Monthly Archives: September 2012

The pared-down writing genius of Ernest Hemingway still makes me hungry

I just finished reading “A Moveable Feast”, Ernest Hemingway’s memoirs of living  in Paris in the 1920s as little-known writer.

The book is a recollection of his time as a struggling writer, living very basically at 74 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine and then later, above a sawmill, at 113 rue Notre Dame des Champs with his wife, Hadley, and spending his day writing in cafes, and sharing ideas with the likes of Gertrude Stein, the poet Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.

Hemingway is noted for his pared-down writing style, where there is sparing use of words – only necessary ones – to describe scenes, feelings and emotions.

Other writers to embrace this idea include George Orwell with his famous rules for writing including “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” and other more recent masters of the art, Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver.

Writing simply and well may sound easy, but it’s deceptively difficult I imagine.

This point is highlighted by Hemingway himself when he writes in “A Moveable Feast” that sometimes he would spend an entire afternoon writing just one paragraph.

Every word must be carefully considered. Every word must have its place and purpose.

But done well there is an immediacy and potency that no other literary artist can capture.

Take, as an example, Hemingway’s description of a meal, eaten alone, in a Paris café:

“It was a quick walk to Lipp’s and every place I passed that my stomach noticed as quickly as my eyes or my nose made the walk an added pleasure. “There were few people in the brasserie and when I sat down on the bench against the wall with the mirror in back and a table in front and the waiter asked if I wanted a beer I asked for a distingué, the big glass mug that held a litre, and for potato salad.“The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes á l’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious.
“I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil.

After the first heavy draft of beer I drank and ate very slowly. “When the pommes á l’huile were gone I ordered another serving and cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce.
“I mopped up all the oil and all the sauce with bread and drank the beer slowly until it began to lose its coldness and then I finished it and ordered a demi and watched it drawn.It seemed colder than the distingué and I drank half of it.(Ernst Hemingway with friends in a Paris cafe in the 1920s.)

Travel journalism, junkets + dwindling media budgets: are you getting the true picture?

In 2010 my wife and I, newly married and kids-free, embarked on a dream back-packing trip around the world starting in Thailand and ending in the USA (with Malaysia, Singapore, East and West Europe, Morocco, India, Egypt, Turkey and Mexico in between).

When we returned to Australia, I was eager and hopeful of writing a few freelance travel pieces about some of the more exotic places we had visited for the travel sections of newspapers and travel magazines.

I submitted a number of story ideas and photographs but no editor would bite.

I was a bit disappointed but not entirely surprised since I’d submitted what I thought were interesting ideas in the past (a story about why tourists should visit my hometown of Johannesburg was one of them) but had received polite “no thank you’s”.

Since then I’ve read, with envy, the stories written by travel writers, some about the places I have visited and many other destinations I would love to saviour for myself one day.

However, what I have also noticed, with greater and greater frequency is that so many of them end with the following:

“The writer flew with…”

0r, “The writer was a guest of…”

Most pieces of travel journalism, I’ve discovered, are paid for or part paid-for by either an airline, resort or tourism bureau and it got me wondering what sort of impact this had on the objectivity of these “hosted” writers.

So I put the question to the Fiona Carruthers, editor of the Australian Financial Review’s Sophisticated Traveller magazine and to Susan Kurosawa, editor of The Weekend Australian’s Travel and Indulgence section.

Both are excellent publications with great photos and stories – but many of their articles are funded by what Carruthers calls “famils” – “travel familiarisation” trips, where the expense is borne by the person or organisation extending the invitation.

“Also known more cynically in the trade as “junkets,” Carruthers tells me.

She estimates that due to the expense (and no doubt dwindling budgets) about 85% of travel writing is paid for through these hosted visits.

“It’s a shame this is the case – I would dearly love for us to pay our own way – and sometimes we do or we pay part of the trip or media rates,” she says.

“But the problem is that most media organisations simply cannot afford to pay for these travel experiences and given travel is so popular, we don’t want to short change our readers by not offering travel content. So this is our compromise – and as I say, most media outlets compromise.”

So what does this compromise entail? Does it mean giving favourable coverage, not reporting on bad experiences and potentially giving readers a less than fair picture of a travel destination?

Is it just advertorial disguised as a travel review with out the advertorial “label”?

Both Carruthers and Kurosawa firmly deny this and maintain that objectivity is always maintained.

“Famils/hosted trips are not advertorial and the hosts know we are free to write whatever we like,” says Carruthers.

Kurosawa says The Australian responds to “invitations for selected trips”, but does not “actively seek hosting of any kind, whether from airlines, hotels, operators or national tourist offices”.

