Chasing Peta: A review of Niki Savva’s book: The Road to Ruin

road to ruin coverThe abiding image, the one that sticks doggedly in my mind having read Niki Savva‘s book The Road to Ruin, about the rise and swift fall of the Abbott Government, is of the then prime minister racing down the corridors of Parliament House in Canberra, chasing after a fuming or teary-eyed Peta Credlin, his chief of staff.

Abbott would invariably catch up with Credlin, console her and then bring her back – with great reluctance on her part – to the meeting room, where whoever had offended her (no matter if they were a cabinet minister or senior staffer) would offer a grovelling apology: “Sorry Peta.”

It’s a recurring theme in the book. Savva, a conservative no less, paints a picture of a well-intentioned (from a Liberal voter’s point of view) prime minister, who was seemingly under the spell of this power-hungry, emotionally volatile and unpredictable woman (Credlin would verbally abuse staff, then bring in a cake the next day) and how their bizarre co-dependent relationship brought down the Abbott government in September last year, after less than two years in power.

It’s a thoroughly engrossing book, indeed a page turner which is no mean feat for a book about politics. Savva, a well-regarded columnist for The Australian newspaper draws on all her vast experience in the Canberra press gallery plus her deep knowledge of the Australian political machine (she was a media adviser to former Treasurer Peter Costello) to weave a fascinating tale of ego, stupidity and ignorance that never strays too far into the banal details of bureaucratic government process.

Across 300 odd pages, it reveals just how poorly suited  Abbott and Credlin were to their respective jobs of PM and chief of staff. Both were brilliant in opposition, hammering away at the dysfunctional Labor government of the Rudd and Gillard years, but in office Savva shows how utterly hopeless they were from the very beginning – Abbott with his dreadful captain’s picks, poor choice of ministers, unwillingness to drop poor policies and inability to read the tea leaves and Credlin with her micro-management, dragon-like temper and deliberate sabotage of the good intentions of those who sought to help Abbott save his government.

Right up to a few weeks before Abbott and Credlin both lost their jobs, the chief of staff – not the prime minister’s wife – was still immersed in choosing the decor for the refurbished lodge….a week out [Credlin] was obsessing about artwork, burying herself in trivia…their lack of preparation on that fateful night would astound even their allies

There were numerous warning signs for Abbott – all of which he ignored or dismissed – foolishly believing that the Liberal Party was not Labor, and would never turf a Coalition Prime Minister out of office, certainly not in his first term after such a resounding electoral victory.

As for Credlin, she seemed to believe her own legend of an invincible, warrior, shielding Abbott from his foes. So much in fact that as Savva reveals, Credlin framed a caricature of herself drawn by The Australian‘s Eric Lobbecke depicting her as just such a sword-wielding warrior (with Abbott hiding behind  her) and hung it in her office.

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The Eric Lobbecke cartoon

These sorts of astonishing details and anecdotes pepper The Road to Ruin. They have the effect of taking the reader inside parliament or the party room or the restaurants where Abbott and Credlin dined, including that cringeworthy famous account of how Credlin fed Abbott from her own fork, just one of many similar incidents that sparked rumours of an affair (dismissed by both of them) but which more imporantly framed the bizarre nature of their relationship.

Also particularly enjoyable are Savva’s own stoushes with Credlin over the things she wrote in her column in The Australian, which put a spotlight on all the bad decisions. Savva would receive spiteful, threatening text messages and on a number of occasions pressure would be applied to the newspaper’s then editor, Chris Mitchell to sack her. Mitchell stood firmly by his star writer, to the huge frustration of Credlin and Abbott who must have felt like they were taking friendly fire from a supposed ally in the Murdoch-owned broadsheet.

As for the chief criticism of The Road to Ruin: that neither Credlin or Abbott were given the right of reply, I think it’s a fair call. It’s a basic principle of good journalism that people be given the opportunity to respond to their accusers. This is particularly the case for Credlin in light of Savva’s very unsympathetic portrayal of her, which smacks in part of retribution.

However, there is nothing to suggest that Savva made anything up, indeed many people are quoted on the record, a very powerful aspect of her book.

Savva has strongly defended her decision not too seek responses from her two protagonists, saying she believed both have a big enough public platform to give their side of events, (and which has proved true).

