Monthly Archives: January 2014

Revisiting Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” and my Jim Morrison fascination

doorsHad he lived, Jim Morrison would have turned 70 this year.  He was born on December 8, 1943 – 2 days and 30 years before me.

As I remembered it, I hardly knew who Jim Morrison was before I saw the movie “The Doors” directed by Oliver Stone.

It came out in March 1991 so I would have been 17, in my final year of high school.

I remember, such was my musical naivety at the time, that I kept on confusing “Van Morrison“, the Irish folk singer with “Jim Morrison“, the hard-drinking, poetry-spouting Dionysian rock-god.

I wince now, thinking about it.

When the movie came out, I was instantly hooked by the chanting crowds,  frenzied stage performances, the imagery – shamans, American indians, acid trips in the desert, the wild women  and the enigma of Jim Morrison (as played by Val Kilmer) the American poet who burned so brightly and briefly.

Against this backdrop was the music, songs like “Light my fire”, “Touch me”, “Riders on the Storm” and the hypnotic, transcendental and surrealist masterpieces “The End” and “When the Music’s Over”.

This is the end. Beautiful friend.
This is the end. My only friend, the end.
Of all elaborate plans, the end.
No safety, or surprise, the end.
I’ll never look into your eyes…again.

The very first Doors album I bought was the double CD ‘The Best of the Doors’ featuring the famous “Young Lion” photo of Jim Morrison on the cover, taken by Joel Brodsky.

I am pretty sure I bought it while on Contiki in Europe, along with The Commitments soundtrack, which came out the same year.

brodsky americanpoet

Jim Morrison photographed by Joel Brodsky

After, that I bought the six studio albums The Doors recorded between 1967 and 1971 starting with the self-titled ‘The Doors’ and ending with ‘L.A. Woman’. They were all in the discount rack (39 rand back then) at a legendary CD joint called CD Wherehouse in Rosebank, Johannesburg, an enormous shop heaving with CDs in every available space – think JB Hi Fi on steroids.

(Side note: during a particularly confused/directionless period in my life – perhaps inspired by Jim Morrison – I dropped out of university to write a book. I got a job at CD Warehouse. The  first day I packed away CDs. The second day I quit. It was my first and only brief dalliance with the world of retailing. The book never happened either).

In these studio albums were gems that hardly get any radio play, songs like the mournful “End of the Night, the melodic, whispery “Yes, The River Knows”, “Wishful, Sinful” and unsettling “The Spy”.

I’m a spy in the house of love
I know the dream, that you’re dreamin’ of
I know the word that you long to hear
I know your deepest, secret fear

Then I bought the double CD ‘In Concert’, rented every live concert video I could find (this was long before there was YouTube), and read the classic best sellling biography of Jim Morrison by Jerry Hopkins and now deceased band manager Danny Sugerman: ‘No one here gets out alive.’

jim morrison

One of the last things I purchased was “Jim Morrison: An American Prayer” a haunting collection of Jim Morrison’s poetry with music by The Doors, released after his death in 1978. I was mesmerised by it with lines like:

A vast radiant beach in a cool jeweled moon
Couples naked race down by its quiet side
And we laugh like soft, mad children
Smug in the wooly cotton brains of infancy

Re-watching the movie

I recently watched the movie again.

I love the beginning: Jim Morrison, alone in a recording studio towards the end of his life recording poetry for ‘An American Prayer’. Morrison is overweight, sports a thick-beard and is unrecognisable from the skinny ‘Young Lion’ of a few years prior.  He drinks from a bottle of whiskey and recites:

Is everybody in?
Is everybody in?…(softly and slowly)…
Is everybody in? (Pause) The ceremony is about to begin.

Then the film cuts to a sweeping panoramic shot over the desert in hues of red and dust as the words “The Doors” float up from the bottom of the screen accompanied by the opening piano trinklings of “Riders of the Storm”.

It’s a brilliant introduction.

Then follows the scene of the Morrison family driving past a car crash where a young Jim Morrison sees (as in the song Peace Frog):

Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding [and]
Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind

Then, its 1965. We find 22-year-old Jim Morrison strolling along Venice Beach, a book of poetry in hand. Later he meets  and seduces Pamela Courson (a ditzy Meg Ryan) who will be his muse and lover.

