Sunday, 18 March 2018

Book review: Off the Record, Craig Sherborne (2018)

A comic novel is a bit of a rarity in Australian fiction these days. This one reminded me of the work of Morris Lurie (1938-2014). I remember reading his ‘Rappaport’ (1966) when I was a very young man and enjoying its sly humour. But even more potently this novel reminded me of Martin Amis’ ‘Money’ (1984) insofar as the main character is highly distasteful and in the end receives his comeuppance. With Sherborne’s invention, Callum Smith, however, the knife finally dropping barely dents his pathological instincts.

Callum is 48 and is married to Emma, who is two years younger, and they have a son, Oliver, who is 14 years old and struggling at secondary school. Callum is unfaithful one night with a woman in a parking lot and Emma is told and he is forced to move out of the comfortable family home, to a one-bedroom apartment located above a shop in another Melbourne suburb. Callum continues to come over to do the gardening and make Emma breakfast-in-bed, and to talk with his son. But he finds out that Emma has been seeing a man, whose name turns out to be Gordon Grace, and Callum sets Ollie to spying on his mother to find out more about Grace, who he discovers is the owner of a chain of nursing homes and lives in the tony enclave of Toorak.

Callum’s evil propensities trigger many such bizarre behaviours. One day, he uses a phone box on a suburban street to report Grace to the tax office for fraud, based on nothing more substantial than his own sense of entitlement and the malice it inspires. He also recruits a private investigator he knows named Peeko Mellich to dig up dirt on Grace. Mellich will appear at different times in the novel whenever Callum has plans that need a little extra effort to progress. In the telephone-booth scene we are shown an additional dimension of Callum’s character: he is frightened of catching some unnamed disease from the phone handpiece, which he imagines is only normally used by what Sherborne calls “deros” (short for “derelicts” in Australian slang) and drug addicts. His fussy self-regard is highlighted in this scene: he’s happy to see others suffer but is careful to make sure he gets an easy ride himself.

Callum is employed by a news website named “pry” that relies for its material on deaths and disasters. It’s definitely tabloid in its aspirations, eschewing serious subjects like politics and international affairs in favour of murder and infanticide. One reporter, Mei Tran, is relegated to the court beat, but when she sees a dead body for the first time she is physically ill. Callum thinks she doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude for the job and manipulatively informs two of the other young reporters about it.

The sobriquet “Words” is applied to Callum and has been for some time now. It is short for “wordsmith” because of his facility with language. At the beginning of the book, I wondered a bit about the author’s distance from his creation because of this conceit. From the outset Sherborne uses short, punchy sentences that I was suspicious of in the light of his hero’s nickname, especially since the author himself has worked as a journalist. I almost put the book down at one point early on but relented and I’m glad I continued because it turned out to be a very fine novel.

Professionally, Callum is just as unethical as he is in his dealings with his family. While he threatens an English teacher, named Gumm, with unspecified disaster if his news outlet turns its attention to bear on the private school where he works, in order to get the man to give his son better marks on assignments, at pry Callum ropes in a junior named Katie Brooks to organise a “stoning” at a local church. The ruse involves conscripting a local homeless person (another “dero”) named Alice to enter the church during a service and ask for money. When the congregants throw her out of the church, the journalists plan to jump in and capture the action on their mobile phones. The resulting images would constitute material for a story designed to impugn selfish motives to the church. The journalists think the story would be sure to gain a lot of clicks.

Comically, the fishing expedition fails and the congregants liberally hand Alice money. Other things don’t turn out the way the calculating Callum wants, as well, but to give away too much would be to spoil the novel for potential readers. To sum up, Callum is a manipulative, cruel, egotistical and callow creature and yet he retains the reader’s interest. This is the point where Sherborne’s true art shines through.

Callum’s propensity to create mayhem for this enemies and to smooth the way for his own plans is alarming at face value but we are aware as we are reading that what he does to an extreme degree resembles at least in kind what anyone normally does or thinks in the course of their quotidian lives. (I contemplated saying “quotidian routine” but realised that Words would comment archly on the tautology.) His efforts to succeed, for example to progress his son’s scholastic career, might be devious and unfair at first glance, but many people would do similarly grubby things on a daily basis if they could get away with them. Or at least they fantasise about it. Deep down, we are all a bit like Callum Smith.

I also thought the novel timely, in light of the way the media is dealt with on social media. If Amis’ anti-hero John Self in ‘Money’ is the ultimate Thatcherite shyster and ad-man, Callum Smith is the ultimate journo-on-the-make for the post-internet world. Social media has forever changed the nature of the public sphere, and journalists play a highly visible role in that world. The degree of vituperation aimed at journalists is often alarming, and while on the surface Callum justifies the anger they receive in such short messages, he is also something of a tonic within this matrix of meaning and sentiment where poor spelling colludes with bad grammar to unmask the ignorant and uninformed.

His struggles in life are just as mundane and prosaic as anyone else’s but the difference is that he belongs to the same breed of professional that hacked into the phone account of murdered English schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Given his talents and the opportunities offered by his position, many people in the broader community would readily make the same choices in life he does.

Journalists are on the back foot globally because of the way the internet has disrupted their industry, and because of the US president’s popular “fake news” epithet. They need a little moral support, and the strength of characterisation and quality of plotting that you find in this wonderful book serves that purpose.

Back in May 2008 I favourably reviewed Sherborne’s memoir ‘Hoi Polloi’ (2005) and my reading of the new novel reinforces the vivid impression I received at that time, so long ago now it seems, of real talent. Sherborne was born in the same year I was and he went to Scots College in Bellevue Hill, just up the road from Cranbrook, where I was at school. He also lived with his parents after they migrated from New Zealand in Vaucluse, where I lived with my family. His mother probably visited the gift shop my mother and grandmother operated in Vaucluse shopping centre.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Book review: Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews (2013)

This page-turner quickly proved its value and drew me into a world of pursuit and flight, deception and loyalty, love and hate. At the core of the novel sits Dominika Egorova, a thwarted ballet dancer who was forced to quit dance school because of the unethical and criminal conduct of two other students. This plot device sets the tone for much of the novel, where life in Russia is characterised by forces that operate in the shadows, a place where the vectors of crime and money intersect with disturbing frequency.

Dominika enters Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, after she is involved in an assassination of an enemy of the president, Vladimir Putin, who will henceforth take a special interest in her career. It helps also that her uncle, Vanya, is a senior bureaucrat in the organisation. She is sent to “Sparrow School”, where both male and female operatives are taught the arts of seduction and coercion so that they can be more effective spies.

Her first posting is to Helsinki, where she is ordered to recruit Nate Nash, a young CIA operative who the SVR thinks is running a high-ranking agent, codenamed Marble, in Moscow. To do this, she starts swimming at the municipal pool where Nash swims. There is a lovely passage in this part of the book where the focalisation swaps from one of them to the other as they are both swimming lengths side by side along the pool. The transition is masterfully done and demonstrates that Matthews is in full control of his material.

Action scenes where people are killing each other or making love in the novel however tend to fray a bit around the edges, showing disconcerting gaps in the narrative material and to a degree the reader’s interest lapses at these points, but for the most part Matthews’ technique is adequate for the tasks at hand. There is another nice passage, near the end of the book when Nash contravenes orders and travels from Athens to Estonia, that shows how fine Matthews’ technique can be at times. In this passage, the sentences run together all in a rush, as though the author is struggling to keep up with the drama in Nash’s mind as he negotiates all the obstacles in his path on his quest to reach his destination, and to see Dominika – with whom, by this time, he las fallen in love – once again before she goes back behind the curtain.

Dominika is recruited at the outset by Nash and his colleagues Marty Gable (deputy chief of station) and Tom Forsyth (chief of station), rather than her recruiting him. She is motivated to switch loyalties because of something that had happens to Marta Yelenova, who also worked in the Helsinki SVR office under rezident Volontov. When she appears in the novel, Marta is aged around 50 but used to be a “sparrow” herself, and she and Dominika share stories and build a friendship in the SVR office’s otherwise alienating environment. But an operation the SVR was conducting goes awry and Marta is slated for liquidation and is killed by the SVR using the shadowy assassin Sergey Matorin, who we come across again later in the book. Dominika is wretched in the face of such cruelty and Nash is able to recruit her to work for the CIA, however she is whisked back to Moscow and tortured in an effort to extract the truth about the aborted operation.

The drama follows the unfaltering pace of the novel as it negotiates such plot twists in its onward rush to an anticipated conclusion. But one weakness in the novel is the different ways that the operatives on the two sides are drawn by the author. On the Russian side the higher-ranking officers in the SVR tend to be clumsy, venal and ambitious, keen most of all to please their masters and not very bright when it comes to running agents. This is surprising because it is suggested that it is in Russia that you find in the broader society the kinds of shadowy subterfuges that typify spying operations. On the American side however, the characterisation is richer and each of the operatives takes on a unique identity, one that is carefully drawn to create a varied tapestry where individual enterprise is seen to be valued, although Matthews makes passing reference to careerists in the agency on his side of the Atlantic as well.