“They can go out there any day, any night, any day of the week and say what they think happened or give their version of history, which, I might add, is completely at odds with almost everybody else’s version of what took place,” she said in an interview with the ABC.

If it’s a flaw, then its a very minor one in my opinion and does not distract much from what is elegantly written, finely paced political saga which is certain to become a classic of its genre.

Conversations with Holden Caulfield

catcher_in_the_rye_penguin_2I picked up my old paperback copy of JD Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye after watching the movie ‘The Killing of John Lennon’ about Mark David Chapman, the wayward young man who killed The Beatles singer and songwriter, and remains in jail.

It seemed a bit of sinister that I should choose to re-read this cult novel after watching a movie about an infamous murderer and murder, but the connection is an obvious one. 

Chapman shot Lennon in December 1980, outside the singer’s apartment in Manhattan, and famously took his inspiration to kill from The Catcher in the Rye and its narrator, 16-year-old angst-ridden rebel, Holden Caulfield.

In the movie, Chapman calls Lennon a ‘phoney’ – as Holden Caulfield calls so many people in the novel – because Lennon preached ‘no possessions’ (famously in his hit song ‘Imagine‘) and yet owned mansions and yachts and was immensely wealthy.

At his trial, when Chapman was asked if he had anything to say, he rose and read the passage from The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden tells his little sister, Phoebe, what he wants to do with his life:

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.

Picking up and re-reading The Catcher in the Rye, the exact same lemon yellow copy which I had read as a young man, was both a joy (it’s such an engaging, hilarious, thought-provoking and sad story), and also a rather unsettling experience. 

Mostly because, I  noticed all the passages and sections I had underlined about ‘phoneys’, and people “never noticing anything” and “girls driving you crazy” and “being a madman”. I realised that back then, I like Mark Chapman, was also a rather lost, somewhat bitter young man (thought without any murderous intentions I am certain) who had made a similar emotional connection with Holden Caulfield.

Holden’s inner monologue about the world and its endless disappointments, as he traipsed around New York, mirrored many of my own inner frustrations and torments at the time.

In fact it wasn’t just underlining that I had done, but I’d also engaged in conversations with Holden, writing responses to the things he said. In short, I was a bit of a “madman” myself.

 At one point I wrote: “Really Holden, I beg to differ with you. You are talking shit,” this in response to Holden saying “You don’t always have to get sexy to know a girl.”

In another note, I wrote simply  “Alicia Silverstone” alongside a passage in which Holden describes a girl he has a crush on, Jane Gallagher. 

 Holden observes that when Jane got excited when talking “her mouth sort of went in about fifty directions, her lips and all”. It must have been around the time the movie Clueless came out which made Silverstone, who had this sexy, pouty mouth,  a star and ever young man’s fantasy. 

Clearly, I really connected with Holden Caulfield back then, and to be entirely truthful more than 20 years on, I still find a lot of wisdom in some of his observations. 

Across the generations, millions of others have made a similar connection to their own feelings of adolescent loneliness and frustration about a world of phoneys: The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies since it was published in 1951 and according to Wikipedia, continues to sell 250,000 copies every year.

There’s so many passages in the book that just knock the lights out for me, not least his awkward ncounter with a young prostitute in his hotel room where he loses his nerve, and just wants to chat.

It really must have stunned readers back in the conservative 1950s with Holden’s frank observations about sex (“I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw.”), desire (“I was feeling pretty horny, I have to admit it.”), suicide (“I almost wished I was dead.”), death and depression (“I just felt blue as hell”).

Of course, a lot of Holden’s behaviour, thoughts and opinions are those of angst-ridden, affected adolescent, too intelligent for his own good, but at the same time there is also so much truth and poignancy in what he says about people and their phoneyness, be they teachers, priests, movie stars or members of his own family (“All mothers are slightly insane”).

 It’s hard to pick out a favourite passage because their are so many. But I f I had to choose one, It would be when Holden decides to pay a visit to the Natural History Museum, which he loved visiting on school trips because “it always felt like it was raining outside, even when it wasn’t” and where he’d eat candy and chew gum and a girl would hold his hand. 

He recalls his favourite exhibits,  the Indians in a war canoe “about as long as three goddam Cadillacs in a row” and the eskimos fishing through a hole in the ice.