Later, we find him back on the beach, hanging out with Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) talking about Bob Dylan, the Vietnam War (“People want to either fuck or fight”) and making music.

Jim Morrison tells Manzarek he’s been writing songs and poems and then he sings a verse of “Moonlight Drive”:

Let’s swim to the moon, uh huh
Let’s climb through the tide
Penetrate the evenin’ that the
City sleeps to hide

Let’s swim out tonight, love
It’s our turn to try
Parked beside the ocean
On our moonlight drive

The rest of the film tracks the rise of Jim Morrison and The Doors through the legendary live music clubs of Hollywood like the ‘Whiskey a Go Go‘ on Sunset Boulevard, their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show to larger and larger venues as ‘Mr Mojo Risin’  sinks deeper into drugs, alcohol and his eventual death in a Paris bath tub in 1973, aged just 27.

A shallow, vacuous film

When I saw the film in 1991, I thought it was a work of genius, but watching it again, almost 23 years later, I found it a shallow, vacuous film, despite excellent use of the music of The Doors and fine acting from Val Kilmer.

There is very little attempt to explain or explore who Jim Morrison really was. His motivations are all reduced to the impact of a witnessing a car crash when he was a small boy and a subsequent obsession with Indian shamans, Dionysus, acid trips and “breaking through to the other side” of regulated, orderly society.

It’s second great sin is that this really just a film about Jim Morrison with little interest in the other members of The Doors: Ray Manzarek, who created the band’s distinctive sound through his organ play, guitarist Robbie Krieger who wrote many of the songs including “Light my fire” (the band’s first No.1 single) and Roadhouse Blues and ranked 76th on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists and John Densmore, who ranked 95th on the magazine’s list of greatest-ever drummers.

How did the Doors come to be? What were they trying to create? What inspired Jim Morrison’s poetry? What happened to his family? What shaped his view? None of these questions are answered.

“It’s a bloated, pompous, unbalanced film, which looks great but has nothing going on beneath the surface,” wrote the Guardian’s Alex von Tunzelmann in 2011 retrospective review.

What did other reviewers make at the time of its release?

The late great Roger Ebert wrote of the film that it was “not always very pleasant”.

“There are the songs, of course, and some electrifying concert moments, but mostly there is the mournful self-pitying descent of this young man into selfish and boring stupor,” wrote Ebert.

The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote that what was most peculiar about the film was “Stone’s attitude toward his hero”.

“He’s indulging in hagiography (creating an idolised version of someone’s life), but of a very weird sort. A good part of the film is dedicated to demonstrating what a drunken, boring lout Morrison was…while on the one hand Stone…keeps implying that it’s all part of the creative process,” Hinson wrote.

But there was a softer, sensitive, almost childlike side to Jim Morrison.

Trawl through the countless Doors and Jim Morrison videos on YouTube and you’ll come across this short take of Jim Morrison playing cards with the other band members. It reveals a shy, sweet guy, not the monster who consumed everything put in front of him:

And there’s this video of Jim Morrison in thoughtful discussion with a priest about his music:

If Stone’s portrayal of Morrison is accurate, then the critics are right to damn him (Morrison) as a selfish, boring attention-seeker that must have been hell to work with.

The second part of Alex von Tunzelmann’s summation of the film is harsh: “This is the biopic Jim Morrison deserved,” she wrote.

Roger Ebert wrote: “Having seen this movie, I am not sad to have missed the opportunity to meet Jim Morrison, and I can think of few fates more painful than being part of his support system.”

Whether these remarks reflect Oliver Stone’s lack of balance and the film’s shortcomings or are more criticisms of the life Morrison led, is an interesting one to ponder.

For me, my fascination with both him and The Doors remains untainted. Rather I consider the film to be too dark, with not enough shades of light and colour.

Unlike Ebert, I would certainly have loved to have met ‘Mr Mojo Risin’ and shared a beer with him.