Gable, for example, is an engaging character with plenty of experience under his belt that serves to enrich his conversation, and he is especially charming when it comes to talking about the different kinds of food he has eaten in his wide travels. On the subject of food, by the way, each chapter in the book comes with a recipe at the end for one of the dishes served up for the characters in the chapter just finished. I didn’t read these little vignettes after the first few as they don’t add to the plot, but they illustrate the kind of detail that spies work with in their daily work. Knowing how to make something as simple as a cheese fondue, such as Gable makes for Nate and Dominika one night in Helsinki, underscores the kind of curiosity the service values in its operatives.

Like Gable, Simon Benford, a senior operative who is chief of counterintelligence based in Virginia, is richly drawn. Matthews develops Benford’s character slowly and deliberately so that he can be trusted by the reader. Trust is essential for credibility in the spy’s universe of lies and deceit, and is one of the things that motivates Dominika, who the CIA is trying to make sure of. At the end of the book it is still not certain whether she will remain active as an agent for the agency or if she will hang up her boots. The book thus ends up in the air, preparing the ground for a sequel.

Like the little recipes, another authorial device Matthews relies on, this time to furnish material for character development, is Dominika’s synaesthesia. She sees coloured haloes, or mantles, behind the heads of the people she meets that give her information about the person she is talking with. Yellow means the person cannot be trusted, and purple means they can be, and there are different intensities of colour as well. Unfortunately, the device isn’t ever used actively to advance the plot, so it is not intimately worked into the novel’s fabric and remains a kind of tic that does more to distract the reader than anything else.

Central to the plot is the love affair that develops between Nate and Dominika. Given the context within which this happens, it was difficult to do, but the author is successful in delineating a relationship based on trust and a real physical attraction. Nate is a dedicated officer whose first priority is always the safety of his agents. Ensuring that they can continue to operate, provide intelligence, and stay safe, is his sole focus, and it is on the integrity of such relationships that the agency relies as it goes about its business.

The book is going to be turned into a movie, so readers will have another opportunity to contemplate its subterranean world when it hits the screen. There are also sequels available to purchase if this one gave you the satisfying experience you expect when you buy a book. It’s topical furthermore in light of the attempted assassination in the UK with a nerve agent of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal that caught up also his daughter Yulia.

More broadly, the nature of the intelligence services is something that everyone should bring themselves to contemplate. In times of peace these organisations continue to operate in almost total obscurity under the banner of democracy and the freedoms that it embodies, but the lengths that their officers go to to accomplish their tasks are anything but honest and open. And they are operating in our names, but we know almost nothing about them. Books like this one pull back the veil momentarily, allowing us to scrutinise the kinds of activities that are carried out for our sakes, day in and day out, in the communities we live in.

In this regard, one aspect of the book that rang false for me is when an agent, a Californian senator, uses a device given to her by the SVR to suicide when she is unmasked. The newspapers in the story report that she died from a heart attack. I’m not sure that this kind of subterfuge could reliably be carried out by the CIA on American soil. It might have happened, but I have serious doubts about it. It should not happen, however, and this is one reason why we should know more about how our intelligence agencies work. More transparency is needed. Matthews is a former CIA operative, and is almost as good as a novelist – though not quite – as John le Carre, who notably had worked for MI5 and MI6.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Book review: Autonomous, Annalee Newitz (2017)

I gave it a good shot but I regret to say that this genre novel’s dystopian world bored me silly. It just doesn’t drag you in, and relies instead on such standard sci-fi strategies as robots and crime to spark the reader’s interest.

The novel opens with Jack Chen, who is a pirate of an ethnic Asian background who lives in North America and who deals in contraband drugs. She drives a submarine around the globe transporting her cargo from source to market. The most recent cargo was a product named Zacuity, invented by a company named Zaxy, that enhances the user’s work experience. A student in Calgary had been so badly affected by a batch from Jack’s hold that she wouldn’t stop doing her homework. The story hit the news.

The scenes with Jack are interleaved with others that take place in the Sahara Desert with a robot named Paladin. The robot has a human brain at its cognitive core that is wired into an artificial neural network to enhance its operation, but Paladin has no memories and doesn’t know where the brain came from. Paladin is new and is being sent on a mission along with a human named Eliasz, who hails originally from Poland, by the International Property Coalition, to find and stop Jack.

There are opportunities to generate real human drama in the book but the author is more interested in the technologies she is inventing to power the plot. The emotional disconnect you have is total, and Jack is even able to kill an intruder in her submarine with a thrown knife without batting an eyelid. She goes into her kitchen and programs a printer to make herself a set of cement boots with which to dispose of the robber’s body. Threezed, a human indentured into a form of slavery to the robber, enters the story as Jack assesses the damage caused by the intrusion.

Yet there is no emotional bond in evidence for any of the characters. Science fiction often has this problem, but creating plotlines that rely on moments of excessive pathos – the story of the slave Threezed for example – are no substitute for real human emotions. There is nothing here to hold onto if the technological ploys fail to get your pulse racing. For me, it was all just window dressing.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Talking about the social housing model, Common Ground

This is the latest in a series of blogposts on this blog about homelessness. This time, I spoke with Felicity Reynolds, who is CEO at the Mercy Foundation in Sydney. About 10 years ago, Reynolds was involved in bringing the Common Ground system of social housing to Australia from the US, where it had been developed initially in New York City. In this interview, Reynolds mentions another interview which appeared on this blog at the end of October, that I did with Housing First founder Sam Tsemberis. 

This interview took place at the beginning of January, but I held off publishing because it contains information about the number of homeless deriving from the 2016 Census that had not been finalised at the time by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I told the ABS I would wait until their final numbers were published, which happened yesterday.

MdS: Alright, so [the voice recorder is] running. I wanted to ask you about the Common Ground system in Australia. My understanding is that you were involved with this from the very beginnings. Can you give me some background about your involvement?

Yes, sure. In 2007 – and I’d been managing homelessness services at the City of Sydney for some time at that point – I actually got a Churchill Fellowship because rough sleepers and solutions to people who have been experienced chronic street homelessness had become quite a passion. I got a Churchill Fellowship to specifically look at that issue right across the world, to see what were the most effective programs and practices etcetera. And so I had been in touch with Roseanne Haggerty – and by the way Sam Tsemberis as well in relation to Housing First and whatnot – and so as part of my Churchill Fellowship I visited a number of places that were doing good work, that were getting people who were chronically homeless into permanent housing. And obviously a couple of places I went to included Common Ground in New York and included Pathways to Housing that Sam runs (and you know a bit about that because you’ve already interviewed him).

So I guess my interest in trying to create new forms of permanent supportive housing for people who will need that in order to have their homelessness ended, began quite some time ago when I was first at the City of Sydney and realised that we did not have adequate supply of permanent supportive housing for the relatively small group of people experiencing homelessness who will need that – not everyone who is homeless requires support to sustain their housing, it’s a really quite a small group of people – but we certainly didn’t have enough stock for that group of people.

We’ve had programs in NSW for a long time – like, my background’s in mental health – called HASI, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that. It’s the housing and support initiative, and that’s been going I think since the late 80s and that provides permanent housing and ongoing support for people with a mental illness. But it wasn’t necessarily an easy program to access for people who had multiple problems and who had experienced chronic homelessness. I’m not saying they didn’t access it at all, just that we needed some other options.

So I know when I came back from my Churchill Fellowship I very much wanted to make sure that we were able to create some additional supply of permanent supportive housing in Australia for the relatively small group of people who will need it to sustain housing. I’m in favour of all types of models, scatter-site and high-density, and I got involved with a group called the Australian Common Ground Alliance and I was the person in Sydney and there was someone in Melbourne – it was Stephen Nash at Home Ground at that point, in Melbourne – and Karyn Walsh from Micah Projects up in Brisbane. There had already been a Common Ground in Australia in Adelaide which Roseanne had been involved in establishing when she was the South Australian thinker-in-residence, I think that was around 2003 or 2004 that she was thinker-in-residence down in South Australia, and so I’d taken the opportunity to meet her when she was in Australia probably around about 2005 or 2006. So I already had a connection with her. There was a woman from Tasmania who was also interested as well.

And so the Australian Common Ground Alliance kind of came together in 2008 and by then I’d moved to this [current] role at the Mercy Foundation where we fully focus on supporting projects that end people’s experience of homelessness. And so as well as having the national link I established a Common Ground Sydney working group to see if we could ensure that Sydney had at least one Common Ground. And the reason for that is that we need more supply of affordable and social housing. Housing First is wonderful but if you’ve got now housing you can’t do it. And so I still think that we need probably maybe one or two more in Sydney, not that many more.

MdS: Common Grounds, you mean?