Holden says you could return a hundred thousand times and nothing would be different, the eskimos would still be there, except you would be different in some way. 

 He then thinks about his kid sister Phoebe, and that she would visit the museum like he did as a school kid and she too would be different every time she visited.

It didn’t exactly depress me to think about it, but it didn’t make gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad. Anyway, I kept thinking about all that while I walked.

There’s something so brutally true about this.

Don’t we all long for some things to never change? That our parents not grow old, that those we love not pass away or disappear from our lives.

Don’t we all want to be Catchers in the Rye?

What Atticus Finch can teach parents about raising children

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Original cover of the book

I finally read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

I was rather ashamed that at age 42, I had not read the novel, first published in 1960, given its important and revered status in American and world literature.

For anyone who has not read it, I implore you to do so. It’s a wonderful novel, very readable and with a powerful message about the importance of tolerance and the evils of bigotry that has lost none of its power in world increasingly divided into “us” vs “them”.

Set in America’s racially divided deep south in the 1930s, it’s the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the small rural town of Maycomb in the state of Alabama, who represents a clearly innocent black man, Tom Robinson, accused of the rape of a white woman.

The story is narrated by Atticus’s Tom Boyish young daughter ‘Scout’ or Jean Louise, who through her own coming-of-age, becomes a conduit for the reader’s own moral education.

To Kill a Mockingbird also includes one of modern fiction’s great minor characters, the ghost-like ‘Boo’ Arthur Radley (brilliantly portrayed by a very young  Robert Duvall in the Oscar-winning movie).

Having finished it, I wondered what I could say about a book that’s had so much said and written about it already.

What seemed obvious to me, the more I thought about it, was that you could read To Kill a Mockingbird as an excellent guide to parenting

After all, who really is Atticus Finch? Yes he’s the moral centre of the story, but he’s also just a single parent doing an amazing job raising two headstrong young children (Scout and her older brother Jem) into fair-minded, empathetic, non-judgemental and courageous human beings.

From my reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve picked out some of the special qualities that makes Atticus Finch such a iconic parent:

Atticus tries to see the world from his children’s point of view.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

This is one of the most famous lines from the book. It happens early on in the novel in a conversation after dinner between Atticus and Scout.

Scout is upset because her teacher, Miss Caroline, has told her to stop reading with her father, because he has ‘taught her all wrong’.

Scout is in fact very advanced for her age and way ahead of her classmates, something which unhinges her teacher.

Atticus precedes this piece of advice by calling it a “simple trick” but if you learn it “you can get along with all kinds of folks”.

What an incredible thing to tell a young child (Scout is about six or seven at the time) and how different the world would be if every child grew up with the notion that they try and see things from the point of view of others.

So much unnecessary confrontation, bitterness and unhappiness could be avoided in life if our children understood this “simple trick”

Atticus has perfected the art of explaining things.

Atticus Finch is unquestionable master at being able to explain complicated concepts to Scout and Jem without dumbing them down so they become meaningless.

Instead he takes the time to make sure they really understand why people act they way they do.  Such as when Mr Cunningham, a poor local farmer, delivers fresh produce to their house. Atticus explains that this is the only way the Cunninghams can pay him for his legal services because “the [stock market] crash hit country folk the hardest”. He tells Scout:

Did you know that Dr Reynolds (the town physician) works the same way? He charges some folks a bushel of potatoes for delivery of a baby?

Atticus doesn’t answer his kids with platitudes

There is very little different in the way Atticus talks to his children and how he talks to adults. Put simply, he does not try and trick them with plausible, but distorted explanations or half-truths. This is how he explains it to his brother Jack:

Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults and evasion simply muddles ’em.”

Atticus teaches his children to fight with their heads not their fists

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A still from the movie: Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch) and Brock Peters (Tom Robinson)

Atticus Finch forbids Scout and Jem to fight the other children in school even when they call their father a “nigger lover” for defending Tom Robinson. He tells them to fight with their “heads” meaning they should not let their anger and emotions get the better of them.

You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change…it’s a good one, even if it does resist learning.

Atticus teaches his children to act according to their consciences.

