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Archive for the ‘Non Fiction’ Category

The Last Explorer (2005) has the sub-title Hubert WilkinsAustralia’s Unknown Hero. And before reading this book I had never heard of him. As Nasht points out, even though he was born in South Australia, he hasn’t even been accorded the honour of a commemorative plaque on Adelaide’s historic walk. Yet Nasht makes a convincing case for his heroism that should have made it impossible to ignore him. Why then is he so little known in the country of his birth?

One explanation is suggested by a review of the book in The Age by Bruce Elder, who puts Wilkin’s relative anonymity down to the fact that Wilkins ‘spent most of his life being either unsuccessful or living in the shadow of others’. Nasht certainly works hard to refute this view, and Wilkins’s life gives him plenty to work with. You can read the Wikipedia summary here and his somewhat underwhelming biography in the ADB here. Born in 1888 in the mid-north of South Australia to a family struggling to make a living on a farm on marginal land with patchy rainfall, he dreamt early of improving meteorology, a passion Nasht says informed the rest of his life. Falling almost by accident into the dangerous career of aerial photography, he took part in various Arctic expeditions, and became an official Australian war photographer in the First World War.  He was decorated for bravery and praised by General Sir John Monash as ‘a highly accomplished and absolutely fearless combat photographer’. After the war he took part in scientific expeditions to the Southern Ocean, and in northern Australia. But his passion was exploration in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, which he believed could best be undertaken from the air. After a number of hair-raising brushes with disaster, he succeed in 1929 in flying across the Arctic from Alaska to Norway, a feat for which he was knighted.  His next major expedition involved trying to sail an American First World War submarine named Nautilus under the Arctic ice, but the Nautilus was ill-equipped and possibly sabotaged and the mission failed. Wilkins kept busy, but never again attained the hero status he had previously held in America.

I don’t think Nasht has overstated his outstanding bravery, or his tenacity. But Elder is right that despite these qualities, he didn’t make major discoveries, and the submarine venture was a dangerous folly.

The explanation which is offered by Nasht for Wilkins’s relatively unknown status in Australia is that on the expedition to northern Australia, he criticised both the treatment of Aboriginal people and the wholesale destruction of the local flora and fauna. This he suggests, was considered unforgivable by the Australian government and public alike. This seems unlikely to me. More important was the fact that after the war, Wilkins lived and worked in America, and was famous there, rather than in Australia, because several of his expeditions were financed and publicised by the Hearst newspapers, which had no reach in Australia. He’s probably also right that Wilkins was a modest man who disliked self-promotion, unlike several of the other explorers operating at the time. Nasht emphasises his commitment to scientific exploration rather than the simple race to be the first to be somewhere or to do something which dominated the media reporting of exploration up to the Second World War. But then he would, wouldn’t he.

Given that the risks of polar exploration were so great, I was hoping that Nasht would shed light on what motivated Wilkins to put his life in danger so often, especially after his marriage. He quotes Wilkins as follows:

Is it the primitive thirst for adventure, the desire to penetrate the unseen and unknown; to experience the thrill that comes from the presence of danger and the satisfaction one feels at facing and narrowly cheating death that takes me again and again to the polar regions? Yes, it is, to a certain extent, but the experienced know that there is a thrill greater than that of adventure. It is the thrill of worthy accomplishment.

What are we to make of this? It sums up for me the reason for Wilkins’s lack of recognition; he is ‘worthy’, but dull, and this makes it hard for Nasht to tell a good story about him. Indeed despite the daring things Wilkins did, I only occasionally found the book gripping. Furthermore there is something a bit pedestrian about Nasht’s writing; it does not inspire. This is not an evaluation of Wilkins’s achievements; Nasht rarely criticises him, and seems determined to prove him a hero. Elder suggests the book would have been improved by being shorter, and he may be right; Nasht seems to have included material from every source he could find, leading to an unnecessarily detailed account.

For all that, I think Wilkins does at least deserve one of those commemorative plaques in Adelaide.

Nasht is a journalist, and film maker in partnership with the entrepreneur Dick Smith. I wondered if he felt a sense of affinity with Wilkins in having to scrounge around to get funding for his projects, which you can read about here. One notable one is the ABC documentary I Can Change Your Mind About Climate (2012) in which he placed together a climate change activist and a climate change denier, allowing them both to discuss their views with people they claimed as authorities on the topic. Many people thought it presented the reality of climate change as a debatable topic rather than something for which there is overwhelming scientific evidence. You can read his defence here. In the book, he highlights the ways in which Wilkins had an early understanding of climate change, perhaps another reason why he deserves to be better known.

