Australian breakfast TV: a smorgasbord of the bland, boring and banal

a bowl of cornflakesBreakfast television in Australia is more boring than cornflakes, I think as munch on a far more interesting bowl of muesli, stewed fruit and skim milk on a morning when I decide that instead of blogging or checking emails before leaving for work, I’ll watch televsion.

I’ve blogged before about non-newsworthy stories that get front page scoops, but really the drivel they’re showing on Channel 7’s Sunrise this morning takes the cake.

I’m not making this up.

There’s a man, lets call him Jim (I forgot his name in the excitement of it all) who is telling host Sam Armytage about how he got a parking ticket overturned in Brisbane.

“I only parked for 40 minutes in a two-hour zone,” says Jim as we’re shown a shot of the offending Moreton Bay council, a square, white block of a building, oozing petty bureaucracy, with palm trees swaying outside in the ocean breeze.

And then Jim goes on to tell us breakfast-eaters about the whole saga, of how he had to go to the council offices, and wait, and then when he did speak to someone was told that he would have to take his case all the way through the appeal process.

But in the end he got his ticket revoked – a tale of bravery against the odds. Let’s give Jim a medal!

But that’s not all.

Jim is suing the council for wasting his time – “My time is valuable to me” he muses.

And so is mine I think as I wonder just how this little provincial tale made it onto national television at 7am in the morning.

It’s not just me who is bored, Sam Armytage looks bored too and annoyed, wondering if Jim will ever end his story.

Eventually she gets good old Jim to wrap it up – and the relief is palpable on her face.

The camera pans to David Koch – Kochie as we all know him – who seems to find Jim’s story most interesting.

“Good on you Jim,” he says, but then Kochie tells everyone that.

I switch channel to ABC News Breakfast.


It’s that regular morning spot where a fellow colleague at the ABC dissects the minutiae of the what’s in the day’s newspapers, in search of the most boring stories, commentary and analysis, which is then re-analysed and re-commented on by the guest and the hosts of the show.

It’s high-brow intellectual mumbo-jumbo, mental masturbation as Woody Allen would call it.

And it’s always the same stories. What Julia said. What Tony said. That Julie Bishop where’s the pants in the Liberal Party. The latest scandal. Etc Etc.

Everyone looks interested and fascinated by the analysis of analysis of the day’s newspapers, but I’m lost and can’t even follow the basic political plot.

Time to switch.

Channel 10 Breakfast.

Thankfully this is one of the last episodes as they’re just about to can the racist, sexist right-wing rants of host Paul Henry, a gerbil of a man if ever there was one. (The show ended this week).

And so its on to Channel 9’s Today program.

Karl Stefanovic, with his Tom Cruise-like grin is making all the ladies giggle and swoon.

Ho, ho, ho he’s so funny that Karl with his cheeky expressions, except when he puts on his serious face for those serious topics and then he reminds me of Ben Stiller’s “blue steel” stare in Zoolander.

Also on Channel Nine, entertainment reporter Richard “Dicky’ Wilkins is interviewing someone about the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

As with all his interviews, they go something like this:

Dicky: It’s a wonderful movie.
Celebrity: Thank you.
Dicky: Really wonderful.
Celebrity: Thanks. We were pleased
Dicky: That’s wonderful. So what’s your next project
Celebrity: A low budget foreign movie.
Dicky: Oh. Sorry I’ve only ever reviewed Hollywood blockbusters, budget $100 million minimum.
Celebrity: Oh
Dicky: Never mind. Still it’s wonderful nonetheless.
Celebrity: Thanks.
Dicky: So when are you coming to visit your fans in Australia?
Celebrity: Oh, I love coming to visit. We’ll be here soon.
Dicky: That’s wonderful. Wonderful.
Celebrity: Thanks
Dicky: That’s wonderful.

I grab for the remote.

End transmission.

A review of “The Finkler Question” or how I contemplated a return to the synagogue

I cannot recall a book I have read that has moved me more to contemplate a return visit to the synagogue (I have not been back for many years), but I have an urge to do just that after reading “The Finkler Question”.

And not for religious reasons, though that may sound odd. But for nostalgia’s sake, to hear the old tunes and sing along.

“The Finkler Question” is a tragic-comedic novel written by English writer Howard Jacobson that won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2010.

“Finkler” refers to one of the characters – a popular jewish philosopher, writer and television personality called Sam Finkler – and also is the word used by Julian Treslove, the main protaganist of the novel, to describe all jews – he calls them “finklers”.

Julian Treslove, 49, is educated, intelligent and middle class, living in the part of Hampstead (a wealthy, predominantly Jewish suburb of North London) “that is not in Hampstead” – an often-repeated joke in the novel.

