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.

Cheap goods, expensive real estate and the end of the Chinese economic miracle

bargain storeIt always amazed me how cheap products are in the numerous ‘Bargain’ shops on our busy high street in the cosmopolitan Melbourne suburb I live in.

Just how can you sell pots and pans, knives, gardening utensils and art supplies for just a few dollars and still make a profit?

The answer of course is: Made in China.

The mass industrialisation of China over the last few decades fuelled by a massive inflow of cheap migrant labor from rural villages has created the huge factories (and sweat shops) that produce all these products so incredibly cheaply.

This urbanisation of China has created its 1.3 million Chinese millionaires (projected to reach 2.3 million by 2020) and millions more middle-class Chinese that have helped fuel Australia’s biggest ever housing construction boom as well as push up the prices of prestige real estate in best suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

As a property journalist I have reported first hand on this huge wave of Chinese money being spent on Australian real estate and there is of course the many tales of money being flown into the country on private jets to pay in hard cash for multi-million dollar luxury property.

foreign investment in Australia real estate

But it’s these two extremes: mass production of cheap goods and aspirational wealthy and middle-classes that urbanisation has created that have combined, hand-in-glove, to bring about the end of the Chinese miracle and which rightly has Australian economists and global economists so jittery.

How has this happened: well the answer lies in a something called the ‘Lewis turning point’ (named after economist W. Arthur Lewis): a term used in economic development to describe a point at which surplus rural labor reaches a financial zero: in other words when productivity gains starts going backwards.

This is essentially what has happened in China: the wave of cheaper labour that propelled its extraordinary growth for decades  is coming to an end.

China’s population is ageing so there are fewer young workers to carry out the unskilled work plus, with urbanisation many young Chinese people don’t want to work on a factory line for a tiny wage: they want the fruits of economic prosperity – easy, high paying jobs with benefits.

Also impacting on China has been a drop in global demand for its goods, over production and other countries like Vietnam, India and Bangladesh being able to produce them more cheaply.

The end result: factory wages have doubled in the past 7 years, company profits have tumbled and many manufacturers are now looking to shift their factories from China to places like Vietnam  and India, which are much further down the economic development scale, and where they can employ people on much lower wages.

An excellent 15 minute video prepared by the Financial Times tells the story of how China is changing through the eyes of two people:

  • Yang Zonghou, a migrant worker from Hunan province who lost his job in a Japanese toy factory when it closed down last year and is now considering returning to his local village and family.
  • Ha Van Huy, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man who worked illegally for a while in a Chinese factory sewing the fabric layers for headphones and earning twice the salary he earned in Vietnam.

It seemed almost too incredible to fathom that Chinese factories are willing to employ illegal labour from Vietnam but this is indeed happening as “factories that powered the country’s growth for decades are being squeezed by a shortage of workers, rising wages and falling prices” the FT.com video shows.

As Yang Zhanghou explains, whereas in the past Chinese workers were happy to work hard and earn whatever they could, and send a bit back to their families, now  everyone wants easy jobs with benefits.

The factories won’t employ him because he is too old while at the same time the he says the villages are filling up with young people who are “choosing to be at home”.

So where does this leave countries like Australia: staring down the proverbial barrel.

This has already unfolded in the resources slowdown, which was fuelled by China’s previously insatiable demand for raw materials like iron ore, copper and aluminium which drove up commodity prices and generated record profits for Australia mining companies.

With the slowing Chinese economy, demand for these commodities has fallen – and so to have commodity prices as oversupply has set in. In February, the world’s biggest mining company, Australia’s BHP Billiton posted a $7.84 billion loss in its interim results.

Luckily a big drop in the Australian dollar has resurrected sectors like tourism, property and education, though all of them have become increasingly reliant on China’s emerging middle class to fuel their growth.

The FT.com documentary ends by warning that if the slowdown continues, it could force the whole world into a fresh economic crisis.

“If that does not happen, rising labour costs mean consumers will have to pay more for everything…Made in China.”

That of course could spell the end of the Bargain stores on my local shopping strip with their cheap goods.

But it seems an infinitely better option than a world-wide financial crisis.

The brilliant wit and insight of Bill Bryson

neither here nor thereNeither Here Nor There is a travel book by best-selling author Bill Bryson charting his 1990 trip around Europe and which I recently finished reading.