 

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Published in 2015, The Brain’s Way of Healing is a sequel to The Brain that Changes Itself (2007). Subtitled ‘remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity’, it continues the popularisation of the concept of the brain’s neuroplasticity described in the earlier book. Doidge, a doctor himself, is a skilled medical science communicator. I found what he had to say in the earlier book about how the brain can compensate and redirect was fascinating and exciting, as the concept that the brain is not a hardwired machine was new to me. This book looks at understanding and using healing techniques that make use of this neuroplasticity, the reality of which is now, Doidge considers, taken as a given by neurological research. I found it mostly interesting, but sometimes a bit preachy.

Each chapter is devoted to a particular condition that Doidge argues is amenable to a treatment that makes use of the brain’s inherent ability to repair itself. As in the earlier book, he uses a particular case study to illustrate how a specific treatment can ameliorate or even cure the patient’s symptoms and/or underlying problem. These problems include chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit disorder, learning difficulties and stroke. Doidge identifies four stages in the healing process: neurostimulation, which helps revive dormant circuits in a damaged brain; neuromodulation, which helps build new circuits and overcomes learned non-use in existing circuits; neurorelaxation, where the brain stores energy needed for regeneration; and neurodifferentiation and learning, where the brain’s circuits begin to regulate themselves and allow for normal functioning. The treatments all rely on this ‘rewiring’ of the brain by methods including visualisation, lasers, sound/music therapy, electrical stimulation and exercise both physical and mental, though he is essentially claiming there is no difference between the physical and the mental. (He approvingly quotes Moshe Feldenkrais, who wrote that ‘the unity of the mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an indispensable whole while functioning.’) He notes in an appendix that while he has linked one possible treatment to one problem, in practice some combination or sequence of treatments would usually be tried. He doesn’t claim that all – or indeed any – of the treatments will work for all people with these conditions, but argues that any or all are worth trying, as they have no adverse side effects, and often at least improve the situation where conventional treatments including surgery and medication do not.

The treatments – at least as practiced in the West – all seem to be the brainchild of a particular individual or small group of researchers, though some have roots in Eastern practice. No doubt Doidge is correct that neuroplasticity is now accepted science, but the practitioners he discusses all seem to be working on the margins of recognized practice. Some, indeed, such as Moshe Feldenkrais, worked on their treatments well before there was any understanding of the brain’s plasticity, an understanding which Doidge says now explains why their tratments work. I seem to remember that the early leaders in neuroplasticity were loners on the scientific frontiers, and presumably that’s how scientific breakthroughs are made. Doidge only includes examples that he has personal knowledge of, the researchers and practitioners that test the science often belong to well-regarded institutions, and there is a whole section of notes and references at the end of the book to which the sceptical can refer. He notes in the acknowledgements that his editor suffered a stroke part way through the publication process, and was told he wouldn’t recover much of his lost functioning, yet recovered sufficiently using techniques from the book to finish editing it (though I wish he’d put the picture of the brain at the front, not the back of the book). Some of the cures are, nevertheless, hard to believe.

And the response to the book has been mixed. One critical review, for example, concludes that ‘[t]hese cures and their emphasis on the patient’s willpower and moral fibre are, at best, bizarre’. Certainly some of the cases Doidge outlines involve highly motivated people who would not have succeeded without that motivation. As one of the patients says ‘you have to want it really badly’. The problem here is that someone else trying the technique, who for whatever reason lacks that will power, will feel themselves to blame if the treatment doesn’t produce results. And yes there can be a moral element to the judgement that they just didn’t try hard enough – victim blaming in other words. On the other hand, some of the treatments, for example those targeting learning difficulties, are designed to help children, and at least initially only require a passive response. It’s true that a number of the examples are cases of last resort but this is presumably because the techniques are new and not yet adopted by most mainstream doctors, who continue to offer treatment within the existing paradigm. A further concern is that such cures offer false hope to patients and their families. Doidge never says they are suitable for all people with the conditions he discusses, and emphasises that they are mostly not do-it-yourself remedies – they require skilled assessment and monitoring, which are resources in very short supply in most parts of the world. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for the techniques would give hope to those with the conditions – but a hope probably unable to be fulfilled.