Federer, Nadal, Becker and Curren: remembering my tennis moments

tennis-ballsIt wasn’t the classic match I’d been hoping for, but it was still a thrill to sit under the lights at Rod Laver arena and watch two of the modern-day greats, Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal, duel it out for a place in the Australian Open final.

Nadal was too aggressive , Federer made too many errors at the net with only the occasional glimpses of his sublime ground strokes, and it was all over in straight sets.

As I sat in the arena with Danni Minogue behind me, Pete Sampras chatting away in the distance (and never applauding a single point) and the great man, Rod Laver himself, watching intently with his distinctive mop of red hair and pointy nose, I thought about my own relationship with tennis and the role it’s played in my life.

Growing up in Germiston, a mining town about 30 minutes east of Johannesburg, we lived across the road from a Catholic convent and next door to the school’s tennis court. The nuns graciously gave us a set of keys and it was quite a novelty to have friends over and then head down to the courts to hit the ball around.  The court’s were cracked and the nets frayed and we frequently lost balls into the neighbouring homes, but it was our own private tennis club.

I was never much of a player, occasionally I’d string a couple of good shots together and fluke a serve down the line, but I’d have been a lower grade club player at best if I’d had lessons and practiced. Still, there probably wasn’t a family holiday, where we didn’t take our rackets and have a game. I recall being rather competitive and not averse to smashing my racket against the ground and not always the best loser.

More so though, my relationship with tennis revolved around the four majors – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, which seemed to define the calendar year and the seasons.

South Africa might have been isolated from the world in the mid-1980s, but every game was shown on SABC (the South African Broadcasting Corporation) with our legendary doubles champion Bob Hewitt waxing on in English about this shot and that and someone else providing the alternate Afrikaans commentary.

The French Open and Wimbledon were always my favourites – the former played on those bright red clay courts, with smartly dressed men and sexy, haughty European women in sunglasses watching from the stands (expertly picked out by the cameramen) while the umpire called the points in French.

They was probably the only words in French I knew:

“Zero – quarante” (Love – 40)

“Jeu” (Game”)

“Quarante – trente” (40-30)

And my favourite, the oh so very sophisticated:

“Egalite” (Deuce)

I loved all the sliding across the red clay, the ability to see exactly where the ball landed in the court when a dispute was called and the long baseline rallies by the likes of Mats Wilander, Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster and the tiny, plucky Michael Chang and his famous win over Stefan Edberg in 1989 (where I seem to remember a point he served underhand).

But Wimbledon holds the strongest memories for me.

It was always played in the middle of winter in South Africa, crisp, days when the afternoon sun streamed in through the sliding doors of the living room and always while I was studying for mid-year exams. I remember I’d structure my study time  – 40 minutes at my desk, then 20 minutes of tennis, which soon turned into 30 minutes and sometimes until my mother called the family over for dinner.

The men’s final evokes strong memories of family gatherings. Uncles and aunts and cousins would arrive for tea, cake and biscuits and then we’d all retire to the family room to watch the final. My father would invariably fall asleep (I have photographic evidence somewhere) but wake up in time for the trophy presentation by Duke of Edinburgh.

One year was particularly special – 1985. I was 12 years old and a South African had made it all the way to the final. His name was Kevin Curren. He was tall, awkward looking, softly spoken guy who blitzed the likes of McEnroe and Connors with an endless stream of aces and unplayable serves to power his way into the final against an unknown, unseeded 17-year-old German “wunderkid” called Boris Becker.

This was in the deep, dark days of apartheid isolation with only the likes of Gary Player and a few other individual sportsman able to still represent our country on the global stage.

The nation held its breath that day as we prayed that our new sporting idol, Kevin Curren, would play one more storming match and give us our first Grand Slam champ since Johan Kriek won the Australian Open in the late 1970s.

Sadly it was not to be. The fresh-faced, precious talent that was Boris Becker leaped onto the world stage on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon and tennis was changed for ever. It was upsetting to see our hero lose, but the truth is I became an enormous fan of Boris Becker with all his theatrical dives at the net and that powerful, trigger serve of his.

In the subsequent years, I remember the three Wimbledon Finals between the raging, tear away Boom Boom Becker and the cool elegant Swede, Stephen Edberg between 1988 and 1990 as among the most thrilling of my young adult life.

