Re-reading Into the Wild: what killed Chris McCandless?

One of my all-time favourite books is Into the Wild by journalist John Krakauer. The film adaptation by Sean Penn was also superb.

I first read Krakauer’s beautifully written investigation of the short, but eventful life of idealistic adventurer Chris McCandless – who died in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 – whilst travelling around the south and Midwest of America on an Amtrak pass in the late summer of 1997.

Having recently re-read the book whilst on holiday, it occurred to me that back then in 1997, I was the same age – 24 – as Chris McCandless when he died, alone, in a rusting bus, on the Stampede Trail overlooking the Teklinaka River.

People around the world have become fascinated by the story of a well-educated and intense young man from an affluent West Virginia family who gave away all his savings, burnt his money and credit cards and abandoned his car to tramp around America for two years on a rite of passage “to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution”.

McCandless wished to follow in the footsteps of his literary heroes Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Jack London and test himself with a final adventure in the wilds of Alaska.

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Chris McCandless – at Bus 142, in the year he died

After the first Associated Press article was published on September 13, 1992, about a body discovered by moose hunters in a remote camp, accompanied by a diary and a final plea for help, John Krakauer wrote a 5000 word article for Outside magazine “Death of an Innocent”  based on interviews with people who had met McCandless on his wandering. He then expanded that article into a book which became a 1996 bestseller. Sean Penn’s haunting film came out in 2008.

Alongside these mainstream retellings, hundreds of videos have appeared on YouTube about McCandless including documentaries, tributes and amateur investigations. There’s also hundreds of articles online discussing the book, film and McCandless’s adventures and final misadventure most of them captured on an excellent website, christophermccandless.info

People have become obsessed with his short, but adventurous life, his unique philosophical view of the world and his tragic death. Not all are hero worshippers indeed Krakauer has received plenty of criticism for – in the view of some harsh critics – glorifying the death of a naive and arrogant young man who thought he could tame nature, but who ended up succumbing to it in the most terrible way.

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The journal McCandless kept at the back of a book on edible plants

I was one of those people who became fascinated about Chris McCandless, in particular  his tragic end and the mystery about what actually killed in. That fascination has never died, and I found myself, upon re-reading the book this year, scouring the internet again for clues and answers.

As John Krakauer himself wrote in an article for New Yorker magazine in 2013:

The debate over why McCandless perished, and the related question of whether he is worthy of admiration, has been smoldering, and occasionally flaring, for more than two decades now.

What I discovered is that a lot has happened  – both in terms of conjecture and scientific research – to try to come to a definitive answer.

It is worth remembering that John Krakaeur first came to the conclusion – in the article he wrote for Outside magazine – that Chris McCandless had most likely died when he mistook the supposedly poisonous wild sweet pea (Hedysarum mackenzeii ) for the edible wild potato (Hedysarum alpinum) and ate its seeds.

“Wild sweet pea looks so much like wild potato that even expert botanists sometimes have trouble telling the species apart,” wrote Krakauer in Into The Wild.

As depicted in the movie, Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) is seen studying the leaves of the plants he has been eating and discovering his mistake, to his horror.

But in the book Into the Wild, Krakauer said he had got it wrong, and that Chris McCandless did not make the mistake of mis-identification and that he was not as reckless, naive and possibly even suicidal as some claim. (Even, if he had eaten the wrong plant, some food plants experts say wild sweet pea is not in fact very poisonous.)

After McCandless wrote in his cryptic keyword diary on Day 90:  “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEEDS. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP” Krakauer concluded that skinny and desperate for food, McCandless had accidentally poisoned himself by eating wild potato seeds not just the roots. Three weeks later he was dead.

Krakauer hypothesized that wild potato seeds contained a toxic alkaloid that weakened McCandless to “to such a degree that it became impossible for him to hike out to the highway or hunt effectively, leading to starvation”.

Then in 2007, Krakauer suggested that a toxic mold had grown on the seeds McCandless stored in a damp Ziploc.

“Now I’ve come to believe after researching from journals of veterinary medicine that what killed him wasn’t the seeds themselves, but the fact that they were damp and he stored them in these big Ziploc bags and they had grown moldy. And the mold produces this toxic alkaloid called swainsonine. My theory is essentially the same, but I’ve refined it somewhat. You know, who cares? But I care and his family cares,” Krakauer said.

Six years later, in the 2013 New Yorker article, Krakauer admitted he had made a “rash intuitive leap” by suggesting in the first edition of his book that the alkaloid that killed McCandless was perhaps swainsonine, a toxic agent known to inhibit glycoprotein metabolism in animals, leading to starvation.

But later analysis by Dr. Thomas Clausen, a professor in the biochemistry
department at the University of Alaska, found no trace of swainsonine or any
other alkaloids.

Into_the_Wild_(book)_coverIn his 2013 article for New Yorker magazine, Krakauer wrote of how his theories had brought scorn from many, especially Alaskans, but that he had then come across a “brilliant” writer named Ronald Hamilton who had discovered “hitherto unknown evidence that appears to close the book on the cause of McCandless’s death”.

Hamilton’s paper “The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless,” offered, Krakauer wrote “persuasive new evidence that the wild-potato plant is highly toxic in and of itself, contrary to the assurances of Thomas Clausen and every other expert who has ever weighed in on the subject.

“The toxic agent…turns out not to be an alkaloid but, rather, an amino acid [a neurotoxin called ODAP causing lathyrism, a kind of paralysis], and according to Hamilton it was the chief cause of McCandless’s death. His theory validates my conviction that McCandless wasn’t as clueless and incompetent as his detractors have made him out to be.”

Worryingly though Krakauer notes that Hamilton is “neither a botanist nor a chemist; he’s a writer who until recently worked as a bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania library.

But after further scientific testing supported Hamilton’s theory, Krakauer concluded: “considering that potentially crippling levels of ODAP are found in wild-potato seeds, and given the symptoms McCandless described and attributed to the wild-potato seeds he ate, there is ample reason to believe that McCandless contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds”.

