Review: Bernard Cohen’s The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies

For Newtown Review of Books:

Typically, reviews begin with a snippet from the book in question or with a short description of the work and its main concerns. In form and content, Bernard Cohen’s The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies resists both such openings. Part novel and part exegetical commentary, this satirical and inventive book is many things at once: fictional and critical, factual and fantastical, anxious and passionate, funny and searching, disjointed and odd.

Taken purely on plot, the story is farcical. Recalled from the doldrums of Australian history by the new government of John Howard in 1996, former prime minister Robert F (but not G) Menzies appears in Canberra as a spectral force: ever-present but never quite in focus for press gallery or public. At first listened to by the new government, Menzies soon becomes a mere prop for photo-ops and is eventually banished from the stage entirely. Alienated, he takes to the bush, traversing an Australia he both does and does not recognise. But Menzies’ reappearance has not gone unnoticed. Years past deadline for a biography of the former prime minister, the self-involved ‘Bernard Cohen’ instead spirals into writing something else altogether: an ‘antibiography’ that leads him into fabricated identities, endless subterfuges to distract his publisher, and increasingly bizarre quests for evidence of the ghostly Menzies.

Continue reading at Newtown Review of Books.

Kill Your Darlings: How Should a City be?

I’m super pleased to have this essay published in Killing Darlings No. 17, alongside some very talented writers. You’ll have to pay for a copy of the journal to read the full essay, but here is a very short preview:

Nelson Mandela died last night and Durban fell quiet. This morning in Warwick Junction, a patchwork of markets jostling against the CBD, the quiet has given way to work. Traders sell neatly arranged punnets of tomatoes and barrowmen push carts stacked with produce. Bead sellers sit beside their wares, threading small glass beads into intricate patterns. Women polish balls of lime clay so they glow white.

On television and online, Mandela’s death is sweeping across the world. Here in Durban, no businesses are closed, no crowds have yet gathered to mourn. Customers and traders exchange sad shakes of the head and murmur words of loss.

Grief is deep but life presses on.

South Africa has come a long way in the last twenty years, but still has far to go. Part of the nation’s future progress will rely on how it builds its cities, in part because those cities still bear apartheid scars. Politically and socially much has changed, but the very fabric of cities such as Durban must change too. A new Durban is emerging, but what should it look like? How will it work? And for whom?


Subscribe to KYD or buy a copy of #17 here.

Review: Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files

For Newtown Review of Books:

No one knew who Edward Snowden was in May 2013 when he scraped 1.7 million classified documents from the National Security Agency from his post as a civilian contractor in Hawaii. By the end of June he would be the most wanted man in the world, having rocked the national security establishment of the United States to the core by revealing the mass surveillance of foreign nationals, world leaders, and, perhaps most damaging of all, American citizens.

Now, in early 2014, the documents he stole continue to feed news story after news story, even after Snowden himself has spent the last six months as a ‘guest’ of the Russian government. Yet these stories represent just the tip of Snowden’s iceberg, according to Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian and publisher of many of the surveillance revelations.

Luke Harding’s account of the Snowden story and its initial impact is thus timely, but also limited in its scope – it lacks the perspective that distance from the subject might offer. Fast-paced and journalistic in style, The Snowden Files offers a straightforward, accessible account of Snowden, the data he managed to ‘exfiltrate’ from the NSA, and the ‘epochal debate’ it engendered.

Continuing reading at the Newtown Review of Books.

Overland: A Fair Crack of the Whip?

Solomon Northup raises the whip and his stoic mask dissolves. The slave woman, Patsey shakes, body tied to the whipping post. Epps, the plantation owner, gives the order.

‘Strike her.’

The whip cracks, the girl shudders. The slave owner, his wife and their slaves watch. It cracks again, and again, and again.

‘He pantomimes,’ says his wife. ‘There’s hardly a welt on her.’

Epps holds a gun to Solomon’s head.

‘You will strike her until the flesh is rent,’ he says, ‘and meat and blood flow in equal measure, or I will kill every nigger in my sight.’

Now when the whip cracks its snap is muffled by tearing flesh, and screams rip the air. Later, when the slave women wash her, Patsey’s back is hardly recognisable – flesh is flayed into ragged strips.

Of the many brutalities depicted in the film 12 Years a Slave, the scenes of flogging testify perhaps most of all to the horrors of corporeal punishment.