Atticus explains that it is his duty to defend Tom Robinson because his conscience dictates that he must.  He expects his kids to do the same even if it means going against what the majority of the town’s white population believe is right. He tells Jem:

They’re certaintly entitled to think that [I’m wrong for defending Tom Robinson] and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions. But before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

Atticus is a beacon of calmness.

Even parenting books today tell you to not lose your cool with your kids. You get upset, they get upset.

Throughout the novel, Atticus Finch is a beacon of wise calmness, thoughtfulness and quiet contemplation, especially when it comes to talking to his children.

A good example is when Tom Robinson is transferred to the Maycomb county jail in the town square, Atticus stands guard outside, but armed with only a lamp for reading and a book – not a gun.

His adventurous children head out to find him and arrive at the courthouse at the same time as a lynch mob of farmers arrive to exact their own justice.

While clearly distraught, he calmly implores Jem to take his sister and their friend Dill home. Even when Jem refuses, Atticus never loses his temper or shows his anxiety.

But, Atticus is also a man of action when he needs to be

There’s a scene in the book, also captured in the movie, where Atticus is forced to shoot a rabid old dog called Tim Johnson who is hobbling down the street passed everyone’s home. Atticus reluctantly takes the rifle from sheriff Heck Tate who doesn’t have the self-belief to do it himself. To everyone’s amazement, Atticus shoots the dog stone cold dead in the street.

Miss Maudie Atkinson (the Finch’s neighbour) grinned wickedly. “Well now, Mis Jean,” she said, “still think your father can’t do anything? Still ashamed of him?”

“No,” I said, meekly.

Atticus teaches his children not to judge others based on ignorance

This is a powerful message Atticus teaches his children again and again in the book, and is also a key theme of the novel – that we should not judge people based on the ignorance passed on by others.

This message is brought powerfully home in the trial of Tom Robinson, who we learn is clearly a kind and decent man whose only crime was to help a lonely, ignorant white woman and then reject her advances.

(To Jem): There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads – they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins…as you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life.

There are plenty more parenting tips you could pick up from Atticus Finch if you take the time to read the book, or perhaps re-read it as a parent – these are just a few that stood out for me.

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Harper Lee with her father

It’s worth noting too that Harper Lee, who never married or had kids, based the character of Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Colman Lee, a lawyer and politican who defended two black men on murder charges (they were convicted and hanged) during his career.

Lee, the youngest child, would sit in her father’s lap – like Scout does in To Kill a Mockingbird – and read the newspaper with him.

However, like Atticus (who certainly has his faults, aloofness and stubborness among them) Lee’s father was a far from perfect man.

It emerged, to the horror of some fans, when Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman was published, that Amasa Colman Lee was in fact a segrationist (though he apparently softened his views later in life and was quite forward-thinking considering where and when he grew up).

It’s a point worth remembering  – no one can be a perfect parent. We can only try to be.

 

Who really was Ben Zygier? Reading Rafael Epstein’s ‘Prisoner X’

prisoner x‘Prisoner X’ by journalist and ABC radio presenter Rafael Epstein investigates the life and death of Melbourne man Ben Zygier, who committed suicide in a top secret cell in Israel’s Ayalon Prison in  December 2010 and whose sensational story made headlines in Australia and around the wold.

In 2013, Zygier, a lawyer and father of two from a well-connected Melbourne Jewish family, was sensationally revealed on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme to be’Prisoner X’ the Mossad agent who betrayed Israel.

My interest in reading Epstein’s excellent book came out of a conversation with a fellow journalist, Patrick Durkin (@patrickdurkin),  a former lawyer, who had done articles with Ben at the law firm Norton Rose in 2001.

Patrick mentioned that when news broke that Ben Zygier was ‘Prisoner X’ in early 2013, he had hastily written a story for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper we both write for, titled “Prisoner X, My Melbourne lawyer friend”

It may have been written in haste, but it was deeply moving and renewed my interest in a story I had, for some reason, not followed in great detail when it made front page headlines.  Patrick wrote that the revelations of who Ben was sent a “shock wave” through his group of lawyer friends.

Ben had joined our group of 20-odd articled clerks halfway through the year. Most of us remember him as a serious young man who was largely aloof from the rest of our tight-knit group… News broken by ABC’s Foreign Correspondent of Ben’s jailing and death is as shocking as it is surreal. (Patrick Durkin)

Rafael Epstein also knew Ben Zygier, at a much earlier time in his life, and like Patrick struggled to digest how he ended up in such a predicament in solitary confinement in a maximum security Israeli jail.