Alas, in a 2015 article for New Yorker, titled “An Update: How Chris McCandless Died” Krakauer admitted, following more criticism from a journalist in Alaska, that he needed to do more testing to prove his theory that neurotoxins are present in wild potato seeds and publish the results in a “reputable peer-reviewed journal”.

This he did – after further scientific research – authoring a paper with Dr. Jonathan Southard, Dr. Ying Long, Dr. Andrew Kolbert and Dr. Shri Thanedar,  titled“Presence of L-canavanine in Hedysarum Alpinum Seeds and its Potential Role in the Death of Chris McCandless,”  It appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine in March, 2015.

The paper concluded that L-canavanine (an antimetabolite with demonstrated toxicity in mammals) was a significant component of wild potato seeds and because they made up a significant portion of his meager diet “it is highly likely” they were a “contributing factor to his death”.

Of course ‘highly likely” meant Krakauer was still not 100 per cent about his latest theory and it was again an Alaskan journalist – Craig Medred from the Anchorage Daily News – who took him to task in a highly critical and daming article titled “The fiction that is Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into The Wild'”.

Originally published in January 2015 – a month before Krakauer’s second New Yorker article – but updated in September 2016, Medred posited that it wasn’t wild potato seeds that killed McCandless, but toxic mushrooms.

Medred points out that entry 89 of the 113 entries McCandless left in his terse diary states: “Many Mushrooms. DREAM.”

“DREAM is written in the largest, boldest letters of any word in the journal, and there are large, dark arrows connecting mushrooms to the word DREAM.” writes Medred.

He also notes that photos of mushrooms appeared on film found with McCandless’s body and appeared as photos in the McCandless family’s book about their son “Back to the Wild”.

Medred says a noted authority on Alaskan mushrooms – scientist Gary Laursen, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks – had identified mushrooms McCandless had eaten as “Amanita muscaria’ a variety known to make people sick and cause hallucinations. Laursen also identified other varieties of mushrooms in the photos that made people violently ill.

(Medred’s criticism of  John Krakauer’s book extends way beyond the wild potato seeds theory and claims the chapter he wrote about the time McCandless spent in Alaska has no basis in fact and that some of the books found with McCandless’s body (with underlined passages and notes that gave clues to his view of the world) were not actually his but that of an Alaskan adventurer “who’s now a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks”).

I looked up the mushroom Amanita muscaria online: depending on the location/variety it is either bright red, yellow or orange with white warts, similar to those I have seen myself whilst walking in woods near my own home of Gisborne, Victoria.

They about as toxic looking as any mushroom could look in my opinion, and it seems hard to believe Chris McCandless would have gorged on them, let alone eat one.

Even if he had tried one, according to the research I found online, it would have made him violently ill – but not fatally so – and it is unlikely he would have tried anymore.

Then in December 2018, Medred published another article about John Krakauer and Into the Wild.

In it he quotes an “authority on wild edible plants, Samuel Thayer” who he says lumped all of Krakauer’s poison plant claims together as part of a “poisonous plant fable.”

Thayer’s main criticism is that any poisoning theory requires one to know how much of wild potato seeds McCandless actually ate.

“While it certainly is true that people can poison themselves with wild vegetation, the fear that we attribute to plants is monstrously out of proportion with the actual danger they pose,” said Thayer.

Medred has another monumental dig at Krakauer, writing:

“Krakauer has never been able to accept the idea that McCandless simply starved to death. To do so, would be to recognize that McCandless  was killed by his own incompetence, and that would undermine the whole “Into the Wild” myth of a bright young man on a sensible adventure of self discovery murdered by twists of fate at the hands of nature.”

That is a view held by some – though not by me.

Regardless, we will likely never know with any certainty what caused the death of Chris McCandless. It will remain an unsolved mystery, his death a tragic end to a life full of promise.

What I believe is that Chris McCandless did not intend his Alaskan trip to be a suicide mission, and that he planned to walk out of the bush and re-enter society sometime at end of 1992.

How do we know this? From his photos of course. After all, why document your travels, if not to share them with others.

RIP Chris.

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His final photo: The card reads:   “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”

The bar was packed: last drinks in the age of Coronavirus

As the rest of the world went into lockdown a couple of weeks ago, I found myself, on a Saturday night, having a drink with my good mate Jonny at a bar on Carlisle Street, in Balaclava, a trendy, somewhat grungy inner southern suburb of Melbourne.

Half-jokingly, I’d set the wheels of the catch-up in motion, by suggesting we get together for a beer and a burger because it might be the last time we could do it “before the world ended”. It was also Jonny’s birthday later in the week.

At the time, New York and other major cities were already shutting down. Restaurants and bars were about to close in Manhattan and Italy was already a nation quarantined. But in Australia there were no real restrictions on daily life, except for a growing shortage of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and pasta.

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Packed no more: The Rooftop terrace at The Local Taphouse (Facebook)

‘Social distancing’ however was swiftly becoming a buzzword, but not on the rooftop terrace at The Local Taphouse on Carlisle Street at 8.30pm on Saturday, March 14.

The scene was busy, loud and convivial. People sat shoulder to shoulder at tables or stood in small, huddled groups near the bar, drinks in hand, conversing about their lives, telling stories, laughing and smiling.

Jonny and I ordered two large ciders (a craft cider, particularly tasty) and found some seats at an unoccupied table, where we sipped our delicious drinks and held our own conversation talking about our lives: our families, our jobs, gripes, the latest shows we’d watched, books read, podcasts listened to. 

Both of us, now past the mid-forties mark, reminisced about the old days back in South Africa as we always tend to do on these catch-ups and wondered, as we always do, where all the time had gone.

Around us the bar was still noisy and buzzing. We enjoyed a second round of drinks and continued our conversation.