Later, while living in London, I was lucky enough to attend Wimbledon a couple of times, taking the train after work, queueing up for five-pound tickets and wander around the famous courts, indulging in some rather disappointing strawberries and cream and sitting on what was then called “Henman Hill” (now called Murray Mound) in the long summer days.

In 2004, I slept over at a mate’s house in Croydon  and we awoke at 4am to queue early for tickets for one of the show courts.

We got to watch a young very attractive talent by the name of Maria Sharapova on her way to her first Grand Slam, but the highlight was watching the panther like Roger Federer on his way to his second of seven Wimbledon Crowns.

And this week I got to see him again  in the twilight of perhaps the greatest of tennis careers.

To inappropriately quote Eric Clapton and Cream: Anyone for tennis, wouldn’t that be nice?

13 tales of seperation: a review of “Scission” by Tim Winton

scission‘Scission’ mean the act of  division, separation, cutting or severing and is the theme that overrides 13 exquisite short stories in a Tim Winton‘s book that bears this title.

Arguably, Tim Winton is Australia’s greatest living writer, a masterful story-teller whose skills have been recognised both in Australia and overseas. Reading his long form novels is an intense experience with quirky, awkward and archetypal Australian characters that live and breathe beyond the page.

He achieves the same effect with these 13 stories, which will appeal to anyone who likes plot-driven character studies and what drives human action.

In the first story, titled ‘Secrets’, a young girl called Kylie is left to play on her own while her mother and her mother’s boyfriend Philip, disappear into the bedroom. Kylie spends her days down the well – a place she is forbidden by Philip to explore – with a photo album, trying to find a picture of her father. An act of banal, childish brutality shocks the reader at the end.

In another story ‘A blow, A kiss’, Albie and his father are on their way back from fishing for salmon. They come across a motorbike rider who has crashed by the roadside. The night turns into a rite of passage for Albie as they deliver the injured man to his father, a brutal, unforgiving bastard who rages at his drunken son, bashing his head against the metal tray of his pick-up.

“Would you do that to me” Albie asks.

The truck slowed and stopped.

“Lord no. God A’mighty, no!” replies his father.

Albie’s father, in act of tenderness, places his knuckles on Albie’s cheek and says he’s sorry about the salmon they lost earlier in the evening (they buried them but could not find them later).

“The truck moved forward again. Albie felt those knuckles on his cheek still and knew, full to bursting, that that was how God would touch someone. He neither moved nor spoke, and the truck trundled on.

In ‘Getting ahead’ a recently widowed mother gets an idea to rent out her state government home and move the family into cramped flat in some crazy attempt to make money. The tenant, an elderly lady named “Mrs Marsdale” moves in and brings with her many cats. She never pays the rent. The floor becomes covered in “kitty litter, wet newspapers, and wads of phlegmy cotton” – it’s the great Australian dream of property investing gone horribly wrong.

In probably the most uplifting story, ‘Thomas Awkner Floats’ a seemingly simple-minded man is asked to fly across the country to meet his uncle and deliver a parcel for his criminal family outside the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. His response is an act of rebellion, a liberating moment.

A third of the book is taken up by the short story and title of the book. “Scission” and is the best of the bunch. In a series of present day scenes and flashbacks, Winton tells the story of Rosemary McCollough, an attractive wife in a repressed marriage.

They move to a new housing commission in Perth popular with young couples. Her husband,  a signwriter, likes to tune his motor car while his friends gawk at his wife. Rosemary becomes friends with June, her neighbour. Then one day a smartly dressed man and a woman come to their door selling subscriptions to “Pure Metaphysical Knowledge” – a journal tied to a cultish religious movement. Copies begin arriving in the  McCollough’s mailbox:

The McColloughs begin to behave differently. They were never seen outdoors from Friday night until Sunday morning. No lights were seen in the house. The children appeared sullen.

This is the catalyst for great change, upheaval and scission in the McCollough family – an act of seperation and also one of liberation.

At its heart, the 13 stories in Scission are about people searching for the basic human desires – love, pride, companionship, respect, revenge, financial success and joy.

The stories should be read slowly and the characters savoured.