He regards himself, with a degree of complacency, as a failure of a man, as someone who never achieved much. He has two sons by different women, who left him before they gave birth (all women leave Treslove once they get to know him) and he has played no part in raising his children, and even dislikes them.

Once a radio producer of late-night music shows no one listened to on the BBC, he now earns his living impersonating celebrities like Brad Pitt, not because he looks so much like them, but because he does bear some passing resemblance to a lot of famous people, though no one in particular. An older American women who picks him up at a party, confuses him for Colin Firth.

The other principle character is Libor Sevcik, an 80-year-old Czech-born jew, former biographer of Hollywood stars who managed to resist the charms of Marilyn Monroe (she would ring him at odd hours because she could never figure out timezones), Jane Russell and other glamourous icons who confided and tempted him, and yet he remained faithful to his beloved, but very needy wife Malkie.

Both Sam Finkler and  Libor Sevcik are recently widowed. Finkler misses his wife Tyler, though not desperately (he regards having an affairs as an acceptable male compulsion) while Libor is deeply sad at the loss of his wife and companion.

The friendship between the three men is the central plot of the novel  as indeed is the notion of friendship, loss, guilt and loyalty.

But, at it’s heart ‘The Finkler Question’ is about Julian Treslove’s obssession with all things Jewish and his desire to penetrate, understand and become accepted into the mysterious but always scrutinised Jewish race.

He suffers the ignomy of being mugged by a woman in central London who he believes utters the words: ‘You Ju?” and comes to the conclusion that she mistook him for a jew or for his friend Finkler. But he can’t be sure.

The book really is about the “jewish question”. There are a number of anti-semitic incidents, which bring the idea of Jewish identity into sharp focus.

Jacobsen through his characters, is questioning what it means to be a jew in the modern age and all those things that bind one jew to another – the “jew-dar” as Treslove asks of his Jewish girlfriend Hephzibah.

And there’s all the other contemporary Jewish themes – Zionism, family, tradition and history explored in the stories of the three men.

And there is the food of course, which brings them all together, whether it’s the seder meal or the lunch prepared by Hephzhibah:

“‘What’s good,’ said Finkler “is this…” He reached for more of everything. Herring in red wine. Herring in white wine, herring in cream, sour cream, vinegar, herring curled around an olive with toothpics through them, herring chopped in what was said to be a new way and of course chopped still in the old…and then the pickled meat, the pastrami, the smoked salmon, the egg and onion, the chopped liver, the cheese that had no taste, the blintses, the tsimmes, the cholent.”

Treslove wants to be a part of this community.  But always feels excluded. No matter how many words of yiddish he learns.

He is forever the non-Jewish outsider – the goy, the gentile – trying to get in, marvelling at it all, such as when he falls in love with Libor’s grand-niece Hephzibabh:

“He thought his heart would break with love for her. She was so Jewish…For his part he was ready to jump right in. Then and There. Marry me. I’ll do whatever has to be done. I’ll study. I’ll be circumcised. Just marry me and make Finkler jokes.”

Alongside the humour, there’s the anxiety, the worry, and the guilt all beautfiully written by Howard Jacobsen in his wonderful prose.

And it is all these elements that make me think about being a jew, though I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue or even fast on Yom Kippur, I feel part of the community, like all Finklers.

The Finkler Question poses so many questions, it is about the mystery of being a jew and it’s that mystery that makes people want to be jews and to be rid of them in equal measure.

If there is one telling paragraph that sums up the book and what Jacobsen is trying to convey it’s this, as pondered by Julian Treslove:

“You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews. The bad times were simply those in which the former outnumbered the latter.”

And sometimes, you want to feel connected again by singing the Shabbat songs in synagogue on a Saturday morning, or attend the Passover seder and swap stories of the exodus from Egypt and ask the Four Questions – whether you believe in God or not.

The diverse blogging universe: five blogs worth following

One of the reasons why I started blogging was to connect with other like-minded bloggers expressing themselves online and in doing so discover great stories, ideas and photographs.

In the few months that I have posted on Freshlyworded, I have come across some sensational blogs full of witty, clever and insightful ideas and a passionate and committed collection of bloggers.

Freshlyworded, apart from being a blog about my opinions about a variety of topics, has no real theme. It’s kind of like the sitcom ‘Seinfeld’ – a blog about nothing (and everything).

But the majority of blogs I have come across and interacted with have a definite theme and I have enjoyed a number of these for a variety of different reasons.

The great thing about the internet and online tools like is that they make it so easy to create your own blog and start expressing yourself.

The challenge though is to stick to it – and write (or photograph) interestingly and creatively and to entice people to read on, to comment, to link, to ‘follow’ and to ‘like’. After all, everyone who blogs wants an audience otherwise, we’d just write a personal diary and keep it in the drawer beside our beds.