Though I was immersed in the scene, part of its social fabric (part of the problem I guess), I couldn’t shake the feeling that this supposed normality was both strange and fleeting. It was as if the terrace of happy people existed on a different planet from the rest of society who were at home, worrying about a disaster about to unfold.

A couple of hours passed and then it was time for us to depart and return to our separate worlds of parental responsibilities.

I headed to the bathroom on the way out, where a bloke standing next to me at the urinal exchanged some sort of half-drunk pleasantry. Then, as I attempted to wash and dry my hands at the basin, I nearly collided  with two men who emerged simultaneously from the toilet cubicle looking rather sheepish after a spot of, I imagined, illicit drug-taking.

A minute later, Jonny and I emerged back on Carlisle Street and into the fresh night air. Drunken chatter wafted across the road from another pub a few shops down. Cars whizzed past and a couple waited, in intimate embrace, for the traffic lights to change.

We walked past a half-lit dessert cafe with a display window full of eclairs, pastries and cream-filled cakes.  Driving back along Carlisle Street to drop Jonny off first in a nearby Melbourne suburb we passed another busy bar full of banter, booze and music.

It was only on the long drive home along the Calder Freeway under the endless expanse of stars and black night sky, that it dawned on me that perhaps I should not have been so cavalier as all those social beings on the rooftop of The Local Taphouse, sipping their drinks, grinning, laughing and carefree. Then again, the party was only hours from ending. For everyone. The music was about to stop.

The next day, Sunday March 15, brought with it the first of the restrictions: all overseas arrivals must self-isolate for 14 days, all cruise ships banned from Australia, gatherings of over 500 people no longer allowed.

A week later all pubs, clubs, gyms, cinemas, casinos, restaurants and cafes (save for takeaway orders) were ordered to close their doors and indoor gatherings were reduced to 100 people (now cut to two people). A 1.5 m social distance from others should be maintained and all non-essential travel should stop, we were told.

And so the world as I knew it ended for us in Australia as it had already for many others in New York, Rome, Los Angeles and London –  and almost certain to never to return in the form it once was.

The Local Taphouse on Carlisle Street is now shuttered. The cider and beer taps are turned off, chairs are stacked on tables, the roof terrace empty and deathly quiet.

Just the ghosts of good times past remain as I try to conjure back the taste of that fruity cider.

 

Looking ‘Up’ – why a documentary series was my favourite show of 2019

The_Up_series_DVDYou may be surprised to learn that a 56-year-old British documentary series was my runaway favourite television/streaming show of 2019.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, The Up Series started in 1964 when British filmmaker Michael Apted interviewed 14 British schoolkids aged seven at the time asking them about what they wanted to be when they grow up.

The children were specifically chosen from different backgrounds and classes as a kind of social experiment to see how things turned out for them given their upbringing and the opportunities presented to them.

The premise of the series was neatly encapsulated in the proverb repeated at the end of each season: ‘Give me a child at the age of seven, and I will show you the man (or woman it should have said).”

While 2019 saw the release of 63 Up, the latest (and possibly last) installment, I ended up watched the whole series from 7 Up onwards over a couple of weeks after coming across it by chance on SBS on Demand, (Australian’s multi-cultural television service for those who don’t live here).

It seems strange that I should find such pleasure in watching the lives of 14 total strangers unfold every seven years, or indeed to sit through around 20 hours of documentary filming that involves not much more than a camera crew returning to interview each person after the required hiatus and find out what they have been up to.

But, very soon – as if I were watching hit shows like The Sopranos, or Mad Men or Breaking Bad – I found myself emotionally entwined in the unfolding lives of Bruce Balden, Jackie Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Susan Davis, Charles Furneaux, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Suzanne Lusk and Tony Walker.

When the group turned 14, I wanted to see what they were like at 21, and then at 28 and 35, as they changed from disgruntled and sulky teenagers (for some) into young adults forging careers (or struggling to find themselves), then raising families, getting divorced, growing into middle age and contemplating all that has come before as a philosophical 63-year-old. It was glorious to watch.

Of course I had my favourites, these being intense Liverpudlian Neil, whose poetic musing on his battle with mental health issues and homelessness, and his stoicism frequently moved me to tears. There was also Tony the cockney East End cab driver (and part time actor) whose dreams of becoming a top jockey never came true, but who relishes how his brief racing career gave him one the greatest moments in his life, riding in a race alongside his idol, Lester Pigott.

Of course, I felt a connection to the earnest and softly-spoken Aussie Paul, who ended up moving to Melbourne soon after filming 7 Up, after his parents divorced.

Unexpectedly, I grew to like Andrew and John, who came from the upper classes, attended Cambridge and Oxford and whilst seeming to have an easy life of privilege awaiting them in the legal profession, grew somehow humbler and more interesting (especially John) as they grew older. Of course this one of the great charms of the series, that it reveals the many layers of people, and that things are not always as they appear.

I also loved feisty East Londoner Jackie, whose spirit never wavered despite raising three kids as a single parent and ending up reliant on a disability pension and upper-class Suzy, who despite calling the series “pointless and silly” appeared in all seasons, apart from the last one.

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There is something truly magical (touching on the sublime) in watching people change over time – not just their physical appearances, (though those transformations are striking and startling), but in their circumstances, attitudes and views of life.

As one of the fourteen, Nick, a farming lad from a tiny village in rural Yorkshire who became an American nuclear physicist put it so eloquently: “The power of this series is not that it shows how one person changes, but how everyone changes.”

This idea of change and growth, compelled me to reflect on how I was at the ages of 7,14,21,28 and 35. Later, I hauled down a box of old photographs, which I thumbed through looking  at images of myself at the Up Series age milestones. I thought about what I was like as a young school kid, teenager, young man and parent, the things I dreamed of achieving and what things I have accomplished.

I also thought about what awaits me as I grow older and approach the milestones of 49, 56, 63 – assuming I make it that far (here’s hoping!) and what I might do differently, what wisdom I have learned and – sadly – what dreams had not come to pass.

Frankly, every other show I watched last year came a distant second.