Yeah. It seemed to take forever at the time. But now looking back on it, it was probably relatively quick and we had a bit of luck in Sydney in that there [were] the stimulus funds that the Rudd government was able to release, and there was also a Commonwealth-state program called A Place to Call Home that was funding the development of new public housing, plus the states provided the support services. So the Common Ground in Sydney ultimately happened.

MdS: That’s at Camperdown is it?

Yes, that’s right. And it actually opened in 2011, so it wasn’t too bad starting a working group in 2008 and launching a concept to make it happen. Really, when I look back upon it, it was relatively [quick]. At the time it seemed to be taking forever. But we wanted to ensure with the Melbourne one and with the Sydney one and the Brisbane one that the people who were the most vulnerable got into that housing.

I’m not sure if you know about the Common Ground model. It is a mixed-tenancy model, so it’s about ensuring that you don’t fill up a building with a whole lot of people that do have a range of problems, that you ensure that there are people who simply need affordable housing plus people who have experienced chronic homelessness and may have some additional issues. And it has a fairly – what I would hope in most instances – is fairly invisible onsite support to ensure that people sustain their housing.

MdS: No, I don’t know anything about it. I’m open to listening to any description that you want to give about it because I’m coming from a point of complete ignorance.

Well, just in relation to the Common Ground model, it is really about ensuring that people who’ve experienced long-term homelessness do have high-quality housing in which to live. It’s quality, it’s permanent and it’s affordable. It ensures there’s a diverse social mix, so not everyone comes from the same background, there’s also housing there for people who are maybe key workers or something like that, or studying, that need affordable housing close to the city. It has onsite tenancy management and support services for people who might need that. It provides a safe and secure environment and that’s often through ensuring there’s a concierge service in the building – I mean, it’s the sort of thing that really wealthy people in the city have in their buildings, so you know it works – and I think that’s an important part of ensuring that the building is very community-spirited and is able to be a really positive place where people can live.

The other crucial thing about the model is ensuring that there is a separation of the tenancy management and the support services, so just as you and I wouldn’t want our landlord to know a range of personal things about us or tell us when we should be taking medication or anything like that, that’s exactly the case [with Common Ground]. It’s really normalising to ensure that the tenancy management is quite separate [from] the support services management. So they’re kind of the five key principles of the Common Ground model.

And of course it’s permanent, to me that’s one of the most crucial aspects – I’m not a fan at all of transitional housing models. I don’t think they help people to gain stability because, you know, I don’t know about you but if you’re told you can live somewhere for six months or for a year you’re unlikely to put down roots, get connected with the community, all that kind of thing.

And it’s done with the Housing First methodology, so people don’t have to prove that they’re capable of living in a house or anything like that, they are simply offered housing based on the fact that they require permanent supportive housing and have experienced long periods of homelessness or unsuccessful tenancies in the past. So it’s important that a resource that provides that level of support and high-quality housing goes to the people who need it most.

MdS: Who owns the title of the Camperdown property? Who is the actual owner?

You’ll have to talk to Mission Australia about that. My involvement stopped once we had the state government committed to it and running with it. They obviously paid for the building. [And] we had that great relationship with the Australian Common Ground Alliance. Grocon made a commitment to build Common Grounds in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane at cost, so there was significant savings in the building by Grocon making that commitment at that time. And so, once it was established and the state government was funding it they put out to tender for the building, needless to say because Grocon built it at cost they got the tender, and then of course they put out to tender the tenancy management and the support services and Mission Australia Housing run the tenancy management in Sydney and a collaboration of four services initially got the support services management for the one in Camperdown.

Right across Australia, it’s all a bit different, as it should be. For example, in Melbourne it was Home Ground that provide the support services, that’s now become an organisation called Launch Housing. It merged with another organisation a couple of years ago. And Yarra Community Housing, which is now called Unison Community Housing, is the tenancy provider. Up in Brisbane it’s Micah Projects, the support providers, and Common Ground Queensland is the tenancy provider. They actually established a new organisation for that purpose up there. It was something we considered doing down here but decided in the end that we really don’t need to establish a new organisation, there’s plenty of community housing providers that would be able to do that tenancy management without creating a new organisation.

The important thing is that the principles of ensuring that people are supported in their housing as they see fit. It’s important that it doesn’t infantilise adult human beings as some short-term crisis services can sometimes do with their list of rules and curfews and things like that. It very much is about supporting people as they go and ensuring that they are assisted to meet their tenancy obligations.

So it’s simply permanent housing that also has that support attached for those people who want it and need it. I continue to facilitate, and have for the last – it’s probably been about four years – what’s called the Common Ground Community of Practice, and so once a month we have a national telephone hook-up between the support and tenancy managers at Common Ground and I simply facilitate that because they’re obviously busy people. That’s a great support nationally because in all of the cities except for Adelaide they’re loan services, we haven’t had any further Common Grounds built since – I think the last one opened, it must have been Brisbane – and that was in 2012 or 2013.

And every capital city now has one except for Perth and they’re obviously looking at the possibilities over there because I maintain that we do have to create some additional sources of permanent housing in order to get people who don’t need to continue to be homeless on the streets into permanent housing. I firmly believe in housing as the solution to people who are homeless, and some people need support, but not everyone.

MdS: The statistics from the 2016 Census – I’ve been in touch with the Bureau of Statistics – and they’re coming out early this year, in February I think, so it’ll be interesting to see how homelessness has changed. It’s only been since about 2008 that the ABS has been counting homeless people. It’s quite a new thing, really.

No, I think they were definitely counting them before then.

MdS: Were they?

Yeah. They’ve probably got better at it but they’re certainly had a number of counts with each five-year Census. And then they reviewed the methodology for the one before the 2016 one. So that was what, 2011? That was the time at which they reviewed the methodology. Because what they had been picking up – and that’s why I agreed with their need to review that methodology – they were picking up people like, say, some of those folks out in country areas where they’re bought a block of land and they’re slowly building a house but they’re living in a tent or a caravan while they’re building that house. So I can see why one needs to tighten up the methodology to ensure – because those people wouldn’t necessarily self-identify as homeless, but they might be counted as homeless given the nature of the dwelling in which they were temporarily living – but they’re on their own piece of land slowly building a house. And of course it’s a tricky thing to do.

I guess it’s now 10 years old – my Churchill Fellowship report – it might be worth you having a google and having a look at some of the things that I explored in relation to programs that are successful with people who’ve experienced chronic street homelessness.

It’s a difficult thing to do, to enumerate people experiencing homelessness. And it’s important that we do actually understand if what we’re doing is – and it’s one of the reason I introduced an enumeration strategy at the City of Sydney – because otherwise you don’t know how effective what you’re doing is, if you don’t actually understand what the base number is, and then is it going up? Is it going down? What I think we’ve learned over the years – and I’m not sure how deep you want to go on this, because we have a better strategy nowadays – we’re working with communities to do registry weeks, which I can tell you about on another occasion, because it takes a little bit of explaining but it’s quite a good methodology.

What I’ve come to realise over the years is that we know exactly how to end people’s homelessness because everyone who’s homeless requires permanent, affordable housing. And some people – a relatively small group of people – may require ongoing support to sustain that housing because they may have some additional issues as well as their experience of poverty and homelessness. So we know how to end people’s homelessness and what Australia is not yet very good at is actually turning off the tap. There are some big taps that are creating newly-homeless people as you and I talk, and those taps include things like Newstart. It’s literally impossible to live in Sydney if you’ve lost your job and you’re living for any period on Newstart. You live in Sydney, don’t you Matthew?

MdS: Yes.

Yeah, you completely get that, I’m sure. It’s a completely inadequate amount to actually house and feed yourself and whatever else you need to do. And certainly the other Centrelink benefits aren’t that much better.

We’ve been doing some work in more recent years around older women experiencing homelessness and the key reason for that is simply poverty, there’s no other problems involved. We’re talking about women who’ve raised families and given back to the community and done a range of things but they’ve ended up in older age living in poverty simply because they’ve spent time out of the workforce raising children or caring for other family members, and the particular cohort of older women at this point in time – it will change, obviously, in the future – but at this point in time had some fairly systemic discrimination throughout their lives. Like, for instance, back in the 60s when you got married you had to resign your job. And when you became pregnant you couldn’t continue your work. You know, and there was an expectation that women stayed at home and cared for children.

So, if there’s been a woman who’s ended up single for whatever reason, either lifelong or maybe there’s been a late divorce or there’s been a death or something like that, they’re much more likely to be living in poverty and as a result – because of our housing costs right across Australia but probably quite specifically Sydney and Melbourne – are in great housing stress. And they’re a very invisible group because they don’t necessarily self-identify as homeless.

They may self-identify as having a housing crisis, but they don’t necessarily self-identify as homeless because there is this big myth in the community that people who are homeless are those people living on the streets. And you and I both know because we’ve looked at the Census statistics, that it represents around about six percent of the total number of people experiencing homelessness. And that is an incredibly solvable problem.