Among all the thousands of blogs out there, these are five that I have enjoyed over the last few months (in no particular order):

Blog: Toemail
Bloggers: Quillan and Angela with submissions from readers from all over the world
Started: 2010

The jist: The blog asks people to send in photos containing a portion of their feet taken in some interesting part of the world. Sometimes the toe is incidental to the photo – the backdrop is what matters – or it is the centrepiece. But mainly it’s a blog about exotic and interesting places where people’s feet have walked. Photos come from all parts of the world, sometimes they are photos of real feet and sometimes they are the feet of statues and paintings. And there is often a touching or interesting story written about the photo too.

Check out: This post about a painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo taken in Mexico City.

Blog: The flash fiction daily
Blogger: Daniel Jevon
Started: October 2012

The jist: This blog is quite simply the embodiment of the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction. Every day Daniel Jevon writes a short story based on a true event or at least one reported as true in the newspapers. At the end of the story he provides a one line summary of what actually happened with a link back to the original article. It’s a clever idea and makes for some good ‘fiction’.

Check out: This short story called “A hate crime”.

Blog: Broken light: a photography collective
Bloggers: Run by a  “magazine and book photo editor in New York” with submissions from all around the world
Started: March 2012

The jist:  The blog acts as a place where people suffering from mental illness can express themselves through photography and words. Photographs can remind those struggling with these challenges of better, more hopeful times and also as a way to convey thoughts and feelings and what it’s like to be trapped inside your mind. The ultimate goal of the website is to have a gallery space dedicated exclusively to “displaying and selling works by artists who struggle with mental illnesses, as well as helping them to learn and grow by offering free photography classes and workshops”. The images are some startling, often moving and deeply felt.

Check out: This almost Hitchcokian-image taken by someone suffering from depression.

Blog: Ambling around Brisbane
Blogger: Paul Dean, an expat-Brit living in Brisbane, Australia

The jist: This is a blog about photography and words. Paul has a great eye for photos in a city setting, with many photos taken in and around Brisbane. He also stimulates thought and discussion with images selected from around the world. But it’s the photos in and around Brisbane that I really love – it’s a personal thing for me as I lived in Brisbane for just over a year. Paul has a knack for finding the beautiful, bizarre and poetic in the mundane.

Check out: These images of Brisbane architecture and this photo as part of one of his weekly photo challenge “Big”.

Blog: Think. Act. Ethics
Bloggers: Abbie, Magdelina, Marion and Sophie studying communications at Southampton Solent University

The jist: the blog is part of an ethics course being taken by the four university students. It raises ethical issues such as “Is torture ever justified” (such as when the information extracted can or could have saved lives) or “Do you agree the burqa should be banned?” The authors do a good job of highlighting both sides of the debate and make you re-consider your stance.

Check out:  This post on the topic of euthanasia.

A glimpse of the real Jimmy Savile -12 years ago

This, for me, is the moment, 12 years ago, that Jimmy Savile, revealed to the world that he was not one of Britain’s most-loved entertainers and charity fund-raisers, but an evil paedophile:

This is a still shot taken from a documentary by celebrated interviewer and documentary film maker Louis Theroux called “”When Louis met Jimmy” filmed in 2000.

In light of the hundreds of allegations of rape and abuse of children made against Savile, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) re-broadcast the documentary.

(You can watch the whole thing on Daily Motion)

Apart from showing Savile to be completely eccentric (he had no stove in his flat, smokes a cigar while exercising on his treadmill, never has guests around, prefers sleeping in a minivan to his Highland cottage), manipulative (he turns a question from Theroux about a secret stash of alcohol into an accusation that he may not be a teetotaler) and disturbed (he turned his dead mother’s bedroom into a Norman Bates-like mausoleum complete with her dry-cleaned dresses hanging up in the closet and earlier tells the cameraman that while working as a dance hall manager in the 1950s he liked to “tie people up” that were causing trouble), there are many clues, which in hindsight, point to the hundreds of accusations that emerged a year after Savile’s death.

And so to this photo and the expression it captured.

It comes towards the end of a the hour-long documentary  as Theroux and Savile sit side-by-side on a train.

The discussion turns to Savile’s relationships with children.

Theroux asks Savile why he has said in the past that he hates children.

Savile’s response is that by saying he hates them: “it puts a lot of salacious tabloid people off the hunt”.

Theroux’s response is to ask Savile if this served to put and end to questions about “Is he or is he not a paedophile?”

“Yes,” says Savile. “How does anyone know whether I am or not? Nobody knows whether I am or not. I know I am not.”

Theroux says: “To be honest that makes you sound more suspicious.”

“Well that’s my policy,” Savile replies, shaking his head.

“And it’s worked a dream.”

After a moment’s thought, Theroux asks: “Why have you said in interviews you don’t have emotions?”

“Because if you say have emotions you have to explain them for two hours.”