(But these, in no particular order, are my other favourite shows of 2019:)

  • Get Shorty – two movie-loving gangsters end up as movie producers in Hollywood. Inspired by an Elmore Leonard novel. Originally a film starring John Travolta. Available on Stan
  • Stranger Things  – surely needs no introduction or explanation if you were a kid in the 1980s. Think: Stand By Me/The Goonies/Steven King/Spielberg + Winona Ryder. Available on Netflix
  • Inspector Morse – the world’s grumpiest and most erudite detective. I am still making my way through all the feature-length episodes, most of which can be found (to varying degrees of quality) on YouTube. Or you can splash out on the DVD box sets.
  • Mindhunter – two FBI agents establish a new division that interviews serial killers to gain an understanding of their psychology. Brilliantly acted. Available on Netflix
  • Transparent – putting aside the furore over the conduct of star Jeffery Tambor, this groundbreaking show about a screwed-up LA family coming to terms with their father’s transition to a woman is a must-watch in my book.   On Netflix.
  • 10 Rillington Place – BBC retelling of the crimes of London serial killer John Christie, who is brilliantly portrayed in all Christie’s creepiness by Tim Roth. On Stan
  • Unbelieveable – Toni Collette and Merrit Weaver play detectives trying to catch a serial rapist. Great acting and insights into the way victims are treated by police. On Netflix

If you’re looking for more comprehensive Best of Lists, here’s is The Guardian’s Top 50 shows of 2019 and the New York Times’s Top 50 list.

And these are the ones chosen by journalists at my newspaper, The Australian Financial Review. (You may need a subscription to get access.Just ask, I am happy to send you a copy).

Recurring memories: A London long weekend, lonely and lovely

The things we remember, the things we forget.

Recently, a memory resurfaced after years lying dormant in my befuddled brain.

It was of a long weekend in London, that has stayed with me I think because I spent the three or four days of its duration almost entirely on my own.

I don’t recall the month or year, but it would have been around 2003 (I lived in London from 2000 to 2004) and probably in summer, as my memory is of it staying light till late.

The emotions that accompany memories of that brief period in my life are: loneliness, contemplation, poignancy and a strange feeling of pleasure. This last feeling I connect to the enjoyment of my own company and the absolute freedom to do as I pleased for 72 or or more hours.

At 46, balancing the demands of family and work, the idea of having all that time to just wonder about at my leisure, exploring new streets and old lane ways in that ancient city, idling away my time over coffees and beers, is hard to fathom.

My time now, though incredibly rich and meaningful seems so incredibly rushed.

Foolishly, I have dived straight into a pool of warm nostalgia regarding my London days, trying to reconstruct that distant weekend.

Most of the details have disappeared with just a ‘sense of things’ dangling before my eyes. Here I must resist the urge to use some corny poetic metaphor such as ‘like dust dancing through a ray of sunlight in a quiet room’ but its true, my recollection is both tangible (and potent) and intangible (and elusive).

Who knows if what of the little I remember of that weekend actually happening or is nothing more than a wishful re-imagining of events, moments and places, like how one constructs fragments of a quickly disappearing dream upon waking up.

So what do I recall of that lonesome and lovely long weekend, long ago?

I remember (quite distinctly) that almost everyone I knew – friends and family – were out of town or worse, not seeking my company, leaving me to my own devices.

I remember that the weather was good, and that I was outdoors a lot, exploring previously undiscovered parts of North London, not far from my home base, a flatshare above a kebab shop on Brent Street, Hendon and one floor up from Harold Schogger’s Bridge Club (also my landlord).

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My flatshare above the kebab shop (third floor) in Hendon

I recall almost for certain that I walked up Primrose Hill opposite London Zoo (a feature of many London movies) and took in the famous view across to the city (now with so many more skyscrapers).

Later, I am almost certain, I explored the nearby cobbled streets lined with stately Victorian terraces, the homes of rock stars like Oasis’s Noel Gallagher and movie god  Jude Law and his former wife, the actress Sadie Frost

plath-plaqueMore than likely, I was descending into London’s rich literary history, seeking out the Blue Plaques, which commemorate the homes where famous residents once lived.

At the time I was quite obsessed with Sylvia Plath (her plaque is at 3 Chalcot Square in Primrose Hill not far from where she gassed herself  at 23 Fitzroy Road), the doomed poet whose biographical novel The Bell Jar I read so intently in London.

I even memorized one of Plath’s poems (a feat I have never yet attempted since) – ‘Lady Lazarus’ – about her numerous suicide attempts.

I had experienced something of a mental breakdown of my own – panic attacks mainly – and was undergoing therapy which I think explained something of my fascination with Plath and her poetry and prose.  Perhaps that also accounted for my solitary status that long weekend. Depressives reciting Sylvia Plath poems out aloud are not usually magnates for social invitations.

This state of mind – a search for meaning of some kind – had no doubt encouraged my interest in the more morbid side of literature more generally. I recall reading a book about Plath and suicide called ‘The Savage God’ by the English Poet Al Alvarez (who Wikipedia tells me died in September aged 90) and enjoying long periods of introspection. (I was also doing yoga at the time, one evening a week in an old church building in Hampstead and falling asleep, accompanied by snoring, during the meditation at the end of the class).

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Primrose Hill

But I am digressing from that London long weekend to general London nostalgia.

Like an iceberg, I only remember a fraction of what floats above the surface of my conscious mind: memories of walking past the still, dark green waters of canals, walking over bridges to peer down at the boats and barges below, a sandwich at Pret-a-Manger, maybe a gelato at that Italian place near the Chalk Farm tube station. Maybe Nandos?

Whatever did or did not happen, I am there, on my own. A backpack, glasses, comfortable walking shoes, lost in my own thoughts, searching for those blue plaques. Perhaps George Orwell‘s at 50 Lawford Road, Kentish Town or Dylan Thomas at 54 Delancey Street in Camden Town or William Butler Yeats at 23 Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill.