It had been a long time since I last read a Billy Bryson book, maybe 10 years or more. I went through a phase where I read heaps of them and enjoyed them immensely.

Then, recently, someone brought back a movie from one of those video dispensing kiosks that have sadly replaced Video Stores in our neighbourhood. It was called ‘A Walk in the Woods’ starring Robert Redford, Emma Thompson and Nick Nolte.

Robert Redford played Bill Bryson, Emma Thompson his wife and Nick Nolte, his one-time travel buddy Steven Katz. The film was a dramatisation of Bryson’s book of the same name where he set off, as an unfit, 60-something bloke to walk the 3,500 km Appalachian Trail from Georgia in the South all the way up to Maine on the East Coast (Bryson had returned to live in the US after two decades in England.

It turned out to be a mildly entertaining, somewhat charming buddy movie – Bryson and Katz begrudgingly reunited – trying to do the impossible. Combined with some breath-taking scenery and funny moments (like when Katz seduces a plump, local woman at the laundromat, only to be hunted later by her rifle-toting hill-billy husband) it inspired me to read Bryson again and conveniently I found a copy of Neither here nor There sitting on my shelf.

The travelogue begins with Bryson on a long, uncomfortable bus journey in Norway to see the Northern Lights in Hammerfest (which he does finally see and describe in all their wondrous, spooky glory after wandering the remote town for weeks). Then after returning to England to wait for the coming of Spring, he heads back to Europe to begin the journey proper.

Beginning in Paris,  Bryson travels east through Belgium, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, the former Yugoslavia , Bulgaria and finally Turkey.

The great thing about Bryson, and what I believe all great travel writers do is they make you want to pack your bags and do some travelling of your own – but not by telling you that everything you encounter in the world on your travels is wonderful, but by piquing your curiosity.

Bryson is a master at combining the typical sightseeing stuff – museums, cathedrals, art galleries – with the more quirky, unusual places. He wanders of the beaten track, to find a hidden park, an interesting pub or a ruin, throwing in dollops of fascinating history and hilarious and often embarrassing stories about himself

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The author Bill Bryson

As a self-deprecating chronicler of his own misadventures, Bryson is in a class of his own. He is happy to share his misadventures with women, descriptions of his less than trim physique and personal style (he comes across as quite geeky) and his penchant for booze, cigarettes and ogling the more attractive specimens of the opposite sex.

 

He also spends a lot of time complaining about the price of hotels and getting angry when he finds a museum he desperately wanted to see closed or is left disappointed by a city or place he thought he would like.  All experiences I could relate to.

I spent four days wandering around Florence, trying to love it, but mostly failing…there was litter everywhere and gypsy beggars constantly importuning and Sengalese street vendors cluttering every sidewalk with their sunglasses and Louis Vuitton luggage.

Bryson’s greatest gift as a writer and storyteller is his very dry, very sardonic sense of humour, which must have been finely honed by his years living in the UK.  Indeed it’s hard to imagine he’s actually American.

He is a very funny writer, something incredible hard to achieve, and I found myself chuckling of even guffawing every couple of pages at some amusing anecdote about local customs or over the top description of a terrible meal, strange hotel or unexpected experience.

Here’s an excerpt from his visit to a sex shop in Hamburg and his musing on inflatable sex dolls:

I was fascinated. Who buys these things? Presumably the manufacturers wouldn’t include a vibrating anus or tits that get hot if the demand wasn’t there? So who’s clamouring for them? And how does one bring himself to make the purchase? Do you tell the person behind the counter it’s for a friend?

Later he muses about what would happen if friends popped over while you were entertaining your “vinyl” friend, thinking that perhaps you have to shove the doll up the chimney and hope no one asks about the extra place setting.

But then he reckons, maybe he is just being a prude. Maybe people discuss their dolls in bars and so he imagines a typical conversation:

“Did I tell you I traded up to an Arabian Nights Model 280. The eyes don’t move but the anus gives good action.”

Also in Hamburg he is perplexed at why gorgeous women grow armpit hair which makes it look as if they are wearing “brillo pads” under their arms, remarking that “I know people think its earthy, but so are turnips”.

But from these hilarious musings, he can shift into serious mode. Following a return visit to the Anne Frank house, he writes:

One picture I hadn’t seen transfixed me. It was a blurry photo of a German soldier taking aim with a rifle at a woman and the baby she was clutching as she cowered besides a trench of bodies. I couldn’t stop staring at it, trying to imagine what sort of person could do such a thing.