It’s a very solvable problem. We know how to end it, it’s either with scatter-site Housing First permanent-supportive projects, or with high-density permanent-supportive housing projects like Common Ground. I might just add for the group of older women I’ve just told you about, obviously they’re not the type of people who are necessarily targeted with a model like Common Ground. Older women who are simply living in poverty and don’t necessarily have any additional issues, just simply need access to affordable, secure, long-term housing. That’s the simple answer to that. And then of course just as they grow older will need the same kinds of things as anyone in the community needs to support them as they age in place.

MdS: Do you think that the 2016 figures are going to show an increase over 2011? What’s your anticipation?

Well, I actually know they have. My understanding – I don’t know what the ABS told you – is that the overall count is around about 120,000 and that the number of rough sleepers has gone up to about 8000 or 9000And so I think – I’m not sure because I haven’t actually seen them yet – it’s only what I’ve heard, I think it represents a similar percentage of the total. .

[NOTE: The number deriving from the 2011 Census was around 105,000. The final number published by the ABS in March deriving from the 2016 Census was 116,427.]

And I think we can largely put a lot of that increase down to the fact that we’ve got huge housing costs in places where a lot of people live – Sydney and Melbourne – and we’ve got ridiculously-paltry amounts of Commonwealth benefits for those people who may not be able to work for whatever reason, either they’re simply unemployed or perhaps they’re unwell and on – I guess it used to be called sickness benefit, I’m not sure what’s it’s called now – but the equivalent of Newstart when you’re sick. And then disability support pension, which is the same as the age pension, we already know from the age pension that it’s really tricky for people living on government benefits to be able to maintain private rental housing in places like Sydney and Melbourne.

So we’re talking simply about inadequate supply of affordable housing. And you know about the disinvestment in public housing that’s been happening over the past few decades. I’m not sure how old you are?

MdS: I’m 55.

Oh, we’re exactly the same age! Are you 1962?

MdS: Yes.

Yeah, me too. Anyway, you would recall as I recall growing up and, you know, there was in my mind this pretty major commitment to ensuring that everyone had access to housing in Australia. It was kind of really civil. There were those, you know, the little red-brick homes, or the little fibro homes in most country towns and suburbs, great suburbs in Sydney. I’m not saying some mistakes weren’t made but on the whole, there was a commitment to ensuring that everyone had access to housing and I think Australia has sadly moved away from that. And public housing, you know, the supply has dwindled, it’s not been kept up well [but] we’re giving a lot of housing subsidies to private landlords.

And unfortunately, I don’t know if you know much about the rental tenancy legislation in NSW, it doesn’t help engender long-term housing. We’ve still got the case until it’s changed – and many of us have been arguing for it to change – we’ve still got the case that people can be given notice and [evicted for no cause]. So I certainly have heard stories of, say, older women just getting by in the private rental [market], just getting by – like having to decide whether to take a bus trip or whether to buy a loaf of bread – who are too afraid to ask their landlord to make needed repairs to the place lest they might be evicted.

MdS: The planning minister in NSW seems to be giving out mixed signals. He went to the launch of this organisation called the Housing Supply Association at which he talked about providing housing for critical job categories like police and teachers and paramedics and whatnot…
Key worker type stuff?

MdS: Yeah. But on the other hand he’s on television saying that if you do specify lower rents for some apartments in a development then you’re going to push up the cost of others in the same development. And so he’s giving out mixed signals.

Absolutely. It’s Matt Keenan, isn’t it?

MdS: No, it’s Anthony Roberts.

That’s right. Yeah, because we were involved in some of the public meetings the Sydney Alliance has had last year in trying to get inclusionary zoning as part of the planning regulations in NSW. Because really, that is one of the long-term answers. I think the other part of that jigsaw puzzle is ensuring that we have a reinvestment in public housing because we need to ensure as a civil society that we all have access to housing. I find it disgraceful that this relatively-solvable number of people [are still homeless], because, like, as a general rule, most people experience homelessness fairly briefly.

We have got a better safety net that’s for sure than America where they actually have people who can work full-time and still not afford to be in housing, you know, they’re being paid [a] ridiculous $7 an hour or something and working a 40-hour week and can’t house themselves. But here we’ve got a few better safety nets. I’m not saying it’s marvellous but it’s slightly better and people don’t necessarily experience homelessness for long periods.

But there is that group that I’ve now been really interested in for the past 15 years or so that do stay homeless for long periods. There’s been this increasing tendency – I’m not sure if you’ve noticed it, I certainly have – to pathologise anyone who becomes homeless. Like, “They’re homeless, there must be something wrong with them.” And that’s just not the case. There’s a small group where, yes, that is the case, but it’s absolutely not the majority. And I think that’s about demonising people living in poverty, people who are poor.

And what it also serves to do when you pathologise anyone who becomes homeless, is [that] instead of it being a problem with our society, like we haven’t ensured there’s enough housing for everyone to go around, it then becomes a personal problem. “Oh, look at them, it’s their fault that they’re homeless.” Instead of, “Oh, we haven’t as a community made sure that everyone has access to housing.” Which is what I would argue a perfectly reasonable and basic human right.

MdS: With as you say the problem of rental affordability in Sydney especially but also in Melbourne and other cities, inclusionary zoning has got to be part of the toolkit that government brings to [bear]. I just don’t understand when the minister says on TV that it’s a bad thing but on the other hand he’s talking to the developers telling them to do it. It’s just so strange.

I don’t know what that’s about either. I suspect there’s politics going on there. We know who gets in their ears and it’s often not people experiencing homelessness or abject poverty. And so it looks to me like the developers don’t want it and so that’s why it hasn’t happened yet. But it’s a really basic and obvious thing that can be done.

I feel fortunate, I live in a local government area, the Inner West Council, that has passed what I think is quite a good inclusionary zoning policy. I know [at] the Mercy Foundation, our policy is 15 percent [affordable rental housing] on formally privately-owned land and 30 percent on formally publicly-owned land. I think [at the] Inner West [Council it] is something like 10 and 25 percent. And that was just passed last year. But, yeah. It’s the only way to ensure that over a long period of time we do much better at creating affordable housing.

MdS: One of the problems though is that once a development gets over a certain value then the planning [approval] for that development [is] taken away from the council and given to the state government.


MdS: So [developers] can do what they want, really.

And it’s why we need the state government to commit to it as well. And I believe that the Opposition in NSW have in fact made that commitment, but they’re unlikely to be in government any time soon. I actually think it’s a disgrace that on formally publicly-owned land some kind of percentage is not yet mandatory. I mean, that’s a no-brainer. Don’t you reckon?

MdS: Yeah! I think that inclusionary zoning is the only way to go and you hear stories all the time now and it’s framed in the media as this sort of battle between the Boomers and the Millennials. Every debate comes down to the previous generation getting all the breaks and this generation having to pay much more. The debate is framed in these terms and I really don’t know if it’s very useful. It’s really about proper regulation.

And as a civil community. I mean, I just find it insane that we actually have people who are experiencing such enormous amounts of housing stress while [with] the policies – the federal policies like negative gearing and the discount on the capital gains tax – there are people who find it easier to buy second, third, fourth, tenth homes where people can’t even get rental housing, let alone purchase their own home. It’s just not civil. There are people who are quite wealthy who are getting tax breaks. It’s not right. It doesn’t even strike me as ethical.

And the fact that it’s a completely solvable problem in Australia. I mean, this is a wealthy nation. At times I get terribly frustrated at the lack of progress we’ve made. Common Ground is just one model. We need a range of models. Like, not everyone needs support, they just simply need the housing. Some people might need some temporary support because it can be really traumatising to experience homelessness, so there may be just a period of support that people need along with their housing.

But the answer in every single case is housing. We clearly don’t have the right types of supply. And we need a whole lot of different supply. Some will be public housing. There are certainly some models like – I don’t know where you live in Sydney – but there’s some pretty nasty old boarding houses that you really wouldn’t want to live in but which some people sadly have to live in. But I know there are some newer models now called new generation boarding houses where, for those people who don’t necessarily want to live completely on their own – because that’s not what everyone wants to do, especially those that don’t necessarily have families, or they’re estranged from families – they might want to live with other people but live in a quality environment, not in a horrible one. And be evicted with no notice. Because you know tenancy rights for people in boarding houses have been a problem for a long time. People can be evicted at fairly short notice.

We just don’t do well in Australia for people who haven’t been able to afford to purchase a home. We do really bad for everyone who can’t afford to purchase a home. Because the rental options are so short-term. I know, I rented a long time in Sydney, for many years. I lived in – I can name all the suburbs I lived in in the inner west because people either sell properties or they want to come and live in them again. You know? And that doesn’t create a great community, when people are moving around. I can’t imagine how you’d do it with children.

MdS: They have better laws in some European countries where the tenants have a much more solid tenure especially in places like France and I think Scandinavia too where the tenancy laws are different from what they are in Australia.

Much better. In fact, we did a little bit of background research when we were first looking at the issue of older women experiencing homelessness and I think there’s one country – it might be Poland or [the Czech Republic] – you’re not allowed to evict anyone in winter. Like, no-one. You just can’t do it.