Perhaps I walked all the way up to from Camden Town, through Chalk Farm, past the trendy cafes and shops of Belsize Park and into Hampstead Heath, that giant, sprawling, and in parts wonderfully untamed London park for a bit of wander.

Then finally, as the sky darkened, on the tube or bus (route 113 or 13) home to my grubby flat in Hendon, stopping for a greasy kebab and then relaxing on the blush blue sofa, perhaps smoking a joint offered by a flatmate, flicking the through the endless channels on Sky TV.

 

 

 

The real meaning of ‘insouciance’

focus photo of brown sheep under blue sky

‘Insouciance’ is a fantastically pompous word whose meaning I can never remember, no matter how many times I look it up.

It one of those words that I have never heard spoken aloud – you’d sound like a bit of a dill if you threw it into a conversation (Go on, I dare you!) – but which keeps cropping up in the books I read.

This occurred most recently on page 261 of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson when the young narrator, Ruby Lennox, describes the family car being stuck behind “one particularly insouciant beast” on a drive down a country road in Scotland.

The insouciant beast in question is a sheep, part of a herd that the family are forced to navigate around frequently on their holiday.

Just what kind of sheep was this, I wondered? Lazy, evil, cunning, naughty, haughty? I had no idea. So I looked it up – again.

Insouciant, or the noun ‘insouciance’ pronounced IN-SU-SI-ENCE means “lighthearted unconcern” according to the Merrim Webster Dictionary” or a “casual lack of concern” according to the definition Google throws up.

The Cambridge Dictionary puts a bit more meat on the bone saying it means a “relaxed and happy way of behaving without feeling worried or guilty”, while the MacMillan Dictionary throws in a more specific circumstantial factor defining it as “not worrying about or paying attention to possible problems”.

My favourite definition comes from the Collins Dictionary which defines insouciance as a “lack of concern shown by someone about something which they might be expected to take more seriously”.

“He replied with characteristic insouciance: ‘So what?'” is the example this dictionary gives.

Synonyms include “apathy”, “nonchalance”, “indifference” and another little-used word “torpor”.

Of French origins, its fabulously pronounced AN-SOO-SAYN in the mother tongue and no doubt still used in conversation by chic Parisians, without sounding quite as silly as an English speaker would.

As for the “insouciant beast” on page 261 of my novel, I can only laugh when applying all these descriptions to the behaviour of a rather silly farm animal.

On the other hand , is does rather brilliantly describe the seemingly animalistic urge to not give a shit.

It also nicely describes the attitudes of quite a lot of people in high office, come to think of it.

#Fakenews and facts: Journalism in the age of Trump

Fake-NewsPresident Donald Trump, who has railed endlessly against the mainstream media’s criticisms of him through the popular mantra of FAKE NEWS recently turned to his attention to fellow Australian journalist Jonathan Swan, a former Fairfax Media colleague.

Swan, who previously covered Australian politics for the Sydney Morning Herald (an affiliate of my newspaper The Australian Financial Review) has made a name for himself in Washington writing for American news website, Axios and interviewing major White House players like Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and senior adviser to  President Trump.

Swan recently drew the wrath of the leader of the free world when he co-wrote an article on Axios this week that claimed President Trump wanted to “explore using nuclear weapons to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States”.

President Trump responded in characteristic fashion to a story that did not paint him in a very good light:

But Swan stood his ground, replying:

Axios doubled down on its defense of the story, with CEO and co-founder Jim Vandehei writing that the publisher stands solidly behind its reporting, which he said was “meticulously sourced”

“Since we published, additional sources have corroborated our account,” Vandehei added.

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Australian journo Jonathan Swan

Axios has as a key element of its ‘Manifesto’ – ‘Don’t sell BS’ and so stakes its reputation on always been accurate.

 

This of course is the personal manifesto of any good journalist working today (including myself) and has been so since Gutenberg invented the printing press.

But its especially true now as ‘serious journalism (for want of a better word) is upended by the ability for anyone to set up a website and claim to be an authority and respected source of ‘real’ news.

However, all journalists, even brilliant ones, make mistakes from time to time, perhaps more frequently now in the age of 24/7 news and social media.

I don’t know of any journalist, including myself, who has not made an error in a story, big or small. It’s part of the job.

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President Trump 

However, a genuine mistake should never been confused with  FAKE NEWS which has been around long before Donald Trump set foot in the Oval Office and made it his mantra.

 

The tag FAKE NEWS should only be applied to news stories that are not only plainly wrong, but deliberately written so by either including untruths, half-truths, fabricated information or made-up quotes, or by deliberately excluding important information.

A story can be plainly wrong, but not be FAKE NEWS. These stories are easy to spot because a correction, clarification, retraction and/or apology will follow.

However, in the era of Trump, the boundaries have been deliberately blurred.

Trump’s favourite FAKE NEWS targets like The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN are broadly regarded as good sources of objective news, while those he admires and promotes, like Fox News (most of the time) have less then stellar track records on truth and objectivity.

It also got me thinking (based on my own experiences and those of my colleagues) about the reasons journalists make mistakes..

These I suggest are the main reasons good journalists sometimes make bad mistakes:

  1. Making incorrect or dubious assumptions
  2. Misreading or misinterpreting a document or pertinent piece of information
  3. Not verifying information supposedly from a supposed trusted source
  4. Not properly understanding the subject matter.
  5. Relying on poor sources for tip-offs and comments
  6. Poor judgement
  7. Tiredness, being rushed for time (a by product of the age we write in)

My father the serial killer: discovering the real Shannon O’Leary?

out-of-the-fire-and-into-the-panIt’s hard to write an honest review about ‘Out of the Fire and into the Pan’, the second memoir penned by the Australian actor, performer and songwriter Shannon O’Leary, without confessing that a large part of my motivation for reading it was finding out the identity of the author.

Shannon O’Leary is a pseudonym adopted at the request of her family.