I was telling a friend about this book, and she asked why, if the techniques Doidge champions are so successful, are they so little used? Are they the sort of crazy stuff you might find on medical self-help sites on the internet? Have they been rigorously assessed and found wanting? Or will they, like the concept of neuroplasticity itself, become in time the new paradigm for the treatment of conditions affecting the brain? Time will tell.

You can read more about Dr Doidge and his work here. Here’s a rather less hostile review. And here’s one totally hostile one from a medical writer and parent of an autistic child (and yes Doidge does come close – dangerously in my view – to linking autism and vaccination). And here’s another totally hostile one from an evolutionary biologist who pulls no punches. Ah well, science thrives on controversy.

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Foreign Correspondence (1997) is an early autobiographical work, coming before Brooks had published any of her prize-winning fiction. You can read my review of one of her well-regarded novels, People of the Book (2008) here. This one is not really an autobiography as such; rather it’s a view of her life through a particular lens which focuses on the themes of staying and leaving.

The book has a sub-title – which doesn’t for some reason appear on the edition I read – which pretty much tells you what it is about: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over. As a child being brought up in what she suggests was one of the more boring suburbs of Sydney, Brooks finds ‘the opening I’d looked for to the wider world’ by writing to pen friends, first in Sydney, then America, Israel, Palestine and France. Much later in life, she decides to follow up her pen friends and find out what has happened to them. Thus in Part I the book follows her life growing up in the suburbs and her departure from Australia to become a foreign correspondent – hence the full double meaning of the title. Then in Part II comes the later intertwining of her life with those of her pen friends and the wider world. ‘The geography of this childhood correspondence,’ she writes, ‘has become the road map of the adult life.’

Although she is quite self-deprecating about it, Brooks is clearly exceptionally clever. Is there something in her childhood circumstances that contributed to this? Is it nature or nurture, or possibly, a bit of both? She was effectively an only child; her only sister was eight years older. Her father was an American jazz singer who put all that behind him soon after settling in Australia, to become a sub-editor on the Sydney Morning Herald; he has clearly influenced her life choices. Through his interest in journalism, she came to see that ‘Australians had lives that were worth writing about’. He was not an easy man; ‘I learned that if I wanted to talk to him it was easier to follow his adult interests’. From this she comes to see that there is a world outside Australia, and sets out to find out about it though reading, and her search for pen pals. However in this account, Brooks’s mother is perhaps the greater influence. As a child Brooks was often ill and unable to go to school; it was her mother who helped and encouraged her, and played games that inspired and informed her creative imagination. It was her mother who could ‘enter a child’s world with ease and spend comfortable hours there’, giving Brooks comfort and security in what might otherwise have been a lonely childhood. School – a Catholic girls’ college – is passed over with little comment; clearly she does not see it as an important formative influence.

Brooks grew up passionate about whatever it was that caught her interest, be it Star Trek, kibbutz in Israel, or the Paris student uprising in 1968. All of these coincided with or contributed to her search for pen friends. Sometimes she doesn’t get quite what she expects, either from her pen friends, or her unfulfilled teenage rebelliousness. She is, nevertheless, able to conclude from the victory of Whitlam’s ALP in the 1972 Australian election that ‘It is a great thing, at seventeen, to learn that it’s possible to change the world’. But it is inevitable that she will, like many others, leave Australia to pursue the fulfilment she seeks overseas.

I’m not going to outline the stories of each of Brooks’s pen friends. They all raise interesting and sometimes disturbing questions about life choices, perceptions of the world, and its realities. Each of them opens up a conversation that Brooks confronts with honesty and humanity, and sometimes humour. She writes with an easy fluency, honed perhaps by her experience as a journalist, and coming to full fruition in her later fiction. The use of her penfriends as a way into her life and experiences works exceptionally well as a structure for the book.

As an Australian brought up in an even more boring suburb than Brooks, I can’t help comparing our experiences. She’s younger than I am – though her schooling was apparently a bit less empowering – and that makes it a bit easier for me to accept her complete superiority in everything she’s done. I can only admire her courage and determination, as well, of course, as her intellectual prowess. Why didn’t I keep writing to my pen friend?