From the hilarious to the deadly serious, Bryson keeps you entertaining from the start to finish. Hardly for a moment are you ever bored. The book is full of movement: train journeys, city walks and tumbles down hillsides.

There’s also a certain pleasure in following the adventures of travel writer before the age of the smart phone (and Google maps) and online booking websites.

In an interview to promote a new book a few years back, Bryson said he was  lucky enough to get away with ditching his copy editing job on the London newspapers and becoming a full-time writer.

“Then it was wonderful – there’s no better way to make a living than being a travel writer,” he said.

This passion for travelling and writing about his travels, makes reading Bryson a great pleasure as well.

 

Why I won’t be voting in yet another Federal Election

voting in austDouble dissolution or not, I won’t be voting in this year’s Federal Election, which could happen on July 2.

Don’t worry, I won’t be getting a fine or a telling off from my in-laws because I have an iron-clad excuse: I don’t yet have my Australian citizenship despite pledging to get it at the last election in 2013 (and blogged about it).

Three years have passed and I have procrastinated and made no progress at all on the paperwork that must be filled in to get my Australian citizenship, passport and right  to vote.

I would like to call myself  Australian very much, but the process of becoming one overwhelms me.

Firstly, because I still have half my heart in Africa, I am determined to keep my South African citizenship. This involves applying to the South African Department of Home Affairs for the right to have Dual Citizenship. If I don’t, and get Australian citizenship, I lose my South African citizenship, part of my identity and part of my birthright.

Then there’s all the filling of lengthy forms required by the Australian Department of Immigration, plus statutory declarations, police checks and other hoops one must jump through. All of this takes take time and costs money.

I’ve been in the country since 2004, lived in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, have two Australian children – can’t they just give me the damn  naturalisation certificate?

I recently had dinner with a woman who told me the government had just rung her up to say she had been given citizenship automatically and that she should come along to her ceremony. I was envious, if only it could be that easy for me.

But regardless of the effort required, you’d have thought I would have found a few quiet evenings over the past three years to fill out the forms and just got it over and done with.

I should be clamouring for my final stamp of Australian-ness. After 12 years Down Under, I’ve mastered the basics of Aussie Rules, know my flat white from my long black, developed a liking for a chicken parma and can sing along to my fair share of Paul Kelly and The Whitlams songs. Most importantly, I’ve made a good life here in a great and lucky country that has treated me exceptionally well.

The motivation should be there, if for any reason that my dark green South African passport that I still cherish, is a pretty useless travel document requiring that I get visas for so many places – Europe and the USA in particular – while an Australian passport would let me waltz right in.

I could say it’s because Australian politics or politicians don’t inspire me, which is partly true, but I’ve simply just put it in the “too hard” basket and gotten on with doing other things.

The truth is I would like someone to just give it to me on a silver platter: if only I could bowl a decent googly of swim like James Magnussen.

It’s funny how things come full circle: When I first came to Australia in 2004, there was also a Federal Election on, and I vivdly recall sitting outside a polling station somewhere outside of Canberra (we were on our way to the Floriade) like an outcast, eating my umpteenth lamington while my girlfriend and her family voted.

Sadly, she voted for John Howard which meant our relationship did not last (that wasn’t the only reason).

If I am being entirely honest, I am more than a bit disappointed with myself because I do feel that  I am missing out. I’ve only voted twice in my life and one of those days – the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994 – was definitely one of the greatest in my life.

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Voting in South Africa in 1994. Magic times

I wrote about the experience and on this blog describing the queues of multi-coloured people waiting patiently in line, rich white ‘madams’ and uneducated domestic workers all side by side awaiting their turn, the rainbow nation at work. It was a glorious moment in South Africa and the world and I was so lucky to be a part of it.

It’s not quite the rainbow nation over here, but it’s not that far off – so hopefully one day I will join the queues.

Let’s say I’ll aim for 2019. That’s almost do-able right?

 

 

Col Hahne and Nene King: two riches to rags stories

1991:FILE PICTURE OF NENE KING;EDTOR OF WOMAN'S DAY

Nene King in her heyday

When the sad decline of Australia’s former magazine publishing queen Nene King made headlines again in February, it brought back memories of a former life, when I edited a mortgage broking magazine in Sydney called Australian Broker.