Her first memoir, ‘The Blood on My Hands’ which I read and reviewed almost 3 years ago, dealt with the author’s horrific childhood, where she was sexually, physically and emotionally abused by her father Patrick, a sadistic serial killer (never caught) whom the author witnessed murder young women on the rural outskirts of Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s.

Out of the Fire and into the Pan, which begins with the author’s move from Port Macquarie to the inner suburbs of Sydney aged 15, is the story of O’Leary’s bumpy journey through a string of failed relationships with damaged men to becoming a mother of five kids and entrepreneur. It also charts her eventful and ultimately successful career in the entertainment industry.

While I was curious from the start to know who O’Leary really is (not too many memoirs claim a serial killer for a father) the stimulus to try and solve this mystery actually came from O’Leary herself: her second memoir seemed packed full of clues about her real identity.

For instance, she writes that in 1977:

I was always busy acting. I had a guest spot on a well-known soap opera, appeared in some television commercials and gained some extra work on a few films

A footnote identifies the soap opera as ‘The Restless Years’ and so I spent a great deal of time trawling through the list of actors that appeared on the show, to try and work out which one was Shannon O’Leary.

When that proved fruitless, I tried Googling her work as a ‘reporter’ on popular television show from the early 1980s, and another, a childrens show, she said she appeared on called the Super Flying Fun Show.

Later in the memoir, she mentions a scandalous story about her that appeared in a gossip column when she was dating a much old British-born cinematographer called ‘Henry’ and again I dug around online looking for the article without any luck.

She also writes about her work on a 1980s ABC mini-series  where she agonised about having to appear topless in an embrace with a “young blond Shakespearean actor [who] was already a star in Britain”.

All these clues were enticing, but led me down rabbit holes and towards red herrings.

In the end, it was the return address on the back of the package which contained my review copy of her book which proved the most valuable clue. After a bit of digging and cross-referencing of property records, I discovered who she was and soon came across the concise Wikipedia page of the real Shannon O’Leary. I also found other stories about her and her family online.

While, I do not plan to reveal who Shannon O’Leary really is – that was never my intention – I can say that the information online corroborates the major biographical details shared in her memoirs – though unsurprisingly, there is no mention of her disturbing childhood or who her father was.

It was also nice to see a photo of Shannon O’Leary and learn a bit about her interesting family, in particurlar her kids, which have also been successful in the entertainment sphere.

As for her second memoir, it is worthy sequel to the harrowing story of her childhood, and also an enjoyable chronicle of what life was like in Australia for a young aspiring actor and entertainer in the 1970s and 1980s.

The second memoir, while not nearly as shocking as the first book, still includes graphic flashbacks to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, who continues to make sadistic appearances in her life, a hissing shadow of a man that refues to go away, and whose crimes went completely unpunished.

I heard him laugh and opened my eyes to see him pointing the gun at me. The shot cracked out, whizzing over my head making me jump and teeter on the branch.” I think you can stay there for hours,” Dad said, as he walked inside.

Thankfully O’Leary also  takes time, amid the many traumatic and sad episodes, to recount her successes, big and small along the way. Most pleasingly for the reader there is a sense of progress, of building towards something hopeful: a loving relationship, a happy family and a comfortable home in a NSW country town.

Despite her abusive childhood, O’Leary emerges as a victor, as someone who triumphs over the rotten hand dealt to her at the start of her life. That she survived at all is a wonder, even she struggles to fathom:’Why was I spared?’

If I am to make any sort of criticism of her memoir, it would be to say that the author sometimes says too much when less would be better.

But that is a very minor criticism. O’Leary is good story teller, blessed with the gift of objective self-reflection. All of her experiences are retold with a feeling of ardent authenticity. The key moments in her life, both good and bad, become her “stepping stones” towards a place of relative normality.

For O’Leary,  the act of writing and telling her incredible story, as painful as that must have been at times, is way for her to liberate herself from her past and to find healing.

“Letting people know about my childhood was like I’d experienced a coming out – a shedding of skin,” she writes towards the end of her second memoir. “By writing the book and with my father dying (in 2009), I had liberation from my past.”

Don’t be a twit: Be careful what you tweet (or even retweet)

retweetI recently had a stark reminder of the potentially costly dangers lurking on social media.

It wasn’t even something I’d posted myself on Twitter, but just a simple and stupid retweet which brought the threat of legal action rushing into my inbox the next morning.

“RETWEETING A FALSE AND DEFAMATORY TWEET” the headline of the email read.

It was then explained to me, by the subject of the tweet, that the person who posted the original information – an anonymous person – had made an allegedly “fabricated allegation”.

Having been identified as one of the handful of people who had retweeted the provocative tweet, I was then invited to “provide proof” of the material I had in effect republished through the simple click of a mouse.

“I look forward to your apology and immediate removal of such retweet” – the email ended by saying.

Of course I had no proof and nor did I wish to be sued so I hastily undid my retweet and wrote an apology to the person who had contacted me.

It was the obvious and sensible thing to do.

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I have always been aware that you can be sued – and many have – for what you say on social media, and because of that I am quite careful not to put myself in the firing line.

But on this occasion my good sense deserted me, though I do recall a mental warning bell tinkling in the background at the moment I hovered over the retweet icon.

Thankfully, the aggrieved party was satisfied with my sincere apology and removal of the offending retweet, much to my relief and chagrin.

Now that the shock has worn off,  I am now deeply cognisant of what I tweet and retweet, post and share online. (What a strange world we live in!) and of course what I write on this blog.

In that regard, it still amazes me what people say about, and to one another on social media , often without hiding their identity at all.

It’s very brazen and defamatory stuff (most of which would never be uttered face-to-face in the ‘real world’) and carries with it the very real threat of a costly lawsuit should the subject of derision be upset enough to take action.

Indeed, there are many examples of people who have been sued, sacked or had their reputations damaged or destroyed by the things they have tweeted, posted and retweeted on the plethora of social media platforms that now dominate daily life.