Epstein was Ben’s mentor in a Zionist Youth Movement called Netzer in the late 1980s when he remembered Ben  as a “cheeky, warm, quietly spoken boy”.

I have a photo of Ben from this time…it is the same smile and blue eyes that stare out from the photo of Ben flashed around the world’s media two year’s after his death. (Prisoner X, Rafael Epstein)

Epstein’s motivation to write the book was to correct the impression created in the mainstream media that Ben was either a “zealot or a traiter” by shedding some light on who Ben really was and, also, to try and solve the mystery of what really happened.

According to Epstein’s carefully drawn picture – based on numerous interviews with people who knew him  – Ben Zygier was by all accounts  a well-liked, quick-witted, intelligent man who would have made a very good lawyer.

But unfortunately, he also had none of the traits necessary to become a master spy for Mossad, Israel’s revered and feared spy agency: he was emotionally unstable, his behaviour was sometimes unpredictable, he could be grandiose and boastful and crucially, he could not keep a secret.

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Ben Zygier on the front page of The Age newspaper

One of the key revelations in the book is Epstein’s fervent belief that Ben’s downfall was not – as reported in the mainstream media – due to a rogue mission to the Middle East where his attempts to turn a Hezbollah agent into an Israeli double-agent, backfired sensationally.

Instead, Epstein claims, it was things Ben said to a mysterious Iranian man among Ben’s circle of friends at Monash University where he had returned to study in 2009 that led him to a solitary cell in Ayalon Prison.

According to Epstein, Ben’s fragile state of mind caused him to betray his secret life to the wrong person.

Ben’s mistake was a simple one and lacked the determination and intent that has been suggested in the media…put simply, Ben said too much to the wrong person at the wrong time. (Prisoner X, Rafael Epstein)

The other key insight from the book is that it provides a convincing case that Ben’s death was suicide, despite the initial suspicions when he was found hanged in a supposed suicide-proof cell. The truth appears to be that Ben died because responsibility for his care was mishandled by the security services and the prison officials, because no one did their jobs properly in ensuring his well being and because, by the end, Ben had lost all hope.

Indeed, a sense of profound and unnecessary tragedy is what rings most loudly in reading Epstein’s book; that Ben Zygier, who came from a well-connected and loving Jewish family, who had a loving wife and two kids, who was well educated, smart and likable, could have lived a successful and happy life.

Tragically, he chose the wrong path and was then encouraged further along it, by people who misjudged his character.

Of course there still remain all those unanswered questions: who exactly did Ben tell his secrets to? What were they and why did he become Israel’s most dangerous prisoner? These questions Epstein cannot answer, though not for lack of trying.

Predictably, after I finished reading Prisoner X, I watched the two riveting Foreign Correspondent documentaries (you can find them here) and read numerous articles published at the time about ‘Prisoner X’ and Ben Zygier searching for clues. But as one former spy put it on Foreign Correspondent, we are likely to ever know the full story.

I also had another chat with my colleague Patrick.

He told me that his old law friends had recently met for reunion drinks.Ben, he said, had inevitably come up in conversation as they reminisced about their days at Norton Rose.

According to Patrick,  the group remembered how Ben would be quiet and not really participating in the conversation, and then suddenly say something that grabbed everyone’s attention: like the time he told the group he had killed someone while serving in the Israeli army.

“That was Ben.”

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Deep inside Jo’burg: a review of ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg’ by Mark Gevisser

lost and found in johannesburgLost and Found in Johannesburg: a Memoir‘ by South African journalist and political writer Mark Gevisser is one of the most engrossing and exciting books I have read about my home town, Johannesburg.

It is a vivid memoir of growing up in Johannesburg as a white, Jewish, gay man during the very darkest days of apartheid.

The memoir begins with Gevisser’s remembrance of his childhood in Sandton, one of Johannesburg’s elite northern suburbs and his obsession with maps.

Sitting in his father’s Mercedes Benz, he would play a game called ‘dispatcher’ where he would randomly look up someone in the Johannesburg phone directory and then using the Holmden’s Street Map of Greater Johannesburg, the map book of the time,  navigate an imaginary courier to their address.