Adultery, consciousness and qualia: a review of “Thinks…” by David Lodge

thinksAdultery, consciousness, mortality, artificial intelligence and grief are just some of the themes explored in David Lodge‘s entertaining novel “Thinks…” set in the fictitious University of Gloucestershire – somewhere near Cheltenham.

It’s principally a story about two people: philandering cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger and recently widowed and still grieving visiting creative writing lecturer Helen Reed.

Most of the action plays out across the grounds of the university campus with its vast fields and austere faculty buildings – a world all of its own. Adding some modern period piece fun, the book is set at the dawn of the internet and email age with dial-up modems and floppy disks.

David Lodge is a gifted writer: able to write a well-paced, plot-driven story in the style of popular fiction but delving into weighty issues about human experience.

I’ve read a number of David Lodge’s novels, which though set against fictitious backdrops are always about believable, never extraordinary, but very interesting characters.

It reminded me of his novel – “Nice Work” (later made into a BBC television series) about a feminist university lecturer Robyn Penrose assigned to shadow unfulfilled factory boss Vic Wilcox as part of a government program to bring industry and academia closer together. Both can’t stand each other, but eventually end up having an affair.

In “Thinks…” you could almost simplify the plotline into: a story about sex-addicted Ralph Messenger trying to get repressed Helen Reed into bed and if you re-read the description above of “Nice Work” you could be forgiven for thinking David Lodge writes racy situational sex comedies.

That would be a shallow reading of his work. Lodge is a serious writer with many literary awards and nominations to his credit. His writing style though is not aloof and impenetrable as some serious fiction can be, but instead, highly accessible.

As for his obsession with university life (Lodge was a University english lecturer for 27 years) he said of this, in an interview with the Book Depository in 2008:

The academic institution is a small world, a microcosm of society as a whole, in which themes like the operation of power, ambition, and sexual desire, can be studied in a comic and satiric rather than tragic manner. The fact that university staff are theoretically committed to the preservation of high culture, and the pursuit of truth, but are fallible human beings with ordinary human weaknesses and perhaps more than usual eccentricities, makes a good setting for comic and satirical writing.

In ‘Thinks…’ Lodge’s chief male protagonist, Ralph Messenger has the sex drive and narcissism of a teenager, but is also a highly intelligent, engaging, cognitive scientist and an expert on artificial intelligence.

Ralph Messenger sees the world through the rational order of science and computer programs and attempts to explain everything in this context – “You need an algorithm for self-preservation,” he tells one of his post-graduate students.

Ralph views life as a science experiment and also as a way of satisfying his sexual urges. As part of his courtship of Helen Reed, he suggests they swap journals (both record their thoughts). In his own mind, he sees it as a way “to find out if she fancies me and what her principles are” whereas in his email to Helen he suggests it would be:

a kind of opportunity…if we swap we would each have unique insight into the workings of another persons mind. We could compare our responses to the same event. I could literally read your mind, and you mine.

Much of the romance between Ralph Messenger and Helen Reed stems from their arguments and debates about the limits of science and human consciousness –  Are humans just highly sophisticated robots or is there a “mind” separate from the brain that cannot be explained or located by science?

The novel introduced me to the concept of “qualia” – essentially the subjective, conscious experience of things.

There is a debate among scientists and philosophers about whether everything can be explained by brain waves or if qualia are inherent, irreducible human qualities.

Early on in the novel, Ralph Messenger shows Helen a mural that runs along a curved wall in his research lab. It depicts a series of famous though experiments such as Schrödinger’s cat, Thomas Nagel’s What is it like to be a bat?, the prisoner’s dilemma and Searle’s Chinese Room.

In this way he draws Helen into his world of science and atheism, but also challenges her to express her views on consciousness and the human soul, which derive from the psychological realism of writers like Henry James.

The novel’s sub-plot is all about thinking and thought processes and how one processes experiences.

Ralph Messenger’s often debauched (or just plain honest) thoughts are delivered via “train of thought” monologues into a dictaphone, later directly onto his computer via speech recognition software. In one recording he tries an experiment to recover a long-term memory to see how the mind reconstructs the past:

My first fuck, how about that, yes no problem, her nickers over her hips…looking at me slyly from under her hair  falling forward across her face. I was transfixed, I’d never seen a woman undress before…except in films of course.