Savile yawns and adds:

“The truth is I am very good at masking them.”

There is silence. The camera zooms in and crops Savile’s face.

And there’s THAT expression.

Savile looks towards the floor, his eyes lowered in shame and bewilderment.

Perhaps, at that moment he is remembering what he has done to all those innocent young people and who he really is – a sick, lonely old man.

Boned: Here’s another reason why newspapers are losing readers…

Having just completed the 14 km City2Sea race on Sunday I was given a copy of The Sunday Age for my troubles.

Sweaty and tired and looking forward to a big breakfast, I turned to the front page of the newspaper which had as its headline: “End transimssion” with a granny photo of Channel 10 newsreader Helen Kapalos.

Expecting a big story about a financial crisis or collapse – indeed perhaps the end of the TV network’s own transmission – I read on and found that the story was about Kapalos losing her job as part of network cutbacks.

Reading like a suspense novel plot, the story describes how “within minutes of bidding viewers a good weekend and walking off set, Kapalos was grabbed on the arm by the personal assistant of Ten’s head of news, Dermot O’Brien, and instructed not to leave the office”.

After a tense stand-off, Kapalos was allowed to return to her computer to retrieve her holiday booking – it just so happened her sacking occurred on the day she was due to fly out for a holiday in the US.

Now I don’t wish to make light of anybody losing their job – having been “boned” myself in the past I know how it feels  – but I have to ask: was a newsreader losing her job the biggest and most important story of the weekend in Melbourne or Australia or anywhere for that matter?

Was it the biggest story of the weekend and did it warrant front page courage?

I bet Kapalos herself was surprised to find news of her boneing (for overseas readers, “boneing” is an Australian term referring to getting fired) her photo splashed across the front-page of Melbourne’s only Sunday broadsheet newspaper.

It’s the kind of story that should have warranted a side column somewhere in the middle of the newspaper, not the front page or third page or even the fifth page.

Apart from Kapalos herself (who will surely be fielding many job offers on her return from her overseas holiday), and some of her fans who enjoyed watching her read out the day’s news items in her rather sultry, whispery voice (I didn’t mind her interrupting my Thursday night viewing of Law & Order with a news update) this is not a story that warranted the front-page splash it received.

Yes I know Channel 10 is in trouble (and that’s the bigger story) but it’s the network’s own fault really –  have you watched some of the dreck they have come out with lately: Being Lara Bingle, The Shire, Everybody Dance now? All of them rubbish. All them failures. All of them axed!

As for the story of Kapalos’s dismissal this was a just another example of how the TV networks operate- indeed anyone who has enjoyed a television show on the commercial networks only to see it suddenly “boned” from the schedule will know they are a ruthless bunch.

You could also read into the “misplacement” of this story as a sign that’s its not just the internet that’s too blame for newspapers’ falling readerships and advertising woes.

Is The Sunday Age a learned, high-brow broadsheet or is it re-making itself into another tabloid? Or perhaps it is having an identity crisis?

Surely, there had to be a bigger story on Sunday then Kapalos getting boned?

First of all it was Remembrance Day, so that might have warranted a front page  – after all there are Australian soliders involved in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and risking their lives on a daily basis.

And there are many other local and national issues that would have deserved front-page priority.

Instead, The Sunday Age has gone for a front page story which (with the greatest respect) is what you’d expect on the front cover of the Herald Sun.

And I wouldn’t have a problem with it being on the front cover of the Herald Sun because those sorts of stories are its bread and butter- attention grabbing headlines about attractive news anchors being pulled aside after their last news broadcast and told to pack their bags.

The Sunday Age is a weighty newspaper and deserves weightier stories on its front page.

Is it any wonder its readership has fallen around 15% in the space of year!

Update to this story: As I predicted, Helen Kapalos is reportedly being courted by a host of TV networks since being boned by Channel 10, which only re-affirms what I wrote about this never being an important enough story to warrant the front page of a major newspaper.

From city 2 sea: A different kind of Melbourne racing carnival

The alarm goes off at 6am on a chilly Sunday morning.

Giddy up!

Today I’m running the City2Sea, a 14 kilometre charity run through the streets of Melbourne, starting in the CBD and ending at St Kilda Beach.

For the last two months, I’ve been getting up at the ungodly, still-dark hour of 5.30am to train before work – and I feel ready.

A quick nappy change (the baby’s, not mine), a small bowl of muesli , a kiss goodbye to the sleepy wife and I’m off, driving along Oak Park’s quiet suburban streets on my way into the city.

The radio says it is 9 degrees celsius  (in November!) and I have the heater cranked up in the car.

It’s a even colder in the city where I park, munch half a banana, and set off up Flinders Street for the start line just off St Kilda Road.