I’ve got a mate who’s German and lives in Germany and I visited his house and they’ve rented it for the last 30 years and raised their children there. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen here in Australia. I think having some institutional investors in housing could be another part of the jigsaw puzzle, could be a help, because when you think about – you hear politicians talk about it all the time – the mum-and-dad investors, when you’ve only got one investment property it’s your one investment property and so – and especially those who are speculating on capital gain – they’ve got very little vested interest in ensuring that renters are happy. What they’re doing is just holding onto it long enough to be able to sell it at a greater [price] than what they bought it [for].

And I must admit, there are people I know I have these types of conversations with, who think it’s less about negative gearing – I know negative gearing was actually invented to ensure that rental housing was more affordable, but it doesn’t appear to have done that – but it was more the issue when Howard introduced the capital gains tax discount, that a lot more property speculation started happening in places like Sydney. And that really created a market that’s made things unaffordable for everyone. Because as the actual prices of houses go up, as do the rents, as do the mortgages, and we’re giving tax benefits to people who can afford to buy more than one home. I don’t know about you it just doesn’t seem right.

MdS: No.

And we’ve got people experiencing chronic homelessness on the streets for years when we know exactly how to solve it. Be it scatter-site or be it high-density, permanent-supportive housing works for people who do have some additional problems. And it’s a relatively small group. Not a huge group at all.

I think unfortunately there’s this sense in the community – I don’t know, I could be wrong – but there’s this sense in the community that somehow everyone who experiences chronic street homelessness is really, really problematic and, you know, it’s such a complex issue and charities year after year ask people to donate money to them. So I think somehow in the public consciousness there’s grown this idea that somehow it’s a really, really tricky problem. Really hard to solve. When in fact we know – because I know there are people in each of the Common Grounds I’m familiar with – who have lived there since they moved in there after experiencing long periods of chronic homelessness. So we know exactly it can be solved.

And also the scatter-site permanent supportive housing where people are simply living in affordable public housing and the support services go to them, like the Pathways to Housing model, like Sam [Tsembris’] model. That works as well for those people who prefer it that way. And we know exactly how to solve it, we just have not yet had the systemic commitment to making that happen.

MdS: Just before we finish up, do you think there’s going to be – we’ve got one Common Ground now in Camperdown – do you think that there’s any hope of getting another one?

I think there could be because I know Clover Moore has come out in support of the model in recent years. I don’t think it would hurt to have another one or two. We don’t need huge amounts of them. In fact, through the registry week methodology that we do with communities we can identify the numbers in each community. It’s not huge. And not everyone wants to live in high-density so we also need the option of having scatter-site public housing with support services that go to people’s homes. That works just as well, as well.

Some people fail in housing because – you can imagine it, can’t you, and I’ve seen it happen – they’ve been in the streets and there’s a sense of community, a sense of camaraderie, a sense of connection that can be quite [important]. And it’s part of survival, of being on the streets. And then people get housed in a one-bedroom studio in Campbelltown, a gazillion miles away from their social networks, and because they’re not living on a huge amount of money not necessarily able to have a car or anything like that, transport’s difficult, they’re disconnected from the community and then that housing fails because people do need connection.

So sometimes, ensuring that there is housing close to the city and ensuring that people can – that was the main thing I was really adamant about with Common Ground in Sydney, I really wanted it actually in the CBD but Camperdown was the best we could find and I’m glad that that was found because you can walk into the city from Camperdown if you need to – and certainly it’s not very far away from people’s social networks that they need to continue to have, not be disconnected from. I would have preferred it in the CBD to be honest but, look, there weren’t that many spare blocks of land in the CBD.

MdS: And I think with governments of both colours the fear they have of being labelled by the tabloid press as overly generous to people who are experiencing possibly temporary disadvantage, I’m thinking particularly of the Murdoch press and the Daily Telegraph. The columnists there are like attack dogs and if Murdoch points his finger at a politician and says, “Go!” they’ll [attack].

It’s disgraceful actually because I think it makes our society not understand. I often use the example of what happens in Australia when there’s a natural disaster like a flood or a fire. Isn’t it amazing? I mean, I’ve been amazed over the years and you watch people run up and help, you watch people get their needs met fairly immediately and then the assumption is they will as quickly as possible go back into some form of permanent housing. Yet we don’t [have] that same response for people who have their own individual disasters. No-one expected the fire victims down in Victoria – when was that, about 10 years ago? – to go and line up at the Matt Talbot in the hope they might get a bed that night. No-one expected them to do that. Why do we expect other people to do that? Why do we expect people who’ve suffered their own personal disasters to do that? It is about that deserving and undeserving stuff, which I don’t think gets analysed terribly well at all.

It’s why I also think – and this may be slightly controversial, but I’ve certainly observed it – whenever we talk to the media about older women experiencing homelessness and we talk about the fact that they’ve had long periods of systemic discrimination in their lifetimes, and the lack of super and the lack of this [and that], and they spent years raising children, and caring for other family members, the media laps it up. “Oh, these people should not be homeless,” is what I hear.

And they’re right. They absolutely shouldn’t be homeless, but nor should anyone. There’s this sense that somehow they’re slightly more deserving because they’ve raised children. But, no. Absolutely everyone is deserving of housing. It’s just that when you talk about people who are experiencing chronic street homelessness what creeps in is this notion that somehow they’ve chosen it or they’re to blame.

Yeah, and sure, there are definitely some troubled people on the streets, there’s no doubt about that. But who can help that they were born into an abusive family and were taken into foster care at the age of four and went through 16 different foster homes, and then at the age of 16 – like, we’re the same age, so you’ll remember this (they’ve changed it thank heavens) – but years ago you turned 16 and they went, “Bye now.” “Off you go.” I mean, imagine having no-one to – I mean, I spent half of my twenties phoning my parents and asking for help – you know, having no-one to turn to. And so there’s some really devastated lives that are people who have ended up on the streets for a whole range of reasons that may include drug and alcohol abuse and may include mental illness.

But, sadly, one of the things that we found from the registry week project is this thing that has flown under the radar for a long time: there’s a really high [number of people] – it always turns out to be around about 30 percent in all the communities we’ve done it – where people literally have a traumatic brain injury. And when you’ve got a traumatic brain injury no pill, nothing is going to actually change that or fix it. It does mean that you need to work with people differently. You don’t expect them to turn up next Thursday at 3 o’clock. You have to give them a call or go and pick them up, or whatever.

A lot of our homelessness response in Australia is crisis-based and that’s great if you’re in a crisis but it’s not so great if you’re no longer in a crisis and you need to get back into permanent housing. I’m sure when you spoke to Sam [Tsembris] on the phone he explained the need that you can’t get your life back, you can’t do anything until you’ve got a stable place from which to do it. Like, housing has to come first, not last, because when you are in that small group of people that do have additional problems you’re not going to make it through our current systems. You’re just not going to get to the end of them because you may have some additional problems that mean you need to be supported differently. We’re not yet very good at doing that. We’re getting better.

And it doesn’t help by the fact that the general public (a) hardly ever think about homelessness, but (b) when they do think about homelessness they think somehow it’s some weird choice people have made, or somehow they deserve that, you know, they’ve done something terribly wrong and deserve it. But why should we expect people with a mental illness to be homeless? And that gets widely misunderstood as well.

The reason there is a lot of people who’ve experienced a mental illness who also unfortunately are homeless, has much more to do with the fact that often the very serious mental psychoses occur in later adolescence, early adulthood, just as you’re finishing your education or just as you’re starting a career. There’s not good time to get a mental illness – trust me – but that’s a particularly bad time to get one. And then, if you end up being on the disability support pension because it has stuffed up your life in that way, you’re basically living in poverty. I actually ask groups I talk to about homelessness: what’s the number-one cause of homelessness in Australia and it takes me ages sometimes to get the answer sometimes: poverty! However there’s multiple, multiple reasons for being in poverty. But poverty’s the key reason for homelessness.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Graffito, Pyrmont, near Channel Ten

On Monday when I was out to get some lunch I saw this graffito on a traffic signal box near Miller Street where you cross to get to the Fish Market. I wondered what it might mean. The arrow seems to be pointing to the percentage sign, the function, rather than the zero, the quantity. Perhaps the person who had made the graffito was a libertarian, bringing attention to the limiting nature of the “out of a hundred” of the function rather than the absolute, the zero. It also looks a little bit like a face, with a lopsided smile. I couldn’t make up my mind. 