In his 2011 book In Defense of Flogging, American criminologist Peter Moskos proposes offering a choice to those about to be incarcerated: serve your sentence, or receive a flogging. He argues that given both the deeply ingrained human desire to punish and the terrible suffering that occurs in prisons, almost any punishment is preferable to incarceration.

Unlike Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal, Moskos is not engaged in satire. As this article inThe Washington Monthly makes clear, he is serious: he believes flogging to be preferable to the present system of imprisonment. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, Moskos’s native United States is the explicit target for his proposal but last November he presented his thesis at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Opera House in Sydney. A show of hands at the end of his talk said that many had been converted.

Finish reading this article at Overland.


Review: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

For The Newtown Review of Books:

Beside the funeral pyre of Australian soldiers killed by cholera, Dorrigo Evans, surgeon and leader of a camp of prisoners on the Thai-Burma railway, wants at first to burn the sketchbook of one of the dead men. One of his assistants in the camp hospital points to watercolours of atrocities, of torture, and of the everyday life of the camp. ‘Memory is the true justice,’ he says. Dorrigo disagrees:

We remember nothing. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe most of a life, if we live. Maybe. But then we will die, and who will ever understand any of this? And maybe we remember nothing most of all when we put our hands on our hearts and carry on about not forgetting.

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an unflinching attempt to stave off that forgetting and, in doing so, to explore heroism, sacrifice, suffering, love, trauma, and memory. This is an ambitious order, and for the most part Flanagan is up to the task. There are passages of brutal beauty, where his flair for the sentence that rises from the muck into soaring poetry allows him to connect small moments to the larger forces of life history. Flanagan’s father was a prisoner-of-war in the Japanese camps, and that lived knowledge of the trauma carried by the surviving soldiers gives the novel its solidity.

[Read more at The Newtown Review of Books… ]

Mandela’s Memorial

The scene at Durban City Hall

In typical colonial fashion, the manicured gardens opposite the Durban City Hall feature a monument to Queen Victoria and various icons of early white history. Today, the descendants of those subjugated by British and Dutch colonisers crowded the steps of those statues to watch the memorial for Nelson Mandel, broadcast live from Pretoria.

Kept thin by the rain, the largely black crowd can’t have numbered more than five hundred at any one time. But many stayed for the full five hours of the memorial, the start delayed by the late arrival of dignitaries to the FNB Stadium, the famous Soccer City near Soweto, and persistent rain. With the slate weighed-down by a too-full slate of speeches, songs, prayers and formalities, many in Durban and the stadium and grew restless for long stretches. Repeatedly and futilely, the masters of ceremonies called for order.

Many speeches rehashed similar ideas about Mandela and his importance to South Africa and the world. But there were some shining moments. Particularly moving were the brief words his great-granddaughter Phumla Mandela, a young woman with the dignity to match her fire and passion.

President Obama’s speech was easily the best crafted. More than any other, his dwelt on Mandela the man, his imperfections as well as his achievements, and what he found within himself to overcome towering challenges. As he did in his great speech on race from the 2008 election campaign, Obama avoided bromides and instead articulated how Mandela relied not only on actions and ideas, but also the painstaking work of building institutions and an unshakeable faith in Ubuntu, ‘the ties that bind the human spirit.’

Memorial badges of Mandela

At his introduction and throughout his speech, Obama drew loud applause from the crowd in Durban. With the tired ‘birther’ conspiracies in the United States, it is easy to forget that here in Africa his Kenyan ancestry carries enormous weight and meaning. He is the first American president to not just know Africa but to be of this place.

This differing perspective was even more evident in the cheers that greeted the appearance on screen of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. While western media paints him an anti-democratic strongman, many South Africans sympathise with his redistribution of land and wealth. While Mugabe had no formal role, President Raúl Castro of Cuba did and was similarly received.

In Durban, in his native (and electorally-crucial) KwaZulu-Natal, cheers also greeted South Africa’s own President Jacob Zuma, but boos filled the stadium itself, a sign of increasingly division in the broader electorate. Zuma’s speech was long, dry, and careful to emphasis the role of the ANC in Mandela’s life. Facing elections in 2014, Zuma and the ANC are expected to hold government but slip substantially in the vote. There were few surprises, then, in hearing Zuma do his best to make as many tactful references to the ANC as possible.