“We maintain our independence at all times and reserve the right to be critical where appropriate.”

Carruthers though does say that “most journos are keen to give a good write up in return for hospitality.

“And given the standard of travel is so high these days, nine times out of 10 any experience we do is fantastic”.

That so many hosted trips should result in a “fantastic” experience is not surprising, given that many involve luxury getaways, private lodges and top end of town hotels and restaurants.

But also, due to the hosted nature of journalist’s visits, resorts would have ample warning and all staff would surely be briefed, to provide these ‘special guests’ with extra special care and assistance.

One of the articles in the September issue of Sophisticated Traveller is about the Banyan Tree resort in the city of Lijiang, in China’s Yunnan province.

While Carruthers points out that the writers were critical of the resort’s food and the fact that is “very quiet at night and locked away behind high walls”, I do wonder if the fact that staff at the resort delivered “toasted sandwiches and warm glasses of milk” to the reviewer’s villa and “never tired of feeding the fish” with their three-year-old had anything to do with the fact that the writers Angus Grigg and Fiona Murray were journalists on a “famils” trip.

I have some personal experience of this phenomenon having undertaken a number of restaurant reviews at some of the Sydney’s finest eating establishments, when I edited a mortgage broking magazine. The meals were organised through a PR agency and were free (with unrestricted menu access).

What I recall most vividly, besides the mostly exquisite food, was staff going out of there way to be helpful.

On one occasion the maître d’ at a Surrey Hills restaurant i was reviewing offered to adjust the temperature because my wife had a cold.

There is of course, the option of making up your own mind about any resort, hotel or restaurant or airline by reading some of the reviews on traveller’s bible, Trip Advisor.

There are 485 reviews of the Banyan Tree resort in Lijiang on Trip Advisor.

None of these people stayed for free, but equally, it could be argued that because they have paid their own way, they could be motivated by spite to write something nasty or out of proportion to a bad experience.

Among the few critical reviews on Trip Advisor for the Banyan Tree Lijiang is one that occurred during a BMW event (when staff may not have been at their attentive best) and while another unhappy reviewer mentions that their booking was lost and they had to find proof their booking by finding it on their laptop.

Most agree with the Sophisticated Traveller writers.

In the case of the Banyan Tree Trip Advisor ranks it 6th out of 296 hotels in Lijian with 94% of 485 reviews rating the stay as either “excellent” or “very good”.

So what to make of articles that arise from a hosted visit?

I’d say take them mostly at face value (providing its a reputable publication), but with the tiniest pinch of salt.

As with most new experiences, having lower expectations usually results in a more enjoyable holiday – so best not to set the bar based on what you read.

Or, if you want top notch service, you could try hinting to the staff that you’re writing a review for a major publication.

This may result in an experience that matches the newspaper write-up.

This post was subsequently published in Crikey (subscription required)

The terrible boredom of the rich

For those of us who are not very rich, the idea of having great wealth is very appealing and the focus of many a day-dream along the lines of: “If I had $100 million I’d….”

No mortgage to worry about, no tightening of the chest everytime an envelope stamped with “your bill enclosed” arrives in the mailbox, no having to fight with the person next to you for the shared arm rest on economy flights, and on and on it goes.

But the thought occured to me that perhaps being very rich can also be very boring.

I was struck by the idea while attending a commercial property auction (I wrote this story about it) as I found myself sitting next to one of the bidders in the River Room at Crown Casino.

Without meaning to sound to mean-spirited, I’ll say the bidder looked like a toad with fat lips and fatter jowls and liverspots, though I may be embellishing.

Up for grabs was a petrol station on a busy road in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, a dull, but valuable piece of real estate.

Bidding started around the $5 million mark and the price rose rapidly in $100,000 jumps with my toady bidding friend lifting his hand every thirty seconds or so to up the ante.

When it reached $7 million, he stopped and simply said to his rival bidder, like he was ordering a drink beside the swimming pool, in a lazy, nasal drawl:

“He can have it.”

Like spending or not spending $7 million was like deciding whether to buy an ice-cream from the vendor on the beach or deciding between a cappucino and a latte.

But what if this is what life is really like for the super-rich?

Where things lose their value, no matter how much they cost, be they petrol stations, mega mansions, luxury cars, or overseas holidays – because if you’re super-rich you’ve already tried everything on the menu and there’s nothing left to buy.

And then it occured to me that maybe that’s the reason why billionaires keep on working until they’re one foot in the grave and seem never satisfied no matter how many zeroes are on their bank accounts.

And why they’re always trying to reduce their tax bill.

Or denying their children their inheritance.