On one occasion, he tries to navigate to Alexandra, the impoverished, densely populated black township neighbouring Sandton and finds that using the Holmden “there was simply no way through”:

Even now, I can recall my frustration at trying to get my courier to his destination in Alexandra: there was no way of steering him from page 77 across into page 75. Sandton simply ended at its eastern boundary, the Sandspruit stream, with no indication of how one might cross it, or even that page 75 was just on the other side.

This illogical and deliberate attempt by the map makers to separate white Johannesburg from its enslaved black population becomes the starting point for Gevisser to explore the artificial boundaries, restrictions and cruelties created by apartheid – and also how they were broken down.

One of the great pleasures of reading Lost and Found in Johannesburg is Gevisser’s inclusion of dozens of fascinating photographs, some from family albums, but also images of a lesser known side of Johannesburg (for people like me anyway, who had such sheltered childhoods).

A photo that stands out strongly is that taken in the 1960s of the suburban backyard swimming pool of Bram Fisher, the Afrikaner lawyer who would represent Nelson Mandela at his Treason Trial.

In it, we see a group of kids, both black and white “splashing about the pool, as one does in the suburbs on a summer’s afternoon”. This was of course during a time when the races were strictly segregated and yet Fischer and other liberal types flagrantly flouted these rules. Gevisser writes:

Through this poignant idealism, [Bram Fischer] seemed to be trying to reconcile being a white pool-owning South African with the egalitarian ideology to which he had given his life.

Other images depict that familiar, yet never-quite-understood relationship between white people and their black domestic workers. Gevisser includes a photo of himself as a boy in the arms of a black lady who stares back serenely as white children play around her. In another, taken on his parent’s wedding day, he describes the black man in the photograph, the chauffeur who stands to attention, only his cap and uniform visible among the celebrations.

These pictures depict the everyday divisions between master and servant we accepted as children, but hardly thought to question.

Who were these black people who took care of us as children, drove us around town and cooked our meals? What were their lives like? In his memoir, Gevisser seeks answers.

Reading the book and studying the photographs, I remember well, the  pungent smells of meat and mieliepap and the exotic aromas of balms and lotions that came from the rooms of our own domestic workers across the yard when I would visit occasionaly.

It’s one of many vivid memories Gevisser’s memoir stirred up.

Indeed, I spent much of the book, enveloped in a warm, but painful feeling of deep nostalgia, a credit to the quality of Gevisser’s prose, which flows mostly effortlessly throughout the book mixing memoir with history and geography and storytelling with journalism.

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The Old Cemetery at Braamfontein

But, Gevisser also describes places I never knew existed like the eerie underground archives at the Johannesburg Library, where Gevisser writes about the old underground mining maps that crumble in his hands, or the Old Cemetery at Braamfontein, where he is “seduced by the voluptuous beauty” of its paved pathways, low stone walls and mossy tombstones reminiscent of famous cemeteries like Highgate in London or Pere Lachaise in Paris.

It came as shock to me when I realised the Old Cemetery was across the road from where I parked my car almost every day, whilst attending Wits University in the 1990s.

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The Wilds, in the heart of Jo’burg

The other important place Gevisser explores (which I have never set foot in) is ‘The Wilds’ a 40 acre indigenous botanical gardens  wonderland plonked in the middle of the city that sadly became a no-go zone because of its reputation as the hideout of criminal gangs.

For Gevisser  it takes on a deeply personal and terrifying meaning, because it is from The Wilds that three men climb a fence on a summer’s evening in January 2012, and enter a fourth-floor apartment building where he is watching  television with his friends. Then a brutal, but all too familar attack unfolds at gunpoint.

He writes of the ordeal:

Something seemingly irrevocable changed that night in my relationship to Johannesburg, my home town, the place I lived for four decades, the place of this book.

It could easily have turned Gevisser, as such incidents have done to many other white and black South Africans who have been victims of its appalling crime rate, into a hater, and his memoir, a journey into bitterness.

But, it does not. In fact it does the opposite.

Gevisser’s journey to understand the elusive city of his birth – from its earliest foundations as a gold mining bonanza, through its decades of segregation, cruelty and political activism to its status as place of economic opportunity  – is a deeply compassionate one.