But you can see in the background a cyclist riding across the mouth of Miller Street where it connects with Bank Street, which proceeds along underneath the approaches to the Anzac Bridge. The cyclist came down on my left, crossed the road, then presumably completed the “zag” of the zigzag by entering the Fish Market. The zigzag resembles the percentage symbol. You start at a single point on a plane, then head horizontally until you arrive at the head of the slash, turn down and make a sharp drop to end up directly underneath where you started, then turn and head horizontally once again, to finish at the end point. The slash is like a bishop’s move in chess: directly across at an angle to the horizontal. But the move that most resembles the route the cyclist took was the knight’s move, where you go along then turn at right angles and head across. I ended up no wiser but on the way home at least I had a full belly.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Book review: Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers (2016)

This unfortunately flawed picaresque novel is nevertheless a tour-de-force of characterisation, with at its centre a small family unit surrounding Josie, who is forty and separated from the father of her children. There is Paul, who is eight years old and rigorously ethical, and fearless Ana, aged five. Paul is highly solicitous of his sister's welfare and Josie has a self-destructive streak that emerges from time to time. Carl, the father, has hooked up with another woman but he enters the narrative at various points through the stream-of-consciousness Eggers uses to convey the thoughts of Josie, through whom the narrative is solely focalised. The book is also a nice new work of cli-fi. It is set in an Alaska dried out by drought and beset with wildfires (the word they use in America for “bushfires”).

With Carl safely out of the way in Florida, Josie, who has lost her dental practice because of a lawsuit launched by an enraged patient who discovers she has mouth cancer – Josie didn’t pick up on it in time to prevent its spread – flees to Anchorage and rents a recreational vehicle (they call them “RVs” in the US), basically a camper van inside which the family can sleep at stops that are rented out along the route north they end up traveling. While a wilderness had beckoned, the trio find the countryside well populated by random characters who mainly turn out to be benign. It is a microcosm of America that we encounter on the road.

As with picaresque novels throughout history, the motion of the story is always forward, and it is a simple logic that brings the main characters in the end to the top of a mountain in a fierce thunderstorm that finally breaks the drought that had blighted the land. This final scene is ambitious but it had been foreshadowed by an earlier scene that had come close to trying to give form to anonymous forces beyond the individual’s control.

The three adventurers had turned off the highway to visit an abandoned silver mine, which they find has been left unattended. Josie breaks in with Ana’s help, and they set up set up house in the shack. The town is nearby and they walk there over the mountain one day to get food as their supplies had run out. There, they find the town busy with a celebration and Josie starts up a conversation with a musician named Cooper she meets on the street. She offers to do dental checks if he and his band will help her to write a song she has imagined in her mind but doesn’t have the musical abilities to realise alone. He agrees and the next day Josie takes Paul and Ana back to the town, where they visit Cooper’s house. There, Josie conducts the band through the thickets of incomprehension surrounding the gathering of musicians and coaxes into existence a tune that they all play until they are interrupted by the fire alarm: the town has to be vacated.

This scene where Josie tries to communicate her wishes to a group of people in the absence of the cognitive tools you would normally rely on to sustain such communication – knowledge of the key the tune is in, and of tempo, for example – is a kind of test the author sets himself. It is a test of his descriptive powers and, satisfied that he has passed it, he goes further and tries something even more ambitious in the final scene where Josie and her children are set the task of finding a hut at the head of a trail in a storm.

The elements raging around and in front of them are epitomised by a bolt of lightening that strikes and sunders in two a tree alongside the path through the woods. Things start to get out of hand and Josie and the children make their way across a landslide that has formed a slope of scree on the side of the mountain. But the fluidity that had allowed the reader to be drawn eagerly forward for most of the novel is lost and the action jumps about spastically within this circumscribed locus of activities. A new injury appears on Ana’s leg or on Paul’s face very second moment. Josie, meanwhile, is reduced to edging her way ahead lying on her back, as she finds the scree unable to support her weight.

The story ends with the three of them huddled in the hut with a fire burning and wet clothing drying on the hearth. They cower under a blanket on the floor, like cavemen, with everything domestic and salutary having fled in the conflagration that rages unrestrained outside. The elements, the author, suggests, will win in the end and we had better get ready now for a new Apocalypse.

But the fluid motion of the narrative had to be abandoned to get here. The flight scene in the storm is a complete failure and the book actually should have ended when Josie phoned Carl in the final town they visit and he had told her he hadn’t sent anyone to serve legal papers on her. Instead of ending on a note thus filled with plausible inevitability, Eggers confronts the reader with an impossibly fraught moment that attempts to encapsulate the whole within its tight confines. You feel trapped in such an airless space, one so at odds with the ease and freedom that had characterised the rest of the book.

It’s a shame things turned out this way because Josie, Paul and Ana are fantastic creations of a fertile mind. Eggers manages to bring to life three very different characters, each of whom has his or her own distinctive features and voice. The narrative turns effortlessly in new directions based on the actions of these creatures, and for most of the book the way they are involved in the plot is very finely realised. The interior monologues Eggers uses to advance the plot and enrich the characterisation is also very fine, notably in those early scenes where Josie has a bit too much to drink.

The novel contains the makings of an ethos of respect for the individual, if there is anything of this nature that can reliably be gleaned from a reading. The different characters are so particular each in their own way. There is no sense here that a “right” way to live or be exists. Josie’s interrupted childhood and subsequent life choices – she worked overseas in the Peace Corps for a while – set her up for a series of challenges and she seems to cope well enough despite some false moves (getting involved with Carl being one of these), but you sense that Eggers is aiming to give each of his creations a degree of dignity commensurate with its own individual sense of worth. In this context, the savagery that sometimes society responds to the individual is a matter for further contemplation. Do we really want to live in such a litigious society where the individual is completely atomised and alone? What is the nature of community for us all?

Monday, 12 March 2018

Force of nature

I’m seated on the toilet and I think of God. When you’re enthroned and the mass of solids is exiting your body, and then when you are cleaning yourself, the odour of the soil rises along with the aromatics like methane. And there’s something else in there as well: it’s the smell of the seashore at low tide, when you can scent the corruption that is part of the harbour’s natural processes.

The earth is musty and odoriferous. Each tablespoon of earth contains billions of living organisms, and it is the chemical processes that they engage in related to the plant germplasm – the seeds – that then turn into growth, that are the source of all our wealth. Soil organisms supply chemicals such as nitrogen to the plants, which in turn provide things like sugars to the organisms in the soil. There are mycorrhizal fungi – often extracted and sold to restaurants as truffles – that grow very large on the back of this kind of symbiosis.

It is sometimes said that the reason that everything living on Earth exists is because there is a foot-deep coating of topsoil covering it, and because it rains periodically.

Farmers know about the management of chemical profiles in the soil because their prosperity relies on it. The waste you flush away is piped to municipal treatment plants where pathogens are removed, and the resulting biosolids are loaded into trucks and transported to fields in the inland, where special equipment is used to fling it out onto the turned ground, where it reenters the food chain, closing the circle.

Farmers pay money for this and there are companies set up in Australia just to do this. There are currently about 310,000 dry tonnes of biosolids produced annually, which the Australian Water Association, a peak body, says amounts to over half of the biosolids produced in Australia. There are regulations in each state and territory controlling how and where biosolids can be applied to land for fertiliser, but the supply is never enough to satisfy demand and farmers must also buy chemical fertilisers that are made from crude oil and from minerals mined from the earth, to feed the cities that rely on them for food. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are essential for plant growth and therefore for humanity’s physical well-being.

But while farmers belong to a group of people who are among the world’s most dependent on science and its applied branch – technology – they are also among the most socially conservative of people, which is why I always think of God when I am moving my bowels.

In 2013 I was at Scotts Head on the NSW north coast visiting an avocado farmer who had built his operation on sand. Not far from his farm the ocean rolls onto white beaches that are the resort of tourists. Laden with ripening fruit, his trees stood in rows in soil so dark it was evident that he had chemically enhanced it using a variety of substances, including liquid taken from a 44-gallon drum sitting at the back of the orchard next to a shed. The drum contained a soup, with organic material in it including fish bones, that he kept on-hand and accessed when he thought the trees needed a bit of help.

Inside his house I saw a computer set up in one room and a youth – the farmer’s son – was sitting at the screen watching a weather system approaching from the east. He gave the family regular updates about the atmospheric pressure and the wind strength, data based on a vast array of scientific instruments and deriving from powerful computers operated by the government. I knew the family was religious because of a small message that was framed and hanging on a wall or else standing on an incidental table near the front door where I waited.

When I had finished gathering the information I needed for my story, I got back in my car and drove north, heading for Grafton, where I had booked a motel room to stay the night because I planned to visit another interview subject the next day. As I was driving, I noticed the creeks were running very high under the bridges over which my car passed. The rain had been heavy but it wasn’t continuous; now it had stopped but the effluvia threatened the highway’s integrity. I drove on, heading through a forest of huge eucalypts that swayed violently in the rising breeze. There was not another car on the road, going in either direction, so if a branch from one of these trees fell on the car, I thought to myself, there would be no-one to help. I wondered if my phone would even get reception in this remote place. Probably not, I concluded grimly as I gripped the steering wheel.