It wasn’t Nene King who trigged memories of those days, but mention of the man she was suing in County Court, Colin Hahne, a friend and former housemate, whom she claimed defrauded her of $40,000 and took advantage of her generosity, and whom she had tried to sue for a far bigger amount in 2013. (In the end Hahne, 46, was cleared of all charges).

I remembered, in about 2006, the rather sensational story that broke across the mortgage  industry, and which we reported in our magazine, of the rise and fall of a ‘Col Hahne’ an award-winning mortgage broker, who founded GAL Home Loans, a service specifically tailored to servicing gay and lesbian people seeking mortgage finance.

Founded in Melbourne in 2000, and inspired by Hahne’s own experiences of homophobia growing up the country town of Wangaratta, GAL Home Loans became a massive success, spawning offices in Sydney, Geelong, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.

In 2003, Col Hahne picked up a string of industry awards at the Australian Mortgage Awards, including Best Brokerage and Sales Person of the Year, after personally writing $90m worth of home loans. He was also named Operator of the Year in 2005 by the Mortgage Industry Association of Australia (later renamed the MFAA), the peak industry body.

Col Hahne and his mortgage broking business was flying, finding a niche in a crowded industry and striking sponsorship deals with gay and lesbian orientated Sydney Mardi Gras, Midsumma Festivals and Pride March Victoria.

In a 2003 interview with The Star Observer, Sydney’s newspaper for the gay and lesbian community, Hahne said he felt overwhelmed at winning so many mortgage awards – “I didn’t think we had a hope,” he said, as he talked about his passion for giving back to the community:

“I just feel that the more you throw back at a community, the more they’ll support you and the better it is for everyone concerned,” he said.

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Col Hahne wining his MIAA award in 2005, expelled in 2006.

Then just as suddenly as his career had surged, it came to a crashing halt. In July 2006, GAL Home Loans and Col Hahne were expelled from the MFAA after an independent tribunal found GAL Home Loans had breached its code of practice.

The MFAA did not disclose the reasons for his expulsion, but it soon emerged that Hahne was being sued by the organisers of the Sydney Mardi Gras over an alleged breach of a three-year sponsorship deal.

GAL Home Loans collapsed in 2007 and a court-order to wind-up the company and appoint a liquidator was made in 2011.

So what became of Col Hahne? Was he the same Colin Hahne, who became a close friend of Nene King, whom she referred to as her ‘nephew’ and whom she lavished cars, watches and other gifts.

The answer is an unequivocal yes. They are the same person.

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Col Hahne leaving court in February this year

It appears that soon after his business collapsed, Col Hahne met Nene King when he began dating massage therapist Larry Sutcliffe, who smoked marijuana with King.

In her court testimony, King said Hahne told her how he had had 13 companies (the once high-flying mortgage broking businesses) which went bust and that he had no money. She agreed to let him move in with her and Mr Sutcliffe.

The couple moved into King’s Caulfied home in Melbourne South Eastern suburbs, where, according to reports she had lived as a recluse since 2003 having suffered the tragic loss of her husband Patrick Bowring to a suspected shark attack in 1996 and then battled a drug problem and depression.

The trio became a “family unit” as she showered the gay couple with expensive gifts, noting at the trial that Hahne had told her he was a “financial wizard”.

“She continued to pay all the bills for both men before her money started running out and she had to take out a mortgage on her home,” The Age reported.

“We became great friends and I trusted them totally,” King said at the 2013 trial.

Hahne was found not guilty of all 49 theft and deception-related charges, with the court accepting his explanation that he had an arrangement with Ms King to use her credit cards and always did so with her authority.

As the trial near its end, King, who was once the richest woman in publishing having turned around Woman’s Day and made Kerry Packer a small fortune yelled out at Hahne calling him a “ghastly liar”. Later, in an interview, she claimed she was broke.

As for Col Hahne, he left the courtroom after the trial making no comment disappearing into another life, with the media interest squarely focused on his much more famous former friend, the once wealthy and powerful “paper giant” (Made into an excellent ABC movie).

In the end, it was Nene King very sad riches to rags stories that got all the headlines. But  Col Hahne’s own rise and fall as a high-flying mortgage broker, is also worthy of telling, and just as intriguing.

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

To_Kill_a_Mockingbird

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

gregory peck

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.

harper lee and father

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.