You can read more about Geraldine Brooks here. And this site contains a list of her works of fiction, which include the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, a major achievement since the prize is for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. Brooks became an American citizen in 2002. But she still calls Australia ‘home’, sort of; you may be interested in her Boyer Lectures 2011: The Idea of Home (or “At Home in the World”).

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The sub-title of this book, published in 2010, is A Redneck Memoir. Having read Bageant’s earlier book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War (2007) (reviewed here) I thought this one might offer some pointers to current state of American conservative politics and the rise of Donald Trump. I was right, though the memoir also challenges the assumptions of many liberals like me concerning the people he writes about.

Bageant was born into a family that had for many generations worked their own small farm in West Virginia, essentially as a subsistence unit with strong community links. But his grandfather and grandmother were the last generation to be able to do so, as the post-World War II cash economy and large scale agri-business, hand in hand with rampant consumerism, reduced them, and others like them, to being part of a white underclass with no choice but to sell their labour where they could for poverty-level wages.  The subsistence farming community was marked by hard work, thrift and independence; there was no place for government, big business or unions. And even when the tie to the land was broken by economic necessity, the value of independence remained. Bageant traces the swelling of the ranks of a white underclass through the decline of his own extended family, noting that despite continuing hard work, they were caught in a downward spiral. The one thing that might have saved them, a decent education, was for the most part denied them by niggardly local elites who controlled their schools, and who encouraged early leaving for dead-end jobs or military service in America’s overseas wars.

As in his previous book, Bageant explains how gun culture and fundamentalist religion are integral to the values of the white underclass. Hunting has always been a feature of life in West Virginia; guns were an integral part of the subsistence economy. They are no less valued because that economy no longer operates. Any suggestion of gun control is anathema, the more so as these people are traditionally suspicious of almost any government activity. Fundamentalist religion offers a sense of community previously provided by being part of a genuinely close knit, land-based, economy. He isn’t blind to the black/white world view of Christian fundamentalism, nor to the ignorance and superstition often involved, but he tries to explain why this world view has such a hold on people like his family. Central to his analysis is the refusal to accept the reality of class in America: ‘Illiterate? In poor health? Underpaid, disposable, superstitious, and exploited? Big deal. That would describe much of the planet. The difference is American class denial’.

Bageant clearly respects the old ways of independent subsistence farming. I think he may be sentimentalising these old ways, which were almost by definition narrow and restrictive of the individual, especially women. He sees the processes that destroyed that way of life almost as a conspiracy between government – Republican and Democrat alike – and big business. Agri-business didn’t happen, he argues, by chance; it was rather the product of regulation, subsidy, financial instruments and government sponsored propaganda, supplementing the economic power of a few big corporations. I’m not entirely comfortable with his view, but neither can I really fault it. It’s an uncomfortable sort of book.

Equally clearly Bageant hates the circumstances in which the white underclass now finds itself – both from what has been done to it by way of poor health, education and wages, and by what it accepts for itself, particularly the ‘collective amnesia’ which inhibits people’s ability to question their situation. Bageant uses his mother’s diary to inform his account of his parents’ life, so he has primary evidence of the poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence that prevailed. However when he askes her about those days, she looks back on them with nostalgia. ‘For all the anxiety, grief and hardship, she … was remembering those times as the days of rainbow pie.’ Hence the ironic title. However this denial, he argues, is not just the blindness of the underclass; it is promoted by the rich and shared by the liberal intelligentsia who do not make the effort to understand this underclass and who may even, indeed, deny its existence. Hence the sub-title, taking to himself and his family the label ‘redneck’.

Bageant did not live to see the emergence of Donald Trump as the leading aspirant for the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential election. But much in this memoir foreshadows the acceptance of just such a candidate. On the issue of the white underclass’s hostility to healthcare reform, for example, he writes that the ‘sad truth is that the pent up anger has little to do with feelings about healthcare, but a hellluva lot to do with all the shitty breaks, insults, and degradations that come with being an underclass citizen of the Empire.’ This anger has been successfully exploited by people who benefit from America’s class war. The calls for exclusion of Mexicans, and increased protection for American manufacturing – however unrealistic – resonate with the overwhelmingly white male supporters of Donald Trump many of whom are themselves excluded from the prosperity and comfort of what they routinely see on TV as the American dream.  Bageant might well be saying ‘I warned you’ from his grave.