Just type in “defamation + social media” into Google and you will find plenty of good reading material.

There is of course a very obvious reason why people sue others for what they say on social media and the word is ‘viral’. (Just ask this poor woman).

Information posted on these platforms can spread like wildfire via retweets, shares and likes. This phenomenon occurs everyday when unlikely tweets and posts start ‘trending’.

This point was highlighted by a judge in the first social media defamation case in Australia to proceed to full trial in 2013. In this case, the plaintiff – a high school music teacher – was awarded $105,000 in damages and costs after a former student at the school made false allegations about her on Twitter and Facebook.

District Court Judge Michael Elkaim remarked in his March 2014 judgement of Mickle v Farley that ” when defamatory publications are made on social media it is common knowledge that they spread”

“They are spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication. I have taken that into account in the assessment of damages that I previously made,” the judge said.

This case, and many others around the world, should serve as a warning to anyone about the care one should take in how we represent ourselves online. Certainly tweeting or posting while drunk or mad with rage is not a good idea!

Even if you are rich and can afford a costly legal battle, there is also the potential damage to your reputation – just ask this famous billionaire.

Be careful what you tweet.

 

 

 

The bitter aftertaste of the ‘democracy sausage’ (or ‘Becoming an Aussie’ Part 2)

Ballot-boxesHaving blogged – to mild interest – about my 14-year ‘odyssey’ to becoming an Aussie, I thought a few words on the by-product of my newly established dual citizenship status – VOTING – should follow.

Funnily enough, shortly after I arrived in Australia in September 2004 at the start of my odyssey, a Federal Election was called, (won comfortably by John Howard’s Liberals) and which I still recall through the imagery of opposition leader Mark Latham’s very vigorous up close and personal concessionary handshake with his diminutive opponent.

I also distinctly remember sitting outside a school somewhere nearby Canberra like an unwelcome outcast (still on a tourist visa), whilst my then girlfriend went inside to cast her ballot. No doubt it was for John Howard (she was quite the fan I later discovered); and not surprisingly we parted ways soon after.

I’ve actually voted twice since taking the pledge at Kyneton Town Hall in October and receiving the customary native pot plant ( a wattle still surviving in the garden).

First there was the Victorian state election in November, where I apparently made the fundamental novice error of voting “above the line” for candidates in the state’s upper house, and then more recently at last weekend’s Federal Election.

I’ve apparently also committed a double un-Australian transgression by voting early on both occasions, rather then on election day, thus missing out on the final pitches for my vote by the competing parties and perhaps more importantly, not taking a literal bite of the ‘democracy sausage’.

For those non-Australian readers out there, it is customary to chomp on the simple pleasure of a barbequed sausage in white bread whilst waiting to fill out your ballot.

While I defend my decision to vote early as prudent (no queues, less hassling from party zealots) perhaps I did miss out on some of the circus-like atmosphere of election day, not least of all the sounds and smells of fatty sausages grilling away and the banter and chatter of this very Aussie ritual.

I did though correct my other ‘error’ – voting above the line – by going ‘below the line’ and giving all 12 of my required preferences to Labor and Greens candidates in the Federal election, six each in the pattern of Labor, Green, Labor, Green etc etc.

(Yes, I am a progressive voter, no mystery there. You’d probably have to hold a gun to my head to make me vote for a Conservative party.)

Of the experience of voting itself, it was quite odd.

While I found the process of casting my ballot about as thrilling as mailing a letter at the Post Office, I closely followed, with some excitement, the results as they flowed in, and was surprisingly elated when Labor won the state election in a landslide.

Similarly voting federally in a vacant shop in a mall in Sunbury was rather uninspiring (I dealt with the zealots and their pamphlet waving with a firm “I’ve already made up my mind’ and purposeful stride into the voting room).

But again, my emotions took hold as the results came in and it became clear the Liberals had surged to a Trump-style victory against the odds. As such a mild depression set in on Sunday at the realisation that another three more years of conservative policies, further neglect of the environment and inaction on climate change would follow.

Wasn’t this supposed to be an election about climate action?

By Monday, I was thankfully back to my cheerfully cynical self, joining in the banter about ‘ScoMo and Albo’ with my work colleagues and coming to terms with our ‘miraculously’ re-elected PM, the so-called #messiahfromtheshire ( Or if you prefer, the #liarfromtheshire,)

Both Aussie voting experiences were quite a contrast to the last time I voted in a national election, 25 years ago, when the emotion of simply casting one’s ballot that day was overwhelmingly wonderful and I cared very little for the outcome, knowing it was basically a fait accompli.

That was in 1994, when a free and democratic South Africa voted as one, with all creeds and colours forming joyous lines that snaked for miles in city suburbs and country hillsides, in a momentous (and remarkably peaceful) day for the country and the world.

Of course, back then there were true political leaders to admire, most notably the global statesman and freedom warrior Nelson Mandela, who went on to become the Rainbow Nation’s first democratically elected leader when his African National Congress (ANC) swept to power.

Compare the stature of the great ‘Madiba’ and all that he stood for with the mendacious, spiteful and dishonest grab for power that categorised this Federal Election, on both sides of the political divide, and it’s surprising I cared at all about the final outcome.

Truly, I must be an Aussie now!

‘Black territory’: the dark story of Sunbury’s asylum on the hill

IMG-2945In 1945, Maraquita Sargeant, a young teacher and concert pianist living in rural Victoria was admitted to a notorious lunatic asylum north of Melbourne.

Here she would remain for the next 22 years, incarcerated against her will and tragically, completely sane.

Years after her release in a more enlightened and less cruel age, psychiatrists would describe Maraquita as being nothing more then “mildly eccentric”.

Her ‘lunacy’ in 1945: not wanting to have any more children.

Her youngest child, Tony, who was only 18 months old when his mother was taken away, calls the now empty lunatic asylum “black territory”.

“This is a black place. I don’t want to be here,” he says in a short video about his mother produced by Washington’s famous Smithsonian Institute.