Runners emerge from everywhere, with their race numbers pinned to their shirts, they’re easy to spot. Also on the streets, late night/early morning revellers outside 7-Elevens and the homeless. A man outside Flinders Station asks me for change and I literally don’t have any. Just a bank note stuffed into my sock for a bite to eat after the race.

I meet up with my friend Jonny outside the colossal, fortress-like grey walls of the National Gallery of Victoria and we jokingly discuss strategies for elbowing people out the way at the congested start line.

The vibe is great, surrounded by fellow Melburnians of all ages, shapes and creeds chatting away, stretching, waiting to test themselves.

Music belts out and a loudspeaker barks out instructions and bits of motivation. Later the same voice tells us repeatedly to “get into our pens”. Since when did we become farm animals?

Today is also Remembrance Day and we listen to a short address about the bravery of Australian troops in the war and listen to the bugle poignantly play “The last post”.

The sky is clear and the air crisp as we stand in silence and listen to the sorrowful tune.

Afterwards, as we wait for the start gun, Jonny fumes at all the runners with their ipods strapped to their arms and plugged into their ears.

He was under the impression these devices were banned.

“I might have to steal someone’s headphones,” he chirps, clearly not impressed.

A lady in front of me has two ipods, one strapped on each arm. Is she using them as weights I wonder or planning to teleconference while running?

Someone is lined up in their tuxedo. Another as a super-hero with red cape (not superman, they’re advertising a gym or slimming plan I think).

The gun goes off and we’re off, racing under a canopy of trees down St Kilda Road past some of Melbourne’s most expensive apartments blocks shimmering in glass and metal and old Victorian and Edwardian heritage buildings transformed into royal societies and restaurants.

People jostle past. Apologies are muttered. A woman runs past me actually holding hand weights in her hands.

A man on a Sunday stroll with his dogs asks a race official how he gets across the road.

“When you see  gap.”

We pass the grey stone bricks of the Victorian army barracks, where a rock band all dressed in naval white is pumping out tunes and people cheer at us from the pavement.

At the base of one of the apartment blocks, in a cafe, a bald guy with a newspaper is having breakfast, oblivous, it seems, to the sea of joggers flying past.

The “1km” sign looms up in no time and I start thinking – “this will be a breeze!”

Some people are walking already and I wonder – just how much training have they done?

Already I’m thinking my next race should be a 21 kilometre half-marathon.

A few kilometres later – I’m managing about six minutes a km – and we’re in Albert Park, where they hold the Australian Grand Prix in January.

The sun is blazing, it’s a gorgeous clear blue sunny day and Melbourne’s impressive “Manhattan” shimmers in the distance. The city looks majestic from my point of view and I feel grateful to be fit, to be running and to be a small part of this metropolis.

But there’s absolutely no shade and as I slow down for a cup of water, I’m thinking pehaps 14 kilometres is more than enough after all!

A black swan has waddled across from Lake Albert and is calmly eating grass at the side of the road. A bad omen? Don’t these things chase and bite?

A woman runs past in the opposite direction. Perhap’s she’s finished already and doing the race backwards.

An elderly man next to me is doing a kind of half run/half walk, dragging his legs forward and moaning with each breath. I’m worried he might not make it (and not just to the finish line).

We pass the main Grand Prix grandstand and I look up at my reflection in the glass. Never mind the man with the funny running style, it looks like I’m hardly moving at all or possibly going backwards.

The heat, the heat.

This course may be as flat as a pancake, but there’s absolutely no shade. I look for tall, wide joggers.

I see what I think its the first ambulance at the 9 kilometre mark and assume the odds favour heart-attacks well into these races. Indeed the frequency of first-aid care picks up from here on in. God help you if you collapse at the 2 km mark, you’re finished!

The “Village People” are playing in front of a tent promising to cool you down with water sprays and I detour in, but the misty stuff hardly penetrates, taking seconds off my time, which has now stretched beyond the six minute per kilometre mark.


A few minutes later I’m forced to slow down again for a glass of gatorade. Everyone crowds in grabbing for a cup.

Have you ever tried drinking gatorade while running? Luckily I remember it’s gatorade and don’t throw it across my face as I did with a cup of water earlier.

We exit the park and head down Fitzroy Street, St Kilda with its cafes and restaurants and art deco apartments. Three guys on a balcony are drinking beers and waving at us. Bastards!

A little further along a couple of down-and-outs are gathered together with cheap grog, sitting on the kerb shouting out words of encouragement:

“$20 for a blow-job,” shouts out one with a leathery, unwashed face, clearly not fazed by the presence of three uniformed police officers watching from across the street.

“They’re not doing any harm,” I hear a guy tell the cops, who are clearly not impressed.

Not sure the mothers and daughters running behind me will appreciate these words of encouragement either.

I’m just glad for something to divert my thoughts.