But I reached Coffs Harbour unscathed and phoned ahead to cancel the booking at the motel in Grafton. Exhausted, I booked into a motel in town where I could recover from the afternoon’s nervous tension. I would still make the interview the next day, but I would just have to drive from here, I thought, instead of from Grafton. The man I was to meet the next day imported a chemical substance used in agriculture and he had lined up a meeting for me with a macadamia farmer in the hills just outside Lismore. The avocado farmer was also a client.

The mercurial natural environment and its vagaries make farmers reliant for their psychic well-being on such traditional notions as God, notions that many city-dwellers like me had abandoned a generation earlier. The unknown and the unpredictable always pressing in on them – like the afternoon cyclone that struck the north coast that day – they must coax production from the soil, and while they use technology with the same ease with which they pull on their boots, many still cleave to the old ways because they need all the help that they can get.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Book review: The Other New Girl, LB Gschwandtner (2017)

When Susannah Greenwood (she is married now and doesn't use that surname any more but I couldn't find her married name in the book) goes to San Francisco to be at the birth of her grandchild she unexpectedly bumps into someone from her distant past. Daria McQueen is now a shadow of her former self. Where as a teenager at the Foxhall School in rural Pennsylvania she had been the leader of the cool set, now she looks worn out and sad. Susannah draws out some details about Daria’s unfortunate marriage to a man who abused her, but there are other, unspoken things that date from their time together at the boarding school lying between them in spaces they seem reluctant to occupy.

Gschwandtner’s portrait of the school is workman-like and good enough as far as it goes, and the narrative dutifully draws you along by promising to reveal things that happened that were characterised by deep tragedy – there is mention of a death – but once the author starts dissecting the different religions and the way the Quakers – who run the school – deal with students from different religious backgrounds, you feel as though she lacks a certain critical distance. The esoteric differences between Quaker theology and practices and Catholic ones are a little twee, you think. Or at least I did. When Gschwandtner betrayed what is probably an abiding attachment to religion in this way, I put the book down. I didn’t need to read any further. I could hardly imagine that such quibbling notions as the way that the Quaker heads of the school dealt with children from different religious backgrounds could have anything to do with me or my world, where organised religion of any colour or stripe has always been an alien and monolithic force to be resisted at all costs.

Gschwandtner’s hang-up about religion, and especially Quakerism, felt to me to be part of a larger problem to do with vision. The book also lacks a certain poetry in its conception of the individual and their place in the world. The rules and mores of the school are there to be resisted by the girls who form the nucleus among whom the drama plays out, but the mechanistic way turns in the story unfold is merely functional rather than absorbing. They get you were the author wants you to be but there is little underlying richness that would justify the effort required for arrival.

I liked the way the girls take over Susannah’s dorm room one night in order to throw flower crowns out the window onto the tree that a boy from a nearby town had climbed up into for a late-night tryst, provoking the school authorities to expel the girl who had occupied it before her. But the dower Miss Bleaker is a caricature of a headmistress with her severe black dresses and the school rule book sitting alone on the bookshelf in her office. Jane Austen made this kind of secondary character with just as much imagination two hundred years ago.

Oh yes, and the girls go out into the woods one afternoon on a weekend to smoke cigarettes together, one by one, so as not to arouse any suspicions for anyone who might be watching. What a lark! Such drama is pedestrian and the risks minimal and there is little in the way of deeper development of ideas that might have been realised through a more detailed use of focalisation. Susannah is a likely vehicle for sustained reflections on the nature of authority and of the individual's place in the world, but the author does not avail herself of such tactics.

You might be expelled from Foxhall but that hardly counts as a great tragedy in the larger scheme of things. Unless you had drunk the Kool-Aid, as Gschwandtner seems to have done. The fussy agonising over whether the Quakers were really being tolerant about children from different religious backgrounds is all of a kind with such esoteric concerns.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Book review: Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker (2018)

What wants to be a manifesto for reason in an age of burgeoning ignorance turns out to be a deeply flawed book evincing few signs that the author is aware of the forces that have combined to form his own view of the world. Pinker starts his little treatise regretting the rise of Donald Trump without furthermore displaying any evidence that he understands the forces that brought that particular demagogue to power. The book is also tiresome and goes too fast, especially where the author deals with difficult scientific concepts, and from its outset it fails to convince. I read about five percent of the book before giving up.

Merely the word “reason” that Pinker sets such store in is a complicated construct, and there is no evidence that people who used it in the 18th century (the chosen locus for the majority of his heroes in the Enlightenment) had the same set of ideas in mind when using it as we do now. The book, which is optimistically subtitled ‘The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress’, is teleologically problematic for this very reason. It’s a shambles in fact. And positing Deism as a system of belief of all his favourite thinkers is equally suspect. Beginning the book, as he does, with Trump and the Republican Party, he feels obliged to denounce God as a legitimate motivating factor for the thinking of the people whose ideas he values, so he ascribes to them a belief system more in league with his own values. But in fact, thinkers such as Newton were devout Christians and no amount of wishful thinking by Pinker and his ilk will alter the facts.

Pinker’s attempt to rewrite history is not sustainable even given the most cursory view of history. Abolishing the slave trade, for example, which took root in the polity in England in last decades of the 18th century, was initially a policy of the Quakers, devout Christians who believed, as the good book told them, that every man and woman was equal in the eyes of the Lord, rather than people associated with the new sciences or philosophies that were emerging at the time, although such people might for ideological reasons have gotten on the bandwagon later. The policy failed in Parliament in the 1790s due to the war against Napoleon but succeeded in getting passed into law after the peace was settled in the new century. Slavery in the colonies in the Caribbean would not be abolished until some decades later.

In any case, the Enlightenment project started a long time before the 18th century, even before the 17th century, which Pinker sees fit to label the Age of Science. The project started in the Middle Ages with Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374), who rediscovered elements of Roman literature for the benefit of the northern Italian elites, and wrote poetry in Italian, instead of in Latin, paving the way for vernacular literatures to flourish later, when moveable type was invented, which happened around 1440. He is known in English as Petrarch, and he got the idea for writing in Italian when he was living with the breakaway papal court in Avignon, in Vaucluse in the southeast of France, and heard the local troubadours singing their songs of love in the local French dialect.

The first major work that was published using the new technology of printing was the ‘Complutensian Bible’, a project of Isabella I of Castile, that came out in 1520. The book was the first new translation into Spanish of the Bible from the original languages (ancient Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) and was not sanctioned by the Pope’s bureaucracy. It was however a vanity project for a very ambitious woman. The publication inspired Humanist scholars in northern Europe to seek original translations of the Bible into various vernaculars, sparking a publishing frenzy that, along with the rediscovery of many forgotten classical writers, formed the Renaissance.

This period of time threw up an astonishing range of books, even though, even as late as the late 18th century, the most popular books coming off the presses were religious texts, books of sermons and guides to living a godly life, for example. What is certain however is that everything comes from the arts. In the Renaissance when the primary tool used to combat superstition and ignorance was the book, it was the words that people used on the page that helped to enlighten whole communities, often in ways however that were intimately linked with the person and teachings of Christ. The process of nominalisation, where longer phrases and clauses are refined down to individual words, that could then be qualified and deployed in grammatically-correct sentences, was the mechanism for this forward movement of ideas, through the physicality of the printed page. New communities of like minds emerged in the wake of these inventions and Pinker is a child of this same intergenerational process.

It is worth looking at some of the more notable highlights of the combined processes of nominalisation and publication. In 1580 the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne published his ‘Essais’, in which he turned away from God to look inward, at the individual self, describing his feelings in a way that had never been done before. And in 1620, English statesman Francis Bacon published the ‘Novum Organum’, which was the original scientific manifesto, asking researchers to use deductive logic based on experiments conducted in the natural world to arrive at conclusions. Again turning away from God, this time outward, it launched the renewal of learning in what Pinker calls the Age of Science, which took place despite the bitter religious wars that were motivating people to fight over deeply-held principles in the broader community. Hundreds of thousands of lives, I guess, were lost in these disturbances but Pinker just brushes this information-rich context aside in his blind forward motion.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, in a more refined age, that words such as “Enlightenment” and “Renaissance” were coined in order to describe the progress of knowledge, but even for such men and women as lived at this time it is dangerous to ascribe motivations we are intimate with, because the past is always a foreign country. Just think for example of how different you are in your way of viewing the world from your parents. And then multiply that by a hundred. Only then do you get the barest idea of how absurd Pinker’s equating contemporary values with those of Renaissance or Enlightenment thinkers is.

As for Trump, the hollowing out of the wage system supporting the bottom ranks of the earning profile in countries such as the USA is responsible for the discontent that his supporters felt when they elected him. The rising middle classes in developing countries are quite happy with the effects of globalisation, thank you very much, as are the elites in the developed world. Both are being lifted on the rising tide of trade. Factory workers in Ohio, not so much. It’s not hard to find the answers to such questions, but Pinker is a scientist as well as a dilettante, so if the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.