Bageant doesn’t say in this memoir how he escaped his background to become a journalist, but you can find out more about him in this quite detailed account of his life. You can also read his Wikipedia entry here. If, like me, you don’t know what rainbow pie is, here is a recipe.

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Before we start, I have to declare an interest. The Jack de Crow of the title (2009) is a Mirror dinghy. I also own a Mirror dinghy, long disused in the back shed, but nevertheless familiar in all its quirks and pleasures. I’ve even rowed a Mirror dinghy and know just how hard it is; even loaded it sits high in the water. Mackinnon’s unlikely voyage is simply amazing.

This is an account of a nearly 5000 kilometre voyage sailing single-handed in an eleven foot dinghy from North Shropshire to Sulina in Romania on the Black Sea. Mackinnon didn’t set out to sail further than a few kilometres, but after reaching each destination it seemed a good idea to go just a bit further. Quite a lot of the journey was on canals, where he mostly had to row (a skill which he learnt on the job), but he sailed across the English Channel and where ever else the waterway – river or canal – was broad enough. It took over a year, as he couldn’t sail in the depths of winter. And along the way he had many adventures.

Of course he’s only picked out the most interesting events and encounters to write about. ‘The next five days were utterly wonderful,’ he says at one point, ‘and so make poor telling, alas.’ This of course dramatizes the journey, which must at some points have been relatively mundane – that is if sailing every day into unknown waters in Eastern Europe could ever be called mundane. ‘I Exaggerate For Effect – my friends tell me I was born for that motto,’ he writes, and perhaps he does overstate some incidents. But even if understated there is more than enough interest to keep the reader eagerly turning the pages to find what scrape Mackinnon will get into next. There is also a certain amount of foreshadowing – as in ‘I set off in a jaunty frame of mind for what was to be, without a doubt, the worst day of my life.’ Really? Read on!

Mackinnon has certain attributes which made the trip possible; he is a skilled sailor since childhood in Australia, he is strong and brave and cool (mostly) in a crisis. On the other hand these are flimsy enough advantages to set against the weather, the waves and perils of his mode of travel, particularly as he was doing it on a shoestring budget. He acknowledges the considerable support he received from family and friends; who of us could rock up to the gates of Eton, drop the name of a housemaster and be taken in and made comfortable for the night? But one of the aspects of his story that makes the book really pleasing to read is the kindness he received from strangers all along his route. Of course he met a few churlish characters as well, but overwhelmingly he found people willing and eager to give him a meal and a bed for the night, and even more important, help him repair his boat after each of the numerous mishaps that befell her. Perhaps the somewhat eccentric figure that he cut – for most of the journey wearing a pith helmet until it was stolen – or the audacity of the venture itself caught people’s attention. But their genuine and unsolicited kindness and care revive even the most wilted belief in people’s innate humanity.

Mackinnon also writes amusingly. His style is self-deprecating and somewhat confessional, which makes him seem like a friend to the reader. He’s happy to share his mistakes and misjudgements. He imagines, for example, that the crew of a Romanian barge big enough to ‘sit squarely in the middle of two football pitches end to end and not leave a lot of room for the players’ will likely ‘live on vodka, deep-fried pig’s blood sausages and any dinghy sailors they can run down and gut.’ In fact they saved the dinghy from certain destruction, and treated Mackinnon with every kindness – if that’s what you call plying him with schnapps.

There isn’t much about Mackinnon on the internet; here is a very brief biography. Since writing this book he has published The Well at the World’s End (2010), which is about a journey from New Zealand to the Scottish island of Iona. A longer review of Jack de Crow is here. And if you want to find out more about Mirror dinghies, try here. Ours has one refinement over Jack de Crow – an automatic bailer, but it only works at speed – and almost certainly not if you’re rowing …

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Why did I read a book I knew would upset me so much? After all, I already knew the ending. Well, I was on a plane, and it was all I had to read … and once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

The book, published in 2014, is subtitled The Story of a Murder Trial, and that is exactly what it is. It tells of the two trials of Robert Farquharson, an apparently ordinary bloke who, on the evening of Father’s Day 2005, drove his car into a dam in country Victoria. He escaped, but his three sons, aged 10, 7 and 2 did not. Farquharson’s story was that he had suffered from a coughing fit while driving, blacked out and ended up in a dam. He said he had tried to save the children but had been unable to do so. An investigation by the police into what had happened concluded that there was enough evidence that Farquharson had deliberately driven into the dam, and he was charged with the boys’ murder.