“$20 for a blow-job,” he repeats again and again until I am out of earshot.

The 12 km sign appears.

And then it’s a left turn down the esplanade with the beach on my right and beyond it the calm blue waters of Port Phillip Bay. A guy paddles serenely by standing on a paddle ski. Cyclists ring their bells and whizz past on the track alongside the road.

Two “smurfs” run past me.

And then a man in a sequined purple dress and wig.

People holding babies and dogs on leads wave and shout out words of encouragement.

A lady smiles at me: “You’re doing well” she says and I think: I must look pretty bad.

The man I thought might have a heart attack at the half-way stage surges past me and out of sight, still moaning. Bastard!

And then the finish line looms. I pick up speed and cruise over the line in an hour and 27 minutes. Not too shabby.

I grab a medal and thrust it over my head. To the finisher, the spoils.

We ditch the free yoghurt on offer and hobble off to Acland Street for well-earned full English breakfast with all the trimmings.

The junkie in literature: a review of William S. Burrough’s “Junkie”

“Junkie” by influential Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs is the second book I’ve read as part of a mini-project of mine to examine the place of the heroin junky in literature.

The first book I read was “Monkey Grip by Australian author Helen Garner about a single mother’s tortuous relationship with a junkie set in Melbourne in the 1970s. You can read my review of this novel here.

Whereas “Monkey Grip” is very much from the point of view of someone observing a junky’s addiction to heroin, “Junkie” throws you right into what it is like to be an addict and the world that exists around them.

Burroughs presents an incredibly honest account of his life as a junky revealed in a concise, perfectly-worded tale.

After a brief introduction about himself (where we learn that he had a good, healthy upbringing in a “large mid West town”) we find Burroughs dismissed from the army as unfit and living in New York City in the 1940s, addicted to junk and peddling it as well.

Burroughs has a nack of describing the essence of an experience. For example when talking of New York junky and pusher Bill Gains “whose veins had mostly gone, retreated back to the bone to escape the needle”, he writes:

“For a while he used arteries, which are deeper than veins and harder to hit and for this procedure he bought special long needles…he had to shoot in the skin about half the time. But he only gave up and ‘skinned’ a shot after an agonizing half hour of probing and poking and cleaning out the needle, which would clot up with blood”

In New York, Burroughs mingles with peddlars, low-lifes and average joes (waiters and bar tenders) that are hooked on heroin. Burroughs becomes a “lush worker” with his junkie pal Roy. They ride the subway train and look for drunks that have passed out and steal their wallets.

It’s all told in this sparse, lay-it-down-straight style that hides nothing.

Burroughs has an exceptional ability to convey the sense a character in just a few simple sentences:

“Lonny was pure pimp. He was skinny and nervous. He couldn’t sit still and he couldn’ shut up. As he talked he moved his thin hands, which were covered on the backs with long, greasy, black hairs.

“Gains had a malicious, childlike smile that formed a shocking contrast to his eyes, which were pale blue, lifeless and old.”

And not just when it comes to junkies. While in a hospital getting “the cure’, he writes of one patient:

“There was a thin, pale, little man with bloodless, almost transparent, flesh. He looked like a cold and enfeebled lizard…he did not have the concentration of energy necessary to hold himself together and his organism was always on the point of disintegrating into its component parts.”

According to Burroughs, contrary to what people might believe, developing a habit takes time. You don’t get hooked on the first or second shot. It can take months, but one day you wake up, look up in the mirror, and something has changed about you.

Once you get hooked, even if you manage to get off, heroin is always a part of you, because it caused “permanent cellular alteration”.

The story transfers to the seedy backstreets of New Orleans, where Burroughs is busted. He is locked in a cell, while the cops try to get him to rat on his suppliers, and the junk sickness kicks-in.

Throughout the book, Junk sickness is described in a way that you understand it’s malevolence:

“Doolie sick was an unnerving sight. The envelope of personality was gone, dissolved by his junk-hungry cells. Viscera and cells, galvanised into a loathsome, insect-like activity, seemed on the point of breaking through the surface. His face was blurred and unrecognisable, at the same time shrunken and tumescent.

Writing of his own junk sickness, the awfulness of it can be imagined:

“In my case, the worst thing is lowering of blood pressure with consequent loss of body liquid, and extreme weakness, as in shock. It is a feeling as if the life energy has been shut off so that all the cells in the body are suffocating. As I lay there on the bench I felt like I was subsiding into a pile of bones.”

Burroughs also reveals other aspects of the junky life from the “croakers” – the doctors who write  fake prescriptions to “taking the cure” – going into rehab, and the medicine you get and what works and what does not.

And he manages to incorporate social commentary (his contention that marijuana is a not an addictive drug) and political observations of the time (Louisana passing a law making it illegal to be  drug addict), while describing his own hellish plight.