This “black territory” is a place I have only recently discovered for myself.

It’s only a 20 minutes drive from where I live and somewhere I pass almost every day on my train ride into work.

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Maraquita Sargeant (from the Smithsonian video)

For months I’d thought the majestic looking red-brick mansion rising above trees on a distant hillside was a country estate, perhaps built long ago for a Melbourne land baron.

It was only when I found myself standing outside its locked-up gates, staring up at the classically proportioned Victorian structure with its steep black roof, long-tall chimneys and large empty windows that its real purpose came into focus.

Known originally as Caloola, the vast complex of mostly abandoned and decaying buildings was for over 100 years a lunatics asylum. It occupies almost the entire hillside of housing estate called Jacksons Hill.

In its most recent incarnation, until 2011, the asylum complex was a study campus occupied by Victoria University. Search online and you’ll find plenty of ghost stories.

Caloola’s history goes back over 150 years to 1864, when it became the site for one of Victoria’s  twelve ‘Industrial schools – institutionalised homes for delinquent or neglected children, that were a horror of diseases, death and discomfort in their own right.

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The ‘Hospital for the Insane’ or ‘Sunbury Asylum’ was built in 1879 and then expanded over the next 40-odd years into a complex of 20 separate buildings, including a psychiatric hospital.

Back then there would have been very little to see from the hillside apart from farmland and another famous Sunbury landmark, the grey-spired Rupertswood mansion – home of The Ashesgrey-spired Rupertswood mansion – home of The Ashes. Rupertswood was completed in 1876 and is now incorporated into a posh private school.

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Rupertswood: Home of The Ashes

While the building of a modern highway has made Sunbury an outlying suburb of Melbourne today, back in the 1870s, Caloola asylum inmates would have felt very isolated from the wealth and power of boom town Melbourne, then one of the richest cities in the world thanks to the Victorian Gold Rush.

This separation was of course deliberate – people considered ‘mad’ in those days like Maraquita Sargeant were locked up far away from the chattering middle-classes, often to be forgotten about or no longer mentioned (except in whispers) by their own families.

“Asylums were typically distant from population centres, with extensive grounds and ha ha walls to prevent escape,” the Victorian Heritage Database entry says of Caloola.

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This is black territory, a dark place of menace.

According to the VHD,  the purpose built Sunbury asylum with its “pavilion wards in brick with terra cotta roofing tiles conformed to international standards of asylum and hospital planning adopted in the later nineteenth century”.

“Caloola is of historical significance for its physical fabric and spaces which demonstrate nineteenth century attitudes to the treatment of mental illness, including the padded cells, ripple iron cells and dormitory accommodation.”

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An inmate of Sunbury asylum, in what appears to be a strait jacket

In the Smithsonian video, Tony Sargeant enters one of the claustrophobic former padded cells, the cushion lining peeling back from the wall like dead skin adding to the sense of horror. In another, he finds the large empty former linen room, where his mother spent her days monotonously patching up sheets and pillow cases.

“That was her big job in life. Even though she was a concert pianist,” Tony says.

Caloola remained a mental institution and training hospital until 1985 when it housed intellectually handicapped people.

From 1992 to 2011 it was a campus of Victorian University. Some of the building are still in use as a primary school, radio station, art gallery and theatre company.

For a while – after the university campus closed – a passionate local lady called Julie Mills and her husband ran popular two-hour guided tours of the asylum buildings providing insights into how the facility operated and how patients were treated at the time.

Ms Mills told the Sunbury Leader in November 2015 she wanted to shine a light on the mental health system in those days, and how it has changed, and tell the stories of some of the people treated, often harshly, within its walls.

“A lot of the Sunbury asylum history is about stigma and it is something that was buried in family histories,” she said.

Often people – many of them women – were placed into the asylum for conditions that today would be compassionately treated like post-natal depression,  or for just being drunk and disorderly.

In the case of Marquita Sargeant, she was denied her freedom – and later sent for a failed lobotomy at the Royal Melbourne Hospital – because a director at the asylum deemed her “a threat to certain prominent people’s reputations”.

I found countless other example of the cruelty, deviancy and filthy conditions that were part of asylum life for inmates, right up until the 1990s when the asylum housed mental patients, many of whom were abused or over-medicated.

A newspaper article that appeared in the Melbourne Argus in December 1881 reported on investigations into the lecherous behaviour of the asylum superintendent at the time Albert Baldwin, after he had a 17-year-old girl Agnes Simmonds visit him in his office, where he locked the door.

“The patient was alone with Mr Baldwin in his officer for some time,: testified William Walker, the asylum storekeeper and clear.

“Eventually she left with the attendant. Baldwin then called me in, and I found him in a flurried state. He pulled up the blind of his window, washed his hands and face and brushed his hair. The patient Simmonds left on the 5th September and I believe has gone to New South Wales.”

A feature article on Sunbury Asylum that appeared in The Age newspaper in 1999 talks of  Elizabeth Kennedy, 31, a suicidal dressmaker, who spent 7200 hours “in seclusion”, from 1894 to 1896 which meant she was forced to wear a camisole – the notorious straitjacket – and webbed trousers daily.

“A woman in seclusion also wore canvas gloves shaped like oven mitts.  Many of the inmates died of pneumonia and, in the early years, they were given cold baths. Difficult patients were deprived of dinner,” the article says.

Last May, Jackson’s Hill and asylum complex was acquired by the State Government’s Development Victoria.  However, plans to turn it into a community, arts and cultural precinct appear to have stalled.

Instead, it stands still and empty, a decaying and ghoulish Dickensian shrine to those who suffered unjustly and often terribly behind its walls.

As for my mistaken belief that this hillside of horrors was a majestic country estate, I can take some solace from a 1996 article in The Age newspaper, in which the writer described Caloola’s gardens, open-air pavilions, and curved ha-ha walls as having a “beauty that seems at odds with their original purpose”.