Garner structures the book around the trial, which she attended every day. So we meet all the main characters: Farquharson himself, looking ‘small, scared and terribly lonely’, Peter Morrissey, Farquharson’s defence lawyer, with his ‘big, fair and bluff, Irish style, with the bulk and presence of a footballer’, Jeremy Rapke QC, the Crown Prosecutor, with ‘a mouth that cut across his face on a severe slant, like that of someone who spent his days listening to bullshit’, and the judge, Justice Philip Cummins, with his ‘open, good-humoured face’. And then there is Cindy, Farquharson’s ex-wife and mother of the dead boys, her new partner, her family and Farquharson’s family. Next, like the jury, we hear the evidence against Farquharson, and Morrissey’s attack on it. Was it possible that Farquharson had blacked out because of a coughing fit? What evidence was there about the path of the car into the dam? Why were the lights and the ignition off? And much worse, what would have happened to the boys when the car sank?

As well as this more or less technical evidence – though being technical doesn’t make it any the less horrible – there are the relationships involved. Was Farquharson bitter and vengeful about his separation from his wife? She said she believed his story, and that he would never hurt the kids, because he loved them (– though she had changed her mind on this by the second trial). And even if he did love them, Garner puts paid to the ‘sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges.’ Had he really tried to save them? And what about his odd behaviour immediately after the crash, when he had refused the offer of two passing motorists to dive into the dam to search for the car, and instead demanded to be taken to his ex-wife’s house so he could tell her he’d killed the kids? Was this a natural desire to share his shock and horror, or an act of revenge? The jury eventually finds him guilty, but he wins an appeal and a new trial. The new jury finds him guilty again.

None of this does justice to the power and passion of the book. Garner almost wants him not to be guilty, because how can one comprehend that a father would deliberately kill his children? ‘In spite of everything I know about the ways of the world,’ she writes, ‘it was completely unendurable to me that a man would murder his own children.’ At times, she almost feels a bit sorry for him, he is so pathetic. I was strongly reminded by her description of his behaviour in the dock of Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ (which you can read more about here). He’s isn’t presented as a monster; he’s ordinary, though lacking in insight or empathy – failing to ‘think’ in the same way Arendt is describing. But maybe this makes him a monster.

Because Farquharson is charged with murder, the court cannot consider the possibility that hovers in the background of the book: that Farquharson’s plunge into the dam was a failed suicide attempt – which might have made his crime manslaughter. His lawyer does indeed clutch at this straw at the end of the second trial, but Farquharson never strays from his ‘not guilty’ plea, and so this possibility – attractive because marginally less horrible than intentional murder – is never explored. Because of this there is never any discussion of what he did or might have done to get his children out of the car; he claims only to have regained consciousness too late to save anyone but himself.

Some of the journalists covering the trial thought at times that Farquharson’s legal team might have established ‘reasonable doubt’; neither jury thought so. The evidence is there for readers to make what they will of it; I know what I think.

If I’ve whetted your appetite, but you still aren’t sure whether or not to read this book, have a look at this masterly review by Peter Craven, who says it all so much better than I can. This one by David Maher is pretty interesting too. Ten years on the case is still ongoing in the sense that Farquharson’s ex-wife is now in the process of applying for compensation from the victims of crime fund. It’s still ongoing, too, in the sense that it’s something no one who has read the book can ever forget.

You can read more about Helen Garner here, and my review of her 2004 book Joe Cinque’s Consolation here.

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When Hugh Stretton, one of Australia’s great public intellectuals, died last month aged 91, I was moved to re-read one of the first books he wrote* – Ideas for Australian Cities. This book, published in 1970 was so unusual that he couldn’t find an academic publisher for it, so he published it himself. At the time, I found it one of the most important books I’d read, one that changed my way of looking at cities. So what do I think of it forty-five years later?