Or just keep complaining about everything (and making cheap looking preachy videos).

Perhaps, we with less should appreciate that fact that a good bottle of red wine, a new car (or even a second-hand one), or a holiday one street up from the beach rather than on the beach can be celebrated and cherished.

Even if we drop dead the next day from worrying about the size of the gas bill…

Is a donkey vote the only option for Clive Palmer at the next federal election?

As coal mining billionaire Clive Palmer tucks into his next big breakfast on his private jet, I wonder if he is beginning to feel like something of a political outsider.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, Queensland’s richest man is currently deciding whether to retain his membership of the Liberal-National Party following his attacks on the Queensland State Government over its decision to increase mining royalties and his stoush with Federal Liberal leader Tony Abbot (over a number of things including asylum seekers and paid political lobbyists).

It’s all gone for sour for Clive Palmer and the Liberals after earlier plans for him to seek pre-selection in the Queensland seat of Kennedy and take on Bob Katter.

If he does part ways and ditches his long standing Liberal membership it will bring to an end many decades of support and lots of financial backing too.

But the question remains then, who will Palmer back politically?

Looking at the major political parties, there’s not much to entice Palmer:

There’s the Labor Party – no chance given Wayne Swan and his mining super tax and Julia Gillard’s carbon tax.

And the Greens? Let’s face it, there’s no way a coal mining magnate is going to ever get into bed with a party committed to the environment and renewable energy.

But even when it comes to the minority parties, there is little to entice Palmer.

There’s Bob Katter’s Australian Party, which you think might have some appeal given its opposition to the carbon tax, desire to protect state assets and wish to rebuild Palmer’s beloved Queensland.

Unfortunately earlier plans for Palmer to take on Katter in his seat of Kennedy as an LNP candidate resulted in Katter publicly ridiculing Palmer’s size and poor physical condition and suggesting he’d never survive the rigours of political warfare.

There’s the One Nation Party – unlikely given Palmer’s humanitarian views on refugees, Chinese business affiliations and desire to attract Asian big spenders to his growing hotel and resort empire.

What then? The Country Alliance? Family First? The Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party? The Sex Party? I think not.

The thought did cross my mind of a mining magnate coalition party with Australia’s other notable mining magnate and self-appointed “mother of the nation” Gina Rinehart.

But that’s unlikely after Rinehart suggested we all give up drinking, smoking and socialising and work a little harder (while earning less).

“I like the pub, I like going to the footy, I like socialising with friends,” was Palmer’s response to Rinehart’s unpopular suggestion.

Which really leaves Palmer with no other option but to either start up his very own political movement or do what many Australian might end up doing at the next federal election – given the current dissatisfaction with most political parties – and cast a donkey vote!

EE-ORRR-EE-ORRR

The “nonsense’ behind the Commonwealth Bank’s $270 million Storm payout

I never thought I’d find myself laughing (in a cynical fashion) at a press conference on a Friday evening just before clocking-off time for the weekend (I was grumbling when I picked up the phone).

But that’s what happened when I tuned in to listen to ASIC chief Greg Medcraft tell the media the Commonwealth Bank had done the “right thing” by agreeing to increase its payout to Storm Financial investors by $136 million taking the total compensation to around $270 million.

Briefly, Storm Financial provided bad financial advice to mom and dad investors on a variety of mortgage and other investment vehicles, the Commonwealth Bank provided them the money, then the GFC hit, Storm went bust and investors lost billions.

The agreement between the Commonwealth Bank and ASIC was reached “without any admission of liability” by the bank.

Enter Business Day journalist Paddy Manning who asked Medcraft if it were not a “nonsense” that the Commonwealth Bank was agreeing to pay out investors to the tune of $270 million, while at the same time admitting no fault.

Medcraft did not enter into a debate on this point – probably he was legally prevented from doing so – but I bet he privately agreed.

Which is also why I found myself laughing (cynically), because yes it really does sound absurd given the scale of the payout.

The use of the words “without any admission of liability” is a fairly common legal term and has been used by other organisations – from church groups to big businesses – to protect themselves from further financial claims.

It is usually always the outcome of a mediated solution with aim of bringing costly legal proceedings to an earlier end.

Essentially it’s like a plea bargain – privately you admit you’re guilty and stump up the money, but publicly you keep your reputation.

It also means the “guilty party” does not have to make any sort of apology, as this would, in effect, make the “without liability” clause null and void.

Most recently agricultural chemicals supplier Nufarm agreed to pay shareholders $43.5 over allegations the company failed to keep them informed of the impact of the declining glyphosate market on its business. Despite deny the allegations, Nufarm paid up without admitting liability.