Thursday, 8 March 2018


Since the middle of last year, I have been writing a series of blogposts about brutalist architecture in Sydney. From the late 1960s until the mid-1970s there was a commercial building boom in the city, resulting in a healthy stratum of edifices in this distinctive post-war style appearing in one of the world’s great trading entrepots. Because of this, I decided to research the new construction technologies that I assumed had appeared after WWII to facilitate the construction of many of the multi-storey buildings we associate with modernity. With this in mind, I visited the University of Sydney library where as a graduate I have borrowing rights.

I went into Fisher Library and asked the man at the desk about renewing my borrower’s card, which I assumed had expired. The card had a photo of me dating from a decade earlier and it had cracked along the bottom, almost severing part of the card from the rest of it. He told me the card had expired in 2010 and directed me to the Jane Foss Russell building where the Student Centre is located. I walked along Eastern Avenue – which in the days of my undergraduate studies had been filled with cars but has since been made into a pedestrian mall flagged with cobblestones and flanked by cafes – and crossed the bridge over City Road. In the Student Centre I used a touch-screen display to print out a call ticket. When a woman had her number called and got up to go to one of the service desks I sat down to wait on the same grey padded bench she had used.

My eyes were glued to the screen announcing ticket numbers as they were called. I sat there for about five minutes until my number appeared on the screen, then made my way to the back of the room to where a young man – he couldn’t have been more than 25 years old and he looked like a second- or third-generation Chinese or Vietnamese Australian – took my ticket and the library borrower’s card application form I had filled out using a pen tethered to an unattended desk before I had printed out my call ticket. I handed him my damaged and expired borrower’s card.

He used the computer keyboard on the desk to punch in some details and watched the computer screen hungrily as he waited for the requested information to appear. I stood and waited in front of the desk, which was surrounded by textured carpet tinted a neutral blue colour like teal. The buildings of the CBD were framed in the window facing east next to us.

The man shifted his position nervously in his seat a couple of times and said something like, “I’m still waiting for your record to come up on the system.” He tapped some more keys on the keyboard and wrote down some numbers on a piece of paper with a black pen. He stared greedily at the screen and with the index finger of his right hand manipulated the wheel on his computer mouse, looking for the information he wanted. I told him I had two degrees from Sydney University. He said that the borrowers’ card system was separate from the student records system.

When the requested information still didn’t appear, he got up from his seat and walked to the desk situated directly in front of his where he talked to a young woman sitting there. She wore a shirt and a skirt and had a computer display on which I could see had a list of records. The two of them talked for a moment, then he spoke with a young Anglo man who told him to create a new record.

The young man returned to his desk, where I was still waiting, and punched more details into the keyboard. I told him I had worked for the university as well as being a graduate. He looked down intently at the form, and typed details into the computer using the keyboard. He still had not asked to see any identification, such as a driver’s license.

The man told me to sit on a bench to his left in front of a blue wooden screen so that he could take my photograph. I sat down on the bench indicated and he said I could smile if I wanted. I kept my face relaxed as he counted down from five to zero and took the photo. Then I got up from the bench and returned to stand in front of the desk where he sat. He pointed with his hand at the electronic funds transfer machine attached to the computer and said I could pay – it was 80 dollars for a year’s borrowing rights as an alumnus, and this was an innovation I decided not to remark upon here – and I swiped my debit card and punched in the PIN on the keypad. Then he said he was printing out the card and got down from his chair and went away.

When he came back he gave me the new card with my photo on it and I left, heading back to Fisher Library, where I used a computer to access the library catalogue. I wrote down call details for three or four books on the paper map they had handed me when I had originally asked about the card there, using a pen I had brought with me in my shoulder bag, then headed back to the information desk. I told the man there that I had found an electronic book on the subject I was researching but he said that as an alumnus I didn’t have the rights required to read it. I told him I had also found a book that was marked as being in storage and he put the details into the computer and lodged a request for the book, which he said would be retrieved and placed on a set of bookshelves located behind his shoulder. He said that an email telling me that book was available to pick up would be sent to the email address attached to my borrower’s card. For the other books I had found, he directed me to the Scitech Library in the Jane Foss Russell building, where the Student Centre is located, but on the ground floor.

I walked back down Eastern Avenue and again across the bridge over City Road and found the two books I had located online in the stacks there. When I told him I wanted to take the books out, the man at the front desk with a short white beard and glasses looked at the inside of the back cover of each of the books I had found and said it was ok, then showed me how to use the automatic kiosk to borrow the books. It had an oversize portrait graphical display and an electronic reader that sensed which books had been placed on a shelf attached to the unit.  The man touched an icon to print out a receipt, which he handed to me. With the receipt for the two reference books in my wallet I walked out of the building and headed to the shopping centre to get some food for lunch.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Book review: Skin in the Game, Sonya Voumard (2018)

This curious and suggestive book is something of a memoir and something of a portmanteau that has the function that it contains a number of different things each of which is of a disparate nature.

As a memoir, it charts the author’s early experiences as a cadet journalist with the Herald and Weekly Times in Melbourne (where my great-grandfather worked in the 1920s), then her move to the more upmarket The Age, a stint as its Brisbane correspondent, then in Canberra to work in the press gallery, then to Sydney to work for the Sydney Morning Herald. After that she became disenchanted with the culture at the major metropolitan daily and became a freelancer, and then later took up roles in corporate communications. There is mention somewhere here of teaching at the University of Technology, Sydney.

The book, which is evocatively but inconclusively subtitled ‘The Pleasure and Pain of Telling True Stories’, also takes time out to look in some detail at the relationship that can develop between the journalist and the subject, as in the interview subject. More could have been made of this strand of the narrative without the reader becoming fatigued, but Voumard prefers to seek catharsis and chronicle her family’s changing fortunes over the years, specifically that of her mother’s family, who were refugees from war-torn Estonia.

She also becomes a performer in the zeitgeist and the book’s title makes a claim for this while it also hints at the nature of journalism. And then her stories as a young woman working in the media in the 70s and 80s on the frontline of feminism are redolent with the kind of signification that today’s opinion pages accustom us to valuing.

But the book doesn’t eschew sentiment entirely, and ends with a meditation on Kings Cross, in Sydney – where, presumably, the author now lives – and on Camberwell, the Melbourne suburb she grew up in. On the way to these destinations there are stories about her father, who was a journalist and a PR operative, and about her childhood friends. Voumard was born in almost exactly the same year as I was, so some things were familiar, including the holiday vacation to Noumea with school to improve her French. She manages to make the universal personal.

I didn’t know initially what to make of this book or of the persona the author adopts for the purposes of telling her stories and initially I found I struggled to orient myself within its confines so that I could make sense of the material that was being offered for my appraisal. In the end I relented and resolved to just enjoy the scenery on the voyage out there, into the verdant estuaries and harbours of another person’s burgeoning littoral.

Voumard remains a stranger but throughout she is a little like your older cousin who listens to cool music and hangs out with the groovy kids. Her embrace of the alternative counter-culture that came to prominence in the post-war era is touching and I imagined it was an aspect of her life that led to an ethos forged in the absence of tertiary qualifications. Voumard contacted me on Messenger to clarify however, and it turns out she has three degrees. Yet she remains someone who has few illusions about her place in the world. Or about the way the world works. You can’t work out if the disenchantment came before the disappointment or the other way around. Equating the goals of both of the major political parties suits such a jaundiced but self-reliant persona.

I don't know who Voumard's heroes are or what ideals she holds dear so that she can have something to cleave to in the hard times. Most of us have figures or notions extracted from history that help us to overcome the difficult patches that always arrive to test you when you least expect them. Voumard has come to rely, you suspect, on herself, her partner (she is in a long-term same-sex relationship now but doesn’t want to get married), and a small coterie of trusted friends. Ideals and abstractions that might have established a firm foothold in the more productive regions of her intellectual foreshore seem to have failed to do so. Perhaps there was never any time for this in the crush of incidentals encroaching upon the margins of her attention as she progressed.

It would be hard to gain access to such rarefied company as she keeps, although no doubt many have tried over the years. So much water has flowed under the bridge it’s difficult to know where the land ends and the water begins; there’s so much swampy, uncertain ground. For all her vaunted experience, there is however also a slightly disturbing dearth of poetry in the book, as though the edges of old wounds were still raw and disturbingly easy to coax to blood. Her reticence when it comes to examining the journalist-interviewee relationship is symptomatic of the problem at this point in the proceedings. A more ambitious or confident writer might have attempted to make original statements about this key nexus of signification in the public sphere, one that so much that we read for knowledge is based on, and what it means to be entrusted with the secrets that people who talk with journalists might not even freely share with people much closer to their intimate selves.

But I enjoyed reading the passages when Voumard revisits her mother’s homeland with her mother and a sister. (There seem to be more than one sister.) Something about the flavour of this part of the book is every bit as Australian as the account of the refugee resettlement centre that she takes a trip to visit in rural Victoria. You can take the gird out of Australia, it seems, but you can’t take the Aussie out of the girl.