It’s a book about his adventures as a junky, the pimps, low-lifes, artists, con-artists, cops and doctors he meets on his travels.

In the end it’s also a warning against heroin addiction:

“Junk takes everything and gives nothing but insurance against junk sickness. Everyone now and then I took a good look at the deal I was giving myself and decided to take the cure.”

William S Burroughs at his typewriter, circa 1960.

The back of the book contains a glossary of terms, which is worth reading to pick up the lingo while my edition included an introduction by Allen Ginsberg, fellow Beat poet and Burroughs admirer who was instrumental in getting the controversial book published in 1953.

Truly a book ahead of its time.

Getting it right: Is the internet killing good journalism?

A story appeared on the front page of The Age (Melbourne’s only broadsheet newspaper) last week written by one of Australia’s most respected and well-known journalists, Adele Ferguson.

The story was about the death of the former chairman of a collapsed mortgage lender called Banksia, which has left thousands of small investors (families and pensioners) out of pocket with $660 million owed.

Ferguson reported that the Banksia chairman – Ian Hankin – had died in a head-on collision with a truck just three months before Banksia went bust.

“Ian Hankin, 59, died on August 8 when his BMW and a truck collided on the Western Highway at Burrumbeet, about 25 kilometres west of Ballarat.”

The story then went on to say that three weeks earlier, “on July 18, Hankin drove his Mercedes-Benz into the path of an oncoming truck on the Midland Highway near Scotsburn, 18 kilometres south of Ballarat”.

In the first crash Hanking escaped with minor injuries though the car was written-off.

Clearly, what was being implied was that Hankin had taken his own life after learning that Banksia was heading into financial failure and having failed the first time, he did a better job of it the second time.

Except, as was later pointed out by rival Melbourne newspaper the Herald Sun (owned by Rupert Murdoch) Hankin had stepped down from his role as chairman of Banksia three years ago and had no association with the company, making it highly unlikely his death and the previous collision was in anyway related to the mortgage lender’s sudden collapse on 25 October this year.

The chairman of Banksia is Peter Keating, who is very much alive.

The Age did print an update to the story, but only to add the word “former”  in front Ian Hankin’s title of ‘chairman’. (I have since discovered that The Age apologised to Ian Hankin’s family, but the story remains unchanged except for the addition of the extra word)

The error was reported in the media section of The Australian (another Murdoch-owned paper, but a broadsheet, with more gravitas than the Herald Sun) under the heading “Page one howler”

The Australian pointed out that “The Age ran a correction on Saturday on page two, one strangely lacking any apology to Hankin’s family who are understandably distraught.

“Journalists are not infallible. But the correction does appear buried and insubstantial given the size of the error,” The Australian went on to say.

Hankin’s colleagues at the law firm where he worked until his sudden death have spoken out against the insinuations in the article, though this hasn’t stopped controversial radio DJ Derryn Hinch (famous for naming convicted sex offenders on air against court orders) from labelling Hankin’s death a “coward’s exit” on his own website.

The Age’s error was indeed a bad one  (made worse by the lack of an apology)  and should have been avoided by some simple fact checking, something you would have thought would have been given extra priority, since the story was destined for the front page of the newspaper.

But this should all be put into the context of the challenges facing Fairfax – publisher of The Age and rival newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited as well as other newspaper groups all round the world.

Fairfax is currently in the process of getting rid of 1,900 employees, many of them journalists, in an effort to cut costs and deal with a loss of print advertising revenue as readers shift to getting their knews online and via mobile devices (where advertising revenues are much smaller).

Fewer journalists mean fewer sub-editors checking articles before they go to print and less time spent by journalists themselves reasearching their articles.

Making things worse is the fact that Fairfax has outsourced most of its sub-editing to an external company called Pagemasters.

A sub-editor is not just a spelling and grammar checker. A good sub-editor understands the subject matter they are reading and the context and history behind the article.

A good sub-editor would have asked the question: Was Ian Hankin the chairman of Banksia at the time of his death?

These sorts of mistakes are likely to become more frequent as publishers scramble to find a way to scrape a profit.

In the online age of the 24 hour news cycle, smaller teams of journalists must produce more content at a faster rate with less time for research and few pairs of eyes to check facts and ask important questions.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at the jobs currently advertised on the New York Times media group website, publisher of the venerated New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Boston Globe.

There are currently 54 jobs advertised.

Not one of them is a journalism role.

The junkie in literature: a reading list starting with ‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner

monkey-gripFor whatever reason people do things, I’ve become hooked (pardon the pun) on the idea of reading a wide range of books about heroin addicts and their place in literature.

The heroin junky seems an enigmatic and romanticised character, living by their wits on the edges of society and always in the grip of their addiction.