In 2004, as reported by The Age, the Salesian Order of Catholic priests and brothers paid around $80,000 to a to a Melbourne man who launched a civil case against convicted paedophile Father Frank Klep “without any admission of liability”.

In 2005, retailer Barbeques Galore and a sister company surrendered about 900 BBQs for destruction and agreed to make payments for 2,200 they had already sold after legal action was threatened by Danish homewares firm Bodum, reported The Sun Herald. The agreement was made with “without admission of liability”.

And back in 1996 a Sydney hospital settled a case involving a woman who died soon after being admitted “without admission of liability”.

Clearly there are some benefits for those who seek compensation. They get an early payout and can get on with their lives, or at least try too.

As for the payee (or guilty party) – they get to draw a line under the whole affair.

For those Storm Financial investors who invested via a Commonwealth Bank loan they will have to be content with 55% of their money being repaid four years down the track.

But I wonder how many investors, would have hoped for a lot more – and an apology?

The job I’m now glad I never got at the Australian Jewish News

About 8 years ago, when I first came to Australia and was looking for a job, I applied for an editorial role at the Australian Jewish News (AJN).

Before the interview, I browsed a copy of the AJN to get my head around the content.

At the interview, I remember I was asked a lot of questions about my views on Israel and Zionism and very little about my writing experience.

Not surprisingly, I never got the job – though I remember babbling something meant to suggest I was on top of the subject matter; at the time I was rather desperate to find work.

My second acquaintance with the AJN was when I read Robert Magid column titled “Curb your compassion” of which much has been written.

(If you have not read it you can download a copy here.)

The opinion piece really made my blood boil, but I am grateful for one thing, I’m glad I never got that job.

Robert Magid has defended himself on the ABC’s Lateline program that he is not a racist, but it’s hard to believe when you read what he’s written.

He begins by talking about boat people – calling them illegal queue jumpers, but by the end of the article he’s talking about “extremists in the Muslim community”.

So it’s not really hard to read between the lines to get at the real message, which to my mind is:

“Keep the Muslims out.”

Sadly, Robert Magid is not alone in sharing this view.

Both in my native South Africa and in Australia, there are sadly a number people in the Jewish community, who hold vehemently anti-Muslim feelings and jump up and down, banging their fists, each time a new mosque is threatened to be built

(Thankfully many more are enlightened).

These are the same people who believe that any criticism of the Israeli government is a mask for anti-semitism.

These are the people – I kid you not – who believe that the BBC is anti-semitic.

Of course Robert Magid is right that many of those seeking asylum in Australian and arriving by boat are Muslims (like Tony Abbott he calls them “illegal” despite seeking asylum being a legal human right).

Many of them are the Hazaras of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Hazaras are “a community who are easily distinguishable because of their Asiatic appearance” explains Hadi Zaher, an Afghan-Australian undergraduate student, in a recent  article for left-wing journal New Matilda.

Hadi Zaher goes on to write that members of the Hazara community “are the target of execution style killings and massacres by Taliban and Al-Qaida affiliated militants who have vowed to rid Pakistan of the presence of minorities such as Hazaras. The frequency of these attacks has gone from a few attacks a month to multiple attacks per week.

“The first victims of the attacks were lawyers, doctors, teachers, and public servants. Today, it’s the vegetable vendors, taxi drivers and passengers, students, labourers and the ordinary men, women and children who bear the brunt of the latest atrocities.”

Paragraphs you could easily transpose to the fate of the Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Second World War.

But according to Robert Magid “it is unconscionable to bring the holocaust into the discussion” about boat people, because European Jews “fled certain death”.

Perhaps, what he is really saying is that a Jewish life is more valuable than that of a Muslim refugee fleeing persecution?

Robert Magid is a very wealthy man.

Even if he did not publish such nonsense he would be easy fodder for anti-semites as he fits the caricature of the Jew with the bulging pockets of money.

But the truth of the matter is that having all this wealth and privilege and power and then so publicly expressing such prejudiced views will do more to cultivate anti-semitism than any propagation of the old stereotypes by those who did not need any encouragement.

And the greatest irony of all is that Robert Magid is himself the son of refugees.

Isador Magid – his father – came to Australia from China in 1951 as a refugee and became a highly successful property developer with a personal fortune of around $180 million.

But perhaps it would be unconscionable to mention that fact too.

Recalling a day spent at Auschwitz

It’s a little over an hour by bus from Krakow, an unimaginably beautiful medieval city to the concentration camp of Auschwitz.

We travel in a claustrophic, airless mini-van, which picks up people along the route. No one says much.