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For more on what’s interesting about Jo’burg, read my blog post: Why you should drop the fear and visit Johannesburg

 

 

99 Homes (and the devil): an interview with director Ramin Bahrani

still_241851Hollywood director Ramin Bahrani describes his acclaimed film, 99 Homes, about the post-GFC housing crisis and the millions of people forced out of their homes, as a ‘Faustian – deal with the devil’ – tale.

But it’s not Faustian in the sense that many movie-goers might interpret the central plot, that of evicted homeowner Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) who goes to work for the man who foreclosed his home, corrupt, gun-toting real estate broker Rick Carver (played by the enigmatic character actor Michael Shannon).

Rather, according to Bahrani, it’s the housing system itself which is Faustian, creating unscrupulous characters like Carver, who we see in the film manipulating government and banking rules at the expense of struggling home owners to make himself rich.

“[Carver] is not such a horrible person, he is just doing what he needs to do to survive,” Bahrani told me.

“The devil is the system. It is a corrupt system.”

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon playing opposing characters in 99 Homes.

The are of course parallels to Australia with its unscrupulous property spruikers and their get-rich-quick schemes, a housing and tax system that seemingly favours the cashed-up older generation of owners and investors at the expense of young buyers, and where tales of windowless apartments in high-rise towers and students living in tents or on bathroom floors abound.

According to Bahrani, this corruption extends beyond housing and into the wider financial and banking system, noting that both Australia (Malcolm Turnbull) and New Zealand  (John Key) have prime ministers who were former investment bankers.

“The banks were fined millions [in the wake of the financial crisis], but nobody went to jail. But if you stole a carton of orange juice, you would go to jail.

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“The people who are responsible for bankrupting the world got away with it. Nothing has changed”.

To research the film, which opened in Australia this week (November 19), Bahrani spent many hours in foreclosure courts watching the corrupt system at work as families lost their homes in snap judgements that took less than a minute

“It’s not called the rocket docket for nothing,” he said.

One day in court he observed a Hispanic family that needed an interpreter. “The judge said he had no time for an interpreter and dismissed their case – they lost their home.”

But Bahrani says the film is not about picking sides.

Researching material for the film in 2012 and 2013, Bahrani witnessed both side of the brutal US foreclosure system: the middle-cass families living in motels and the school buses that would pick up their kids from these motels as part of their morning routes, but also the sheriffs and real estate brokers “terrified about who would be on the other side of the door, when they evicted them”.

He says he did not set out to deliver a sermon or pass judgement about the real estate industry or real estate brokers but instead wanted to explore both sides of home ownership – the home as a place of “safety, community and memory” or in the case of real estate agent Rick Carver just a commodity to be “bought and sold”.

For those in Australia fruitlessly or frustratingly pursuing the housing dream or, alternatively, enjoying the riches that housing investment can bring, the parallels in Bahrani’s movie are obvious.

This article first appeared on afr.com

My Orwellian odyssey: a descent into the fiction of George Orwell

George_Orwell_press_photoAs it happened, I was in the midst of reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s very fine first novel about imperialism and prejudice set within a rural Burmese village during British rule, when the plans for “Operation Fortitude” were made public.

The press release, issued by Australian Border Force on the morning of Friday, August 28 detailed a sinister operation planned in Melbourne over the coming weekend when ABF officers would be patrolling the streets, scrutinizing everyone coming into the city centre and targeting “everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants”.

coming up for airMost ominously and invoking the dystopian world of Orwell’s 1984 with its constant surveillance and suspicion, the press release said that “ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with.”

As the outrage at this trampling of individual rights (and suspicions of racial profiling) grew louder and louder, it seemed  everyone from Booker prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan to protestors at hastily arranged gatherings were referencing Orwell or using the adjective ‘Orwellian’ to describe the planned paramilitary-style operation.

burmese daysGripped by it all, I finished reading Burmese Days and proceeded to re-read my tattered copy of Orwell’s Coming up for Air (1939) featuring my favourite Orwell anti-hero, the rotund, bald, bowler-hatted insurance salesman George Bowling who as the bomber planes fly overhead, casting shadows over London and bringing with them portents of the approaching descent into worldwide destruction and death, reminisces about his carefree youth and plans a return his countryside home town of Lower Binfield to seek out a legendary fishing spot.