Helen Reed thoughts are revealed in her journal:

FRIDAY, 11th APRIL: A very extraordinary thing happened today. Just when I thought my life had settled back into a humdrum unexciting routing, an event occurred that throws everything into question again and makes me wonder whether anything in human behaviour is ever what it seems.Not the least remarkable aspect of the experience is that what began as a kind of [Henry] Jamesian pilgrimage turned into a scene that might have come from one of his own novels…

Thrown into the mix are adulterous relationships, revelations about past lovers, a child pornography scandal, a life-threatening health scare and a consciousness conference.

‘Thinks…’ is a richly rewarding reading experience by the master of the academic novel that will indeed make you…think.

Missed opportunities: a review of “Killing Fairfax” by Pamela Williams

killing-fairfaxI read Pamela Williams’ book Killing Fairfax about four months after joining Fairfax Media as a property reporter on the Australian Financial Review (AFR).

The book about the online maelstrom that sucked the life out of Fairfax and the part James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch played in facilitating this was published to great acclaim at just the time I was in discussions about a role on the AFR.

It certainly caught my attention as I contemplated moving from an online venture, Property Observer, to a newspaper group; so I made a mental note to read it once I’d settled in.

On the cover pose Packer and Murdoch with a distinctly smug expressions, the apparent victors in a battle against the old foe, Fairfax.

By backing three websites – seek.com.au, realestate.com.au and carsales.com.au – they helped destroy the “rivers of gold” – the classified advertising revenue that funded Fairfax’s journalism and its newspaper empire.

The distaste both have for Fairfax is apparent in the opening pages. Williams describes a triumphant lunch at famed Sydney dining spot Rockpool in August last year:

“Fairfax just didn’t see any of this coming. They thought it was all beneath them. They thought we were idiots. You know I think we killed Fairfax.” said James Packer.

The two men looked at each other for a moment.

“I think so,” said Lachlan Murdoch.

One lifted his glass in a toast. And then the other

Also sitting at the table though not mentioned in the narrative was Pam Williams. The reference notes at the back of the book state “author present”.

A 26 year veteran of Fairfax, where she had risen through the ranks to become one of its senior journalists, I wonder how Pam Williams felt at this celebratory lunch. It surely must have been an uncomfortable moment.

Hello Pam

I spent my first week at Fairfax in the Sydney office at Darling Point Coincidentally, sitting in the cubicle next to me was Pam Williams. I introduced myself and we spent a few pleasant minutes chatting about common acquaintances. As the day wore on and people paused to chat with her, I formed the view that she was highly respected by her colleagues and a formidable presence in the office.

“Killing Fairfax” is a page turner, a corporate thriller about billionaires with giant egos and the battle for control of Australia’s media industry through buyouts, takeovers, deals, schemes and plain good luck.

In a wider context, its one of many stories about the impact the digital age and social media has had on traditional print journalism – or to steal from a media analyst quoted in the New York Times documentary “Page One” –  “It’s a fucking revolution”.

Large newspaper groups like Fairfax and countless others around the world have struggled to shift their business models in the face of the emergence of online “pure plays” as Williams terms online publishing businesses with a singular focus.

As a Fairfax employee, the narrative grated at my nerves as I thought about what might have been had Fairfax taken the opportunities to invest in the three start-up entities when they were worth nothing. Time and time the opportunities came along to buy controlling stakes in realestate.com.au (now called REA Group), seek.com.au and carsales.com.au, but were lost or spurned.

The great power of Williams is her ability to use her burgeoning contacts book (the back of the book details all her information sources – emails, conversations, meetings she attended) to take you right into the Fairfax boardroom and the very private, wood-panelled meeting rooms where James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch struck their deals.

A dysfunctional boardroom

Certainly, the impression of the Fairfax board that Williams creates from the early 2000s up until recent times is one of complete shambles and dysfunction with rival factions, egos and hidden agendas – think the Labor Party under Rudd and Gillard. It reaches its apex following the merger between Rural Press and Fairfax and the appointment of Rural Press boss Brian McCarthy (a man who apparently refused to use email program outlook to schedule meetings) as chief executive in 2008, replacing the forward-thinking David Kirk.