Most of the book is about the history of the cities Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, and the town planning arrangements that were operating in them in the late 1960s. Most space is given to Canberra, then still a relatively new city, offering options for planned development not open to older cities. Adelaide gets the next most space, in particular the work of the SA Housing Trust, which was then still a major player in the housing market as a provider of low cost housing for workers, rather than welfare housing, centrally planned, but built through private contractors. Melbourne and Sydney get less space as established cities unlikely, though for different reasons, to be amenable to a planned response to such problems as underinvestment, sprawl and overcrowding which already characterising them.

In 1970 there was considerable novelty in a book about cities. Stretton refers to the existence of some rather more technical urban research and publications, but for most students of Australian history, it was the impact of the bush that defined Australia. Cities were still the ‘five teeming sores’, the parasites on the countryside of A.D. Hope’s bitter poem Australia. Stretton’s book marked a sea change in attitudes to the centrality not only of cities, but also of the suburbs in assessments of national life. Rather than seeing it as deadening, Stretton saw the quarter acre block as a site with potential for freedom and creativity for families.

It’s true that the planning regime of each of these cities as described by Stretton is now out of date; since 1970 there has been both a wave of political interest in cities and a retreat into neo-liberal reliance on the market to shape them. Nothing has come, other than a few false starts, of his hope that new cities would be created, so as to reproduce the amenities and freedoms of the old ones. The problems he identified then have only got worse now: unaffordable house prices in Sydney and Melbourne, long journeys to work for those forced out to the margins, traffic congestion, destruction of parts of cities to build freeways and parking lots, inadequate public transport, well-meaning but ultimately destructive creation of public housing ghettos which breed crime and violence, or, more likely, very little public housing at all, and long waiting lists for the most vulnerable.

But Stretton has nevertheless left a major legacy – or at least he has left me one. This is the understanding that urban development is a site of power. He makes it very clear in his book that urban growth, and the planning – however much or how little – that shapes it, is essentially the result of political choices. In fact he calls the book a ‘political tract’. By this he means that planning choices – even the choice to do nothing – have differential effects on the rich and the poor. It is nearly always, he says, the rich that benefit when development is left to the market, but proactive planning can also have a bias in favour of the rich if it results in ghettos for the poor. His ideal is for as little social segregation as possible, as mixed neighbourhoods generate better schools, because there are parents with the resources to defend and improve them, better facilities because there are more people able to argue for them, and more diversity and interest to leaven the mixture. Unfortunately segregation is becoming more common, and is a major factor in both creating and sustaining inequality in Australian society.

Stretton also has a major concern about planning which focuses on the needs of men as workers and commuters, and ignores the needs of women and children at home in the suburbs. Planners, he felt, often privileged cars over pedestrians, made routes to schools and shops unduly dangerous, and favoured high rise living even though it was quite unsuitable for young children. This is an area where much has changed, with many more women now in the workforce, so that fewer journeys are made on foot (making traffic congestion worse), and unsupervised play in neighbourhood backyards is relatively rare (children without this freedom now play computer games alone inside). Many families live in medium density housing because they can’t afford a house with a backyard or aren’t prepared to drive the long distances to get to one – which they would have little time to enjoy anyway. But I don’t think these changes negate Stretton’s basic concerns about the importance of the needs of children for suburban safety and freedoms.

In an interview in 2007, Stretton was asked how he thought Australia’s cities were going. His main concerns remained the need to develop alternative city centres, with the full range of employment, government services and cultural pursuits, though he thought it unlikely that the political will existed to do that. He also re-iterated the need for public housing that was more than simply for welfare purposes, as that almost always resulted in ghettos for the poor: public housing should be built ‘to sell into the middle and bottom of the housing market to keep it effective for everybody…I would love all that back and I don’t think there is ever any good reason for being rid of it.’ He rather confounded his conservative interviewer by his concluding remark: ‘I think part of the problem is governments have decided that they must buy votes by cutting taxes at election time, not revealing that this means that house prices are anything up to twice what they need be for lack of that public supply into the housing markets.’ An unfashionable view, maybe, but I think it’s as true now as it was in 1970.

Hugh Stretton’s voice in defence of equality will be sadly missed.

There isn’t much about him on the internet; here is the barest outline of his career and work. There is far more to it than I can cover here, but you might like to read two other posts I wrote about his 2005 book Australia Fair here and here.

*The Political Sciences, his major academic work to that time, was published in 1969 by Routledge & K. Paul, respectable academic publishers.

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