keep the aspidstraNext up, I re-read Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – also a tattered paperback on my bookshelf – about the idealistic London poet Gordon Comstock (brilliantly played by Richard E. Grant in the film version, A Merry War), who has forsaken a promising career as a copywriter in an advertising firm in order to escape the moneying world and all its artistic-destroying influences to write something that matters. We find Comstock virtually starving in his bleak bed sit in a men’s lodging house scrawling away at an epic poem he can’t seem to finish while bemoaning his poverty, which has ironically become an even greater destructive force to his writing than a well paid job as well as to his relationships and his sanity.

animal farmAfter that, I dived straight into Animal Farm (1945), Orwell’s political fairy tale about the failings of socialism set among the world of animals who overthrow their human masters only to become slaves under the control of the intelligent, cunning pigs who are “more equal than others”.

Finally, I ended my Orwellian odyssey with 1984 (written in 1949), Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece set in a futuristic London of enormous windowless government buildings, squalid tenements, always watching’ telescreens’ and posters of ‘Big Brother’, where timid revolutionary Winston Smith, an employee in the Ministry of Truth and his lover, Julie, battle the belligerent totalitarian state, its thought police, doublespeak ideology and hunger for eternal power.

1984_by_alcook-d4z39dhSo what was my Orwellian journey like?

Melancholic and depressing give the current state of the world.

As described in 1984 and Animal Farm, the loss of individual freedoms has occurred even in democratic countries like Australia, the USA and the UK, with their gag orders against speaking out against refugee abuse, surveillance and collection of meta-data and secret actions of spy agencies like the NSA and ASIO.

Imperialism and prejudice is alive and well

As in Burmese Days, which sets its modernistic central character,  35-year-old teak merchant John Flory against the bigotry within the walls of European Club, we find ourselves in an quasi-imperialist world where the richest, most powerful countries continue to oppress minority populations, invade sovereign countries at will and turn a blind eye to the consequences: thousands of displaced refugees.

“After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people, an inferior people with black faces” – from Burmese Days

Secondly, invigorating and wondrous. Orwell’s writing sparkles, glows and comes alive as you read it and follow the adventures and exploits of his characters. His manages to address weighty and universal themes by creating engaging characters, brilliantly plotted storylines and living, breathing places. He is a master craftsman, who true to his famous rules for writing knows that a few, carefully chosen words, expertly put together, can create vivid scenes that leaps out of the page:

In the deadly glare of the neon lights the pavements were densely crowded. Gordon threaded his way, a small shabby figure, with a pale face and unkempt hair – From Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Then there are his characters. I found myself happily inside the head of all of them, even the ones that are on the surface, unlovable like fat, unhappy George Bowling whom we find on the very first page of Coming Up for Air, locked in the bathroom of his home on a dreary London housing estate, plotting his escape from his wife and kids on a “beastly January morning”. After all, who doesn’t yearn – now and then – for a return to their youth, to a time when they were carefree and without adult responsibilities?

Similarly, I identified with the idealism of malnourished and unwashed poet Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, with his rallying against “money, money, always money” encapsulated in his distaste for the catchy slogans that hang from windswept, tattered advertising boards outside the secondhand bookshop he works in.

No doubt Gordon would find our advertising-saturated world with its sponsored content and brand placement even more nauseating as he would the greedy capitalism and worship of money that defines success today.

And then there is John Flory, the lonely, lost colonialist searching for companionship in Burmese Days who sees skin colour as a mystery to be explored and celebrated, but set against a world of cunning corruption and prejudice. One of the most tragic of Orwell’s characters, he is also one of his most loveable and most admirable.

Orwellian, as we understand it.

And then there is the sheer devastating power of 1984 and Animal Farm, whose much-discussed and debated themes of tyranny, oppression and the crushing of individualism find their reflection in the darker  actions of governments with their ‘Operation Fortitudes’, metadata laws and secrecy and in mega-corporations like Facebook and Google, now the most powerful players in the world of news, information and personal data.

Indeed, it is no surprise, that as I finished reading these five novels, I read also a review of anew theatrical version of 1984 running in Melbourne and the seemingly never ending articles about Orwell and the Orwellian – though I confess that Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are my two favourites.

Read them all!

play about 1984