As Williams writes:

“But it was in the boardroom where the real divide occurred, in ways almost unparalleled in corporate sagas of dirty washing. From the very start, tensions between the directors from Rural Press and everyone else had revolved around power, the company’s debt and whether making acquisitions for future growth had been the right or the wrong strategy.”

The other great aspect of the book is its chronicle of the changing media landscape with every major manoeuver chronicled including James Packer’s decision and the steps he took to sell out of the media empire created by his father and grandfather to get into casinos (disastrously at first), the battle for control of pay television, how the three start-up websites came into being and grew into giants, Lachlan Murdoch’s fight to convince his father that realestate.com.au should remain a key part of News Corp and the unsuccessful attempts by mining magnate Gina Rinehart to gain control of Fairfax.

What becomes clear is that Fairfax certainly was not oblivious to the growing threat of the internet as some have claimed – the company set up a string of its own websites – Domain, Drive, Mycareer  and made online acquisitions (TradeMe being the biggest)- before the nimble start-ups began eating into their revenue.

Fairfax, like so many other newspaper groups, was caught up in the bind of how to invest in new online businesses, which offered advertising ten times cheaper than print, without cannabalising its own earnings.

In hindsight, it may have seemed obvious to invest in independently run start-ups with strong brands, but looking back, most things appear that way. For a company the size of Fairfax, with its proud newspaper history, it was never going to be easy to change so profoundly or at  a speed to capitalise on these opportunities.

Who is James Packer?

But what of Packer and Murdoch? Should they really be so smug?

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the portrait of James Packer that Williams paints: a sensitive, highly emotional and physically aggressive character struggling to emerge from the shadow of Kerry Packer, it’s certainly neither a sycophantic nor a sympathetic portrait of one of Australia’s richest and most powerful business leaders.

One particular incidence sticks in my mind – when Packer confronted former Fairfax chairman Ron Walker at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in 2006. Walker, chairman of the games organising committee, saw Packer – an old friend – and invited him and his girlfriend Erica Baxter into the enclosed VIP area with the possibility of meeting the Queen:

[Walker] lifted the red tape to beckon them in.

But Packer had something else on his mind: he purposefully took the long way around the tape to Walker; and then put an arm around his neck, pulling him tight and close in anger. Packer was completely furious…

The anger was the result of Walker welching on a deal to buy Packer’s ACP’s magazine group in New Zealand, which he considered an act of bad faith while conveniently forgetting that he’d tried to gazump Walker on a deal to buy NZ website TradeMe (after saying he had no plans to buy the business).

The irony was not lost on James Packer, he later apologised to Walker for his strong-arm tactics.

Earlier in the book, Williams describes Packers agony at the collapse of One.Tel and his suicidal decline at the shame of this very public failure. It’s hard to feel sorry for some born into privilege, unimaginable wealth and opportunity, but when you consider who his father was, you feel a slight twinge.

While Packer and Murdoch should rightly be lauded for having the vision to invest in the “pure play” businesses that cost Fairfax so dearly, Williams reminds readers that James Packer lost around $1.7 billion through disastrous US casino investments on top of the One.Tel fiasco.

Less is divulged of Lachlan Murdoch apart from shrewdness and an eye for a good opportunity – but the impression one gets is of men playing with the billions inherited from their fathers (It reminds me of one of Ghandi’s seven deadly sins: “Wealth without work.”)

For both James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch, it seems their ambition is to make more money with money rather than producing anything of value for the greater good of society (They are true capitalists).

Fairfax, despite its depleted ranks, decimated earnings and challenges employs some of the hardest working people in Australia. I know because I work with them every day. Journalists on Fairfax publications recently took home a clutch of Walkley Awards – testimony to the quality of the work they do.

Among the Walkey Award winners was Pam Williams, who deservedly took home the Book of the Year award for this very entertaining and thought-provoking corporate saga.

In her acceptance speech she declared that Fairfax had in fact not been killed – I wonder what James Packer made of that comment?