Yet the most striking moments of the memorial were unscripted. With vuvuzelas aplenty, makeshift bands scattered about the stadium and sections of the crowd breaking into spontaneous song and dance, many clearly wanted to farewell Mandela their own way. Few in the stadium—or in Durban—had much patience for the halting, platitude-heavy speeches from foreign leaders, or for the endless roll call of attending leaders. Master of ceremonies Cyril Ramaphosa, Deputy President of the ANC and potential successor to Zuma, repeatedly demanded that the crowd show ‘discipline,’ even pulling the microphone away from Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to repeat his admonishments. Archbishop Desmond Tutu also used his time at the end of the ceremony to scold the crowd.

In the shadow of Durban’s neo-Baroque city hall and the statues of dead white colonials, it was easy understand the crowd’s frustration and the great challenges that South Africa faces in the wake of Mandela’s passing. People here want more change and wider prosperity. Many are sick of leaders who call for order, patience and discipline only to repeat the same words, the same slogans, the same ideas. During the memorial, there were a handful of official songs and the crowd in Durban stood for these, singing and dancing. It was hard not to think that many are simply sick of paternalism and want their voices to be heard more loudly. Mandela, surely, would have told them to keep the struggle alive.

Dancing in Durban for Mandela’s Death

Banner above the steps of City Hall

Yesterday I had the odd but amazing experience of ending up at a hybrid Mandela memorial  ANC rally. Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote for

Durban didn’t react immediately to the death of Nelson Mandela. In the city centre, produce was bought and sold, minibuses roared around corners, men got their hair cut in roadside salons. There were no grieving crowds on the streets. No one had shut down their business or taken the day off. At the city hall, a handful of flowers lay on the steps and officials had set up a small memorial with a book to write messages for Mandela. Few had written in it. Life rolled on, and dealing with its daily realities took precedence over mourning — at least for now.

On Saturday night, hundreds were crammed inside city hall, almost all in the black and green or yellow of the African National Congress. Across the room, I thought I glimpsed another white face but I can’t be sure. From the stage, pastors and politicians delivered an electrifying mix of speeches, sermons and gospel songs. Most were in Zulu, but we could clap and dance and smile. Smiling was what mattered. This was to celebrate Tata Madiba’s life, not mourn his death. Tears were there, of course, but these were women and men inspired to keep building the South Africa of Mandela’s dreams…

[Read more at Crikey… ($ required) ]

Review: Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

For The Newtown Review of Books:

To hold one of Thomas Pynchon’s novels unopened is to be on the cusp of near infinite possibility. There is a dizzying scope and a staggering technical virtuosity to much of his writing, a willingness to confront historical and technological immensities, revelling in the chaos that ensues. This visceral wildness is evident in the famous first lines of his 1973 masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow: ‘A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.’

Pynchon’s differing ambitions for Bleeding Edge are clear from its own opening: ‘It’s the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school.’ Unlike the complex Gravity’s Rainbow (or most of his other works), its plot is fairly linear, its cast of characters manageable, and its geography largely contained to New York City. This is Pynchon for the uninitiated, or for fans who’d like to read him on holiday and still be relaxed. But it is far from a trifling work.

[Read more at The Newtown Review of Books … ]

Sculptures by the Sea, or Public Pleasure in Art

Sculptures by the Sea is on again. Over two weeks, tens of thousands will descend on the short stretch of coast between Sydney’s Bondi and Tamarama beaches to explore the eclectic array of art works installed along it.

This is the way summer begins in Bondi, a crashing wave of visitors that will not let up until March. First there is the unceremonious arrival of earthmovers and shipping containers. Then tall men wielding cordless drills materialise, concrete is poured to make foundations, sculptors look on pensively, and curatorial figures, identifiable by their clipboards and stylish eyewear, stride proprietarily across the exhibition’s central space of Marks Park, the headland between Bondi Beach and Mackenzies Bay.

Locals have a bittersweet relationship with Sculptures. This beautiful stretch of coast should be enjoyed, and who could be so curmudgeonly as to disdain it becoming an outdoor art gallery for a few weeks each year? And yet we have our petty resentments—losing the dog park, makeshift one-way streets, swathes of dead grass, and, of course, the hordes of art-ogling camera wielders—complaints voiced with loud laughs so that we don’t appear too philistine.