By the time we reach the little town of Oswiecim (renamed “Auschwitz” by the Nazis) we have passed rolling hills and green Polish countryside, traversed and dippped through narrow valleys and stared at plain but pretty one-storey farm-houses with ducks and chickens pecking at the ground.

The min-van is packed to capacity and stifling hot when we disembark and some travellers have to bury their heads in their hands to fight off the travel-induced nauseau.

Incredibly, the town now bares the inscription: “Oswiecim: city of peace”.

The two camps of Auschwitz are joined by a free bus service.

We first go to Birkenau, the size of many dozens of football fields, fronted by the train tracks and famous red watchtower, though which so many of my ancestors passed through in cattle trucks into suffering and death.

Though I am not a practicing Jew, I did feel a strong connection with this place amid all the tourist buses and school kids to young to comprehend what really went on here 70 years ago.

It’s strange though to visit in summer.

While it was overcast in Krakow when we left in the morning, the sun has now come out and the clouds had parted.

Alongside the once electrified barbed wire-fence, there are purple and yellow flowers growing among the wild grass and there are shady trees that offer respite from the sun, and the possibility – were it anywhere else – for a picnic.

There’s even a pleasant little stream that trickes and babbles nearby.

But’s there’s nothing pleasant about Auschwitz, even though nature has reclaimed some of it.

The sheer size is overwhelming. It’s enormous.

At its peak there were 100,000 people living here under the most appalling conditions.

A lot of the dark, wooden barracks remain standing, what’s not there – the people shuffling in the snow, the guards shouting and laughing, corpses piled on on top of each other, the smoke – you can fill in from what you’ve seen in black and white newsreels and the movies.

Each of them housed as many as 1,000 people.

We wander into a barrack and listen to a guide tell a tour group that the prisoners were only allowed to go to the toilet twice a day and because there were so many of them, they only had about 40 seconds to use the latrine. Just one of many awful stories.

At the far end of the camp, at the end of the railway line, in front of a tall, swaying trees, are the remains of the gas chambers and crematoria. They were blown up by the Nazis just before the camp was liberated. Despite the heaps of rubble you can see the steps down which prisoners were led to the changing room where they were forced to strip before being led into the “showers”.

It’s nearly afternoon. We eat our lunch, but feel wierd about it. I guess its natural. There’s probably a restaurant somewhere.

We take the bus to the main camp.

Auschwitz main camp is a series of brick barracks originally built for the Polish army barracks houses the museum and is jam-packed with tour groups of all nationalities and languages. It’s annoying and frustrating as the tour groups take up all the space and you have no time to really contemplate what is before you.

In the dingy basement there are windowless cells where prisoners were tortured and sentenced to starve to death.

Above ground, the barracks house the famous collections of hair, glasses, tooth brushes and artficial limps in huge mountainous piles, behind glass.

Unlike the Dachau concentration camp on the outskirts of Munich, where the museum assaults you with information, here the information is relatively succint, leaving you to take in the exhibits, when you can avoid the tour groups and their noisy interpreters.

The walls of the barracks are lined with photos of prisoners admitted to Auschwitz including their date of arrival and death. Some lived only a few days, some a few months and some more than a year or two.

How to survive such a hell hole for a day let alone a year, I just cannot fathom.

Then I remember we had a school teacher, Dr Yageel, who was a holocaust survivor and had a tattoo on his shoulder bearing his prisoner number. I remember him to be a short man, with a beard and a lined, sorrowful face. I think he may have taught our class on a few occasions.

Incredibly, as a pupil at a Jewish day school, I never really thought about what he went through or took the time to chat to him.

I don’t recall any of my classmates, me included, paying him the kind of respect he deserved. I wish now I could shake his hand.

At one point I found myself humming the tunes of a song we sang at the jewish day school I attended in South Africa, a song that I had forgotten or buried deep in my memory…

Yerushalayim shel zahav
Ve-shel nehoshet ve-shel or
Ha-lo le-khol shirayikh
Ani kinnor

(Jerusalem of gold,
and of bronze, and of light

Behold I am a violin for all your songs.)

Recently I watched Schindler’s List.

The same song is played at the very end of the film as the real holocaust survivers, many of them now elderly, accompanied by the actors who played them in the film, lay stones on the grave of Oskar Schindler in Jersualem.

And then its time to go. Auschwitz the museum is closing. There’s the museum shop with books and post-cards as you exit and you can buy soft drinks, chocolates and crisps.

Then its back on the bus – a much larger one this time. The driver is a little crazy. He picks a fight with a speeding motorist and nearly has an accident cutting him off.

We arrive back in Krakow. It is not yet dark. It’s the Polish summer.