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(French, present participle of revenir, to return – when used in English curiously it is more dramatic, from the dead, like the recent film or book.)

Ok, you’ve been afraid to ask, why has the strident voice from Kookynie been quelled since this time last year. Rumours that KC was bought out by Murdoch almost came true as we were very willing to sell out for a small consideration, but negotiations fell over when Rupert insisted we go quiet on his Jerry Hall liaison. I wonder what fine qualities he has to keep pulling these babes, huh?

Nah, we’ve been too busy realising the Great Orstralian Dream out here in the back of beyond. With no shortage of deserted blocks to snap up, we decided to DIY a new shack, thus expanding Kookynie’s housing stock by about 25%. So it’s done, home beautiful is extant. We’re here for the long-haul, mate, not speculation, unless of course a property developer offers a motza. Have a gander below and swing by when you’re next heading north from Coolgardie.

So time now for keeping you abreast of the latest wonderings, which brings us inevitably to today’s sacred rendez-vous with history, and the temptation to recycle last year’s Anzac Day diatribe. But I’ll resist it, and simply mention ‘Unnecessary Wars’ by Henry Reynolds, just released, which traces Australia’s ignominious tradition of uncritically joining in faraway imperialist or neo-colonial wars at the behest of our great and trusted allies. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s bound to add more grist to my over-full mill of anti-war resentment and resistance.

So instead of wallowing in the faux sentimentality and over-wrought nationalism of ‘remembrance’, I recommend that we do ourselves and future soldier generations a service, by reading Henry’s book. And think about what was actually achieved in those foreign lands where our boys made the supreme sacrifice. Yeah, that was think, not feel.

Have a trawl through KC’s archives on our most recent war in Afghanistan. Objective conclusions about Australia’s involvement are rarely discussed, and the lack of debate when we commit to war perplexing indeed. Henry may help to elucidate these blind-spots in the national psyche and political DNA.

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As governments gather metadata on our internet communications and try to force journalists to divulge their sources, in the name of a ubiquitous and open-ended war on terror, it’s apposite to read about an early champion of freedom of the press in Regency England.

The title refers to an interesting book by Ben Wilson about William Hone, whose name has slipped from memory, but who deserves to be better known for his unsung legacy of fighting hard for freedom of speech and the press. Charles Dickens was a friend and admirer of Hone, and attended his funeral.

William honed (sorry, irresistible!) his skills as a satirist in conjunction with illustrator George Cruikshank, publishing best-selling pamphlets and books sending up corrupt political life in the fetid atmosphere of turn-of-18/19th century London. Hone was also a bookseller and journalist, who survived on his wits, and managed to feed a family of nine children and his faithful wife Sarah.

Hone eventually fell foul of the corrupt Regent, later George IV, and his minions, including the Lord Justice and Secretaries of State. They had Hone tried for contempt after he published a clever and cutting religious satire of Prince George. Hone successfully defended himself over three days of trials before a packed court in the Guildhall. Arrayed against him were nasty, prejudiced Lord Justice Ellenborough and a stacked jury, but to popular acclaim Hone won by the force of his sustained oratory and legal argument.

The story is made for film, so I hope the script is in development. An actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman would’ve been ideal for the role, but alas! Meantime, the book is a must for those interested in the history of the press. Interestingly the French Revolution and Napoleon scared the bejesus out of the English ruling class who feared revolutionary ideas and anti-monarchism creeping into England and tried to stem their influence by censorship of Hone and his contemporaries.

Actually the book title should clearly be ‘The Triumph of Laughter’.

(Thanks also to Matt C. for recommending and sending me the book)

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It’s meant to describe a feeling of consumer overload of Anzac themed TV offerings crashing in the ratings. Commercialisation is an understatement in this era of hyper-marketing of our cultural markers. Appropriation of Anzac for supermarkets, burgers, you-name-it, has been extant for years and becoming more flagrant. It can offend devotees of this quasi-religious popular annual outpouring of sentimentality known as Anzac Day.

It’s all been said already and I don’t mind ‘learned nationalistic sentimentality’ as a description of what’s going on in this veritable orgy of commemoration and brainwashing around it. Apparently its themes too have been updated from heroism and mateship to sacrifice and service. It rolls off the tongue nicely.

If you want to discuss the lessons we’ve learnt about not repeating (military) history then you have to explain why we are again sending more troops to Iraq, That’s right: making a total 1,000 to help train the Iraqi army. We did such a good job there last time, and it worked brilliantly in Afghanistan during 14 years of military mission in that benighted country.

As always our troops head off at Uncle Sam’s bidding, without even a parliamentary debate of the merits, strategy and national interest for Australia in doing so. The ongoing vacuum of political discourse about our endless military adventures is shocking. And this latest escalation is even more scandalous under cover of an Anzac Day centenary extravaganza.

Australians really haven’t learnt a bloody thing in the last 100 years or more. Ignorance, conformity and militarism are a fatal (ahem!) trifecta in our national DNA, and it’s grown like a cancer since we first sent NSW troops to fight against the Maoris in Enzed in the 1860s.

Poor fellow my country indeed, to borrow Herbert’s famous book title. My anger has turned to resignation and sorrow at our unrepentant failings.

Another VB, mate?

You mean Villers-Bretonneux?

 

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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.

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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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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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