One evening before opening, I walk the route from the Bondi Icebergs Club to Tamarama Beach. Some works are old acquaintances, changed only in mood or posture: fat copper men dancing on granite (Keld Moseholm), undulating curves made kinetic by the wind (Hiroyuki Kita), Calder-esque folds of bright-hued metal (Michael Le Grand, Philip Spelman), warped stencils of polished steel (Michael Snape). Others reflect their liminal location between sky, sea, and land: timber-block men bend their backs to keep sandstone from falling (Elyssa Sykes-Smith), cloudy, glass feet walk from hillside to sea cliff (Robert Branstone), a huge sphere filled with water inverts the horizon (Lucy Humphrey). Some could be anywhere, utterly unaware of the changeable place they occupy. Many, it seems, are auditioning for permanent homes in corporate lobbies, and others lack ambition—designed to elicit a chuckle or a goofy pose for Instagram. Those with a political edge seem to be about recycling or climate change; worthy causes, to be sure, but generic and inoffensive all the same.  I pass a group of corporate sponsors, champagne clutched in their fists, and wish they were part of the exhibition, instead of the only people who can afford to buy the works.

On the first Saturday, cars accumulate below our apartment, horns blare, and a steady river of humanity flows towards the coastal walk. Despite myself, I join them, the sensibly dressed elderly, the yuppie parents pushing too-big prams, the Japanese tourists who seem surprised to find themselves in the middle of art, the fit young couples in running shorts or black leggings, sporting his and hers fluoro Nikes. On the coast walk itself we slow beside each new work, ignoring the denialist joggers elbowing past, too obsessive to find somewhere else to run.

Up on the hill at the end of Marks Park, a polished steel Cheshire grin reflects sky, ocean, grass, and the smartphones of teens taking distorted selfies (Matthew Harding). Their pleasure is infectious. Kids squeal their way excitedly through a maze of mattress inner springs (Jane Gillings) and pour into an open-roofed room of blue Chep pallets (Clayton Blake). Further on, a disquietingly beautiful piece has attracted a small group of women. Two bodies lie on a plinth, grey clay slowly breaking apart, and between them a perfect white-glazed baby (Arun Sharma). In their linens, wide-hats and Cancer Council sunglasses, the women discuss whether the work is damaged, but no, that can’t be right, and together they decide it’s about how families are always both decaying and renewing. They look in silence for a few minutes, basking in the joy of understanding.

Sculptures by the Sea isn’t about the artworks. Or, to be accurate, the artworks aren’t its true centre. People are. Retirees earnestly leafing through catalogues, parents desperate for tiring activities, reluctant husbands trailing a half-step behind carefully dressed wives, clusters of hipsters letting their irony lapse for a few hours. Everyone is taking photographs. Posing in front of the leaning telegraph pole on which skeleton rides a bike, pretending to step onto a staircase that climbs towards a vanishing point, stepping into a steel loop to capture their own bodies bending to infinity and back onto themselves. Laughter, casual pleasure, another way to unwind the weekend.

Near the trees, a troupe of kids clambers over a painted steel structure by Ron Robertson-Swan OAM. Their mother waits with the camera beside the Do Not Touch sign. I am about to say something, but I don’t. There is an active demythologising here, a desire for all this art to be just another part of life. If these kids grow up thinking that art is something you can become intimate with, something welcome, isn’t that better? And besides, what are small hands going to do to powder-coated metal?

As the exhibition rolls on, I find myself watching the people far more than the art. Early one morning, a fitness trainer urging two young mums into circuits and star jumps, prams safely stowed in the shade. A group of middle-aged men and women, uniformed in cargo shorts and walking sandals, laughing at the dialogue coming from the bike-locked Portaloo (Justin and Simone Drape). Yelling school kids, disgorged from buses, bouncing on their toes while their teachers do one last count. Countless such moments in the three weeks of the exhibition. Then it will be over; the sculptures gone, summer arrived.

If there is one moment that will stick with me, it is this. People spilling onto the roped-off rock shelf above Tamarama Beach, blocking the narrow stairs, bodies pressing together. There must be a fifty of us and I don’t know where we are from or what we are all thinking. Only that we are staring, all of us, into Lucy Humphrey’s water-filled acrylic orb, collectively gazing into a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. What we see is not the future but an inverted view of the world, the horizon flipped so that sky becomes ocean, ocean sky, and rock floats above. Finding pleasure, in our different ways, in seeing the world from another perspective—even for this small moment, on this crowded stretch of coast, before the hurly-burly everyday swallows us up again.