There is a fascination with them in literature, at odds, in a way, with how one sees the junky in the real world – usually the beggar in unwashed rags sleeping in an alleyway.

The junky in fictionalised accounts is often the artist, or the poet, or at the very least someone who has lived an interesting life.

My interest in this subject was sparked after reading “Monkey Grip”, a celebrated Australian novel by Helen Garner.

Monkey Grip tells the story of Nora, a single-mum living in Melbourne in the mid-1970s who falls in love with a blue-eyed junkie called Javo. The title of the book refers to their relationship, which despite Nora’s attempts to pull away is as tight as a monkey grip.


I’ve compiled a reading list with the aim of writing an essay of sorts on the topic of “The Junky’s place in literature”.

Currently I am reading “Junky” by William S. Burroughs (1953), an autobiographical account of the writer’s life as an addict in the 1930 and 1940, which begins with Burroughs as user, pusher and petty thief in New York.

The other books on my list are:

“Confessions of an English Opium Eater” by Thomas De Quincey (1821)

“Candy” by Luke Davis (1997)

“In My Skin” by Kate Holden (2005)

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)

If any fellow bloggers or bookworms out there can recommend any other books that are about drug addiction or where one of the principal characters is a junkie, please drop me a line with the title and author –

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

Set in the inner city suburbs of Melbourne in the mid-1970s, Monkey Grip tells the story of single-mum Nora’s relationship with heroin addict and writer/actor Javo set against the back drop of house-sharing, addiction, loose parenting and easy sex.

Nora does not appear to have a job (Wikipedia says she does but not the novel I read) but lives a comfortable existence punctuated by bike rides to visit friends in other share houses, lots drinking and dope (marijuana) smoking, road trips, days spend lounging at the public swimming baths with her friends, afternoon naps, cups of tea in suburban kitchens, sitting on verandahs and musing, the retelling of dreams, and helping her friends through their different relationship and personal crises.

Critics of the novel have said it reads like the author’s personal diary entries and I can see what they’re getting at (Garner lived in Melbourne during this period of time and was most famously sacked as a teacher in 1972 for teaching sex education to her class of 13-year-olds, something that Nora would undoubtedly be comfortable doing).

Written as a first person narrative, Nora’s thoughts could be mistaken as those from her private  diary, as she tells of her daily comings and goings, what her friends might think of her relationships, describes dreams in vivid details and writes of Javo’s unannounced, but expected arrivals at her door at all hours of the day and night in various states of stoned-ness:

“Javo the monster. I don’t know him when he’s like this. I wish he would go away. He barely gives me the time of day. He blunders into my room at night, drops his great boots from waist height and crawls into bed beside me. This is not Javo. I know he doesn’t care and somehow neither do I. But I want him back, the way we used to be, when we loved each other with open hearts.”

Nora portrays Javo as charming and gentle and at other times, when the drugs have their grip on him as an uncaring, selfish bastard.

But this book is not so much about the nature of drug addiction but about what is like to be in love with a junkie.

Nora is both Javo’s lover as much as his anxious mother – nursing him when he suffers the sickness of withdrawal, allowing him to have his dole money paid into her bank account and worrying about where he may be and if he is safe. At the same time she is jealous and hurt when he confesses to sleeping with another woman.

At his worst he steals money, never keeps appointments and tells her about his relationship with other women. He is frequently unwashed, his skin breaking out into sores and scabs, his hair dishevelled – and yet she can never break free.

She constantly accuses him of being selfish, of only caring about his own needs and not noticing and caring about hers.

She says to him after he slips into his bed one night “very, very stoned”:

“When you came in here tonight I was right off my brick with the kids, and you didn’t even notice. You didn’t give a shit about what I have to do in my life.”

But she forgives him time and time again, pulled in by his piercing blue eyes, his charm and some sense of his kindness and generosity beneath the layers of his addiction.

But Nora is by no means an innocent. Despite having a young child (Gracie), she finds time to do a lot of drugs her self (weed), sleep through many afternoons, disappear to parties and on road trips (depositing Gracie with her friends) and invite men into her bed.

She is for ever questioning and undergoing a great deal of angst about her relationship to Javo.

Monkey Grip is considered a classic of Australian fiction. Indeed the front cover of the old copy I picked up at Basement Books in the city calls it “the best Australian novel of the year” for 1978.

But I have to say that I found the tale dragging at times and Nora annoying and not the most likeable of characters (a carefree, careless single mother who puts her own needs before those of her daughter).

She constantly agonises over Javo, resorting at numerous times to asking the ‘I Ching’ for relationship advise. The I Ching gives her sage advise, but she ignores it. The addiction to Javo is as strong as his to heroin.

Definitely worth reading. But in my opinion, Garner’s best works are her non-fiction books – Joe Cinque’s Consolation and the First Stone, which I highly recommend.