And we have to scurry around retrieving them and fitting ‘em back together. Imagine how annoying that can be.

So we briefed researchers at KLOTU (Kookynie Lo-Tech University), who have been collaborating with the prestigious Deutscher Werkbund to bring the finest German design traditions to bear on the problem. The year-long project has resulted in the simplicity of this subtle application of a classic object, with exact proportions and weight for easy handling.

To capitalise on consumer perceptions of German quality design the new device is called Zeitungsbeschwererkissen (ZBK) or newspaper-weighing-down-pillow. Local fashion designer Akira completed the collaboration trifecta with a stunning pale red fabric representing the faded earth around Kookynie.

Every First World resident with a verandah or backyard is gunna love this baby. And with such a cool brand name it’ll go off, big time: move over Hugo Boss. You can facebook-like it, as it’s going viral and global! Firstly though we’re tackling the Kookynie market with a 2-for-one offer for those households with his and hers newspaper piles. Or hers and hers

And of course when the last printed newspaper rolls off the presses and digital reigns supreme, the ZedBeeKay will painlessly revert to its classic slim pillow function full-time. The opposite of inbuilt obsolescence.

Wind pillow

 

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