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School of Hard Knox

Oh dear, the motto of Knox Grammar School is ‘Virgile Agitur’, which translates as ‘Doing the Manly Thing’. As the school is under the spotlight of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse those words take on an ominous ambiguity. The school is one of the privileged bastions of male-only education with righteous Christian overtones and bullying, chauvinistic culture which decorate the firmament of Sydney’s upper classes.

The very English model of these schools flourished in our secular sandy soil. In recent years they attached themselves limpet-like to the public purse, as the aspiring nouveaux riches deserted the honourable public school system. To ensure that the fruits of their loins would prosper in those hothouses of networking and ‘values’ which the parents somehow fail to inculcate themselves.

The Royal Commission is investigating sexual abuse of students by teachers during 1970-2012 (oh yeah!) and a culture of denial and cover-up by headmasters and staff worthy of the Catholic Church (theirs is Uniting). The long-serving headmaster Dr Patterson has admitted his connivance in failing to notify police, nor take any disciplinary action and protecting the school’s reputation above all. The hypocritical righteousness of these superior institutions makes my blood simmer!

The nefarious influence of same-sex schools on society has been canvassed before, and the evidence is accumulating. The headmaster himself is charged with handling the genitals of a visiting 16 year old actress performing in a school play in full view of the male student audience. The headmaster of another elite boys school was previously a Knox housemaster and did not follow up on reported sexual abuse going on under his nose. So to speak.

The lukewarm expression of shock and surprise by Peter Fitzsimons, a Knox Old Boy newspaper columnist who knew nothing of the shenanigans going on there is implausible denial. It only goes to show the misplaced loyalties and tribal indoctrination practised at the school, like others of its GPS ilk. ‘School spirit’ can be translated as Mitläufer, in the language of Goethe! And for a classical allusion, the labours of Hercules would be needed to clean out these augean stables of bad school culture, which always close ranks against the critics and outsiders.

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An Australian batsman is struck by a ball at the base of the skull and dies after a cricket test match. Followed by an amazing outpouring of grief, eulogies, hero worship and memorials of all sorts across the country. Way out of proportion. The incident is described as a ‘freak accident’. Why it was freakish is puzzling. It’s actually freakish that more such accidents don’t occur.

The huge elephant in the cricket change rooms and corridors of power is the modern version of ‘bodyline’, a term used during the 1932-33 test series against England. English fast bowler Harold Larwood targeted Australian batsmen instead of the wicket, which was considered shockingly ungentlemanly, dangerous and unfair play. Just not cricket! These days it’s normal bowling practice for all teams.

In the wake, so to speak, of the recent death, the cricket commentariat were resolutely silent about a glaring, fundamental problem at the heart of the game. Along with administrators and players themselves, an omertà rules: not a word about the danger of hurling a hard ball at speeds up to 160 kph directly at another human being, including his head. The only rule is to make it bounce first and try to ensure he’s in front of the wicket. It’s tantamount to aggravated assault, or worse. The wearing of helmets and other protection, including the ‘box’, for sensitive body parts only underscores the problem. The rules of the sacrosanct game should change, but mentioning it would be apostasy of the highest order.

Add so-called sledging, that is verbally insulting your opponents, preferably with racist taunts, and you have an unsavoury cocktail of super aggressive, negative role model behaviour. The big-money professional sports have refined their games for profit and entertainment so that only vague vestiges of sportsmanship remain. An obsolete, old-fashioned idea that can also be interred.

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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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